Where: Mackinaw City, Sault Sainte Marie, and Whitefish Point, Michigan
Trip Date: 7/11-7/16/17
This is Part 6 of the Michigan Road Trip series. Even though we safely returned home to Georgia a few days ago, I saw so many things and sketched so much stuff that I have enough material for a couple more posts if you aren’t tired of reading about the Michigan coast yet. If you are just joining us and want to catch up, you can find the previous installments here: PART 1, PART 2, PART 3, PART 4, PART 5.
Mackinaw City (Again)
We returned to Mackinaw City after leaving Tawas and Sturgeon Point. Our last visit had been only a brief layover as we awaited the ferry to Mackinac Island, and we had time only to see one lighthouse (how awful). To right that terrible wrong we made sure to plan for a full day of exploring this time.
Mackinaw City caters largely to the tourist traffic passing through on the way to the island; souvenir shops every block, hotels everywhere, and—much like Mackinac Island—fudge as far as the eye can see (this I didn’t mind so much). But, if you look in the right places, you can find interesting and/or historical stuff sandwiched between the commercialism.
Docked just a block down from our hotel, we found the Icebreaker Mackinaw. The ship was launched in 1944 with the sole purpose of keeping shipping lanes on the Great Lakes free of solid ice during the winter months.
Contrary to what you may think, icebreaker ships do not simply plow through ice. The Mackinaw’s hull is rounded, much like a football. When faced with ice, that rounded hull will simple roll up on top of it. A forward propeller at the ship’s bow then sucks the water from underneath the ice, creating a void, at which point the ice simply collapses under the ship’s weight—which incidentally is a little over 5000 tons. In this way, the ship is able to break through ice-drifts that can grow to be 15 feet thick at times.
If the ship were ever to become wedged on the ice, the crew was able to shift water in the port and starboard ballast tanks and make the ship wiggle back and forth until it slid back into the water.
In 2006 the Mackinaw was decommissioned and moved to Mackinaw City where she now serves as a museum ship.
McGulpin Point Lighthouse
Up to this point everything on our trip had gone pretty much as planned with no setbacks. The universe—of course—cannot let plans go unhindered for so long. We were supposed to embark on a lighthouse cruise that would give us access to four more lighthouses only accessible by water. However, strong winds and the impending threat of a storm put a stop to that. (The winds were strong enough that we could feel the 5000-ton Mackinaw rocking, so I suppose I can’t fault a small ferryboat for cancelling.)
Instead, we found a lighthouse we could access without a boat.
The McGulpin Point Lighthouse was constructed in 1869 to provide a navigational aid to ships traveling within the Straits of Mackinac. The 38-foot tower stands on a bluff overlooking the Lake Michigan side of the Straits. The light was taken out of service in 1906 after the more visible Old Mackinac Point Light was built.
North to the Soo
From Mackinaw City, we crossed the Mackinac Bridge and made our way into the Upper Peninsula. Our first stop was Sault Sainte Marie (pronounced SOO, because nothing in Michigan is pronounced the way it is spelled). And of course we immediately found a ship.
The Valley Camp is a freighter built in 1917 (we had the good fortune to visit on the ship’s 100th birthday). At 550 feet long, this ship is a good representative of the vast amounts of shipping traffic that once traveled through Sault Sainte Marie, although a good bit smaller than some of the more modern ships.
For nearly fifty years the Valley Camp carried cargo over the great lakes. In 1968 she was brought to Sault Ste. Marie for the last time, where she now resides as a museum displaying the history of Great Lakes shipping.
Among the many museum displays is a memorial exhibit for the Edmund Fitzgerald. The Fitzgerald was another freighter that sank with all 29 crewmembers on Lake Superior in a violent storm in 1975. The exact circumstances of the sinking are still not fully known to this day.
The Soo Locks
Sault Sainte Marie is a major hub of shipping traffic every year because of its geography.
Lake Superior and Lake Huron are separated by the Saint Marys River. As the river passes Sault Sainte Marie it drops 21 feet over a series of rapids as it flows towards Lake Huron. In the early days of shipping the only way to transport goods from Superior to Huron was to spend several days or weeks dragging your ship over land to bypass the falls. Since this is neither time nor cost effective (and probably not much fun) the first lock was built in the 1850s.
The current Soo Locks consist of four locks, although only two are used. They are fascinating to see in operation. An up bound ship (traveling from Huron to Superior) will enter the lock and the doors will close. A series of valves open and allow gravity to pull water from the higher Lake Superior, filling the chamber until the ship is raised the 21 feet to lake level. Then the second set of doors opens and the ship moves on through. In the Poe lock (the largest of the locks) an astonishing 22 million gallons of water is pumped in and out during a single cycle.
Fun little tidbit: Sault Sainte Marie is right across the river from Canada, and the boat tour through the locks took us very briefly into Canadian waters. Don’t say that I never take exotic international trips.
Frying Pan Island Light
On a stroll a few blocks down river of the locks I passed a very strange sight: what appeared to be a tiny lighthouse sitting on the strip of grass between the sidewalk and a building. Of course, I had to investigate. It turns out that this was, in fact, the Frying Pan Island Lighthouse. Built in 1882, it originally marked a small island at the mouth of the St. Marys River. The light was decommissioned in 1935, and in 1988 the adorable 18-foot lighthouse was moved from the island to the Coast Guard headquarters in Sault Sainte Marie where you can still accidentally stumble across it walking down the sidewalk.
Point Iroquois Light
A few miles west of Sault Sainte Marie, marking the entrance to the Saint Marys River sits Point Iroquois Lighthouse. The original light at this location was build just one year after the opening of the Soo Locks to help guide the increasing shipping traffic through the river. The current 62-foot tower and dwelling were built in 1870.
Farther north, marking the entrance to Whitefish Bay where Lake Superior begins to narrow on its way to the Saint Marys River, is the Whitefish Point Light Station. The station was established in 1849, and the current tower was built in 1861 and still operates as an active aid to navigation. In fact, Whitefish Point Light is the oldest operating lighthouse on Lake Superior. The lighthouse occupies a very vital position along a dangerous stretch of the lake known as The Shipwreck Coast. Over a third of the known shipwrecks in Lake Superior lie in the vicinity of Whitefish Point. The Edmund Fitzgerald itself is at the bottom of the lake only 17 miles northwest of the point.
Lost in the Michigan Wilderness
At Whitefish Point we found a brochure for a “nearby” lighthouse that seemed like a nice addition to our trip. I say “nearby” very loosely because the roads in the largely uninhabited area around Whitefish Point are such that even though this lighthouse was only 15 miles down the coast, it took us well over an hour to get there. Our first clue should have come when the brochure warned visitors not to follow their GPS to the lighthouse, as it was likely to take them down impassible roads.
Keeping this in mind, we drove in the general direction indicated by the (not-at-all-to-scale) map included in lieu of an actual address—clue number two. We made a quick detour to see the beautiful Tahquamenon Falls and eat lunch, and then continued our search. Finally, we reached a dirt road with a sign that said “Lighthouse.” Thinking we were close to our destination we turned down the road and were immediately faced with another sign saying “Lighthouse 18 miles.” But, being stubborn people we continued forward.
The first ten miles weren’t so bad, but with about eight miles to go the road suddenly narrowed. At this point our progress forward was motivated more by the fact that there was no space in which to turn around. So for most of the next hour we drove 10 miles per hour down a mud road barely wide enough for one car, trying desperately to avoid rain-filled pot holes of indeterminable depth. And of course there was absolutely no cell service and the sun was beginning to set.
Just when I thought this might all be an elaborate hoax to lure unwitting tourists into the depths of the woods to be captured and sold as laborers in the illegal lumberjack industry, we reached the end of the road. And at the end of this “road” was Crisp Point Lighthouse.
The Lighthouse was built in 1904 on the site of an existing Life Saving Station. The 58-foot Crisp Point was another important marker along the Shipwreck Coast. Although the tower and complex originally occupied a parcel of land around 12 acres in size, the erosion in the area is such that the tower now sits much closer to the shore on only three acres, and most of the original buildings no longer exist.
The Coast Guard decommissioned the light in 1993. But, under the ownership of the county, Crisp Point Lighthouse is slowly being restored as another proud reminder of the lake’s long history.
Had we not been trying to escape back down the hour-long dirt road before nightfall, I would like to have stayed a bit longer. It was very soothing being so far removed from everything (for a little while, anyways). So if you like long drives and own a vehicle with better suspension than a mini-van, Crisp Point Lighthouse is definitely for you.
Munising, Marquette, more shipwrecks, more lighthouses. More of everything, really.