Les Cheneaux Islands

Chasing the Classics

The Les Cheneaux Island’s 36th Annual Antique Wooden Boat Show takes place this year on August 10, 2013. Terrific scenery, a crafty Festival of Arts, delectable food, and, best of all, hundreds of beautifully restored wooden boats join forces in Hessel, Michigan for a day of fun for all ages.

The festival is accessible by way of land, air or sea. If you’re looking to enter your antique wooden boat in the show, there’s a $30 entry fee. The application can be downloaded from the Historical Association’s website,

Need to fulfill your nagging pang for whitefish? Most would recommend starting at the Cedarville Trojan Booster Club’s whitefish and chicken dinner in downtown Hessel, at Mertaugh Boat Works’ storage building on Friday night before the boat show. The fish is hand-breaded, fresh and local — and a great way to kick off your boat show weekend.

Saturday morning, vendors are putting up their tents and the boat show spirit is palpable. Looking out over the foggy bay, cruisers and sailboats filled with eager antique boat lovers await their shuttle to the shores. Getting up early can really awaken one’s appetite. Head back over to Mertaugh’s, where from 7 -11 a.m. you will find the Les Cheneaux Lions Club flipping their flapjacks at the pancake breakfast.

Boat show gates open at 9 a.m. Saturday, leaving time to buy a boat show t-shirt or sweatshirt and scope out your favorite boat before the main event starts. Admission is $7 for ages 12 to adult, and free for children under 12. Sorry, no dogs allowed, but Doggy Styles Pet Resort in nearby Cedarville will take great care of your furry friends for the day. Simply call them at 906-484-2194.

The Festival of Arts is in full swing from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. There are exponential amounts of exploring to be had up and down the harbor between Mertaugh Boat Works and the Hessel Public Marina, where approximately 70 artists show off their goods. Jewelry, wooden toys, photography, blown glass, furniture, pottery, sail cloth bags, maple syrup goods, and anything in between is on display and provides a multitude of original gift ideas for friends and loved ones.

For the self-efficient boatbuilder and restorer, Dockside Traders offer a great service by supplying antique wooden boat gadgets — like that missing steering wheel you’ve been searching for — and other miscellaneous materials. These vendors are located behind Mertaugh Boat Works.

To best check out the boats on display, access the docks next to the launch ramp behind Mertaugh Boat Works, as well as at Hessel Marina. More than 130 boats are docked in and around the harbor, elegantly displayed, shiny and restored to the perfection achieved at the factory years ago. Many have stories to tell and are complete with photographic documentation of the restoration process.

If you’ve made it to the show for the weekend without a boat of your own, don’t fret; you don’t have to miss out on the channels! Take a tour on one of the Arnold Transit Company’s ferries. You can purchase tickets and board at the Hessel Marina pier for one of two leisurely tours of the scenic Les Cheneaux Islands. The historic area has much to offer. Experience where some of the first Chris-Crafts took to the waters, the roves of original crib dock and boathouses under which they lived, and how their presence was key in the functionality of living off the mainland in a remote part of Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

By 4 p.m. judges will have deliberated and decided it's time to announce the winners of each boat category at the show. Gather 'round the gazebo at Hessel Marina to hear the good news. Winners are awarded a plaque and, of course, bragging rights.

For more information about the show, contact the Les Cheneaux Historical Association at 906-484-2821 or the Les Cheneaux Islands Area Tourist Association at 906-484-3935.

— Audrey Koster


Les Cheneaux Islands

by Elizabeth Fels
Brimming with beauty and a storied maritime history, the Les Cheneaux islands in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula are a boater’s dream.

A long the north shore of Lake Huron in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula lies an archipelago of 36 islands called Les Cheneaux. While the actual meaning of Les Cheneaux remains murky, most accept a loose translation from French meaning “the channels.”

The archipelago is like a country village woven together by water instead of lanes. The islands are knit together by the channels, and the islands themselves soften the winds and calm the sometimes rough water of the “big lake,” Huron. All this makes it an ideal area for boating, especially for fans of classic wooden boats.

The Ojibwa (Chippewa) and Ottawa Indians were the original residents of the Les Cheneaux region, followed by European explorers, missionaries and fur traders, who realized the region’s value as a central location in the Straits of Mackinac, between the St. Marys River, DeTour passage and the St. Lawrence River; all of which gave access to the ample fur, timber and lands of the north.

It wasn't until the 1880s that the timber and land of the Upper Peninsula became seriously attractive and available for acquisition. This area became important not only in the development of Great Lakes commerce, but also in the development of summer tourism. The clean air and abundant fishing coaxed thousands of visitors from big cities, who came to escape pollution and heat by spending their summer in the dozen or so hotels and boarding houses that sprung up around the islands.

The hotels were replaced by motels and cabin resorts still here today. These lodging options emerged as tourists increasingly drove to Les Cheneaux, taking advantage of the 1957 opening of the Mackinac Bridge over the Straits of Mackinac. More than 5 miles long, the bridge connects the Lower Peninsula of Michigan to the Upper Peninsula, ending a lengthy ferry ride tourists used to take across the Straits to reach the UP.

Once across the bridge, an easy and scenic drive north on I-75 and east along M-134 brings you into Les Cheneaux.

Hessel, MI

There are two small villages that anchor the islands: Hessel and Cedarville, Michigan. Hessel has several boat-friendly businesses, including the Hessel Public Marina, which is open Memorial Day through Labor Day and sometimes later in the fall if weather permits. It offers 24 slips with water hook-up and electricity, showers, pump-out service, laundry, and public launch ramp. Slips can be rented daily or for extended periods. There’s a gazebo and picnic tables for gathering.

Across from the marina is the E.J. Mertaugh Boat Works. An important fixture on the waterfront since 1925, Mertaugh’s was the first Chris-Craft boat franchise. Today, Mertaugh’s is a full-service marina and boatyard, with heated storage for boats up to 60 feet. Mertaugh’s, which is open year round for seasonal access, sells and services a wide range of boats, from classic wood to contemporary aluminum, and also carries clothes and cruising provisions.

On the western edge of Hessel is Classic and Antique Boats. Founded and operated by Mertaugh family members with 80-plus years of wooden boat experience, the company maintains and restores around 250 boats, of which half are the area’s classic wooden ones. As word of their award-winning restorations spreads, Classic and Antique Boats are in demand to restore some of the finest antique boats in the country, including those of clients in neighboring states and Canada.

Hessel offers several lodging options, so close they are within sight of the marina. All offer picnic areas, grills, beaches, and comfortable cabins.

The Hessel Grocery and Deli has take-out and sit-down service, plus an ice cream shop and take-out window, making the sweet treat handy for everyone. Hessel Bay Inn restaurant’s outdoor deck lets you eat and watch the boats coming and going on Hessel Bay. Up the street is The Islander, a historic pub, which still has some of the old furnishings from its former life as an ice cream and confection shop more than 100 years ago.

An increasingly important fixture in the area is Woods & Water Ecotours (woodswaterecotours.com), which rents kayaks and fishing kayaks, offers kayak lessons for people of all ages (including children), and provides well-guided tours of the area’s remarkable hidden harbors. Woods & Water also rents bicycles and provides road or path tours. All of this is in short walking distance for the boater.

Cedarville, MI

Cedarville is just 3 miles east of Hessel by road, or an interesting boat ride through the channels to the public dock or one of the many marinas in town. Downtown Cedarville offers a public dock with a park and gazebo, where events like Art in the Park are held Labor Day weekend. Full-service marinas in Cedarville include Cedarville Marine, Tassier Boat Works and Viking Boat Harbor. All provide seasonal and transient slip rentals and storage, fuel, maintenance, and restoration services. Viking also offers diving and scuba services.

Of particular note in Cedarville are the area’s two cool museums: The Les Cheneaux Historical Museum and the Les Cheneaux Maritime Museum. These aren’t stodgy, dusty forgotten buildings and collections. The former is based in a vintage log structure, while the latter is in a large, vintage boathouse. The Historical Museum houses American Indian historic crafts, quilts, and artifacts and other pieces of the area’s colorful native, logging, and summer hotel and cottage history. The Maritime Museum is totally devoted to Les Cheneaux’s rich boating history, displaying classic and antique boats, a wide range of marine artifacts, photos, and exhibits, and a maritime library. When you come to the area, these are must-sees.

Tassier Sugar Bush, just north of Cedarville, is a family-owned maker of maple syrup and a line of delicious maple confections, including sugar, candied nuts, cream and more. Syrup is made during March and April, but the charming retail shop is open year round.

Boatbuilding tradition lives on

One of the most significant results of the devotion to and passion for boating in Les Cheneaux is the Great Lakes Boat Building School. It is the only licensed, non-profit school of its kind in the Midwest.

The building itself was architecturally designed and constructed to ‘complement’ the Les Cheneaux Islands with a handsome, 12,000-square-foot facility on the Cedarville waterfront. In just six remarkable years, the Great Lakes Boat Building School has contributed much to the Les Cheneaux community and Great Lakes region in the preservation of maritime heritage.

The faculty is led by Patrick Mahon, head instructor and program director of the school. He has impressive credentials starting with an apprenticeship in London, England. Mahon’s assistant, Kee Prins, heads up the second-year program and also is an accomplished boatbuilder, having had his own shop in the Netherlands.

The students are quite diverse in background and age, varying from 18 to 80, bringing to the school a wide array of education and skills. One of this year’s students has studied maritime archaeology and theoretical reconstructions of ancient ships. In addition to studying in Wales, she assisted in Norway building a Viking burial ship using only Viking-period tools.

This summer, along with artisan workshops in woodworking and metal casting, students are teaming up with Chesapeake Light Craft for a variety of one-week workshops in building your own boat.

Antique wooden boat show

Another August event is the Les Cheneaux Antique Wooden Boat Show — the high and holy day of the community’s year. It has been held in Hessel since 1978, always on the second Saturday of August, and is sponsored by the Les Cheneaux Historical Association. Proceeds from the event support the association’s two museums.

More than 300 volunteers devote time and effort to the Les Cheneaux Boat Show’s success. As many as 10,000 boaters and visitors come to the show. Wooden (and lately a few “classic glass”) boats of all types are entered, from dinghies to cruisers, sailboats to canoes; all have their own class at this show. And all have their own stories.

Les Cheneaux is a place full of stories, and the wooden boat show has an unusually rich collection of them. 2012’s “Best in Show” was an incredible 1949 Hacker race boat, discovered in a field. Don Morin bought and restored it, turning the vessel into a long, sleek wooden needle. Shmoo, a 1950 Ray Green sailboat, won the sailing class after having been rescued from being a flower container in someone’s yard. The cruiser class was captured by Jenny Clark, a 55-foot, drop-dead gorgeous Trumpy. Captains Mark and Donna Randall bring her to Les Cheneaux for personal cruises and the boat show. They also share their love of Les Cheneaux through their cruise business, Classic Yacht Charters, giving everyone the rare opportunity to ride a luxurious wooden yacht through the channels — an adventure not to be missed.

Alongside the Antique Wooden Boat Show is a fabulous Festival of Arts, featuring a juried collection of artisans from around the Midwest offering a span of work — from jewelry, to rugs, to lamps, to clothing… even some bags and travel accessories made of recycled sails. There’s pottery and photography, paintings, writings, glass works, and more. Live music is performed at the marina in the center of the show.

Island activities

To enjoy Les Cheneaux’s quieter side, come any time other than boat show week.

Cruise past the area’s scores of colorful, sometimes-weathered and charming boathouses and rustic cedar crib docks. Built to tether, protect and store the area’s 400 or so classic wooden boats (making Les Cheneaux Islands a top old boat haven in the nation), they dispel the notion that such structures clutter a shoreline. Rather, their simple beauty evokes warm feelings of permanence and simpler times. As you cruise past, you’ll see kids fishing and swimming off them, Retrievers wagging their tails beside them, and the shiny transoms of vintage boat after vintage boat peeking out from under them.

If your travels involve an overnight stay in Les Cheneaux and the weather cooperates, you’ll be treated to an extraordinary natural planetarium. Because the islands are in a rural setting, far from any urban sprawl, there is little light pollution. You can watch the Milky Way swirl past, Orion hunt his prey, and Ursa Major forever inching north. Especially in August, meteors will streak overhead like matches struck for fire.

On an especially cool, clear, moonless night, you’ll wonder at the reflections of these galaxies and constellations in the glassy smooth waters of the bays and harbors.

Camping is popular here, and most of the campgrounds are on the waterfront and have docks. Government Island is reachable only by boat and offers rustic camping with fabulous views of Lake Huron. Government Bay is a popular mooring spot for yachts and cruisers, especially during the summer. For modern camping, Cedarville offers two waterfront campgrounds with full amenities: Loons Point or Cedarville R.V. Park. Hessel offers the Kewadin Campground, convenient to Kewadin Casino on Three-Mile Road.

There are many hiking trails that are beautiful in all seasons, and less than a mile or two from the docks in Cedarville or Hessel. These trails are perfect for birding. The north shore of Lake Huron provides important habitat and food for a host of migrating birds. The warbler migration is an important draw for birders, and by early summer more than 15 species of warblers can been seen, and heard — singing like a colorful mixed choir.

Sailing races are an important summer tradition, and watching the races is a wonderful way to spend a summer day on the water. The Les Cheneaux Yacht Club was incorporated in 1940 to promote sailing and boating in Les Cheneaux and hosts the competitive Ensign sailboat races in July and August. The club’s Ensign fleet is the largest in the country, and in 2010 it held the National Ensign Regatta.

For golf, Les Cheneaux offers two options. The Les Cheneaux Golf Club in Cedarville was started in 1898 on Snows Channel, and is the oldest continuously-played course in Michigan. Golfers can get there by road or boat. Hessel Ridge Golf Course is an 18-hole course north of Hessel, gently carved into the hardwood hills. A small airport is directly across from the course, and some golfers choose to fly in. For drivers, the course is conveniently located on Three-Mile Road, which also leads to Hessel’s quaint Kewadin Casino and the rustic Runway Bar, a little further north.

The Les Cheneaux Library, located a mere 100 yards from the Cedarville marina, can be your salvation should the weather interrupt your outdoor plans. It’s a warm, inviting, wooden, naturally lit space, featuring a beautiful mural of the area’s sights, seasons and pastimes. The Library is wi-fi enabled, so the choice is yours: Pass a few hours reading, catching up on your e-mail, check out the news, and, if you’re a kid (or a kid at heart), play a few online games.

Island accommodations

There are more than 20 different lodging options available in the Les Cheneaux area, offering a range of experiences from bed and breakfast to waterfront cottages complete with sandy beach and bonfire. Prime season is all too fleeting, so you might want to book ahead to ensure availability.

When hungry, Ang-gio’s has Italian specialities. Snow’s Bar and Grill is home of the famous “Snows Burger.” Bumpa’s Lounge has a nautical atmosphere and hosts its popular Dollar Beer Day on Thursdays. Cattail’s is a waterfront tavern with an extensive menu and outdoor dining. Pammi’s is know for its soups, salads and unusal sandwiches.

When the snow flies

Although summer is Les Cheneaux’s busiest time, vacationers who miss the quieter season really miss what this community is all about. Winter and fall offer hunting and ice fishing beyond compare, drawing sportsmen from all over the region. Snowmobiles have more than 100 miles of trails through the woods and several more miles over the icy channels. Snowshoers and cross-country skiers have just under a dozen trail options throughout Les Cheneaux. The community also stages several winter events, from ice fishing contests to vintage snowmobile races. The annual Snowsfest, held each President’s Day weekend in February, offers more than 20 activities, including a fabulous chili cook-off, art show, games, ice fishing, poker run, pub crawl, and much more.

Ice boating or “ice sailing” has become a really popular sport in Les Cheneaux, and some of the bays around the islands are ideal for it. Watching them race is like seeing a flock of beautiful birds with the most balletic speed and agility.

At the end of the day in Les Cheneaux, it’s all about water — near it, in it, or on it.

South Shore JUN17
South Shore JUN17