By Ken De Laat
"Well, I hope you understand, I just had to go back to the island”- Leon Russell song
I’m taking a guess many of you reading this haven’t been there.
Maybe you’ve thought about it, maybe you heard someone talk about it, maybe you read something about it...
But you haven’t pulled the trigger and made the effort to get there.
I had always wondered about BI but until our son, daughter in law and 3 of our grandchildren (have I ever mentioned their high level of intelligence, good looks and all around likeability?) moved there about 4 years ago, we had never set foot there.
Since then LSC Lil and I have landed on the Emerald Isle (Michigan version) dozens of times.
And each has been a welcome respite from what Islanders call “The Mainland”
What is it about BI?
First of all it's not Mackinac Island.
Not by a long shot.
And with apologies to the Somewhere in Time-loving visitors to the uber-popular little isle in Lake Huron, the vibe on BI seems far more suited to my personal tastes.
The downtown area has nary a fudge shop. If, like many days, the gift store near the boat docks isn’t open you can get t- shirts and BI bling at the hardware store. Ice cream can be scored at a little shop near to the boat docks, there’s a couple of bars (one with eats) near the docks, a community center to pick up info on the island and it’s a half mile walk to the grocery store and the coffee shop.
Yes, THE grocery store and THE coffee shop
No it’s not Mackinac.
And again, for those of us who prefer a genuine slice of Up North living without the obligatory tourist trappings it is a healthy helping of heaven.
This is a working island. While a gaggle or two of tourists walk about exploring the area, the residents are going about their business. The action downtown gets a boost whenever the ferry boat arrives, dropping off regular visitors, summer residents, and curious first timers but generally there is a steady, yet unhurried cadence to the island scene.
There is a bit of magic to the largest of this Lake Michigan archipelago that includes more than a dozen islands. It ranks high in biological diversity with Great Lakes dunes, marshes, bogs, fens, coniferous swamps, northern coniferous forests and mixed hardwood forests. There are trails and pathways that allow for island exploration. . There is a rich and and intriguing history that deserves a separate article in itself, including a King whose namesake is on a private lodge across from the yacht club.
Breakfast with a View
Our favorite mornings begin with a 3 mile trek to the lighthouse and back with a stopover on the deck of Dalwhinnie’s where a varied menu, good coffee and ample selection of enticing baked goods provide a welcome reward to the pedestrian efforts. The view makes it an easy linger and while there you’ll see (and hear) a mixture of tourists and islanders, with the tourists talking about the BI discoveries they’ve made and locals focused on the latest island news. The fishing guides and their clients load up on the Deli’s sumptuous sandwiches after their breakfast and before heading out on the water for the long (and hopefully productive) day ahead.
We like the food and the atmosphere at the Shamrock located in the heart of ‘downtown’ . They have a pleasant outside seating area and occasionally bring in music, always a bonus.
The Circle M, located on the way to one of the airports and abutting a large cemetery, is a must whenever we visit. The dining experience runs the gamut from really good to exceptional on most occasions, there is a more than adequate beer and wine selection and a number of intriguing cocktails are offered as well
Beyond that there is Daddy Frank’s just a short walk around the block from the boat and serving up ice cream treats along with burgers, hot dogs, baskets, sandwiches and such.
Unless you’re planning on running over there in your own boat or landing your personal aircraft there are two ways of getting to BI. The ferry boat and the planes .
Initially Lil and I took the boat, however the difference between a 2 hour ride across Lake Mich and a 20 minute flight over the waves made Island Airways our preferred method of arrival and departure. Of course the boat drops you downtown and the airports (2) are more than a bit of a hike from anywhere so if you are flying over on a whim you likely want to make arrangements to get from landing strip to town.
Side note: We have rarely traveled by air when not accompanied by one or two dogs and each has been obviously well acquainted with air travel. Once there were 4 canines aboard and the Golden Retriever apparently thought he knew me as he proceed to put his chin on my shoulder and stare at me for most of the jaunt across water.
Birding Biking & Boodling
These are the three B’s of BI.
The island is home to some of the best birding opportunities to be found. N3 ‘Ask BirdGoober’ columnists Andrea and Terry Grabill accompany Fremont middle schoolers to the island each spring for field biology and geology experiences, a program that began in 1999.
Terry: “ Andrea and I have also had the pleasure of being field guides to Beaver Island Birding Trail's "Warblers on the. Water" festival for several years, During the festivals, in addition to leading field trips, we've also done presentations on "Getting Started in Birding" and "Improving Your Birding Skills".
“Beaver Island presents a unique opportunity for birders to explore diverse habitats in a relatively small area. The Beaver Island Birding Trail is designed to provide birders views of this diversity and most are accessible without strenuous hiking. On their website http://www.beaverislandbirdingtrail.org/ 35 sites are mapped with descriptions of likely species to find.”
On one of our first soirees over from Charlevoix via ferry boat Lil and I were accompanied by droves of bikers. No not the motorized Harley riding type but those for whom the act of pedaling is a pleasure.
And while the roads around the Island run short of pavement rather quickly, the dirt roads stay fairly smooth and easily navigable and the tree cover allows for cycling on warm days with an abundance of shade. Solo riders, couples and groups of a dozen or more can often be seen taking to the routes through and around the island.
Boodling is the third B. and to truly embrace the island experience one should not pass up the opportunity for a good boodle.
What is a Boodle you say?
Well, perhaps it can be best described as a tour of sorts. Or maybe kind of a mobile outdoor party, generally involving beer.
One can witness a pickup truck with a picnic table in the bed of the vehicle making its way around the island at speeds that allow them to be passed by the occasional bicyclist or power walker while revelers take in the scenery, engage in stimulating dialogue and sip the occasional beverage.
Sometimes boodlers might pass each other in opposite directions so an obligatory stop for a chat is not out of the question and must be tolerated with a measure of decorum by those waiting to ramble on.
Popular boodle stopovers include the wealth of beaches where sunsets are nothing short of magnificent. Donegal Bay alone provides some of the most stunning sundowns to be found and on clear days the sun seems to set off steaming shafts of colors as it disappears into a glowing Lake Mich.
Speaking of Island Cars
There are a couple of car rental places on the island. One has newer vehicles and the other gives you the experience of ‘island cars’. These are generally older vehicles...most times a lot older… that are used to get back and forth to desired sites but the Island is 13 miles long and some 6 miles wide in most spots so the need depends on your desired destinations.
When walking about or driving you’ll note each car passing by will signal an acknowledgement of your presence with a three or four finger wave from the steering wheel. These are not to be mistaken for the more well known one finger wave encountered frequently during urban rush hours or when folks at the four way stop in Fremont get impatient and testy.
When not bunking with the grands we stay at the Harbor View, a clean and friendly temp home with kitchenettes that are perfect for any length of stay. The friendliness and charm of Michelle who manages Harbor View makes the experience seamless. They have an outdoor pool, and an epic view of the harbor (hence the name one supposes).
There are a sprinkling of other places to stay including some vacation home rentals, and a couple other hotels. My niece and her family came up for our grandson’s graduation in June and rented a grand cabinesque abode that easily accommodated her tribe of 14.
It was also her first time on BI and, like so many others before her, she became captivated by the place, vowing to return.
And therein lies the key to this mid lake gem that Lil and I love. You either get it or you don’t. For some, BI lacks the old ‘things to do’ if those things involve tourist shops, well manicured historical sites, a bevy of eateries and fudge shops to choose from and maybe even a bit of nightlife.
For others this place fits perfectly. It’s quiet, the ‘things to do’ are more likely to involve exploring the island via hiking or biking, communing with its natural wonders, and taking advantage of its bountiful beaches. It is indeed a place to peel off a little stress, recalibrate one’s thoughts and gain a little well needed perspective.
The mantra echoed by every first timer who falls into the latter group is strikingly similar. You can almost see it in the wistful look in their eyes as they wait to board the boat back to Charlevoix.
“We’ll be back.”
“I wasn’t born on Beaver Island but I got here as quick as I could”- Bumper sticker seen on an ‘island car’.
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