In my head, as a kid, Northern Michigan was a blank section on the map of the United States where cartographers drew pictures of eight-legged whales and sea dragons, just to fill the mystery. I’m not proud of my ignorance. The mental folder in my head marked, “Michigan,” was crammed with things like sepia-toned photographs of lumberjacks, the 1960s, and a sticky note with, “Canada?” written on it.
What I had dreamed up was more akin to Atlantis, an Atlantis with microbrews. Alpena, an actual place in real-life Michigan, became my Brigadoon, a tin can of nostalgia that you open with a pocket knife.
As a nautical man (they don’t call me “Captain” for nothing), I have a preternatural disposition towards things such as lighthouses and maritime history, but I never expected how vivid Alpena would feel. The Great Lakes are the largest navigable waterway in the middle of the country. Convenient, since you can take a 150-foot-tall ship, sail it all the way from the Atlantic, and park it outside the center of America. Of course, the Lakes also hold some of the most dangerous waterways in the world. During the last century, hundreds of ships have sunk to the bottom of the Great Lakes. Remarkably, the fresh water acts as a buffer against decay; a wooden ship in salt water will break apart rapidly and disappear into the abyss of time.
Viewfinder Tip: Don’t miss out on the Tall Ship Celebration in 2016. Bay City will host a collection of the world’s finest working tall ships.
The waters of the Great Lakes are not only clear, but cold. So cold that many microorganisms responsible for ship decay cannot survive in them. What you are left with is nature’s display case: Millions of tons of perfectly clear water pressing the petals of a tall ship into the pages of history. The best way to explore these ships is with one of the abundant glass bottom boat tours of the area. It is startling how clearly you can see the wreckage beneath the water.
The Thunder Bay National Maritime Sanctuary has done a sterling job of making this history not only interesting, but also fun. I would recommend it for travelers with children, but honestly, I’d go again just to play on the life-size ship with storm reproduction.
But this isn’t the true treasure that calls people to the shores of Northern Michigan. No, that lure is the lighthouses—relics refusing to yield to time. These giants spear the shoreline like bleached bones from the earth. They are a testament to a time when tending the lantern in a lighthouse was a calling, when an entire family line would wind up iron staircases to pour kerosene into a blazing torch, a roaring flame that severed fog and called to sailors in their time of need. The U.S. Lighthouse Service had a proud history before it was taken over by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1939. You can read this history, like the rings of a tree, inside each lighthouse still on the shores of Michigan.
One could spend a month in Michigan traveling from lighthouse to lighthouse. With more than 3,200 miles of shoreline and just under 100 intact lighthouses, it is a dream for those who long for the romance of the open water.
In addition to the lighthouses, in addition to the shipping history, what makes this place truly remarkable is the sudden rebirth of its culinary scene. Many young and enterprising chefs once left Alpena to make a name for themselves in larger cities such as Chicago and New York. Recently, many have returned to start families and raise children on the emerald coasts of their home towns.
What I encountered on a recent visit was a hip food scene with some wild new takes on food. The vibe felt more like an avant-garde indie stretch of the West Village than a neighborhood of mom-and-pop places in Michigan. The Courtyard, a local favorite, rallies behind a motto of fresh and local with flare. You’ll find a field-sized garden on one side of the restaurant and Lake Huron flanking the other. All of the produce is plucked fresh from the garden daily, and the menu is a rotating selection of fish from the daily catch. At one point during my meal at the Courtyard, the restaurant’s owner looked out the window to check what he would have to serve that day.
There is a sophistication to the place, with a welcome dash of hometown charm. My personal favorite, The Cellar, offers dishes such as Thai Bison and garlic whipped potatoes. If you’re thirsty, check out Fletcher Street Brewing Company, a local brew pub changing the face of Michigan craft beer.
There is a rebirth in Northern Michigan. A crackling electricity, and a commitment to the story that made the state. Once you go, it will feel like home. The spirit of the place will get underneath your skin and whisper to you, like it did to all of the young chefs who have returned, like it did to all the lighthouse keepers who called those shores home, and all those seafarers. Modern-day Michigan is almost as magical as I once pictured it. Only it’s real.
How do you like to experience history when you travel?