It was a lazy, restless Saturday morning. The grass needed cutting, the bathrooms needed scrubbing, and after a summer of parties the garage was a complete disaster. I could accomplish a lot around the house on my day off. Instead, with my wife away on her first two-day regatta, I gathered the kids in the car for a road trip. What can I say? Even though it was threatening rain, it was a beautiful day and the summer was winding down. Why waste it.
“Where are we going,” the kids asked more than once as we drove north. To be honest, I had no idea. I wanted to discover something new. To go somewhere I have never been before. When we crossed the Mackinac Bridge and stopped at the rest area just beyond the toll booth, I looked at a map.
The Les Cheneaux island coast. Hessel. Cedarville. There are a few places in Michigan I have never been. East of the bridge, along the Lake Huron coast of the Upper Peninsula would provide the rare opportunity for exploration.
“Where are we going,” my daughter Riley asked again.
“East,” I told her.
Our first stop was the quaint lake shore village of Hessel.
We spent an hour walking through town, which consists primarily of the waterfront and one business street. Strolling along the piers, I couldn’t help but feel like I was pulled into a Norman Rockwell painting. Hessel seems a place where time stands still and change happens rarely. The businesses are housed in historic homes and shops, and even the boat warehouses resemble old stables.
Hessel is famed for its annual Antique Wooden Boat Show, hosted by the Les Cheneaux Historical Society in partnership with the Mertaugh Boat Works, the Hessel Harbor Association and the Hessel Marina. We were disappointed to learn that we missed the event by two weeks. Dinghies, rowboats, canoes, sailboats, runabouts, cruisers, racers, and more were on display at the Hessel docks, and we would have loved to seen them all. Last year over 130 wooden boats were shown, making the event the largest wooden boat show in Michigan.
All around town, we discovered stunning posters commemorating the Boat Show. I learned that these wonderful works of art were created by local artist Diana J. Grenier, owner of Up North Studio and Les Cheneaux Islands Art Gallery. Diana has been commissioned to produce the paintings for the event posters since 2001, and each one is a collector’s item.
By the time we were done visiting town, my children were hungry. Hessel is a one-bar town, and they are fortunate to have the Islander Bar as that one bar. The cedar decor and timber furniture provide an atmosphere that is surprisingly cozy for the bar’s size. The walls are plastered with historic photographs and memorabilia, and we spent a good twenty minutes looking at everything. On tap were several local beers and a huge wall of bottles. The food is your standard bar fare – burgers, nachos, wings. We ordered four appetizers and my kids finished everything, a sign of a good meal.
A five-minute drive east of Hessel is its sister village, Cedarville. Although not as quaint as Hessel, Cedarville definitely has its charm. We were awarded a spectacular view of several of Les Cheneaux’s 36 islands. I wanted to walk around ‘downtown’, but the skies opened up and unleashed a massive downpour.
One place we did get an opportunity to visit before the rainstorm, however, was the Great Lakes Boat Building School. The school ‘offers a highly rated educational program designed to teach quality wooden boat building skills and preserve craftmanship.’ Although closed for the day, we were allowed to peer inside at a wooden boat being built by the students. My son marveled at the craftsmanship and, knowing him, I could tell he wanted to spend a few days working alongside the students.
After leaving Cedarville we journeyed along the Lake Huron shore, stopping a few times for photos and to play in the surf. All along the state highway were scenic rest stops and parking lots for beach access.
Eventually we found ourselves on Island 8 in the Les Cheneaux Islands. All day we had seen signs naming the islands – Alligator, Coryell, Echo, Grover’s, White Loon, Government, Lone Susan, Middle Entrance. My son laughed. “Island 8? They couldn’t think of a better name?” When we saw an older couple walking down the street, we stopped and asked them the reason for the name.
“When the government surveyed the Les Cheneaux Islands back in the 1840s, they ran out of names. So the last eight islands they surveyed, they simply numbered,” the old man told us. I’m sure my son had more questions, but our attention was stolen away by a doe and her two fawns crossing the road a mere ten feet in front of the car. “They’re tame,” the old woman told us. “Eat right out of your hand, if you have something they like.” That was it. My daughter bolted from the car and did her best to approach the deer slowly in order to pet one. The deer weren’t buying it, however, and slowly sauntered away into the forest.
After we left Island 8, we returned to the state road. The sky was turning green and threatening more severe weather. We continued our exploration, eventually finding the John W. Boardman, but the rain and thunderstorms stopped us from truly enjoying DeTour Village. We vowed to return next summer for the Antique Wooden Boat Show in Hessel, to properly tour the Great Lakes Boat Building School and to rent a boat to explore the Les Cheneaux Islands.