AFTER YEARS OF VACATIONING in the Tawas area, Indianapolis-based traveler Mary Armstrong-Smith decided to book the island dinner cruise she’d heard so much about. She not only enjoyed the scenery and colorful Saginaw Bay bird life but also left impressed with the historic lighthouse, the historic tales that were told and how they were told.
“I’m a professional comedian and storyteller,” Armstrong-Smith said of the island cruise owner and trip narrator Bob Wiltse. “I thought, ‘This guy has skills.’ I was in awe of how well he got his point across and how passionate he is about what the island has to offer and what its history is.”
The early French explorer Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, visited the island in 1679. It was inhabited by Native Americans then who reportedly grew squash, corn and beans. But the remote isle would change hands many times before becoming the home of a Great Lakes lighthouse in 1857. It would later be acquired by Bob and Karen Wiltse in 1992 who then sold most of it to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to preserve its natural character. The couple now owns the lightkeeper’s home, where they reside nine months each year.
Armstrong-Smith said visitors shouldn’t expect cruise ship-style dining during the five-plus hour, $94-a-person experience billed as Charity Island’s 1857 Island Lighthouse Dining Adventure Cruise. But they can expect Great Lakes-style authenticity, pristine shorelines, the chance to sample regionally made wines and time to explore some of the 300-acre island that is, for the most part, a federal nature preserve.
“It opened my eyes and gave me a better appreciation for the history of the area.”
— Mary Armstrong-Smith
The trip starts with a boat ride across 10 miles of Saginaw Bay to Charity Island with its forest, rare plant habitat and the historic lighthouse. Visitors tour the restored keeper’s home and original light tower. They enjoy the picnic-style dinner of fresh perch or steak tenderloin.
The highlight for many, though, is the stories. Wiltse brings to life the keepers who helped rescue all but one — “who died of fright” — of the passengers on the ship Oconto, which went aground in an 1885 December gale. Other stories share early island life in the days when a lightkeeper moved to a then-one-room home with a wife and 12 children or of the current-day colony of white pelicans on nearby Little Charity Island. They often swoop overhead as if on cue.
“It opened my eyes and gave me a better appreciation for the history of the area,” Armstrong-Smith said. “… And the bird life. It was exquisite!”
For more information, visit charityisland.net.
Photography courtesy Karen and Robert Wiltse