Cruise the Chain

Stay and Live Along the Chain

ELK RAPIDS
Cairn House Bed and Breakfast, located minutes away from Traverse City, provides the perfect balance of B&B charm and resort amenities. Enjoy the hospitality and beautifully renovated accommodations. They offer an outdoor fireplace and free use of kayaks, bikes and stand-up paddleboards cairnhouse.com.

White Birch Lodge, with its expansive Elk Lake beachfront, rents rooms by the week (all-inclusive) during the summer. During off-season months, you can rent on a nightly basis whitebirchlodge.org.

ALDEN
Inn at Torch Lake lets you dock for $30 a day and offers luxury bedding, spa soaking tubs, afternoon tea and a wine reception, use of kayaks and other water toys, and fireplaces in all suites. Breakfasts feature goodies from local farms and orchards inn-at-torchlake.com.

BELLAIRE
Shanty Creek is a four-season resort in Bellaire. The hills that offer some of the state’s best skiing and snowboarding in the winter make for gorgeous views of Lake Bellaire. Four championship golf courses are on-site shantycreek.com.

Applesauce Inn: This country-style bed and breakfast is off the water, offering more reasonable rates, stunning gardens, in-room electric fireplaces and full breakfasts applesauceinn.com.

Grand Victorian Bed & Breakfast Inn (see photo) has been voted one of the country’s most romantic inns for its gingerbread turrets and sprawling porches; it’s also within walking distance to downtown Bellaire grandvictorian.com.

CENTRAL LAKE
The Blue Pelican Inn lets you sleep not far from the water, above a regional favorite for gathering and dining. Reviewers rave about the crab Brie macaroni and cheese thebluepelicaninc.com.

ELLSWORTH
House on the Hill is a destination bed and breakfast, centered amid 53 private acres of land. The B&B overlooks bluff-lined St. Claire Lake in the upper Chain. For larger groups, there are two cottage options on Six Mile Lake with their own private docks thehouseonthehill.com.

Waterside Properties
Located in downtown Elk Rapids, they offer extensive experience and are a recognzied leader in waterfront property sales in northern Michigan. watersideproperties.net.

Real Estate One
This third-generation, family-owned company has 80 offices throughout the state with more than 2,000 sales associates to find your dream home realestateone.com.

‘Boat’ the Polar-Equator Trail

If you follow the 45th parallel north, you pass through the French wine regions of Bordeaux, the deserts of Mongolia, the northernmost tip of Japan — and Michigan’s Torch Lake. Here, you’re standing (or boating, depending on your locale) atop the imaginary line marking the halfway point between the North Pole and the Equator.

Near Elk Rapids, a 12-foot cairn of stones built in 1938 marks part of the state’s 140-mile long Polar-Equator Trail. A university club attempted to create a rival to more popular trails like the Appalachian trail — the way it meandered through beautiful natural areas full of wildlife. But people kept stealing their signs and travelers got easily lost.

Today, few trail markers remain, but lore about it does. The famous silk trade route followed the line, and a legendary belief claims that anyone who bathes in a lake or river crossed by the 45th parallel would be cured of ailments. So dive right in!

Resources

Cruise the Chain

by Kim Schneider
01-Sep-2016
Michigan’s Elk River Chain of Lakes Watershed — a series of 14 lakes and connecting rivers — meanders past quaint, small town ports, through one of the world’s most beautiful Caribbean-hued lakes, into smaller waters stocked with huge sport fish, and along wild and scenic rivers.
If the sky is the deep, cloudless blue of a northern Michigan September day, the water a trademark aqua more often associated with the Caribbean, then somewhere in the middle of stunning Torch Lake is where you’ll likely find Paul Fabiano.

He’s the guy in the neon shirt emblazoned with the name “Pizza Boy.” The name started as a joke, but he wants to be easy to spot as he delivers a double cheese with pepperoni — maybe some ice, soda and sundries, too — to the sandbar that has become a swimming hole, a boat dock and a social center all in one.

Fabiano didn’t want to make boaters lift anchor and lose a prime spot on Torch’s sandbar just because they got hungry. Order a pizza and he’ll deliver that and other convenience items from Fabiano’s on the River directly to your boat. Or simply stroll in the knee-deep water to Dave’s Grill Burger Barge where you can have burgers fresh off the pontoon grill.

This casual vibe permeates the Elk River Chain of Lakes Watershed — a 55-mile-long waterway consisting of 14 lakes and connecting rivers that stretches from Elk Rapids along the Grand Traverse Bay to the village of Ellsworth to the northeast. While Torch is the Chain’s sexy cover model with its Caribbean resemblance, prize muskies and mega-mansions lining the shore, there’s much more to explore. Venture through the Chain to find nesting loons, bald eagles and river otters in the protected rivers and wilder lakes; small towns with old-fashioned general stores and new-fashioned cuisine; orchards with overflowing farm stands; and a growing number of microbreweries, distilleries and wineries with a regional flair all their own.

Small boats can navigate the majority of the Chain — which is only broken up by the dam north of Lake Bellaire — while larger boats can easily run their engines between the lower lakes (Elk Lake, Torch Lake and Lake Bellaire), which are favorites for sailing and watersports. The rivers and lakes that make up the upper Chain (including Six Mile, Hanley, Benway, Intermediate, Wilson, Beals and Ellsworth lakes) are some favored venues for paddleboarding, kayaking and fishing. You won’t be disappointed, no matter what part of the Chain you travel.

Elk Rapids to Lake Skegemog

The lower half of the Chain starts at the “north’s best teensy town,” as named by a local reader poll that extolled its small town charm, big city amenities and natural beauty. You can boat into Elk Rapids from Lake Michigan; the Edward C. Grace Memorial Harbor and boat launch offers slips on both Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay and Elk Lake — bodies of water that sandwich the town.

The Elk Rapids Hydroelectric Dam off the Elk River divides the lakes, but both marinas are walking distance to the town’s circa 1940 single-screen Elk Rapids Cinema — one of the venues for the popular summertime Traverse City Film Festival. Enjoy fine dining at the popular Siren Hall, where you can try fresh oysters, Blue Hill Bay mussels or Lake Michigan whitefish. Sample some spicy Cajun cuisine at Pearl’s New Orleans Kitchen, or dine on the Elk River at Riverwalk Grill and Taproom, famous for its extensive list of Michigan craft brews. You’ll find live music through September at the town’s new wine bar, Cellar 152, and at the cozy Java Jones coffee shop. You can take a courtesy shuttle to quirky, worth-the-trip art galleries like Blue Heron, Twisted Fish and Mullaly’s 128.

Some of Michigan’s prettiest sand beaches stretch along the town on its Lake Michigan shoreline; this is also where an early settler found the elk antlers that inspired the town’s name. And as you start your boating excursion into the Chain of Lakes via Elk Lake, you come upon more hints of the region’s history.

“On a really clear day you can see remnants from the logging era — huge diameter logs that were lost and ended up sinking to the bottom,” says Matt Drake, COO of Short’s Brewing Company and president of a non-profit working to develop a Chain water trail. “And there’s a shipwreck, the <<ITAL>>Albatross, right off the kayak launch.”

The Elk Rapids Iron Company operated this circa-1880 tugboat, running lumber from upstream forests to the blast furnace in the then-thriving industrial port. But while natural resources like lumber once drew people to the area, today it’s natural beauty and resources like the prized lake trout and other mammoth fish that draw people in.

Record-sized muskies (nearly 5 feet and 60 pounds) have been caught in the Chain. Elk Lake offers some of the purest lake trout in the Midwest, Drake notes, because its separation from Lake Michigan kept the trout isolated from invasive species that decimated the population elsewhere.

For the ultimate fishing adventure, check out Fish With Jim Outfitters. Choose from a variety of expertly-guided fishing trips to catch prized freshwater game fish. Jim’s knowledge and love of the sport will ensure a successful and memorable fishing experience.

More natural treasures await — including nesting swans and eagles — as boaters navigate into Lake Skegemog. But take caution while underway; floating tree stumps can make this waterway sometimes tricky to navigate.

Torch Lake to Grass River

The Ojibwa Native Americans who first populated the Chain used torches to attract fish, then harvested them with spears and nets, inspiring the name “Torch Light Lake” — shortened to Torch Lake.

Today, Torch Lake is Michigan’s longest inland lake at 18 miles and its deepest at an average depth of 111 feet. It’s arguably the prettiest, too. Locals often repeat the claim that <<ITAL>>National Geographic once named Torch Lake the third most beautiful lake in the world, but no one is quite sure if that’s truth or urban legend. Even Alden Outfitters, which rents water equipment along the lake’s southeast edge, hedges its bets, making the statement on its website under the heading, “Rumor Has It.”

What is true is that a sunny day will transform Torch Lake into an tropical retreat — its varying depths painting the water an array of sapphire hues. It’s also exceptionally clear.

“It’s often referred to as the northern Caribbean, and you can see 30 feet down,” notes Fabiano. “You have to experience it to understand it.”

One of the largest public access parks sits at the northern tip of Torch Lake in Eastport. Head a bit east for freshly baked apple and cherry pies, hayrides and other seasonal fun at the series of farm markets located along U.S. 31; or travel a mile inland to find Providence Farms. The large organic farm runs a produce stand out front. It offers occasional cooking classes and autumn gourmet farm dinners. On a recent day, an orphaned baby cow on a leash lounged on the farmhouse porch and baby sheep grazed the front yard.

Alden, situated on a bend of a scenic country road on Torch’s southeast side, has been compared to a New England hamlet with its charming shops and streets that end in the blue of Torch. Take your picnic to the Depot Park and Museum; this was once the most popular stop on the “Resort Special” route. Locals would gather to watch passengers disembark en route to the many summer camps and cottages. Today, it’s a summer museum featuring historic photos and memorabilia.

Stroll to the Alden Mill House to sample blends for dips, cooking and summer grilling. Stop at La Voie Designs for boutique clothing or The Pear Tree for local art.

Before entering the next stretch of the Chain, stop in for a bite to eat at Dockside; this local favorite offers up fresh burgers, deli wraps and appetizers on the large lakeside deck.

Dewitt Marine — located at the mouth of Clam River on Torch Lake — is a full-service, family-owned facility offering the best pontoon boat rentals in northern Michigan; new and used boat sales; slips; boat service and repair; fuel; and a store to pick up extra provisions.

Some of the wildest stretches of the Chain follow as Torch flows into the Clam River, Clam Lake and Grass River. There, the Grass River Natural Area protects 1,443 acres of wetlands. Navigable by boat, it also offers hiking paths, events like loon pontoon viewing cruises, and guided paddles past the occasional river otter, mink or muskrat. Here, you’re almost to Lake Bellaire and the town of Bellaire — the Antrim County seat, a regional hub and a Mecca for golfers and microbrew fans.

Bellaire to Ellsworth

“We like to say we’re in the middle of nowhere and the middle of everything,” notes Chris Hale, vice president of Bellaire’s Shanty Creek Resort. The resort boasts four championship golf courses — including Arnold Palmer’s The Legend — some of the state’s most challenging skiing courses, restaurants and a spa. One golf course offers FootGolf, a growing sport where you kick a soccer ball over the course into a series of enlarged holes.

You can drive a ball off the patio of nearby winery Torch Lake Cellars, or sip some Deepwater Point, a locally made Pinot Grigio named after a Torch Lake drop-off; 330', a red named after the lake’s deepest point; or Torch River Riesling. Bee Well Meadery is locally-minded as well. Head to the tiny tasting room on the edge of town to sip a mead crafted from local cherry juice and honey, another from local apples mixed with Sri Lankan cinnamon, or one made from locally-grown hops combined with wildflower honey. The story is fun, too: It’s run by brothers whose great-grandfather once bottled and sold water from the natural springs along the banks of Clam Lake.

Shanty Creek offers a shuttle into downtown Bellaire, home to a variety of shops and restaurants anchored by Short’s Brewing Company’s brew pub. Owner Joe Shorts’ expanded pub offers live music, indoor and outdoor seating, a large food menu and such creative microbrew blends (often with particularly kooky names) that he’s developed a cult following; beer lovers occasionally fly in for a visit just to drink Short’s beer. Try ordering Beery McBeerface with a straight face as part of a sampler, accompanied by options like Power of Love, Alien Einstein, Hoppin’ the Cherry and Controversiale.

Shorts launched the Chain’s trademark event, the 40-mile Paddle Antrim Festival (this year held September 16-17), which was originally offered as a celebration of the region’s pure water — a critical element in both beer and tourism fun. Paddling is also the only way to cover the entire Chain, since kayaks can navigate the shallow connections between some of the upper lakes and portage over the Bellaire Dam. All of the upper lakes are open to motorized boats, too. The adjacent towns are worthy stops, and the region surrounding them even more so.

Chain’s end

Just north of Intermediate Lake, Central Lake has thriving wildlife and a relaxed downtown. This friendly village is along the Chain’s no-wake zone and offers a tranquil rest stop.

Shoppers love Adams Madams for its fun mix of housewares, local art, clothing and wall hangings with truisms like, “A day at the lake is worth a month in the city.” Bachmann’s General Store offers much of what it did decades ago: Old-fashioned candy, Slinky’s and Magic 8-Balls. There’s a treat for grown-ups at new Mammoth Distillery; opened in June of 2016, it offers tastings of its locally distilled vodka, gin, rum and whiskey.

Ellsworth, at the Chain’s end on Ellsworth Lake, features a little downtown but plenty of off the beaten path destinations. Fish off the pier, explore the archery range and walking paths, or walk one of the Midwest’s largest labyrinths in the town’s 4-acre park. Celebrate at Rowe Inn, where the French country cuisine and extensive wine list have gotten national acclaim, or dine instead at a spot where the region’s heart is as memorable as the food. At Ellsworth’s volunteer-run Front Porch Cafe, meals come with suggested donation but no set price. Nearby shorelines teem with osprey, eagles, herons and migrating sandhill cranes.

“You sort of see it all by paddling through,” notes Drake. “But there’s beauty that’s equivalent. Some prefer lively Torch, while others prefer the upper Chain, where you’re closer to the shoreline and have a quieter, more natural experience.”

 

 

McGard
McGard