BEAVER ISLAND, Mich. (Michigan Back Roads) – Beaver Island, America’s Emerald Isle, is full of history and mystery.
The interior protects some of the most pristine natural wilderness anywhere in Michigan. Less developed than some other islands, the Beaver Island Archipelago is remote, and rustic’ without being primitive. Its trails, scenic drives, gorgeous bays and abundant wildlife make it a cherished destination for nature lovers, and those seeking a quiet getaway with a slower pace.
Though the island is the most remote inhabited island in the Great Lakes, Island Airways can get you there from the Charlevoix airport in about 20 minutes. Once on the ground, it is decision time. Head into town, St. James, and check out the shops, museums, and beach? Grab a bicycle and take a tour of some of the unique destinations in the interior of the island like, Protar’s Tomb, the Champion Birch tree, and the Beaver Island Head Lighthouse on the southern end of the island? Maybe walk the trail at Barney’s Lake, visit the serene beauty of Little Sand Bay, or hike the entire Beaver Island Birding Trail? These are just some of the choices.
Another option is to tour the whole archipelago by water. The Beaver Island Water Trail circumnavigates the entire island. Paradise Bay is suitable for any skill level with kayak or canoe. The rest of the trail can be more challenging. Further out, not recommended for paddling, are Garden Island, High Island, Hog Island, and several smaller islands in Lake Michigan, all uninhabited on a permanent basis. Then there is the abandoned lighthouse out on Squaw Island. An excursion with a qualified captain is the safest way to visit those destinations. A water excursion can include a tour of some of the dozens of shipwrecks dotting the lake bottom.
Whatever you decide to do on your day trip to Beaver Island, you will notice a different lifestyle. The pace is much slower than the sometimes-frantic pace, 40 miles away on the mainland. The artisans and merchants are happy to see you. They will take time to talk about the history of the island, and the many treasures hidden there. If you plan to explore freelance, a stop at the Community Center for maps, directions and WiFi is a must. The map they have will come in handy when you encounter road signs in Gaelic.
The Community Center is in St. James, in fact, almost everything is. This is the town stretched along the lake shore on Paradise Bay. If you forgot to bring something or just need supplies, the shops and markets should have it. St. James is where the museums are found, except Protar’s house and tomb. This is also where you can get out on the water, enjoy the beach and access the extensive trail system that makes ‘boodlin’ here so much fun.
The roads along the shore, and within the interior of the island, are often unpaved. Those conditions encourage many visitors to bring their bicycles and tour the island that way. For those driving all the Natural Beauty Roads in Michigan, be sure to travel the stretch from Pogenog Road to Lighthouse Drive. There are great spots to stop all along the way. Protar’s tomb is right beside an old logging trail turned road. The Champion Birch Tree is a favorite for picture taking, as is the huge rock known as “The Plug”. One road takes you right through the famous “circle of stones”.
The islanders are passionate about their history and are diligent in its preservation. Beaver Island has been home to many peoples and nations, including a unique American religious monarchy. James Jesse Strang founded a faction of the Church Latter Day Saints. He brought his followers to Beaver Island and reigned for six years as the crowned “king” of an ecclesiastical monarchy. The history of the ‘Strangites’ can be seen in exhibits at the Print Shop Museum in town. Native Americans have been here for hundreds of years. Eastern Europeans came and settled. The Irish have made the most lasting changes to the island. Some of the roads still bear Gaelic names.
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There is something else rare and wonderful here. On the west side of the island, below Angeline’s Bluff, is an enigmatic circle of stones. Long forgotten, the circle was rediscovered in the 1980s. The construction consists of a circle of glacial boulders that is nearly 400′ feet across. The center stone has a hole apparently bored or carved into the center. It takes a bit of tramping around in the forest to get an idea of how big this is. Several of these stones have markings that have been interpreted as an ancient script or rock faces. Another face rock is in front of the museum downtown.
The circle of stones is an ancient construction. A large sign, with a map, has been erected at the circle to commemorate the vision and determination of M. T. Bussey, the archaeologist who first recognized the circle as a man-made structure. Her remarkable research continues to determine the age and origin of this site, and the complex of other circles, that are deep in the wilderness of the island.