A Brief History of Prentiss Bay

An expanded journal entry for July 2, 1996 at Spruceview Cabin by Cameron J. Anderson, former InterVarsity staff and long-time visitor to Cedar Campus, as he muses over the histories of these grounds and waters.


This Tuesday morning concludes another of our many fine trips to Cedar Campus. Our present ten-day stay began with a splendid and first-ever, in my memory at least, Faculty Family Camp using both the Old Mill Point and Mariners Cove sites. It concluded with a too brief three-day family vacation in Spruceview Cabin.

Yesterday, staff colleague Dave Collins invited my son, Jesse, out for an evening of fishing and, with a bit of coaxing, they permitted me to tag along. After testing various spots along the northern side of Prentiss Bay, Dave motored us toward its western end. There we marveled over a spectacular sunset which mirrored perfectly on still water. The sun cast its various hues of salmon and pink all the way to the crown of the most eastern side of the bay and backlit several iridescent jet trails. A solitary beaver left its wake through the lily pads, a white tailed deer bounded the cedar shoreline and waterfowl were all about. Evening sounds emerged, especially the antiphonal call and response of frogs. Prentiss Bay teemed with life! Unfortunately for Dave and Jesse, the fish weren't biting. After a good long time of working the weed beds with various lures and without a catch, night began to close in and we headed back to the dock. Now, facing Rover Island and Willoughby Lodge, the large moon shone between a separation in the clouds and lay down its orangey trail on the waterway before us.

It is no secret that I am very fond of this particular bay in the Les Cheneaux Islands, an area bounded by Michigan Highway 134, Prentiss Creek, Whitefish Point and Rover Island. Often, after arriving from the day-long drive across Wisconsin and Michigan, this bay seems like the last outpost on the edge of a wild and uncivilized world and I am tempted to imagine that directly east from here - beyond the dunes, Detour Village and Drummond Island - lies a vast expanse of water and beyond it only New York City.

Eighteen years old and a green InterVarsity exec member at UW-Eau Claire, I attended my first Chapter Camp here in May 1972 and eagerly returned that same summer for the School of Leadership Training (SLT). Ever since then this physical space has been a vital spiritual reference point - a place where God has met so many of us in important and dynamic ways.

As I think about this, Prentiss Bay seems to have three histories really. In the first place, chronologically at least, its history is a primordial and natural one. Creation. This first story is one of geologic formation, the origin and evolution of flora and fauna, waterways, shorelines, marshes and creatures. All these have their being beneath the pattern of the region's ever-changing weather - wind, rain, ice and sun - and its many cycles of life and death. What splendid observations might a writer such as Annie Dillard record in this place? Or what verse might the poet Luci Shaw produce here?[1] This would be the first history: a history of rocky shores, wood lilies, lady slippers, small mouth bass, king salmon, brown trout, loons, wood ducks, finches, evergreens, marsh grasses and moss.

These ancient beginnings, however, have known contemporary change. This eco-system - one which naturalist Cal DeWitt tells me is known as the "spruce and moose" biome - has undergone alteration even in the two decades of my coming and going. For instance, the encroachment of cormorants has led to the demise of perch, the relative absence of loons and the death of nearly all the vegetation on Crow Island. The waterline has demonstrated a radical rise and fall measured most easily along the isthmus that lies between the numbered point cabins and Whitefish Point. And the winter feeding habits of the overabundant white-tailed deer account for the near absence of young cedar saplings. (Will it still be "Cedar" Campus in another 30 years?)

The bay's second history is one of human culture, commerce and leisure. Whatever settlement of native Americans may have lived here; however they may have fished, feasted, worshipped, hunted and harvested, certainly a whole anthropology of ideas and artifacts could be assembled. French explorers, trappers and Catholic missionaries arrived in the 1700s and much later the abundant white pine in the region was harvested in earnest. In the late 1800s, this cash crop gave rise to Prentiss, a sawmill town with nearly 500 residents located on Old Mill Point. Here, millions of board feet of white pine were processed and the deep channel of the outer bay allowed steamers to export this lumber to satisfy the mighty appetite for construction materials in Chicago and other growing Midwestern cities. No doubt this period was a colorful one, filled with considerable opportunities and even more disappointments. A life of few creature comforts, bitter winters, summers filled with endless work and more than a few tall tales. I wonder if God's untamed garden seemed as good to these earlier residents as it does to me now? Just once I would have liked to see and hear the massive steam-powered sawmill sing its way through the enormous logs. Certainly it produced rough cut boards the likes of which have long since disappeared from today's common suburban lumber yards.

When all the white pine had been clear cut, the very profitable lumber-bearing economy experimented with more futile agrarian efforts and finally latched on to tourism. As permanent residents can testify, the population of this Lake Huron shoreline swells during the summer months and subsides for the rest of the year.[2] Now there are marinas for all of the splendid sailing boats, transport to and from the various islands, hundreds of summer "cabins" tucked along the miles of shoreline and favorite eating spots such as the Hessel Bay Inn and the Hessel Bakery. Thankfully, the more commercial places such as McDonald's and others remain absent, though a few may be found as nearby as St. Ignace.

The third history is one of Christian ministry. This story begins with the procurement of the Prentiss Bay properties over a period of sixteen years by businessman Herbert J. Taylor. As a boy, Taylor had grown up in nearby Pickford and he, more than anyone it seems, had entrepreneurial vision for how God might use the 500-acre site.[3] In 1954 Stacey Woods invited Keith and Gladys Hunt to develop the site. This they did across many years and in three stages. First Northshore, the most rustic site, then the still impressive timbers of Willoughby Lodge on Old Mill Point and finally, Mariners Cove.[4]

It seems to me that this third history honors and acknowledges the previous two (thankfully permanent Cedar Campus [staff,] crew and others see to this), but with a new end in sight - the training of university students to serve Jesus Christ on their respective campuses and around the world.[5] A new, novel perhaps, declaration of purpose, but one built into the very structure of God's creation from before the beginning of time.

It was Tom Trevethan who reminded me that such a camp is, of course, the natural extension of pioneer Howard Guinness's vision for camping, as expressed by the many InterVarsity Pioneer Camps stretched across Canada.[6] And of course, the first InterVarsity camp ever held here was in 1951 and hosted by Charles Troutman in the old Northshore Lodge as an overflow event from a packed Canadian conference at Campus in the Woods. It was reported to be less than a promising beginning for camping on Prentiss Bay.

For many of us, the experience we have had here has been so rich in the Spirit and the Word of Christ that we talk of this place as hallowed ground - likened to the very dirt which surrounded God's burning bush for Moses or Jacob's Bethel. Whether or not this is so is an ongoing theological debate, one that continues mostly among InterVarsity staff. Does God at various times and in various ways cause Himself to be especially present? Yes. May this special presence be linked to a physical place? Is Prentiss Bay a place of presence or a site of remembrance? A familiar conundrum and one I find hard to answer. Perhaps it is more important to emphasize that so many have experienced the real presence of Christ here and that the theological underpinnings we may want to assign need to be left in the "agree to disagree" category.

On the other hand, I recall one SLT Bible expositor's private disclosure of holding morning devotions near the bay and having a repeated and vivid vision of evil sea creatures surrounding the camp but recognizing that the camp and all the persons therein were in a "safe haven" and kept by God's angels. Though I am not given to receive such visions, I have no reason to discount this person's! Recognizing the substantial spiritual work that occurs here, should these dynamics surprise us?

Across 45 years the three sites on Prentiss Bay have been an international meeting place for world-renowned theologians, foreign students, freshmen gaining their first "taste" for Jesus, summer crew learning about service and snarly old staff lingering around that dubious "coffee" machine in Willoughby Lodge.

Though there was a period of years during my staff tenure in which camping seemed in serious jeopardy and beloved Cedar Campus seemed greatly at risk, God has seen fit to preserve the site and the vital spiritual meeting and training which occurs here.

I admit that three histories may be a bit artificial, too nearsighted. In fact, three histories may be two too many. Rather, each one is but a small episode in God's larger cosmic history. From the vast, inky night skies above the bay filled from horizon-to-horizon with stars to the restoration of Christ's Spirit in our minds and hearts - for we too will shine as stars - what I now recall and imagine must all be placed within the realm of God's Kingdom and rule. Not a single cubic millimeter rests outside His authority and, by extension, His loving concern.

So be it Lord, Thy throne shall never
Like earth's proud empires, pass away;
Thy kingdom stands, and grows forever
Till all Thy creatures own Thy sway[7]

 

It may be that in singing morning and evening hymns (for me, at least, choruses and the absence of SATB harmonizations do not capture this) in the Meeting House we have it most right - all of life, human and otherwise, is meant to be one great doxological moment which waits in anticipation for one even greater doxological eternity when we see the Creator and Sustainer of Prentiss Bay face-to-face.

Third draft 7/5/1997


Notes:

1. Shaw is the daughter of former InterVarsity board member Northcote Deck, for whom Deck Cabin is named, and from time-to-time her poems appeared in various issues of HIS Magazine. I particularly like her collection Polishing the Petosky Stone (Wheaton: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1990).

2. Fortunately a fine collection of local histories does exist in Philip Mcm. Pittman, The Les Cheneaux Chronicles: Anatomy of a Community (Charlevoix, Michigan: Peach Mountain Press, 1984).

3. John W. Alexander reminds me that at this point in my brief narrative I should include, "something about the huge number of real estate parcels to which Herb had to procure title; the months of work he and Ken Hansen invested in procuring those titles; the astonishing story about the two elderly sisters who were the final holdouts; the deeding of the titles to IVCF; Stacey's decision to tap Ralph Willoughby as the staff member responsible for developing the property; and Ralph's untimely death." See also Herbert J. Taylor, God Has a Plan for You (Carol Stream, IL: Creation House, 1972), pp. 78-80.

4. Originally named Wilderness Cove until brush was cleared away and resort type buildings were built suggesting anything but wilderness.

5. Keith and Gladys Hunt, For Christ and the University: The Story of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship of the U.S.A., 1940-1990 (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1991), pp. 165-168.

6. Howard Guinness, Journey Among Students (Sydney: Anglican Information Service, 1978), pp. 57-60.

7. John Ellerton, The Day Thou Gavest Lord, vs. 4.