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Lime Island is an Undiscovered Gem

August 10, 2006

Most people may be unfamiliar with a hidden gem that lies in the St. Marys River Navigation Channel at the eastern end of the Upper Peninsula, just upstream from the DeTour Passage.

It's Lime Island and to get there you need to take a 15-minute boat ride across the aqua-green waters of Raber Bay.

Lime IslandThe 980-acre island is owned
by the state of Michigan and managed by the Department of Natural Resources. To those who have been there, the island is a premier outdoor recreation area, but even most of them don't know that the island was the site of summer camps of Woodland Indians some 5,000 years ago; or that lime kilns were constructed there in the early 1700s or that it was a 20th century sportsmen's club, attracting the likes of Hoot Gibson, Diamond Jim Brady and Mae West.

"More recently, Lime Island was owned by Consolidated Coal, which supplied coal-burning steamers and, later, bunker oil to diesel-powered ships plying the Great Lakes," said Janet Chilson, a volunteer host on Lime Island.

Janet and her husband, Howard, live on the island from May through September, caring for the island, interpreting its amazing history and helping campers to enjoy their visit.

"When the company pulled out in 1982, the island's little village, including the small cottages, the one-room schoolhouse and the company superintendent's house, became a ghost town," Janet Chilson said. "Consolidated Coal then sold the island to the state for one dollar, but with no money for development, the village quickly deteriorated at the hands of vandals, until the DNR was given management oversight and began bringing the island back to life."

People standing in a cabin looking own the window on Lime IslandToday, though you need a boat to get there or rent a charter, Lime Island has become a wonderful vacation retreat. Visitors can camp on specially designed platforms lining the shores of both the north and south ends of the island, or stay in beautifully refurbished rental cabins. There are miles of hiking trails, beautiful beaches and, in season, the island offers wild asparagus and mushrooms, apple trees and even an ancient mulberry tree from which to pluck succulent fruit.

The forests are mature, with large pines along the southern end, hardwoods in the middle and cedar and tamarack lining the north shore. Moose occasionally swim across from nearby St. Joseph's Island, and Lime Island is home to one of the most valuable colonies of common terns in Michigan.

Kiln"The entire island is fascinating," said Pat Hallfrisch, area manager for the DNR Forest, Mineral and Fire Management Division at Sault Ste. Marie. "The area is a gold mine of natural fossils. It also hosts many unique plants, and birders will thrill at the variety of birds that pass through in the spring and fall."

At the north end of the island, also known as the town site, is a harbor of refuge that features a 900-foot dock. During bad weather, boats will line its entire length seeking shelter from the storm. When the weather is good, as many as 100 pleasure boats may be at the dock, not only because it's a nice, friendly place to be, but also because the fishing is terrific.

Freighter off the coast of Lime IslandFreighter watching also is great fun. The big Great Lakes freighters slip past the island practically within touching distance. At night, the freighters are lit from bow to stern, but when there's fog, the quiet thrum of the propellers may be the only signal that a ship is passing by.

"The DNR built a walkway that allows visitors to look into the ongoing archaeological excavations that give clues to prehistoric activities," Janet Chilson said. "Copper points, some 4,000 years old, from Native American arrows have been discovered here."

Lime Island cottages have two or three bedrooms to accommodate up to eight individuals and are barrier free. Guests should bring their own bedding, cooking equipment tableware, flashlights, lanterns and a first aid kit. Warm clothing is recommended. Tent camping on the platforms or elsewhere is available.

Electricity is supplied by solar panels in the roof of the cabins. Plumbing is limited by the island's rocky substrate, so visitors are asked to bring their own solar shower bottle or plan to take a swim, as showers are not available. Clean restrooms near the cabins are shared with other campers.

The cottages and tent camping sites are available from Memorial Day weekend through mid-September. A weekend cottage reservation is a minimum stay of two nights, at $45 per night. Camping is $6 per night and there are small fees for overnight dockage.

Janet and Howard Chilson plan to be back for as many years as they can. Retired from Steelcase in Grand Rapids, Howard quickly has become the best source for area fishing suggestions. His freezer is packed with walleye and herring filets all summer long.

"Once you come here, it's hard to leave," Chilson said. "There is just something about this island that gives you a whole new perspective and has many people, including us, coming back again and again."

Perhaps now, it's your turn to discover Lime Island, one of Michigan's undiscovered gems. For more information, contact the DNR Sault Ste. Marie field office at (906) 635-5281 or visit the DNR Web site at

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