Surfing the Great Lakes by boat, land…computer

INTERLOCHEN – We all know the wary feeling of looking over a map, pen in hand, marking the fateful route of a vacation. The town names, highway symbols and map legend do little to tell us what we’ll find when we get there.

All the while you’re thinking, “What’s there?” This is what prompted Steve Sutherland of Interlochen to launch a website of Great Lakes harbor towns that answers just that question.

The site, launched this June, is located at and is a different breed than many travel sites out there. For starters, the format allows viewers to actually see what’s there. There are six main sections to each harbor town: aerial pictures, an area tour, historical overview, points of interest, calendar of events and folklore.

Among these categories lie unusual finds, such as NOAA navigational charts for boaters, audio tours, as well as a pictorial footpath through each town’s history. The site features towns like Frankfort, Leland, Mackinaw City, Manistee, Northport, Suttons Bay, Traverse City, Alpena and Cheboygan.

But this site is not just for Michiganders. “The first phase of the site is to get towns on line from Chicago to St. Claire Shores,” he said. “Phase two is up the other side of Wisconsin, finish the U.P. and head for New York and Canada. We are going around the Great Lakes, not just Michigan.”

He has 12 contractors scouting harbor towns for materials for the site. Eventually, he hopes to have a directory of services for each town.

Businesses may then purchase space or links on the site to let people see “what’s there” in their corner of town.

“We are getting pictures and information from local chambers of commerce and the response has been excellent,” Sutherland said. “We haven’t had anyone who hasn’t liked it yet.”

The purpose of the site is to tell people far more than the names and places of businesses and attractions.

“I want to be able to advise people traveling. For example, if you have kids it might be better to go to the beaches of Charlevoix. If it’s a couple traveling, they might like Petoskey better because there’s more to do.”

For boaters, Sutherland plans to add minute but crucial details of each harbor.

“It’s nice to know what towns have a small boat launch or no dock or harbor,” he said. “In Glen Arbor, if there’s a north or west wind, you’ll be in trouble. Or if you need to find a place to repair your boat. You can’t find that on the Net, and you need to know that if you’re boating.”

Sutherland has a business background in petroleum distribution and environmental services. He owned Sutherland Oil for 20-plus years before deciding to delve into his passions–boating and snowmobiling.

In fact, this fall he hopes to tell people “What’s There” on Michigan’s 5,000 miles of snowmobile trails.

“It’s nice to know where to get an $8 burger or a 50 cent burger–and whether or not the wives will use the bathrooms,” he said, with a laugh. BN