Riding on Water in the Michigan U.P.
(This article Bridge and Ferry: Riding on Water in the Michigan U.P. was published in the August 2003 issue of Rider magazine.)
I felt the presence of Lake Superior long before I could see it. With the morning sun just moments from revealing itself on the horizon ahead, each exhale of my breath produced a visible cloud of vapor that would float around for a second or two inside my face shield. The grandest of the five Great Lakes was letting me know it was there.
In July, a quick, strong shift of wind from the lake can turn an 80-degree day to a shivering 50 degrees in minutes. On this late September morning, just before sunrise, that legendary lake wind was keeping the fairing-mounted thermometer hovering somewhere south of 40 degrees.
I was about to cross the border from northeastern Wisconsin into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (U.P.) on U.S. Highway 2. I was off for an autumn ride across Michigan in search of some fall color foliage and to take a ride across Lake Michigan on a 400-foot ferry.
My first destination lay just ahead across the border. As the sun rose above the horizon, I shivered against the cold Lake Superior wind and gave a little extra twist to the throttle.
Porcupine Mountains State Park is a jewel of waterfalls, lakes, woods, hiking trails, grand vistas and great motorcycling. Entering the park on Gogebic County Highway 518 from Wakefield (if you need some guidance, there is an excellent Tourist Information Center right at the border on U.S. 2), your first must-stop is the Presque Isle River, where a short hike from the parking lot leads you to your first encounter with Michigan’s abundance of waterfalls. South Boundary Road then carries you across the park where another short walk from a parking lot gives you a grand vista looking down on spectacular Lake of the Clouds. If you are camping on your trip, this is a great place to stay for a night or two. I had several hundred miles ahead of me yet today, so I was all too soon back on the road, wanting to reach the mighty Mackinac (pronounced Mack-in-aw) Bridge before nightfall.
I set off on this little adventure just two weeks after the September 11 terrorist attack against America in New York City and in Washington, D.C. As I rode through this rural Midwestern America heartland, American flags and messages of patriotism, unity and defiance were displayed everywhere—on mainstreets, in front yards and on rural mailboxes. No town was more fervent in this display than Ontonagon. Even with just 2,000 people, the main street business district was thick with American flags. Just a couple of blocks beyond the business district, I passed a schoolyard full of children enjoying recess on the playground. Watching these most innocent of our citizens at play was a poignant reminder of who it is we rally to protect and preserve our freedom for, and pondering it all gave me an increased appreciation for the simple freedom, the simple joy, of jumping on the bike and hitting the road for a few days in autumn.
Back up to speed after leaving Ontonagon, my thoughts went to the words of poet Walt Whitman, from Song of the Open Road:
Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose.
Henceforth I ask not good fortune—I myself am good fortune;
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Strong and content, I travel the open road.
Lake Superior’s unpredictable influence on the weather took my blue sky and sunshine away as I continued across the U.P. With 120 miles yet ahead of me before reaching Mackinac Bridge, I rode into rain. Back on the road after stopping to don raingear, I glanced at the thermometer on the fairing, which showed only a numbing 48 degrees. I chose these four days for my ride because the weather forecast had looked warm and sunny. That is one of the great lessons of motorcycling around the northern Great Lakes. You make your best plans, but then be prepared for anything. The phrase “adventure touring” is not lost on Michigan’s U.P. in September.
It’s difficult to appreciate the grandeur of the Mackinac Bridge without seeing it—without crossing it. When the wind blows strong, crossing this five-mile-long bridge with a center span roadbed 200 feet above the water can be a harrowing ride on a motorcycle. Fortunately, the stiff wind that dogged me all day had eased as afternoon passed into early evening, giving me a delightful ride across.
I had reserved a room at my favorite economy motel chain in Mackinaw City (yes, the bridge and the city are spelled differently, yet pronounced the same). After unloading my gear in the room, I found my way to the Wilderness Café, a pleasant little local eatery. Homemade meatloaf was the daily special and it hit the spot quite satisfyingly after a long, cold, wet day on the road.
In the morning the sun broke through the clouds just long enough for me to ride across the bridge and back in a quest for photo ops. This suspension bridge opened in 1957, replacing a car ferry. I was 44 years too late to enjoy the car ferry other than through the reminiscences of a couple of friendly locals. I was, however, heading for my own rendezvous with a car ferry across another section of Lake Michigan, so with the towers of this grand structure standing tall in my rearview mirrors, I rode southbound on Michigan State Highway 31.
I followed the highways that kept me closest to the Lake Michigan shoreline as I worked my way through Lower Michigan. There is much to enjoy along the way, from the quaint lakeside communities of Petoskey and Charlevoix to the dramatic sand dunes of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
Michigan State Highway 22, from Sleeping Bear Dunes to Manistee, my destination this night, is a great stretch of motorcycle road. A blend of broad sweepers and tight twisties undulate through the Michigan woods while never straying far from Lake Michigan.
The following morning I rode away from the motel in darkness for a break-of-dawn loading of my bike onto the 410-foot car ferry, the S.S. Badger. Built in 1953 in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, the Badger is able to carry 620 passengers and 180 cars, motorhomes, tractor trailer rigs and, of course, motorcycles. The voyage covers 60 miles, crossing Lake Michigan from Ludington, Michigan, to Manitowoc, Wisconsin. It’s a four hour passage that many people take for practical reasons, to avoid having to drive down around the bottom side of Lake Michigan through Chicago’s congestion. Many others on the ship were clearly there for the same reason I was—just to enjoy the experience. After purchasing my ticket ($39 for me and $27 for the motorcycle, one way), I chatted with a couple of fellow touring riders, also waiting to board with their bikes. They were traveling from Columbus, Ohio, and were crossing to Wisconsin and then heading for Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, through the area I had just traveled.
Our turn to load the bikes came and we were directed to an area on the car deck level of the ferry set aside for motorcycles. You are responsible for securing your own bike to the ship deck. They have tie-down straps available, but they are just basic cargo straps. These work well enough, but you may want to bring some of your own that are specifically for motorcycles. The water can get rough, so you’ll want to have your bike well secured, and once the ferry sails you don’t have access to the car deck to check on it.
The cruise was a great experience. There are two galleys where food can be purchased, a couple of lounges, a movie theater and a television room, a gift shop, ship museum and staterooms if you want to sleep in a bed on the voyage (staterooms cost extra), all spread over two upper deck levels above the car deck. It was a reasonably calm day for our crossing, but out in the middle of the lake, where no land is in sight in any direction, there were some serious swells that got the ship rolling side to side at a pretty good angle. For me, great fun, but if you are prone to sea-sickness, be prepared. There are two levels of open air decks outside, but on this cold, dark, windy morning most passengers stayed inside. Mid-passage several members of the crew gathered in one of the galleys and entertained the passengers with a variety of audience participation games such as Liar’s Bluff, Name That Tune and the ever-popular Bingo. Passengers from infants to the elderly all seemed to be enjoying the experience.
Four and a half hours later I was back on the road to finish my tour in Door County, Wisconsin, the beautiful peninsula that creates the thumb of Wisconsin’s hand shape. Parks, beaches, bed and breakfasts, antique shops, art galleries and weekend festivals coexist in a collection of quaint harbor communities. Sister Bay is home to my favorite eatery, Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant. Door County is Scandinavian country and no one embodies that spirit better than Johnson. Of Swedish descent, he married a girl from Sweden, and on a visit to Sweden with his beloved Ingert, he purchased a log building, had it dismantled, shipped to Sister Bay and reassembled. It’s a great restaurant with great Swedish food and waitresses attired in traditional Swedish garb.
But the piece de resistance is the sod-covered roof where a herd of goats spend their days grazing. Even if you aren’t Scandinavian, you can’t not like this place.
Rivers, waterfalls, inland lakes and Great Lakes. Some fall-colored foliage, a magnificent bridge and a unique ferry ride across Lake Michigan. Oh yes, and Al Johnson’s roof-grazing goats. It’s a short riding season around the northern Great Lakes. Blue skies or gray, balmy warm air or bone-chilling cold, every day is a good day for motorcycling. Some are just more pleasant than others. Cherish the day, value freedom, and enjoy the ride.