After we split up from my parents, Brian and I drove back through Mackinaw City, crossing to the Lake Huron side of the mitten. The “Sunrise” side. You see, Lake Michigan, being on the western shore, gets the sunsets… and all the money. Those who live on Lake Huron (on the eastern shore) see the sunrises over the lake. In other words: Sunsets + sand = tourism; Sunrise + trees = normal. But that’s kind of WHY it’s cool here on the sunrise side. It’s frozen in time. The towns are more home-towny, a little run down but still plugging away; the trees are a little more scrabbly, the beaches more wild & rocky, the shoreline marshy in many areas (bad for swimming, great for kayaking); driving down the back roads you see… just… a lot of trees, and not many homes and zero traffic. You get the feeling this is how it was up here 100 years ago. You FEEL really far away from EVERYTHING.
We spent the night at the 14-site, state forest campground next to Ocqueoc Falls (Ok-we-ok), the only waterfall in lower Michigan. This spot is in the middle of pretty much nowhere, miles from any town. So we were surprised to find a full parking lot, with an overwhelming number of families picnicking and swimming in the river. A series of shallow falls with a rocky, walkable river is begging to be frolicked in by kids and adults alike. We spotted locals lounging in lawn chairs set directly in the shallow pools. A great way to cool off in the summer heat!
We spent a rainy day just messing about in the big town of Alpena (pop. over 10k, the largest town in the area). We watched a movie at the local theater, went to the brand new Meijer store (woohoo!), sampled a local coffeehouse, perused a musty antique store and had ice cream at Culver’s. Alpena is mainly an industrial town: cement is big business here, as is limestone (one of the largest quarries in the world). So we were surprised to find a college, a thriving downtown and a busy business district - pretty much everything you need is right here. Plus, Alpena is set on Thunder Bay, its marshy wetlands threaded with acres of water trails, ideal for kayaking. Except it’s raining. Maybe next time.
Thunder Bay Marine Sanctuary
Our drizzly day was a perfect time to visit the Thunder Bay Marine Sanctuary in Alpena. NOAA and the State of Michigan jointly operate this unique sanctuary whose purview combines salvage and display of local marine artifacts in a museum, as well as in-water preservation of the amazing number of shipwrecks in Thunder Bay.
Also known as “Shipwreck Alley”, this 4300-sq-mile area of Lake Huron, now an underwater preserve, was a standard route for freighters and sailing ships plying the Great Lakes. Over 200 ships have foundered in this bay, notorious for severe storms and rocky shoals, many of which are lying in such shallow waters as to be accessible by kayakers, divers and snorkelers. The museum offers glass-bottom-boat tours of several shipwrecks close to shore. This would have been a cool side trip, but the boats weren’t operating that day - too yucky outside. You don’t want your shipwreck tour to become a shipwreck itself!
The museum displays hundreds of interesting artifacts. My favorite were the ships logs detailing things like watch changes, ship speeds, storm conditions, one even had a cross-section sketch of the freighter hold and its contents: trade goods like iron ore, fish, copper, bricks. We learned about typical maritime shipping lanes through the Erie Canal into the Great Lakes; Brian operated a digital, simulated underwater rover; we read about the various types of schooners and brigs up to modern day freighters and why they foundered… storms, groundings, engine fires, ice, fog, even head on collisions with other boats. Back then, it was not uncommon for shipping barons to force the sail of boats into November, the notoriously worst weather month of the year here, to get one last shipment in before the lakes are overwhelmed with ice. Lives lost unnecessarily as a result.
That Damn Erie Canal
On a lighter note, the least desirable thing about this museum is their music. In one section, the repeated playing of old Erie Canal song, known as “Low Bridge” covered by (I think) Bruce Springsteen, was… (I’ll try to be nice here) excessive. OK, I wanted to pull my hair out. This very short song was repeated over the overly loud speakers, again and again and again… back-to-back. Maybe they don’t WANT you to stay in this section and read everything because I could barely concentrate due to Bruce’s broken record. I couldn’t get that damn song out of my head for DAYS after we left:
I've got an old mule and her name is Sal, Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal
She's a good old worker and a good old pal, Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal…
Low bridge, everybody down
Low bridge cause we're coming to a town…
And now YOU have it in YOUR head. J You can hate me later.
To be honest, part of my irritation was attributed to a set of very obnoxious grandparents guiding their obviously uncaring grandchild through our same section. Grandma loudly proclaimed her interest at each display trying in vain to entice the kid, “Oooh Johnny, look at this cool ship replica”. Then she would read the text to him. At full volume. ‘Cause Johnny wasn’t right next to her looking at the ship; Johnny was running all over the tight corridor, completely distracted and not listening anyway. Seriously Grandma? Anyway, except for Grandma (hopefully she’s not a regular) and Bruce (unfortunately, he IS), for those interested in maritime history, this museum is a must-see.
The Au Sable River runs nearly 140 miles across the upper portion of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, dispersing into Lake Huron at the small town of Oscoda. Due to its sandy bottom and easily navigable waters, the Au Sable is an ideal canoeing and kayaking river. In fact, we’d just missed the yearly Au Sable River Canoe Marathon. Running 120 miles of this river, pro canoeists paddle throughout the night and into the following day. Sounds fun!
We decided on a half-day canoe trip from Oscoda Canoe Rental, gliding along this beautiful river under threat of thunderstorm which thankfully never transpired. The current was just strong enough to do most of the work - we really only needed to steer. The first half of our 4-hour trip meandered slowly through the undeveloped Manistee National Forest. No houses, no people…just us and the clear, clean water and the wild woods. Perfect. Then we got to the second half.
As we rounded a corner, we heard people (ugh) and knew it must be OUR halfway point because suddenly dozens of tubers and canoers and kayakers were putting in their floatation devices for their 2-hour tour. From here on out it was summer mayhem as we were accompanied by drunken tubers and shrieking teens. One troupe of giggling, teenage cheerleaders traveling in over 20 canoes stopped at a sandy beach to swim and splash and squeal, performing cheerleading flips & playing chicken on each other shoulders in the water. Ummm, yeah, it was quite the spectacle.
Another group’s member was drunkenly singing that “Hole in the Bottom of the Sea” song. You know the one: “Theeeeere's aaaaaa….wart on the frog, on the bump on the log, in the hole at the bottom of the seaaaaaa.” Mr. Opera was actually pretty funny the first few verses…singing with a deep vibrato, conducting crazily with his arms, trying unsuccessfully to coax his drunk friends into joining him. Eventually, after WAY too many verses, well, it just wasn’t funny anymore. Come on buddy, move along…
Just 20 miles west of Oscoda, is an interesting memorial to the under-appreciated Lumberjack. Michigan led the lumber industry in the late 1800’s. And the wide Au Sable River was used as a watery highway to float millions of pine logs to Lake Huron for processing and ship transport. This Federal park honors the men who plied this river, cutting trees, shaving branches, rolling them from a clifftop down into the water, poling them down river, breaking up log jams and delivering the product to sawmills. Educational signs in the park describe the grueling work and living conditions. I talked about trees earlier…upper Michigan has no shortage of trees. Now. But what I didn’t know… most of those trees are new, 60-90 years old. The harvest of millions of pine trees, fires and flooding devastated the tree population in the late 1800’s. But during the Depression, the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) made a gargantuan effort to replenish the forest, planting over a HALF A BILLION pine trees!
This time we stayed at Tawas State Park. With one calmer, bayside beach in Tawas Bay and a second, wider beach on Lake Huron, plus another lighthouse on site protecting the peninsula, this was a busy, yet pleasant campground. The beaches are sandy here, as opposed to rockier farther north. So sandy in fact, the Tawas Point lighthouse had to be replaced due to shifting peninsula sands, closing the original off from Lake Huron an entire mile from shore in less than 30 years, rendering it useless.
After a delicious breakfast at the Whitetail Café, a local diner in downtown East Tawas, we walked out to the marina. Of course. I think we’ve walked the marinas of darn near every town along the entire northern coast. Ludington, Manistee, Leland, Northport, Suttons Bay, Charlevoix, Petoskey, Cheboygan, Rogers City and now Tawas. Are we weird or what?
Pinconning. Cheese. Please.
Next we stopped in Pinconning for cheese. Duh. Pinconning is a town AND a type of cheese. These are several cheeseries here, so when you go through Pinconning, it’s a like a requirement to buy Pinconning cheese, or you get fined, or something. I don’t know, but that’s what I told Brian and he seemed to buy it. Or maybe he wasn’t listening. Either way, I win. Cheese for me.
Also in Pinconning is the Northwoods Wholesale Outlet. Basically, this is like going to Bass Pro Shop… except it’s bargain-basement-time. Housed in a cluttered warehouse, this place has great discount prices for camping, boating, hiking, fishing and hunting gear. It’s so big, we strolled around for over an hour and didn’t go down every aisle. From kayaks to deer blinds to fishing gear to cheap jeans to RV accessories to grilling tools, this bargain outdoorsman extravaganza has it all.
We really got our money’s worth out of that $11 Michigan State Park sticker. Bay City State Park is the 14th Michigan State Park that we have either stayed at or visited (lunched, hiked or just drove through to check it out) in the last 3 weeks. Whew. Bay City State Park is an overlooked campground situated on Lake Huron and only a few miles from the city. We did not make a reservation. So when we arrived, I asked for the list of open sites so we could go in and take our pick. She handed me a list of over 100 open sites! Really? It’s prime camping season and all the other State Campgrounds are nearly full, if not fully full. What’s the deal here? The sites are big, flat, not too buggy, and the bathrooms were the cleanest we’d ever seen! Close to town, yet still secluded, it was within walking distance from the beach and hiking trails with the most wildlife I’d seen all summer. Go here.
One of the few things to do in Bay City is visit the USS Edson, a Vietnam-era Naval destroyer. Launched in 1958, it is one of only a few Navy ships named after a U.S. Marine. Can I have a Woot! Woot! The cool thing about this 418ft-long, 45ft-beamed, 22ft-drafted destroyer is that the depths are open for inspection. We rooted around in the bowels of the boat for 2 hours, traipsing on metal catwalks, poking around the steam turbines, torpedo bays, crews quarters and top secret comms room so old school they had typewriters! On deck, we saw the big gun turrets, mess hall, captain’s quarters, the darkened electronics room and control bridge. After our visit, we talked with the guy responsible for this floating treasure. Working long hours, he keeps this museum open & coordinates volunteers to upkeep the ever-deteriorating ship, relentlessly attacked by the elements. If you get a chance, please go support this piece of history.
The End of the Road
From here, we ended our trip as we began, by visiting family members. Another ½ hour south is Saginaw, where we stayed with my relatives. We had a very nice evening reconnecting and seeing some of the sights in nearby Midland. At this point, we’d been travelling for 3 weeks were pretty much tired. While we were extremely happy with our van, V-Ger, and its voyaging capabilities, we looked forward to vegging out. Our job for the next week was to babysit my niece-cats. Yep, that’s right, we were charged with housesitting (but mainly cat-sitting) for my brother and his wife while they went on vacation. Excited to pretend we lived in a real house by ourselves… with reliable internet (and Playstation for Brian)… for a whole week? You betcha!