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By Thomas Ludens
When you cruise toward Alpena, as you come along the northeast coast of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula and traverse the clear, cold waters of Lake Huron, you are not simply approaching a quaint town of some 12,000 people. You are passing over 160 shipwrecks and a veritable cross-section of maritime history.
That’s because when you cruise to Alpena, you can’t help but cross the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. This 448-square-mile preserve is framed by the northern and southern edges of Alpena County, and its headquarters is right in the heart of town.
The Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center is an indispensable stop for any visiting boater. Housed in the former finishing plant of the Fletcher Paper Company, it is a great place to find out about all the shipwrecks your boat just passed over and to discover this area’s varied boating history. Known for extreme weather, treacherous waters and dense fog, this part of Lake Huron has claimed more than 200 ships over the centuries.
Since 1679, when LaSalle’s Griffon passed by Thunder Bay, countless ships have traversed the coast off of Alpena on their way to outposts at Mackinaw, Sault Ste. Marie, Green Bay and elsewhere. Due to its strategic location along shipping lanes, and because the bay and nearby islands provided shelter for vessels during inclement weather, virtually all types of vessels employed on the open lakes regularly passed along this important trade route.
The sanctuary and center contain examples of nearly all of these. From wooden schooners to early steel-hulled steamers, as well as several unusual vessel types besides, the collection reflects a long history of transitions in ship architecture and construction.
The center’s newest exhibit, Exploring the Shipwreck Century, puts Thunder Bay’s crowded lake floor on display. Special features include a floor to ceiling mural depicting a stormy Thunder Bay and a replica of the back section of the Cornelia B. Windiate, a schooner that sank in 1871 and now lies on the bottom of Lake Huron.
However, the shipwrecks are only one part of Alpena’s rich maritime history: equally important, and more accessible, are the lighthouses that dot the area shoreline.
To show off these beautiful and historical structures, Alpena hosts the annual Great Lakes Lighthouse Festival. The four-day event includes all kinds of activities and events. There are aerial, car and, of course, boat tours. There are performers, vendors, preservation groups, artists, authors and onlookers all in attendance. But though the event is centralized in Alpena, the “lights are on” from Tawas Point Lighthouse to Mackinac Bridge. So, if you time it right, you can cruise to or from Alpena from either the north or the south and follow the lights—and the festival—into town.
This year, the festival begins on Thursday, October 9, and ends on Sunday, October 12. The hub of the many activities is the Thunder Bay Recreation Center, which is located a bit north of downtown. A welcome party there will kick off the festival on opening night, and 75 vendor and exhibitor booths will be set up in the building throughout the weekend.
The number of events, tours and activities offered in this single four-day span is staggering. Helicopter tours, a provisional museum, an auction, presentations and concerts—this is a small sample of all that will be on hand. With so much, the festival draws visitors from all over and raises hundreds of thousands of dollars for lighthouse groups.
Whether or not your Alpena visit coincides with the festival, the lighthouses are worth seeing. You can do so from your own vessel, but the Middle Island Light Station Tours offer an excellent opportunity to get an up-close, guided look. These narrated three- to four-hour tours include a short boat ride, a nature walk, a viewing of restoration efforts and photo opportunities. Volunteers and visitors depart at 10:00 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays from May through October, weather permitting.