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Lake Charlevoix is one of the most famous of northern Michigan lakes primarily because of its popularity among boaters of all types. Originally called Pine Lake, it was renamed Lake Charlevoix after the French explorer Pierre Francois-Xavier de Charlevoix in 1926. Although nearby Beaver Island was settled more extensively at an earlier date, Lake Charlevoix quickly gained population due to logging interests in the area. Boyne City at the eastern end of the lake and East Jordan at the south end both grew at the mouths of the two rivers which provide 75% of the water flow into Lake Charlevoix-the Jordan and Boyne Rivers. Nearly fifteen miles long, the lake provided the needed water transport for shipping logs and lumber out to Lake Michigan at its northwestern end. It was this western arm of the lake that, with minor improvement, would make Lake Charlevoix such a valuable harbor. The lake exits to Lake Michigan, but not directly. Instead, a short channel of the Pine River leads to small but deep Round Lake, where another short stretch of the Pine River empties into Lake Michigan. The Pine Channel is unique in that it has two-way current, with tide and storm swell coming in from Lake Michigan and the normal outflow from Lake Charlevoix.
In 1873, deepening and widening the Pine River was undertaken by hand until the channel was 35 ft wide and 12 ft deep. Piers were built into Lake Michigan north and south of the river mouth to act as breakwaters and were soon equipped with shipping beacons. As improvements continued, most Great Lakes steamers and sailing ships of the day could sail the length of the lake to bring in iron ore from the Upper Peninsula to be smelted in the furnaces at Boyne City, East Jordan and Ironton , load milled lumber and ironwork outbound and generally provide freight service directly to other Michigan ports farther south and to Chicago. The village of Charlevoix grew up around the Round Lake harbor, often called the best natural harbor on Lake Michigan. Although the Great Lakes schooners and steamers are gone, this is still one of the busiest recreational ports of Lake Michigan. Here, the Michigan Department of Transportation manages one of their few drawbridges; the bridge over the Pine Channel is raised on US 31 every half hour during daylight so that water traffic may pass back and forth to Lake Michigan.
With an average depth of over 50 feet, Lake Charlevoix lends itself to all sorts of water sports. Fishing is enjoyed, as the varied depths support both a warm and cold water fishery. The lake supports a very wide variety of fish, including black crappie, bluegill, brown trout, channel catfish, cisco, lake whitefish, lake trout, northern pike, pumpkinseed sunfish, rainbow trout, rock bass, smallmouth bass, walleye, and yellow perch. The South and North Arms of the lake are especially productive as is the mouth of the channel on the West Arm. This area is difficult to fish due to heavy boat traffic. Summer fishing sticks mainly to the quieter areas as water skiers, jet boats, speed boats and sailboats are the preferred activities here. Ice fishing is a bit less harried and much enjoyed by the local winter residents.
Several yacht clubs and marinas around the lake cater to varied clientele, from the elite clients who regularly sail their large vessels to Mackinac and Chicago to small facilities affordable by the middle-class. Some provide children's sailing lessons with scholarships for the less affluent. A new municipal marina with nearly 200 dock spaces is available on Round Lake. A city-owned public launch site on Lake Charlevoix and numerous private and commercial spaces on the lake will practically guarantee the visiting sailor a berth for his stay. Travel by boat is a vital part of life on Lake Charlevoix; 'shopping docks' are available at each village and at the several water-accessible dining establishments around the lake. Several public boat ramps provide access for the visitor's smaller boats and all types of watercraft are available for rent. The shoreline ranges from sandy to rocky and there are still a few areas of undeveloped shoreline that harbor waterfowl and birds for viewing.
Racing is a regular weekly warm weather activity, with some locations sponsoring weekly sailboat races and others producing high-performance racing boat events on a regular basis. Annual races include the Boyne Thunder Poker Run each year- a 120 mile race that begins at the Boyne City Marina, down the length of the lake and through the channels out into Lake Michigan, circles Beaver Island 35 miles away and returns to the marina. This popular charity event attracts racing boat enthusiasts from across the mid-west. The Red Fox Regatta is a well-known annual event and draws sailors from several states. The race consists of sailing the length of the lake from Charlevoix to Boyne City on day one, and back on day two, with appropriate festivities at each end. The various forms of water transport form the basis of the 'social season' on northwest Lake Michigan and well-known names appear for racing and festival week-ends. The enthusiastic sailors of the marinas and yacht clubs on Lake Charlevoix are known to show up at ports of call all over the Great Lakes and farther afield. Waterfront summer homes are highly prized by serious sailing families due to Lake Charlevoix's proximity to Lake Michigan and other nearby harbors a pleasant day's sail away: Mackinac, Ludington, Harbor Springs, Petoskey, Traverse City, Muskegon and others are common destinations. The annual Chicago to Mackinac 330 mile race passes by the entrance to the harbor every year, and the Coast Guard mans the South Pier light for the occasion. The Coast Guard Station at Charlevoix has been in continuous operation since 1900, providing rescue service and safety and weather patrols along the coast.
The Village of Charlevoix was founded in 1878 by H W Page as the Charlevoix Summer Resort Association, now called the Belvedere Club. From the outset, Charlevoix has been the playground of the affluent. In 1880, the Chicago Summer Resort Association was organized by members of the First Congregational Church of Chicago and began building across the Pine Channel from the Belvedere Club. In June 1881, work started on the clubhouse which, when it was completed on a knoll overlooking Lake Charlevoix, contained 27 bedrooms, sitting rooms and a large dining room with accompanying kitchen facilities. The dining room is still used by Chicago Club members. The hundred-year old homes in their sprawling and opulent splendor will interest any student of architecture. Many are still in the possession of the families of the original owners.
Another pleasant architectural diversion in Charlevoix is taking a drive to see some of the more than thirty homes designed by local architect Earl Young. Dating from 1921 to the 1950's, these sprawling smurf-like 'mushroom houses' are built out of native stone and sport cedar shake roofs in a style reminiscent of mushroom caps. The local Chamber of Commerce will provide a brochure with information and directions to view Young's private-home creations and the many local commercial buildings he designed around his beloved 'stones'.
For those less interested in boating, the Lake Charlevoix region is blessed with a wide variety of other activities for the visitor to enjoy. Shopping in Charlevoix and Boyne City is geared to the visitor, with art galleries, craft shops and local foods. Several museums and historical societies hold interesting bits of local history and genealogy research documents for the history buff. The fall color tour around the lake is a popular activity; maps can be obtained at the Chamber of Commerce office. The Ironton Ferry, in the small village of Ironton is recorded in Ripley's Believe it or Not as having traveled the most nautical miles without going anywhere: it crosses the neck of the south arm, a distance of 650 feet, and has been in operations since 1876. Its continued longevity can be attributed to the fact that its 650 foot trip saves 18 miles off an 'around the lake' trip.
Old Horton Bay, on the east shore of the lake boasts the Red Fox Inn renovated as a Hemingway museum and book store. Nearby Castle Farms is a renovated 1918 model farmstead built by Albert Loeb, wartime president of Sears, Roebuck and Co to showcase new farm equipment sold through the Sears Roebuck catalog. Long in disrepair, the beautiful stone buildings have been restored and are available for tours. The complex boasts a family fun center featuring turn of the century games, such as a giant croquet game, giant checkerboard and other activities of interest to children.
The Boyne City Morel Mushroom Festival each May draws visitors from all over the Midwest to try their luck at plucking the wily delicacies from wherever they are hiding- elm stump, dry leaves or old orchard. The four largest ski resorts in Michigan are a less than an hour away, along with local snowmobile and cross-country skiing trails. Charlevoix presents the Annual Venetian Festival each summer with a carnival, fireworks, boat parades and midway. Hiking, birding and cycling trails cris-cross the area. The Jordan River, a designated 'Wild and Scenic River' is prized for the opportunities to enjoy natural flora and fauna either via the walking paths or by kayak or canoe. Several public beaches and parks, including Young State Park abut the Lake Charlevoix shoreline, and Fisherman's Island State Park nestles on the shores of Lake Michigan. Camping in the area is plentiful but reservations may be needed during the summer months. There are always resort cottages and condo rentals to be had at wide range of prices.
A day trip one must not miss is to take the Beaver Island ferry to the stronghold of Michigan's self-styled king James Strang, who developed an enclave of a Mormon splinter group there with himself as leader. His captive majority voted him twice into the Michigan legislature. From 1847 to 1856, Strang ruled with such authoritarian style that he not only drove all the non-Mormon residents off the island but attempted to rule the sparsely populated mainland with the same authority. An unfortunate foray to the mainland to round up jurors who had ignored his call to serve in his self-styled court led the mainland fishermen, who had already had far too much of his self-important governance, to chase him all the way back to Beaver Island, shooting as they rowed. His skin was saved only by a passing ship. A year or so later, he was assassinated by members of his own congregation, ending the rule of America's only 'king'. The story of Strang's Kingdom reads like a dime novel of the day. Even with Strang and his followers gone, Beaver Island maintained a somewhat dubious judicial system: early in the last century, when representatives of the law boarded the ferry to Beaver Island, the captain would alert the populace with an extra toot on the ferry's horn as he approached the harbor, giving those who didn't wish to be found a chance to high-tail it to the next island. The island has several historical buildings, Strang's newspaper office and a restored lighthouse that is open for tours. The light station houses an alternative school program. Around the island, remnants of the former Great Lakes fishing fleet can be seen-long gone now that the commercial fishery has collapsed. There are walking tours, cycling paths and National Forest campgrounds on the island. The ferry leaves from the south shore of Lake Charlevoix near the edge of Charlevoix.
Lake Charlevoix, then, is the preferred destination of the boating or sailing aficionado. But, its charms aren't limited to the boating fans-the lake has something to appeal to every visitor, lighthouse fan, beach camper, skier, upscale shopper and history buff. Located only 50 miles north of Traverse City, much visiting back and forth between the two harbors occurs. Chicago is 360 miles by car, but less than 300 by boat. The Charlevoix airport can accommodate planes up to small jet size and commercial connections are available year round. So, give Lake Charlevoix a try-you may find yourself looking for a lakefront home with boat house before your vacation ends.
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