Posted by: bkivey | 2 October 2016

2016 Vacation Pt. 6

When I planned the trip I knew I’d have to have a base in northern Michigan. Sault Ste. Marie was in the running for a long time because there are locks, and the name is fun to say. The lock system is Great Lake shipping, and I thought it’d be fun to watch large ships walk up and down hills. Airfare to the town is a fortune even from Detroit, so I’d have to drive, but ultimately that was further than I wanted to drive from Detroit in one day, especially taking the back roads. Mackinaw City it was.

I was a little concerned about spending two nights in a town of population 800; what would there be to do? I could watch TV in the hotel room, and I don’t have TV at home so that would be OK. I like to socialize a bit when I go to new places, and I hoped there’d be one bar I liked.

No concerns there:


Mackinaw City has about 20 square blocks of tourist industry. I’d find out the town is built around people who do pretty much what I was doing: spending a few days up north. And not just in the Summer. Michigan has a robust winter tourist season. I did things in the outdoors in the Winter when we lived in the Northeast, because like the rain in the Northwest, if you don’t do it in the cold in the North, you don’t do it. Michigan culture seems to embrace the outdoor life just a little more than most places I’ve been. I haven’t been to Minnesota or Wisconsin, so I don’t know if this is how the Lakes country works, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

Besides the usual ways to spend money, the city has a ferry to Mackinaw Island. I didn’t go, but my understanding is that cars are not allowed on the island. There are huge expanses of parking lot dedicated to the ferry, and they were mostly empty when I was there. The ‘tourist’ aspect of the town seems a bit subdued: probably because the town has to compete with interesting things to do and see.

One of those things is the decommissioned Coast Guard icebreaker USS Mackinaw:


This was cool and unexpected. I’d never seen an icebreaker, and you can tour this one. Whee!

Built during WW II and retired in ’06, when commissioned she was the most powerful icebreaker in the world. Built wider than the St. Lawrence locks at the time so she couldn’t escape, she spent her service keeping the seaways clear on the Great Lakes.

Tours are $11, and most of the ship is accessible. Although a military vessel, there aren’t any weapons emplacements, so there’s more room for people. One interesting addition are the conning towers on the bridge wings. From the pilot house the view forward is restricted by the spray shield. The conning towers were added so the crew could actually conn the ship.

The crew spaces are interesting, but I wanted to see the engine room. The ship is driven exactly like a modern locomotive with a diesel-electric drive. Six Fairbanks-Morse locomotive engines drive generators to power the electric motors driving two screws astern and one in the bow.


The engines use vertically-opposed pistons: something I hadn’t seen before. The yellow sign on each engine warns to wait 30 minutes after a crankcase explosion before opening the covers. I wondered how often that occurred to warrant a sign. Because the ship was built around the engines there’s no provision for removal. Toward the end of her service life replacement parts had to be fabricated.

There was a trim board in this engine room. The ship has ballast tanks all around where water can be transferred to shift weight to break ice. Most of the spaces have signs requiring ear protection. There were a few folks from the preservation society aboard and they said that between the engines and ice streaming down the side the ship could be a noisy place.

I was happy to spend some time aboard, but there were some other things I wanted to see. As might be expected of a strait, there are a number of lighthouses in the area.

McGulpin Light:


There are displays about shipwrecks in the area, as well as information on the first family to live here. There’s a short trail down to the lake, and on the way there are life-size cutouts of the family. It looks like a bunch of hippies in the grass. You can access the lens, but I didn’t so I don’t know if there’s a charge.

Old Mackinac Point Light:


There is a charge to see the interior. The lighthouse is located in a nice park and adjacent to the Fort Michilimackinac site and museum. There’s also a fee to enter the fort. The museum/gift shop is right under the approach to the Bridge, and there are plaques with information on politicians when the bridge opened and the five workers who died during construction.

After lunch at the Key Bar it was time to pick’em up and put’em down for the 4 1/2 hour trip back to Dearborn. I didn’t want to leave. I had a nice time during my all-too-brief visit up north. It was just as well I was leaving: in a couple of days I’d have been pricing property and snowmobiles.

This drive was all about getting from A to B, so I-75S all the way. 75 on the cruise and down the road. There are some hills in central Michigan, but mostly flat. Lots of woods. Started to pick up some traffic around Bay City, then more through Flint and into the Detroit metro area. I was looking for 8-Mile Road from Eminem fame, and saw the exit for it. Also 12 Mile, 10 Mile, 9 Mile, 7 Mile and 6 Mile roads. Apparently Detroit suffered a severe street name shortage.

Back to the hotel I’d stayed at previously. Went to a bar in a part of Dearborn that appears to have been redeveloped, and wished I’d gone somewhere else. I like a lager or an ale when I’m eating, and nearly all the local brews on tap were IPA’s. I settled for a national lager and had an OK meal. Note to restaurants: no normal human can eat a sandwich and a double-handful of fries. Reduce your portions! You’ll save money and your customers will be happier.

I was pretty happy. Outside the flight home tomorrow and the Ford museum, I’d done everything I’d wanted to do, and everything had gone smoothly. That qualifies as fun.





  1. Blair– More excellent stuff!

    You are correct; no private-automobiles on Mackinaw Island. You can however, rent a bike or be driven around on a horse-drawn carriage.

    Har– every time I go “North,” I always price land! (I do have a small parcel in Kalkaska County, just east of Traverse City, but alas, no snowmobiles. It’s difficult to get to my “cabin” in the Winter and I don’t ski

    The problem with living “up North,” is you almost need a helicopter to commute to work! They have every job you could think of, but the base numbers are very low. Lot of folks retire to the area.

    My friends in PDX tell me it rains a lot in the Winter, in contrast, in Michigan it snows all winter, and especially “up north.” And there are a lot of “seasonal roads,” which means they aren’t plowed consistently all Winter.

    Really wish you could have toured the western side of the lower peninsula, although its mostly sand dunes & forest.

    Our Fruit-Belt is concentrated in lower south-west Michigan– square miles of fruit trees everywhere- and around Traverse City (Cherry Capital of Michigan, and maybe the World.)

    Will definitely be re-reading all these posts!

  2. Hi Wayne,

    Thanks for commenting. I had a really good time in northern Michigan. Actual accumulation of rain in Portland is about the same as most other temperate climates, but it is grey a lot, and our rain tends to come as a drizzle. We’re transitioning to the Winter weather pattern now.

    Oregon has it’s own ‘fruit belt’ south of Hood River. Lots of pears, apples, cherries and pretty much anything else that grows on trees. The Tualatin Valley where I live has acres of nut (mostly filberts) orchards and vineyards.

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