They say the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is its own little world, that people from the UP (Yoopers) are ‘unique’ – hard core outdoorsman and hunters – and that while they might not mind people visiting their patch of the globe, they sure are glad when they leave and they get their little world back to themselves. And I’ll tell you this…they’d be right.
If you look at a map of the USA, you might be a little confused about Michigan’s UP, because technically it isn’t joined to the main landmass of the rest of the state; in fact, the UP is actually joined to Wisconsin to the west and Canada to the east, but not actually Michigan itself. If you delve into the history of why this is (or like me watch the interesting TV show ‘How States Got Their Shapes’) you will discover that apparently some time way back when, Michigan and Ohio got into a bit of a scrap called the Toledo War over an absolutely minuscule piece of land. Ohio prevailed and it seems in order to make Michigan feel better, they were gifted the UP instead. While you will hear the boasts that Ohio won the war, now visiting the UP, I’m having a pretty strong feeling that actually Michigan ended up with the better part of the deal.
In order to reach the UP (where the Yoopers live), you need to cross from the mainland (where the trolls live) over a rather phenomenally massive bridge – the Mackinac Bridge (pronounced Mackinaw). This bridge is actually the world’s fifth longest suspension bridge and as such has a habit of swaying in high winds. It is built to be able to withstand high winds by allowing the main deck of the bridge to swing, up to 35 feet from side to side. It just so happens that this morning is a high wind day…
We wake in the car park of our friendly casino to find our plans to cross into the UP may be in jeopardy given that there is a high wind alert on the bridge. It seems we won’t really know if we will be allowed to cross until we get there, so we fire Belle up and head on over to see what’s what.
Luckily it seems that the only restriction on crossing for large vehicles like ours is that we have to do it slowly, and a speed of 25 mph. So here we go…
Crossing the bridge is not only passing over the demarcation line between Upper and Lower Michigan, but also from east to west, the splitting point of Lake Michigan to our left and Lake Huron to our right. And by the way, from this high up and with the angle of the light, both lakes look just like they are made from blue jelly.
We cross safely and immediately pull into the large and well stocked UP visitors centre to gather as much information about everything UP that we can. There is also an extremely helpful man inside who gives me the scoop on potentially doing some hiking at a place called Isle Royale, a National Park that is actually an island sitting in the middle of Lake Superior – an incredibly exciting prospect for me and an eye rolling one for Loops.
Arms laden with material, we head for the bus and drive the short distance through the town of St Ignace to our next camping spot – Kewadin Casino, where we plan to base ourselves for the next 3 days while we take a unique trip I’ve been planning.
Now I don’t know about you, but there are some days where I wish I could be transported into the past, into what I feel are simpler times. This usually occurs are watching some period dramas, maybe a bit of North and South, where everyone prances around from one place to another on horseback and seem to have a jolly good time doing so. Well, not that you would think it, but here in America there is such a place where this actually still happens.
Sitting a 20 minute ferry ride out into Lake Huron is Mackinac Island, best known for being the only place in the USA where the ‘highway’ is designated for non-motorised traffic. This means that on this island, there are no vehicles allowed, transport is purely by horse, bicycle or foot. The only vehicles that you would potentially ever see would be a police car, ambulance or fire truck, which they keep locked away for emergencies only. And this is where Loops and I are headed for a day trip.
The ferry shuttle bus turns up outside Belle promptly first thing the next morning to collect Loops, me and our two bikes to drive us back to St Ignace where we board Shepler’s Ferry, bound for the island. The specific ferry trip we booked (The Mighty Mac) also includes a short detour to visit directly underneath the Mackinac Bridge to really get a good idea of how tall and vast this structure really is. The chap driving the ferry also told us that apparently the bridge is constantly being painted, taking the work crews 7 years to work from one end of the bridge to the other, before they go back and start all over again. Personally, I think if that was my job I would feel thoroughly demoralised, never being able to have a sense of actually finishing something. Might be just me though?
As we approach the island, the first thing we can see lining the docks are bicycles. Tons of bicycles. Every shape, size and colour. When I see the prices to rent the bikes, I’m secretly glad we paid to bring our own. Stepping off the dock there is an immediate feeling of having travelled to some foreign country, there is just an instant blast of general busyness with people everywhere you look – walking, cycling and in horse and cart. Just a sea of people. It reminds me of a scene on a market day in France or somewhere equally European; with the added obvious tackiness of the American tourist market. Every shop you see is either food based (restaurant, fudge shop, ice cream shop) or souvenir based (t-shirts and tat, hand crafted items, household items).
The next thing that comes to mind is that surely at some point in the very near future someone must come a cropper. Despite the fact there are no motorised vehicles, or rather because of it, people seem to have lost their general fear of anything that may be travelling on the road. People step off of the pavement with neither a glance left nor right at what might actually be coming down the road i.e. a horse and cart or bicycle. Likewise, the cyclists seem to take the fact that no cars are going to run them over as the sign to ignore the fact there are two lanes, to be used for traffic going in opposite directions. They are quite happy to veer here and there on both sides of the road and across the front of other cyclists. I was positive I’d be hearing the nee-new of the ambulance sometime shortly (but oddly never did).
Loops and I opted to focus on cycling the circumference of the island to start with, rather than tackle the insanity of the dock area. The nice thing is that the island is just the right size to cycle around, with only 6 miles of outer roadway, and pretty much all flat (except when you begin to explore the interior of the island).
We make our way past historical housing, some of which has been converted into shops, mini museums or B&B’s and others which are actually fancy private residences; and head along the coastal road. The island circular road has an 85-90% view of the lake as you ride, which makes it incredibly scenic and relaxing. The further you get from the docks, the quieter it becomes, with just the sound of the slurping water over rocks for company most of the time. Well, that and the occasional chatter you hear from the 679 other people who are also cycling the island with us. I feel like I’m taking part in the Tour de France, and am at the back of the pack. I’m fairly sure one 6 year old girl lapped us twice as she cycled.
One thing I very much like is that there are signs along the road for you to stop and read snippets about the history of the island as you go. I learned that the island was used by American Indians, was a major stopping point for the fur trade in the US and also functioned as an island fort; first used by the British and then the Americans (after they fought each other for it). By the time we had cycled our 6 miles we had made it back to the dock town area in time for lunch. We braced ourselves and sat in the chilly wind on the beach to eat our picnic lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that I had made for the occasion.
We pass the time watching the ferries scurrying like ants back and forth from the mainland, a constant flow of traffic given there are three major ferry companies running a boat every 30 minutes. We even saw one ferry bringing the UPS truck to the island, where the truck contents were then emptied onto a horse and cart to be taken for delivery. We watched a big, three mast, tall sailing ship out in the bay and also got annoyed at a stupid little child chasing geese on the beach.
When we had enough of sitting, we wandered the dock town and poked our noses into the shops, where I watched two men make fudge, right there in front of me. It seems the recipe is simply lots of sugar, butter, milk and chocolate powder which is then heated and stirred together before pouring out onto a large table and continually shaping as it hardens. Loops decided it would be rude not to buy some and came away with something like 10lbs of fudge for the freezer. I file the idea away to learn how to make fudge if we want to keep the bank balance intact.
By now we decided we had enough energy to next explore the inner part of the island and set off – puffing hard on the small hills – cycling past the Grand Hotel built in 1887, so grand in fact they will charge you $10 just to sit on the front porch!
We stumbled by accident across a horse carriage museum and spent time learning about the different styles of carriage used on the island, including sleighs on runners for winter. Yes, people live on the island full time, even in winter. Most of the horses are removed for the winter months as the tourist season closes down, and full time residents use snow mobiles to get around; including driving them across Lake Huron when it freezes over. We watched a short video that showed where they will take their used Christmas trees and dig them into the ice on the lake to make a trail so they have a marked way back and forth from the mainland – ingenious! I would secretly love to spend a winter on the island, in the freezing weather, snug in a house with a roaring log fire and coming out to play on my snow mobile in the biting cold. You know, just to see what it’s like.
We wander a bit further, getting lost once we realise our map doesn’t actually show all of the roads on the island, just a select few, for effect maybe? We wind up in the ‘normal housing’ district, basically where all of the workers on the island live, those who come to stay for the season and serve all of the tourists. I’ll tell you now; it’s a far cry from the posh houses down on the waterfront.
We peddle further on a find ourselves in the forested interior of the island, passing two separate cemeteries and an overlook where we spy the ‘Dragon Tooth’ rock formation below us.
Another couple minutes and we pass a number of horse cart tours and people who have rented their own horse to ride for an hour; before we reach Fort Holmes, the small wooden and earth fort that the British and Americans fought over. It was built by the British in 1814 and originally named Fort George, for the King, but I guess the Americans didn’t like that at all and renamed it. It’s not the only fort on the island though, just the oldest. Heading downhill and back towards town we passed the much larger and far more solid structure of Fort Mackinac; but as they charged an extra admission fee we missed out on touring the interior and instead carried on past to go take a glimpse at the summer home of the Governor of Michigan perched right next door.
By this point Loops and I agreed we’d built up enough of an appetite again and headed back to town to have an early dinner before hopping the ferry home to the bus. We pulled up in front of the Yankee Rebel Tavern and wandered in for some grub. Despite the eye watering prices, I would still totally recommend it to eat at, the food was delectable – we opted for a spinach and artichoke dip to start and I had a small serving of pot roast for my main – both were mouth-watering. A fine way to end our evening on Mackinac Island; with just a ferry ride and shuttle before we find ourselves back at the bus.
So, if you are looking for a step back in time, a lovely day’s cycling and you really like horses, this is the place for you to go and experience. And if you don’t make it, I hope this has given you a good idea of what it’s like so you don’t feel like you’ve missed out.
Now it’s time to see some more of the UP and see if we can find us some Yoopers to meet!