If God had really wanted Adam and Eve to live in the Garden of Eden forever, he would have given the first couple a golf cart. But where Eden falls short, Turtle Lake Resort — one of Michigan’s five nudist resorts — manages to shine. Limes with salt take the place of forbidden fruit. Golf carts always have the right of way. Serpents are defanged and live in the light, tattooed on sun-scorched biceps and buttocks. The result is a 172-acre slice of heaven on the outskirts of Union City, south of Battle Creek, where free spirits can lay bare their troubles — and everything in between.
A Visit … With Reservations
After reaching a certain distance on Union City’s roads, it’s obvious to most locals that you’re on your way to Turtle Lake Resort. You pass summer homes ensconced by aromatic woodlands. The woods give way to farmlands, where lots are measured in acres.
“The hardest thing you’ll do is take your clothes off,” I’m told when I made Memorial Day weekend reservations. I supposed the rest would be a walk in the park, though I wondered how true that would be. My mind raced with thoughts of ethereal beings: silky-haired, shapely women frolicking with tall, brawny men. They would worship the sun, pray to the moon, and welcome me with open, toned arms.
Reality was slightly less enchanting. I arrived late afternoon at the front office behind a leather-clad man who rode a chopper.
“I can give you a map and some informational things, but I can’t let you in,” the receptionist, a woman in her mid-50s, tells him.
“Even if it’s just for the one night?”
“How about a day pass? I just want to use your pool and your hot tub,” he almost pleads.
“They won’t letcha in,” she says. Getting “in” is a matter of passing a flimsy security gate blocking the path to the grounds. It was hardly the walls of Troy.
She explains that the quota for singles has been met. “I’m sorry. … I just work here.”
After being put up in the lodge for the night, I meet Turtle Lake’s owner, Mark Hammond, for a golf cart tour of the grounds.
“This is a family-friendly resort that caters to couples,” Hammond says, waving to a naked couple passing by. The Lansing native speaks with a Midwestern twang that’s more western than mid.
I mention the motorcycle rider, and he explains that a balance of the sexes is one way Turtle Lake, and other clothing-optional resorts, maintains its family-friendly atmosphere. Families with children are a regular presence here.
On paper, Turtle Lake, Spruce Hollow Campground in Mesick, Whispering Oaks Nudist Resort in Oxford, Forest Hills Club in Saranac (slogan: “Give Nudism a Try: Come See Us.”), and Cherry Lane Nudist Resort in North Adams, south of Jackson, seem to have only skin-deep differences. But the outlier is Cherry Lane — what most nudists call an “alternative lifestyle” club for swingers.
“We do not associate with lifestyle clubs,” explains Gary Moore of Whispering Oaks. “I’m not a moralist. They can do whatever they want. They’re just not going to do it on my property.”
Dennis Bevis, the owner of Cherry Lane, declined to comment.
The clothing-optional business isn’t really that competitive. It’s more about coverage. Turtle Lake is the only resort open year-round in Michigan. Its success meant smaller clubs could close shop and direct their members there.
Such was the case for the Apple Cider Nature Club, which was formed in the early 2000s, when the future of Turtle Lake was in doubt, says Bob Blackburn of the now-defunct club, by email. “That situation happily resolved itself … there was no longer a need for ACNC.”
Skin in the Game
Hammond and three partners took over Turtle Lake in 2003. We arrive at the Tiki Bar by the outside pool for a burger. Hammond’s shirt is open and blowing in the wind as he sips a Bud Light. He knows everyone by name. The CEO is more Boss Hogg than boardroom. And what he says goes.
Pictures are strictly prohibited, unless you receive special permission (we did). After throwing a visitor’s phone in the lagoon for breaking the rule, people got the message. “His mouth just dropped. He looked at me and said, ‘That was my phone.’ I said, ‘You got part of that right. That was your phone. Get in your car and get off my property now.’”
“I was just in a bad mood that day,” he says with a smile.
Turtle Lake’s previous owners were more mom and pop. “They didn’t treat the resort like a business,” Hammond explains. “They both got in trouble financially because it was their little toy. When we came in, we assured everyone that this is now a business. Rules now change.”
Hammond has invested nearly $1.5 million in in-frastructure improvements, including a water system, ground maintenance, and snow removal. In the summer, he employs around a dozen people.
There’s a rustic area for camping with the purchase of a daily membership ($38). RV site and communal lodge rental rates range from $60 a day to $480 a week. Some members live permanently at the resort on spaces leased for $3,200 a year. Electricity and propane are sold separately.
Amenities include pickleball, indoor and outdoor swimming, miniature golf, horseshoes, paddleboats, volleyball, a hiking trail, and live music from the house band, Cheeks The Band.
Kathie, the resort’s activities director, manages events such as the Nude Olympics. She’s got the zest of a camp counselor and is dressed like a mermaid when I meet her, a black fishnet and a flower necklace covering her breasts. “I try to make things fun,” she says.
Ironically, it’s illegal to be nude in the actual lake. Turtle Lake is managed by the Department of Natural Resources, and you could be arrested if caught on a naked swim. But the resort has an on-site lagoon.
Keeping members out of trouble makes for neighborly relations. Hammond has a direct line to the Burlington Township fire chief by walkie-talkie.
There’s also the matter of supporting local business. Painted on a bench at the resort’s entrance is an advertisement for Jack’s Family Grocery, the only grocery in Union City.
The resort was the talk of the town when it first opened, remembers Cindy Fox, who owns Jack’s with her brothers Dennis and John. They inherited the store from their father, Jack Shaffer, and have been in businesses for 51 years.
“They actually thought that people were gonna run around town with no clothes on,” she recalls. “They went to their pastors at their churches and talked to them about it.”
Then the community got to know some of the resort members. “And you know what, after a couple of weeks, it was all good,” she says. “They found out that people aren’t actually going to come into town with no clothes on.”
In the winter, many nudists flock south. And the American Association for Nude Recreation in Kissimmee, Florida makes it easy. Members access more than 200 member resorts, including Turtle Lake, resorts in Canada, and a club in the Caribbean.
But being an AANR member is also about protecting rights. The organization fights vague anti-nudity laws down to the local level.
â€‹AANR has been in existence for 86 years as a nudist advocacy and educational organization, says executive director Dan Whicker. “That’s really due to the work nudists have done to reach that point in time where there is an acceptance and understanding that nudists are not into this for sexually related things. It’s a health thing for us. It’s a freedom thing.”
Some states, like Arkansas, are more anti-nudity than others, Whicker says. As for Michigan? “The weather is your main opposition,” he says.
Most nudist resorts are in rural areas — historically places people could get away from the daily grind. The chapter “Bares in the Woods” of the 1991 book The Romance of Michigan’s Past tells of Michigan’s first nudist commune in Allegan Township in 1933, and the subsequent “first nudist in America to go to jail for his beliefs” in People v. Ring.
“I couldn’t make up stuff as amazing as this,” says historian Larry B. Massie. “Because of the Ring case, the Midwest became a no man’s land for nudists. They were going to get arrested and thrown in jail.”
That changed in 1958 when the Supreme Court exonerated a group of nudists arrested in a Battle Creek raid and overturned People v. Ring.
That’s when it became legal in Michigan to have a nudist colony on private land, Massie says.
Nudism helped former Grosse Pointer Kathy Barron to overcome body image issues. She lives in Florida and works at the Cypress Cove Nudist Resort.
“When I was in my 20s, I didn’t understand what nudism was about, and I thought my body [wasn’t] good enough,” she says. “I’ve always had body issues growing up, especially living in Grosse Pointe.”
She initially moved to Florida to help care for her grandmother, but fell in love with the nudist way of life. “There are people of all ages, all sizes, all colors. And everybody’s on an equal playing field. There’s no hierarchy of bodies,” she says. “It just feels so free and natural. And just so free of the societal pressure to cover up or to be ashamed.”
Revealing a Community
Back at Turtle Lake, it’s time to dance. Hammond takes the rest of the night off because he’s under the weather, but promises me a good time.
Inside the 10,000-square-foot space, freedom is a loose theme. The ceiling is resplendent with red, white, and blue streamers. The coup de grâce: a
six-foot-long American flag behind the DJ booth.
The event is tame compared to the two-day annual music festival the resort hosts in August, Hammond says.
But it’s difficult to be tame when you’re dancing naked. As people caught up with old friends and met new ones, the dance floor was full of bodies. The DJ mixed classic hits like “Sweet Home Alabama” with newer favorites like “Poker Face.” Pudding shots appear, followed by Jell-O shots. Then there were tequila shots among the new friends, with limes rimmed with salt.
“It’s a resort tradition,” one woman tells me.
As the night raged on, I heard how Turtle Lake has saved lives, marriages, and friendships — and lowered blood pressure.
“Everyone pulls together to support each other through sickness and in health,” a woman who recently beat stage 1 breast cancer tells me.
She says the resort raised money for another woman battling stage 3 cancer.
One story that stood out came the next morning during breakfast at the Sunnier Buns Cafe. A kitchen worker took a quick break to tell me how she had lost her husband — but not her peace — thanks to the resort.
“My husband passed away … and I don’t think I would have made it through it had it not been for my family here,” she says, with tears in her eyes. “Sometimes I think they know more about what I need than I do.”
These were far from ethereal beings, I thought, but real people. They have aches, pains, engineering jobs, ex-wives, and old war wounds. They have families, with grandkids visiting soon. But above all, they have a community: a close-knit family of friends bound by a love of nature and nakedness.
And they, like any other red-blooded Americans, just want to be free.