Magnificently Mad Michigan

(C) Julie Boyd

And beyond them stood the forest,

Stood the groves of singing pine-trees,

Green in Summer, white in Winter,

Ever sighing, ever singing.

Song of Hiawatha, W.W. Longfellow

It’s easy to pick a Michiganer. They carry their passports everywhere in case they might need to go to Canada for the day. If you ask them directions to anywhere in the state they will use their hand to show you, as Michigan is shaped exactly so. Then, if they offer you a drink it will be more than likely ‘would you like a Vernors?’ I had never heard of Vernors before my first visit, but am now a fan. Described as a ‘caramelised ginger beer’ which does it a great disservice, this uniquely flavoured drink rolls across the tongue as smooth as silk. It’s just downright delicious, although I’m not sure about the wisdom of its popularity as a breakfast food.

Michigan is a place of contrasts. From the breathtakingly beautiful to the unbelievably ugly in both landscape and attitude, it’s certainly never boring.

Flying into the Tri-city airport, now known as MBS, representing the cities of Midland, Bay City and Saginaw that it services, is much like flying into a massive industrial estate. In Australia we have strips of used car dealers; in the tri-city area the strips are of huge car factories where the much reduced capacity means they sit like dying monoliths.  Saginaw, particularly, has faced increasing social problems relating to poverty as a result of its high rate of unemployment, and crime has been a major area of concern for the community, in recent years.

Once on the ground, and ensconsed in a locally built car which, until recently, was a perk of retired workers, one has to drive past depressing areas and down streets where one is advised to ‘keep your head below the dashboard as there are many random snipers at work’- a warning that proved too true. We didn’t get hit, but the car in front of us did, which made for a very scary half hour as we headed toward the gothic, Munster-style  house where we were staying for a couple of nights.

Shopping in Bay City also provided some challenging moments. My daughter had requested some new Doc Martens, at that time extremely fashionable and very expensive at home. I spotted some in a shop window and decided to get them for her. Walking into this particular shop I was stopped in my tracks by the stench of death. It was palpable, my skin crawled. Three men, all smoking and dressed in hunting gear stood at the counter which stretched the entire length of the shop, some twenty metres, at least as long as a cricket pitch. The wall behind the counter was covered in guns of every make and kind – handguns, rifles, shotguns, automatics. The glass counter itself was full of ammunition, knives and other assorted goodies. The men were each caressing automatics as they casually swung in my direction and stared.  The chill of fear which had started in my feet spread like ice through my veins and I was rooted to the spot.  Suddenly the Oklahoma bombing, April 19, 1995, where hundreds of people including babies in a childcare centre were hurt and killed, sprang into focus. The perpetrator, Timothy McVeigh, was a member of the Michigan militia. It was the most destructive act of terrorism on American soil until the September 11, 2001 attacks. The Oklahoma blast injured more than 680 people, and claimed 168 lives, including 19 children under the age of 6, those heartbreaking images which flashed across our TV screens still burning in my memory. The blast destroyed or damaged 324 buildings within a sixteen-block radius, destroyed or burned 86 cars, and shattered glass in 258 nearby buildings. The bomb was estimated to have caused at least $652 million worth of damage. Who remembers?

Reports suggest that Journal entries of the Columbine High School massacre shooters in 1999 revealed that the pair had taken inspiration from the Oklahoma City incident. Seung-Hui Cho, the shooter in the Virginia Tech massacre, (April 16, 2007) mentioned “martyrs like Eric and Dylan” apparently referring to Columbine High School gunmen Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. These are not connections of which Michigan is proud, but they were of sufficient concern for Flint – born Michael Moore to feature in his movie ‘Bowling for Columbine’.

Needless to say, I stumbled out of the shop, frozen to the core and terrified. My daughter didn’t get her boots.

Hunting is big business in Michigan. Every weekend the men will head off either hunting or fishing, for the most part leaving the women at home. Many families own a cabin in the mountains or on one of the lakes which becomes their base over the long summer holidays.  The environment is stunningly beautiful, particularly in Autumn/Fall when the leaf colours form a patchwork quilt which is often reflected in the lovingly crafted, hand-sewn quilts which women create over the long winters. And the men of Michigan also love their boy-toys. It’s nothing to follow a truck towing a boat and a surf-ski , or a trailer and a snow-ski, depending on the time of year. These extended B-triple arrangements are commonplace on roads and require extra large and long parking areas at roadside diners en route to popular destinations.

Even the kids become involved.  The four year old daughter of a friend, who believes that I live on a plane as I drop out of the sky with each visit, was considered old enough to answer the phone, sit on the driver’s seat of her dad’s fishing boat, and handle his gun, as he says ‘with the safety catch on, but she does know how to cock it.’ Well, of course. After a breakfast which consisted of her telling her mother which coloured cereal she wanted that morning washed down by a can of Vernors or coke, a promise of MacDonalds in the car on the way, and some playtime with the multitude of toys that allow for no imagination or self-entertainment, I was left wondering what she would be like in a few years time.

Once away from the cities, however, a totally different side of Michigan emerges. The site of what is presently the City of Saginaw was originally inhabited by Native Americans.

There are three major tribal groups in Michigan today: the Chippewa (Ojibwe), the Ottawa, and the Potawatomi. They comprise what is called the Three Fires Council. The area is popularly known as the Land of Hiawatha. The Ottawa people were seasonal wanderers of the land and sailors of the Great Lakes gathering wild rice, netting fish, trapping both large and small game, and hunting large game such as moose, deer, and caribou. Ottawa people continue to be great traders and craftsmen. One hallmark of Ottawa life is the birch bark canoe. The intricate traditional clothing, including the softest moccasins I’ve ever worn provides tourism income for the tribes.

The Potawatomi cultural pattern allowed them to establish a more stable food supply and eventually a level of political unity unusual for Great Lakes tribes at that time. Not only did they grow the American staples of corn, beans, and squash, the Potawatomi were famed for their medicinal herbal gardens.

The Chippewa, also known as the Ojibwe, are the second largest tribal group in the United States. The Chippewa were nomadic like the Potawatomi and the Ottawa, moving their villages to follow the fish or game. Eating a freshly caught salmon prepared by an Ojibwe is one of life’s true culinary delights.

I was in Michigan for the Au Sable River International Canoe Marathon, an annual 120 mile (193 km) canoe race in Michigan from Grayling to Oscoda. It first ran in 1947 and is the longest, non-stop, canoe-only race in North America. The race has been billed as “The World’s Toughest Spectator Race” as many of the spectators follow the racers overnight down the full 120 miles to the finish.

The race is always held the last full weekend in July during the town’s annual Au Sable River Festival. The Marathon starts at nine pm in Grayling in a LeMans-style start where the competitors carry their canoes in a footrace four blocks through town to the Au Sable River entry point. Upon reaching the river, they begin paddling non-stop throughout the night. In addition to paddling for 14-19 hours straight, competitors must also make portages over six dams along the river race route.

The Au Sable River is also home of some of the best fly-fishing in America. During May and June the magnificent Chinook salmon swim upstream to spawn, leaping metres into the air as they traverse rapids and dams and become prime targets for humans and bears. To witness the man versus wild battle for food or survival provides a very different perspective of the Michigan hunter.

Similarly the huge trout of Lake Huron – our destination for this trip – are referred to as trophy browns. In Winter Lake Huron freezes over and the summer of families swimming gives way to ice-huts being dragged out onto the ice so that fishermen can sit inside them, sometimes with a small fire, where they cut a hole in the ice and dangle their lines in. Jet-skiing gives way to snowmobiles and other big boys toys.

In Summer the small city of Tawas on the banks of Lake Huron (at the index finger knuckle location) is awash with families on their extended summer vacations. Houses that are shut-up for the winter are re-opened. All pipes need to be checked to ensure no cracks have appeared as a result of freezing, furnaces need to be re-fired and basements checked in case of leakage. All the big toys need to be checked, refuelled and re-run. Unpacking a house on the edge of Lake Huron and preparing it for the summer is quite a job. The advantage of being right on the lake is that in winter you can toboggan from the front door right to the water’s edge.

To see waves in a freshwater lake is quite an event. Lake Huron empties into Lake Superior so it is possible to yacht to Detroit, or around the top to Chicago. Circling the Michigan coastline are lighthouses which surround this polarised state like a luminescent string of pearls when one flies over it at night.

The further north one travels in Michigan, the wilder the countryside becomes. Tawas hosts the Paul Bunyan festival each September. Bunyan is an American folk hero who embodies the legacy of the lumberjacks and woodcutters of Upper Michigan where beavers vie with logging companies, and this festival celebrates his birthplace. In Paul Bunyan park I had my first encounter with a chipmunk, possibly the only other American animal to challenge the sea otter for cuteness. He was busy, but not too busy for a game of hide and seek. The park is also home to the great chainsaw carving contest where intricate sculptures are carved from logs and then auctioned for charity.

Just when you think that Michigan can’t get any more unusual, a visit to Frankenmuth ensures that it does. “Muth” as it is popularly known, is also nicknamed “Little Bavaria” has a unique German charm and is renowned for fabulous, though slightly gluttonous, fried chicken dinners, and of course, the best Oktoberfest in America . But, a trip to Frankenmuth should always be punctuated by a visit to Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland. With an area equivalent to 5.5 football fields, on 27 manicured acres, Bronner’s has the distinction of being the largest Christmas store in the world. It doesn’t matter what you’re looking for, if it’s related to Christmas, they have it. The array of tree ornaments could make a person dizzy. Looking for Santa in a kilt? They’ve got it. How about a chocolate chip cookie? They’ve got it. Pop-up camper…got it. Tractor…got it. Any interest, occupation, hobby or lifestyle, Bronner’s will have something that fits. They have left no Christmas stone unturned.  Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland is worth a visit for the ambience alone.

Michigan meets Canada at Sault St Marie, Michigan’s oldest city,  where the Soo Locks have been referred to as one of the great wonders of the world and it is still the largest waterway traffic system on earth. No matter that Sault Ste. Marie is a two-day drive from the Atlantic Ocean – this community on the northeastern edge of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is one of the best places in the world to get an up-close look at giant, seagoing ships. Up to 100 ships a day inch through the Soo Locks, which bypass rapids along the St. Marys River and link Lakes Superior and Huron. In all, nearly 10,000 craft pass through the locks each year. Soo Locks Boat Tours is one of Michigan’s top attractions, or from a viewing platform, you can watch ships slip through the locks, as they’ve been doing since 1855.

My personal favourite place in Michigan however is an island by the name of Mackinac, pronounced locally as Mackinaw.

According to Ojibwe tradition, Mackinac Island is a sacred place populated by the first people and was home to the Great Spirit Gitchie Manitou. Mackinac Island, by virtue of its location in the centre of the Great Lakes waterway, became a tribal gathering place where tribes buried their chiefs to honour the Great Spirit. Native Americans traveling the Straits region likened the shape of the island to that of a turtle’s back and named it Michilimackinac, Land of the Great Turtle.

Unlike the rest of America which pays homage to the mighty automobile, Mackinac Island eschews cars, and the only mode of transport is by horse. One of the world’s greatest pleasures would have to be taking a horse-drawn carriage ride at sunset to the Grand Hotel, to reflect on life’s wonders over a magnificent margharita.