ON THE SHORES OF THE GREAT GICHIGAMI

A road trip clears the mind, inspires the heart and the soul, and invigorates the body.   I hadn’t taken a road trip since June of 2009 when I drove to Sebring, Florida, to see my oldest son and his wife.  After a disappointing mid-term election outcome, I knew it was time to take another road trip to give me perspective, so I decided to get away for a couple of days.  But where would I go in such a short period of time?

So, join me for my trip and for historical facts.  I hope you won’t be bored.

I focused on Michigan, and, since I have always been fascinated by the great freighters that criss-cross the Great Lakes and the Edmund Fitzgerald,  I decided to head north to the UP to get a sense of the lake the Ojibwe called “Gichigami” meaning big water, and the Lake that claimed hundreds of ships as well as the Edmund Fitzgerald on that fateful November 10th of 1975.  And, great it is – a mighty and treacherous body of water.  Gichigami is the largest of the Great Lakes and is the largest freshwater lake by surface area in the world.

I had Radisson points that would get me two nights in Sault Sainte Marie at the Park Inn, so I excitedly called a couple of weeks ago and made my reservations for November 19th and 20th.  I anxiously followed the weather as the time drew closer and closer for me to leave.  Didn’t look too bad – maybe a dusting of snow here and there and a drizzle of rain descending from the northern gloomy skies.  Ah, I thought, nothing I couldn’t handle since I had driven from border to border east and west and north and south and numerous places in between across this great land.

I had planned to leave early in the morning this past Friday, but, as usual for me, I was running behind.  But the beauty of being retired is – you guessed it – no time clock and no set-in-stone schedule.  So I tooled out of Fort Wayne at about 9:00 am instead of the 7:00 am I had thought would be my departure time.  No matter; I filled the truck with gas, grabbed a cup of coffee, and my standard one-for-the-road Dunkin’ Donut.  I was on my way!  What a sense of freedom!

My route was to take Interstate 69 to Lansing, pick up MI 127, and then merge onto Interstate 75 to the northern hinterlands.  My worst fear was overshooting my exit at Sault Sainte Marie and ending up in Canada.  Entering Canada isn’t the issue; it is crossing back into the United States that requires either a full-fledged Passport or one of the newer Passport Cards.  They trust us; we don’t trust them.

The newer passport card available under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) is less expensive and allows the traveler to return from Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean, and Bermuda if travel is by vehicle or water.  The card will not work with flying, but, hey, since I had my not-so-pleasant experience at the Fort Wayne airport with the body scanner refusal and ultimate pat-down, I really didn’t care if I ever flew again.

The card looks like a driver’s license and cost about half as much as a full Passport.   I had checked on getting a Passport Card, but I hadn’t allowed enough time to get the application in and the card received back, so I thought, what the heck,  I would just be super vigilant so that I wouldn’t miss my exit.  And, I was off, my hot cup of coffee, my donut, and my maps – no GPS for me, thank you.

The drive up was pretty much uneventful, but I really was looking forward to crossing the Mackinac Bridge – it had been over 30 years since I had taken the bridge  over the Straits, but, in my mind, I could see the bridge like it was yesterday.  The “Mighty Mac” as it is called, is the third longest suspension bridge in the world.  As I approached the bridge, I again thought how great it would be if there were “gawking” lanes where those of us who are enamored with bridges, rivers, and bodies of water could just pull over and “gawk.”  I know, I know, that would create havoc with traffic, but how spectacular would that be?

High wind warnings were up, as I suspect they are most of the time in the Straits.  With the narrowing of the entrance from Lake Michigan to Lake Huron and the height of the bridge, the winds howl on a constant basis.   The Straits were beset with huge whitecaps and tumultuous waters.  I grabbed my steering wheel a little tighter – with both hands – and drove up, up into the air.  I was glad the speed was set low, and, as I shifted my gaze from  side to side,  I wondered in amazement how human beings figured out how to cross this body of connecting water – first by boat and then by constructing this astonishing bridge.

As I came down on the UP side, I said a silent farewell until my return trip.  Now, only one more hour to Sault Sainte Marie and my destination hotel.   The sky was darkening and a light mist was falling.  At times, it became a heavier rain, but, at my age, I tend to drive annoyingly slow.   I plodded along at about 50 to 55 miles an hour – not sure if the cold temperatures that had set in would turn the drizzle into a freezing rain!

Over the last 30 miles or so, I noticed that the snow was piling up a little more heavily.  Not bad, maybe an inch or so, but with the freezing air, the roads were becoming frozen and slick.  My exit was 392 to Interstate 75 Business Spur, so I focused on looking for my exit knowing that if I passed it, I was on my way to a Canadian holiday.  Not to worry, the exit was marked well;  I turned off,  located my hotel, and tooled in, breathing a sigh of relief.  I was tired, hungry, and relieved that I was now at my safe haven for a couple of days.   I could see the lights of Canada across the way, and I wished I had been able to get my Passport Card so I could visit our friend to the north – but,  next time!

The hotel gave me a 10% discount on a meal at a nearby restaurant,  so I unloaded my belongings, and, before I could collapse into tiredness after my seven-hour drive,  I set out for Ang Gios, which was only a block away.  As I settled into my booth and reviewed a menu in the warmth of the restaurant, I thought how fortunate I was to be able to take this trip.  I made a couple of calls to let the “folks back home” know I had made it and then relaxed to enjoy a really good meal.  I had a long day behind me and a long day in front of me.

Saturday dawned with a new layer of snow, winds blowing, temperatures in the 20s and wind chills much lower.  I began to think maybe my trip wasn’t such a good idea.  The thought crossed my mind to just stay inside all day, watch TV, sleep, and relax.  But, it didn’t take me long to kick myself out that frame of mind.  I had driven at least 420 miles to get to the Locks, to see this historical area, and I was not going to let some bad weather get to me.  Brrr. Brrr. Brrr.

So I set off first to see the Soo Locks and then for a 200-mile loop taking me to the Iroquois Lighthouse and then Tahquamenon Falls. I drove down into the heart of the Soo (as it is affectionately called by residents and others), and I parked at the  gates to the observation towers.  The wind buffeted my truck door as I got out, and I pulled my knit cap down farther over my ears, put on my gloves, grabbed my camera,  and walked through the park gates.  I had to provide access to my camera bag (I left my purse and any other unnecessary items in my locked truck), and I was on my way to the see the Locks.

The attendant asked me why I was visiting (as did so many others), and then told me that one ship was leaving the docks and if I hurried, I would be able to see it.

The viewing tower was a two-story structure with glass windows to keep out the full force of the winds.  I had the observation tower all to myself – I mean, after all, (and I was asked this numerous times during my wanderings) who would be crazy enough to visit the Locks and the UP in this weather?  The steps were metal with only one set of tracks – those of one of the guards who works at the park.    Cold, cold, cold.  My hands, even though I had gloves, were turning red, and my camera was so cold, I was afraid it would lock up on me and not take the incredible pictures of the Locks and the one ship that was departing.

As I trudged back down the stairs to my truck, I thought, maybe I will just let it go at seeing the Locks.  It was bitter cold, and I was freezing, and my legs were hurting.  That was after only an hour.  How on earth would I make it through another six hours of driving and sightseeing?  But, again, I thought, I didn’t drive all this way to quit, so I got back in my truck, turned on the heat full blast and warmed up.  Boy, did that feel great!!

Now, regroup, and I was off to the Iroquois Lighthouse and Tahquamenon Falls.   The roads in the UP – once you are off the beaten path – are not well-traveled.  I took back roads to Brimley, Bay Mills, Paradise, and then to my last destination of the Falls.

The Iroquois Lighthouse is located where Whitefish Bay narrows and pushes into the St. Marys River, which then feeds into a waterway that leads to Lake Huron.   I pulled into the parking lot and noticed there were only two other vehicles in the lot.  Whitefish Bay was directly in front of me, the winds were getting stronger, and I fought just to get into the little museum that was open.  The American flag was standing straight out from the winds.

Two elderly, delightful ladies were tending the precious materials and exhibits that were contained within the Museum’s walls.   The tower light itself was closed down, but the museum contained an old light that still worked.  One of the caretakers turned it on for me so I could see how it operated – a small bulb in the base that showered the area with an inordinate amount of light.  These were the beacons that guided the freighters in to safe harbor.

Another display that really caught my eye was the navigational equipment.  A large metal box was set on one side with controls, and, accompanying it was a stand with a large copper ring.  The copper ring contained a device that could provide navigational support.  I still don’t understand it, but I am amazed that it worked.  I took some pictures and bought a book about the Edmund Fitzgerald and a map of all the shipwrecks in the Great Lakes.

Then I set off for Tahquamenon Falls – a 50-mile trip along back roads populated by cabins with quaint names and long stretches of road with nothing.   The Falls – lower and upper – are fed by the Tahquamenon River which snakes in from Whitefish Bay until it pours over two sets of Falls.  It had been over 30 years since I had seen the Falls, and I was desperately hoping that they would be open.

I drove through Paradise, Michigan, and, at last, saw the sign for the Lower Falls.  Closed for the season.  I was devastated.  I had now driven 500+ miles to see this wonder only to find that the Lower Falls were closed.   I left from that location, and, thank heavens, did not turn back toward Paradise.  If I had, I would have missed one of the most wonderful sights of my life – I chose left (hmm – maybe a harbinger for my life).    I went southwest and soon saw a sign that said Upper Falls.  To be honest – I thought if the Lower Falls were closed,  how on earth could the Upper Falls be open?

But, they were open.  Through cold, wicked wind chills.  The catch?  A half-mile round trip to the viewing platforms.   Doesn’t sound like much – unless you are me with my physical issues.   I sat in my truck for a few minutes wondering if I now had the energy and physical ability to do this.  Did I want to do this?  I sat and watched as a couple of other vehicles drove in, their occupants hopping out;  ah, the advantage of youth.  Again, I thought about why I drove all this way.  So, I put on my gloves, zipped up my ankle length coat, put on my hat, and took off.

I will tell you – every step I took – every breath of bitter, freezing cold air – was worth the view at the end.  My hands were freezing and red from cold; I couldn’t feel my toes because I had only brought tennis shoes.  But, when I arrived at the first viewpoint, I knew I had made the right decision.

The Falls – golden, amber, glorious  water rushing over the ledges of the fall on its way – spectacular beyond belief.  The color of the Falls is from the tannin in the variety of trees in the area – not from rust, or soil, or some other element, but from trees.  I stopped at every viewing point.  No one around.  The absolutely freezing and bitter winds, my cheeks frozen, my legs hurting, and a magnificent production of nature in front of me.   I couldn’t have asked for a better blessing to the end of my sightseeing.

I collected a couple of leaves on my way back – I call the color Tahquamenon Taupe –  shimmering color with a look of frosted gold and brown.  I brought them home, and I am going to try to find a paint color to match.  Beautiful leaves – a reminder of my visit.

As I drove back, I also thought about the absence of commercialization.  In the entire 200-mile round trip, I had seen only one McDonald’s.  And, it was on a major thoroughfare.  Nothing – no Arby’s,  Wendy’s,  McDonalds, or Taco Bells.  What an exhilarating thought!!  When I traveled to the UP in the late ’70s, it wasn’t commercialized, but this time, I thought how could it be avoided with our thirst for fast-food and corporate profits placed above our environment and our nature?  But, there was – little commercialization and the absence of fast-food junk restaurants.

And, everyone is surviving.  As I turned back toward Interstate 75 to head to my hotel, I thought again how fortunate I am to have seen this great nation from shore to shore and border to border.  My last evening – exhausted as I was – I knew I had to go back downtown to a restaurant for my final meal in the city.  I had seen the “Captain’s Pub and Grill” right across from the Locks when I had visited the Locks earlier in the day, and I thought that is where I will go for my final dinner.

The lounge was empty and quiet.  Large TV screens were playing.  As I ordered, I asked for a newspaper and was given a USA Today.  The waiter asked about my visit, and I commented that I wanted to see this area and the Mackinac Bridge – and I pronounced it like it sounds with a “c” – and he asked me if I was from the area.  I said “no.”  He said he knew that because of my pronunciation.  I learned that no matter how it is spelled, it is pronounced as “Mackinaw.”  Darn those French or whoever.  So, I learned something.

I had a great meal and great conversations – one gentleman I talked to has worked on the freighters for over 30 years, and he is going to send me VCRs of all of those years of history.  They will, of course, need to be converted to DVD format.

I awoke the next morning, a sadness in leaving because no matter where I am – I am home in this nation. I will absolutely be returning to the land of the Objibwe and the great lake “Gichigami.”  And, what did this trip teach me?  For everything we do has a lesson.

I learned that I could accomplish the goal for which I set out.  I have physical issues, but I determined that I would walk, drive, and interact no matter what it took to see what I wanted to see and do what I wanted to do.  I was asked so may times why I was in the UP in this weather.  I was told that tourists visit in the summer when it was “nice.”  But I wanted to visit when it was bitter cold, when the waves in Gichigami were enormous, when the winds were almost unbearable, so that I could see what our ancestors encountered as they settled this beautiful area and challenged Lake Superior.

A couple of times, I just wanted to give up and stay in my cozy hotel room rather than battle the elements.  But, I didn’t, and I made it.  I came back knowing that my party will survive – that the elections were a blip – Republicans go through these and Democrats go though these.  And, we always make it.

And, now I am back with a renewed vigor and dedication to my party and to my cause.   I hope that you will take a journey just as I did and find out how tenacious you can be,  no matter what your politics.  And, one of my all-time favorite pictures when I travel?  Why, it is the one below.

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About Charlotte A. Weybright

I own a home in the historical West Central Neighborhood of Fort Wayne, Indiana. I have four grown sons and nine grandchildren - four grandsons and five granddaughters. I love to work on my home, and I enjoy crafts of all types. But, most of all, I enjoy being involved in political and community issues.
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7 Responses to ON THE SHORES OF THE GREAT GICHIGAMI

  1. cw martin says:

    That was really cool, and very well narrated. Not a big fan of heights, so I was crawling under the keyboard as you went over the bridge. I’d love to take that trip if our situation allowed more than day trips. Thank you for sharing the blessing.

  2. Jim Wetzel says:

    Great pictures! I’m glad you enjoyed your trip.

  3. Cw:

    I have to admit, when I cross bridges – especially ones like Mackinac and the Sunshine Skyway Bridge south of Tampa – my hands get a little sweaty because of the rise into the air. I have crossed hundreds of bridges while traveling, and, I have to say, I think the winds on the Mackinac Bridge are the fiercest I have encountered. On the way back, the winds were so bad that police were escorting larger vehicles across in caravans.

  4. Thanks Jim. I need to get that passport card so I can go to Canada the next time. When I was on the observation tower at the Locks, I could see Canada and its buildings, and I thought what a shame because it is so close.

    I took tons of pictures and just tried to pick out a few to post.

  5. Pingback: Hallmarks of the Southwest | Travel Southwest

  6. Judith Steckly says:

    Very interesting! I admire your pluck.

  7. Z Man says:

    Your trip brings back memories. I made a similar trip with my parents in the early 60’s and then returned with my kids in the early 90’s. I’d like to go back and visit without the restrictions inherent on both trips.

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