Traffic over the Mackinac Bridge last year was down more than 20 percent compared to the late 1990s, and there is no single explanation for the trend. But there is one region where residents say they know what happened to their tourists and have a plan to rebuild.
Susie Keirns has been coming to the Les Cheneaux Islands area her whole life. She’s sitting next to a cabin on the beach in Hessel that her mom stayed in 70 years ago when she was expecting Susie’s sister.
“My sister’s 70 now,” she says. “So that tells you how many years we’ve been coming up.”
Keirns is here with her kids and grandkids. They’ve all rented cabins on the mainland in Hessel. She tears up a little as she describes the joy of being here with her family.
“Hessel has gotten into our blood,” she says.
The Les Cheneaux area includes more than 30 islands in northern Lake Huron, about a half-hours drive east of the Mackinac Bridge.
It’s quiet here compared to the old days, really quiet. Bob Verity is Keirns son-in-law. He says when he was a kid it was tough to find a place to dock a boat.
“We used to go down fishing down at what was called the first cut,” he says. “There’d be 50, 60 boats lined up and down the cut. Now there’s maybe one or two.”
Fishing was the core of the tourism industry in those days. But Bonnie Mikkelsen says that ended when the population of cormorants exploded in the 1990s and ate all the perch.
“That was the end of that type of tourism,” she says. “We were desperate.”
Mikkelsen runs Hessel Grocery and a gift boutique down the street. She’s led efforts to rebuild the tourism business here but not around fishing. Instead they are looking for tourists that want to learn something on vacation.
Mikkelsen used to live in Seattle and someone there suggested visiting a boat building school on the Puget Sound. The first person she met was from Michigan. When she asked him why he was there he said, “Because there’s no boat building school in the Midwest.”
So in 2007, the Great Lakes Boat Building School opened in Cedarville. And last year, the Les Cheneaux Islands Culinary School opened. Both teach workshops and train people for their respective professions.
The first class of aspiring chefs trained all winter to run the restaurant this summer. It overlooks the harbor in Hessel.
Zach Schroeder is the program director. He says the Upper Peninsula offers mainly bar food. The only other fine dining he knows of is on Drummond Island.
He’d like to see his students go out and change that.
“Growing up in the U.P. everything’s about ten years behind I see,” Schroeder says. “So hopefully we catch up and we join in with northern Lower Michigan in becoming a food destination.”
Unprized natural assets
These programs brought Nick Schaedig back for the summer. He guides kayak trips around the islands for Woods and Water Ecotours.
“I think it’s a very exciting time to be here,” he says. “This is my first summer home in 11 years.”
The way Schaedig sees it, the push toward cultural tourism in the Les Cheneaux Islands takes advantage of assets the region has long had but never developed or marketed.
He says the boat building culture here stretches back to Mackinaw boats in the 1800s and into prehistory with the construction of birch bark canoes, a craft still carried on in the area.
He says there is also a tradition of paddling, but growing up here he thought he had to go somewhere else for adventure.
Then a neighbor challenged him.
“I was like, ‘I want to go on an adventure to Alaska,’” Schaedig recalls. “And he was like ‘That’s great man, but there’s big surf breaking right outside these islands and I’m a really good sea kayaker. I can show you. Right here, right now and it won’t cost you anything.’”
These days, people in the Les Cheneaux region are hoping these traditions will make money and provide a new reason for people to come to the islands.