As the captain hit the throttle, the bow popped out of the water and the speedboat shot forward with a roar. Wake rolled toward the wall of trees on either side. The air smelled of pine. For several minutes we skimmed over a route marked by red buoys, then burst from the confines of the channel, onto a vast plane of water.
"The Big One," said my friend Billy McMillan at the helm, cutting the engine.
The immensity of Lake Huron bore down on us: 23,000 square miles of water rimmed by sky and pastel shores. We drifted quietly. Sheets of silver trembled in the distance. By the boat the water was a cold gray-green. Huron's watery underworld pulled at my thoughts. What was the horror-movie menace in any lake? Its stillness on a dead calm night? Its thin, brineless depths? How long could you float in it, if worse came to worst?
Happily, we high-tailed back to the coves and channels of the Les Cheneaux Islands, where Indians, French voyageurs, Jesuit missionaries and American surveyors have been escaping the clutches of Lake Huron for centuries.
Since the late 19th century these low-lying islands, northeast of the Straits of Mackinac where Lake Michigan flows into Huron, have thrived mainly as a summer haven for people seeking to refresh their spirits in the beauty of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. From the air the islands look like green jigsaw pieces slanting to the southeast. They were carved by the Pleistocene glaciers that formed Huron, part of a region rebounding from the weight of melted ice at the geologically euphoric rate of one foot every 100 years.
Locally the archipelago is known as the Snows, a perversion of the French word les cheneaux -- "the channels." Protected lanes of water thread a maze of 36 islands ranging in size from Marquette, the largest, to pint-sized outcrops like Dollar Island, which is almost small enough to feed into a slot machine. (It sits in the middle of the central channel entirely occupied by a summer house with a cupola, a porch shaded by a few birch trees and a nice stack of cord wood.)
Boats are the mainstay in an area where land and water are woven together. Summer residents hop the channels for cocktail parties. Visitors come for the superb camping, hunting and fishing. The shoreline is fretted with plank docks. Many houses boast a clapboard boat garage shelved over the water. At night when the moon is up and the wind is calm, the garages make for one of the country's most beautiful vignettes. Each one is poised above itself as if floating on a mirror. By now the barn swallows have retired; the world seems twice as still.
A group of us spent a week in the Snows staying with Billy McMillan, who passed his boyhood summers in the islands. The family house with pine-panelled rooms and a fireplace made of river cobbles was built on a prong of land on Marquette Island, where well-to-do families organized a club more than a century ago.
In this part of the world you can get close to the grain of nature. I shipped out in a canoe one day, headed up an arm of water on the trail of a blue heron. The bird saw me and moved. I paddled after him. Each stroke made a purling little whirlpool in the black water. Where was that gangly bird? Suddenly there was a cry, a pine bough rocked and the heron tumbled into the air with all the grace of an old man tripping over a Christmas tree. But he pumped his wings, found his rhythm and wheeled away with an air of majestic disdain.
In some places Les Cheneaux have an old-fashioned elegance that conveys a sense of life before fiberglass boats and snowmobiles and other modern encroachments. I went one day to see an estate on a nearby point of land. The caretaker's Doberman pinscher had the run of immaculate lawns. Cedar chips lined the path to the main house. In the garage, dangling on heavy chains, was a launch built in 1926 -- one of the most beautiful wooden boats in the area. Its mahogany hull gleamed as it had more than half a century ago when the boat had been presented to a young girl on her 16th birthday. Soon it would be lowered into the channels for another summer. Hanging in the garage, over the green, light-filled water, it seemed to be hovering in time itself, holding a position against the flow.
In one form or another -- vestigial logging roads, old mahogany boats -- the past lives on. It's good, somehow, to learn that lumbermen liked cedar because it repelled bed bugs. And good to hear of the Indian who headed off to his maple-sugar camp carrying a rooster under his arm -- which he needed in order to wake up in the morning. In his account of life in the Snows, missionary William H. Law recalled seeing the corpse of a logger who died one winter in camp and couldn't be buried because of the frozen ground. The body had been stashed in a temporary morgue, 12 feet up in the limbs of a hemlock. From Law, the area's first Protestant missionary, contemporary travelers also may glean the best method for retrieving a horse that has fallen through the ice.
In 1885 Law was headed to an isolated logging camp when the channel ice gave way under his horse. It was 20 below zero. He unhooked the sleigh and grabbed the animal by the forelocks. The horse was too heavy. Law pulled on the bridle. The bridle came off. When it looked like his horse was done for, he remembered a technique employed by Indians and voyageurs. He threw a strap around the animal's neck and cinched it so tight the horse began to choke.
"As it tightened about her throat," he recalled in his memoirs, "she puffed up like a bladder and floated on the water nearly on the level with the ice, and in a shorter time than it takes to write down this story we pulled her onto the ice." She was wrapped in a blanket, given a wool-mitten rubdown and soon was munching hay.
Michigan's Upper Peninsula is known for its fudge, and tourists are often disparagingly referred to as "Fudgies." The center of fudgemaking is Mackinac Island, not far from the Snows, and since I was informed that I was a Fudgie -- a painful thing -- I decided to make a trip to Mackinac just to come to a fuller understanding of my condition.
Mackinac Island, reached by ferry, is as charming a tourist trap as there is in Michigan. Cars are not allowed. The only traffic on the roads comes from thousands of bicycles and horse-drawn carriages. Rental bikes have fenders that are essential because the streets are heavily fertilized by the carriage trade.
I saw for myself the "timeless village filled with shops and boutiques." And more: the Grand Hotel with "the longest porch in the world" (they charge admission just for a peek); the gabled Victorian houses; gardens; limestone beaches; woods where Thoreau botanized; historic plaques marking skirmishes from the War of 1812.
All of it was swarmed over by Fudgies, pressed against the windows of fudge shops, where they gazed raptly at the fudgemakers scraping batter off marble tables.
After the visit to Mackinac, Billy was persuaded to lead a voyage in the direction of Goose Island, outermost of Les Cheneaux. Thus it was that the Arla, a 1946 mahogany Chris-Craft, was temporarily converted into a Fudgie Freighter, and set out from Marquette Island on a July morning. We were laden with a cargo of picnic fixings and fudge so sweet it affected our outlook like a prescription mood elevator.
A lot of ships have gone down since La Salle's Griffon was the first vessel to sink on the Great Lakes, in 1679, and a lot of lore has sprung up. It's said gales are in the offing when seagulls fly over land. The sky looked morose, but gulls cavorted on the waves. Heading through choppy water we passed a family of wild swans. Wind yanked at the flag on the stern. We made our way through the west entrance of the archipelago onto the unprotected waters of Huron, riding up and down, over the swells. Up and down, up and down, then way up.
The Arla edged close enough to Goose Island for the Fudgies to get a good look at a colony of seagulls adding to the plentiful supply of guano on the outlying rocks. Even apart from the guano, it looked like an inhospitable place, defended by thickets, with no cover or sandy beach on which to lay a picnic.
Forced to fall back, we made for Voight Bay on the far side of Marquette. Concerned about rupturing the Arla's wooden hull, Capt. McMillan ordered me to the bow to watch for rocks, sunken candy barges and other lake obstructions that might pose a hazard. Fifty yards from the crescent of a sandy beach, the Fudgies weighed anchor, rolled up their trousers and waded ashore.
The bay was shaped like a horseshoe, opening up on the Big One. For a few idle hours we had no more cares than to figure a way to pry off beer caps without a bottle opener and to contemplate life over ham-and-cheese sandwiches. Waves lapped at the shore. Wind picked at the water. A small sailboat crossed in the distance, porcelain-white sails on a gray sky.
I watched that boat, out there on the edge of things, and thought of William H.S. Heading. Heading was a government surveyor who had rowed these parts in 1851 in a boat with brass oarlocks and crimson cushions. The water was so clear he could see a dime 20 feet under. Of this time, he wrote: "I have wondered at the solemn stillness which pervades the north woods. A person given to reflection, who can go into them, beyond the sound of human voices, cannot but realize his own insignificance when in the presence of this awful solitude."
Perhaps it was no different now. Huron was wrapped in solitude, and that afternoon, we had managed to find a rib of sand beyond the sound of human voices -- apart from our own. And if the lake was not so clear today as it was in 1851, there was still a kind of coin for the eye to find. The white sail glinted and then was gone.