Activity comes in waves in the Les Cheneaux region. There’s the summer onslaught, because who wouldn’t want to spend time in an area surrounded by woods, water, and islands? There’s the fall, with its gorgeous trees, big waves, and scampering deer. There’s a boat-building school and a cooking school and a slew of family cottages.
But the waves aren’t always neatly lined up either. In 2000, the yellow perch population in Lake Huron near Les Cheneaux collapsed. (In 1986, more than 480,000 yellow perch were caught by recreational fishers; in 2000, it was less than 700.) What had been a giant lure to the region had suddenly vanished.
Amy Polk watched this from both far and near, and was inspired by revitalization efforts around the state, particularly in Detroit, where she started frequenting the Eastern Market and learning about makers and small businesses that sprouted there. She had started her own dog biscuit and soap-making ventures, and always wished to make them bigger than just hobbies.
Amy became involved with the Les Cheneaux Economic Forum at the suggestion of Wes Maurer, a Northern Initiatives board member and publisher of the St. Ignace News and Les Cheneaux Islands Weekly Wave, where Amy was a reporter. Wes encouraged his reporters to volunteer in their communities as a way to get to know their communities better. “I really developed my passion for improving the economy for the sake of the community,” she said of that work.
The Economic Forum was an effort to diversify Les Cheneaux’s economy after the yellow perch decline. One of the suggestions made by Economic Forum consultants was to offer “experiential tourism,” which meant offering trips, places, and things that are special because they are from this place.
“I learned that people like authenticity and products from Les Cheneaux, and there was an opportunity to make those things,” she said. She kept working to promote Les Cheneaux in her next job with the Les Cheneaux Tourist Association and Chamber of Commerce. And, she kept making and selling soap at craft shows and farmers markets, continually meeting the other artisans and makers in the area.
Everything came together in the Applecore General Store, which Amy opened in 2016 to peddle Michigan-made wares, including her own products that she had been making since she moved to the Les Cheneaux Islands.
“I can’t have a shop with just my products — it wouldn’t fill a store,” she said. “And most of these are locally made products that are so impactful to the people who make them.”
She said some people use the money from selling work to Applecore to pay critical bills, or for additional income to help make ends meet; while others see their sales as the encouragement they need to continue pursuing a craft. She loves working with people who never thought of themselves as artists and helping them see their potential.
As someone who has long championed the area and its people, the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 presented new challenges, including one Amy figured out how to handle. When the pandemic hit in early 2020 and stores downstate started to run out of hand sanitizer, she quickly sourced hundreds of bottles of sanitizer from a Michigan maker, then found herself in the odd position of being the only store in town with hand sanitizer to sell.
Thinking there might be something to this, she learned to make liquid hand sanitizer, and also sourced bulk gel hand sanitizer to bottle. Soon after, she got a request for several hundred bottles of hand sanitizer from a marine supply company — it was critical for sailors on Great Lakes freighters, but they couldn’t find any source of hand sanitizer from their regular vendors.
With the store closed and no opening date in sight due to the pandemic shutdown, Amy welcomed the request and orders for hand sanitizer that started coming in. She invested $3,000 of her own money for supplies, but with little income from the store while it was shut down, she realized she needed help.
Her loan helped her be able to donate nearly 300 bottles of hand sanitizer. sell another 300 bottles at cost, and hold a hand sanitizer fundraiser that raised more than $300 for the Les Cheneaux Community Foundation’s COVID-19 Relief Fund.
“Having worked with Northern Initiatives staff on the Les Cheneaux Economic Forum and the Great Waters tourism initiative, I was always impressed with their work and community focus, and looked forward to having an opportunity to work with them personally,” she added.
Her loan also helped Applecore navigate business changes caused by the pandemic — most importantly, the costs of bottling and distributing sanitizer until it became readily available again in stores — and optimizing the Applecore General Store website for online sales, anticipating a customer shift toward more online shopping in the wake of the pandemic