M-22 leaves the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore just past Good Harbor. Although the vaunted “Most Beautiful Place in America” recedes into the rear view mirror, almost half of M-22 still lies ahead, with some of the best towns, attractions, and scenery still to come.
M-22’s first town past the dunes is Leland, a village lying on a narrow strip of land between Lake Leelanau and Lake Michigan. M-22 passes along the shoreline of Lake Leelanau north and south of downtown Leland. Leelanau is an Ottawa Indian term meaning “delight of life,” an appropriate name for a lake, peninsula, and county which have delighted so many visitors and created so many memories. Lake Leelanau runs 21 miles through the middle of the Leelanau Peninsula and is 1.5 miles wide at its widest. It is one of the most scenic lakes in Michigan, with hills on both sides of the lake providing outstanding views. The lake was created from three smaller lakes when the Leland River was dammed. It has areas of marsh, areas of sandy beaches, and areas that feature a soft sand bottom ideal for swimming and water sports. There are numerous spots along M-22 providing lake access. One of the most popular is Fisher “Fudgie” Beach, just south of downtown Leland.
Despite Lake Leelanau’s beauty, Leland’s signature attraction is Fishtown, an assortment of weathered shanties sitting directly on the Leland River. The river runs only a mile and a half, beginning at the end of Lake Leelanau and ending in Fishtown as it empties into Lake Michigan. Leland’s history is unique among the towns along M-22. While most began as logging towns, Leland was also a fishing village. Native Americans were drawn to the mouth of the Leland River in pursuit of migratory species of fish that returned to the Leland River to spawn. The river provided a natural fish ladder that made catching them relatively easy. European settlers arrived in the 1830s and were originally drawn to the fishery. In 1854, a sawmill was built along the river. It was powered by a newly built dam, which raised upstream water levels twelve feet and created Lake Leelanau out of what had been three smaller lakes along the Leland River. Steamers were able to dock along shore. The Leland Lake Superior Iron Company built a large smelter just north of downtown. Upper Peninsula ore was shipped to Leland, where it was smelted using maple and birch charcoal from local trees. At its height, the company produced forty tons of iron per day.
By 1880, a commercial fishery developed. Wood shanties were built directly on the river from which fisherman would process their catch and service their boats. As many as eight powered fishing tugs once operated out of Fishtown. Two fishing tugs, the “Joy” and the “Janice Sue,” have been restored and maintained by the Fishtown Preservation Society and still dock in Fishtown today. Many of the fishing shanties have been transformed into gift shops and boutiques. A few smokehouses remain, the best known of which is Carlson’s Fisheries. In 2012, CNN Travel named Carlson’s one of the top ten “Hard-To-Find Travel Destinations” in the world. It was one of only two places in the United States to make the list. CNN touted Carlson’s smoked whitefish pate, and described the venue as “a hole-in-the-wall so obscure that Google Maps can’t find it.”