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Beyond the Blockhouse: Muskegon State Park July 26 09

A hobbit trail leads to the Bog Bench at Muskegon State Park. To be sure, there are many hobbit trails that wind through the wooded back dunes north of Muskegon, but this one is special. From its trail head at the storied Blockhouse that overlooks Lake Michigan and all points surrounding, it descends into a hardwood forest, clambers back up the side of a dune, then leads you across a small blowout and along a wooded ridge of knobbly witch hazels, entish oaks, and elvish white pines. From there the trail descends into a forested valley and traces the shore of a jewel-like bog lake bordered to the south, west, and east by more dunes, and to the north by flatter, less topographically challenging forest land.

I have tramped through countless woodlands in my four decades as an amateur naturalist, but I have never seen another woods so filled with mystery and magic as these. They are Sherwood Forest. They are Lothlorien. I’ve not yet seen a leprechaun scamper into hiding among the lowbush blueberries, but that just goes to show you how secretive leprechauns are. As for hobbits, I’m waiting for the day when I find one sitting on the Bog Bench. I’ll step off the main trail through an archway of pine branches and there he’ll be, smoking his pipe and contemplating the afternoon sun that dances in mirror fragments on the waters.

I could go on at length about the bench that sits on the shore of the tiny lake and overlooks an island of the encroaching wetland…about the trail as it follows its course around the lake and along the shoulders of wooded dunes shaded by hemlocks and woven with trailing arbutus…and of course, about the famed Blockhouse perched high atop a sandy pinnacle off of Scenic Drive, overlooking the land where lumberjacks once harvested long-vanished forests of virgin white pine. But there are other sides to Muskegon State Park as well. Broad, sandy beaches. Campgrounds. A channel where the Muskegon River, after broadening into the wide waters of Muskegon Lake, empties at last into the vast expanse of Lake Michigan.

On this day, after circling the lake and ascending the hobbit trail back up out of that mythical valley, Lisa and I headed south down Scenic Drive past the beach to the channel. Sailboats plied the waters past the lighthouse, heading inland after an afternoon out on Lake Michigan. A handful of fishermen were trying their luck on a walkway next to the main boardwalk. A wide variety of dogs were out walking their people—a Jack Russel terrier, a chihuahua, a couple of magnificent collies, and more.

From the pier, we headed back north to the beach to watch the sun set. Evening along the Lake Michigan shoreline is magical, and this evening was especially so. Orange-rimmed turrets of storm clouds far to the north thrust skyward, silhouetted by the melon sky. A host of sea gulls wheeled through the air, descending for the night with the sun. Blond sand and green marram grass blazed in the last rosy rays, then gradually receded into shadow. A beautiful afternoon on Michigan’s west coast had crowned itself with a radiant sunset.

And now, at last, it was time to go home.




Written by Dave.

Big Wind over the Big Lake July 3 09

There are few spectacles more imposing in the Great Lakes region than a squall line rolling in off of the big waters. If you’ve ever seen it happen—if you’ve stood on the dunes and watched as a menacing wedge of clouds has advanced toward you like a giant, scowling eyebrow—then you know exactly what I mean. The green lake waters turn dark as the sunlight flees from the sky. A hush falls over the landscape like a blanket. And onward comes that great arch of cloud, stretching from horizon to horizon, a vast harbinger of gale-force winds, torrential rain, marble-sized hail, and a mighty extravaganza of lightning and thunder.

Storm season came late to Michigan this year. An inordinately cool spring kept the big weather in check longer than usual, but it did finally arrive, and I welcomed it with open arms. As a storm chaser, I look forward to the first spring storm the way a kid looks forward to Christmas. I love stepping outside under balmy, bright skies, sniffing the year’s first exhilarating fetch of good Gulf of Mexico moisture, and watching nicely sheared cumulus towers pile up through the troposphere and morph from benign little cotton puffs into war-like giants. Man, how I love a good storm, don’t you?

Storms in Michigan come in a few basic varieties, with some kinds being more common than others. The wall cloud in this picture is a sight you’ll rarely see in our neck of the woods. Once in a while, though, when conditions are right, you may encounter one. Most folks would just as soon not. It’s a sight that sends storm-wise Midwesterners scurrying for their basements, as a tornado can develop out of such a cloud in a matter of moments.

A wall cloud often—though by no means always—forms in the part of a thunderstorm that appears to be the least stormy. To the north, rain and even hail may be falling, while the wall cloud itself descends from a rain-free cloud base on the southwest, rear part of the storm. Just behind it and to the south, the sky may be clear and the sun may be shining. Don’t let that fool you! This is the business end of the storm, the part that is greedily ingesting massive amounts of the warm, moist air that fuels a thunderstorm the way gas powers an automobile engine.

The wall cloud pictured above was shot from a distance of maybe half a mile. The whitish area in the foreground was rotating vigorously and moving directly toward my storm chasing partner, Bill, and I at around 35 miles an hour. We stayed in our location long enough to snap a few photos, then skedaddled. The storm never put down a tornado during the time that we tracked with it—the surface winds weren’t right. Had they shifted to the southeast, though, I think things would have gotten considerably more interesting in a hurry.

Here’s a tip: if a thunderstorm is moving toward you and you can feel a warm wind rushing into it (not a cool wind blowing out of it), watch out. Trouble is very likely headed your way.

In contrast to a wall cloud, an arcus cloud (or shelf cloud) usually looks a lot more menacing than it really is. It’s a much more common cloud formation than a wall cloud. You’ll find it at the front end of an advancing thunderstorm; it’s a low, wedge-shaped structure that looks all the more threatening for the black skies that follow directly behind it. Like a wall cloud, a shelf cloud shows motion. However, a wall cloud will exhibit vertical rotation, like a giant carousel, while a shelf cloud’s motion is primarily lift, and any turning will be horizontal, like a huge rolling pin.

Look for quiet air as an arcus cloud approaches—the proverbial calm before the storm—then a cool, brisk breeze that builds and builds, sometimes to as high as 60 or 70 miles an hour, and rarely even faster. Once you begin to feel that wind, you’d better be heading for shelter if you haven’t found it already, because the rain that follows is usually a soaker of the first order.

Watching a good thunderstorm roll in is always a worthwhile experience. But it’s a doubly impressive sight on the Lake Michigan shoreline, with lightning bolts flickering on the horizon and thunder grumbling in the distance as the glowering shelf cloud steamrolls toward you across the sky. Next time stormy weather threatens to end your fun at the beach, don’t be too quick to leave. Stick around. The show is about to begin, and you don’t want to miss it.





Written by Dave.

Prickly Pears July 10 09

My sister and I were driving back home from Texas last week when we came upon the prickly pears. There they were, thousands of the showy, yellow flowers at the peak of their bloom, dotting mile after mile of the median between the north- and southbound lanes of the Interstate. It was exactly the kind of scene I’d have expected to see in Texas—only we weren’t in Texas. We were in Michigan.

If I were to ask a thousand people to each name five Michigan wildflowers, I’d be surprised if a single person mentioned the eastern prickly pear. Cactus just isn’t something folks expect to find growing wild in our state. But it does. Opuntia humifusa—or devil’s tongue, as it is sometimes called—is as much a native of our landscape as the sugar maple and the May apple.

The plants database of the Natural Resources Conservation Service presently indicates that the eastern prickly pear occurs in ten Michigan counties , all of them on the western side of the state. However, that is doubtless a conservative number. In fact, the photos in this article were taken five miles west of Hastings in Barry County, a county not shown in the distribution map for the plant. Conscientious amateur botanist that I am, I submitted a report to NRCS, and I expect that at some point, Barry will be added to the list. But just about anywhere where you find plenty of sand and sunlight, you’re also apt to find the cactus. Sand dunes. Oak barrens. Tallgrass prairies Open Jack pine forests. Railroad rights-of-way. Hillside prairies. Prickly pear may not always be as visible as it is in early July, when its butter-yellow, carnation-like blossoms light the sandy fields and roadsides like miniature suns, but for sheer fascination alone, the plant is a show-stopper any time of year.

The eastern prickly pear likes to form mats, making it probably the most formidable natural ground cover in our state. You can see it at its finest along M-82 heading from US 131 toward Newaygo. Both Newaygo and Allegan Counties are strongholds for what remains of Michigan’s once extensive tallgrass prairies, and the stretch of M-82 west of US 131 harbors a number of typical prairie plants. The prickly pear is one you simply can’t mistake for anything else, and this time of year is when you can easily spot it as you drive down the road in your car.

The striking, flat pads that are the hallmark of Opuntia are actually its stems. The needles—as is true of all cacti—are the plant’s modified leaves. Oh, and about those needles: while the sharp, spiky doohickeys clearly say, “Don’t mess with me,” you also want to avoid the little tufts of orange-brown hairs that surround the bases of the spikes and dot the pads like small eyes. Called glochids, they can cause severe skin irritation upon contact, and the merest touch can cause them to dislodge from their eyelets and find a new, hard-to-eradicate home in your skin. So, a word to the wise: devil’s tongue may look cute, but it’s by no means cuddly.

It is, however, edible. Carefully peeled to remove the glochids, the fruit can be eaten or turned into a jelly, and the pads can be diced and used in salads or even fried. Don’t take the culinary value of prickly pear on my recommendation, though. I haven’t eaten it myself, and I presently consider the best use of the plant to be simply enjoying it for its beauty and interest. The yellow petals have a translucent quality that reminds me of the colored paper one uses for filler in a gift bag. They’re as lovely as any rose you’ll ever find in a garden, and a colorful reminder of the natural diversity that exists in this great, rugged, wonderful state of ours.





Written by Dave.

Deep Ducks July 24 09

Ducks are deep. I say this with some hesitancy, since I also happen to think that Ronald McDonald is deep, an opinion not shared by everyone. But ducks are deeper. They’ve just got to be. Any bird that appears on the surface to be as comical as a duck has got to have plenty going on below the surface.

Then again, maybe not. It’s possible that hidden beneath all that comicality—beneath the absurd waddle and that impossible-to-take-seriously quack—is a mind that is thinking, “Duh.” In fact, based on my personal duck experiences, I have to admit there’s solid evidence that ducks are just plain dumb. Their drollery isn’t just a cover-up to keep us fooled while they plot to take over the world.

I guess I just like to think that ducks are deep because: 1) it’s fun to say; 2) saying ducks are dumb could get me blacklisted by duck lovers; and 3) dumb as they are, ducks are nevertheless beautiful birds. And it’s that mix of beauty and goofiness that makes ducks so entertaining, and beloved by so many people.

Grand Ledge west of Lansing has one of the best duck feeding stations you’re likely to find. Off of the parking lot across from the island, a short stairway takes you down to the edge of the Grand River. A contingent of ducks has found this location to be a pretty good thing, as thoughtful humans show up regularly to feed them. The place is a veritable melting pot of duckdom, with ducks of every ethnicity and even a few geese coexisting beautifully, united by their shared appreciation for an easy handout. We could all learn something from them—that is, if they could communicate with us in relevant terms. “Quack” may be amusing, but it’s not particularly enlightening.

The island I mentioned above is an attractive place. A footbridge takes you from the parking lot across a channel of the river to the island’s east side, facing the gazebo. From there you can walk a quarter of a mile down a wide, nicely paved path to the westernmost point, where there’s a clear view upstream toward the railroad trestle that spans the two high banks east of Fitzgerald Park.

While the ducks like to convene on the flat sandbar across from it, the island itself is a favorite location for human activities. Wedding parties use it for photo shoots, shaded by stately poplars with the river drifting leisurely by in the background. Craft fairs add a splash of color and interest toward the latter part of the warm months. Walkers, fishermen, and picnickers all find the island a place to unwind and lose the fast pace of life to the unhurried current of the Grand River.

It’s a lovely place. And of course, there are the ducks. From mama mallards leading miniature flotillas of irresistibly cute ducklings, to pure, creamy white beauties, to big bruisers of indeterminate (to me, at least) species and origin, you can’t miss them. If you want to win some friends for life, or at least for fifteen minutes, just bring a few slices of bread with you. You’ll get plenty of entertainment out of the deal.

Don’t expect much more than that, though. If you’re looking for a truly meaningful exchange that rises above the duckish instinct to eat, forget it. Ducks aren’t that deep.





Written by Dave.

Michigan Seasons Now and Then July 31 09

Picture yourself standing in a beautifully landscaped garden, gazing across Gun Lake at the far shoreline. Out on the waters, swimmers dive off of pontoon boats while speed boats go whizzing by with skiers in tow. Closer to land, at the ends of the countless docks which string along the lake’s circumference like wooden beads on an immense necklace, shore fishermen are making their appeals to the local bass and panfish.

Such is the view along the walk at the Bay Pointe Inn on the southwest side of Gun Lake—a view that epitomizes the fullness, the warmth, and the pleasantness of a Michigan summer. In July, you can treat your eyes to many other vistas that convey a similar feeling: long stretches of sand dunes bellying up to the broad, shining waters of Lake Michigan…far-reaching fields of tall, emerald corn ripening in the dog-days sun…colorful boats patrolling the channels at Holland, Grand Haven, and Muskegon while walkers of every age mingle along the piers…campgrounds filled with tents, voices, the laughter of children, and the smell of burgers cooking over Coleman stoves. Summer in Michigan has a thousand expressions, all with a similar, welcome feeling about them. The Gun Lake panorama is just one.

Here is another view across Gun Lake. This one, however, was taken not only from the opposite shore, but also from the far end of the year, on one of the coldest days of January, 2009.

Remember winter?

Here at the cusp of August, amid the flush of summer greenery, it seems incredible that the snowy season even exists. But when we’re in the midst of winter’s frigid, dark belly, it’s hard to believe it will ever end. That polar contrast is one of the ironies of Michigan—to some, a blessing; to others, a curse. No matter how you look at the seasonal extremes, though, one thing is sure: they provide a drama and interest that only those who live in the snow belt can appreciate.

Michigan now and Michigan then. Michigan in the summer and in the winter, in its festive colors and in its funereal starkness. Remembering one helps us keep the other in perspective. Strange as it may seem, our long slide toward winter has begun. But we have yet many, many bright, warm days ahead of us before the last of the painted leaves drop and the snows begin to fly. Here in the height of summer, images of winter have a beauty that’s much easier to appreciate when we can enjoy it without having to experience all that accompanies it.

Today there is no bitter cold. Today the sun sets around nine o’clock, not five. The single-digit temperatures that attended this last photograph when it was taken aren’t present to chill either you or me to the marrow. That’s one of the pleasures of photography: we get to enjoy the beauty of then with the convenience of now.

Of course, that principle works equally well in reverse. Sometime this winter, you’ll no doubt find a splash of summer color in this blog to remind you that while winter can seem long and cold, it’s not forever. Some of you, the snow-lovers, may wish it was forever. Others will feel glad for the encouraging reminder that the warm months will inevitably arrive once again.

Enjoy your summer, and don’t fret about the winter. Both seasons have their unique beauty. That’s the blessing of the Michigan seasons, both now and then.





Written by Dave.

View from the Dune Top: P. J. Hoffmaster Park Aug 7 09

I don’t know why the DNR hasn’t constructed an escalator to the dune overlook at P. J. Hoffmaster Park. No doubt it was just an oversight on the part of the planners, but it’s one I wish they’d correct, because trudging the stairway all the way to the top of that ridiculously tall sand mountain is a killer project. To make matters worse, the number of steps—somewhere around a million, is my guess—continues to mysteriously increase the older I get. There was a time when I think there were just a couple hundred, so I feel that the escalator is long overdue. Budgets being what they are in this state, though, I doubt I’ll see it anytime in my lifetime.

Ah, well. It’s probably just as well. Hoffmaster is a park made for hikers, for people who appreciate the natural landscape and are willing to work a little to enjoy it. The view from the dune top is grand, and well worth the effort it takes to make the redoubtable climb. There’s also plenty to see along the way. Beginning at the parking lot next to the park’s interpretive center, a well-maintained trail winds through a beech/hemlock/maple forest. In that hushed, emerald cathedral, you’ll find plenty of things to capture your interest if you fine-tune your senses to “subtle.” Listen for the call of a pileated woodpecker. Or keep your eyes peeled for the Frog Orchid, which abounds in this location.

But the crown jewel of this particular trail is unquestionably the sweeping panorama which unfolds at the top of the dune stairs. Passing through an archway of white pine branches, you make your way up the final steps and emerge onto a small viewing platform. From that vantage point, the vast, shining waters of Lake Michigan spread out to your west under the blue canopy of summer sky, a cool lake breeze ascends the dune face and whisks the sweat from your forehead, and to the north the treetops part to reveal the sandy top of Mount Baldy a third of a mile away.

It’s a sublime view, and as changeable as a kaleidoscope. Visit at sunset when the sky is a drama of multi-tiered clouds, and watch as the golds and reds and purples light the vapors and fade into a smolder on the shimmering waters. Come at fall, when painted trees stretch to the horizon. And listen at all times for the eternal whisper of the waves that roll, tirelessly and unendingly, onto the distant beach.

The beach. That’s another aspect of P. J. Hoffmaster Park that merits the hike, and there’s another leg of the trail that will take you there. I’ll say little about the mythical woods through which that trail passes like a brief excursion through Never Never Land. You can experience it for yourself, and you’ll be glad you did. Just make sure you make the hike down to water’s edge. No trip to the park would be complete without cooling your bare feet in the waters of the big lake, or strolling down the sandy strand amid the dune grass, or enjoying the view of the shoreline stretching off into the distance with the dunes on one side, Lake Michigan on the other, and the broad summer sky spreading overhead.

Stay awhile. What’s the hurry? Watch the sun set. The walk back to the parking lot isn’t far, and your car will still be there. So lay back in the warm sands and enjoy your time here. For most of us, such moments are far too few, and it’s good and wise to savor them when we can.






Written by Dave.

Orchids and Dragonflies Aug 14 09

They come from across the state and from out of state. They come from as far east as Ann Arbor and as far west as Chicago, and no doubt farther—naturalists and outdoor photographers on pilgrimage. To this small tract of land in Portage, Michigan, they come to see the orchid.

Michigan is home to many wild orchids, but few are as strikingly beautiful as the orange fringed orchid, or as difficult to find. Bishop’s Bog Preserve is one of the relative handful of places in our state that harbor the plant. Others locations, such as Pennfield Bog northeast of Battle Creek, lie scattered throughout southern lower Michigan, but Bishop’s Bog is easily the most accessible. Connecting Westnedge Park to the north with Schrier Park to the south, a three-quarter-mile boardwalk threads along the eastern side of the 152-acre wetland. No need to wade waste-deep through the moat that characteristically surrounds Michigan bogs. No worries about falling through treacherous holes and weak spots in the mossy turf. Just a pleasant walk through a magical world of tamaracks, blueberry bushes, leatherleaf shrubs, and sedge meadows, with occasional benches where you can sit and enjoy the birds and other wildlife.

While many unusual plants and animals reside in Bishop’s Bog, the crown jewel of the preserve is the orange fringed orchid, Platanthera ciliaris. I’ve already written about this flamboyant plant in a post last year. But I make a point of paying at least one visit to the bog each year in early August, when the orchid is at its peak bloom. With its raceme of tropical orange flowers that resembles a flock of brightly colored, miniature birds rising in flight, the orange fringed orchid is a treasure of the Michigan outdoors that I never tire of seeing. Growing casually by the trailside just a stone’s throw from suburban lawns, the orchid hardly seems like a rarity. Yet just a few acres in the bog support the plant. You can comb through similar locations, such as nearby West Lake Bog, and never find so much as a solitary blossom. That’s why Bishop’s Bog is a magnet for hardcore wildflower lovers, some of whom travel considerable distances to see the plant in its native setting. During my visit last week, a couple of orchidologists from Ann Arbor, bristling with camera equipment, had set up shop along the trail and were photographing the orchids with singular absorption.



Written by Dave.

The Patterns Around Us Aug 21 09

Rarely have I felt so insulted, at least by a plant.

Lisa and I were strolling through the children’s garden at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park last week when I came upon a group of wine-red blossoms striking an attitude, and not a very complimentary one. I don’t know what I did to offend them, but that’s how it is sometimes with me and the outdoors. Swans moon me. Flowers give me…well, you can see for yourself what the flowers were giving me.

I tell myself, “They’re only plants,” but it’s hard not to take such a thing personally. What’s a guy gonna do, though? Chew out a garden display for rude behavior? People look strangely at a grown man who takes issue with a bunch of flowers. Next time I’ll probably just keep my mouth shut and not cause a scene.

Ill manners aside, the red flowers above are striking examples of anthropomorphic forms in nature, and of patterns in the world around us. Patterns are everywhere on every scale, from tiny duckweed dotting a square inch of pond surface, to saw-toothed mountains receding into the distance. Besides cheering up my bruised ego with their brighter disposition, the merry little vine shown in this second photo, full of colorful blossoms, furnishes a great example of the symmetry and repetition you can find in creation, as well as the diversity that occurs in the midst of sameness. The twin racemes of red, yellow, and white flowers remind me of multicolored zippers, each one resembling the next, yet no two exactly the same, and all of them deftly arranged in a larger pattern that is a miniature sculpture in its own right.

Develop an eye for the patterns around you, and you begin to see artistry everywhere you look. An everyday planter full of Coleus sitting outside a storefront becomes a masterpiece of color and design. How easily we take such a thing for granted, pass it by with rarely a second glance, if even a first. But stop and look. No sculptor ever fashioned, nor painter ever painted, a more gracefully shaped or pleasingly hued arrangement of form and color, light and shade, repetition and contrast, than this humble basket of plants.

Not that we humans don’t try. And we do very well—though, if we’re savvy, we’ll recognize that we’re simply emulating what already exists in the world that surrounds us. You could say that we’re even participating in nature, recognizing and celebrating its beauty in a multitude of ways through the works of our hands, and incorporating its elements. The basket of Coleus is there because someone took the time to plant it, and that particular strain of Coleus exists because some horticulturist took the time to develop its particular colors and distinctive shape of leaf.

Turn your attention to this mat in the entryway to a Saugatuck art shop. Someone had a great idea for taking common stones and turning them into a simple but attractive bit of craftsmanship that combines art and functionality. A stone doormat. You can look at it, enjoy it, and then wipe your feet on it. When it gets dirty, you can hose it off without feeling like you’re painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa. The medium, rocks, can handle rough treatment. Yet they’re gracefully arranged in a way that imbues them with beauty.

Patterns. They’re all around us, knitting our world together in ways we may barely be aware of. But the more aware we become, the more we’ll appreciate the richness of life and the marvel of the Michigan outdoors.






Written by Dave.

Mackinac Sunrise Aug 28 09

Bright days start with a pale glow. With clouds present to serve as tinder, the glow becomes a sullen smolder that kindles on the horizon and spreads slowly upward, up across the eastern sky, its gathering flames invading the darkness with tranquil intensity.

I was lying in my bed in the Hamilton Inn on the Mackinac City waterfront when I saw the first glimmer of dawn crack over the rim of Lake Huron. A bout of fudge-induced insomnia (if you don’t know about Mackinac Island fudge, you clearly don’t live in Michigan!) had kept me awake all night. Now, like dully glowing iron in a forge, the first dim light of the new day was filtering in, revealing the black silhouettes of boat docks and shoreline.

My sister Diane, brother Terry, our mother, and I had arrived the day before with plans to catch the jet ferry over to Mackinac Island next morning, enjoy the luncheon buffet at the Grand Hotel, relax afterward and savor the extraordinary view from the hotel’s vast porch, and then head back to Grand Rapids. Such mini-vacations to the Bridge lie within the reach of most Michiganders, and this one was our way of continuing to celebrate Mom’s eighty-fourth birthday.

Overnighting at the Grand Hotel was well beyond our budgets, but lodging on the mainland at the Hamilton was affordable, and the rooms were elegant, clean, and comfortable. From the third-floor balcony, the view was beautiful, looking out across the waters toward Bois Blanc Island and the sweep of the Lower Peninsula shore arching off to the southeast.

Terry amused himself by throwing pieces of French fry off the balcony, prompting the resident gulls to swarm from the roof and fight over the scraps. The resulting scene was unnervingly Hitchcockian, with the big, shining birds wheeling and diving mid-air, hovering in front of us and staring intently, waiting to pounce en masse on the next bit of fry.

That had been the day before. Once we had settled in, we of course visited the fudge shops, which led to my predictably sleepless night. I was poised at the edge of finally drifting off when the first light began to peer in through the sliding glass door, promising a spectacular sunrise. When was the last time I had seen one? I lay there, watching the rusty glow begin to strengthen, not wanting to get up but knowing I would regret letting the opportunity pass. Finally I rolled back the covers, threw on my clothes, grabbed my camera, and stepped out onto the balcony.

Pale light glimmered on the water, revealing the dim colors of the ferries moored in the Star Line marina next door. At this early hour, I could hear the sound of activity on the boats. Other than that, silence reigned. This was the period between darkness and daylight, between the time when Mackinac City went to sleep and the time when it awoke–the magic hour of light that transforms first the sky and then the earth, igniting the clouds and filling the placid waters of Lake Huron with shimmering pigments.

I watched quietly as the reds brightened into deep gold and deep gold into creamy yellow. At last the first rays of the rising sun winked over the horizon. A new day had begun. I closed the curtain, stripped off my clothes, and crawled back under the covers. Then, as the furnace of the sunrise blazed away outside the sliding door, I slipped at last into sleep.





Written by Dave.

A Day on the Island sept 4 09

In Michigan, we call it simply, “The Bridge.” Everyone knows what you mean when you say that, for while countless bridges punctuate our highway network, there is only one Bridge, and that is the Mackinac Bridge. The Mighty Mac: that elegant, five-mile-long structure which,spanning the turbulent, blue Straits of Mackinac, connects the Upper and Lower Peninsulas and provides our state with one of its most famous and evocative emblems.

The Bridge is a constant presence in the distance as you sit on the upper deck of the jet ferry from Mackinaw City to the Island.

Yes, the Island. There is only one of those, too, at least here at the northern tip of the Lower Peninsula. Lakes Huron and Michigan are dotted with islands of various sizes, some of them quite large—Drummond Island, North and South Manitou, Boise Blanc—but Mackinac Island is an island apart from the rest. It may not be the largest, but it is by far the most colorful.

Tourist trap? Oh, it’s one of those all right. But it’s a wholesome tourist trap with lots to offer, and at the end of a Mackinac Island day, you can return to the mainland well-stocked with Murdick’s fudge and satisfied that you had a great time without shelling out a small fortune (though if you want to spend a wad of cash, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to do so).

The vast, gleaming-white facade of the Grand Hotel is your first sign that you’re in for a special experience as you approach the Island. But it’s when your ferry curves past the lighthouses for its final approach to the harbor, and the shoreline ensemble of lavish homes, hotels, shops, and boat docks looms larger and larger, that you begin to get an inkling of how much there really is to hold your interest.

Leaving the ferry, you make your way from the docks and through a spacious passageway, from which you emerge onto a sidewalk filled with foot traffic and lined with shops. Your ears take in the sounds of voices, and laughter, and the clip-clop of horses. Bikers wheel past you on the street. Motor vehicles aren’t allowed on the Island, and that’s just fine. You’ll find bicycles and horses available to rent, and horse-drawn shuttles are constantly patrolling the streets, ready to take you for a slow, relaxing ride up to the Hotel (did I mention that there is only one Hotel?) or north along the shoreline drive toward Arch Rock. The latter makes for a lovely carriage ride down a winding, picturesque street lined with huge, immaculately kept homes, all sitting at the bottom of a great hill beneath the watchful bulk of Fort Mackinac.

Right now, though, it’s time to walk the sidewalks and explore the numerous shops. Seems like every other store is a fudge shop. You knew, did you not, that Mackinac Island fudge is the best fudge in the world? If you’ve never experienced it, now is the time to visit Murdick’s, or Ryba’s, or any of the Island’s other fudge artisans, taste the samples, and pick up a bit of fudge to take home with you. A suitcase full will be sufficient.

Of course, you can’t live on fudge. By and by, you’re ready for something more substantial. The time has arrived—time for the ultimate noon-hour dining experience: the Grand Hotel’s incredible luncheon buffet. A ten-minute ride on a horse-drawn taxi takes you through the town and up the sloping, curvy road to the Hotel. Here, from the lavish dining experience that awaits you, to the Hotel’s stunning interior, to its breathtaking view across the Straits from its great front porch, to its extraordinary gardens, you’re about to get a taste of opulence unstinting and unabashed.

But that’s for another post. Stay tuned—lunch is being prepared.







Written by Dave.

Lunch at the Grand Hotel Sept 11 09

I have to confess that having lunch at Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel is not something I’d have thought to do on my own. My mind just doesn’t naturally drift toward forty-dollar noontime meals, no matter how good the food may be and how elegant the setting. I’m good with a baloney sandwich.

But for her eighty-fourth birthday, my sweet mother gets what she wants, and what she wanted was to visit Mackinac Island and experience the Hotel’s famous luncheon buffet with my sister, Diane, brother Terry, and me.

If Mackinac Island is an experience, the Grand Hotel is the crown jewel of that experience. You first see it as you approach the island on the jet ferry, gleaming white on the wooded hillside, as imposing as a citadel and regal as a queen on her throne.

But it’s only when you round the final curve in the road in your horse-drawn taxi, and the Hotel looms into view, that you really begin to get a sense of the immensity, splendor, and pomp of the place. From its lush, flower-lined walks, to its lavish interior, to its broad, 660-foot-long front porch, everything about the Grand Hotel spells opulence.

Now, the purpose of this blog is not to promote commercial enterprises. It is to broaden people’s awareness of all that Michigan has to offer, with a focus on outdoors experiences. But there is some leeway within that framework, and the Grand Hotel fits simply because there’s nothing else like it in Michigan. If you never visit it yourself, you can at least get a whiff of its grandeur here. Yet the four photos on this page can only scratch the surface of the Hotel and its landscape—the lush gardens, the view of the Bridge across the Straits of Mackinac…I could go on, piling feature upon feature, and still not adequately convey the fantastic setting that is the Grand Hotel.

So let me focus on the luncheon. If you’re just visiting for the day rather than staying at the hotel, the cost of the celebrated buffet is, as I had mentioned, forty dollars, ten of which is an admittance fee to the hotel grounds, and the remainder of which covers your actual meal. It’s the kind of money most of us shell out only rarely, and I can assure you that the one-of-a-kind epicurean experience you get in return is worth it. The vast dining room is not so much a room as a landscape, a panorama of tables attended by nattily attired waiters and waitresses. In its center you’ll find three long buffet tables and two dessert tables, with offerings every bit as sumptuous as you’d expect.

Lunch at the Hotel is nothing to rush through. Take your time. Try the smoked fish—it’s fabulous. So is the shrimp-macaroni salad, and you can’t go wrong with the pork. If you still have room after sampling all the meal offerings—and that’s a big if—the dessert tables await you. I can recommend the rhubarb pie, washed down with a cup of rich, black coffee..

Afterwards, the broad stretch of the front porch beckons. You’ll find chairs and lounges a-plenty, scattered along the length of the porch. But chances are, you just want to stroll and enjoy breathtaking view. Did you bring your camera? Good. Because everywhere you turn you’ll find something you want to capture with your lens. A view of the Mackinac Bridge spanning the distant waters. The long facade of the hotel, with its golden awnings and bright flower beds. A road, framed through an archway, winding its way upslope toward a picturesque hillside community.

When you finally do leave—when you’ve seen enough of model ships, banquet halls, bright gardens walks, and magnificent, sweeping vistas—you’ll do so with the awareness that there is still plenty left to see. Maybe one day you’ll come back for seconds. Probably not anytime soon, considering the price of a meal, but when you’re looking for a special experience, the Grand Hotel will remain in your memory—and someday you’ll return.





Written by Dave.

Septemberland Sept 18 09

It’s still summer, but don’t tell the leaves. A few pioneer maples are already well on the way to full-clad autumn color, the sumac groves are flecked with pointilistic red, and along the roadsides, hints of purple and gold have begun to accent the sassafras.

This is the time of year, this time of slanting sun that antiques the farmlands with golden evening light, when the countryside moves into its loveliest season. The corn is still green and the alfalfa lush, but the soybean fields are turning into patchworks of emerald and yellow, and asters frost the landscape. A rustic, ancient feel is spreading like the goldenrods across the meadows. It is the ambience of September, when summer is not fully over and autumn has not quite arrived. Welcome to Septemberland.

mlSunsetNow is a time when the country roads beckon, and it is good to heed their call. I did so yesterday, driving north beyond Lowell toward Gowen.

It is lake country up that-away. When the glaciers retreated from the area, they left as their legacy a large network of streams, rivers, wetlands, and bodies of water ranging from large, all-sports lakes such as Lincoln, Bass, Maston, Dickerson, and Clifford, to tiny Peterson Lake and Mud Lake (there were, at last count, slightly more than a zillion Mud Lakes in the state of Michigan), as well as scores of nameless ponds.

The rolling landscape is also a crazy quilt of forests, orchards, and farmlands. Not far to the east, just past Greenville and Belding, the vast stretch of the Flat River State Game Area affords decent populations of ruffed grouse and deer. But of course, folks who live out here have their own options for hunting apart from public lands. That’s one of the perks of a lifestyle beyond the reaches of the city.

As for me, well…I’m a scenery junkie. Farming may not be my calling, but I spent my childhood in the country, and the countryside is in my blood, along with my mother’s innate curiosity about what lies over the next hill. This is a beautiful time of year to find out, a time to break up the tedium of life with a drive down the backroads. Set aside the GPS, consult the maps only when you have to, and let your eyes and your thirst for discovery guide you.

Along a dirt road whose name I never paid attention to, I pulled aside during yesterday’s drive to photograph a picturesque farm. The sun was poised just above the horizon, pouring its farewell rays over a long, verdant reach of alfalfa. At the far end, an elegant old farmhouse stood, tucked away in the shade of large, gracious maples. A well-kept, rusty-red barn glowed in the fading light, and toward the end of the field, a couple of horses nibbled at the grass by the woods edge.

A few minutes later and a few miles farther north, I stood on the east shore of Lincoln Lake as the sun finally dipped below the treeline and the twilight drew its curtain across northern Kent County. The flawlessly clear sky had turned from crystal blue to cantaloupe, a saturation of yellow and orange that quickly faded into dim luminescence as the stars winked on.

Daylight no longer lingers perpetually as it does in June and July. This is September, the gateway to autumn’s splendor and the slide toward winter. Apples are ripe in the orchards, and bursts of impossibly purple asters dot the roadside. Septemberland beckons. What are you waiting for? Grab your camera and take a drive.



Written by Dave.

Sundown at Sleeping Bear Sept 25 09

Along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, from near Gary, Indiana, all the way north to Wilderness State Park west of the Mackinac Bridge, stretches a far-reaching ribbon of white, windblown dunes. Piled high by the prevailing westerlies blowing off the big lake, these great sand mountains are a hallmark of Michigan’s west coast.

Warren Dunes, Hoffmaster Silver Lake Nordhouse Dunes…such places are magnets for sight seers, hikers, and naturalists who love the austere beauty of the dunescape. But it is at Sleeping Bear that the dunes of Michigan attain their full grandeur.

Rising abruptly from the lake in mighty, 500-foot bluffs, the singing sands of Sleeping Bear penetrate far inland. Come here to have your breath taken away by a thousand different views. Desert-like sand flats rising into grass-tufted hills and tree-lined ridges. Vast curves of steep, barefaced shoreline arching for miles into the distance. Inland lakes and woods and farms and communities spread out far below to the north and east.

Many years ago, according to Indian legend, a tremendous forest fire engulfed Wisconsin. Among the forest animals fleeing for their lives were a mother bear and her two cubs. Forced by the flames to the shores of Lake Michigan, the threesome took to the waters for safety and began the long swim to the opposite shore. The mother bear made it all the way across, and, dragging herself up wearily onto the shore, waited for her little brood. But the cubs never arrived. Exhausted, they had drowned just miles from the Michigan shore.

Day after day, month after month, the mother bear waited devotedly for her children. Finally, touched by her faithfulness, the Great Spirit raised up two great islands of sand over the bodies of her cubs, and covered the mother bear with sand as she slept. There, at the top of a tall dune on the shoreline, beneath a tree-covered knoll, the mother bear sleeps yet today. As for the cubs, those are North and South Manitou Islands.

Sleeping Bear is the crowning glory of the Leelanau peninsula, a region abundantly blessed with natural beauty. Last weekend I played a jazz gig up there, and rather than make the long drive home that same night, I decided to take the opportunity to enjoy a weekend getaway with Lisa. We had no certain destination, no plan other than to follow our noses. The Leelanau is an excellent place to follow one’s nose.

After making our way through Suttons Bay and Northport to the Grand Traverse Lighthouse, we headed back south along the lakeshore drive toward Sleeping Bear. Early autumn colors were licking across the forested hillsides, and goldenrods were burnishing the fields. We stopped to hike the shore of a northern lake, and to stroll the boardwalk at Fishtown, pausing to watch a trio of river otters frolic in the the channel.

At last we found our way to Sleeping Bear. At a lookout on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, perched at the edge of a great sand slide, we took in the magnificent sweep of the dunes wrapping around us to the north, south, and east. Four-hundred-fifty feet below us, the broad blue face of Lake Michigan presented a changing complexion only visible from a higher vantage point. In the failing light of evening, the bulk of the shoreline receded into the haze of distance. To our north, the Manitou Islands marked where the bear cubs reposed beneath the waters.

We watched as the westering sun descended, illuminating the waters like gold on mercury. Then, with the air turning chill and our stomachs demanding attention, we headed back to the car and began the long journey home





Written by Dave.