I’ve never been a big fan of lakes. Give me a choice and I’ll choose the ocean; I love the feeling of calm I get from staring out at endless water, the horizon filled with possibility. Nevertheless, the Great Lakes were on our hit list, and we’d always planned to visit them around July, before heading south to Virginia, figuring that they can’t be called ‘Great’ for nothing. Turns out, that’s absolutely right. They are, indeed, great.
Minnesota was a bit of a blow through. We’d loved the Dakotas and needed to make tracks but some practical issues, and my promise to my Ma to visit the Mall of America, necessitated a few days there. John may say more in a future beer post, as Minnesota unexpectedly had some of the most confusing licensing laws we’ve yet encountered, but my main highlight was the discovery, albeit late in our trip, that county parks can provide some of the nicest and cleanest camping in small town America. Our site in rural Montgomery was situated near a lake, had all mod cons, including speedy wifi, and was very peaceful, all for less than $30 a night; a lot less than many private campgrounds.
Once I’d sacrificed some of our Halifax compensation money to the shopping gods, we headed through Wisconsin towards Lake Michigan. North-west of the lake, we crossed the state line into Michigan and, late on a Sunday, found ourselves another county park, listed on none of our normal camping websites but there on Google Maps and looking good after a long drive. It was a pretty low-key affair, with a box into which you dropped cash once you’d found a spot. We were surprised and pretty chuffed to find that there was one beautiful site vacant, right on the edge of the lake. Great!
This is when it dawned on me that these are no regular lakes; it was like camping on a beach, with beautiful blue water as far as the eye could see. I’m a seaside girl at heart, but this had me goggle eyed. We got set up and went for a walk along the lake shore, watched a stunning sunset, and had our dinner outside on the picnic bench, right next to the water, amazed that this campsite had just been sat here waiting for us.
That night, I left the blinds open so when the sky started to lighten, I was awake and dragging John outside to see the sun rise over the lake. We are not really morning people, but how many times will I ever watch the sun rise over one of the Great Lakes? Much is said and written about Americans and their RVs but pulling in to a little county park, parking your home on the lake shore, and waking to see the sunrise is difficult to beat and I am smitten. I would live this life for years if money (and visas) would allow and by this point the sense of time rushing away with us had been creeping up on me. That morning, though, everything was still and I felt entirely at peace with our journey and thankful we’d chosen to live it this way. The sky was pink and grey and the lake was pink and grey and it was hard to see where one became the other.
Later that day, we headed north for what Michigan natives call the Yoopee (Upper Peninsula); the part of Michigan north of the lake, separated by the big ‘oven glove’ mainland by a stretch of water so big that, until the middle of the last century, it was thought nothing could bridge it. Bridge it they did, in 1957, with the Mackinac (pronounced, and sometimes spelt, Mackinaw) Bridge, currently the 5th longest suspension bridge in the world, and the longest in the western hemisphere. It’s an impressive piece of engineering, and we were able to see it up close on our boat trip to the island of the same name, which we had wanted to visit since reading Bill Bryson’s ‘Lost Continent’ about his own road trip around small-town America.
The bridge also marks the point at which Lake Michigan meets another Great. I had never actually heard of Lake Huron (and, I am pleased to say, neither had my geography geek husband) so this was news to us. Mackinac Island, where we were headed, lies just in Lake Huron, so this was a bit of excitement for us as we jetted over the lake in the ferry we’d caught from our second campsite, in St. Ignace.
I’d heard a lot about Mackinac Island, not just from Bill, but from friends along the way here, and tales of an idyllic retreat with no motorised vehicles stirred in me suspicions that, in July, this place could be a circus of vacationers and day trippers (like us really). Disembarking at the island’s main town, my fears appeared to be confirmed, as swarms of people milled around, dodging bikes and taking photos of the horses and carriages that line up offering tours of the island.
Having come out of the Dakotas and already been overwhelmed at the Mall of America, we weren’t sure we were ready for this many people, but we were here for the day so we scrutinised the various sign posts, saw one for a state park visitor centre (our natural home), and battled our way down main street to the office. As ever, a helpful ranger gave us a map of hiking trails, we filled our water bottles, and set off to explore the miles of tracks that criss cross the island.
As soon as you leave the main drag and climb up the steep hillside towards the middle of the island, Mackinac rewards you with car-free tranquility. We wandered through the wooded trails, every now and then popping out for another view of the stunning Lake Huron. The water is so clear, the sky so blue, and the rocky shoreline craggy enough to be mistaken for a Greek island. As a seaside substitute, the Great Lakes were bringing their A game.
A few hours of peaceful hiking worked up a thirst, an appetite, and the energy to plunge into the Mackinac scene head first, so we headed back to the town and to a bar called the Pink Pony. The wait for tables was lengthy, with a regatta in town, but we spied a couple of stools at the bar, looking over the marina, and settled in there for some lunch and something to quench our thirst. Note to self, when ordering a rum runner and the women next to you tell you to order your next one ‘with a floater’, ask for specifics first. My second frozen cocktail arrived with a whole extra pour of rum on top, and the Americans tend not to measure their measures. Hiking for the afternoon was looking questionable.
From the bar, we had spotted the familiar green and red of the Welsh flag, fluttering over one of the regatta boats, so after lunch went over to see if some fellow Brits were in town. It turns out that the crew of the Pendragon were strangers to Wales, but soon friends to us, as they invited us aboard for a beer in the sunshine.
We spent the late afternoon wandering the shoreline of the island, paddling in Lake Huron, and relaxing in the big, white garden loungers that I recently discovered are called Adirondack chairs, and which I really want to sneak home with me. There is definitely an island pace of life on Mackinac and I can well imagine coming to stay in one of the beautiful Victorian grand dames that line the streets, nipping about on my bicycle, watching the sunset over the lake for a week and not getting bored.
Sadly our time was to end sooner than we expected, as my reliability in reading boat time tables is questionable, particularly after a rum floater, so our plan for a leisurely dinner was thus interrupted by a panicked run for the last boat, a couple of hours earlier than anticipated. We made it by the skin of our teeth and John was very gallant about my error. All’s well that ends well.
Touristing complete, we were getting National Park withdrawal, so our next journey was to cross the famous bridge, into the mitt of Michigan, and tour the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, bound for the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (there’s a ‘National’ for everything here). Via a stop for a Michigan pasty (not as unlike its Cornish cousin as one might expect, but no match for Ann’s or Lentern’s), and a very rainy drive by the mushroom houses of Charlevoix, we arrived on a sunny early afternoon to the National Park campground, feeling chipper about our chances of a first-come-first-serve, midweek and just after check-out. Alas, about a hundred other people had got there before us, and the ranger told us if we wanted to try again tomorrow, the queue begins at 5am, and she would arrive to start registration at 7. Sunrise over the Great Lakes? Yes. Standing in a potentially fruitless camping queue? No. On we went to a private park nearby and settled for one night so we could at least climb the famous dunes to get a view of the lake.
We’d been told by our friend Linda that the dunes were worth climbing, but had mixed opinions as to whether we could get to the lake, how hard the climb was etc, and the park information didn’t help much, with conflicting statements about time, difficulty, and length of the hike. We decided to leave it for the early morning, as by late afternoon, temperatures were well into the 90s and we figured a quick hike around a mosquito infested forest trail, followed by a swim and dinner was more appealing.
The next day, we were up and at ’em, climbing the massive sand dune that stood between us and the water, only to find at the top that there was a steep descent, followed by another dune, and, yes, another dune. This went on and on to the point that our water supplies, the sun climbing towards its midday peak, and our need to make tracks towards Chicago, were making us question whether we’d ever see the lake. A vet we’d met at the bar in Mackinac had told us that the ascent to the lake from the dunes was so steep that it would take two hours to climb back up. Would we really trek through all this sand and then not have time for a dip?
Fortunately, the vet was wrong, or was describing another trail, as after a couple of miles, we had ascended gently to the lake shore, to be greeted by what can only be described as a Caribbean-esque beach. It was seriously jaw-dropping and we ran straight into the water to cool off, finding it difficult to believe that this was a fresh-water lake and not a tropical ocean. Had we not have had to do the return hike, I would have spent the rest of the day in a zen-like state but only mad dogs and Englishmen climb dunes in the midday sun, and so we set off on the sandy return journey, washed ourselves off in the restrooms and got back in Yuke to start our trip towards the Windy City.
Chicago deserves its own post, but even before we reached its world-famous sky scrapers and buzzing music scene, we had found plenty of reasons to love the Great Lakes. They are an intriguing alternative to the seaside, are far more beautiful, cleaner, and more varied than I had ever expected. And I still can’t get over that if you could see right across, you’d still be in North America.