Archive for Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A step back in time on Mackinac Island

August 29, 2012

It’s hard to accurately describe Mackinac Island. After a long bus ride through five states with extremely brown and dry scenery caused by the drought, it looked like a giant green oasis as the ferry neared the island. In many ways, it seemed a bit unreal when you left the boat – yet it was there – a unique step back in time. It takes the visitor from the noise and speed of the 21st century to the slow clip-clop of horses’ hooves from another era.

Let me explain that there are no motorized vehicles on Mackinac Island, all transportation being either by horse-drawn vehicle or bicycle. I understand they do have a fire truck, but it is nowhere to be seen. In fact, I read the last automobile on the island was driven by the late Christopher Reeves in a scene in the movie, “A Place in Time,” which featured the hotel and was filmed in 1980. I did see one person with a motorized wheelchair. Other than that, the streets were filled with horse drawn vehicles. In general, many of the visitors the day we were there were walking along the wide paths enjoying the island’s beauty.

We had come from the overheated plains where temperatures were above the century mark and the 88 degrees of the island seemed cool to us. To local residents, it was very hot. The first thing that I noted was the green grass and beautiful flowers, something that we didn’t see much of in Kansas this year.

Mackinac Island is located in Lake Huron at the eastern end of the Straits of Mackinac. It is described as a “small island” of about 3.8 square miles and eight miles in circumference. The island is officially in the state of Michigan. The only way to get to the island is by ferryboat for most tourists, although there are docks for private boats and, surprisingly, an air field. In the summer tourist season as many as 15,000 persons visit the island daily. More than 80 percent of island is a national park. According to census figures, there are about 400 full-time residents who brave the bitter, isolated winter.

As one might suspect, the island was first settled by Native Americans. The island was of strategic importance to the European nations who were struggling for control of the Great Lakes and the North American continent. In addition to location its waters teemed with fish and trapping flourished. To insure its ownership, the British built Fort Mackinac on the island during the Revolutionary War.

The island and the fort, which still stands, became property of the United States following the revolution. During the War of 1812, there were two battles fought on the island and the USA re-occupied the island in 1815 after the war ended. Incidentally the fort is open for daily tours.

The island changed with the construction of the Grand Hotel in 1887 and soon became a major attraction and summer retreat for wealthy Americans. Now, the huge hotel which is still in use, dominates the island. The hotel claims to have the longest front porch in the world – 660 feet. There are plenty of rocking chairs and places to sit back and enjoy the scenery. The hotel has 385 guest rooms and no two are alike. They also have a huge buffet which is extremely popular with guests.

When you first arrive on the island, you know that you are in a different world. The tour was met by a horse drawn carriage which took us on a leisurely trip to the tourist attractions and interesting sites on the island. I might point out that while horses are dependable, they do have some very bad habits. What that means is if you are walking you need to watch out for unwanted deposits. Horses are slow, too. We were getting ready to head back to the dock to meet the ferry and were beginning to worry about making it on time. We had to stop to water the horses on the way back to the downtown area which slowed progress. We did make it on time.

I understand that when the lake freezes over in winter, snow mobiles are used to get to the mainland. They drill holes in the ice and use trees to mark the route. Snowmobiles are allowed in winter and I was told kids used them for transportation to school.

Much of the staff is brought in for the summer season, including a large number of persons from the Caribbean and college students. There is a small downtown, but it is mostly “tourist” type shops, although out guide pointed out that they have 18 bars as well as 17 fudge shops.

One of the unique structures on the island is the governor’s house. Years ago, the State of Michigan built a summer residence for the governor and, it is still used. Five U.S. presidents – Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton – have visited the island along with many foreign dignitaries.

Yes, we enjoyed visiting the island because it is such a unique site. The beauty of the grounds certainly makes the island a worthwhile tour. With that said, I cannot imagine what it would be like in winter where a trip to town would mean a long snowmobile ride.

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