CEDARVILLE, Mich. (AP) -- An early-morning geology lecture might strike some people as an unusual vacation activity.
But it's how Gladys Miller of Deerfield Beach, Fla., and a couple of dozen other seniors kicked off a weeklong tour of the Les Cheneaux Islands region of Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
"I'm interested in the geology of places I visit, the cultural history too," Miller said after the hour-long briefing. "This is such a lovely area. I really hope they can keep it this way, unspoiled."
A coalition of businesses, environmentalists and government officials is betting the future on people like Miller. The group is developing a strategy for making the Les Cheneaux area a haven for "nature-based" tourism such as bird-watching, kayaking and museum visits.
The area includes a chain of 36 islands in northern Lake Huron and the nearby mainland.
The idea is to boost the economy of the lightly populated community, struggling with the decline of sport fishing, without touching off runaway growth that would ruin the ecosystem and small-town atmosphere.
It's a realistic goal, especially if the initiative is broadened to include all of the eastern Upper Peninsula, says Ted Eubanks, a nature travel consultant advising the Les Cheneaux coalition.
"This could be one of the great outdoor destinations in this country -- as great as Yellowstone, as great as the Grand Canyon," Eubanks says.
That may be overstating things, says Linda Hudson, who runs a hardware store in Cedarville and leads the coalition, known as the Les Cheneaux Economic Forum. But she believes nature-based tourism, also known as ecotourism, can put the area on the map without jeopardizing its natural treasures.
Visitors "won't get Disneyland here," Hudson says. "What we're trying to do is give them an authentic nature experience."
French explorers centuries ago named the area Les Cheneaux, or "the channels," referring to waterways linking the archipelago that had long been a canoe thoroughfare for native Indians.
The islands and mainland coast are lined with hidden coves, reedy swamps and forests of cedar, balsam fir and aspen overlooking Huron's sparkling waters. Farther inland are hardwoods and open grasslands. More than 250 bird species can be spotted in a typical year; wildflowers and aquatic plants abound.
In the late 1800s, Les Cheneaux became a magnet for wealthy families who built fancy summer estates. During the off-season, a bountiful supply of yellow perch drew anglers from far and wide, supporting inns, tackle shops and restaurants in the lakeside villages of Cedarville and Hessel.
But perch numbers have plummeted in recent decades for reasons that aren't clear. Possible culprits include overfishing, pollution and an exploding population of double-crested cormorants -- waterfowl that feed on game fish.
Business is still good during the pleasant but short summer, when the area's population jumps from 2,400 to 8,000. But the fishery's slump is particularly damaging for the "shoulder seasons" -- fall and spring -- when there is little else to draw visitors and the jobless rate tops 30 percent.
Although desperate to prime the economic pump, community leaders recoil at the thought of an invasion of fast-food joints and big-box retailers. Nor do they want the waterfront gobbled up by chain hotels and condos as in many Great Lakes tourist towns.
Les Cheneaux has been labeled one of the "last great places" by The Nature Conservancy, which owns more than 6,000 acres there, and among 25 "great hideouts" by Men's Journal. The question for locals is how to benefit from the isolation and beauty without destroying it.
The economic forum hired Fermata Inc., a consulting firm in Austin, Texas, to craft a nature tourism plan. Eubanks, the company president, says Les Cheneaux is an ideal spot but too small to be a world-class destination.
His report proposes marketing the eastern Upper Peninsula and even a swath of neighboring Ontario, Canada as a Great Lakes paradise, loaded with back-to-nature opportunities.
"The U.P. is one of the last great undiscovered wilderness areas in our country," Eubanks says. "Not just the beauty, but the darkness at night, the silence -- these things have become real commodities in our world."
The plan drew an enthusiastic response at meetings in June attended by business operators from around the region.
"People always want to know where to go see a moose or bear or trumpeter swan," says Bud Chamberlin, owner of an inn and restaurant on Manistique Lake. "Maybe if all of us work together we can do some larger-type advertising and get more people in here."
Next step: seeking a grant to develop a Web site and teach community leaders how to promote their natural and cultural resources by doing things such as opening nature centers, providing interpretative brochures and signs, and helping craftspeople display their work.
Some entrepreneurs have gotten a head start at fitting into the nature tourism mold.
Jessie Hadley, formerly a staffer with The Nature Conservancy, has established Woods and Water Ecotours. She offers day trips and excursions in the Les Cheneaux area lasting several days, with activities ranging from sea kayaking to exploring underground caverns.
Hadley also helps coordinate tours through the Elderhostel program, designed for older people with an interest in educational travel. They begin with a presentation on the region's unique geological features produced by the slow retreat of glaciers 10,000 years ago.
The next several days are packed with sightseeing and workshops as participants learn about maple syrup production, boat building, glass blowing, Indian culture and the region's wildlife.
She wonders, though, what will happen once Les Cheneaux is no longer one of tourism's best-kept secrets. "But at least I can use my business to try and instill our values in the visitors. We want people to be respectful of our environment and culture."
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