We’ve never spent much time in Michigan, usually just passing through the Southern border, so after leaving Ohio we decided to check out more of the state. We started with a stay in Bay City, located on the inside of the thumb on Michigan’s “Mitten”. We stayed at a nice township park in Essexville, just a short drive to downtown. Brenda and I were impressed with Bay City. The main street of old homes and downtown area were impressive, and the waterfront area was nicely landscaped into a large park with bandstand and outdoor theater. Although not on the Lake Huron shoreline, the city is on the Saginaw River, which provides easy access to the lake and had a number of marinas.
Those of you who know Brenda know that she lives for the Christmas holidays, and so a trip to Frankenmuth and the Christmas Store was a must-do. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a more touristy town than Frankenmuth. Everything, and I mean everything, is done in a Bavarian theme. Manicured, flowered, arranged…..if Disneyland had a “Bavarialand”, this would be it. Our first stop was to (big surprise) a bakery in the huge Zehnder’s “Marketplace”. Spotless, large, with shelves laden with breads, rolls, cookies, and kuchen. Looking at the prices, we quickly realized that we were not only buying bakery, but buying an experience – an expensive one. But we managed to pick up a few things and head for…….The Christmas Store! Technically it’s “Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland”, and billed as the largest Christmas store in the world, and after visiting, we’re convinced! Acres and acres of lights, ornaments, trees, and every Chirstmacy thing you can imagine. Thankfully, there was an ice-cream stand halfway through the place, or we’d never had made it. But rather than try and describe the place, here’s a few images:
Leaving Bay City, we traveled north, crossing the Mackinac Bridge and stopping at the small resort town of St. Ignace. Crossing the “Mighty Mac” bridge was a bit sporty – over 8000’ long and as much as 200’ above the water, with a nice gusty crosswind. Brenda, who doesn’t like high places, didn’t see much, as she had wrapped the cat around her head much like a furry scarf. Strangely, the cat didn’t seem to mind. St. Ignace proved much more comforting. Nice restaurants, great views, and lots of ferry activity back and forth to Mackinac Island. We kept hearing about this other island – Mackinaw, and thought there were two islands until we figured out that the correct pronunciation of Mackinac is “Mack-in-aw”.
From St. Ignace, it was a short trip up to Sault Ste Marie (soo-saint-marie), where we stayed in a campground with a view of the water and the huge ships that travel the Great Lakes. The big attraction here is of course the locks. Lake Superior is connected to Lake Huron by the St. Mary’s river, but Superior is 21 feet higher and flows down an area of significant rapids near town. Before the locks, the only way to get from one to the other was to portage around, which of course wouldn’t work for large ships. And so in 1855 the first, crude but effective locks were built. In 1896 the Poe Lock was constructed followed by three more over the years. Today the Poe, rebuilt in 1968 to accommodate larger ships, and the smaller McArthur lock are the most used of the four locks built. Of the two others, one is used sparingly and the other is in caretaker status. Like the Panama Canal, the locks are operated by gravity-fed water, but unlike the Panama, there is no fee to travel through the Soo Locks. Over ten thousand ships pass through the locks each nine-month year (they’re closed during the winter) making the Soo Locks the busiest in the world.
As you can imagine, the whole town revolves around the locks. Downtown there is a beautiful park with a viewing area that puts visitors eye-level with ship’s crews, and there’s a phone line to hear the ship schedule. We decided to take the boat tour, and are glad we did. Leaving the dock, we headed for the locks while listening to the narrator talk about the history of the area. As we approached the locks, we were told we had to wait a bit since another tour boat was using the only operating lock and would be coming our way. Approaching the locks, we could see the gates and the administration building, built in 1896. As we waited, the gates slowly opened, the other boats left, and it was our turn to enter.
It takes 22 MILLION gallons of water to raise a boat the 21 feet to the level of Lake Superior. It’s a good thing they don’t charge – all that water for one 65-foot boat! Entering the Lake Superior side, we cruised around for a while, and took a tour of the huge Essar Steel Algoma plant. Employing over 2800 people, it’s the 2nd largest steel plant in Canada. And is owned by India. It was actually interesting, we cruised up fairly close while the narrator told us about the steel making process and how the various ores are shipped here. And for good measure, we traded air horn greetings with some of their huge trucks.
We returned to the locks, this time going through the smaller McArthur lock, and just as we were ready to leave, what looked like a steel island slowly came into view. Leaving the locks, we were stunned by the size of the ship – one of the ten 1000’ Great Lakes carriers. This one, the Walter J McCarthy Jr, is exactly 1000’ long with cargo capacity of over 78,000 tons.
Finally we were back at the dock, next to the Edison Sault Hydroelectric Plant, in continuous operation since 1902. It’s much more than an electric plant, it’s a monument to the Italian masons who built it from local sandstone. The 1300’ long powerhouse contains 74 turbines, generating enough power to provide electricity to 25,000 homes. Impressive from a distance, a close-up shows the beautiful stone and if you look closely, you can see lighthouses spaced throughout the front of the building.
From Sault Ste Marie, we headed west to the interior of the Upper Peninsula for a stay near Curtis, a small town next to Manistique Lake. We were looking for a quiet place to relax for a few days and our stay here was worthwhile. But Lake Superior called, so we journeyed to Munising to take a “shipwreck” tour boat. Our tour took us along the “picture rock” shoreline and two shipwrecks, one from 1870, the other from 1926. Our boat had glass panels built into the bottom for viewing, and when over the wreck, our narrator would describe what happened to the ship and what we were seeing. Our first ship’s outline was visible from the surface, thanks to the clear and cold water of Lake Superior that preserves the wrecks; after, all, this was a ship that sank almost 150 years ago! Looking through the glass panel, we could clearly see the timbers of the bow.
Leaving the wrecks, we cruised along the shore enjoying the weather and the great views. The colorful shoreline is caused by the sandstone, which erodes and leaves trees that have been undercut to grow upside-down:
Brenda, keeping a sharp eye out, spotted this Great Lakes Tree Shark, a rare species known for it’s tree-looking dorsal fin. Stealthy, they’re seldom seen by all but the most skilled marine observers. Like us. The rest of our fellow passengers missed this opportunity, since they were looking at this old, partially restored lighthouse.
Our last trip was a shopping visit to Marquette, and then on to the former K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base, a large base that closed in 1995. While I was never stationed there, many of my friends were, and I was interested in seeing how it looked after all these years. My friends always talked about the beauty of the area, the hunting and fishing opportunities, and the harsh winters. Sadly, there not much beauty left here. Some of the base is being used by various civilian entities and most of the base housing is apparently rented out, but most of the base is empty and deteriorating. A quick tour:
Traveling around a closed base is like touring a ghost town – you wonder what life was like here when it was active. So many people spent years here, had children that grew up, and left here with fond memories. RIP, K.I. Sawyer.
That’s it for Michigan! We’re traveling again – who knows what we’ll have to share next time?