Last week, I went up north to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for a three-generation vacation with my mom and grandma. Here in Michigan, we go “up north” a lot for a quick getaway. That “up north” can be anywhere from the mid-Michigan area for those that live on the edge of the Mitten closer to the southern border or across the bridge to the prize Michigan received for “losing” the Toledo War (when you get something as amazing as the Upper Peninsula, it’s hard to consider it a loss, Ohio). Growing up, my family was all about the outdoors, camping, and exploring all of the amazing things that Michigan has to offer. We went so often that at one point, for Career Day in elementary school, I said I wanted to be a DNR Park Ranger so that I could be at the campground/park all the time and teach little kids how amazing the outdoors are.
This year’s visit was a return to Au Train, a small little town with one blinking light on the shores of Lake Superior just west of Munising (a town famous for the Pictured Rocks, routinely named a top tourist destination in the midwest). It takes around 8 hours to get to the town from where we are, including stops for lunch and to stretch/walk the dogs. We stay at an adorable cottage right on the Au Train River, a winding yet slow-moving river that connects Au Train Lake (with Au Train Falls just north of it) to Lake Superior, the greatest of the Great Lakes. The Lake Superior Scenic View is amazing day or night. During the day, the large stretch of sandy beaches on Au Train Bay - which is shallow and protected enough that the water is warm and calm compared to the rest of Lake Superior, known to be rough and deadly - are busy in some spots and quiet and isolated in others. At night, the spot is amazing for star-gazing, showing you stars and nebulas you would never see in the more urban areas south of the bridge. So many areas up there are dog-friendly, including the beaches.
With the bay being calm and warm (and shallow!), it was perfect for kayaking. The same person that rents out the cottage we stayed in has a business just down the road renting kayaks and paddleboards called Da Yak Shak. They helped us find the right kayak for our needs and skill levels since there was my 71-year old grandma that has had two shoulder surgeries and an arm surgery from years of working in “the shop” for General Motors, my mom that had a full knee replacement just eight months ago and myself, and I’m usually too adventurous for my own good. They also dropped off and picked up the kayaks for us! We ended up loading the three into the back of my mom’s SUV ourselves and took them to the launching site just at the mouth of the river to go on a trip around the bay. For three hours, we paddled down the coastline of the bay to the western-most edge of the Pictured Rocks, although they’re nothing compared to the National Lakeshore. We first paddled with the wind, to get a good feel for the equipment and our abilities, then fought the wind on the trip back. I was so proud of both my mom and grandma for taking on a challenge I know they both wanted to experience for a number of years. Mom and I took the kayaks back out on our own up the road to Au Train Lake to paddle around the inland lake for a while. I brought my dog along (mom’s dog, Bella, stayed back because we were afraid she wouldn’t like it) and he loved it! He was so good in my kayak with me and only got upset when a fishing boat sped by and created some pretty serious waves. He had been in our canoe last year and did really well but I think he enjoyed the kayak more since it was more enclosed and felt safer.
My mom and I love watching a sunset on Lake Superior, so we went to the Scott Falls Roadside Park just west of the road the cottage is on to watch one night. At this roadside park, there is an informational sign at both the parking lot and the picnic area that talks of the Face In The Rock, an 1820 carving in sandstone that honors the only surviving member of the Chippewa who lived on Grand Island in the 19th century, Powers Of The Air. The Chippewa were peaceful but were persuaded to battle the Sioux Tribe in a bloody battle fought in Minnesota. The signs are a bit deceiving, as last year I was under the assumption that the carving was huge (maybe I just had the Crazy Horse memorial in my mind) and would be best visible from the air.
We never saw it last year. This year, while walking along the shore to a set of huge rocks for a photo op, we noticed a marker in the sand: a yellow pipe with white at the bottom and right above that, almost eye level with me at 5’ 8” tall, was a distorted face… in the rock. It was about the same size and scale of the model on the informational signs up near the entrance to the beach. To say I was disappointed was an understatement, but looking back, it’s pretty cool this thing has been there for 197 years.
We also took a trip about 35 miles/45 minutes west to Marquette to visit Presque Isle, the “crown jewel” of Marquette. A one-way road leads you into the woods and to a small parking lot at the edge of the cliffs with a pavilion off to the side. Small foot trails lead you to coves and cliffs protruding out into the water, where waves crash into the cliffs and leave small, smoothed rocks at your feet. Walking a bit further brings you to the Black Rocks, which literally look like cooled lava, ending at a cove that is accessible by car. The best part of Black Rocks? The cliff diving! With over 100 feet of cliff face, you can line up and join others as they jump into the crystal clear water below, then swim up to the lower rocks near the cove to do it all over again. While I did jump off the Au Train M-28 bridge into the water last year, I did not jump off the cliff this year. Maybe next time - if I have a partner to join me!
One of the things we wanted to make sure we did this year that we missed out on last year was a shipwreck tour through Glass Bottom Shipwreck Tours. Unfortunately, the winds were starting to pick up on the day we chose, so we were only able to see one of the two shipwrecks - but the tour was half price, so let’s consider that a win. We bought tickets ahead of time and then went for ice cream at the Frozen Flamingo and to Horseshoe Falls & Botanical Garden to kill some time. The falls were beautiful and tucked away on the south end of town. Once on the shipwreck tour, we were taken out to Grand Island’s Murray Bay to see the wreckage of the Bermuda, a 150-foot wooden schooner that sank in 1870 between Munising and Grand Island. Because we were unable to venture north along the waters between the island and the Pictured Rocks shoreline, our captain took us for a mini-tour of Grand Island, including the Grand Island East Channel Light. The winds were getting strong that day - thus the shortened tour - to the point where the Pictured Rocks cruises for the rest of Wednesday and all day Thursday and Friday were canceled.
The high winds continued into Thursday and Friday, which left us with just a few options for fun. Mom and I went to Miner’s Castle Upper Overlook on a very rainy day. Even though we had both visited before (on much sunnier days), it was so cool to see the dark rain clouds off in the distance, giving the whole thing a real “Ghost Ship” vibe. If it hadn’t been for the downpour - and our poor pups being troopers while getting soaked, including getting props from the two DNR Rangers on hand - we would have gone to the Lower Overlook which is just a 0.2 hike through the woods on a maintained trail. To see more of Miner’s Castle and the two overlooks, click here and then select Miners Castle and the Miners Castle site bulletin PDF in the description.
With the winds being so crazy, mom and I decided to go back to Presque Isle to see the huge waves. It’s crazy how different it was from just a few days earlier when the skies were clear, dozens of people were jumping off the cliffs and I was swimming in the cove. We also saw a bald eagle for the second time of the trip when we stopped at a roadside park to let the dogs out for a bit.
One of my favorite things about the cottage this year was the family of ducks that would come up to the riverbank. The mom had 8 ducklings that were getting real close to being on their own, but she still kept a keen eye on them. They slowly came up out of the water and ate the pieces of bread I tossed out to them (side note: I learned later that bread is not all that good for them. Yeah, they'll eat it, but it is pretty void of any nutrients they need for their system. Grapes - cut in half to prevent choking - cooked rice, chopped lettuce, frozen yet defrosted peas or corn kernels, or even birdseed is ideal). One even came up to me and ate right out of my hand - he was pretty fearless but also a bit of a jerk so I named him Corey Perry in honor of the Anaheim Ducks enforcer. See more of the photos of my new friends below.
Overall, it was a great trip. I got to see and experience things that I hadn’t yet before and spend some quality time with my mom and grandma. I’m always sad to go home, but there are definitely some things that I miss from downstate when I’m at the cottage. It’s a great getaway mentally and not having cell service or cable at the cottage was actually a nice break. The cottage did have wifi and a smart TV, so Netflix was available, but that was about it for technology. One night, the wifi went out and we were able to enjoy a 1960s Panasonic tuner radio.
Next, we’re going to the west side (Lake Michigan side) of the state near the Traverse City/Petoskey area, but I’m sure we’ll be back to the Au Train area again.