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.