Island Adventures

Guidebook author outlines tempting tour of seven Great Lakes-surrounded nature destinations
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St James Harbor, Beaver Island, glows at sunset as light shines on the Harbor Light and Central Michigan University's Biological Station.

The time may come when you just want to get away from it all. In Michigan, we’re fortunate to have an abundance of lakes we can escape to. In fact, it’s been written that the Ojibwe Native Americans who lived here believed “water is the first medicine.”

While visiting the shore of a Great Lake certainly might help, consider that swaths of the Great Lakes are studded with islands. Ferrying across the water to one of those beautiful destinations might really take care of any wanderlust or desire to escape from your routine, even briefly.

Imagine starting in southeast Michigan and heading north to embark on an island-hopping arc that involves ferrying to Harsens Island, Bois Blanc Island, Drummond Island, Grand Island, Beaver Island, and North and South Manitou Islands, and dipping into Lake Huron, Lake Superior, and Lake Michigan on your way. When you’re surrounded by water, you may be surprised at how easy it is to shed any stress or doldrums you may be holding onto.

Set aside two weeks, or an entire summer, to travel by ferry to all these less-discovered islands, or plan to take a series of day and overnight trips during Michigan’s May-through-October season of warmer-weather delight. Let these islands serve as the bow for your spirit’s arrow.

Harsens Island

Located near Algonac, this is where you can get close to the huge freighters plying the St. Clair River without getting wet. After a short car ferry ride, head to the Harsens Island St. Clair Flats Historical Museum to learn about the history of the Flats, of which Harsens Island is a part. Then pedal your bike around this flat island to your heart’s content; water will be in view most of your way around.

Bois Blanc Island

You may think you know the Straits of Mackinac if you’ve been to Mackinac Island, but a very different island vibe awaits you to its south, at the other end of a 30-minute car ferry ride from Cheboygan.

One of my favorite stops was the Bois Blanc Island Historical Society Museum, in the island’s one town of Pointe Aux Pins, which is closed until further notice. Pick up a self-guided tour map of the island at Hawk’s Landing General Store and Deli. Vacation rentals are available.

Riding a bike is a great way to tour this much larger, much less crowded Straits of Mackinac island. And Bois Blanc (aka Bob-Lo) exudes a very laid-back attitude.

“What really stuck out for me were the people; (they were) incredibly welcoming,” Barbara Osher, of Franklin, says about her experience there. Maybe while you’re on the dock at The Pines, sun glinting on the water, you’ll run into someone you haven’t seen in 20 years — or maybe you’ll meet your new best friend. It’s island magic.

As the island’s own singer-songwriter, Dan Reynolds, croons: “Heaven’s going to have to look a helluva lot like Bob-Lo, and if it don’t, I don’t want to go …”

The Beaver Island Historical Museum and Mormon Print Shop is worth a visit.

Drummond Island

You can make an easy day trip to Drummond Island, beginning with a 10-minute ferry ride across the St. Mary’s River in the eastern end of the Upper Peninsula. Drive around this big island in your car, or stay a night or two so you can see and experience more.

If you really want to slow down to island time, this is a good island on which to do it. You can rent a cabin for a week, hike on the Maxton Plains Preserve, hike to and along the Fossil Ledges, or follow the Drummond Island Township Park Heritage Trail, making a stop at the Drummond Island Historical Museum.

Be sure to keep an eye out for puddingstones, a most unusual rock. Stop by the Puddingstone Rock Shop at North Haven Gifts to get some pointers on finding these jasper conglomerates that can only be found in an east-west band of 50 miles, primarily in Ontario, but also in a small area of Michigan, and particularly on Drummond Island.

Grand Island

Grand Island is another island that’s just a 10-minute, people-only ferry ride away from the mainland. You’ll travel out into Lake Superior from Munising, near the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Once on the island, start off at the Grand Island Visitor Contact Station before taking the Alger County Transit’s two- to three-hour tour, which occurs once a day Tuesday through Saturday.

This island can be a day trip, but if you want to take full advantage of the sandy beaches and great hiking on trails that are also perfect for mountain biking (bikes are available to rent on the island), plan to stay a night or two. You have choices of designated rustic camping spots or four cabins that are available to rent.

Beaver Island

No other island in the Great Lakes has such a history (it’s the only place on the U.S. mainland that once had a ruling king) or perhaps holds such magic. The island — which has a lot of connections to Ireland and the Irish — is sometimes referred to as “America’s Emerald Isle.”

Beaver Island has more history and more nature preserves than most of the other destinations in this tour, and thanks to an Irish bar or two, the Whiskey Point Brewing Co., a beautiful public library, and a studio where island artists display their work, it’s more of a town than most Great Lakes islands.

However, Lake Michigan beaches and the island’s woods are what call to many who come to visit and often stay longer than expected. Janet Prater of Plymouth is one of those visitors who became a cottager, then became an islander for a bit, and now heads to her cottage whenever she can.

“My sweetest memories of Beaver Island have to do with the wonderful quiet and the incredible beauty of nature. This is the best dark spot to view the Milky Way.  The Northern Lights are thrilling. The island people are the real beauty of the island. They seem to understand that many folks love a quiet, private life, and that desire is honored,” Prater says.

Beaver Island is a 32-mile, two-hour ferry ride from Charlevoix. Cars are permitted on the island.

The Francisco Morazan, built in 1922, ran aground off the shore of South Manitou Island in 1960. It’s one of 16 shipwrecks in the Manitou Passage Underwater Preserve.

The Manitou Islands

While the pair of Manitou (North and South) islands appear similar, both in legend — they’re the twin bear cubs to the mother bear of the Sleeping Bear Dunes — and on the map of Lake Michigan — both are parts of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore — they’re not accessible from the same Manitou Island Transit ferryboat.

A day trip is possible to South Manitou. You can take a hike, even if you’re not staying overnight in one of the three campgrounds. Popular day trip hiking highlights include a lighthouse, a shipwreck visible from shore, a cemetery, a schoolhouse, giant old-growth white cedars, and Florence Lake. Hiking to the perched dunes is worth a night of camping.

One night of camping is minimally necessary on North Manitou because of the ferry schedule. The island has a preserved historic village, and a cemetery and old buildings from the island’s logging and farming eras await discovery by hikers. The rest of the island is being “rewilded,” meaning efforts are underway to restore its natural and wilderness areas.

“Rewilding” is a good description of what a visit to a Great Lakes island can do for you. When the land on which you stand is surrounded by water, life takes on the rhythms of the waves, be they gently rocking toward or crashing on shore. When light, or the lack thereof, is magnified by water, you can’t help but follow its subtle shifts. A stay on a Great Lakes island can change you in myriad ways you may not be able to predict. That’s good medicine for whatever ails your spirit.

About the writer: Maureen Dunphy, who has visited more than 135 islands, is the author of two books: “All About the Great Lakes” and “Great Lakes Island Escapes: Ferries and Bridges to Adventure,” which covers more than 30 islands and introduces readers to 50 more. Search by book title at wsupress.wayne.edu/books.

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