Days of rain gave way to a sunny Saturday in Caseville. It was a marvelous day to be out on the water. I met up with Captain Tom and his crew, Kathy and Maggi down at the Caseville Municipal Harbor. The tour boat, The Lady of the Lake was tied up at the end of the dock. It was an easy step over her stern to board and she already had about a dozen guests settling in. Some had brought their own coolers of their favorite cocktails or craft beer. Others were putting on sunscreen for the trip. The anticipation and excitement were high as this was the first venture to Charity Island for all to the passengers, myself included.
As the clock ticked close to 4 pm, Captain Tom welcomed all aboard. He gave safety instructions about the boat and how to use life jackets. Next, he then gave a few details of what to expect during the trip. The weather is a factor in any cruise. With the wind coming out of the east from Lake Huron we were going to have 1 to 2-foot waves so it was best to stay seated while we were underway. Finally, the captain and crew cast us off the dock and we were rumbling out of the harbor waving to folks along Caseville’s break wall.
The Trip Out to Charity Island
The Lady of the Lakes comfortability cruises at about 11 knots which means that the 10 mile trip from Caseville to the island takes about an hour. Once out of the harbor you can see the expansive sandy shore from Oak Point to the north to the tip of Sand Point in the south. As we travel further out into the Bay you will be amazed at the number of wind turbines that seem to dominate the horizon outside of Caseville.
Charity island quickly comes into focus. At just over 250 acres, you really can’t appreciate the size of the island until you’re up close. Hardwood trees grow right up to the shoreline. From time to time it seems that large waves crash right into the woods. The Lady slows as it approached the break walls of the Charity Island harbor. Coming into the channel, the waves cease and the woods seem to close in around the boat until you’re met with silence when the Lady’s diesel engines come to a stop.
The Charity Island Marina
Looking around the harbor I noted that it is a feat of engineering. I learned that the owner, Robert Wiltse, bought the island in 1993 for development. They envisioned 24 exclusive homes across the island. The first phase of the project was to take 60,000 pounds of dynamite to blast out this harbor. It took 16 weeks to carve out the marina and connect it to the lake by a channel. While the housing development never occurred, the small harbor is a quiet reminder of what could have been. It is like a tropical lagoon as trees grow close to the water’s edge.
Walking to the Lighthouse
We disembark and take a short walk to the lighthouse. The walk is pretty as oaks form a canopy over the trail. The crew also has brought an ATV and trailer for those with mobility issues. Most of the guests make their way to the pavilion where tables have been set up and wine tasting is offered. I head to the cobblestone beach in front of the light keeper’s house and tower.
With the camera in hand, I take some quick shots of the iconic brick tower. The beach is made up of rounded white stone a little smaller than your fist. The high water has driven these high up on the shore and I catch the tickling sound of the rocks hitting each other. This is a sight I’ve only seen along Lake Superior’s famous north shore.
The History and Stories of the Island
After taking more pictures of the tower’s internal iron stairway, I make my way back to the pavilion area. The raised dining area gives a commanding view of the north shore of the island. Purple martins dove overhead clearing the air of mosquitos, while the lake gently lapped along the rugged beach.
One of the highlights of the Charity Island Dinner Cruise is hearing history and stories of the island. Bob Wiltse gave a riveting review of the history of the island. Saginaw Bay and this island have been crisscrossed 1000s of years by Native Americans, French Voyeurs, British and finally the Americans. Bob weaved this history with personal stories of visitors that have come to the island to walk in the same footsteps of their grandparents. It’s a touching story of the pioneering spirit, the isolation of the island, shipwrecks, and fortunes made and lost.
The fresh lake air from the boat ride and exploration of the lighthouse really got my appetite going. Each dish was prepared at an open-air cooking hut and the air was soon filled with the spiced scent of stir fry and sizzling beef. Dinner was a choice of beef tenderloin tips or lightly fried lake perch. Both entrees are paired with a warm cabbage medley and redskin potatoes. Delicious!
Living Off the Grid in a Light Keepers House
After dinner, the group was invited to a tour of the light keeper’s house. The tour started in the basement where Karen Wiltse told the story of how the couple weaved old technology and new to create a comfortable home that is not dependent on any public utilities. The cellar contains the original cistern to hold water pumped from the lake. The water is taken through a purification process that mimics that of the large municipal water systems.
The second amazing aspect of the house is its generation and use of solar and wind energy. Power is generated from an on-site wind turbine and solar panels and stored in a small bank of batteries. The house has its own electric inverter to convert the Direct Current power to Alternating Current that is typically found in the homes on the shore. The home utilizes the same appliances and light just like on-shore.
Lighthouse Interior of the Late 1800s
The group tour moved up to the second floor where Karen Wiltse showed the plans and prints used to build the replacement light keepers house. Materials from the original 1857 house were on display and replaced with replicas of the original wherever possible. From the trim on the interior walls to the red metal shingles on the roof were all replaced as close to original as practical. Karen showed me the rooms on the second floor that had been decorated with late 1800’s period furnishings and appointments from their own family on the mainland. It was very well done.
Walking the Beach of Charity Island
Our final tour on the island took us to the beach to find flora and fauna that is unique to Charity Island. Our first find was the elusive Pitcher’s Thistle or dune thistle. This endangered native flower is a pale sage color and blooms over and over on the same spot on the small sand dunes on the north edge of the island. However, while the thistle is protected it seems to be a favorite target of Canadian Geese who like to nibble on the soft leaves.
As we walked the beach I thought that this must look much the same as it did when Michigan territorial governor Lewis Cass and geologist Henry Schoolcraft first set foot on the island in 1820. It was Schoolcraft who recognized the importance of chert nodules as a material for the production of stone tools by native populations in the area.
We took pictures and wondered a bit and found ourselves back on the large porch that surrounds the main house. Karen passed around a scrapbook that showed the progress of creating the harbor and the teardown of the original house that had totally collapsed. It was a huge undertaking that is still work in progress. I found that there is also an effort to restore the lighthouse tower. The restoration estimates exceed $300,000. We agreed that the efforts may be hampered by the remoteness of the island and that many folks don’t know about it.
The Voyage Back to Caseville
Finally, Captain Tom signals that it’s time to get back to the boat as the sun begins setting. I walk back and take a bit of the island’s interior. Both Big and Little Charity islands are part of the Michigan Island National Wildlife Refuge. As a result, there are no trails, no signs, and no fences. A few feet from shore it’s totally wild. In the dimming light, the forest is quiet except for the sound of the waves hitting the beach.
As we board, blankets are passed out to those who want them. The sun is setting and even in the summer, the cold waters of outer Saginaw Bay will put a chill on most wearing shorts and light clothing. We watch a beautiful sunset and nibble on cheesecake and sip coffee on the trip back to Caseville. We slowly make our way into the harbor and dock in the last of the evening light.
I say our goodbyes to new friends and have a word of thanks to the captain and crew for a delightful experience. I step off of the dock thinking when I would take the Charity Island Dinner Cruise to the island again.
If You Want to Go To the Island
For more information about Saginaw Bay Sunset Tours and Charity Island, Dinner Cruises call Capt. Tom at 989-550-1234 or visit Explorer Charters for details, schedules and costs. Explorer Charters offer company events, weddings, lighthouse tours, sunset tours, kayaking, scuba charters, and commercial and charter services.
Helpful Hints for Charity Island
- Traveling to a Saginaw Bay Oasis – Charity Island
- Fort Gratiot Light Station
- Pointe Aux Barques Haunted Lighthouse
- History of Charity Island