Not quite roughing it in the Les Cheneaux Islands
BY DAVE FOLEY
When we go sea-kayak tripping, it’s usually a multi-day excursion along remote stretches of the Canadian shore of Lake Superior.
With some unexpected time commitments crowding our lives, we choose to do a two-day trip to the Les Cheneaux Islands. Lying 30 miles northeast of Mackinac Island in Lake Huron, this group of 36 islands has been a popular resort area since the late 1800s.
After driving 160 miles north to just past Cedarville, Michigan, we unrack the kayaks and begin loading our gear into them. That’s not easy, as space is limited. Hatch openings are small and the boats are pointed at both ends. Imagine trying to fit your stuff through a hole no bigger than a toilet seat, and then packing it into a space about the size of the interior of a traffic cone.
Once the hatches have been sealed, we paddle into Lake Huron toward Hill Island. Passing around the east end of Hill, we swing past Coryell Island, skirt the end of Island No. 8 and head toward Government Island – that’s where we will camp.
Although this is the only island where camping is permitted, once we check out the campsites, we are totally satisfied.
With most wilderness sites, a decent, level place to pitch your tent is about the best you can hope for. Government Island’s sites would garner 5-star reviews – picnic tables, grassy tent sites, fire rings and an immaculately clean pit toilet. The staff or volunteers from the Hiawatha National Forest who maintain this site are to be commended.
After setting up the tent and stowing our gear, we get back out on the water. We shoot past Boot Island into the open waters of Lake Huron. An east wind is pushing up the waves – nothing alarming, just a fun ride. As we pass by rocky points, we startle gulls, cormorants, Canada geese, assorted ducks and one very vocal loon.
After going around the end of LaSalle Island, just as we approach Bosley Channel, two sandhill cranes appear along the shore. We stop paddling and watch the duo high-stepping across the shallows. I pull out my camera. Apparently, it’s showtime. Spreading their wings, the two face each other and execute some wing flapping and leg kicks as I capture digital images. Then they stop and stare at us. We have the urge to applaud or cheer, but refrain, not wanting to break the spell. As we paddle away, I look back and they are still there.
The nature show was a bonus. What makes the Les Cheneaux Islands unique is the many historical cottages, lodges and mansions. For well over 100 years, the islands have been a tourist destination, especially among the wealthy.
I have been told that the Eli Lilley family of pharmaceutical fame, as well as descendants of John Deere and the founders of Armour Meats all have property out here.
The shoreline is lined with boathouses hanging out over the water on wooden piers. Several are as big as my home. In these boathouses, and occasionally out on the lake, we see vintage motorboats – the varnished watercraft famously made by Chris Craft.
We thread our way among the islands until we reach Cedarville. Seeing a terrace set up with tables by the lakeshore, we note a sign that reads “Bumpas Beer to Go.” We pull in, drag our kayaks out of the water and stop for a cold drink.
This is a far cry from our usual backcountry experience. As I sit on the bank sipping an iced beverage, one part of me feels this moment taints what is supposed to be a get-close-to-nature experience in the backcountry, but mostly I am savoring the sensation of an iced beverage on a hot day.
That evening back at our Government Island campsite, we eat dinner sitting at a picnic table. Again, I feel just a bit guilty about the comfort. Usually, we consume our meals sitting on rocks or logs.
Even the bugs are cooperating. Only a few mosquitoes check us out as we sit on our gravel beach, while darkness envelopes the land.
To the east, a full moon rises over Boot Island, laying down a silver stripe of shimmering light on the water. It’s a moment of pure beauty, and we feel lucky to be there to experience it.
You don’t have to be a hardy outdoor person with a long sea kayak to visit the Les Cheneaux area. With the many islands to offer protection from the wind, the great campsites and the many homes along the shoreline, this is a great starter trip for those who would like to try kayak camping.