Les Cheneaux and Drummond Islands promise uncharted territory for the modern explorer. Writer and photographer Shalee Blackmer takes social-media-worthy shots around these two unexpected island paradises. We’ve partnered with Pure Michigan to bring this story to life.
From the moment I reach Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the topography begins to change: Pines replace oaks, rocky cliffs replace lowland farms, and hand-painted signs for local pasties, rather than advertisements for fast food, beckon drivers to take a break. Thick forests line the two-lane highway, and the only traffic consists of a small cluster of cars gathering at a flower stand. I pull over at a rest stop, and even from here I can see a secret path to the beach, where the sun is peeking through clouds after early morning rain.
I’m heading southeast, first to Les Cheneaux Islands, the 36-island archipelago along the coast of Lake Huron, and then on to Drummond Island, which, at 128 square miles, is the seventh largest lake island in the world. For the next 48 hours I’m on the hunt for photo opportunities—ready to capture scenes and subjects that inspire me; things you probably haven’t seen in your feed. This will not be a cookie-cutter getaway, but that’s the best part. It's easy to add a place to your travel bucket list based on nothing more than a well-liked, geotagged social media photo, but real adventures come to those who take a chance on the unknown.
There are few bridges or ferries in Les Cheneaux. Instead, owners commute by boat, and nearly every dock at the hundreds of cottages and year-round residences that line the coast has a boathouse. Les Cheneaux is French for “The Channels,” which nods to the many sheltered waterways and bays among the islands. Most of the accommodations are lake cottages, where board games replace wireless routers and a firepit is a top priority. Residents and visitors alike live proudly unplugged lives.
The morning fog hangs low as I sip my chai latte at Les Cheneaux Coffee Roasters, a tiny corner cafe in Cedarville—the village at the heart of the islands. Natural light mingles with incandescent, casting a comforting glow on the busy espresso machine and the local art that adorns the walls. Owner Dave Gough is making a phone call; he and his wife, Jen, have agreed to introduce me to a local boat builder and tour guide who may be able to give me an assist on a great photo opp. Before long, a man in a worn plaid shirt and thick-framed glasses is shaking my hand.
“I’ve been here three years and there’s still so much to explore and learn,” Chris Ritchie says. “The history is deep, but beyond that there’s an incredible, unknown beauty around every bend.” He’s speaking literally; he owns and operates Whiskey Plank Boat Tours, a summer tour company that offers visitors a chance to explore the islands’ many channels in a restored 1965 classic 25-foot Lyman Lapstrake.
He’s also an admissions counselor for a boat-building school where students are currently working on half a dozen or so wooden boats in various stages of construction. This is an excellent turn of events for me; Les Cheneaux hosts an annual wooden boat festival, and hundreds of refurbished boats are hidden throughout the islands. Thanks to Chris’s generosity, I’ll get to photograph some of them.
Minutes later we’re in the workshop, weaving among the five boats that fill the space. Each design is intricate and unique. I run my hand along a hull, and the freshly sandpapered wood is smooth against my fingers. Some of the boats here are new, while others are in the middle of a restoration. Down a short hallway is the “staining room,” where I find a true aesthetic treat: an original 1950s Chris Craft, the father of all classic wooden boats, in the final phase of the restoration process. It’ll be on the water a little later this season.
There’s more to Les Cheneaux than boats, though. Just as the people thrive on the lack of technological intervention, so does the wildlife. As I take a walk in the afternoon near one of the two bridges that connect the islands to the mainland, a large group of deer sneaks up on me. They’re so close I can nearly touch their uneven and matted coats, still shedding from a long northern winter. My camera snaps away.
By now I’m feeling confident in this place’s ability to deliver special photos. I head for Search Bay, where locals say I can find a primitive campground. I set a marker on my phone’s map and drive until an enticingly narrow two-track appears, daring me to follow it. Miles of pines and inland ponds give way to a weathered sign that marks the camp area. I back up my car next to the first campsite, then open the hatch and lay down the second-row seating. Snacking on cheese and crackers, I take in the unobstructed view of the bay before me.
The next morning, with Cedarville’s blinking traffic light a memory in my rearview, my car is in line for the morning boat to cross the DeTour Passage to Drummond Island. A group of eager schoolchildren run off the ferry and hurry into a traditional yellow bus. It’s early morning rush hour for those venturing off Drummond to the mainland for a day of work and classes.
“Real adventures come to those who take a chance on the unknown.”
In addition to its year-round residents, Drummond Island is home to an impressive off-roading culture. There are roughly 60 miles of ATV and off-road 4X4 trails throughout the island. Thousands of outdoor junkies come each year to visit iconic locations like Marblehead, a remote shoreline on the east coast famed for step-like outcrops. I want to join the fun myself, but I’ve got a date with Lake Huron.
I purposely get lost and end up in an aged forest dotted with spring wildflowers. With the radio off and the windows down, I eavesdrop on the birds. I find a pull-off and leave the car to follow a small sandy path until it leads me out onto a quaint beach with picnic tables. The water is like glass, reflecting the shoreline. I take off my shoes and wade in, sending ripples through the still surface. It feels like civilization is a million miles away.
It’s not, of course. Drummond Island Fudge, a.k.a. the Gourmet Galley, a.k.a. Espresso Bean Café, is right on E Johnswood Road, one of the main thoroughfares. Homemade fudge is a Michigan specialty and an ideal dessert for a social media opportunity, because of the picture, sure, but also because of the story. This Puddingstone fudge—named for its resemblance to a type of rock commonly found in these parts—is a hodgepodge concoction of cherries, pecans, and chocolates, plus a secret ingredient; it’s all natural with no preservatives, and it can only be found here on Drummond. It’s savory and sweet, and easily the best fudge I’ve ever tasted.
In the evening I stroll one of the hiking trails on the expansive property behind the Drummond Island Resort. The light breeze rustles the thick forest canopy. It smells fresh, like a garden after rain. A yellow butterfly appears in my path and flutters into the woods, excited by my steps. I come upon the resort’s lakefront cabins and docks as the sun is setting. Boats with hopeful fishermen putter past, eager for one last bite before nightfall.
Itching to soak up the final moments of daylight, I grab one of the resort’s kayaks for an evening adventure. The cove is calm, blocked by an outreaching peninsula. I paddle against the wind toward the sun for a long time, watching flocks of geese taking flight, then allow myself to drift slowly back. I paddle again toward the last rays of light, falling enticingly on a distant island. I’m living inside a postcard, completely undisturbed and apart from life’s ordinary distractions. I capture the moment with my camera, acutely aware that photos aren’t always about what you can see—they’re also about the feelings they evoke.
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