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The International Writers Magazine: US Travel

Ari Kaufman

y dad turned 60 the other day, and while he may now be more than halfway across the country, the six days we spent together, enjoying one adult father-son road trip a week before his birthday couldn’t be more indelible in our minds right now.

While the trip was essentially a loop of Lake Michigan from Chicago, then east, way north, west and then back south through much of Michigan and Wisconsin (including Green Bay’s legendary Lambeau Field) and back to Chicago for my big present, a game at Wrigley Field, this recap will focus on, naturally, the most unique part of the trip: our time along the northern tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, gorgeous Mackinaw Island (in between the lower and upper peninsulas) and, you guessed right, the desolate but pristine Upper Peninsula of the Wolverine State.

The Great Michigan Lily
Most folks who have scarcely been to Michigan or who, like my cousins and many friends, end their Michigan experiences in Ann Arbor at the university. They likely had similar misconceptions of the state. They think of noisy Detroit, the slums areas near Dearborn, Flint’s ghettos and then some trees and lakes upstate, surrounding Michael Moore’s mansions along Torch Lake in Traverse County. Well, they’d be wrong, there is much to discover out here.

My dad and I pulled off the state highway and drove up a desolate hill to a T in the road where only a church stood. That was our directed marker to turn left down the hill and eventually around a bend and up to the quaint house with weeping willows and blue shades just east of Ellsworth, Michigan on a hot day in mid July. It was so hot in fact that our hosts, Ev and his wife Erika, noted that this was one of the hottest days in the 60 years they’d spent off and on up here.
After chicken salad with locally grown cherries and cherry wine for lunch and good stories, Ev took us around. Rather than paraphrase his words, below is the majority of a summary email he sent to my mother recapping the day:
"They loved the property and I took them up to the pond to feed my rainbow trout and drove them around my nine hole par 3 golf course I've laid out on the property. We then visited a natural area that I and three others had saved from development - a one mile stretch of undeveloped land on Lake Michigan. We had success- fully written a $4.75 million grant to keep the stretch in the public trust.'
Then to Norwood, a tiny little town on Lake Michigan whose port served as the chief point to load lumber on old schooners to rebuild Chicago after the great fire of 1871. Then to Charlevoix to check out the town, the Earl Young "mushroom houses" with their undulating roofs, Boulder Park where all the houses are constructed of huge boulders removed from the beach near Charlevoix. Then across the North Arm of Lake Charlevoix to Horton Bay, an old haunt of Ernest Hemingway as "Ernie" spent the first 19 of this 20 summers on this earth on a nearby lake and wrote many of his Nick Adams stories based on these summer experiences.
We then went through Boyne City and on to take a ferry across a tiny stretch of water. The ferry boat captain is in Ripley's "Believe It Or Not" as a person "who went around the world 10 times in a boat, but never got more than 250 yards from his house!" He lived right next to the ferry.
Then to a lovely lake with beautifully mannered grounds, and finally to the Loeb Castle of Leopold and Loeb fame, the "trial of the century" with Clarence Darrow serving as their attorney. The case dates back to 1927, took place in Chicago, and you may not be familiar with it. Myron (my dad) treated us to dinner at the Villager Pub which has a long menu, but Ari got "the usual," his beloved hamburger with fries! Myron and I each had the Great Lakes whitefish dinner which is the dinner of the area. Erika enjoyed a wet burrito which I had to help her finish.
Then back to Ellsworth past the two five star restaurants which grace this area, each no more than 500 yards from the other in this dinky town of 400! We then enjoyed good conversation and made plans for me to act as guide in a canoe trip down the Jordan River, a National Scenic River, a short distance away.
That we did this morning after I learned the trial that I was supposed to be a juror on was settled out of court permitting us to enjoy the trip. With Myron up front acting as the bowman, and Ari in the middle playing Sacajawea, and Ev in back as sternman, we successfully negotiated the run down the river without mishap. They both loved the trip as it was something neither had ever experienced.
On this same day as the big canoe trip (a two miles, one hour trip down the narrow, cold river), my dad and I, after a post-canoe breakfast with Ev at a local dive, pilgrimmaged east then north to catch a ferry from the small town of Mackinaw City to Mackinac Island. They are pretty cavalier about their spelling around here.
Ferries and catamarans both take you to and fro the island, but with "the Cat" delayed, we boarded the slow, Staten Island-esque ferry on a partly sunny day. The partly sunny part, within ten minutes, turned into a monsoon as our "captain" (a guy who looked to be maybe 21) matriculated us through the rough seas of Lake Huron, depositing us safely onto the island five miles and 40 long minutes later.
Being that the day was already half over thanks to our morning canoe trip and we wanted to drive another hour after returning back to land later in the day, my dad and I eschewed any long-winded, horse drawn or bike tours, which, in the end, may have been a mistake. But nonetheless, we enjoyed a quick exit for the hordes of souvenir-buying masses and set foot onto the soft, quiet streets of the island.
Aside from the venerable Grand Terrace Hotel which greets you as you pull into the island (coat and tie are required just to enter or gawk near the hotel), the other unique distinction that separates Mackinac Island from, well, the rest of the country, is that motorized transportation is prohibited. Thus, the myriad horse droppings are essentially ignored by patrons as they stroll along the pristine roads and clean airs of the "city" streets.

As we walked past beautiful cottages perched along the water, bed and breakfasts and churches, my dad and I wondered why Mackinac is so relatively unknown to those not from the Midwest. Although summertime clearly brings in a high-class clientele from the Chicago and Detroit suburbs and the Dorr and Leelanau Peninsulas of Wisconsin and Michigan, respectively, most New York and Californian socialites are likely to have never stepped foot on the island.

This question is quickly answered when considering the latitude of this area and the unlikelihood that pretentious celebrities would consider spending anytime here in cold conditions or even attend a place where there is nowhere to park their Jaguars and/or planes, thus left to travel with the masses. Yep, no Babs or Paris H here, and thank God for that omission.
In a brief look at the history of Mackinac Island (and since there is a Fort way at the top of the hill we knew there was some history, but it required a steep admission charge, so we saw it but did not really view it in-depthly), it becomes clear that its location was quite strategic and desired in past centuries.
After being mostly used for fishing and fur trade by the French and American Indians in the 17th and early 18th century, the French-Indian war broke out from 1754-1763, leaving the British to wrest control of the fort 17 years post war in 1780. The island then served as a battleground during the War on 1812 until American victory caused the British to turn the fort over to American forces soon after. Mackinac Island then continued to be a peaceful fur and fishing post, although fishing became more prominent by the 1830s.
By the conclusion of the Civil War, Mackinac quickly became a popular resort destination and primary business switched to tourism. Its beautiful scenery attracted visitors desiring relaxing vacations. In 1875 Congress created Mackinac Island National Park, the country’s second national park (Yellowstone being the seminal park). Military operations at the Fort had ended, of course, and soldiers were removed from Fort Mackinac by 1895. Mackinac Island National Park became Michigan’s first state park in 1895 when the park was transferred from the Federal Government to the State of Michigan. Today, the area that covers more than eighty percent of the island is officially called Mackinac Island State Park.
By the 1920s, Mackinac Island banned all motor vehicles, excluding emergency types, and in 1947, carriage tours became the norm (as well as foot and bike), making Mackinac Island the beautiful tourist (but not typical touristy) attraction it stands as today.
So, after what had already been a long, tiring day of canoeing, sailing, walking and, of course, eating (we had a nice meal on the island before departing), my dad and I got back in the car and headed over the Mackinac Island bridge northward, getting our first glimpses of Michigan’s remote and forgotten Upper Peninsula (hereafter, "UP" as the locals deem it).
We drove about 50 miles or so up the extremely desolate but sunny, smooth and pleasant road to the termination of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in Sault Sainte Marie where we found a hotel and enjoyed the daylight which lasted until 10pm.

On a Tuesday morning in late July, high atop the central United States, the heat wave finally broke and sweat was a non-factor as father and son headed for the historic Locks at the border of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario (Canada). The "Soo Locks" as they are referred represent a canal area for ships to pass between, much like the famed Panama Canal.

Existing since the early 1800s and under the watchful control of the US Government’s Army Corps of Engineers since 1881, the Locks allow ships ranging from small passenger vessels and workboats to large ships carrying more than 72,000 tons of freight in a single cargo to pass through their walls each year.. In recent years, the number of passages through the locks has averaged about 10,000 vessels per year, down from previous years due to the larger vessels being able to carry more freight at one time. This may also have to do with the bitterly cold weather along the St. Mary’s River each year.
There are four different locks, and the Poe Lock has the largest capacity of the four locks. This newest lock, completed in 1968, took six years to build and is the only lock ever constructed between two operating locks. The locks truly are a tourist attraction, mostly in the summer to be sure, though. On the weekday we were there, at 10am, there were at least 50 people gathered around, even though no ships were due to pass through until 2:30pm. Touristy, but not ostentatiously overdone, shops surround the outskirts of the locks, bordering downtown Sault Sainte Marie, which translates to "jump Saint Mary." The town of Sault Ste Marie is the oldest in Michigan and one of the oldest in the entire United States.

Just a shade after noon, based upon local information, we eschewed the toll bridge to the Canadian version of Sault Ste. Marie and headed south about nine miles on old I-75 (a road that just two and half months ago I drove back from the west coast to the east coast of Florida, terminating just north of Miami, a mere 1,700 miles from where I was now) to Michigan Highway 28 which would take us the remainder of our journey westward today across the majority of Michigan’s UP.

A stop at Soldier’s Lake which had an actual water well, a good outhouse/bathroom and a tepid but tranquil lake with a wooded trail in the middle of nowhere was a fleeting highlight for my dad who really, really didn’t want to leave, but eventually we pushed on...tears in his eyes.
The temps just around 80 at most, we were hit the small town of Munising about 90 minutes later, grabbed a small bite, and used the town as a jumping off point to what would be the pleasant, majestic surprise of the trip.

Our destination - based upon little more than my eyes hitting the map - was the "Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore" along the northern coast of the UP, bordered by Lake Superior to the north. It would our first glimpse of Lake Superior, enabling me to realize another accomplishment: seeing all five great lakes in my lifetime. (three on just this trip)

After a slight detour for a 1.1 mile hike down a hill to see the wondrous Miner Falls just off the shore and then back up, all the while enjoying one of those father-son talks in which soon-to-be 60 year old dad discusses what he was doing at my current age and just prior, we continued down a rough road to the parking lot for the "PRNL."
America’s first National Lakeshore celebrates its 40th birthday this year. This breathtaking 40 mile stretch of land that my dad, a world traveler, noted was "as beautiful as the Aegean Sea in Greece" reminded yours truly of the PCH is Central California, only quieter with a turquoise blueish-green water that makes you wonder how this is Michigan and not the Caribbean.
On a glorious mid-afternoon day, we thoroughly enjoyed the sites from the semi-crowded viewing dock as well as another short hike through a wooded area with rocks, cliffs and the beach below. Finally, we drove down to the beach, sat, chatted, stood in the water, picked rocks for souvenirs, threw the mini football around and had a generally splendid time on a beach that saw about 25 others enjoying the day.
Long, likely overcrowded boat tours of the lakeshore from the water are given and, according to the official website, depending upon the season, activities to enjoy include "sightseeing," camping, picnicking, boating, kayaking, canoeing (ha! already did that today), hiking, fishing, backpacking, hunting, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, winter camping, ice climbing and ice fishing.
I suppose a return trip in the fall or winter, since I’m only a seven hour ride away, might be necessary. But for now, as my dad and I drove off into the setting sun on our way to Marquette near the very western end of the UP, we’d always have these memories to share.

© Ari Kaufman August 2006

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