Les Cheneaux’s Antique Wooden Boat Show

Saturday I made my way across the Mackinac Bridge to Hessel for the 32nd annual Les Cheneaux Islands Antique Wooden Boat Show. Our state brims with summer festivals, but the boat show in Hessel is without doubt one of the finest and so worthy of a visit.

For starters, the setting in Hessel’s marina is enchanting, with islands rising nearby and Brulee Point stretching along the western horizon. (If the name Les Cheneaux is new to you, the first thing to know is it’s an archipelago of 36 islands along the southern rim of the U.P., a half-hour northeast of the Mackinac Bridge.) A steady downpour at the start of the show added a moodiness to the landscape, but since I was head-to-toe in rain gear, I just enjoyed the shifting clouds.

Add to this captivating place dozens of immaculately restored mahogany boats dating back to the early 1900’s and you have a remarkable tribute to the Great Lakes and the people who loved the water and set out to create some of the finest wood boats in the world. Hacker Craft was founded in Detroit, Chris Craft on the shores of Lake St. Clair, Century boats were made in Manistee. The tradition continues today with companies like Van Dam boatworks in Boyne City creating wooden boats of astonishing beauty and the new Great Lakes Boat Building School that opened in Cedarville, right next door to Hessel.

A testament to the draw of these boats is that despite the clouds and rain—which did stop around noon—the show was packed, with cars lining the tiny burg’s side streets and for hundreds of yards along the highway.

I had the pleasure of being guided by Elizabeth Fels, co-owner of Hessel’s Village Idiom Bookstore. We wandered the docks, and she shared insight into various boats we saw. And I took about 200 pictures. Hessel and Cedarville and the Les Cheneaux Islands make such a legitimate place for one of the nation’s biggest wood boat shows because there are so many wood boats that still ply these waters. People up here don’t view their wood boats as artifacts to be stored in a garage, but rather as beautiful but useful crafts that take them from their island homes to get groceries or a hair cut or whatever. I was really impressed by this last year while on a kayak camping trip with my son. Mahogany boats were buzzing by all weekend long.

Next August, we will be running a story about the wooden boat tradition of Les Cheneaux, tracing its history and looking at how it still lives today—and certainly will live on into the future, given people’s passion for these lovely, enduring pieces of Michigan’s soul.

To see a nice slide show of Traverse City’s wooden boat show, check out MyNorth blogger Missy Luyck’s page.

Jeff Smith is editor of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine

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