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Sunday, July 14, in Leland, Michigan

Hi all and happy Bastille Day. We moved yesterday afternoon to Leland, Michigan, a small seaside resort. Last time I wrote, we were in Ludington, Michigan.

Our trip from Ludington to Manistee started out lumpy, but the seas flattened out as the day went on. Within two hours of leaving the harbor, we were tucked into Manistee’s Municipal Marina, another marina that seemed surprisingly available.

The marina isn’t glamorous, but it had everything we’d need to have a great time in town: broadband Internet service, a coffee bar and a lounge in a relatively new service building, and excellent proximity to downtown. Furthermore, a revitalization project in Manistee created a miles-long “riverwalk” alongside the harbor, conveniently marked every tenth of a mile providing feedback for fitness walkers and joggers. We could walk to the inlet and the wifi-equipped beachfront a mile away, or avoid the downtown streets for a promenade back from the well-equipped grocery store across the highway bridge about a fifteen-minute walk away.

Manistee isn’t a center for vacationers, but it has a lot of inherent charm and a lot of potential that’s just now coming into its own. Manistee was built by logging entrepreneurs with a lumber boom in the 1880s, so it isn’t surprising that the architecture in town is grand and Victorian. During this time, Manistee had more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the US.

The lumber barons also noticed that there were salt deposits beneath the town, and successfully drilled in 1880. The description of the brining operation to retrieve salt reminded me of what we now call fracking. The work complemented the sawmills, which could use their leftover wood to power the machines that evaporated the brine to remove the salt.

Soon, salt plants produced more than a million barrels of salt a year, ironic to discover on a fresh water lake. Morton Salt bought a factory in 1922 and still operates it. A mill that opened in 1877 moved with the times and began to make paper in the 1920s and then corrugated products. It’s now the Packaging Corporation of America, producing 1240 tons of corrugated material a year.

Indeed, about once or twice a week, a freighter makes its way along the riverfront in the course of business, and we had the chance to watch one pass across our stern one evening as we sat on our flybridge. Apparently, another freighter went by during the 4th of July parade a week earlier, and everything in the parade stopped for a moment as the spectators came down from Main Street to the riverwalk to see the ship bound for a 98-year-old factory in town, filled with asphalt (smelling as if a highway was traveling by). The residents were thrilled that the ship’s name, coincidentally, was Manistee.

The ship that we saw was the 630-foot Great Lakes freighter Calumet, delivering coal. We got a long slow look at it, because the ship moved at about one knot as it made its way to the open bridge into town. We see ships in the distance all the time, on day sails and overnight sails, and they seem big from a mile away, but not enormous. This ship was about one or two boat lengths from us (our length, not its) and it was massive.

You never really know what to expect from a town when you’re visiting coastlines that aren’t cities. Cruising guides are helpful but partial. Online opinion sites aren’t granular enough in their rankings. The top restaurant, too often, is an ice cream parlor, or a candy store, or a coffee place. Furthermore, everyone has different needs. For me, a great place has an interesting restaurant for lunch, a movie theater with films that don’t show a single explosion, and a supermarket where the produce looks better than the stuff I throw away. A perfect place also has a well-stocked kitchen shop where I buy something, even though I need absolutely nothing. Manistee has all of this, plus a clothing store where I bought clothes, twice, even though I hate buying clothes.

We saw two movies while we were in town, Jersey Boys, and a 50th anniversary version of A Hard Day’s Night. These films were nostalgic for both of us. One of the screaming girls in the concert audience shown in A Hard Day’s Night was wearing the same sweater I’d gotten as a present during that time. The Beatles movie had a lot of meaning for me; I went to a Beatles concert in 1964. It now amuses me to remember how many Beatles collectibles I owned, including a Beatles purse and Beatles-stenciled sneakers.

One great part of the movie experience was the movie theater itself. The Vogue Theater had been built in 1938, an Art Deco beauty with the very newest in technology for the time. In 1984, it was sold and modified for twin screens, and in 2010, it was bought by the Downtown Development Authority and painstakingly restored by donors and volunteers. There are only two employees, but volunteers operate the concessions and work to center the theater in the community.

After the frigid, snowy winter and the much-delayed spring in the Midwest, locals are understandably eager to get outside in the summer, and most coastal towns provide family evening activities. We’d only be around for a few nights, but we did get to walk to the beach at the inlet and take in some jazz performed at a small pavilion, along with others who were prepared enough to have brought folding chairs and blankets for their laps. Even during the daytime, most of our time spent in Manistee was pretty chilly, not even at 70 degrees.

The trip from Manistee to Frankfort, somewhat farther north along the coast, was uneventful, with flat seas and calm winds. For me, having a powerboat instead of a sailboat removes one of the great dilemmas of my pre-trip thinking. With a sailboat, you’re always looking for wind; on a powerboat, dead calm is the ideal day. But sailing for me threaded a fine needle. Too little wind and you end up motoring anyway at a slow speed; too much wind and you’re on a scary and seasick ride. Furthermore, different sailors have different appetites for the amount of wind they’d like to see, and a great breezy sail might very well terminate in the need to dock the vessel in twenty knots of wind tearing the lines out of your hands.

A powerboat looks for calm, and we can run the radar to our heart’s content if there’s fog around. I feel a little guilty that I don’t have the same wind-driven calling as everyone around me, but there’s something satisfying about not having to root for no wind when everyone around me wants to go sailing.

We docked at Jacobson’s Marina, a block from the small Frankfort downtown. Nearly everyone we talked to recommended this marina, even with its price premium. True, they had a pool, which we probably wouldn’t use, and a hot tub, which we wouldn’t use. But there were fresh flowers in the women’s shower room, and they picked us up from the grocery store, and intervened when a vendor wasn’t returning Art’s calls. It’s a friendly place, where the owners will make dinner for you from a menu and deliver it right to your boat. Even though their price was markedly higher than the nearby municipal marina, Jacobson’s docks were much more crowded.

Frankfort’s first industry was timbering, and as a result of their need to move the lumber, a shipping industry was born. First, sailboats floated the logs to Milwaukee and Chicago, and later a railroad was put in place, and then car ferries. Later still, whitefish harvesting and farming were primary industries.

Tourism arrived as soon as there was a way to get to this placid lake spot. And the winds of Lake Michigan against the bluffs on the land have made Frankfort a center for soaring (gliding), where pilots fly unpowered aircraft using naturally occurring currents of rising air. We’d actually seen someone use “thermals” and glide around the mountains using a skinny parachute contraption on the coast of Spain in Galicia. But the soaring that’s common in Frankfort appears to be in airplanes that look like reconnaissance vehicles in science fiction movies.

Pere Marquette, explorer, missionary, and founder, might have died and been buried in Frankfort, or maybe not. This is the sort of thing that small lake cities apparently argue about. But Frankfort’s charm for me is mostly in the present. The two-block-long downtown area is filled with cheerful shops and restaurants. The supermarket is close by and offers much more than we need. There’s a movie theater a block away from the marina, but they were showing the movie we’d seen only days before.

It’s said that Frankfort got its name from the resident Germans in its early days, and they thought that it was as beautiful as Frankfort, Germany. My only visits to Frankfort Germany have stayed inside its labyrinthine airport in the midst of endless flights across the Atlantic, so perhaps my idea of that city isn’t as well-rounded as it should be. But Frankfort, Michigan is lush with trees and hills and seaside, and is indeed the sort of place for escaping to rather than from. And I daresay that those early Germans probably just offer proof of that.

Today’s Frankfort is a summer resort, with colorful flowers bursting from shopside urns, and well-tended gardens alongside the main street adjacent to the harbor. In some ways, Frankfort’s downtown looks like a movie set, generic and universal, with a shop at an intersection called “Corner Drug”, and a grass park named “Open Space.”

We did have one errand in Traverse City, about an hour’s drive, to collect a part that we’d ordered at West Marine. It isn’t easy to travel around in rural America without owning a car. Luckily, Benzie County has a bus shuttle service, a sort of jitney from point to point. We were dropped at the 24-hour Meijer department store/supermarket colossus, from which we walked on the curb along the highway to the nearby West Marine. We had hours to consume before our shuttle back to the marina, so we landed on one superstore store or another in the neighborhood. You don’t realize the scale of these suburban places unless you’re visiting as a pedestrian, because on foot you arrive at the farthest edge of a vast parking lot when you arrive and have to reverse the process when you leave.

The rest of our time in Frankfort, we ambled along the shopping streets, went to the weekly farmer’s market, and enjoyed the company and cruising advice from friendly people we encountered in the marina’s community of boaters.

It was time to move on, but we weren’t sure which day was right. Here was a real example of the gap between sailing planning and powerboat trip planning. Sunday’s weather was forecast to be windy and choppy in the morning, but the wind would abate in the afternoon, and then the seas would flatten.

Our proclivity was to travel on Sunday, but we have no deadlines for months. If we waited a day, it would change nothing. Indeed, Monday’s weather looked pretty calm. But the marina where we were staying was trying to reserve our berth for a regular customer who needed its close access to shore. We’d probably need to change slips and dock again to stay overnight, not a big deal, but a consideration.

The weather seemed sunny and clear, but a small chop would push us around in the harbor occasionally, and we were getting updates around the marina that many people north of us decided against traveling in the uncomfortable seas. We thought we’d leave, then we thought we’d stay, and then we weren’t sure. And here is the other side of the sailing versus motoring issue. The day’s forecast was vexing for Art, but this was no doubt a wonderful day to go out for a lovely sail. The shape of a sailboat hull would make the trip thrilling for the passengers and comfortable in moderate seas. A powerboat likes a sea that’s flat as glass, and we weren’t seeing a forecast for that.

Early in the season, Art learned from the next-door boat owners in Holland that Lake Michigan is filled with chatty and smart buoys. These buoys not only serve as visual navigational aids; they can have the marine equivalent of a friendly conversation about the weather over the picket fence, long-distance and electronic. You simply text a number designated as a buoy’s location, and the buoy texts back with wind and other information. Every hour, Art would get an update with wind speeds, and in the afternoon, as forecast, the wind dropped. We left.

Our trip to Leland wasn’t interrupted by any discomfort. The seas were one or two feet high, and comfortably behind us, which didn’t seem to affect our speed. When we left Frankfort, the sailboats at sea were lovely and billowing; by the time we neared Leland, the sailboats were motoring morosely. We docked across the pontoon from a schooner called Madeline, Michigan’s contribution to the tall ship community.

We took a walk through tiny Leland last night, but we’ll do more exploring today.

Love, Karen (and Art)