Before we head off into the greater wilds of the UP, Loops and I have some decisions to make.
Visiting Michigan’s Upper Peninsula has come about in a slightly haphazard fashion, with our very original plans (from back when we started out from Florida) taking us east from the Michigan mainland over into, and through, Canada to reach Maine before travelling south again. We have now decided to alter these ideas and head in a western arc; taking us through the UP before dropping down for a pass through Wisconsin, sling-shotting east past the base of Lake Michigan through Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
What this means in reality is that we have not much clue about what the UP really has to offer, the sort of roads to take and availability of places to stay. Therefore we take a day to ourselves, sitting in our casino car park, leafing through the bumf we had picked up at the visitors centre and checking google maps. What we discover is this – there appears to be a fair lack of obvious camping options for us, so we are just going to have to wing it and see what happens.
We leave mid-morning the next day, via a quick grocery story stop, and head not far at all; just a couple miles to a nearby state park for a farewell glimpse of Lake Michigan and the nearby Mackinac Bridge. There appears to be a Pow Wow going on here, but we bypass this and go in search of an overlook, after having a peek at the Father Marquette National Memorial.
Though we find a view, it isn’t as spectacular as we hope and leave to go have lunch by the water’s edge at the aptly named Bridge View Park down the road, which is far more satisfying a spot.
We sit on the grass in the sunshine munching on cheese and crackers and just enjoying the feeling of being outside with not much to do. Interestingly, there is also a small museum here at the park, outlining the history of the Mackinac Bridge and the efforts that went into its construction. It’s a pleasantly diverting half hour and well worth a stop if you’re in the neighbourhood.
Now it’s at this point that I need to tell you something a little random, but you’ll see why in a minute.
I need to make you aware of Loops’ secret desire to become a boondocking expert. Not that he tells me this, but from his careful hours of research on Google Earth I can tell he wants to be that person, the one who can find little random spots in the countryside with fabulous views and no other people in sight where we can park for free and pretend we own it – our own slice of heaven. Up to this point Loops has not been successful in this matter. There always seems to be some rule or regulation that prevents us from parking at his chosen spots, or he finds a great patch but it just won’t fit us, or we’ll stick out like a sore thumb and someone will spy us; or any other number of reasons really.
However, today he might be on to something.
It seems that just a couple minutes from where we sit here, overlooking the lake is a dirt track that seems to lead to no-where. It is not a paved, claimed city road, just a spot that looks like local people who know about it might go for fishing for bird watching. We decide to grab the bikes and go take a look, with fingers crossed, before committing the bus to the journey.
Sure enough, Loops has hit the jackpot.
We leave Belle parked and cycle down a nearby paved road with houses to our left, before the road abruptly just cuts off and turns to stone and dust, which we bump along for about 5 minutes. It leads to a right hand curve which seems to end at some sort of neglected power plant sitting in a large grassy area. To our left are tracks and mud areas leading down into the lake. It’s empty but there are tyre tracks which indicate that people come down here in jeeps or off roaders, and off one of the side tracks I clearly see a bird hide, which I assume might be used for hunting. We umm and ahh a little over the site, finally agreeing we can park safely down here, turn around and not be spotted by anyone. We are going to go for it!
We hustle back to the bus, it’s starting to get to be late in the afternoon and we certainly don’t want to be attempting our covert activities in the dark with a loud, chugging, 43ft long bus. I am a little nervous at the prospect of this camp, our very first proper boondock in a spot we don’t have permission for. But the view is too good to miss out on.
We rattle down the road at about 5 miles per hour, kicking up clouds of dust. This doesn’t bother us as much as does the gathering cloud of flies, which seems to be multiplying by the second out of the front of our windscreen.
By the time we arrive and turn the bus to face appropriately; there is a thick storm of flies to be seen from pretty much every window.
It had been our plan to open the windows this evening for a breeze as we can’t run a noisy generator out here for AC, but this is clearly not going to happen. As we sit and discuss our gathering bug problem, I am now starting to notice we have some tiny midge flies in the bus with us. What? Where have they come from? We are shut up tight. As I look out the windscreen, my right eye suddenly catches onto yet another fly which seems to have just appeared from where the dash meets the windscreen. Sure enough, there’s another. The buggers are climbing in through the air ducts and the gaps on the dashboard!
There’s nothing we can do. We can’t stay here. The bus will be overrun in an hour with buzzing, biting flies. We take one last look at our ‘perfect’ spot with its postcard view before we high tail it out of there, with me squashing as many intruders as I can as we drive.
Well, what to do now? It’s clear there aren’t any camp grounds nearby we can use, no casinos and our boondock has gone awry. So, we just drive on.
We’ve picked a road which leads us along the southern edge of the UP, the US Highway 2, which gives us a clear and pretty much constant view of Lake Michigan as we drive. The scenery is eye-catchingly beautiful and further accentuated as the sun begins to set, painting the clouds in the sky candy floss pink.
We’ve noticed however that our view is becoming increasingly restricted and that perhaps our insect problems were not just confined to the boondock site, for the windscreen is now thickly smeared with the carcasses of about 500,000 bugs. So heavily afflicted is the window that it’s now becoming difficult to see the road. It’s also about this time that we realised that our headlights suck in terms of brightness; to then have it dawn on us that one of our bulbs has in fact blown out. At this point, in total darkness, we claim defeat and spy a rest stop to pull into.
Despite the sign marking this as a non-overnight stop, we hope that any person coming and banging on our door to move us on will hopefully understand that between the windscreen and the lack of headlight it would be more dangerous to move on than to be a nuisance overnighting in a parking area.
My night doesn’t get any better as it is filled with me feeling sick and having bad dreams which keep me up half the night.
The next day turns out to be far brighter.
Despite the growing realisation that the UP seems to be rather sparsely populated, and even where it is any small town consists only of ‘mom and pop’ local stores (no big name stores to be found up here!), we manage to find a shop selling the headlight bulbs we need within an hour or so the next morning.
Once out of the town we find ourselves faced with mile upon mile of forest roads, passing signs pointing to hunting clubs in the middle of nowhere, log cabins dotted about, old motels and auto cottages that look like they’re from the 1950’s, rotting alongside the road. Every now and then up jumps a small pull in with a shop that will have, I guarantee you, a sign proclaiming it sells pasties, fish and fudge. Welcome to the UP!
Today I have made a request for a stop and around mid-morning Loops and I take a right hand turn off of US Highway 2 and onto State Road 77.
Now up until this point in our travels, I have been all about visiting National Park places, for in my mind when I think of the best of America’s landscapes and wildlife havens; the NPS is what comes to mind. It has been especially touted this year given it is the 100 year anniversary of the Park Service. However, in case like me you have the same tunnel vision when it comes to natural spaces, let me tell you about something I found out about today – the National Wildlife Refuge System, run by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Across the US there are 450 parcels of land that are open to the public and managed for the wildlife that uses them. They vary in size, species and facilities, but the majority are free to visit (only 31 sites charge a fee and then only $3-5 to get in). In my mind, that’s a bargain.
We discover one of these magical places – the Seney National Wildlife Refuge – and spent much of the afternoon cycling around its lakes, birdwatching. So let me point out now the wonders of this place in the hope that people passing by will visit and appreciate it.
First of all, a big thumbs up is that there is a big enough area to park our bus. In fact, we were one of only about 4 vehicles in the cark park, and so had just the right level of peacefulness for our visit. There is also on site one of the best wildlife interpretive centres I have seen, with plenty of books on offer to browse and some excellent taxidermy specimens. Usually they look totally tattered, dusty and only slightly like the animal they should be, and then only if you squint with your head half turned in just the right kind of light. But these were impressively done and set into nature backgrounds for effect.
Also within the centre we found very friendly and helpful staff who pointed out the trails that might be best for our bikes and what we wanted to see. Though we’re slightly at the end of the season for birdwatching, given that many species had produced chicks and were already heading off on their long trip south for the winter, the kindly gentleman in the centre assured me there were still birds to see and that additionally there were 3 bears spotted that morning on the trails!
Seney Wildlife Refuge covers 95,238 acres, the majority of which isn’t accessible to the public to traipse through, but there are two stony driving loops through the lake areas nearest to the interpretive centre which can been driven, cycled or if you’re feeling really fit, walked I suppose. There are a fair number of biking trails within the refuge, but if you’re anything like us, stopping and looking at things for 5-10 minutes before moving on, you don’t cover a lot of ground – we only managed to cycle just over ten miles in about 2-3 hours I suppose.
We chose the Fishing Loop for our travels, as this is where we were told the bears had been spotted, and I had vain hopes of seeing them myself. We bumped and jumbled along on the stone track, not the most comfortable ride ever, but certainly able to cycle over. The path wound us through a plethora of lakes, sometimes on the left, other times on the right, and occasionally bordered by water on both sides.
Our first birding spots were swans. That might not sound exciting, but for me from England, these are not the mundane mute swans I’m used to seeing, these were rather pretty and elegant trumpeter swans with black beaks and faces. In fact we saw a good number of these birds as we cycled, most with half grown cygnets with them, and paused to watch as the family preened their feathers in a synchronised fashion.
Continuing on to the next lake, we found the bird that I have been waiting four years to see in the wild – a loon. For those who followed our AT adventure you may remember on my animal wish list this was the only one I didn’t spot while we hiked. I had a desperate desire to hear these calling at night while we camped; and while today I didn’t hear them call, we were blessed enough to see a mother and chick swimming together on the lake and sat for a time watching mum dive for crabs which she then brought over and to feed to her chick. Courtesy of one of my BinoPics, this is what that looks like…
Aren’t they amazingly beautiful?
Not far down the trail, off to our left and on a small island sat in the lake, I spy six sandhill cranes! They’re just hanging about in the grass, looking handsome with their red feather caps, occasionally calling out to each other; until I guess they became too spooked by our parked bikes and take off in graceful flight to the other side of the lake.
A couple more minutes and we round a corner to find yet another crane family, walking down the trail and calling to each other. We stay well back on our bikes, following them slowly down the trail as they sedately make their way to their next grassy feeding area. And if you’d like to know what a crane calling sounds like, here you go…(stick with it for about 10 seconds and you’ll hear them – sorry about the wind noise).
Now even if we didn’t see anything else for the rest of the trip I would be happy. I was full of the joys of nature, peddling in the warm sunshine through a stunning watery landscape, with the lightness of heart that comes from watching cranes and loons in their natural element.
But it seems we weren’t done with wildlife yet, spotting in the middle of the trail the LARGEST pile of bear poop I have ever seen, though sadly no bears were to be seen even though my eyes were so peeled I thought they would pop out. I also frequently scanned the environment in the very minuscule possibility that I might spy a wolf – for apparently there are some out there in the refuge hiding out. Despite the fact there were no large mammal sightings, almost directly above our bear poop pile I did spot a falcon sitting in a tree. He wasn’t hard to pick out to be honest as he was calling his head off, obviously completely unhappy and put out that we would dare venture into his territory, and then sit there staring at him. I later confirmed with the staff at the centre that this was a merlin, and that he routinely screams at people passing by.
The final leg of our cycle was mostly riding, having passed the main lakes and venturing a little more into covered forest area. Just as we neared the exit to return back to the visitor centre a car came into view and slowed next to me, with an elderly gentleman poking his head out at me. “Seen any birds?” he enquired. With a massive grin I rolled off all of the birds we had seen that afternoon, only to watch his face drop, obviously crestfallen. “Oh,” he says, “I’ve only seen one. Obviously it’s better to cycle.” He shrugs, rolls up his window and drives off.
I have no clue how he could have only seen a single bird driving around; the sheer number of swans alone should have given him at least half a dozen sightings. Still, I do think he’s right, cycling around the refuge was the way to go. You end up being quieter than a car, can get far closer to the lakes and views and can stop more easily and frequently without blocking anyone behind you. Also as an added bonus you can hear things and feel the natural environment around you, which you certainly can’t in rumbling air conditioned car with the windows rolled up.
Back at the centre we loaded up the bikes while Loops lamented over the fact this would be a lovely place to park for the night. I couldn’t agree more, but there appeared to be housing on site and no way we wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb.
I decided to round off the day I would treat us to a meal out, heading back to the little town of Germfask (which by the way is an oddly excellent name which I know AJ will appreciate).
So taken was I with the name of this town, I knew there had to be a history behind it, and indeed there is. The town of Germfask was founded in 1881 and its name comes from the initials of the last names of the original eight founders. The town is also the former site of one of the CCC camps (Civilian Conservation Corps) which Loops and I first found out about when hiking the AT, as most of the trail was built by CCC members. In the case of Germfask, the men of the CCC helped establish the wildlife refuge we just visited and during World War II, apparently the camp was used to house conscientious objectors to the war.
For us, more importantly, Germfask is home to the Jolly Inn, a rather aptly named establishment that was indeed, very jolly inside. The pub, let’s call it that in the manner of an English pub, was decorated in such a fashion that you could not help but reach the conclusion that its proprietor was a) American b) a very patriotic American and c)a very patriotic American who liked to celebrate the seasons/holidays of the year.
I was here with one purpose in mind – to eat a pasty.
Now I come from the land of Eng, where pasties are nothing new to us, they are a Cornwall delight, a sealed pastry case containing meat and veg and a little bit of thick sauce if you’re lucky. They are designed to be held in the hand and easily eaten on the go. Given the dozen or so signs I have seen on the roads so far, I have taken in the fact that for some reason the good people of the UP also believe they know what a pasty is and make and sell them for eating. So today I have come to the Jolly Inn to order me a pasty and enjoy a taste of home, perhaps.
The lady who takes our order is delightfully friendly, though bemuses me slightly when she tells me that my pasty comes with a side of cottage cheese and some gravy. Eh? Ok, well fine.
And this is what she brings me…
Now I’m not sure if the photo conveys this, but the pasty I am brought looks somewhat like a typical Cornish pasty, except it appears to have been involved in some type of genetic experiment or possibly a nuclear accident which has swelled the size of it to about four times the size of a normal pasty. There is no way I can fit this in my gob. Additionally when I cut into it, I find that rather than pleasant bite sized chunks, the meat is basically half a cow in one piece with whole potatoes and carrots. It’s basically a pie, masquerading as a pasty. This single pasty serves me for three later meals and, additionally, Loops for one.
Well, it’s time we’re off to our next camping spot, which is yet another M-DOT (Michigan Department of Transport) rest area, having once again flunked out on the camping front. Our destination tomorrow – Grand Marais on the northern coast of the UP – it’s time to visit Lake Superior!