Category Archives: Harbor Reports

More summer cruising: Exploring Beaver Island

When my wife, boys, and I departed St. Joseph back in June, we were hoping to make Beaver Island within about 10 days or so. I had talked up the beauty and solitude of the harbor quite a bit, and both of my boys, I’m pretty sure, had some wild imaginings of a place along the lines of Robinson Crusoe or Treasure Island. We’ve spent cold winter evenings tracing our fingers over chart book pages of the Beaver Island archipelago, dreaming of dropping anchor in remote harbors and going ashore to explore uninhabited islands, so it’s easy to imagine my family’s disappointment when our trip was interrupted by mechanical issues.

Two weeks later my youngest could barely contain his excitement as we departed Charlevoix and headed for Beaver Island. Ever cheerful, Josh did his best to contain his anxiety about wind and waves during our passage and toughed it out by focusing on the expectation of a sweet anchorage in Beaver Island’s St. James Harbor later that day. As we motored into the harbor, he chatted away excitedly and couldn’t wait to go ashore to explore. What a joy to see through the enthusiastic and unfettered eyes of a child.

With evening upon us, however, we enjoyed the island from Ariel’s deck, watched the sun set, ate a good supper, and went to bed.

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Josh awoke the next morning ready to explore, so we pumped up the dinghy and headed ashore. Prior to this leg of the trip we’d been rowing our Trinka dinghy ashore, so Josh was jazzed to try something new: the inflatable and a 4hp outboard. Not quite as classy or clean as a rowing dink, the inflatable certainly stows (and travels) much better when not in use, so we put up with its gasoline, heavy outboard, and unattractive appearance. But Josh loves it.

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Josh wanted to get the lay of the land, so we beached the dinghy at the north end of the harbor and walked south through town, stopping along the way to read historical markers and peek into a few shops (there aren’t many). Again, Josh was chattering with questions and excitement, and I loved every minute of it.

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Like most sailors, I suspect, we had to walk the docks at the municipal marina, a prospect Josh approached with a hint of trepidation due to my story from several years ago about a run-in with the harbormaster. If he’s still there, we didn’t run into him this time.

At the south end of town we visited the historical society and read all about the Irish and Mormon history on the island before heading back to the north end. Although I’ve been to Beaver Island a few times, I was surprised to discover at the northeast end of the harbor the Beaver Island Marine Museum. And imagine my joy when Josh begged to stop in. A kind lady greeted us and handed Josh a scavenger hunt sheet, telling him that he could win a prize if he found all of the artifacts listed therein. Away he went!

The museum preserves the island’s fishing heritage with numerous artifacts and pictures. Perhaps the coolest exhibit is the Bob S., an historic fishing tug.

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Captain Josh at the wheel of the Bob S. fishing tug.

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Josh’s scavenger hunt diligence earned him a free postcard, while I had the joy of watching this kid’s enthusiasm and wonder.

We left the museum and walked south along the east side of the harbor to check out the entrance light and the view out over the north end of Lake Michigan.

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After exploring the island, we ate lunch at Dalwhinnie’s and stocked up on groceries at McDonough’s before heading back to Ariel, our bellies full and our wonder satisfied.

We (or rather Josh) hauled anchor the next morning and set a course through Gray’s Reef Passage and on to the Mackinac Bridge, another landmark Josh was eager to see – this time from below. (I greased the bow roller after this, by the way. She’s quiet now!). Josh had hauled anchor in Charlevoix as well, so with this haul we decided to promote him from “barnacle” to “swab.” He was thrilled.

St. Joseph Harbor Review

It’s hard not to be biased about your hometown, but St. Joseph really is a great town – and it’s getting better.

The St. Joseph River channel is well marked and dredged to a depth of approximately 20 ft. Visitors arriving by boat can find transient slips at either West Basin Municipal Marina, Marina at Harbor Shores, or Anchor’s Way Marina, a private marina located upriver. West Basin, located on the north side of the channel, has several well-maintained transient slips, is easily accessed, and provides foot access to Tiscornia Beach. The marina is located next to the St. Joseph River Yacht Club, a beautiful, historic brick building on the water’s edge, and a railroad swing bridge. The entrance is clearly marked and the marina has good depth for moderate-draft vessels. Major renovations in fall 2009 and early spring 2010 resulted in updated docks and a new marina office. The marina staff is helpful during normal business hours; however, after-hours service is virtually non-existent. Typical quitting time seems to be around 4:30pm, so plan your arrival accordingly. Visitors should contact the harbormaster on VHF ch 9 for slip assignment. As always, specify your vessel type, length, and draft.

Anchor’s Way Marina has been undergoing renovations to make way for a condo and marina complex. Since most of the area likely will be rebuilt, little maintenance has been performed on the existing docks. Visitors will need to pass through three bridges to reach Anchor’s Way Marina – one railroad swing bridge and two bascule bridges. Water depth in the area of the marina gets very shallow and is not well marked. It would be wise to stay near the slips on the south side of the river.

Access to the downtown on foot from West Basin Municipal and Anchor’s Way requires crossing the river, but West Basin has a courtesy van available. Additionally, slip renters may use four bicycles provided by West Basin Municipal marina. A shuttle also operates between West Basin and downtown during certain hours. If you do walk into town, plan on a 10-15 minute walk from either location.

If you don’t mind a potentially bumpy ride and boat traffic, boats may tie up along the seawall on the south side of the channel just past the railroad swing bridge. From there it is a short walk up the bluff to the downtown – and it’s free. Even better, you just might have a front row seat to a concert in the nearby bandshell. Skippers tying up along the seawall should use fender boards or several over-sized fenders to keep the boat off of the corrugated steel. The seawall will be especially uncomfortable during periods of sustained winds from the W to NW, as waves tend to roll down the St. Joseph channel.

Anchoring in the inner basin just upriver from the first bascule bridge is possible, but St. Joseph is a working harbor and large ships deposit loads of gravel nearby. Bottom conditions in the area are unknown to me, but I would expect them to be muddy and potentially foul.

Boaters arriving in St. Joseph would do well to check out Wolf’s Marine, Southwest Michigan’s largest marine store. Wolf’s stocks an extensive inventory and has an on-site rigging shop.

Downtown St. Joseph is a great mix of natural beauty and quaint city streets lined by shops of all kinds. There are several great places to eat – Silver Beach Pizza, Pump House Grill, Port 412, Tim’s Too, Kilwin’s ice cream – and several fun shops. The newest attraction opened in 2010, the St. Joseph Carousel. Located in a brand new pavilion, the carousel comes close to recreating an old-time St. Joseph carousel that closed sometime in the 70s, I believe. And nearby Silver Beach is one of the most attractive beaches on Lake Michigan.

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Fuel dock at West Basin Marina.

Fuel dock at West Basin Marina.

St. Joseph channel
The channel during a fall storm.

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St. James Harbor, Beaver Island

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Ariel anchored in St. James Harbor, Beaver Island.

One of the great things about sailing Lake Michigan is that it’s easy to feel like you’ve really gotten away from it all. With a harbor dotting the eastern shoreline every 40nm or so, it’s easy to slip away for a weekend and enjoy a tranquil anchorage and some new sights. Beaver Island, located at the northern end of Lake Michigan, is a great cruising destination and one that really is away from it all. If you like anchoring out and prefer staying aboard reading, relaxing, and enjoying the sights from the deck of your boat, Beaver Island is the perfect spot. (If you like people, fine restaurants, and lots to do, check out Charlevoix’s Round Lake, where you can anchor on short scope, surrounded by other boats, and watch the parade of boats watch you.)

The following report provides basic information about St. James Harbor and is not intended to be used for navigational purposes.

The approach to St. James Harbor is from the ESE and presents no obstacles. (The northern end of Lake Michigan presents far more navigational obstacles than the southern end; sailors unfamiliar with the area should consult their charts carefully.) Once inside the harbor, there is significant shoaling to the south and southwest, and some thin water to the north. The ferry dock (Emerald Isle ferry from Charlevoix) and municipal marina, located in the NW portion of the harbor, provide a good landmark to steer for. Although the local marina offers transient slips, St. James Harbor provides good holding and shelter, making anchoring preferable*, especially if you have a dinghy to go ashore.

*Anchoring is especially preferable thanks to the harbormaster at the Municipal Marina who, apparently, has little affection or patience for visitors to his island.

Buoys in the inner harbor mark a channel to the northern part of the harbor. There is good* holding in a sandy bottom with moderate depths. Our preference was to nose into the shallower water at the southern end of the inner harbor to reduce rode length. We anchored in about 10-12 feet of water and set out 70′ of rode for a scope of 7:1. *Our experience during the rendezvous of 2010 indicates that holding can be marginal. An abundance of weeds resulted in two members dragging their anchors or having difficulty setting. Be sure to back on your anchor to ensure that it is well dug in.***

The island is not especially dinghy friendly, but we discovered that the folks at Beaver Island Marina, at the north end of the harbor, are happy to let sailors use their beach for coming ashore.

Local sights ashore include a historical society and museum, with much attention given to King Strang and the island’s Irish heritage. There are a few local eateries. A store located near the Beaver Island Marina provided easy dinghy access. I understand that there is some great hiking and camping on the island, but we didn’t look into that.

Without a doubt, the best part of Beaver Island is the harbor. The solitude, the wooded shoreline, the sounds of a pulpwood tug, and the absence of other boats make St. James Harbor a peaceful getaway.

North end Lake Michigan
About 27nm NNW of Charlevoix and 37nm from the north end of Traverse Bay, Beaver Island is a good destination for those interested in a weekend getaway.

Beaver Island group
Beaver Island and its surrounding islands – Fox, Garden, Hog, High. Although cruisers can explore the other islands, thin water and exposed anchorages require more caution and planning.

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The approach to St. James Harbor.

St. James Harbor
Boats with a shallow draft can cut north into the main harbor. Deeper draft vessels must exercise caution or use the channel.

Photos of Beaver Island’s St. James Harbor

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Why Whitehall Rocks

Ok, the fact that the harbormaster took the time to write a letter thanking us for visiting isn’t the only reason why White Lake and the twin-cities of Whitehall and Montague rock, but it certainly illustrates the hospitality and service we’ve experienced during all of our stays at the White Lake Municipal Marina.

White Lake Municipal Marina is a great place for a restful stay.

White Lake Municipal Marina is a great place for a restful stay.

They’ve got a great thing going there, and they don’t have a lot of traffic. If you’re planning a trip along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, make a stop in White Lake. You’ll enjoy a restful stay in a quiet marina with clean, modern facilities and a helpful staff.

Bringing groceries back from Montague.

Bringing groceries back from Montague.

While you’re there, be sure to walk the pedestrian/bike path from Whitehall into the neighboring town of Montague. Not only can you stock up on groceries, but you can indulge in one of the best chocolate malts at Lipka’s Old-Fashioned Soda Fountain, reportedly one of the oldest continuously operated soda fountains in the state. You’ll get first-class treatment from Peggy, who’s been working there since her teens when her father, a pharmacist, owned the building.

Down the street a couple doors is The Book Nook & Java Shop, a hip little bookstore with a coffee bar, reading area, and a pretty consistent lineup of evening performances. Grab a coffee and hangout in a comfy chair with your iPad or a good book for an hour or two.

Back in Whitehall there are a few shops and eateries along the main street downtown. There’s a hardware store and a Napa Auto Parts if, like us, you need a few odd supplies: denatured alcohol for the stove, vinyl hose for a ruptured water line, or whatever. For a total trip, visit Armstrong’s Bait and Tackle Shop just through the park by the marina. What an experience! The place has been owned by the same family since the 40s – and they’ve been collecting inventory ever since. Inventory of all kinds – radio-controlled cars, boats, and planes; camping and archery gear; boating equipment; oh, and fishing tackle – is stacked floor to ceiling, leaving little hobbit-like paths through the piles.

Lipka's Old-Fashioned soda fountain serves up traditional treats.

Lipka’s Old-Fashioned soda fountain serves up traditional treats.

We spent a few days in White Lake this summer and indulged in more than a couple delicious chocolate malts from Lipka’s, walked the path between Whitehall and Montague several times, and wandered in and out of the downtown shops. We also stocked up on worms for the boys, who put them to good use catching scores of bluegill, perch, sunfish, and even a couple bass.

White Lake is just south of Little Sable Point.

White Lake is just south of Little Sable Point.

 

Whitehall is one of our standard stops on our trips along the coast. It’s located just south of Little Sable Point and 11nm north of Muskegon. If you’re headed by, stop in for a day at least. If anchoring is more your style, there is good holding in most areas.

Ariel anchored in front of an old leather factory on White Lake back in '08. The factory has been torn down.

Ariel anchored in front of an old leather factory on White Lake back in ’08. The factory has been torn down.

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Whitehall has planted gorgeous wild flowers surrounding a park adjacent to the marina.

Whitehall has planted gorgeous wild flowers surrounding a park adjacent to the marina.

White Lake lighthouse in a fog during our departure.

White Lake lighthouse in a fog during our departure.

What’s Going Down?

Lake Michigan water level.

Last spring I got to chatting with a DNR officer at our marina. He’d been on the job of patrolling the St. Joseph River and channel since the 80s, and we got to talking about the water level. He said there was a time in the 90s – as he was writing a ticket to a fisherman on the seawall – when a boat departing the channel a little too fast threw up a wake that lifted the DNR officer’s boat and set it down on the seawall.

I was flabbergasted.

“Yep,” he said, “the lake was only a foot or so lower than the seawall in those days. Back then lakefront homeowners had virtually no beach and were building seawalls to protect their property.”

I’ve seen the remnants of those seawalls high and dry on the beach just south of St. Joseph, but they don’t reveal the severe decline in water level quite like the channel seawall. The seawall today is at least six feet above the water, and it would take one of our typical fall storms with its enormous waves to “set” a boat on the seawall now.

I noted with sadness at the beginning of last season that the one-year-old pilings in our marina had water marks a foot above the current water level. Now, that high-water mark is about 18″ above the water. In fact, Lake Michigan/Huron reached an historic low this year.

Why?

As I understand it there are a couple reasons: 1) warmer than normal winters mean less ice over the water and more evaporation, and 2) less snowfall during the winter months.

NOAA has a cool (yet somewhat depressing) Great Lakes Water Level Dashboard that provides historical data, including averages, low water datum, etc. Here’s a screenshot of Lake Michigan. In 3.5 years the water has dropped nearly 3 feet.

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It remains to be seen how the lower water level will impact boaters this season. Certainly some of the deeper-draft boats are going to have a tough time. Local marinas are saying they’ll be dredging now that it’s spring, but tight budgets may preclude such operations for a number of smaller marinas.

Historic data indicate a rise in water level through July, so things should be looking up. The question will be just how rainy the spring and summer months are this year. Last year it was HOT and dry.

Here’s hoping for a milder summer.

Link to an article from The Watershed Center on Grand Traverse Bay.

 

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