WRITER | LISA BECKER CAMPBELL
PHOTO | MLIVE.COM
An Escape Close to Home
Charity Island in Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay is a natural treasure hidden in plain sight!
Though unimposing when viewed from the shore at Au Gres, to the west, or from Caseville, on Michigan’s “thumb,” Charity Island is a federally designated natural treasure. It is home to a historic lighthouse and an important enclave for migratory birds and rare plants.
The Island is aligned amid two of the best-known birdwatching sites in Lower Michigan: Tawas Point State Park (14 miles to the north) and the Fish Point Federal Wildlife Refuge (22 miles to the south). The region has been an important stopover for birds flying over the Great Lakes for centuries before humans began navigating Lake Huron. Over 200 species of migratory birds take respite at the preserve, which is now designated a Michigan Islands National Wildlife Refuge.
With its unique terrain of largely mixed hardwood forest and miles of isolated beaches, the Island is also ideal for special plant species, including the rare and protected Pitcher’s Thistle, Jack in the Pulpit, Pink Lady Slippers, Trillium, and Dwarf Lake Iris, the state wildflower of Michigan.
Fittingly, the island is also a relevant example of off-grid living. The lightkeeper’s home and a dinner cruise operation headquartered nearby are completely powered by renewable energy.
Despite being recognized for this energy achievement and being designated as a bird and plant sanctuary, the island may be most widely known for its former lighthouse, the Charity Island Light. Constructed in 1857, it played an important role in early Great Lakes shipping until 1930, when it was replaced by the Gravelly Shoal Light, a few miles to the east.
The lighthouses joined the island itself as a welcome aid to early mariners, the reason for which the island was named. Early fisherman believed God’s charity had placed the island in the bay as a refuge from storms. And the Native American Indians who first inhabited the islands gave credit to Gitchi Manitou, or Great Spirit, for providing the same blessing: a safe shelter for all, Indians and French explorers alike.
Charity Island technically comprises two islands, Big Charity Island, the largest island in Saginaw Bay, and its four-acre little sister isle. The property has exchanged ownership between private and government entities throughout history. They are now managed in part by the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service and are included among the Michigan Islands National Wildlife Refuge (a designation for eight Michigan islands in the Great Lakes). Owned by the United States federal government, they were set aside for ecosystem protection purposes by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1943.
Charity Island was offered for sale in 1987 for $750,000. In 1993, it was purchased by a group of investors who planned to create a housing development, but after accepting 15 deposits and blasting a harbor, the group had a change of heart. Instead, its members committed to preserving the Charity Island Light as an important piece of Great Lakes maritime history, an important economic asset for Northeast Michigan, and a tourist destination.
So in 1997, the investors sold more than 80 percent of the island to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as an addition to the MINWR system, and a few acres to The Nature Conservancy, which then purchased the lighthouse from the government. Architects determined that the original lightkeepers house could not be saved, and in 2003 a new structure was built on the same foundation.
Today, the island can be visited in the summertime by cruises via Charity Island Excursions in Au Gres. The tours include a visit to the lightkeepers house and a stop at a deck for birdwatching situated on a transition zone between the island’s mature hardwood forest and a shoreline dune habitat, affording views of a wide spectrum of species.
The award-winning Lighthouse Dining Adventures run every weekend through the second Saturday in October. The excursion starts with a leisurely one-hour boat ride across Saginaw Bay (including appetizers and sodas), followed by a short walk through the beautiful forest and a unique dining experience in a historical surrounding. The cruise concludes with a return to the mainland (including coffee and dessert) as the sun sets.
The privately run tours depart from Au Gres and Caseville Municipal Harbor. Birdwatching cruises are offered in the spring.