The month of June was 30 days of impatience boiling over. I had my route planned through Sault Ste. Marie into Lake Superior Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada, and as June neared it’s end, so did my motivation. Wisconsin’s weather had become a ridiculous exhibition of rain, and well into June I heard on the local news we had only two dry weekends for the year. The trip was planned at least a month prior, and the relentless rain was melting my demeanor into something resembling a soggy and smushed, stale hamburger bun. Or dog turd – choose your own adventure. My interactions with coworkers and friends developed an irritable and dour personality as I checked the weather daily, hoping for a decent window of opportunity for my long awaited escape.
It wasn’t until just about the second week of July that the weather forecast revealed some respite. A week before I left, the forecast was predicting a few days with a 40% chance of rain and scattered storms. I began thinking I might have to put the trip off until September, because late July or August would be miserably hot, although I expected being near the lakes might help me cool off along the way. Checking the weather daily, I started to notice the original chances of rain were now dwindling, and I began booking my campsites and motel, a kind of stopgap to kick myself into gear and try to regain my motivation.
Day 1: Fayette Historic State Park & Campground
Fortunately, the last hour and a half of the leg went by like a breeze, and I regained feeling in my hands as the bike cruised along at 4,000 RPM. My campsite of choice featured Big Bay de Noc behind me past a shallow wooded area onto rocky shoreline, where I photographed an oddly lone plant sticking out of the clear blue water. After processing some dead wood from the area behind me into kindling and tinder, I cooked a pouch of Uncle Benjamin’s instant flavored rice, then headed out to explore the Fayette Historic Townsite. From the website:
“Named after Fayette Brown, the Jackson Iron Company agent who chose the site, Fayette was once one of the Upper Peninsula’s most productive iron-smelting operations. Located on the Garden Peninsula at Snail Shell Harbor, Fayette grew up around two blast furnaces, a large dock and several charcoal kilns after the Civil War. Nearly five hundred residents, many immigrating from Canada, the British Isles and northern Europe, lived in and near the town that existed to make pig iron.
During twenty-four years of operation, 1867 to l891, Fayette’s blast furnaces produced a total of 229,288 tons of iron, using local hardwood forests for fuel and quarrying limestone from the bluffs to purify the iron ore. When the charcoal iron market began to decline, the Jackson Iron Company closed its Fayette smelting operation.
The Fayette Townsite offers guided tours, but I just wanted to snap some photos as I explored, since the day’s heat was still bearing down. There were other older and dilapidated structures that I didn’t manage to get satisfactory photos of. I had no real complaints about the campground. The site near the bay was relaxing with the sound of the waves at night, and despite there being a lot of children around, the campground was eerily quiet not long after 10:30 to 11:00 PM.
Day 2: Kitch-Iti-Kipi & Munising
Manistique, MI features a natural spring known as “Kitch-iti-Kipi” with clear water you can see to the bottom of. Unfortunately, I forgot to buy a polariser filter to cut through the reflections. Visitors were pretty heavy that day, but I think I was still able to capture some decent photos.
Kitch-iti-kipi is located just west of Manistique at Palms Book State Park. Go 6 miles west of Manistique on US 2 to Thompson, take M-149 north for 12 miles to the park. One of the Upper Peninsula’s major attractions, Kitch-iti-kipi or “The Big Spring” is two hundred feet across and forty feet deep. Over 10,000 gallons a minute gush from many fissures in underlying limestone, the flow continuing throughout the year at a constant 45 degree temperature so the spring never freezes and can be enjoyed any season of the year.
The ride to Munising was a little over an hour, with mostly long, barren highway cutting through forest. The only wildlife I spotted was a turkey. Arriving at Munising Tourist State Park, I checked in and realized my rustic site was walk-in only, which meant I’d have to carry my gear in. Fortunately the Nelson-Rigg saddlebags have inner bags with handles. It took me a few trips to get everything to my site for setup. By this time I was hungry, so I rode into town craving a hamburger and stopped at Eh! Burger, where I chose the U.P. burger and fries. While it was definitely good, I felt the price was high for the portion amount – around $11.
After eating I checked out Bob’s IGA supermarket for beer, where I picked up a local brew called “Keweenaw” and their amber ale named “Red Jacket”. Back at the campsite later on at night, one of the neighbor’s walked over and handed me the beer I had cooling in the water, which had drifted off in front of his site! It remained a pretty quiet night. I heard a couple nearby talking and laughing, and I kind of wished I had someone with to share the relaxation. But at this point in my life, being alone is pretty okay. I slept like crap, probably due to the night-time nature ambience.
Day 3: Pictured Rocks & Tahquamenon Falls
After a night of on and off sleep, I woke up around 6 AM and decided to get up and make coffee. Seems like I was the first awake, which was nice because it kind of felt like I had the shore to myself. Packed up and left for Pictured Rocks Lakeshore, which is one of the prime locations I was looking forward to the most. I got back-tracked a bit in Munising, as there was some construction on the main road. The final road leading into one of the Pictured Rocks areas seemed like it was made exclusively for the overlook. It is definitely quite the scenery, with clear blue water and brown cliffs. There was a group of kayakers below I took some nice photos of. Also headed down to Miner’s Beach, where I said hello to this gorgeous brunette who resembled Danica Patrick, complete with aviator sunglasses. She didn’t say a word back. I imagined, being down to two cans of amber ale beer, splitting it with someone I might meet on the trip and having some conversation for once! Such wishful thinking, but Upper Michigan is host to beautiful sights in more ways than one.
Eventually, I left for Tahquamenon Falls, and decided to pass up Seney Wildlife Refuge due to timing. Ironically, I stopped at a Seney rest area to take a break and charge the phone, where I searched for gas and filled up at Melstrand General Store. Gas was $4.10 per gallon – ouch. It was here I spotted a legendary creature…
Eventually I would notice a recurring theme of Bigfoot, with statues or signs denoting him throughout Michigan. I guess the furball loves pasties — which there are signs for everywhere! I’ve had them before, so I didn’t make any special stops for one. Onward, this stretch of highway 123 to Tahquamenon Falls was so far the most empty and relaxed riding along quite smooth blacktop road. I spotted a sign warning of moose, but unfortunately (fortunately?) didn’t see any for a photo opportunity. I hadn’t seen one since somewhere along the way of the Alaska trip, and if I had a choice, I’d rather not see one than greet one with my front tire at speed.
Site 53 at Tahquamenon Falls was easily accessible and right off the campground entrance road. Unfortunately, the area was pretty busy and I had close neighbors. I was pretty damn tired once I arrived, and really just longed for a nap, but there was too much left to do. First order was to get firewood so that I could cook food later. Typically, I harvest dead wood from around the area that I can, but without poking around other’s campsites there wasn’t much available, so I had to buy a bundle. The campgrounds firewood dispensing machine wasn’t taking any cash or card, so I stopped in the headquarters to let them know. They directed me up the road to a place that sold it, where I got a bundle of soft wood for a mere $4 at Wanda’s Camp Store. The lady there (Wanda?) was pleasant to interact with. After heading back to camp with loaded saddle and tail bags, I processed the wood into kindling with my camp knife (Gerber Strongarm) and started cooking another packet of quick flavored rice.
The lower falls were pretty amazing. I observed spots where people were wading near the falls, but unfortunately I couldn’t see a quick way closer to some of them. Still, I managed to shoot some good photos despite there being an abundance of tourists and campers.
A man in his 50s to 60s at a site next to mine stopped by and asked if I wanted a brat, of which I hungrily obliged. Eric, his company and I talked for awhile after eating, where I learned he was headed to Marquette to visit an old high school friend, and I explained my photography motivations on my trip touring the U.P. He shared some of his photos from the falls, as did I, and other places he had been, like Antelope Canyon in Arizona. I offered them beers, but they were quite set, and thanked them for the food. I left him with a paper with my websites on them to checkout sometime. A pretty nice welcoming to a first day at Tahquamenon.
It ended up an early night for me, as I fell asleep around 9 PM – a few hours early for me. I woke up hours later to nighttime silence and the sounds of nocturnal nature, as everyone else was asleep. This turned into a need for the restroom, so I decided to stay up awhile and get some star shots. I used the Stellarium app to find the Milky Way Galaxy through my phone, but the shots weren’t anything magnificent due to all the tree cover.
I had this really compelling desire to attempt to photograph the falls under all the stars. This was a shot in my mind that I’d never seen before, and I was excited to attempt it. I strapped on my headlamp, and barely proceeded down the trail to the falls, which is maybe a quarter of a mile walk or so. A sense of paranoia crept on me as I imagined stumbling into a bear. Sure, this headlamp was plenty bright, but not for great distances. I ended up turning back to my tent, wrote more in my trip journal, and then tossed and turned throughout the night until I woke up to the rain around 6 AM. Maybe my conscience was debating with itself about whether I should have just grown a pair and gone to the falls. Whatever, now the rain was here, and I knew I would be confined to the tent for some hours before it cleared up, and it would be off to my next destination. I resumed writing in the journal, and packed up what I could while my phone charged. A shame I barely used any firewood, as it was now soaked. Fortunately the rain tapered off, I finished packing everything, and proceeded to Mackinaw City.
Day 4: Mackinaw City
Plans are a funny thing. They’re easy to make, and even easier to break. They’re often times altered by circumstances out of your control. At least when you’re by yourself, breaking them isn’t so bad unless you have fear-of-missing-out. Today was not a control issue.
I had reserved a spot at Wilderness State Park, and it was there I would check in to my site after crossing the 5 mile Mackinaw bridge and less $4 in my wallet thanks to a ridiculous toll, made even more ridiculous due to the fact I’m on a motorcycle that weighs 1/7th of an average car. But hey, the bridge is interesting at least.
“The Mackinac Bridge is currently the fifth longest suspension bridge (26,372 ft) in the world. The bridge opened to traffic on November 1, 1957.”
The bridge is a smooth and relatively slow ride beginning on asphalt, leading onto grating, which is most of the bridge length. A little bit squirmy, but nothing too concerning. I would have loved to be able to pull over into one of the rectangular side/service areas for photos of the beautiful water across to the horizon around me, but it wasn’t allowed.
While the day’s weather forecast presented an 80 to 90% chance of a storm, it was the least of my concern after hearing the park host speak to another camper about their most recent bear sighting.
“We ask campers to please keep their food in their trunk, do not leave any garbage or scraps around, and dispose of them in the marked garbage containers so that we don’t have bears around.”
But there’s one problem: I don’t have a trunk. I have waterproof saddlebags which I’m sure still would emit some scent of any food I had, sealed or otherwise. Plus, I need to cook the food at my camp fire, and doesn’t that just emit an attractive scent to nosy, furry, fanged and clawed wildlife.
I looked at my phone and my battery pack, now with their batteries near depleted. Mackinaw City was less than ten miles away, so I could charge up a bit there before staying in at the campground. Nah, I’m not dealing with bears. I wouldn’t be able to sleep, and as it is, I generally don’t sleep well when camping due to noise and some mild discomfort. I booked a motel back in the city, informed the host of my change of plans, and headed back not having unpacked a single camping item.
Once I arrived back in Mackinaw City, I stopped at a Burger King for something to quell my rumbling stomach. You would think I’d stop at Weinerlicious after taking a couple photos, but I really craved a burger, even if it was bottom of the barrel.
After checking into Court Plaza Inn & Suites of Mackinaw, where the manager did not resemble a manager in the least, much less a tenant in his 40’s with bed-head, I unloaded my gear into my room and headed for a glorious and real shower. No more campground showers for me, as this would be one of two motel stays on the way home.
After the shower, I headed out to explore a bit of the city on foot with my camera and tripod. It would be less than an hour before the rain would start, so I had ample time to find some interesting photo opportunities. Initially I was going to stop at the Icebreaker Mackinaw Maritime Museum, but with the day looking quite grey and my budget tightening, I only got a glimpse of the ship on the way back. There wasn’t a good vantage point for a photo, and the docks nearby were private and in use. It was around this time, too, I regretted not budgeting enough to spend some time at a local bar and get to know the local atmosphere and find some conversation.
After several different shots and angles of the bridge and the storm clouds, I settled on one that I was pretty proud of. This shot was done with a long exposure of 13 seconds, which made the water look ethereal and almost foggy, in addition to the light streaks from traffic along the bridge.
While barely sprinkled on, I continued by foot along the main drag of the city back to the motel, where I met an older guy by the name of Clark who was riding from Grand Rapids, MI on his red Harley. Having just covered his bike in time for the rain, we chatted for awhile about our rides as I rigged up my tarp for a temporary rain cover using some paracord. Clark had several suggestions of places to visit, some that I hadn’t yet been too, and unfortunately now escape my memory. It was a welcome break from my usual lack of interaction, as I’m usually on the move to the next destination. The remainder of the my night ended up journaling and lightly editing some photos from the past days. This was a moment I really enjoyed. I could see myself doing this full-time, making money somehow, writing, photographing and traveling – even if it’s just the Midwest.
I found myself hungry again, and attempted heating water with the coffee maker to boil rice and pasta in my campfire cup to no good avail. Crunchy. Note to self: purchase more ready-to-eat food for these moments.
Day 5: Escanaba, MI
It was Thursday now, and I left the hotel around 2:30 PM after filling up on gas to the next stay at a Travelodge in Escanaba. I had scouted out the area online a week prior, but didn’t find much of interest aside from an airport (maybe I would see the odd cool plane), and once I arrived there, that sentiment didn’t change. Most of my day was motel room-bound boredom, coupled with trying to find a semblance of motivation to explore and find something worth taking photos of. I ended up just spending time online and reading my Kindle after getting some quick food. I could have just cruised home straight from Mackinaw City, with the trip taking about 4 hours, but since the motel was reserved a week prior and I didn’t want saddle-ass, I stayed the night. I left a few minutes before 11 AM, completely forgetting about the Delta County Airport, where I was reminded of the decorative jet outside, and took a couple photos. I assumed at first it was an F-86 Sabre, but I felt pretty unsure due to the canopy and fuselage. Eventually I looked up the airports website and found the facts.
“The aircraft on display was flown down from Massachusetts, demilitarized by a crew from K.I. Sawyer, then placed on top of the mount where she sits today. The F-84F was primarily a U.S. Air Force’s primary strike aircraft during the Korean War, flying 86,408 sorties and destroying 60% of all ground targets in the war as well as eight Soviet-built MiG fighters. The aircraft remains property of the U.S. Air Force and is on loan from Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.”
After 780.2 miles total, I arrived home on Friday where I was looking forward to my own bed and back into familiar society. Trips like these where you’re off on your own and stick mostly to yourself become a very adventurous way to refresh your mood and your mind, no doubt. Still, now that I was home, socialization was the first thing I wanted, so I spent some hours that night at a local bar with friends.
Upper Michigan has so much more to explore and for me to revisit and discover. The familiar Midwestern hospitality and friendliness seems without boundaries there, and the sights are something to envy. If I had to conclude this trip with something, it would be that one doesn’t have to hop a plane to really just get away for awhile. Go by yourself, learn to live with yourself. Go where the noise of bills, obligations, pettiness, drama, road construction, work hours, politics, wifi, phone signals and social networks aren’t grasping for your constant attention.
Find your signal.