Somehow we have found ourselves in Pittsburgh and therefore very far behind on this blog. I had been doing so well, too. The first several paragraphs below were written within a few days of the actual experience. I will continue to the present day with a little less detail in order to catch up.
From Iron Mountain we continued our easterly flow into Mackinaw City, Michigan where we camped at one of those super large RV/Camping resorts with some 300 sites. Being really early in the season there were not a lot of us in the park during our time, but then you can hide a lot of people in this place. The park is located on the shore of Lake Huron with the Mackinac Bridge visible to the north.
The weather was iffy at best during our stay in Mackinaw City, so we made nearly continuous adjustments to our plans in order to see everything we wanted while staying dry at the same time. For the most part we were successful.
Our first side trip would take us to the north to Sault Ste Marie and the famous SOO Locks. We drove in a sort of misty cloudy environment, but when we arrived we were happy to see that the mist had lifted and the temperature was jacket acceptable.
Since we were there to tour the locks, we went immediately to the tour boat dock to see what the schedule was and make our plans. There were no boats for a few hours, so we purchased our tickets and drove back into town to get some lunch and see what goes on there. As we were cruising the streets looking for a place to eat we saw a huge ship making her way through Lock Number 1, one of the smaller locks in the set of four United States owned and operated locks. I swear this ship did just fit between the walls of the lock. Connie was able to take a fairly long video clip of the passing ship. I had intended to include it here, but I cannot find it in her computer and she is out for the afternoon with her niece. I will include it in my next installment.
We found an interesting looking restaurant across the street from the locks and were able to get a window seat so we could watch the activity of the locks while we enjoyed a wonderful and peaceful lunch. Amazingly I was able to get fresh caught Alaskan Salmon that truly reminded me of our summer in Alaska. The salmon was served atop a great salad with a tasty balsamic vinaigrette dressing. I was really pleased with my selection. Connie had an equally good soup and half sandwich dish. It was apparent that this restaurant uses fresh ingredients and tends to serve a healthier fare than most. We certainly felt as though we had done no real damage to ourselves by eating here.
As a bonus we got to watch an Army Corps of Engineers work crew offload a barge full of material on the pier separating two of the locks. Connie has not seen much real crane work, so she was pretty well locked into the process. I found myself critiquing the operation as I have been involved in more crane operation observations as an inspector than I would like to admit to. These guys were good, but there were some questionable things being done from my perspective. That said, it was very apparent that crane safety was being taken very seriously by this crew.
Following our leisurely lunch we took a driving tour of the rest of the downtown area before heading back out to the tour boat docks just outside of town. When we got to the boat dock we were surprised to see four bus loads of fourth and fifth graders swarming around the waiting area and pier. We feared we were in for a very noisy afternoon. To our delight this rambunctious group was being split between two separate tour boats that they would share with no one other than their chaperones.
There was a collective sigh of relief among all of us more senior citizens who would board the regularly scheduled boat for the tour.
The tour was great. I guess I should explain a bit about the locks. The locks are on the St. Marys River and parallel a stretch of rapids in the river where an elevation change of some 23 feet occurs over a short distance. Prior to the locks being built, all shipping had to be portaged around the rapids adding months to the time to move cargo from Lake Superior to Lake Huron. The United States owns and operates four locks of varying widths and depths while Canada has a single lock.
The Army Corps of Engineers has plans to remove locks three and four and replace them with a single and wider lock to handle the needs of the 21st century shipping via the Great Lakes. It was interesting to note that there is no charge to any ship or country using the American locks. Further, much of the cost of operation and maintenance of the locks is paid for from profits gained by selling excess power produced by the hydro-electric plant associated with the locks. The power plant was constructed to provide a power source for the giant pumps used to move water into and out of the locks. The SOO Locks are truly one of those engineering marvels of the modern era.
In addition to learning a bit about the locks we were introduced to other activities in the area of the locks such as a Canadian steel plant just to the west of the locks. We were able to watch a giant shovel moving taconite from a storage mound to a rail car where it was then transported to the furnaces where iron and eventually steel would be made from the ore. The primary product produced at this steel mill is rolls of sheet steel weighing on the order of something near 40,000 pounds each as two such rolls maxes out a conventional flatbed 18 wheeler. We cruised under the international bridge over the ST. Marys River connecting the United States to Canada and we got to see what remains of the rapids which necessitated the need for the locks in the first place. Of course I took a million pictures. I have uploaded a sampling of those photos to a web album linked below.
We were lucky on this day that the weather stayed mild and we were able to enjoy not only our time in Sault Ste Marie, but also the drive from and to Mackinaw City. I was also able to enjoy a really nice run along another of those wonderful multipurpose trails that exist throughout this part of the country. There was an access point to the trail right across the highway from the campground. We scoped out the best way to get to that access point, which worked well for my run. However, we did not do a reverse track to allow me to establish some landmarks for my return to our campsite. You will recall that I said we were in a mega campground. The property has numerous interior roads through heavily forested portions of the park. The road that provides the best access to the trail is an unnamed gravel road connecting to the paved interior roads via several other gravel roads. Following nearly seven miles of running I could not remember all the turns I had made to get to the trail and found myself in places I had not been before. The good news was that I was inside the RV Park and would eventually find my way home. The bad news was that I was getting tired. I eventually worked my way to the shore of Lake Huron and then made my way easily to the coach. A look at the route created by my GPS watch indicated I was in fact running in circles while inside the park. It was really funny, but I did get my desired seven miles in.
Next on our agenda was a jet boat ride to Mackinac Island. We picked the best day of our stay for this journey because we would be exposed most of the day. We arrived on Mackinac under a beautiful blue sky with brilliant sunshine and very warm temperature. After a short walk up the street we found the only Starbucks for some fifty miles or so and stopped in for a fix. After that we headed for the ticket office for the horse drawn tour of the island. The vehicles that the horses pull cannot really be called wagons, nor can they be called carriages. They are really much more like an open air bus behind a team of horses. The reason for these vehicles is because there are no motor vehicles allowed on Mackinac Island aside from a few emergency vehicles. Even freight is moved via live horsepower. The UPS Company even has a horse drawn wagon which goes from street to street making deliveries to businesses and residences and picking up packages along the way.
The tour was done in two stages. The first part was a two-horse twenty-four passenger wagon that toured along the main part of the island’s only town. Along the way the driver enlightened us as to historical facts and current day businesses as we made our way along the streets. That portion of the tour ended at a terminal of sorts just above the barns where the horses are housed for the summer and the wagons are maintained. From there the tour continues out the back door via a three-horse-team drawn wagon that holds more people. Interestingly, these larger yet lighter wagons were manufactured by the Jayco Company who is one of the premier RV manufacturers in the United States.
We had bought the more inclusive tickets, so we got access to a large butterfly aviary. The aviary is located adjacent to the terminal where one switches wagons. So, most people who have the ticket go see the butterflies between the first and second part of the tour. I am not any kind of an expert on butterflies. However, I did take as many photos as I could find cooperative butterflies and have included the best of those in the web album linked below.
The second half of the tour is partially within the boundary of the Fort Mackinac. The reason for the larger wagons and more horses is that the park administrators complained that there were too many wagons going through the park every day. To appease the park the tour company had these larger wagons built. However, the large capacity plus the less than flat terrain dictated that the horse team had to grow by one.
One of the things that truly impressed me was how much attention the drivers/tour guides paid to the well being of the horses in their charge. They all gave them little rest stops after mounting long or steep hills. They made sure the horses got plenty of water while waiting for the wagons to be filled or in one case on the second part of the tour we were able to get off the bus for five minutes to take in the view and the horses were watered while we looked around.
We saw some pretty sights and we were exposed to a good bit of history along the way by the very well informed tour guides. The quality of the tour exceeded the very reasonable fare paid.
The second part of the tour ended at the same terminal. So, we just walked through the building and boarded the next available wagon heading back down to the waterfront. The trip back was more direct that the trip up and there was no history lesson to be had along the way. It was still very pleasant and done at a pace that allowed for a few photos along the way.
By the time we got back to the main street that parallels the waterfront the temperature had dropped several degrees and the sun had been hidden behind some threatening looking clouds. Connie and I made one our fastest decisions on where to eat lunch based on who had soup and was located close to the boat landing. We found a wonderful little pub that had great food and even better atmosphere. In order to speed the process a bit we chose to eat at the bar. We sat next to a young woman who is working in one of the shops on the island for the summer. She filled us in a little on the life of a seasonal employee. It took me back to my youth when I had a great summer job on a guest ranch just outside Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. Some things just don’t change. We really enjoyed chatting with this gal and of course the dining experience as well.
Following lunch we headed directly to the pier to catch the next boat back to Mackinaw City. Unlike the ride out to the island where we rode on the open upper deck in order to take in the scenery and enjoy the fresh air on the nearly dead calm lake, we and everyone else opted to ride inside on the main deck and avoid the cold spray that was kicked up by the boat as we zipped across the now white capped lake.
After returning to Mackinaw City I decided we should leave the car where it was and walk the short seeming distance to the shopping area downtown. BIG MISTAKE. We got several blocks away and through a number of stores and the sky opened up and the rain began to fall. We spent a bit more time in the last store we were in in hopes that the rain would end quickly and we could move along. That didn’t happen. Since I was the one who insisted upon leaving the car at the wharf, I told Connie I would swim, I mean walk back and get it. She took pity on me and said she would go back with me. It rained for hours that evening.
The next day was an underway day. We packed up the coach and got out of the park just ahead of the checkout time headed for Army National Guard Camp Grayling in Grayling, Michigan. Our purpose for going to Grayling was to try to see the Kirtland’s Warbler, the rarest warbler nesting in North America. Since there are so few of these birds we were not sure how hard it would be to find one, so we had scheduled four nights at this stop. The Kirtland’s Warbler nests on the ground under the lowest branches of the Jack Pine. However, as Jack Pines mature the canopy blocks the sun from the low branches and the first several of them eventually die and drop off. Therefore, the birds only nest in groves of Jack Pines between 10 and 20 years old. That limitation plus the parasitic nesting habits of the brown-headed cowbird nearly spelled doom for this beautiful little bird. In the 1950’s man stepped in and altered the forestry management to provide more habitat suitable for the bird and eliminated some of the cowbirds. These practices are continuing and as a result the population is now much healthier than in any time since records have been kept.
To actually see the birds in their nesting habitat one has to be extremely lucky as there are very few suitable areas that have open access to the public or one has to go on one of the many guided walks sponsored by the National Audubon Society in Michigan or the U. S. Forestry Service. We opted for the former as the meeting place was very close to Camp Grayling. So, the morning following our arrival we met at the Ramada Inn with the Audubon Tour Guide along with twelve or fourteen others. After watching a short video recounting the plight of the bird we headed to the field. We no sooner walked off the road after driving about ten miles and we could hear the birds singing. Within minutes most everyone had gotten their first look of what would be several before our time ended.
The low light for me was the rather poor behavior of a group who was on a birding tour of the northern states. For a group of birders these people lacked common birding etiquette rules. For instance once a bird was spotted they all pushed their way to the front paying no attention to others who were trying to get glimpse of the bird via binoculars or spotting scopes. They were pretty loud, making it hard to hear directions to get to see the bird and of course those same noises tended to flush the birds making it impossible for anyone to see them while adding stress to the bird’s life.
The high light on the other hand came very late in the morning when I was able to coach one lady who had yet to see a Kirtland’s Warbler onto a very stately albeit partially hidden fellow who was singing his heart out. Those same young Jack Pines that provide such a great nesting place for these birds act as great camouflage for them as well. We could hear the birds as though they were right in front of us. However, there was always a maze of little branches which did nothing to dampen the sound but everything to hide the bird from view. Therefore in order to find most of the birds you had to duck and weave a lot to effectively move the branches out of the way. Once found it was a huge challenge to coach someone else into the exact location, because you dared not take your binoculars down for fear of losing your view. For this one lady I was able to re-find a bird I had gotten a larger group to see and actually get her to see it as well. Just as the bird moved on her husband appeared and asked me if I could get him on it. I failed.
So, with the Kirtland’s Warbler successfully found and documented on our first full day in the area we had a bunch of time on our hands in a rather isolated and remote area. Of course I had my every other day of running to help fill some of my days. We planned a car trip to Traverse City but beyond that we were sort of in trouble. To make matters worse, the weather was still as unsettled as it had been for a few weeks by then. So, from one portion of the day to the next we could not be sure what we would see.
Our good friend Carla, one of the Loons and Larks I have written about before, came to our rescue after she read Connie’s accounting of our encounter with the Kirtland’s Warbler by calling and suggesting we look up her mother and meet her for lunch or something. I made that introductory call and within minutes we had ourselves a lunch date for the next day about an hour down the road. Ruth, Carla’s mother is one of those wonderful people who have no enemies and I doubt she has ever encountered a stranger because she has that trait that just makes you want to talk to her and get to know her. We had a really wonderful half day with Ruth and I swear it was like we had met up with a friend we had seen just weeks before rather than a total stranger. The best excerpts from our time together were the little secrets she told us about Carla. Carla, I took notes! It was really a great day and it didn’t rain.
On our way back to Camp Grayling I saw a sign for a Camping World. I drove some twenty miles out of our way so we could make our quarterly visit and deposit to the store. I was pretty amazed at how much I was able to spend without even having a list of what we needed on my person. We used to call Camping World the $100 store because we never seemed to be able to get out under about that much. We may have to revise the name upward if we keep up our current trend.
Our last full day in the area was another car trip only this time we went west to Traverse City. I had no expectations as to what we would find in Traverse City and was therefore quite surprised when we got downtown and saw how well preserved this old little lakefront city is. The downtown shopping area is vibrant and full of neat little shops with enough variety to satisfy all sorts of tourists and residents as well. We found a neat little place called The Green House to have lunch. It derives its name from the source of the food rather than the color of the room. All the ingredients are fresh and come from the local area. The food was great and the hustle and bustle of the café was fun to watch. After lunch we wandered up and down the streets in and out of dozens of shops. We even made some purchases to be used as gifts for folks we would be visiting soon. It was a great day to be sure and we even found a Starbucks.
From Camp Grayling we were off to Huron, Ohio to visit our good friends Gary and Jan. Connie and Jan grew up together in Columbus, Ohio, and have had a growing/maturing relationship ever since. We have visited one another’s homes over the years and we always have a great time together. During our short weekend stay in their area we were able to tour them through our motorhome as they have somehow never seen it, share some good wine and food at a local restaurant, watch great parts of the final two rounds of the U. S. Open Golf Tournament on their HDTV and go to Put-in-Bay on Catawba Island where of course we also found food. Our time with Jan and Gary was action packed albeit too short.
From Huron we made the short drive to Hudson, Ohio to visit Connie’s nephew, Tim Slager and his family. We spent two evenings with Time, Melisa, Luke, Sadie and Mary Beth. It was great to see them again. Whenever we visit relatives with children, no matter the age, we are always amazed at how much change has taken place since our last visit. That was truly the case with the Slager gang. What a grown up trio they have become. While camped in the Hudson area we were also able to take a day trip to the Madison to visit with Carol, another of the Loons and Larks whom we have not seen since May two years ago. We had a great reunion which included a tour of her wonderful gardens and dipping our hands into Lake Erie which is conveniently located in her back yard. Carol prepared a wonderful lunch for us, but the highlight was the catching up with one another’s lives since our last get together. Admittedly I missed part of that as Carol put me in a way too comfortable lawn chair looking out at the lake after eating a big lunch and I sort of got lost for a few minutes as the calmness and full stomach worked to force my eyelids shut. I still love you, Carol even if I didn’t hear everything you said.
After three nights we were off to Pittsburgh where we are now and will be through the 4th of July Weekend. There are no campgrounds close to Pittsburgh. The closest is south of Washington, Pennsylvania about 40 miles or so from where our family lives. That is just too inconvenient, so we have put the coach in storage very close to Scott and Cinda Isler’s home in Mt. Lebanon, where we are staying. The Islers were home when we got here, but they are all going to Chicago for a wedding late this week and Connie and I are to house and dog sit for them in their absence. While we are here we are visiting Connie’s sister and brother-in-law who have recently relocated to a retired community in the area which is just wonderful.
We will also get to see Joe Kushner and at least two of his daughters and one son-in-law. Hopefully, we will get to see more of the extended family as they come and go from jobs in different cities and schools where some seem to be doing as much in the summer as in the fall and winter.
That said, you should not hear anymore from me until after we get on the road again following the 4th of July celebration. So, let me take just a few more lines to remind everyone that I am still in training for the Marine Corps Marathon this fall and am still working on my fundraising project for Operation Homefront. My family, friends and friends of my family members have really provided me with a lot of moral support and a great deal of financial support for Operation Homefront. The fundraising campaign ends on August 2, so I thought that since we are about to celebrate our nation’s independence that some of you who may have been thinking about supporting Operation Homefront but have yet to act might do so now. I promise this will be the last time I make such an overt request. Come August 3 my e-mail signature line will no longer have the link to the donation site either. Again, I thank all of you who have gone to the donation site and made a donation from the bottom of my heart. You will never really know how much your support has meant to my training effort. You are the best fans a mid-pack old runner like me could ever have. So, here is the link one more time: