The ferry had barely left the harbor when I heard the familiar pop of a champagne cork followed by a round of applause. It was the perfect way to start our weekend— a toast to our travels aboard the Beaver Island Boat Company—surrounded by close friends and headed 32 miles off the coast of Charlevoix to America’s Emerald Isle.
Beaver Island has a storied and complicated history that includes the assassination of a self-appointed Mormon king and an Irish colonization. The largest island in Lake Michigan, Beaver Island is now home to 600 or so year-round residents who appreciate a relaxed way of life, surrounded by nature.
The King of Beaver Island:
Beaver Island and nearby Garden and High Islands were originally inhabited by the Odawa people who pride themselves as the “nibiish naagdowen,” or “caretakers of the water.”
As colonization of the island began in the 1830s, fishermen and merchants established a small village that would be called Whiskey Point. The population of the small community grew to a few hundred by the 1840s.
Meanwhile, in New York, a young man by the name of James Strang had left his post as a Baptist minister to join the Church of Latter Day Saints and was quickly accepted by Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. Smith sent Strang to Wisconsin to lead the Latter Day Saints movement, but Smith was murdered shortly thereafter, leaving both Strang and his rival, Brigham Young, to claim they were appointed to lead the church. Young moved his followers to Utah, and in 1847, Strang moved his “Strangites” to Beaver Island.
Strang and his followers built roads, farms and even established the first daily newspaper north of Grand Rapids. Strang was even appointed to the state legislature, prior to crowning himself king and driving all non-Mormons off the island. Once a staunch anti-polygamist, Strang changed course during his autocratic reign and married five women who gave him a total of 14 children.
The power of his self-appointed crown went to his head, however, and this eventually led to his demise. Just nine years after moving to Beaver Island, King Strang was assassinated by two men, who received a hero’s welcome on Mackinac Island where they retreated after murdering Strang. Shortly after the assassination, non-Mormons from Mackinac, who had once been evicted from Beaver Island, charged onto the island and forced the Mormon colony out. They took over the printing press declaring, “The dominion of King Strang is at an end.”
America’s Emerald Isle:
Soon after the Mormons left the island, Irish fishermen from surrounding islands and even County Donegal in Ireland moved in. Gaelic became the most popular language spoken on the island, which was called “America’s Emerald Island,” a nickname still used today.
The small but close-knit community flourished until the mid-1880s. But, overfishing and the invention of the steam tug led to a decline in the fishing industry, leaving many settlers to find new ways to generate income. Out of necessity, the Beaver Island Lumber Company was born and constructed many of the structures that still stand on the island today.
After two hours aboard the ferry, my friends and I take in the harbor before collecting our things and walking to our rented beach house. We have nothing on our agenda, and, as a self-proclaimed “agenda-holic,” I find that notion a bit intimidating. But, it turns out, Beaver Island is the perfect prescription for someone looking to completely unplug. Someone, like me, who really needs to relax.
Yes, there are things to do on the island, even in the off season. The Shamrock Bar and Restaurant, for example, is the island’s oldest restaurant—one that has hosted funerals, weddings and even trials—and it is a favorite of both locals and visitors alike.
A new addition to the island, the Whiskey Point Brewing Company, is an unassuming craft brewery offering one of the best Blonde ales I’ve ever had. And, those looking to explore a bit can sign up for a “slow roll”: a leisurely bicycle tour of the harbor area that makes several stops and is complete with historical stories and even a few “beaver tales.”
There’s McDonough’s Market, an amazing grocery store where you can load up on essentials, a lovely historical society and museum, and even a few gift shops for the souvenir collector.
But, more than anything, Beaver Island’s biggest attraction is the island itself. Beaver Island will enchant you with spectacular sunsets, bird watching, star gazing and hours spent admiring the way the waves touch gently touch the beaches that surround you.
There’s a magic in the air—a special type of quiet that permeates the island. I found myself walking a bit slower, smiling a bit fuller and leaving with a new appreciation for natural beauty. Although tourism is a part of Beaver Island, I never felt like a tourist. Perhaps it’s because of the island’s own complicated past, but, as soon as I set foot on its shores, I felt it. The island accepts me—exactly as I am—and only hopes that I return for another dose of the undeniable peace and quietude I have yet to find anywhere else.
Getting to the island is half the fun. We chose to board the Beaver Island Boat Company’s ferry, which offers daily service through December 21. The trip takes approximately two hours and you can bring a small cooler with both alcohol and non-alcohol beverages and snacks. You can ferry your car to and from the island for an additional fee.
If you’re traveling outside the ferry season, or you’d like to get to the island earlier, there are two charter flight companies providing service to Beaver Island. Island Airways and Fresh Air Aviation offer flights for up to ten people from the Charlevoix Airport. One way flights are affordable at $57 per person, and allow access to the island in just twenty minutes.
Once you reach the island, you can utilize B’s Taxi Service for rides anywhere on the island, or, rent a car from Burtons or Duffy’s. Bikes, e-Bikes, kayaks and more are also available to rent at Burtons and Lakesports.
If you’re looking to rent a boat or Jet Ski, try Beaver Island Boat Rentals or charter a boat through Paradise Bay Boat Charters and Dive Shop.
Just like the rest of Michigan, Beaver Island requires masks to be worn in all indoor settings, including aboard the ferry.