Our Own Adventure Island

Running along trails in dense forest, building inuksuks on rocky beaches, watching the sun set on Clarity from what once was a party palace for a wealthy Chicago inventor, and cuddling up for campfires a stone’s throw from our bow.

Rock Island was a dream of a place that wasn’t even on our radar. Tied off in Sister Bay, we were planning to try for Washington Island, the island just north of the tip of mainland Door County. But Aaron happened to strike up a conversation with our friendly dock neighbors, who encouraged us to head for Rock instead. There was a tiny dock there, they said – big enough to hold three or four sailboats, and just enough depth for us. As we set course, we weren’t even sure we would be able to get in there.

As we approached the island in late afternoon and the boathouse started to come into view, I think Aaron and I already had a feeling that this was going to be an unforgettable adventure. We landed the boat without a problem, greeted by the hospitable ranger who got us settled. From that point on, we pinched ourselves regularly, reminding ourselves how lucky we were to have found this place.

The entirety of the island is a 912-acre state park. No cars are allowed. No bikes are allowed. The only way to access the island is by boat, either private or ferry, and the only thing they sell, other than a few trinkets, is a bundle of firewood for $8 (“must be artisinal wood,” as a fellow sailor joked one night around the campfire). Rustic campsites line the southern border of the island, and there’s no cell service.

The majestic Viking boathouse that greets all visitors is the only remaining building of wealthy Chicago investor Chester Thordarson’s party compound, built in the late 1920s. Claire and Aaron enjoyed a riveting game of chess in the grand ballroom.

And what more? I’ll let the pictures below speak for themselves. We spent two days here, and it wasn’t nearly enough.

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Cute Kewaunee, then Door County

Our batteries recharged in this sleepy community, a welcome reprieve from our last port. We honestly knew nothing about this town, other than that it was a stop on the way north, and were pleasantly surprised by its charm, with a picturesque lighthouse, scenic downtown, rural trails and friendly residents.

While Aaron took advantage of the Wi-Fi in Amy’s Coffee Shop to get some hours on the clock, Claire and I went adventuring. We toured the WWII tugboat permanently docked along the river, just off of Main Street. We made fast friends digging holes at the beach and went on a scenic marshland walk. And we managed to find some delicious local custard – with sprinkles, of course.

We spent two full days in town – a half-day too long, in my opinion, since it is quite small – but Aaron’s work schedule and the five-to-seven-foot waves out on the lake after Tuesday night’s storms and the cold front that followed pushed back our departure.  The extra time allowed me to make a grocery run and knock out some laundry – the less glamorous but necessary elements to these cruises.

Friday morning, with the sun blazing and brisk temps in the 50s, we bundled up, brewed a French press and cast lines for Sturgeon Bay, the southernmost city in Door County. For the past year, as we’ve visualized this cruise, that’s been the goal – but schedules can change, weather may not cooperate, the boat could have issues. Regardless of planning trips like this, where you wind up is never a given. I’m proud that we’ve already made it this far.

Well, They Can’t All Be Winners…

One of the things we’ve learned as cruisers is to trust your gut. If the forecast reads great but you’re unsure of what’s brewing, wait it out. If you’re out sailing, or in the middle of peaceful sleep, and you hear the boat make an unfamiliar noise, you should probably check it out, immediately. And when you feel bad juju in a place, run.

Manitowoc was a mess from the start. The sail up from Sheboygan was peacefully uneventful, but as the city came into focus Monday afternoon, so did the S.S. Badger, pumping ash from the coal in a black cloud that hung over the entire city. I had called ahead to reserve a slip at the marina, and though I had given the staff our length, width and draw, it became clear as we tried to dock that the slip they assigned us was too short and the width allowed us only six inches on either side thanks to a wooden pylon separating our slip from the next.

After some minor scrapes on Clarity’s rub rail, and some minor scrapes on our feet from cleats planted directly in the middle of the dock, we kindly alerted the office to their oversights. The bad vibes had already taken root, but I wonder, if a thunderstorm hadn’t passed through shortly after we docked, if we wouldn’t have turned around.

When the skies cleared a bit, we grabbed our umbrellas and walked to town. Or, I should say, what I’m sure was a bustling town some years ago. We were met with deserted streets, vacant storefronts, credit unions, and the county jail. Ahhhhhh, yes…. Just what I’m looking for in a picturesque seaside getaway.

We tucked in for the night, and if I’m being honest, Aaron and I had a nice chat that quickly evolved into a not-so-nice argument, with us both going to bed in a grumpy funk that persisted the next morning. Those bad vibes were getting stronger.

We had planned to spend a day or two in Manitowoc so that Aaron could put in full work days. After some frustrating searches on spotty Wi-Fi and cellular connections, I decided to take Claire to West of the Lake Gardens, a privately run botanic garden on the lake about a mile-and-a-half north of the marina, and save the maritime museum for the next day, which was supposed to be rainy. Thankfully, the mother of one of the marina staff members offered to give us a ride there, so we only had to do the walk one way.

As we pulled up, it looked promising. The grounds were small but beautiful, with plenty of great spots for hide-and-seek. Claire and I got to it, and within 15 minutes, a male staff member ran up to me (literally), proclaiming that I couldn’t allow my daughter to run ahead of me. Right at that moment, Claire, being a normal 3-year-old, picked up a few rocks on the path. He then said that, unless I held her hand the whole time we were there, we had to leave. I felt so terrible, trying to explain to Claire that we had to head back while she begged me in tears to stay and run around.

So, off we went on the Mariners Trail, back toward the marina, with the lake on one side and a CVS on the other. While Claire dug around at the beach that qualified more as an unsanitary sandbox, Aaron texted me: “Want to head to Kewaunee?”

In speeds formerly unrealized to me with a 3-year-old, I got that kiddo off the beach, showered and back on the boat, and we cast lines within an hour. As soon as Manitowoc was behind us, we instantly felt better, lighter, happier, with a three-hour sail to dust off the last of that black cloud. Suffice to say, unless at some point in the future we desperately need refuge in a storm, we won’t be returning.

Aaron will put in a full work day today, so Claire and I will again be left to our own silly devices. I have no idea what Kewaunee has in store for us, but I already know it’s going to be a better day.

Adventures in Port Washington

As soon as we cast lines in Milwaukee and pointed north, Clarity was on new cruising grounds!

Our first stop was the cozy harbor town of Port Washington, with shops in pretty Victorians that line the Main Street like stairs, leading up the hill to the majestic St. Mary’s Catholic Church. As always, we managed to get into plenty of trouble, touring downtown and out to the lakefront until our Jell-O legs begged for reprieve.

We’ve been cruising the Michigan ports for years (back to when Aaron and I were sans kiddo), so I find myself making comparisons, and so far I’ve noticed a few differences. On the west side of the lake, cafes and wineries are replaced with smoke shops (both fish and meat) and German brauhauses – definitely not a bad thing, though I’m grateful that we’re inherently walking off our purchases :).

The beaches, however, are another story. I was planning on colder water as we headed north, and rocky shores, rather than sandy. But I did not anticipate waves of E.-coli-friendly weeds, black sand and the smell of rotting vegetation that’s impossible to ignore. Even so, Claire and I managed to find a fairly decent patch pretty far down, and while I held my nose, she made drip castles and dug for rocks, happy as a clam.

After a full day in port, it was time to pack up the wagon, pull in the laundry drying on the lifelines, and make wake once again. Next stop: Sheboygan!

Land, Ho! Milwaukee!

We did it! Clarity is cruising once again!

As many cruisers know, casting the first lines of the trip is often the hardest part – so much tethers us to land. There are so many reasons that we should stay in Chicago and do the daily grind. But as soon as the skyline is in our wake, I remember why we do this.

See pics from our weekend sails here!

On Saturday, we sailed with 10-15 knots out of the northeast and were able to fly both the jib and the main for six hours out of our eight-hour run. It was overcast and a bit chilly out there. I was also reminded as the waves kicked up (unforecasted) to occasional three-footers, that yep, I do get seasick. A few seasons under my belt helped me keep it in check, though, and overall, it was a great trip up to North Point Marina in Winthrop Harbor, just south of the Wisconsin border.

Sunday morning, a lovely couple saw our Columbia Yacht Club flag and invited us to the Winthrop Harbor Yacht Club for their $5 breakfast (we get reciprocal rights with most yacht clubs). We swapped sailing tales over scrambled eggs and pancakes and they helped us cast lines late morning as we pointed north once again.

The plan was to make a quick run up to Racine; the wind was straight out of the north and on our nose, so we wouldn’t be able to sail anyway. But just before we put the blinker on to turn left into port, the wind shifted to the northeast and the fog started to lift. Claire was happy as a clam and we thought, let’s just keep going! We cut the engine, rolled out the sails, and five hours later, we tied up at Milwaukee Yacht Club.

We’ll be here for a few days, meeting up with friends and taking advantage of the high-speed Wi-Fi to knock out some work.

It’s hard to believe it was so hard to cast those lines back at 31st Street…

November Sails in September

Mother Nature and Lake Michigan have not been particularly friendly to us this week, as we’ve been slowly but surely making our way south.

Cold, dreary, rainy, foggy – all those attributes you look for in a lovely September sail! It’s been highs in the 50s during the day and lows in the 40s at night. As I wore the same pair of pants three days in a row because my other pair was already in the laundry, I learned that I didn’t pack appropriately. And investing in foul weather gear might be a good idea before next year’s cruise. Helly Hanson, do you also make sets for toddlers?

After a bear of a day sailing to Frankfort, we had the same conditions all the way to Ludington the next day, and then we got socked in for two days as the wind howled and the waters got angry. The middle of the lake saw 18-footers on Wednesday. Tucked in safe in sound at Harbor View Marina, we enjoyed the library and the cozy fireplace, though we were bummed that the hot tub was closed for the season.

On Thursday, Aaron’s mother, Penny, and her husband, Brian, visited us with the best gifts we could hope for – jars of homemade chili, cornbread muffins and freshly baked chocolate cupcakes. We dug around town with a stop at the library (one of the best around for kids), ate some ice cream at House of Flavors and shared dinner on the boat before they headed home.

Friday, we caught a window before more storms set in and sailed to Pentwater. Our friends Jack and Dawn drove up to join us for dinner at the yacht club, and then we joined them at Muskegon Yacht Club, their home port, the next day after a six-hour sail. Hours of chats, laughs around a bonfire – they’ve become fast friends that I know will be friends for years.

Then today, it was on to Holland. I was looking forward to an easier sail – the last two had been rough, as the lake hadn’t calmed down after the cold front settled in. All of the forecasts called for waves of 1 to 2 feet, and the sun started shining just as we cast lines. Finally, a calm, sunny sail! Well, as can happen, the forecasts were wrong, and as soon as we were halfway through the channel and headed out to the lake, it got lumpy. We sailed 2- to 4-foot waves with 10- to 15-knots of wind the whole way down.

And a miracle occurred. I didn’t feel sick. In fact, I loved it! For the first time, I was able to fully enjoy sailing in those conditions, the jib out, us hauling down the lake, riding the waves at a 15-degree heel. It seems that my exposure to longer sails in waves has helped me curb my symptoms. Maybe if we lived full-time on our boat year round, I’d get to a point where I don’t get seasick at all :).

We sailed, rather than motored, up the channel to Lake Macatawa – something we did on the way in to the last two ports, and something that just felt good to do, seeing as we’re a sailboat. We got the boat settled at Anchorage Marina, Claire took a swim in the heated pool and we all collapsed in our spaghetti. And it dawned on me that today was our last full family sail day. If only we could do this forever…

 

Beautiful Beaver Island

This is our third morning on Beaver Island, and I have mixed feelings about this remote place. We’ve experienced some of our most memorable moments of the trip here – and it seems, the island doesn’t want us to leave!

We planned to stay just one full day, setting sail again on Wednesday morning. But Beaver has enveloped us in a bear hug of intermittent torrential downpours, winds of up to 50 knots, waves up to 11 feet out on the lake, and waves big enough in the harbor to splash up over our stern. All of the boats in the municipal marina here, including Clarity, become like bucking broncos during the storm peaks, trying to break free of their lines. Aaron’s diligently been checking and adjusting them to make sure we safely stay put.

While the extra days here have thrown a small wrench in our cruising plans, they have allowed us to truly experience this place – and it’s more than worth the time. After a bustling Labor Day weekend in touristy beach towns, we arrived in Beaver Island on Tuesday early evening – a day after the season closes here. And it’s a ghost town. Shops are closed. Restaurants are closed. Museums are closed. And there are only a handful of souls around.

But, what the Island lacks in population it makes up for in community. And though the islanders may seem quiet and reserved, if you strike up a conversation, they’re more than happy to chat with you. Claire, Aaron and I stopped in the St. James Boat Shop (which happened to be open), where they spend hundreds of hours crafting cherry stand-up paddleboards, canoes, dingys and more, and struck up a wonderful conversation with one of the owners. A year-round resident, her children are a few of the 68 students that attend the Beaver Creek Community School. High school graduating classes are often just three or four students.

I mentioned hoping to visit the Marine Museum across the street. “If it’s closed, let me know,” she said. “I’ll call the owner for you.” The owner of the Toy Museum a bit further down was a personal friend, too, and just a phone call away.

Based on a recommendation from a good friend, we popped in the Beaver Island Fish Market, where they catch, smoke and sell local catch. Unfortunately, the owner who had operated the place for decades passed away a month prior. But the current operator, a humble and tall drink of water still in his fishing gear from the morning, offered us samples of his cajun lake trout, genuinely asking our opinion. Our taste buds told us he’s doing just fine so far.

Those stops were all in St. James Harbor, the tiny town on the northern tip of the island where, we had to pause while a wild turkey and her three babies crossed the road. After checking the radar and realizing that we would be here awhile, Aaron and I followed the local bartender’s advice and rented a Geo Tracker from the marina down the road. In a few lucky weather windows between Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning, we drove all over the island, deer watching along gravel roads, climbing dunes, hiking through dense forests and relishing in an unforgettable sunset barbecue and campfire on the northern coast, with unparalleled views of Whisky, Squaw and Garden Islands to the north, and the Upper Peninsula on the horizon. (Did you know Beaver Island is one in a cluster of seven islands?!) I highly recommend that you do this if you’re ever in town. And buy the $5 map – it’s worth it.

Aaron and I also both had work deadlines while in town. He spent hours in the Shamrock Bar and Restaurant up the road, scarfing their WiFi to write proposals, while I spent a few evenings hunkered down on the boat, finishing up edits to a report for a client.

All signs point to the weather clearing out by midday today, and the waves should follow by this evening. I’m still trying to convince Aaron that a moonlit sail is in order, but either way, we should be casting lines by tomorrow late morning. Time to go, though I’m going to miss this place.