It’s tough to succeed in business, especially in small-town rural America. Yet it is possible, if a person has enough tenacity and commitment, paired with the right idea. It is possible for a family-owned business to last 20, 30, or even 50 years. For the Plaunt family of Cheboygan, 2012 is the 80th year of operation for the ferry service that they provide to and from Bois Blanc Island, known as “the other island” in the Straits of Mackinac.
Back in 1932, Charles Plaunt was a Bois Blanc Island resident and commercial fisherman who obtained a contract with the US Postal Service to carry mail to the sparsely-populated island. He was, after all, going anyway, transporting supplies to the island that lies 6 miles north of Cheboygan in Lake Huron; and the mail needed to be delivered. Aboard the Margaret, Charles could also transport 8 passengers to and from Cheboygan, the closest city for obtaining supplies.
Demand grew, and in 1934 Charles put The Adventure into service, and upped his passenger capacity to 20 at a time. Three years later, he replaced The Adventure with a vessel that he named for his wife, Ada, beginning a tradition of the Plaunts naming the ferries for the women in the family.
Charles and Ada raised their family on the island, as did his son Ray, who took over the route in 1948. “We lived on Bois Blanc until the girls (Char McLaren and Lee McNamara) got into high school,” said Ray when I spoke with him. “Then we moved the family over to Cheboygan. The school on the island didn’t go past 8th grade, you see.”
Yet another, bigger boat followed in 1954, the Char-Leann II, built in Holland, MI with the ability to carry up to 28 passengers, and for the first time, a vehicle. A vehicle on board reduced the passenger capability to 6, but until that time a barge crossing was the only option for cargo, heavy equipment, or private transportation.
In 1979, Plaunt Transportation incorporated and the Chee-Maun-Nes was put into service, carrying two vehicles and 49 passengers. “More people were becoming aware of the island, and more were making it their summer get-away spot. We needed to accommodate more passengers,” Ray said.
Curt, the only son of Ray, who bought the company from his dad in 1987, is known by area residents as Captain Curt. He began working on the boat as a kid, doing whatever he was big enough to do. It’s been 40 years now that he’s made the trip across the channel, and he’s due to renew his captain’s license for the 9th time, but he didn’t always want to captain the ferry.
“I thought I wanted to be an electrical engineer,” he said. “So I went to Lake Superior State for a while. But I found that I really missed this,” he looks out over the brilliant blue of Lake Huron, with the Mackinac Bridge just visible through the summer haze. “It’s what I do.”
Page 2 of 3 - Now, more than 25,000 crossings later, he doesn’t “have to” make every trip. “There was a 9 year period when if the ferry was out, I was on it. I captained every crossing. We do six trips a day during the peak season, and three a day in spring and fall. It’s nice to have the option of staying on shore sometimes, now.” He points toward the pilot house, where his son, Jason who is piloting the ferry, and nephew, Ryan McLaren who is now a part-owner of the company, are in control. Both are licensed captains. “I’m hoping that those two will take this over someday.”
Captain Curt winks at his grandson, Caleb, who is two years old and right at home on the gently rocking Kristen D. “His mom says he’s going to be an engineer.” He continues, scooping the rosy-cheeked toddler into his arms. “We’ll see. I thought I was too.” He loves to go on the boat, but I have to talk to his mom before I can ask him if he wants to go boat with me, because he loves it so much. She thinks he’ll be an engineer,” he winks, “ but I know he’ll be on the boat.”
The Kirsten D. was designed by Curt and built in 1987 to could carry 8 vehicles and 49 passengers. In 1998, she was lengthened by 30 feet, increasing the capacity up to 17 vehicles and 149 passengers. The increased size also making it easier to carry heavy equipment, semi, cement and garbage trucks.
Over the winter the vessel was in dry dock for all new paint and other maintenance to comply with safety regulations.
As passengers file onto the deck on the Bois Blanc side, there is a lot of easy banter between them and the Captain of the ship. “I’ve made some great friends through the years of making these trips. I look forward to seeing them every year. It is surprising how many of them have been riding back and forth for 30 and 40+ years.” Curt keeps a close eye on the “puzzle” of getting cars on board as he talks to passengers. “There are a few people who are past 90 years old who ride with us. They go for free.”
Captain Curt thinks some about retirement, but not too much. “I’ll renew my license, which is good for another five years, and see how I feel about it then. I still enjoy it, and the guys (Jason and Ryan) are still learning. In five years, who knows?”
One thing is quite sure. Plaunt Transportation will still be carrying car, passengers, and yes, the mail to Bois Blanc Island.
For more information or to book passage aboard the Kirsten D, log onto www.bbiferry.com or call 231-627-2354.
Page 3 of 3 - Ann Rowland is a contributor for the Mackinac Journal and a regular writer for regional magazines and newspapers.