Wednesday, September 17, 2008

33. Michigan & Minnesota

On September 2, we left New York state and aimed the RV toward the north shore of Lake Superior to visit an old friend of Ron’s. To avoid the congestion of the urban areas around Cleveland, Chicago, etc., we took a short-cut across the southern part of Ontario and entered Michigan at Port Huron, north of Detroit. There was a lot of Toronto-Detroit truck traffic in Ontario, but it moved along smoothly and wasn’t a problem. The folks at the customs station (photo) waved us through without a hassle.

We eventually arrived in the town of Lapeer, just east of Flint, Michigan. We spent the night at their small municipal campground. It was one of the cleanest we’ve seen anywhere, and we’ve seen all kinds. Very nice community too.
Mackinaw City was our next stop. This small town is located at the southern end of one of the world’s great bridges. The five mile long Mackinac Bridge (Mighty Mac) was completed in 1957. It connects the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan and crosses the Straits of Mackinac between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. The straits are often very windy and stormy. In fact, it was so windy and stormy that we stayed an extra day at Mackinaw City to wait it out.
The following day was clear and sunny. We drove cautiously over the monster bridge, 500+ feet above the water. We stayed in the truck lane where the speed limit is 20 mph with a recommended vehicle separation distance of 500 feet. It took a while to cross, but we made it easily. We stayed three nights in the skiing and iron ore mining town of Ishpeming, Michigan, about 15 mi. from Marquette. Michigan’s “Upper Peninsula” is commonly referred to as the “UP”. People who live in the UP are known as Yoopers, or at least some of them are. A Yooper is characterized as a goofy dim-witted hillbilly kind of person with some Finnish ingredients mixed in. The locals have a lot of fun with it. We couldn’t pass up the “Da Yoopers” store (tourist trap) in Ishpeming. It was full of fun and interesting things, including a huge chain saw with a real V-8 engine. Most of it had little or no meaning to us, but is probably very important to a real Yooper. Marquette is an attractive community and major iron ore shipping facility on the south shore of Lake Superior. It’s also a college town and home to Northern Michigan University and one of the most impressive City Halls we've seen anywhere (photo).
We spent some time looking around downtown, then drove out to Presque Island Park to view the shoreline and lighthouse. We had now visited all five of the Great Lakes. We spent two or three hours watching an ore ship arrive and begin loading at Marquette’s ore dock. It’s a very slow process to watch, but it was interesting and a good way to spend a beautiful sunny afternoon. After a leisurely six days in Michigan, we made an overnight stop in Ashland, Wisconsin. Ashland is a tidy town of about 8,000, on the shore of Lake Superior’s Chequamegon Bay (we can’t pronounce it either). Their small city-operated park and campground on the bay had a great view of the bay, a nice sunset and one of the world’s largest iron ore loading docks.
The massive reinforced concrete dock is 1,800 ft. long. It was completed in 1925, but hasn’t been used since 1965. A nice lady in the city’s museum informed us that the dock is owned by a Canadian railroad and the City has been unsuccessful in attempts to buy it. Private and public proposals have been made to do creative things with the dock over the years, but ongoing political battles between the railroad, the city and other agencies have prevented any kind of progress. The railroad wants to tear it down, the City wants to save it and the Dept. of Natural Resources won’t allow anything to happen that might contaminate Lake Superior in any way. So, the dock remains as it was in 1965, which is just fine with the lady in the museum who views it as an historic structure.
September 9 was sunny as we continued into Minnesota and through Duluth, the busiest port on the Great Lakes. It was another nearly three hour drive up Lake Superior’s North Shore to the town of Grand Marais. Ron lived in Grand Marais in 1956-57. Over the years, he kept in touch with his long-time sixth-grade friend Ron Lund. We’ll refer to him as “Lund” to avoid confusion. Lund is the owner/proprietor of Lund’s Motel and Cabins (Be sure to stay there the next time you're on the North Shore). He and Rena were great hosts. They gave us a place to park the motor home and all the conveniences we could want. Ron and Rena gave us the keys to their cozy cabin on Devil Track Lake for a couple nights. It’s a beautiful lake, not far from town in the quiet wilderness of northern Minnesota. Being late summer, the mosquitoes were gone and it was very quiet. No traffic and no urban noise. The cabin was the perfect place to do some serious relaxing while waiting out yet another brief rain storm. The next day it was sunny again and we went for a peaceful paddle on the lake. We enjoyed some good food and conversation with Ron and Rena and appreciate their warm hospitality. Ron got to see some folks he hadn’t seen in decades and the Rons found some time to tip a few beers, play some mini-golf and reminisce about the good old days.

The North Shore and entire Lake Superior region are beautiful. If it wasn’t so late in the summer, we might have stayed another week. But the leaves were turning and the nights were getting colder, so it was time to move along.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

32. Niagara Falls - and Vicinity

The road from New England was leading us toward the Albany/Schenectady area of New York. Fortunately, we found Highway 29. It was a much prettier shortcut through the rural farms and foothills of the Adirondacks to Johnstown, New York.
We've noticed along the way that every town has a local hero. Johnstown is no exception. It's the proud birthplace of women's suffrage leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton, as seen on a downtown mural (photo). We found some interesting old downtown buildings, including this one with the rounded windows. Unfortunately, the downtown doesn’t appear to be healthy and many of the old buildings are in need of major work. We found a nice restaurant that served up an excellent plate of shrimp for Bonnie and eggplant parmesan for Ron at very reasonable prices. The only other customer in the place was a guy the server called “professor”, so we felt we were doing our small part to bolster the economy of Johnstown.

To save time, we drove the New York Thruway across the state from Johnstown to near Buffalo. The privilege cost us $35.80 (ouch!) in tolls, but it was a relaxing drive and we made good time. We sat back and watched the farms and forests roll by. With the Labor Day weekend on the horizon, campgrounds were booking early and we didn’t want to be stuck in a Wal-Mart parking lot over the holidays. [Note: Hindsight tells us we should have taken the Wal-Mart option. More about that later.]

We checked into a convenient RV park just outside the City of Lockport in eastern New York. It put us about 20 miles from Buffalo and Niagara Falls and 15 miles from Lake Ontario. We had some interesting campground chats with local folks who told us about Lockport’s colorful history. The first fire hydrant was built and installed here and a local factory makes Yo-Yo strings. We didn’t know Yo-Yo strings were special, but apparently they are. One of the largest industries in town built radiators for General Motors vehicles. It recently closed and put a lot of people out of work. The city once had lots of nice old brick and stone buildings. Some have survived but most were removed in the name of “urban renewal”. Fortunately, the city still has the Erie Canal, its historic locks and related tourism.

Lockport was built around the Eric Canal. Its famous “Flight of Five” double locks lifted boats 49 feet while lowering others at the same time. We couldn't pass up the opportunity to take a short canal cruise and brush up on our American history. The canal was hand dug long before railroads or automobiles were available. It was a monumental project to provide a water highway between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes. The U.S. government couldn’t afford it, so the state of New York put up the money. Digging began in 1817 on the 363 mile canal and its series of 83 locks. When completed in 1825, the canal connected the Hudson River with the Niagara River and became a primary gateway to "the west" for new settlers. Before the canal was built, travel from Albany to Buffalo took about seven weeks. The canal is still being used today and the same trip takes about seven days. “Tow paths” along the sides of the canal were used to pull the barges. The paths are now used for hiking and biking. Getting to see the famous Erie Canal was something we hadn’t planned on. It was really special to be able to go on a boat cruise through the locks and under the bridges. It was like stepping into a page of history.

Our primary destination was Niagara Falls. We arrived early on a weekday to avoid crowds and were lucky to find a free parking space a block from the falls. We were surprised that it wasn’t crowded at all and lines were short. We spent most of the day wandering around and enjoying the beauty of the place and the sounds of rushing water. Great views of both the American Falls and Canada’s Horseshoe Falls were within easy walking distance. The falls are surrounded by a large park. There are lots of things to do and see, pathways to walk, and trolley-type buses to shuttle people from place to place. The first thing we did was take a very wet boat ride on the “Maid of the Mist.” Each passenger was issued a plastic rain coat with hood before the boat took us right up to the bases of both falls. The coats helped, but the “mist” from the falls was more like torrential rain. It took a week to dry out Ron’s tennis shoes. After the boat ride we switched to yellow raincoats and rubber sandals and went on the “Cave of the Winds” walking tour. The “cave” part caved in a decade or two ago and killed a few tourists, so it’s no longer part of this adventure. It now consists of a series of wooden stairways and platforms along the edge of the falls. Being this close to Niagara Falls, with its drenching mist and thundering roar made this stair climb an awesome experience. That's Bonnie at the top.

After a full day of sightseeing, we were worn out and still walking around in wet shoes. We found a vacant park bench where we sat a while and watched the roaring rapids of the Niagara River. The Niagara Falls complex was one of the highlights of our vacation, for sure. The Niagara River has always been a vital transportation link, even with the necessity of portaging around the falls. The mouth of the river, where it flows into Lake Ontario, was an important control point for access to the Great Lakes and, therefore, has a long history of political conflict. Back in 1679, the French established a post at the river's mouth and followed with more elaborate forts. In 1726, the French built the “French Castle” which still stands as the centerpiece of Old Fort Niagara.Over the years, Britain gained control of the fort during the French and Indian Wars but gave it up to the Americans after the American Revolution. It was later recaptured by the British during the War of 1812 but finally returned to the U.S. for good in 1815. Old Fort Niagara has seen a lot of action. It’s now a restored tourist attraction, complete with cannons, mortars, lots of intricate brickwork, dark tunnels and passageways and some great views of the Niagara River and Lake Ontario from the castle's upper windows. The fellas in British uniforms explained the various types of artillary that were used long ago and successfully demonstrated the firing of a mortar. Both survived. We were in western New York state about a week and had plenty of time to roam around the New York countryside. One of the Labor Day weekend activities was an outstanding car show in Olcott Beach. It was held in a large grassy park with Lake Ontario in the background. The village of Wilson is just down the road from Olcott. It has some interesting shops and restaurants next to its small but scenic harbor on Lake Ontario. We spent a little time there, had a sandwich and beer and listened to some country music at the outdoor stage. Labor Day at the campground was pretty rough. Campers came from all around the area (nearly all New Yorkers) and brought lots of loud rock music, loud voices and plenty of beer. They came to party and that’s what they did . . . well into the night. We took our lawn chairs and sat by the huge bonfire one night.
The campground’s “quiet time” begins at 11 pm, but it didn’t happen. Parties continued into the morning hours and the park management couldn’t handle it. We lost a lot of sleep and were relieved when the weekend was finally over and the campground was once again nearly empty and very quiet. For most of those folks, it was the last gasp of summer and they were letting it all out. For us, just another weekend.

We had a good time in New York but it felt good to finally hook the car to the motor home and aim for Michigan.