Remote Michigan island has history to tell
As Don Cole tells it, Beaver Island is its own country.
The lifelong resident of Lake Michigan's biggest island said his home traditionally lived by its own laws and kept its distance from authorities in nearby Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ontario.
I met Cole in a Beaver Island deli during a daylong trip to the island in August. He's descended from a long line of islanders and loves to recount the history and lore of one of the most remote places in the eastern United States.
I was an eager listener.
Lesser known and traveled than touristy, onshore Petoskey, Charlevoix and Traverse City, Mich., the island is an outdoor enthusiast's delight with biking and birding trails, fishing lakes, boat rentals, and hunting grounds.
A two-hour ferry ride via the Beaver Island Boat Company (www.beaverisland.org) landed me and boyfriend, Joe, in the village of St. James. Boats carry visitors, cars, and supplies to the island from Charlevoix once daily between May and October.
Two commercial airlines offer the only winter commute.
Two and three-hour guided tours of the 16-mile by 8-mile island are available through the boat company. We took the shorter tour, but later wished for the longer one that included a view of public recreation areas on the south side.
Ruthie, our tour guide, was another resident with deep roots in the island. She also wanted to talk history and ecology.
She said Beaver Island is part of an archipelago that was once the center of America's commercial fishing industry. A small museum in St. James recounts those years in pictures and antique fishing gear.
French trappers displaced Native Americans in the 1700s and named the island for its shape, which resembles a beaver pelt.
An offshoot band of Mormons under the leadership of James Strang arrived in the mid 1800s. Strang declared himself "king" and ruled his Strangites with an iron fist. A museum and Mormon print shop remind modern visitors of those royal years.
Disgruntled followers murdered Strang in 1856 with an apparent "wink" from U.S. authorities. His Strangites were eventually driven off the island to a town in neighboring Wisconsin.
Waves of Irish immigrants from the Isle of Arranmore found their way to Beaver Island in the 1850s. They spoke Gaelic and a hint of their brogue still flits through the speech of Cole and other descendants.
Commercial fishing and timbering died off in the mid 1900s, and some islanders moved to more profitable jobs on the mainland.
Tourism became Beaver Island's chief revenue source, beginning about 30 years ago.
Vacation homes now sprout in the dense forests – along with a few hotels and B&Bs. A handful of galleries and shops sell local crafts and artwork.
During the summer, the resident population of 500 swells to several thousand. They include prominent Chicago businessmen, as well as ordinary folks seeking solitude and a chance to view nature up close, Ruthie said.
The Beaver Island Chamber of Commerce (www.beaverisland.org) provides information on activities and places to stay.