There’s a warm breeze off the bow and a movie unfolding below as we motor into Lake Huron over the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary (thunderbay.noaa.gov). This is the country’s only freshwater shipwreck sanctuary, and as marine archaeologist Stephanie Gandulla spins tales of tragedies past, it’s as if she’s also giving stage directions to a camera operator somewhere in the depths.
One stormy day in 1907, a lantern tipped on the Steamer Monohansett, setting it ablaze and eventually to the lake’s bottom — and it’s there, still, in the form of the plank that just appears as if by slow camera pan in a pool of flickering light. We pass over an engine and then a massive propeller.
On the two-hour Alpena Shipwreck Tour offered three times daily in peak summer, you might see the remains of up to six wrecks, depending on what Thunder Bay decides to give up, Gandulla says. And this chance to touch history and explore lakeshore scenery by water is one of many ways you can experience the Great Lakes as you like them via water cruises. Pick big lake drama or inland lake serenity, motor or sail, sea shanties or rock and roll, sleek speedboat or vintage paddlewheeler.
Under both sail and microscope is how you’ll explore Suttons Bay and elsewhere when you book one of the public sails on the schooner Inland Seas (schoolship.org). This year, pick from breakfast, music art or astronomy themed trips, as well as hands-on science outings complete with on-board microscopes. Then prepare to join in the singing of sea shanties as you hoist the trademark red sails.
“We go out and learn about the ecology of the Great Lakes,” educator Billy Schwab says. “We collect samples of the lake and see what’s down there. It’s very much driven by discovery.”
Cruises along town and city shorelines share scenery as well as peeks into city pasts and evolving futures. Ride the Star of Saugatuck II paddlewheeler along the Kalamazoo River and into Lake Michigan, and you’ll be exploring in much the way early travelers on this same route in the 1860s (saugatuckboatcruises.com). Or head down the Detroit River on sleek yacht charters like the Ovation or Infinity (infinityandovation.com) or the fun Diamond Jack Riverboat Cruises (diamondjack.com) and find your surprises along an ever-evolving, beautified shoreline and remarkable stories of a city renaissance.
Even the night sky — clearer than you might be able to imagine when seen from well off any shore — is a Great Lakes cruise draw, particularly on a new series of cruises offered by Shepler’s around the Straits of Mackinac (sheplersferry.com). Mary Stewart Adams, program director of the Headlands International Dark Sky Park and self-described star lore historian, narrates trips centered around celestial happenings. She narrates, too, longer bed and breakfast sails through the Traverse Tall Ship Company (tallshipsailing.com). In both cases, stories follow the phenomena, like the cruise night when lightning flashed in the distance at the same time stars were falling through the Milky Way, and the northern lights lit up the horizon, she said.
“I like to tell the story of how Zeus is the god of lighting and thunder and Perseus is his son, so that weekend, we got to see a father-son show cross the sky!”
Kim Schneider is an award-winning travel writer who has visited nearly every corner of Michigan.