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Sunday, June 7, 2015, in Little Current, Ontario, Canada

Hi all. We’re already traveling this season, even though we’re in the minority, apparently. Last time I wrote, we were still in Charlevoix, where the boat had spent the winter.

Our morning departure was crisp but not cold, and I was dressed for the Arctic or at least the flybridge. The sky was brilliant blue and empty except for a few puffs of cloud that looked like pipe smoke, only white, like it’s coming from Santa. Our fifty-mile trip went quickly and took us to the Mackinac Bridge that divides Lake Michigan from Lake Huron. It’s known as Big Mac or Mighty Mac and it’s the longest suspension bridge between two bridge supports in the Western Hemisphere. Traffic going at the normal highway speed, moving along its endless length, appeared to be crawling, just because it took so long for the tiny vehicles to get from one end to the other side. Soon after we glided under the bridge, we turned and entered Mackinac Island’s harbor, where we settled in a large, nearly empty state marina. During the summer, or during the Chicago to Mackinac race week, boats stay anchored outside, sometimes for days, waiting for a berth.

Mackinac Island (pronounced Mackinaw, always) had a native population but was settled by Europeans in the 17th century, first by French missionary/explorers, and later primarily as a fur trading center. The island’s Fort Mackinac played a strategic and military role, built by the British during the American Revolution, and held by the British until the war of 1812. The British won both 1812 battles, the first one because the Americans hadn’t yet heard that war had been declared. In the end, of course, the British lost the war and had to give the island to the Americans in 1815. The federal government created Mackinac National Park in 1875, America’s second national park, only three years after Yellowstone. Most of the island is now state parkland.

The first automobile showed up in 1898, and the engine scared the resident horses, and the frightened horses scared the drivers, and that was enough to ban automobiles from the island for good. Imagine what that means now. You could count the number of combustion-engine vehicles on one hand, a fire truck, an ambulance, that sort of thing. People don’t use golf carts except on golf courses. There’s an exception for snowmobiles in the winter, for the use of the 492 year-round residents. You’re not allowed to ride your skateboard or roller skates into town.

This actually makes the place friendlier to boaters. We don’t have a car, and most places we go don’t have fast options for us, like car-rental, mass transit, or even taxis. So we’re generally limited to places that we can walk. But Mackinac Island is built for people with no engines to carry them around. So bike-rental places abound, and there’s a range of transportation options on land, from surreys for a dozen passengers, to flatbed drays delivering boxes from Amazon and food-service suppliers, to the timeless Grand Hotel shuttle driven by a driver clad in a starched white shirt, a black vest, and a top hat. The Grand Hotel carriage makes you think that some people are being transported from the dock to Downton Abbey. At times I felt as though I was in Oz, not the prison, but the MGM version, half-expecting some of the horses to be blue or orange. The town is criminally adorable.

Once upon a time, a place called Murdick’s began to make fudge in town when the economy changed from furs to tourism. Vacationers and ferry-delivered day-trippers – and there are many of them – must love the stuff, because on the three or four block main street, there are probably a dozen or more different fudge shops. The rest of the shops offer equally practical wares, such as old-timey photos, hats that make your child’s head into a furry animal, and souvenirs. The aura of the town is carefree and tony; the aroma is of manure-scented chocolate (motto: don’t eat the fudge that’s lying on the street.)

We expected that the island would be as quiet as the marina, but the sprawling grounds in front of the fort were filled with kids. The fort is also the setting for a daily flag-raising and a flag-lowering, accompanied by bugles and cannon firing, conducted by boy scouts apparently in rotation all season.

The highway Michigan Route 185, Lake Shore Boulevard, circumscribes the island, and is the only numbered highway in America where cars are banned. It’s generally flat near the water, and the eight-mile ride takes an hour or two by bike if you don’t stop anywhere on your way around.

After checking in at the marina, we ate lunch overlooking the water, and then we took a walk to Arch Rock, formed when soft stone was worn away by wind and water, leaving an arch of hard breccia rock.

At Grand Hotel, we stopped and toured the premises on our own. Besides the glorious building, there are tulip gardens in geometric shapes, a topiary horse and carriage, an art gallery and showroom for the dog show trophies of a local Scottie. It’s indeed grand, with hundreds of rooms, a wraparound veranda, luxurious furnishings, and impeccable service.

Historical markers around the island note churches, and restored edifices that once supported trade or war or church life have been repurposed into municipal buildings or hotels or in one case, a museum of art and historic artifacts.

We rented bikes, or rather a tandem bike, on our second day in town, to circumnavigate the island on our own, and we took a slightly different route for about the same distance in the morning of our third day. There’s a crazy hierarchy of traffic yielding: bikes yield to pedestrians, but everyone, including those on foot, are expected to yield to horses in any configuration.

Art had been troubled by some tearing in his eye and some morning pain, so we stopped by the local medical center, where he was treated by a friendly and capable family physician and handed a diagnosis of a scratched cornea and an antibiotic to keep him safe while it healed. The experience was a step back in time, a smiling reception and a seat in an empty waiting room, time spent and tests carefully conducted to diagnose the right answer, and the sense (and the reality, as it turned out) that the problem was solved by the time we walked out the door.

We’d been advised on the street to pick a certain restaurant for a dinner out, that is, literally, on the street. We were discussing restaurant picks when a man walking around with his family said, “You have to go to the Woods.”

The way to get to the Woods, like anywhere else that’s not on the main street, is via carriage. We picked up the designated surrey at 5:30, which took side roads (as if there are any other) to Grand Hotel (which owns the offsite restaurant) and onward to a place in the woods adjacent to a golf course. The building that houses the restaurant was once part of the Stonecliffe estate; the original mansion, now an inn, once built this as a playhouse for the children; now it’s a Bavarian-themed hunting lodge. Maybe it was all those antlers on the wall, but I was drawn to the venison, which was delicious, as was Art’s smoked pork, both with very Bavarian sides of red cabbage and spaetzle. Immersion in the best of civilized society is always called for when the next few weeks will be devoted to exploring the emptiness au naturel of the North Channel.

I’ll hold off on describing how we got from there to here until next time.

Love, Karen (and Art)

Love, Karen (and Art)