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Revisiting Childhood on the Leelanau Peninsula, Michigan’s Timeless Adventure Coast

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PHOTOGRAPHY BY SHALEE BLACKMER
Northern Michigan is an untrammeled paradise that’s inspired adventure-seekers for centuries. Hoping to rediscover a piece of her past, writer and photographer Shalee Blackmer returns to the Leelanau Peninsula after many years. This piece was created in partnership with Pure Michigan.

“Let’s race!” I shouted to my older brother as I took off on my hot pink bicycle toward the dock of our family’s rented lake house. He saddled up faster than I anticipated and pumped the pedals with good-natured determination, overtaking me with ease. “You cheated!” I accused, throwing my bike to the side and squinting at the expanse of brilliant turquoise lake beyond the dock. I had never seen a color like that in real life—my breath hitched. But I quickly refocused: “Cannonball competition next?” I asked, running and throwing myself into the deep blue without waiting for his reply.

That was 20 years ago. Now I’m sitting at a picnic table near the historic Fishtown in the township of Leland, Michigan, just a few miles from that same lake house. I’m in hour one of my 48-hour journey to rediscover the magic of some of my most enduring childhood memories. Two kids dash for the Dam Candy Store and families roam about planning their days, surely filled with wineries, ice cream, and bonfires with s’mores. A couple gives their orders at the Village Cheese Shanty, a 25-year-old sandwich stalwart. I hope they get the Shipwreck: ham, cheddar, cucumber, onion, tomato, lettuce, and herb mayo—my personal favorite.

Seemingly, the only thing that’s changed here is me. And it’s wonderful.

Leland is located in a protective cove on the coast of Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula, approximately 275 miles northwest of Detroit. It began as a fishing settlement where the Carp River meets Lake Michigan. Around 1880, wooden shacks started appearing near the banks, and Fishtown—a working commercial fishing village and Leland’s most popular attraction—was established shortly thereafter. Early villagers fished for trout and salmon using the natural fish ladder first used by the Ottawa Indians. Today, charter fishing companies such as Reelin Leland, Far Fetched, and Mariah and Pier Pressure Charters afford visitors a more modern take on the fish-forward ethos by providing everything needed for a full or half day of reeling in king salmon, lake trout, steelheads, coho salmon, and brown trout. Reelin Leland even offers a “lake to table” option—they’ll clean and debone your catch and preserve it in shaved ice for the walk over to The Cove, a restaurant right in Leland Harbor, where the chef will prepare it for you.

Taking in the view of Lake Michigan from atop Pyramid Point.

Leland remained relatively unknown to tourists until the mid-1960s, when prominent families from “southern” cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and Cincinnati began traveling to northern Michigan in search of property for lake homes. Leland’s popularity has grown throughout the decades, making the town’s evolution inevitable, but it’s hard to tell. There are no stoplights, and there seem to be more cottages than motels, and more motels than hotels.

I end up at Leelanau Books on N. Main Street. “This bookstore was my family’s barn as a little girl...I can picture the hay bales and where our old tractor sat,” owner Susan Cordes tells me with a calm, shy smile that makes me feel like she’d make cookies if I ever visited her home. “Every day I get to watch young children come in here and find joy in the same place I found it as a child.”

On childhood trips, my preferred Leland adventure had been hiking, a passion that’s persisted into my adult life. Determined to find out if my favorite trail would hold up to my memories of it, I head to Pyramid Point, a 2.7-mile loop 20 minutes outside the town center along the northern border of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. I meander through maple and birch oldgrowth forests, waiting for the payoff I remember so well. An opening in the trees emerges like a portal and I step out onto the summit of a 300-foot sand dune overlooking Lake Michigan and the Manitou Islands. “Enjoy the View from Here: It May Take Two Hours to Climb Back Up,” a sign warns. When I was little, I’d run down these dunes, grinning the entire way, catching sand in my teeth, and not thinking at all of the demanding climb back up once I got to the bottom. Now I decide to just enjoy the view. Blue-green water stretches to the horizon—a sight that rivals anything you’d see in the Caribbean.

There are two islands in the lake beyond Leland Harbor: North Manitou Island and South Manitou Island. The former is larger, and best experienced on an overnight trip. The latter, however, is a perfect day-trip destination, accessed via Manitou Island Transit, the only commercial ferry.

A short ferry ride transports me from Leland to South Manitou Island. As I disembark I hear two volunteer rangers discussing their morning clean-up on the eight-square-mile island. One of them found only a single piece of plastic, which is a testament to the preservation and leave-no-trace principles the area’s caretakers abide by.

I begin the seven-mile round-trip hike to the southwest end of the island. The forest floor is dotted with thousands of white trilliums; fallen leaves crunch beneath my steps, the only sound besides the distant chatter of birds. I have the path to myself, save for the occasional garden snake.

“Blue-green water stretches to the horizon—a sight that rivals anything you’d see in the Caribbean.”

The South Manitou Lighthouse from aboard the island ferry.

As a kid I didn’t know about the wealth of experiences available to visitors here: Backcountry camping is an obvious favorite—the island’s three campgrounds are just far enough removed from the mad rush of modern society to make you feel free but not isolated. There’s also remarkable topography, such as the Valley of the Giants, an old-growth forest of white cedar trees (many have been there for 500 years!) and the 1960 shipwreck of the Francisco Morazan, which washed into shallow waters during a winter snowstorm. The ship’s ghostly skeleton can be seen above the water. Three additional shipwrecks hide just offshore near the ferry dock, preserved under the waves.

Cross-legged on the floor of the ferry on the way back that afternoon, I take a swig of my beer and scoot over to some friendly faces—a father-son pair outfitted in hiking gear and daypacks. I’ve run into Jim and James DeSpelder so many times today that Jim has started referring to me as “stalker,” though his warm smile belies the moniker. They’ve been scouting the area, putting the island and town to the test for a future trip with the rest of the family. “The verdict?” I ask. “We’ll be back,” says Jim. “There’s no doubt we’re all coming back.”

Back on the mainland, my dinner is plum-sauce-smothered duck from The Cove. The late afternoon sun warms the second-story terrace and I close my eyes, soaking in the rays before my final adventure of the day: chasing the sunset at Whaleback Natural Area—40 acres of preserved forestland peppered with wildflowers.

A porcupine joins me on the mile-long trail and I can see a small private vineyard through the trees. At the end of the path is a simple wooden platform, opening up to a spectacular view of Lake Michigan. The only other people I encounter are swaying in a hammock. The wind rustles and the distant waves roll away from the horizon, reflecting what’s left of the sun’s evening glow —reminders that life’s greatest joys come from the simplest things.

As darkness falls along the Leelanau Peninsula, I visit an old college friend at her family’s historic Leland farm. The driveway is packed with cars of visiting family members. In the basement of the farmhouse, 80-year-old Larry Wichern is leaning over an old workbench next to a dusty record player, surrounded by cherished memorabilia. Dozens of family newspaper clippings, from parades to graduations—as well as prized trophy heads of 12-point bucks—are displayed on the wood-paneled walls. Larry is telling childhood stories about Leland, back before anyone knew the beauty that hid along Lake Michigan's northwest coast. It was a quiet, unknown town with a tight-knit community of farmers and working-class families. Back then, Larry knew that where he lived was special. He remembers his mother taking off her shoes after a long day and walking down to the beach barefoot to dip her toes in the water. His father, a hardworking man, would bring him to the shore each spring to pick up the debris that had washed up during the long winter. Larry is part of the fourth generation of his family to grow up along the Midwest's most scenic highway, M22. He was born here, in a small house that had been a gas station, just a few steps off the road. Two of his grandchildren stand next to him, smiling as he tells his tales.

“Leland is my happy space,” says Wichern’s granddaughter Emily. “When I think of freedom and joy and resilience, I think of my summers spent up here...I can picture myself standing in the middle of the yard, the sun shining down on my messy pigtails, the trees lightly rustling in the wind around me. It felt like a dream then, and it does to this day.”

I was six years old when I fell in love with Leland. The Wichern family has loved it for decades. I think that’s the best part of being up here—individuals’ histories are completely different, but when they meet, they find that their love for this timeless coast brings them together. I can imagine Wichern’s grandchildren carrying on that tradition for at least another 80 years.

Start planning your Michigan vacation here.