TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- Here's how the three of us ended up standing knee-deep in the Boardman River in the wilds of northern Michigan. My friend Joel decided it was time to embrace some executive-level activity. He hated golf but was intrigued by the thought of fly-fishing. He told Barry, and Barry went on the Internet and discovered that Orvis, the famed hunting and fishing retailer, ran fly-fishing schools around the country. Our first preference was to head to the rustic beauty of Montana or Idaho, but that was expensive and far away.
Then Barry found the Orvis school in northern Michigan. My first reaction was slight revulsion. Michigan was Rust Belt not rustic. Michigan was decaying urban centers with high crime rates. A river did not run through it.
How wrong I was. Detroit, Flint, and Kalamazoo are a world away from what we discovered. Given that we were determined to have our "City Slickers" male-bonding adventure and given that none of us had ever so much as picked up a fly-fishing rod, we ended up discovering one of the most beautiful vacation spots in the country.
We booked our three-day class for late August. Joel and I flew from Boston through Chicago to Traverse City, where we arrived at the Cherry Capital Airport. Barry, arriving from New York, met us there and we rented a car. Traverse City, with 14,000 inhabitants, is the largest city in this part of northern Michigan. Calling itself "The Cherry Capital of America" because of its lush annual harvest, it sits on the shores of Grand Traverse Bay.
We stopped for lunch in Traverse City's charming red brick downtown and then drove north to Acme, where we checked into the Grand Traverse Resort, a sprawling golf club and resort.
The fly-fishing, which turned out to be just a part of our Michigan experience, was great fun even though among us, we couldn't catch a cold. We had the good fortune to get Dave McCool, a young, enthusiastic Orvis instructor and guide, to teach our class. With his skills and contagious love of the outdoors, we crammed a month of fishing knowledge into three days. We learned how to roll cast and false cast and throw a double loop. We studied the entomology of the sport, learning the names of the various insects our flies were supposed to emulate. .
After some classroom lectures and casting practice at the edge of the golf course, we went out to the Boardman, a blue-ribbon trout stream that runs 45 miles from Kalkaska northwest through Traverse City and into the bay. Ernest Hemingway grew up fishing the Boardman. Standing in its crystal waters at sunset made us forget all about Montana.
Our technique was more reminiscent of the Three Stooges than bona fide anglers. Our wives would have doubled up laughing had they seen us wading into the rushing current, casting with futility into the eddies and crannies, and spending most of our water time freeing our flies from tree branches and submerged logs. Two members of the class landed tiny brown trout. We caught nothing. Dave assured us that August was a bad time to fish. The river is warm so the trout spend most of their days hunkered in the shade near the shore. We considered a trip to the supermarket to purchase a frozen trout for a photo op, but our egos wouldn't allow such subterfuge.
Instead, we hopped into our rental car and decided to look around. We headed north toward the top of the mitten (the shape of the state's Lower Peninsula). Our destination was Mackinac Island (pronounced Mackinaw), one of the few places in this region whose fame had spread beyond the Midwest. Much of the ride was along the shores of Little Traverse Bay and Lake Michigan, which looks for all the world like the ocean. Virtually all the coastline was alive with beachgoers, sailors, and vacationing families.
Along the way, we stopped in small towns with names like Petoskey and Charlevoix. We learned about shiny Petoskey stones, beautiful rock-like treasures that are actually ancient coral and are found in Little Traverse Bay. We stopped for cherry jam and cherry licorice at one of the many roadside stands. And we quickly got the sense that Hemingway's ghostly presence was everywhere in this part of Michigan. In fact, in Charlevoix, a charming lakefront community, we lunched at a small diner that boasted in its window that "Hemingway DID NOT eat here."
We drove to Mackinac City where we boarded a ferry to the island. Mackinac Island is the Martha's Vineyard of northern Michigan, a quaint and beautiful tourist spot that is known for the absence of motorized vehicles. Horse-drawn taxis and wagons crisscross the island and visitors can rent their own carriages for tours.
We took our little surrey out and promptly managed to get lost, much to the chagrin of Duke, our weary horse who could smell his supper back at the barn. Could we be worse at driving a horse-drawn carriage than we were at fly-fishing? We did find our way back eventually, and managed to pass the magnificent Grand Hotel, one of the world's most luxurious, with its famed 660-foot-long veranda. The hotel charges $10 merely to stand on the porch, so we urged Duke to clip-clop past.
On our final day, we drove west of Traverse City to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. When we climbed the ridge to one of several lookout points, the three of us were stunned. Laid out before us were magnificent sand dunes rising as much as 450 feet above Lake Michigan's shoreline. The view was surreal: part tropical, part Saharan, part heaven. Below was a pristine white sand beach with the aqua-colored water of the Caribbean. People were running and sliding down the dunes all the way to the water, though the climb back up was not for the faint of heart.
I looked at my travel partners and said for about the 10th time: "This can't be Michigan."
We drove south to a small town called Empire, where Barry and I took a refreshing swim in the lake. With waves and current and a seemingly endless shoreline, the only thing that convinced us we were not in the ocean was the absence of salt in the water.
We only scratched the surface in our five days, but as Paul Simon once wrote, "Michigan seems like a dream to me now."
Glenn Rifkin is a freelance writer and author who lives in Acton.