Center of the Freshwater World

Bridging Peninsulas

The 5-mile-long Mackinac Bridge, stretching gracefully over the often turbulent Straits of Mackinac, is arguably the state of Michigan’s most photographed icon and certainly one of its prettiest. It’s also a far more convenient way to cross the Straits of Mackinac from the state’s Lower Peninsula to its Upper than through an hour-long ferry ride, the main transportation means prior to the bridge’s opening in 1957.

Some 3,500 workers helped build what, at the time of its opening, was the world’s largest suspension bridge, and is now the fifth largest. For the opening ceremony, ’83 Oldsmobile convertibles crossed the bridge, toting beauty queens from each county in the state. But those beauties didn’t outshine the creation of bridge designer David B. Steinman, whose work was described as “a harp stretched against the sky” and a “net to catch the stars.”

The bridge rises 552 feet (55 stories) above the straits, a height that intimidates enough drivers that the Mackinac Bridge Authority launched a Drivers Assistance Program early in the bridge’s existence. An authority employee will drive anyone afraid to do it on their own across the bridge, and that’s the case with an average of four or five cars out of the more than 10,000 that cross it daily. The 100-millionth bridge crossing took place June 25, 1998.

At night, the lights cast a colorful glow on the water below. And some of the best day and nighttime viewing spots are on the St. Ignace side of the bridge. For example:

Bridge View Park, established by the Mackinac Bridge Authority, features a glassed-in observation dome with one of the best bridge views. There also are movies about bridge construction, photos that illustrate the challenges posed by high winds, picnic tables, benches and a handy telescope.

Straits State Park features an overlook with such a high, straight view down the bridge’s center that it was used as a survey point during construction. Today, it’s all about fun. Campers tote lawn chairs to the beach at dusk to watch the nightly lighting, and the bridge is your nightlight if you book beachfront campsites 3, 4, 5 or 6. Though the park is closed to winter camping, it’s kept plowed to the main parking lot — a great jumping-off point for cross-country skiing or snowshoeing along the lakeshore.

Boulevard Drive, past Bridge View Park, offers a 4-mile stretch of shoreline with continuous bridge views, particularly striking at night.
The State Scenic Overlook, U.S. 2, just 2.5 miles from St. Igance, offers coin-operated binoculars and great view. — K.S.

Best of the Fests

Stomp in the Park (Jan. 10) offers the chance to ski, snowshoe or hike amid luminaries and the lights of the Mackinac Bridge.

The Labatt Blue UP Pond Hockey Championship (Feb. 12-15) showcases the bay in a way unfamiliar to the summer boating crowd; but it looks like so much fun, you may want to join in.

St. Ignace Ice Golf Scramble (Feb. 28) encourages joining in; teams of two compete on a course laid out atop Moran Bay, playing with painted balls for easy finding on ice. Grand prize is the rare chance to view the Mackinac Bridge from its tippy top.

The 66th annual Mackinac Island Lilac Festival (June 6-11) features a week of festivities commemorating the fragrant flower, as well as animal blessings, parades and the popular Taste of Mackinac.

The Michigan Lighthouse Festival (June 12-14) features St. Ignace’s Wawatam Lighthouse.

The St. Ignace Fish Feast(June 18) brings pop-up fish and chips shops and more to the marina pier, along with live music, beverages, a fishing pond for kids, games, and fireworks at dusk.

St. Ignace Car Show Weekend (June 25-27) is one of the largest such shows in the country, featuring hundreds of antique, custom and celebrity cars, a Kewadin Casino Cruise Night, and a “Down Memory Lane” parade.

4th of July activities (July 4) feature an afternoon parade, community picnic and a fireworks cruise.

Rendezvous at the Straits and the Straits Pow Wow (Aug. 22-23) combine a French voyager reenactment and one of the region’s most traditional and popular pow wows.

Arts and Crafts Dockside (Sept. 5-6) brings juried arts and crafts from more than 100 artists, along with music and food, to the public marina.

Labor Day Mackinac Bridge Run (Sept. 7) offers the once-a-year chance to walk the 5-mile-long bridge, usually led by the Michigan governor.

Mighty Mac Bridge Race (Sept. 26) features an 11K course between Mackinaw City and St. Ignace via the Mackinac Bridge.

Autumn Apple Days and Great Pumpkin Roll (Sept. 26) offers games, activities, snacks, hayrides. — K.S.

Resources

Center of the Freshwater World

by Kim Schneider
01-Jan-2015
The quaint Upper Peninsula community of St. Ignace, Michigan offers visiting boaters a world of delights, no matter the season.
For months, I kept my sticker proclaiming “I climbed Castle Rock” on a wall next to my desk, glancing over now and then for a sure smile. It’s not like the feat was akin to climbing Mt. Everest, walking those 170 steps to the top of a 200-foot natural rock column just north of the Mackinac Bridge. But the $1 sticker (the cost of admission) brought back memories of my friend and I laughing as we posed by the iconic statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox — those same statues I remember visiting on childhood summer camping trips.

And then there’s the view.

From the top of the rocky platform, pristine forests stretch far into the distance. One direction boasts a view of one of the world’s largest suspension bridges, and another the Les Cheneaux Islands, home to colorful boat houses and famed naturalist Aldo Leopold. Those craggy rock columns and deep green cedars, especially when juxtaposed with numerous roadside attractions and souvenir shops, seem to shout: “You’re in the Upper Peninsula. It’s wilder — and maybe even a bit more fun — here!”

There’s no shortage of tourist draws as you cross the Mackinac Bridge into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, toward the turnoff to downtown St. Ignace. Here, the state’s famed Mystery Spot leaves it up to visitors to decide if it’s optical illusion or earthly magic that has rooms seeming to tilt. A new zipline adds thrills and a great view of the bridge. And a whitetail deer farm lets visitors with good timing sometimes catch the birth of a fawn, and maybe even name the baby.

But the heart of St. Ignace, locals say, is about community; a slower pace, creative winter play, night summer fun centered around the pristine harbor, authentic museums, and a history storied enough to be the stuff of tall tales.

“Small town America is who we are,” says lifelong resident Janet Peterson, now director of the St. Ignace Chamber of Commerce. “We just happen to be on a beautiful little bay overlooking Mackinac Island right in the midst of the Great Lakes. There’s an architect who traveled the world and then retired here. He calls us the center of the freshwater world.”

Center of the (fur trade) World

The “center of the world” idea is not so far-fetched; it’s actually how the town got started, says Phil Porter, director of the Mackinac State Historic Parks. The fact that you don’t find a restored fort here, as you do across the Mackinac Bridge in Mackinaw City, or on Mackinac Island, sometimes obscures the fact that settlement happened here first, he notes.

Father Jacques Marquette is credited with founding the town when, in 1691, he started the mission of St. Ignatius Loyola on the north side of the Straits, and St. Ignace became Michigan’s second official settlement after Sault Ste. Marie, an hour’s drive further north. He’d established a mission on Mackinac Island the previous year, but moved with the Huron Indians after finding the rocky island soil unsuitable for agriculture and sustaining a population, Porter says.

Almost simultaneously, the outpost became both a fishing and fur trading center; the summer depot, if you will, for the Upper Great Lakes fur trade, connecting the fur bearing regions of the west, north and south to European markets. There was a relay system with the Straits as a summer transit point, Porter explains. Trappers came out of the wilderness in spring, bringing their furs as far as the Straits, while traders came from ports like Montreal to pick up more supplies and rendezvous with the others. “What’s interesting,” he says, “is the area still has that seasonal flow, first with the fur trade, now with tourism.”

In about 1690, as a way to protect its fur trade interests, the French built Fort de Buade at St. Ignace. They closed the fort soon after due to a glut of furs coming from North America to the European market. By the time the French returned to the Straits, the Odawa and Jesuit missionaries had exhausted the farm fields on the St. Ignace side and moved south to fresh soils on the south shore, now Mackinaw City, and so they followed, building Fort Michilimackinac where there will, this summer, be a featured event commemorating its 300th year in existence. St. Ignace’s smaller settlement persisted, focused primarily on furs and fish.

History Come to Life 

The region’s past remains easy to explore in spots like Father Marquette Park, where the early settlement story is told through 15 interpretive markers spread throughout winding walking paths. If there’s almost a spiritual feel to the place, perhaps it’s because it’s holy to local Native Americans who still use it for regular ceremonies. But the Museum Ojibwa Culture, now constructing an authentic native Longhouse through traditional methods, and Fort de Buade, now a free museum based entirely around the sold collection of a local orthodontist, most vividly bring past to present.

Fort de Buade’s collection starts with a pair of tablets, found around Newberry, Michigan in the late 1800s and thought to be proof that Michigan’s earliest tribes traded Upper Peninsula copper with the ancient Minoan civilization. Museum visitors can pick up a few Odawa words like Amik (bear) or Mino (good); see rare animal effigies, sacred pipes, trade items and ancient clothing; and learn about the area’s French, military and lumber history. But worthy of its own specially built room — and a destination visit — is the new permanent exhibit, “Captured Spirits.”

Here, a collection of 120 stunning lithographs represent 19 tribes from which dignitaries traveled to Washington, D.C. in the 1800s on tribal business. Thomas McKenney, then superintendent of Indian Affairs, commissioned artist Charles Bird King to capture the likenesses as these chiefs, orators and other leaders traveled for treaty negotiations and official business. Forget the images of natives from early Westerns; these paintings couldn’t look more different from one another — be they the colorful depiction of Nah-Et-Lue-Poie, in his French-looking red sash headpiece and large earrings; Pottawatomie Chief Wa-baun-see in his military-looking garb; or the young Chippeway widow who traveled bearing her husband’s belongings in the shape of a swaddled child. In the widow’s tribe, women would carry belongings for a full year as a way to help the deceased reenter Earth, says curator Debora Robinson-Coxe, who is working to expand the exhibit with stories behind the images.

Travel Fun 
 
The area’s sometimes too-long winters encourage residents and visitors to get more than a bit creative with year-round fun.

There’s no need even for an indoor hockey rink, for example, when “pond hockey” on Moran Bay is such a tournament draw. Popular, too, is what was once a locals-only game of pond golf that is getting broader notice. The annual day in which a whole golf course worth of holes is carved in the bay for a fun scramble that includes lunch and dinner is being opened up more broadly to visitors and expanded. And this year’s grand prize is especially worthy: A rare chance to travel to the top of the Mackinac Bridge.

Winter’s quiet makes for pristine cross-country ski outings, particularly in spots like the waterfront trail, with a great view of the Mackinac Bridge at Straits State Park, otherwise closed for the season. There’s a groomed cross-country ski area at the Sand Dune Cross Country Ski Trail, 11 miles west of town, and two small downhill runs and snow tubing at Silver Mountain. Snowmobiling is a popular winter pursuit, too. Rentals are available in town, and St. Ignace is seen as a trailhead to the miles of trails across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Or you can drive your own team of sled dogs, starting an hour away in McMillan at Nature’s Kennel headquarters (natureskennel.com). Opt for a partial day trip, or get more adventurous with an overnight option that lets you choose from an upscale inn or a camping outing with the dogs, simulating conditions of Alaska’s Iditarod, a race on which these sled dog teams participate. But you’re not going the entire 1,000 miles; just cuddling with blankets and dogs, under a full moon, as you listen to adventure stories from races past. The key to success, says Iditarod racer and kennel owner Ed Stielstra, is being able to relax — and stay standing.

Mackinac Island in Winter

St. Ignace is the winter gateway to Mackinac Island, whether you’re taking a ferry not yet socked in by ice, flying over via Great Lakes Air, or snowmobiling (carefully) across an ice bridge that on particularly cold years will form across the Straits. Once on the island, the trip highlight is serenity, says Alison Abraham, assistant director at Mackinac Island Tourism, who notes that it’s hard to find snow more untouched than you’ll find on an island that banned cars more than a century ago.

“Here the snow falls, and that’s how it looks all winter,” she said. “It’s an untouched canvas of beautiful white. There’s not a lot going on. And that’s the draw.”

Mackinac Island always has been far better known as a summer destination, perhaps back to the days Native Americans gathered in warmer months at the sacred spot they dubbed “The Great Turtle.” President Andrew Johnson in 1875 named it America’s second national park (three years after Yellowstone), and 80 percent of the island remains as undeveloped as it was before wealthy Victorians started building the gingerbread cottages that still grace its island bluffs.

From June’s National Lilac Festival through fall, ferries run non-stop with loads of visitors who’ll explore by bike or horse the Victorian downtown, housing art galleries and fudge shops, fur-trade era buildings, scenic trails, and an iconic fort. Especially popular (and worth a visit) is the seasonal, 128-year-old (this summer) Grand Hotel, perhaps best known as the movie set for the cult romance “Somewhere in Time,” if only for high tea, its famed five-course dinner, or a glass of Veuve Clicquot on the world’s longest porch.

Come winter, just a handful of lodging options remain open, along with a couple of restaurants that serve up hot toddies, cedar-planked whitefish and steaming soups, and even host the popular mid-February Great Turtle Chili Cookoff and Washington Birthday Bash. Horse-drawn taxis pick you up at the airport or ferry dock, if you call ahead. The 600 horses that keep visitors moving all summer drop to just 16. But getting around from there is best done in good boots or cross country skis.

The Mackinac Island Ski Club grooms 15 miles of trails on the 3.8–square-mile island, many of them bike paths come summer, and paths amid snow-covered cedars in winter. Skiing is fun, too, down the main streets, past buildings that resemble a movie set or ghost town. It’s also fun to take the skis off, climb up to Fort Mackinac, and catch the view from the 14 original buildings, getting a feel for the life soldiers here once lived — even without the help of costumed interpreters who bring those tales to life come peak season.

This year, three hotels are remaining open through winter: Pontiac Lodge, Harbour Place Studio Suites and Bogan Lane Inn. For more information on winter services, logistics and events, visit mackinacisland.org/winter.

Your Home Port

St. Ignace’s new tourism motto is “your home port,” positioning the town as a hub for travels that might take you on a dog sledding adventure, or Tahquamenon Falls, Whitefish Point, Mackinac Island, or just around downtown St. Ignace. And you won’t find a spot more central to the action than the town’s marina, famous for (intentionally) having the cheapest gas prices anywhere and the way marina staff has added a vegetable garden to the floral landscaping — and generously shares cucumbers, tomatoes and other bounty with visiting boaters.

There’s formal activity fun along the waterfront every night of the week through July and August, says Mindy Rutgers of the St. Ignace Visitors Bureau. Sunset cruises on the Starline Ferry are Monday’s offering. On Tuesdays, there’s wine and beer tasting at the Pavilion. Wednesdays and Thursdays, it’s live music featuring local and regional musicians and a Thursday farmer’s market. Friday’s “Night at the Museum” features native drumming and singing, storytelling and free guided walking tours. Every Saturday, it’s a full fireworks display, accompanied by music blasted through a PA system; and Sundays brings free movies on a blow-up movie screen by the waterfront.

Any day of the week, visitors will find multiple ways to enjoy regional food favorites like the pasty — a meat pie in crust brought from Cornwall, England, by Upper Peninsula miners — or fresh whitefish, served baked, fried, planked or in dips.

Overlooking Lake Huron, Wawatam Lighthouse & Mackinac Island, the Mackinac Grille and Waterfront Pub is a great place to go for lunch, dinner or a Sunday brunch buffet. The Grille is open year-round and for those cold, winter days, it’s a great place to stop and let the fireplace and great atmosphere warm you up. During summer, their big, inviting porch offers terrific views of Lake Huron and the St. Ignace Marina.

Shopping is centered around souvenirs and the craftwork of local artisans. Native Expressions, the store set within the Museum of Ojibwa Culture, features original crafts by Native American artists. John Herbon of John Herbon Pottery brings his modern-day spin on an ancient craft and is most noted for the use of beautifully painted fish as handles or ornaments of bowls, teapots and boxes. Gold Mine Jewelry crafts gallery pieces from local Petoskey stones, pudding stones, and agates unique to Michigan.

If you’re interested in making this charming UP community “your home port,” contact Mackinac Properties, located in the center of downtown St. Ignace and overlooking Lake Huron. The company was founded in 1998 by Cheryl Schlehuber, a Mackinac County resident for more than 45 years. With 100-plus combined years of industry knowledge and experience, this boutique-style company specializes in friendly, professional and personalized hometown service. High demand for rental properties recently prompted Mackinac Properties to open a new venture, Northern Michigan Vacation Rentals.

“Most anything you need is within easy walking distance — a laundromat, a library, a boardwalk, downtown shops, restaurants, ferries, and festivals,” Peterson says of life in St. Ignace. “When you’re out on that pier with water on three sides of you, ferry boats going back and forth to the island, and the activities and events around you, where else would you rather be?”

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