Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Checking out the Keweenaw Peninsula…

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Houghton and the Keewanaw P 017We left the Ojibwa Casino and drove about 87 miles which was a pretty long day for us lately as we so slowly crawl across the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We have stayed here long enough that I think we have now become Yoopers although I am sure many up this way would quickly disagree.

We left one Ojibwa casino near Marquette only to pull into yet another one at Baraga, Michigan. The one we left was free with electricity only whereas this one charges $20 per night but offers full hookups (50 amps), water, sewer, free cable TV and free WIFI. Like before they also  gave us a free drink coupon and $5 free cash to prime the gambling pump. We wanted to stay here 6 days but they will only let us stay three as there is a huge fireman's golf tournament this weekend and they had to reserve the whole RV park (only 12 sites here).

Houghton and the Keewanaw P 014Our first day here we drove up to check out the town of Houghton where we had hoped to stay at their city RV park ($30 per night for full hookups right on the waterfront) but the weekenders have all the prime days covered. We did take a walk through the town and enjoyed the energy of this sleepy little Michigan town. It is home to the Portage Lake Lift Bridge which we got to see in action and also home to a small Michigan Technology University, founded in 1885, where we stopped at the Mineral Museum then also played a few holes of Frisbee golf at the course adjacent to the museum. We have found that having a University nearby will be one of those key requirements for our future home once we lea decide to settle down again.

Houghton and the Keewanaw P 025While driving around we did spot a pair of Bald Eagles and even though we have now seen many of them in our travels it is still very cool to see them. Also nearby is the a National Parks office for getting information to take trips over to Isle Royale National Park. We stopped and chatted with two park’s personnel about the park and since one was a geologist we learned a bit about the geology here. It costs over $120 for the round trip to Isle Royale (6 hour trip one way). So we won’t be making a visit this time around but we did take in a nice movie about the refuge and it definitely looks like a spot to spend a week or so…

Houghton and the Keewanaw P 022There is a lot of mining history in this area, primarily copper, and while walking through town one can get a sense of what life might have been been like during the mining boom. We found the rock work done in the the buildings built during the late 1890's and early 1900's was really exceptional. I loved looking at the masons' work tracing how they meticulously matched one piece of rock with another. Yet it was also interesting to note that the same attention was not spent along the side walls as they simply put whatever rock pieces were leftover in order to make what was to be a shared wall to the neighboring building.

imageOur favorite building was the Courthouse as the architecture was to us more interesting than most courthouses we have seen. A plaque out front said the building celebrated Victorian Architecture during the copper boom up here.  There certainly was noticeable pride taken in their craftsmanship when building such fine structures and they will surely last generations to come. Well after all that walking and studying the architecture it was an easy choice to end our day when we happened upon the Keweenaw Brewing Company on the way back to our car. We walked in, pulled up a couple of bar stools and ordered a Widow Maker for Sharon and a Gales Pale for me. Let's just say the beer was good enough that we stayed for a while. Good beer, good energy, good times…

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Day trip to Marquette Michigan…

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Marquette Michigan 027We awoke to intermittent rain and definitely cooler temperatures once again. Sadly we read that the next few days would be the same or worse. We lounged around after breakfast toying with the idea of moving or staying put. Finally we decided just before lunch to move on. We sure appreciated the free camping at the casino and the easy in and out diesel station adjacent to the where we camped. So after a fill up, off we went for a very short 27 mile drive to Marquette. We didn’t say we planned on moving very far now did we. The rain event shrank to a drizzle so the drive was not bad at all. We elected to try another casino stop at the Obijwa Casino since it was near Marquette but they have only seven first come, first serve electrical sites available. We were pleasantly surprised to see these extremely spacious wooded sites and so relieved there was one site open.

We slipped into site #2, plugged into the 50 amp box and walked over to the Marquette Michigan 022casino to register. Upon registering we were told camping is FREE, sweet! But it got even better as we were both given free drink vouchers and $5.00 checks to cash at the cashier’s desk! The nice lady also told us we needed to re-register every day and they would again give us cash and drink vouchers each day we stayed here! Man, these Michigan Indian Casinos are certainly welcoming! We played our cash and had our free Killian’s drafts, very happy indeed that we decided to come here despite the weather.

Marquette Michigan 010Once we headed back to the motorhome we noticed our neighbors walking up with their friendly little dog and two buckets full of blueberries. We asked where they found blueberries and they said that the forest behind us is brimming with fresh berries. Upon further conversation we were amazed to find out they not only were from Texas but from Lake Conroe near our home town! They enjoy Michigan in their motorhome every summer and we chatted awhile about their favorite stops.

On Saturday morning we decided to take a chance to explore Marquette before the predicted afternoon rainfall. We donned long pants and jackets as the high temperature predicted would not even reach 60 degrees. Marquette was a very charming bustling town Marquette Michigan 026with a Saturday Farmers Market we enjoyed walking through. The lake view from downtown to the harbor beckoned so we carried our fruit and veggies a bit longer to gain a closer look. As we arrived we noticed the “Art on the Rocks” festival was in full swing so we strolled through to enjoy various works by artists from all over the USA. Lots of really interesting pieces of art from the artisans were on display. We wandered further down the harbor walkway and eventually back to the car to drop off our bags in order to walk the full downtown area. Unlike many other towns we have visited this town had beautiful well cared for historic buildings and had few vacant or run-down buildings making the walk extra interesting and enjoyable.

Marquette Michigan 017Before we knew it we had walked nearly the entire town and found ourselves in need of a treat. We stopped at Ore Dock Brewing Company where Sharon had a Dream Weaver Belgian style amber ale and I had their OD IPA. What a treat it was as we felt this was some of the best craft beer we’ve had since we came back east. We vowed to return again tomorrow for another treat because not only was the beer great, the place was hopping with local people of all ages and it had a great vibe.

Marquette Michigan 018Once back at the motorhome we were able to enjoy a walk where we picked our bucket of fresh blueberries because thankfully the predicted rain never materialized. After dinner we realized we forgot to re-register so off we went to the casino to register and got our $5.00 and free drinks. Who knew this chilly, cloudy rainy weekend would turn out so great! And Sunday promises more rain and chilly temperatures so if our water tanks hold out we will likely stay one more day here…

Friday, July 26, 2013

Pictured Rocks National Seashore…

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Painted Rocks Natl Seashore 002Our last day at the Seney Wildlife Refuge we had a pretty drastic weather change overnight as a cold front came through with some rain and very windy conditions. Also we had an overnight low of 43 degrees in late July!!! Dang I think it is almost time for us to push south especially if this keeps up. We were unable to bike the refuge since we are wimps when it is windy and cold but we did get in one more drive around the 7 mile one way driving loop. Even though not a lot was out I was able to spot a few Sandhill Cranes, a blue headed vireo and a pair of American Bitterns while taking in a walk around one of the large ponds on the refuge.

Painted Rocks Natl Seashore 011The next day we pulled out of Germfask, Michigan and ambled up the road about 47 miles where we pulled into the Kewadin Casino at Christmas near Munising, Mi. I wanted to get us into the Munising Tourist Park but it was full so we will stay at the casino parking lot where they have about 7 back in sites with 30/50 amp electricity, no water, no sewer but they are FREE! We are only here for two nights and when we checked in they gave us each a voucher for a free hot dog so we even had a light lunch. These Michigan casinos are sure welcoming us!

After setting up we headed out to explore the area and visited part of the Pictured Rocks National Seashore where we took a hike over to Munising Falls. A 100 foot falls with some cascading water made for a good start to the afternoon. From there we drove up the road to Sandy Point and enjoyed the rest of the afternoon on the beach there. There was a small Painted Rocks Natl Seashore 037shipwreck nearby that we explored and the sand on this Lake Superior beach is unique with its infusions of red sand (we assume from the eroding iron rich sandstone cliffs) that displayed some of Mother Natures finest art as the waves changed the palette each time they came in and went out…

Our last day here we went up to the Miner’s Castle formation located within the Pictured Rocks National Painted Rocks Natl Seashore 015Lakeshore. Pictured Rocks is an area in the UP along the shores of Lake Superior that has some colorful weathered sandstone cliffs as trace minerals erode from the sandstone leaving many shades of vibrant color stains due to the different eroding minerals. These cliffs of mostly limestone are part of the limestone/sandstone geological Munising Formation.

Near Miner’s Castle is yet another nice sandy beach named Miner’s Beach. For you trivia buffs Kid Rock filmed his music video "Born Free" here on this beach. We lounged a bit on the beach as we also took in a nice walk along the shoreline. As you walk the beach you understand the name painted rocks not only comes from the colorful cliffs but also form all the colorful rocks that have Painted Rocks Natl Seashore 028been polished and shaped by the erosive forces of the Lake Superior. We enjoyed a nice lunch that we brought with us on the beach and after lunch we took 1.2 mile hike over to Miner’s Falls. Man, if we had ocean kayaks we would certainly love to spend more time here but our little inflatable recreational kayak is no match for the cold and potentially dangerous waters of Lake Superior. However, as pretty as the Pictured Rocks are we really felt they really are no prettier than areas of exposed limestone in the hill country of Texas such as Hamilton Pool and Pedernales Falls.

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After hiking to the Miner Falls the promised rain had not yet come through so we drove up the road a bit to Mosquito Falls and took the 2.2 mile hike to see it. This trail was not the best as there was a creek that flowed through the middle of it for some ways and then the dry parts had lots of exposed roots. We did encounter a beautiful beaver dam but also experienced the destruction that it creates from the flooded waters behind the dam. Mosquito Falls was a nice mostly cascading falls but not as awesome as we had hoped but it lived up to its name. Whenever you stopped hiking the mosquitos would introduce themselves to you especially near the falls.

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Friday we were planning on heading on westward near the Keweenaw Peninsula where we hope to explore more of the U.P. for a few more days. However, the rains have finally arrived and we are probably just going to stay put here for one last day to let the rains clear since we hate to travel in the rain…

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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Mackinaw City and Seney National Wildlife Refuge…

Macinaw City and Seney Wildlife Refuge 037Macinaw City and Seney Wildlife Refuge 002Our last day in St. Ignace we decided to head back across the Mackinac bridge despite their $4.00 toll per car each way. The day was beautiful and as we crossed this magnificent bridge the waters were reminiscent of the Caribbean since there were various shades of blue. Just across the bridge is the town of Mackinaw City. We wanted to check out the other town serving Mackinac Island  but once in St Ignace the only way to see it was to go back across the toll bridge On this day we also wanted to drive along the waterfront southeast towards Cheboygan, Michigan as well.

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After we crossed the bridge and entered Mackinaw City we pulled into a parking spot near the interstate just across from the Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse. We planned to take a self guided walk along a beach sidewalk created out by the chamber of commerce. We found the walk very enjoyable as we had many great views of the Straits of Mackinac, the Mackinac Bridge and the blue waters. We also  encountered enumerable historical and informative plaques not only enjoyable to read but also educational. After making the 2-3 mile loop checking Macinaw City and Seney Wildlife Refuge 006out over 50 historical plaques, taking in the views and sampling fudge in the shops we came back to the car.

Our thoughts about Mackinaw City… well let’s just say it is a touristy St.Ignace. Certainly there are many more shops and restaurants in Mackinaw City… but I preferred St. Ignace for its homey, slower-paced, less touristy feel. After leaving Mackinaw City we made the scenic drive over to Cheboygan and found this to be a less touristy town as well but one without a lot of energy. The drive over was nice and we did stop at a couple of grocery stores to support the local economy. Then we headed back to Kewadin Casino campground where we prepared for our departure.

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Macinaw City and Seney Wildlife Refuge 041The next morning we pulled out of the casino campground and made a short, detoured (due to road construction), 80 mile drive into the heart of the Yooper. The drive along Route 2 offered many scenic vistas of the ocean-like Lake Michigan. There were stretches where people had pulled over near sand dunes and were enjoying the surf on this windy day. As we ended our travel day we settled at Germfask, MI and if you could see this apparently dying town you might ask why we came here. Well the main reason for this stop is to explore the Seney National Wildlife Refuge where many of todays pictures are from. This refuge was established in 1935 as a refuge and breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife.

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Macinaw City and Seney Wildlife Refuge 044The refuge is beautiful and has a 7 mile driving loop as well as miles of bicycle trails. Unfortunately for us the weather included some rain and lots of gusty winds along with lows in the upper 50’s and highs only in the mid to upper 60’s which made bike riding not so pleasant. Even though we didn’t get to doo all we would have liked here we at least got see lots of Trumpeter Swans and their cygnets or youngsters. Also the Common Loons were plentiful along with their youngsters too… We even got to see a few Bald Eagles while touring the refuge.

Macinaw City and Seney Wildlife Refuge 033It has been awhile since I visited a wildlife refuge and I was certainly ready for this nature “fix” even though we sort of find ourselves here in the middle of no where… The park we picked is Big Cedar Campground in Germfask, Michigan. It is a nice little park very close to the dying town with zero over-the-air TV stations! But for only $12 per night we will be able to explore the Seney National Wildlife Refuge to our hearts' content and as a bonus the fast moving Munising River flows adjacent to our campsite…

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Sunday, July 21, 2013

St. Ignace, Michigan, and why we are still here…

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St Ignace MI 007Well we certainly didn’t plan on staying in St. Ignace as long as we have but since sever thunderstorms were predicted to roll through for two days straight we changed our plan. We asked our host at Tiki RV Resort about staying longer and he said we could stay for $34 bucks our next night then could revert back to the Passport America rate the next two. With bad weather coming I really didn’t want to be under so many trees so we checked a few other parks in the area and settled on the Kewadin Casino just a few miles north of where we were.  They offer 50 amps St Ignace MI 011and water for $10 per night and have an onsite dump station . So we pulled into the casino and parked in site nine. Sharon went to check in and came out smiling because since we have never stayed here before they were running a promotion and gave us four nights free. In addition when you stay here you can also use for the fitness room, indoor pool and hot tub, Score!  And as it turned out we were right about moving as the weather came through with fierce winds and those at the Lakeshore RV Park weren’t as lucky as us as falling trees damaged several RV’s there.

Being able to weather out the storm away from all the trees at Tiki RV Resort was a relief and even better we now have the added bonus of saving some bucks by having four nights free. Even better, we thought, as there is a Fish Festival this weekend that we would now be able to attend. This part of the great lakes takes pride in their smoked fish as well as other fish such as whitefish, lake perch and walleye. We even bought some fresh IMAG0120whitefish filets at the Mackinac Straits Fish market and baked them with a topping of mayo, panko and ground almonds which was so good we will buy more fish to have it again.

Between storms we have been simply enjoying the little town of St Ignace. It is a coastal town along the Straits of Mackinac and as such it has a nice boardwalk along the shoreline, the Huron boardwalk. We have enjoyed taking long walks there whenever the weather allowed us to. There are a few sights to see as well such as the St Ignace Marina where not only do they host many beautiful sailboats, they also are a venue for free Wednesday and Thursdays evening concerts. Not to mention there are several nice bar/restaurants near the water for the occasional happy hour…

St Ignace MI 008There are several parks scattered along the boardwalk as well but our favorite one is the Chief Wawatam Park. Chief Wawatam was an honored Ojibwa man whose namesake was also given to one of the powerful rail ferries used to keep the Straits of Mackinac open year round during the winter months. It operated from 1911 to 1984, carrying as many as 26 railcars per trip between Mackinaw City and St. Ignace. It also served as a traditional icebreaker and helped open other shipping lanes and ice-bound ports. The Chief Wawatam  was one of the only icebreakers on the Great Lakes until 1944 when the U.S. Coast Guard finally commissioned the icebreaker Mackinaw.

St Ignace MI 004Near this park we also walked around the small Wawatam Lighthouse  to watch the more modern ferries zipping by as they take guests to the Island. The park also is home to a small waterpark (splash pad)  for the kids where it is always fun to watch their expressions and antics as the water pulsates, squirts and bubbles up from the concrete below. There are also a few museums here one of which we visited called the Museum of Ojibwa Culture. Being part Native American myself I IMAG0122am fascinated with the Indian culture. The museum depicts life during the 1670s when not only the Ojibwa and Huron were in Saint Ignace but also the French missionaries.… The museum was pretty small but worth a look and there was even a wedding happening in the green space out back when we visited there.

Saturday we were pretty excited about the fish festival. So much so that we forgot all about the farmers’ market and man we really could use some fresh produce. One of the problems with retirement life is we never really know what day it is. Later in the day we went down for a walk on the boardwalk again and then walked over toward the fish festival. Man is the water clear here! We St Ignace MI 014walked along the marina since it was adjacent to the festival giving us a preview of what it was all about. Sadly it looked pretty disappointing as I couldn’t see any band setup (as advertised) and in its place was a DJ… strike 1… Then we noticed that even as small as it was there was an entrance fee despite not having live music… strike 2… But worst of all was that there seemed to be only two vendors serving fish at the FISH FESTIVAL!!!! Strike three!!! So we went back home after buying some “snotty beer™” and made our own whitefish filets along with some wild rice and a nice green salad… Life is pretty grand when you have choices…

Friday, July 19, 2013

Visiting Mackinac Island, Michigan…

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There are only two ways to get to Mackinac Island… by plane or by boat, assuming you aren’t an Olympic swimmer. There are also two towns that have ferries to the Island. Mackinaw City is one and the other is the one we are in, St. Ignace. Several different ferry companies are available and charge around $25.00 per person round trip. Coupons are everywhere saving you from 2-3 bucks per person. However, the real deal to get over to the Island can be found on the Arnold Line. This fare is not reservable online so you must go to the harbor and buy your ticket there asking specifically for a ticket on the “Classic Ferry”. This round trip ticket is only $15.00 per person. The beauty of this fare is on the return trip you are not limited only to the Classic ferry as you can take any ferry back. We thought this was great as we were thus able to experience both types of ferries.

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Macinac Island MI 046After purchasing our tickets we boarded and made our way to the top and front of the boat. We really enjoyed the slower ride over on the Classic Ferry as it went about half as fast as the others. This gave us extra time to take in all the sights along the harbors in St. Ignace and then on Mackinac Island as well. We also had great views of the expansive, beautiful Mackinac Bridge connecting Michigan’s two peninsulas. As we approached Mackinac Island the gorgeous harbor, Fort Mackinac and the Grand Hotel came into view. The Grand Hotel is impossible to miss due to its size. It boasts having the largest front porch of any hotel in the world. Perched on the hill with flags waving in the breeze it was indeed a grand sight to see.

Macinac Island MI 049Since Mackinaw Island is a tourist destination and thus can be very expensive  we opted to save a few bucks by packing a nice picnic lunch. Our plan was also to pass on the horse drawn carriage or rental bicycles (bicycles taken on the ferry cost $8 round trip or can be rented on the island for $5 per hour for a single speed bike). Instead we preplanned our own self guided walking tour. We were sure glad we had a plan because once past the harbor and on into town there were throngs of tourists crowding the walkways. And the most striking thing we noticed was the lack of cars and trucks as no cars are allowed on the island. Here the streets are bustling with bicycles, pedestrians and horses trotting by!

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Macinac Island MI 063Mackinac Island is only about 8 miles around but rather hilly in the interior. We quickly passed the many shops and saw plenty of places to stay overnight. Many say that the best way to get the full Mackinac experience is to stay overnight on the island but they must have deeper pockets than I. We turned off the main street and headed straight uphill toward Fort Mackinac pausing along the way to examine a couple historical buildings and a quaint church. Fort Mackinac was built by British forces in the late 1700’s. There is also an admission fee here ($11 I think) but we have seen enough forts and aren’t huge history buffs so we also opted out of visiting this one. Besides I personally love the architecture on the outside of buildings much more than seeing the inside. Near the fort be ready to hear an occasional bugler or cannon firing demonstration and the fort has period costumed guides that can be seen inside and outside the fort answering questions or reciting facts to anyone interested.

Macinac Island MI 067Next we walked over to the east side of the Island to Arch Rock located in the Mackinaw State Park. Mackinaw State Park is said to be the only free state park in the state and makes up a great part of the island itself. Arch Rock is pretty neat and after taking photos of the placid and clear turquoise waters through the arch we continued back toward town on the Manitou Trail. The trail took us along the edge of the coastline through densely wooded hills. These beautiful forests would open up every now and then for us so we could look out over the Straits of Mackinac at the vast lake below. Stunning!

Macinac Island MI 069We then navigated through a really nice neighborhood dotted with Victorian homes over to the Grand Hotel. Sharon wanted to see this magnificent structure as she remembered if from the 1980 movie Somewhere in Time, starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour. Now this hotel really caters to the upper crust. To protect them from the riff-raff they charge $10.00 per person to even enter the hotel… It worked as we only took pictures of the beautiful outside and continued on down the street… If you don’t want to pay the entrance fee then you can come after six o’clock at night and have dinner at the hotel but be forewarned all women are expected to wear either a skirt or dress and all men must wear a coat and tie. We were in shorts and tennis shoes so that was not an option for us either. Sharon was happy nonetheless as she mainly wanted to see the porch and courtyard areas depicted in the movie.

Macinac Island MI 045Since it was now time for lunch we wanted to find a spot near the water so we passed back through town one block above the main street where we saw more of the historic buildings on our planned tour. We found a nice waterfront park with flowers and a shade tree where we could see the sail boats coming in that were participating in the sailing race from Chicago to Mackinac Island. There was also a rocky beach right below us where kids were swimming and skipping stones. After lunch we struck up a conversation with a fellow at the park who happened to have been in the race (and who placed fourth by the way). He told us all about the race and how this was a tough year with the lack of winds, the heat and the bugs out on the water.

Macinac Island MI 048After our long leisurely lunch we walked back along the boardwalk around the perimeter of the island and saw many tourists riding horses or horse-drawn carriages led by a tour guide while others were toting their children along in a bike trailer behind bikes as they cycled around the island. And again since no cars are allowed on the island it interesting to note that all the normal day to day activities are performed using horses.We saw horses pulling a flat bed trailer used to transport goods throughout town and horses pulling garbage filled wagons to the dump (wherever it is).

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Macinac Island MI 075That gives rise to the biggest negative (for us) of the island. Because there are so many horses around, there too was the stench of horse poop and horse urine nearly everywhere we went! Mackinac Island’s natural beauty and slow paced atmosphere provided us with a very peaceful and relaxing day. One that we truly enjoyed but to be honest Mackinac Island is probably a place we won’t return. The beauty and serenity of the island is offset by the hoards of people along the main streets and we were put off by the continued smell of horse urine and horse poo everywhere. So there are indeed tradeoffs when not allowing cars on the island. That being said however, I do think it would be even worse if cars were allowed on the island.

Macinac Island MI 078As we left the island we took the faster Arnold ferry back to St. Ignace to experience the speedier version, but we both actually preferred the slower Classic boat to this one. From the docks we made our way over to the Driftwood for a little happy hour overlooking the bay. There we were able to sample another local brew called the Widow Maker Black Ale made by Keweenaw Brewing Company in Houghton, Michigan… A good way to end a good day…

Note: If you do go to the Island make sure to print a good map to take along because if you wait till you get to the Island the visitors center will charge $2 for a map…