Falling Waters Lodge is the Best Dam Lodge

His huge crinkly-eyed laugh and kooky humor are contagious. She’s a blur of curly ginger hair and energy. Together they are Coop and Em, the 20-something phenoms pouring all they’ve got into Falling Waters Lodge in Leland, putting it back on the map of places you gotta stay. 

Featured in the June 2019 issue of Traverse Magazine. Get your copy.

April 13, 2018: Innkeeper Emily Heston stomped her boots on the steps, knocking off wet sand, and headed into the office at Falling Waters Lodge—the 21-room, hip-roofed, three-story behemoth built in the 1960s—whose balconies look straight across the bottle-green Leland River and the shanties of Fishtown. Steps from the inn’s office door, water rushing over the Leland Dam creates a waterfall of white noise Emily and her husband, Cooper, adore as much as the view.

Em had just returned from a quick walk on Van’s Beach, just behind the lodge. A blast of heat and her giant fluffy black Bernedoodle, Bear, welcomed her. Hanging up her winter coat, Em pulled out her phone to post a photo of the lake on Instagram. The first day of spring had come and gone weeks ago, but it was snowing, heavily. Her photo caption: “Someone send coffee or wine, we’re cold and sad.”

Meanwhile, from her home in Grosse Ile, Michigan, a longtime guest at Falling Waters Lodge, Tracey Tear Gaudette, saw the post and made a quick phone call. Conspiring with Tiffany Burda, general manager of the neighboring grocery store, Leland Mercantile Co., Tracey arranged for an employee to walk next door with two bottles of wine. A few minutes later, the lodge’s office door opened. Em was greeted with a grin, Chateau Fontaine’s dry rosé and Boathouse Vineyards’ pinot grigio.

Tracey’s act of kindness was rooted in a passion for this special place on Lake Michigan’s coast. “My parents took my sisters and me there when it first opened, and the tradition lives on with our families. At one time, we had four generations vacationing together at Falling Waters Lodge.

“The smell of water, fish and wood smoke drifting over from Carlson’s Fishery —magic,” Tracey says.

Tracey knows even booking a room at this riverside retreat comes down to a perfect magic moment. Reservations can be made up to one year in advance, and when you’re checking out, you have first dibs on that room—if you book that day. People who visit annually for Memorial Weekend or the Fourth of July and haven’t booked at checkout have lost their favorite rooms. And never gotten them back.

“After we have weddings and family reunions, we have guests who tell us, ‘That’s my room forever,’” Coop says. “And they literally mean forever.”

The lodge’s spell is in the sandy path out back that leads to the beach, sprinkled with Petoskey stones and the local rock known as Leland Blue. It’s in the fishermen who line up along the lodge’s deck reeling in steelhead, walleye, Chinook, Coho and other big-lake beauties from the Leland River. And it spills over from the nearby boutiques and eateries housed in Fishtown’s shanties and in the 19th-century buildings that line Main Street.

How could you not fall in love with this place?

Coop was a high schooler just finishing a medaling track season when he first came to Falling Waters Lodge. It was the summer of 2010, and his grandmother had passed away, leaving his grandfather to run two lodges. Cooper’s grandparents, Riley and Johanna Newby, had moved to Leland in 1999 to retire. Instead of slowing down, they bought Falling Waters, and a few years later, Leland Lodge (which they later sold).

“That summer I had been turned down for a job as a camp counselor—because I made a terrible camp counselor,” Cooper laughs. “When I talked to my grandfather about how my plans fell through, he offered to contribute to a car purchase if I came up to live and work with him.”

Coop wore a suit to work every day and grew a beard—though it admittedly was very patchy—in hopes of looking more mature. He even wore a tie, only forgoing it if the temperature was above 80. “I’d be cleaning bathrooms in a suit because in my mind, you’d only wear a suit to work if you cared,” he says.

By the end of the summer, Coop was a manager. He also worked the front desk at both lodges and in the bar, restaurant and kitchen at Leland Lodge.

“That was the summer my grandfather and I became close. I still have the car he helped me buy—my red Honda Fit nick- named Elmo,” Cooper says. “It was never assumed that I would go to Leland and help run the lodge each summer after, but I found myself anchored to it. I wanted and needed to be there. Falling Waters was the place I felt I could make the most positive difference—more than any other place in the world.”

Coop’s then-girlfriend (now wife) Emily started coming to Leland with him in the summer to work at the lodge—cleaning rooms and doing laundry. The duo met during their freshman year at Principia College in Elsah, Illinois. She was majoring in creative writing with an emphasis on poetry. He was studying education and sociology.

When Coop’s grandfather passed away in September 2016, the future of the lodge was uncertain. Cooper’s mom and uncle considered selling it to a third party. Meanwhile, the young couple started making a to-do list. They’d been talking for years about buying the lodge. And while they respected their grandfather’s tenure with the old building, they couldn’t help planning the changes they’d make. “Truthfully, there was never a chance Coop was going to end up anywhere else,” Emily says.

Many people told them not to buy it—the lodge was too expensive, too rundown; they were too young (at the time, Cooper was 24 and Emily was 25). It was too much of a risk.

But instead of listening to all the reasons they couldn’t do it, they followed their hearts and plunged in to figure out how they could. After months of working with an accountant, an attorney and a banker, they forged a deal to take over Coop’s grandfather’s mortgage and make monthly payments to Coop’s mother and uncle who’d inherited the Lodge. On March 30, 2017, the young couple signed the purchase agreement for Falling Waters Lodge. Risk, dreams and all, they held the title.

The next day, they ripped out all the old carpet (a few friends were paid in pizza to help). In came COREtec floors that look like hardwood but are waterproof and can hold up to the Heston’s first policy change: all 21 rooms are now pet-friendly.

“The first weekend we opened, someone brought a cockatoo,” Emily says. “They took pet-friendly quite literally. We’ve had kittens, an iguana and a lot of dogs.”

They painted interior walls and, working with as many local artisans as possible, replaced dressers, bedside tables and every single lamp. That spring, they toiled until the last possible minute. “One of the rooms wasn’t ready and guests were going to check in,” Cooper says. “Luckily they didn’t come until 5 p.m. We had just put furniture back on top of the newly-installed floor, there wasn’t any trim, we were still sweeping up construction dust…”

“And they were so happy,” Emily interjects. “They visit every summer and were absolutely thrilled to see the lodge being revived. The fact that it’s still family owned and that we’ve kept the feel of Fishtown means it’s still the same nostalgic place for these people who have been coming here for so long.”

Case in point: When one guest who had been staying at Falling Waters Lodge for more than 50 years first saw the renovations he broke down in tears. “He was so happy to see this place he loves so much have life again,” Coop says.

Front Desk Manager Jaclyn Eikey’s official job title is “Backbone of the Lodge.” Check her business card the next time you visit.

The upgrades are ongoing. There’s a brand new deck over the river. Coop’s sister and brother-in-law, both talented artists, are creating original paintings for the rooms. And last summer the ‘70s-era kitchenettes were all replaced with new appliances, granite countertops and subway-tile backsplashes. “We’re proud of where we’ve come, but we do still look around and see things we want to change,” Coop says.

Their passion and work haven’t gone unnoticed. Folks who not long ago wrote them off as too young or not serious have become believers. The couple has become their own two-person Leland institution. Heck, they can even go for a sandwich at the famous Village Cheese Shanty in Fishtown and simply say, “A Coop special,” or “An Em special,” and everyone knows what they are talking about.

Through it all, they haven’t lost an ounce of spunk or zest for life. They balance bookkeeping and 60-hour workweeks with ultimate frisbee on Tuesday nights (they’re both on the Traverse City Ultimate board and team captains) and they recently purchased a fixer-upper in nearby Cedar that is usually brimming with friends, Bear and his new brother, a Bernedoodle named Charlie.

Coop and Em are crossing things off their to-do list and giving new life to the old lodge. But even on the busiest days, they take a minute to breathe that Great Lakes air mingled with a hint of smoked fish.

Take a Walk Around Leland … 

Coop and Em start their day at Blue Boat Coffee, tucked off of Main Street, with a steaming cup of MADCAP Coffee. Don’t even try to resist the sweet treats and local pastries from John and Linda Sisson, 9 Bean Rows and Third Coast Bakery.  
 
Across the street, Leelanau Books has endless beach-read recommendations and fun summer youth programs—kids make fairy houses, meet mermaids and create their own paintings. Stay awhile. 
 
In Fishtown, weathered fishing shanties house local shops, art galleries, Carlson’s Fishery, the cutest candy store you can imagine and, of course, Village Cheese Shanty. (Tip: The sandwich shack only accepts cash. Stop by the Huntington ATM on Main Street before you get in line.) 
 
More must-visit spots in Leland: The Village Green on the corner of Pearl and Main streets, The Old Art Building and Whaleback Natural Area, just south of town off of M22. 

Fall in Love with Northern Michigan Lodges

Across the North, historic lodges, resorts and inns are being lovingly restored. 

Birch Lodge

21830 S. Birch Lodge Dr., Trout Lake | 906.569.3351
This classic American lodge tucked between Trout Lake and Little Trout Lake opened in 1912, bolstered by the logging and railroad industries. It was transformed into a resort destination in 1926, and updates over the years have included the rustic Birch Bar and eight waterside motel rooms. This summer, guests will find expanded guest rooms in the main lodge, a revamped dining room and more recreational activities, thanks to new owners Bob and Maureen Kraemer and Jim and Carol Woodruff. 

Hotel Earl

120 Michigan Ave., Charlevoix | 231.547.6565
Built in 1959 by famed architect Earl Young, the hotel (formerly called The Lodge) underwent major renovations just in time for its 60th anniversary, including the addition of a third story, 17 new guest rooms (for a total of 56), the restoration of the original swimming pool, a 1,500-square-foot Hotel Earl Suite and a rooftop deck. 

Portage Point Resort

8567 Portage Point Dr., Onekama | 231.889.7500
The same firm that designed Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel also dreamed up this historic resort. Opened in 1903 by a Chicago-based transportation company, five steamships ferried Chicagoans north each summer. Current owner Robert Gezon is continually working on the property, recently finishing a complete restoration of the dining hall/ballroom. 

White Birch Lodge

571 Meguzee Point Rd., Elk Rapids | 231.264.8271
Started by Cliff and Ruby Conrad in 1958, and still owned and operated by their children and grandchildren, this family resort on Elk Lake is dedicated to being an eco-friendly operation. A large solar array installed on the rec hall roof can now produce about half of the resort’s energy. White Birch Lodge also has energy efficient lighting, heating and cooling, and the Conrads compost food and yard waste and avoid using pesticides, herbicides and harmful cleaning products. All of these efforts have earned them a Green Lodging Certification.