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Discovering Michigan


A land of coastlines, lakes, rivers, streams and abundant wildlife...



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June 01, 2009
Welcome to Michigan. This is the place whose natives think it not at all odd nor the least bit embarrassing to point at their hands to indicate locations in the Lower Peninsula. It's a place where "Northern Michigan" refers only to the finger area of that hand map. Not the Upper Peninsula. That's the "U.P." God's country. Even if you live in Mackinaw City, which is connected to St. Ignace in the U.P. by the Mackinac Bridge, you only live "close to" God's country.

And the spellings there are correct. The city is spelled "Mackinaw," like the coat. Almost every other time you'll encounter it - the bridge, the island, the county, the lighthouse - the word is spelled with the "c" ending.

Folks who live in the U.P. ("yew-pee") are called "Yoopers." Those Yoopers with enough disregard for non-Yooper Michiganders refer to them as "Trolls" because they live beneath the bridge, get it? They might also call them "Flatlanders." Yoopers and Trolls alike who work up enough cheekiness towards tourists refer to them as "Fudgies," Northern Michigan fudge being a favorite treat the summer visitors like to take home with them, you see.

If you've never visited here before and your previous introduction to the state involved nothing more than noticing the nickname on some of its older license plates as you traveled elsewhere, it's understandable that you'd think of Michigan simply as the "Water Wonderland." After all, it is also known as the "Great Lake State," with four of the five inland seas touching its coasts.

It's easy to understand how the state has come to be defined in terms of its waters. It has the largest freshwater shoreline in the world, 3,224 miles, and the longest coastline of the lower 48 states. Within its coasts, Michigan cradles 11,037 inland lakes and is nourished by over 36,000 miles of rivers and streams. The U.P. boasts 150 waterfalls, the famed Tahquamenon being the largest. With about an eight-foot drop, Ocqueoc Falls between Rogers City and Onaway is the single main waterfall below the bridge.

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Fishing Lake Superior. Rick Baetsen photo

Suffice it to say that Michigan is a dream destination for fans of water sports. Doesn't matter if it's a day's outing or a long cruise, there's plenty of water for anyone interested either in power boating or quiet paddling and everything in between. Fishing is good anyway you want to pursue it, from trolling, either on the big water in a big boat or in quiet spots while suspended in a float tube, to shore casting or still fishing from a putt-putt boat. Anglers from throughout the world consider their favorite Michigan streams their home waters.

Basically, there is no way to spell recreation in Michigan without including the letters w-a-t-e-r.

From just about any port on Lake Michigan - St. Joseph, Grand Haven, Ludington, or Frankfort, to name a few - or on Lake Huron's Rogers City, Alpena, Harrisville or Oscoda, at the right time of year one is only a short boat ride from the salmon fishing trip of a lifetime. Earlier in the year, from some of those same ports, comfortable party boats host perch fishing charters, guaranteeing a day of fun and fish-laden buckets for young and old alike. These same ports offer harbor facilities and other attractions that make them popular for boaters who are touring their way along Michigan's coast.

More adventurous anglers might like to brave the boat ride from Marquette to the Stannard Rock Lighthouse, 44 miles out on Lake Superior. Here, jigging in 200 feet of water, anglers can find the lake trout fishing can be nothing short of fantastic.

Early in the 20th Century, school children were taught that Lake St. Clair is the sixth Great Lake. It wasn't then, and despite efforts even in this century to so designate it, St. Clair remains simply a large lake that borders the U.S. and Canada and that connects the St. Clair and Detroit rivers. Depending on who's doing the talking, Lake St. Clair is either at or darn near the top of the list of the world's best smallmouth fishing lakes. Big game anglers also know St. Clair shares the same reputation among muskellunge fishermen.

The St. Clair River has historically been important walleye fishing water, and many advances in tackle such as the bow-mounted trolling reel and the pencil plug made their debuts along its banks. More recently, the Detroit River has also become a hotspot for early season walleye, and what a treat it is to troll along the restored Detroit River Walk, which offers a peek at the vibrancy of the revved-up Motown.

OK, this is about as good a place as any to let you in on another Michigan fact: Detroit is the only place in the lower 48 where you head south to get to Canada. Check it out.

Here's another fact: Technically, the St. Clair and Detroit rivers are not rivers at all but "straits," narrow passages of water that connect two lakes. Add to that notion the fact that the St. Clair Flats is the largest river delta in North America, and you've got a couple of prime areas where waterfowl get squeezed and can re-stage as they follow the water courses on their migrations. As with walleye fishing, historically the Flats area and the "Downriver" area of the Detroit River have played major roles in Michigan's waterfowling heritage. Notable decoy carvers from the golden days of duck hunting - Ben Schmidt, the Mason and Dodge companies, for example - were headquartered in southeast Michigan.

Some rivers that are, indeed, actual rivers sing in the imaginations of any trout fishermen: the Au Sable, Pere Marquette, Manistee and, as the eventual home of the waters that drift from the birthplace of the Adams fly, the Boardman. In addition to starring in the dreams of anglers, these rivers have become the stuff that literature is made of. Another literature-inspiring Michigan river is the Fox, which flows through the Upper Peninsula town of Seney. It's better known by the name Ernest Hemingway gave it, though, "Big Two-Hearted River." In other words, readers who love to visit places they've read about needn't worry about searching for the BTHR. It exists only in literature. Michigan has the Two-Hearted and the Little Two-Hearted rivers but not a BTHR.

These are but a few of the more than 100 "major" rivers in the state, 12 of which are designated as "Natural Rivers." Many of them, too, are wonderful waters to paddle.

Finally, no discussion of water-related attractions can be complete without mention of the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center in Alpena on Michigan's northeast coast. Of the 13 such sanctuaries, Thunder Bay is the first one established on fresh water and the first to focus solely on a large collection of underwater cultural resources, shipwrecks. The combination of the rocks, shelves and shoals of Thunder Bay and the unpredictable moods of Lake Huron have earned this area the moniker, "Shipwreck Alley." Currently, the sanctuary protects 116 known shipwrecks; a proposed expansion would add another 178.

A lot can be said about recreational activities in Michigan the Water Wonderland. But there's more.

Si Quaeris Peninsulam Amoenam Circumspice: "If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you," advises Michigan's state motto.

Clearly, Michigan is comprised of two chief peninsulas. While the Lower Peninsula resembles a mitten, a look at an actual map reveals several more peninsulas and many bays there. The Thumb is obvious, and if you look just about where the pinky finger should be, you'll notice the Leelenau Peninsula.

While it's not quite as easy to indicate with one's hand, the Upper Peninsula looks somewhat like an oddly shaped, hunchbacked, west-facing rabbit in mid-leap. Its ears are the Keewenaw Peninsula; its tail, Whitefish Point.

The various indentations along Michigan's coasts, the "mid-Michigan Range" of hills in the north that make places like Gaylord and Boyne Mountain downhill skiing destinations, the intersection of east-west with north-south running ridges at the Waterloo Recreation Area east of Jackson, the rocky shores of northern Lake Huron, even the Great Lakes themselves: all serve as reminders of the effects glaciers had on the development of Michigan's topography.

So do the dunes of Michigan's west coast, the Lake Michigan shoreline, the largest accumulation of sand bordering a body of fresh water in the world. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on the Leelenau Peninsula is perhaps the most famous dune spot to visit. But don't overlook other places. Near Muskegon, the Gillette Sand Dune Visitor Center gives a fine explanation of how dunes are formed. And Warren Dunes State Park offers a decent dose of dunes about 10 miles north of the Indiana border. A most special place is the 3,450 Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area south of Manistee. As the only designated wilderness area in the Lower Peninsula, Nordhouse offers quiet, relative isolation and nearly three miles of undeveloped beach overseen by dunes.

It's also easy to see the work of glaciers at Michigan's Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, along the small of the U.P.'s back, the first national lakeshore authorized by Congress in 1966. Glaciers formed its sandstone cliffs as they deposited millions of tons of pulverized rubble before retreating 9,800 years ago.

Not only do people enjoy the Pictured Rocks from boats and kayaks, but they also take to the trails along the lakeshore. In fact, the 43-mile hike through this area is one leg of the Michigan section of the North Country National Scenic Trail, the footpath across seven states. Michigan's 875-mile long section is the longest in any state.

The state maintains other trails and recreation areas for other types of recreation, such as the more than 6,100 miles of signed and groomed snowmobile trails, more than 3,000 miles of cross-country ski trails and 3,100 miles of signed and designated ORV trails.

Michigan's 98 state parks and its state forest campgrounds offer accommodations that range from rustic to cushy. At several parks, one can even camp without bringing a tent or trailer by reserving any of several cabin types or a yurt.

As far as wildlife viewing goes, in most places deer are so prevalent they are road hazards. Bald eagle sightings are not uncommon. Until relatively recently, the only moose and wolves in the state were the herds and packs that presented biologists with a control group to study on Isle Royale in Lake Superior. In the late 1980s, though, through an exercise known as "Operation Mooselift," the state re-established moose in the northern part of the U.P. by airlifting them from Ontario. Since the early 1990s, probably migrating over an ice bridge from Canada into the eastern U.P., gray wolves started re-establishing themselves, and several packs now roam the breadth of the U.P. Until a few years ago, Michigan laid claim to the being home to the largest population of elk east of the Mississippi. Sandhill cranes have been slowly expanding their range in the state to the point that they now breed in Northern Michigan. While these four species shouldn't be considered rare in Michigan, a chance at a viewing remains a special treat.

Last, and certainly not least, with 19.3 million acres of forest, Michigan attracts hunters from around the nation each year. They come for the white-tailed deer and black bear, for the ruffed grouse and woodcock. Once the snow flies, the seasons heat up for trackers and houndsmen who pursue bobcat, coyote and other fur bearers. No matter the season, hunters in Michigan quickly learn one thing: there's plenty of room to roam!

There's so much more to discover about Michigan's natural attractions: Isle Royale National Park; the clear waters of Kitch-iti-kipi Springs in the U.P. and the massive brown trout that mull around in the depths; Porcupine Mountain Wilderness State Park; secret get-aways like the Sand Lakes Quiet Area and Thompson's Harbor State Park; the wilderness hiking and camping experiences possible at both North and South Manitou islands; prime birding areas in the Keweenaw Peninsula and at Whitefish Point, at Port Crescent State Park in the Thumb and Metro Beach MetroPark on Lake St. Clair; the Kirtland's warbler breeding grounds near Mio; the 200-mile long Shore-to-Shore Trail that runs between lakes Huron and Michigan; the 80-mile High Country Pathway that takes hikers along the 45th parallel, halfway between the Equator and the North Pole; Black Mountain Forest Recreation Area with 30 miles of trails for cross-country skiers and mountain bikers.

Too many attractions and destinations for you to absorb during a single visit. You'll simply have to return.

In the meantime, you can just take your hand from your pocket, consult your map, and dream.

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