Readers of the travel mag, Conde Nast, voted Mackinac Island in Lake Huron one of the “top 10” islands of the world. That brought caution to my contrarian mind. Call something paradise, kiss it good-bye. So went the Eagles’ song anyway.
But there we sat, Nebra and I, waiting patiently at Dock 1 for the 2 o’clock ferry to Mackinac. As the moment of departure arrived and the Star Line’s “hydro jet” parked alongside, the dock quickly filled with other tourists who, I assumed, had each coughed up $25 for the round-trip fare. Some even carried luggage for an extended stay.
Star Line is only one of three big ferry companies to service Mackinac traffic. Along with Shepler’s and Arnold’s, Star Line is bunched into a busy area of motels and restaurants on the east side of Mackinaw City, in northern Michigan.
So what’s the attraction out there? For one, a few handsome old hotels and 19th Century churches at the port, Mackinac City. Uphill from the town is an old fort built around 1715 and the Michigan governor’s summer residence. And, what interested me most, some hiking trails along Huron and through beautiful evergreen forests.
As we boarded the two-tiered boat, most everyone grabbed seats on the open upper deck. It was a sunny Sunday yet cool even here in August, so Nebra and I steered to the lower deck and found seats by the starboard windows. As we made for open water and the 20-minute ride to Mackinac, the boat’s powerful engine shot water up in the air behind us, 20-30 feet high. It was an enjoyable voyage over. Huron’s choppy surface was decked out in eye-pleasing shades of blue against the distant islands of green.
From a distance of a mile or so, the port seemed attractive. A large marina, sailboats, and a busy harbor. Big nicely painted home along the shore. But leaving the dock, you immediately run into another picture which is Mackinac City’s Main Street. The busy thoroughfare immediately destroyed the first idyllic view.
Small garish shops lined the bustling street. Most, it seemed, sold fudge. Noisy tourists, inattentive children on bicycles, young families wheeling babies in carts, horse-drawn carriages with camera-toting riders. You could not have found a more inhumane human place in Kalamazoo.
We picked up a free island map and decided to eat at the least congested restaurant we could find. That turned out to be the Mustang, I believe. It stood on a side street and served bar food. We regretted our order of hamburgers. After eating, Nebra asked about the food. “I thought the white onion was good,” I told her.
Fortunately in walking northerly on Main Street, we soon ran into the Coastal Trail and proceeded along the eastern side of the island to a geologic formation called Arch Rock. But first we came across the city street cleaner, a cheerful man sweeping up the mess the horses left. And Nebra, in fun, had to wrench the man’s broom and manure pan and do a little sweeping of her own. I do think it made the street cleaner’s afternoon a better one.
Only after passing the sprawling Mission Point Resort did I start to feel good again. Though we had plenty of hiking company, the crowds thinned and were soon reduced to the lingering memory we would have to trundle back through the place to catch our ferry.
Mackinac finally grew enchanting, this mix of unexpected wildness of forests and white limestone by a dazzling blue lake. Canada geese bobbed along the shore. We stopped numerous times to ponder the natural world. What kind of flower? What kind of tree? Was it Mountain Ash? We huddled by a tree I thought was a Paper Birch, scanning our guide to plants in northern Michigan.
At one point though, the human need to create meaningless art forms emerged. Zillions of rock cairns began to dot the shoreline. I was at a loss to explain some of the cairns poking up from Huron itself. The bafflement continued until Nebra reminded me that until a few years ago that not only Huron but all the Great Lakes had lost vast amounts of water. The cairns had obviously been erected in the ebb years when the rocky coast was exposed.
To reach Arch Rock from the shore requires some stamina. That meant mounting the hundred-some wooden steps to the top. And when you get there, you see many have taken the easy way up, by carriage from town. And once there, you see too it is over-ridden by kiddies with Canons, all in a rush to take selfies and absorb nature in the new digital sort of way.
The Arch proved a decent destination, a huge hole in the limestone, resting, I read, 146 feet above Huron. The vistas are great from the wood platforms nearby.
We hiked back to town by a different route, slipping along a well-kept trail through old forests. It was like a nature trail with signs along the way identifying various trees. But you are never too far away from the noise of tourists returning on the carriages to the tune of clop-clop-clop on nearby pavement.
Probably the most impressive thing we saw came outside old Fort Mackinac. Near sundown, a group of uniformed Girl Scouts performed a ceremony to take down the American flags, not only at the fort but at the governor’s mansion and a few other spots to boot. Make no mistake. These are very serious girls who seem to take their duties to the highest level as they break into groups and march 100s of yards to their assigned destinations. Impressive. We followed three of them to the governor’s residence where the flag was lowered solemnly in front of a small gathering of spectators.
Down the hill to the harbor we came, wasting little time in the still-busy foot traffic of Mackinac City and reaching our assigned dock well in time to catch the 5 o’clock ferry back to Mackinaw City. The return passage proved uneventful, and I was glad to be back on the road to Petoskey. We planned to leave our pleasant house on East Mitchell in the morning, bound for Chicago again.
While Mackinac Island turned out to be a pleasant afternoon’s experience, I doubt I will ever go back. As it turned out, once is enough. Too many tourists.