Almost every summer of our childhood, my sister and I and various cousins came here at least once. Our parents or grandparents drove up as far as Mackinaw City, and we all took the boat to a land without cars.
Now I decided to go there in winter. It figured to be a cold place, possibly bleak, but I had a lot of memories to keep me warm.Automobiles aren't allowed on Mackinac Island, so, in season, it always evoked the Old Days. I could pretend the village was a frontier town right out of a Western movie, because that's how it looked to me.
Horses pulled taxis, drays and tourist carriages up and down Main Street. They climbed the hill to historic Ft. Mackinac, clopped past the amazingly long porch of the elegant Grand Hotel and circled the island--all 8 1/5 miles of it. The ride might include a stop at the base of the cliff supporting Arch Rock, a nifty limestone formation that belongs in a storybook.
People walked and rode bicycles, too, but I focused on the horses in those days. As far as I was concerned, horses ruled. What would Hopalong Cassidy drive?
The Mackinac Island excursion almost defined summer for Michigan kids--a special privilege back when Disneyland was just a gleam in Walt's eye. And even after that theme park opened, we preferred Mackinac Island's brand of nostalgia to his.
The voyage over to the island got things started in a big way. A boat from the Arnold Transit Co. or Shepler's or Star Line filled up with happy people for the short trip across the Straits of Mackinac, where the Great Lakes Michigan and Huron meet.
Once there, we could have treats: popcorn, sodas, hot dogs and fudge. Fudge makers rolled fresh goo on marble slabs inside several shops--right behind the plate glass windows, so everyone could see.
The sweet scent of bubbling chocolate mixed with the odor of horses left a permanent imprint on the memory. Grown-ups told us Mackinac was famous for its fudge, and we never knew that locals called us "fudgies" behind our backs.
During a day on Mackinac Island, pretty sailboats bobbed in the marina beside the Chippewa Hotel. A cannon roared occasionally from the hilltop fort. Piano music tinkled out of a mysterious Chippewa Hotel saloon called the Pink Pony, which wasn't a kid's kind of place at all.
But the people inside and in a few of the other honky-tonks seemed to be having almost as much fun as we were, even though they lacked cotton candy and souvenir balloons.
Our day on the island would end with happy tummy aches, one last sniff of eau de Mackinac and the ferry ride back to the Mackinaw City parking lot.
This year, I paid a visit in the dead part of winter, when January freezes solid into early February and northern Michigan grows icicles.
It's the time when locals Up North tell you, with pride, that summer is just a few weeks of bad sledding.
But I remembered otherwise.
During my long winter weekend here, I experienced what might be described as the adult version of Mackinac Island. Fudge shops, popcorn stands, Doc's House of Magic, the fort, the historic landmarks, the Grand Hotel, ferry docks--all closed. Only 20 horses remained. The others had been sent back to mainland farms.
Doud's Mercantile, a no-nonsense grocery behind a 19th Century facade, does stay open in winter, but deals mostly in the necessities of everyday life. Same deal with the Harrisonville General Store up the hill. The few children around spend their weekdays in the public school and their leisure time far from downtown, or so it seemed. I could stroll the sidewalks of Huron Street--otherwise known as Main Street--on any weekday and have them almost to myself.
I could look around and appreciate the lines of vernacular summer resort architecture adorned with snow: the hulking gray Lake View Hotel, the big white Iroquois Resort with a "No Swimming" sign in the yard.
On weekends, snowmobiles add a definite buzz to an atmosphere that at other times can feel almost eerily quiet.
Snowmobile jockeys drive to the island on the "ice bridge," a 3-mile stretch of the Straits connecting a northwestern portion of the island called British Landing with the Mackinac Grille restaurant in St. Ignace, Mich., a city on the Upper Peninsula mainland.
About two weeks before I arrived, by airplane, two men who live on the island year-round surveyed the traditional "ice bridge" route on snowmobiles driven verrry carefully and deemed the ice solid enough for light traffic. It should be at least a foot thick, and this year, I was told, the ice was exceptionally hard.
That made it difficult to chop the holes that would hold discarded Christmas trees. Is-landers bring them out to mark the route. They attach reflectors to the trunks for those reckless enough to attempt passage in the dark. Snowmobiling on the Straits at night isn't recommended, but snowmobilers appear to be an irrepressible lot.
Farther out in the Straits, the Coast Guard cutter Mackinaw keeps a channel open for freighter traffic, so those who stray from the ice bridge might find themselves in deep trouble.
"Every year, it seems, one or two people go through the ice," said Jesse Bader, a waiter at the Village Inn, "but they get back OK."
People from out of town and wanting to stay downtown have three dining choices: the Village Inn and its fairly thorough menu and wine list; the Mustang Lounge, a fine example of a local bar with burgers on the grill. Or they can buy groceries from Doud's or Harrisonville General. Although some condos and B&Bs were available elsewhere on the island, I stayed in the heart of downtown because of those childhood memories.
I wasn't a snowmobiler, and George Wellington, the taxi driver who took me from the airport into town, said his horse-drawn conveyance would be the only taxi operating for the next few days, so he couldn't take me on a tour.
Wellington wasn't one to chat much. All he said after that was an occasional "giddap giddap" to the two broad-backed Clydesdales. We rolled through a landscape of snow-brushed woodlands, followed by clusters of boarded-up cottages, a neighborhood of year-round houses, and then down the hill on Cadotte Avenue, over which the long porch of the Grand Hotel pre-sides majestically.
"Giddap-giddap" and soon we were turning onto Hoban Street, which would be in the thick of downtown if the downtown had any thick at all this time of year. I got out at the Pontiac Lodge, the only downtown hotel open--10 rooms and three apartments situated in a white frame building above the Village Inn and over some storefronts. The stores, of course, were closed.
My Pontiac Lodge apartment had a big living room with windows overlooking the snow-covered porches and dormers of buildings across the way, every one with shades tightly drawn. A long counter separated the living room from a full kitchen. Around the corner, I found a good-sized bedroom and bath, both immaculate.
I fought off the urge to hibernate right there and went downstairs to the Village Inn for lunch (planked whitefish, the house specialty).
On that Friday afternoon, a few people clustered by the bar, and some others took their meals under Tiffany-style lamps in the wood-paneled dining room.
I slid into a booth beside the pool table and listened. People asked after friends who weren't there. They talked about all the hotel renovation going on and about the upcoming weekend. A lot of other desultory stuff.
"This time of year, it's pretty laid back. The pace of life is pretty slow," Steve Cotton told me on another day.
Cotton manages the shops that belong to the Pontiac Lodge complex. He opened the Balsam Shop especially for me after I expressed a need for souvenirs. Otherwise, it stays closed in winter, unless a lot of visitors suddenly clamor for books, maps, amber jewelry, clothing, toys and replica pistols. The pace of commerce is just that glacial.
"People talk to each other again," observed Mary McGuire, during another lunch at the Village Inn. McGuire is a singer and guitar player who also serves as Mackinac Island's director of tourism. "Everybody wears a lot of hats here."
I figured she could handle a sales job, too, and I asked her why anyone should brave the cold and take the trouble to come up.
"In winter, even without leaves on the trees, it's really pretty," she said. "I can see the whole skeleton of the island. You can see what really makes the island what it is. We don't have the great crowds and intensity of the summertime, which is also really fun. But if you really want to see the island, I think you feel it more in the winter."
McGuire could be quite persuasive. "I believe it helps you think," she went on. "Winter here is a good time to empty out your hard drive. If you spend a long enough time walking and looking around and resting, it's a serious escape from your world. And you have to let go."
I did walk and look around, and on that first afternoon, I noticed that townspeople were out celebrating a warm spell--temperature in the 20s, sky blue.
As I made my way up Market Street past houses and stores that might have been unbearably cute if it weren't for subtle signs of wear, people would say to one another--and to me--"beautiful day, isn't it? Boy, oh, boy what weather we're having."
It was a good day for a stroll--sunny, windless, everything covered with the kind of benign Midwestern snow that cities like Chicago never seem to get--clean, well-packed and not going anywhere until the big spring thaw.
Residents scurried back and forth on snowmobiles, dressed the way most people dress on the mainland when they drive their minivans: coats, caps, scarves, gloves, boots. Quite a few smiled and waved. McGuire told me later that the year-round population is so small--450 to 500 people--that everyone would immediately surmise that I had come from out of town.
From Market Street, I had a good view of Ft. Mackinac with its white walls, cannon mounts, and officers quarters atop the big bluff overlooking Marquette Park and the empty docks of the marina at Haldimand Bay.
The fort dates back to the days of the Revolution, when, in 1780, British commanders moved operations here from the south shore of the Straits (what is now Mackinaw City). They felt Mackinac Island would offer a better line of defense. Col. George Rogers Clark's American troops were fast gaining ground in the Midwest.
After America's victory, U.S. soldiers occupied the fort until it was regained by the British during the War of 1812. The U.S. resumed control after that war and posted troops at Ft. Mackinac until 1895.
In season, visitors can wander over the parade grounds, tour the well-preserved buildings, and learn about the military and social history in which Mackinac Island figured so significantly.
Mackinac Island's human history goes back much farther than the 18th and 19th Centuries. Artifacts found here have been dated as early as 1000 B.C. European settlers arrived in the 1600s, but Indians had been around long before that--nomadic tribes, then Chippewa, Ottawa, Potawatomi.
They considered the island a sacred place because of its tall, rounded shape--a symbol of protection like the shell of a turtle. They called it Michilimackinac, "land of the great turtle."
The British shortened that mouthful to Mackinaw, with English spelling and pronunciation. The French spelled it Mackinac, which in French sounds exactly the same.
The top of the island, the pinnacle of a large lump of limestone, rises 324 feet above the surface of Lake Huron, which is 580 feet above sea level. Other islands in the Straits are only about a third that high.
In the early 1800s, Mackinac Island was a center of the Great Lakes fur trade. In 1817, John Jacob Astor built the headquarters for his American Fur Company on Market Street. In 1822, his offices processed $3 million worth of furs brought in by Indians and pioneer trappers.
That same year, in the company store, somebody accidentally shot French voyageur Alexis St. Martin in the stomach. Dr. William Beaumont failed to completely sew him up, but he could see through the opening, and that gave him the opportunity to observe human digestion at work.
Beaumont's experiments on and studies of St. Martin's stomach led to an important book on the digestive system.
The original buildings, or replicas, remain--shuttered for winter, of course. I could learn a lot just by walking the streets and reading the historic plaques. Churches have them. So do 19th Century hotels. So does Arch Rock.
To see Arch Rock, I had to hike 2 miles from downtown on Michigan Highway 87--at 8.2 miles, supposedly the shortest highway in the world. The highway is really just an extension of Main Street. All motorized, wheeled vehicles (except the Police Department's SUV and occasional utility trucks) are forbidden.
After the hike, I climbed the cliff on a wooden stairway. Some steps were covered with snow and patches of ice, but the view from Arch Rock proved worth the effort. Through the hole formed by the arch, I could see frozen Lake Huron--a white glaze dotted with lumps of uplifted ice as blue as Alaskan glacier calves.
I took my time hiking back downtown, enjoying the quiet countryside and residential neighborhoods before facing the weekend snowmobilers who still churned through the streets.
Some wore helmets and brightly colored coveralls that exactly matched the trim of their noisy machines. Others dressed in snow pants, and their red, yellow or purple jackets looked like NASCAR-driver outfits.
Groups of them drove in convoys, making a counterclockwise circle around the island. At mealtimes, as many as 20 machines might be parked outside the Village Inn, and, inside, rows of helmets covered furniture not occupied by diners.
On Saturday afternoon, Mary Dufina joined me at a front table. She and her husband, Ron, own Pontiac Lodge, Village Inn, a restaurant at the Pellston, Mich., airport terminal, a hotel/restaurant in St. Ignace and several gift shops.
Dufina said she felt comfortable with the snowmobiles. For residents, they were a necessity ("like our bicycles"), needed for chores and socializing. They get mundane things done between the hectic holidays and the freezing of the ice bridge and enjoy a few weeks of tourist-free solitude.
"By the time the ice bridge freezes and the snowmobilers come across, it's nice to see them," Dufina said. "People are ready for a few new people in town and to do a little business."
She noted that the island--which is about 80 percent state park--includes hundreds of acres where snowmobiles aren't welcome. "We have all these trails--horse trails, hiking trails, all covered with snow. For cross-country skiing, you couldn't ask for a better place.
"You can't take a snowmobile and go to Arch Rock. You can walk there, you can ski there, you can snowshoe there, but you can't take a snowmobile."
Resort owners, Dufina told me, face a more pressing concern than styles of winter recreation. For years, resorts and other seasonal enterprises have relied on labor from other countries. After 9/11, the quotas on such temporary visas have shrunk to the point where only 66,000 can be issued for the entire U.S. this year.
Foreign employees who receive those visas must be put to work within 120 days after they apply. As a result, the Grand Hotel, which usually gets started in early May, will open a wing and a cottage-style suite on March 1, partly because management needs to keep its temps busy.
Grand Hotel management told the Mackinac Island Town Crier that they feared the nationwide quota of 66,000 would be reached before the end of this month, leaving them shorthanded by May.
So the Grand Hotel, reputed to be the largest summer hotel in the world, will be partially open in winter for the first time--42 of the 385 rooms and the four-bedroom Masco Cottage.
"Through the years, a number of our guests have expressed a desire to visit us and see Mackinac Island during the off-season," said hotel president R.D. "Dan" Musser III.
I didn't consider that statement to be spin. Not at all. Those guests will soon discover that off-season Mackinac Island is just fine and their desires were justified.
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IF YOU GO
Dedicated snowmobilers can haul their rigs across the Mackinac Bridge and make their way over the "ice bridge" from St. Ignace. Hikers, cross-country skiers and even a few bike riders make the ice crossing too.
For the snowmobile-challenged it's best to take to the air. From Chicago's O'Hare, I flew Northwest Airlines to Detroit and transferred to a Northwest/Mesaba Aviation turboprop headed for Pellston, Mich.
From Pellston, I had booked a Great Lakes Air charter (906-643-7165), and its pilot flew me to the island in a Piper Cherokee. Including brief layovers, the trip took about three hours. From Pellston to Mackinac Island, it's 12 minutes. Fares are always subject to change.
Another option is to drive all the way to St. Ignace, via Interstate Highways 94 and 69, U.S. Highway 127 (the name of the highway as published has been corrected in this text) and Interstate Highway 75. The last two highways eventually merge and run directly up the middle of the Lower Peninsula. Then I-75 crosses the Mackinac Bridge to St. Ignace.
From there, Great Lakes Air offers regularly scheduled flights to the island at 8 a.m., 10 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 3 p.m. and 4:45 p.m. (On Sunday, first flight is 10 a.m.)
Snowmobiles may be rented at several locations in upper Michigan, but not on Mackinac Island. Most visitors drive their own and cross the ice from St. Ignace.
Otherwise, it's walking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing or catching a ride on the horse-drawn taxi. Skiers have most of the eastern end of the island to themselves.
LODGING AND DINING
The island offers a limited number of accommodations that stay open year-round, but not necessarily every day of the week. They include hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, apartments, resorts and condominiums.
Best source for current lodging information is the Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau www.mackinacisland.org.
The two restaurants that stay open in winter are the Mustang Lounge (906-847-9916) and the Village Inn 906-847-3542. Mustang Lounge features burgers, and chicken and shrimp baskets, plus a full bar. Village Inn serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, and also has a full bar.
Grocery shoppers head for Doud's Mercantile on Main Street (906-847-3551) or Harrisonville General Store in the village of Harrisonville, behind the Grand Hotel.
-- Robert CrossCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun