posted: July 31st, 2006 | by:Bert
Bert Gildart: When most people familiar with the history of our national parks think of our nation’s second park, most think of Yosemite, but they are wrong. In fact, our second national park was Mackinac Island National Park, established in 1875, and though it existed as such for but a short period of time, the land it once occupied has evolved to become one of our nation’s most unique islands, and every bit as worthy of visitation as Yosemite, but for different reasons. At least that’s what many northlanders believe, for the island is Michigan’s number one tourist attraction.
Essentially, Mackinac Island is located between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, and what now makes it so unique in America is that it is an island on which cars are banned; and when Janie and I visited the island we were delighted by the COMPLETE absence of vehicular traffic. To get around, we learned that we would have to rely on bicycles—or on one of the many horse-drawn carriages. And though the island floundered as a national park because of the lack of funds in the 1890s, following some of our nation’s economic hardships, today, most portions of the island that were once a national park, are today a state park, and if anything, the appeal is only stronger.
In part the island’s appeal derives because of the opulence, but also because of its history. But as much as anything, it derives because of its lack of modern means of locomotion.
To get to the island, we took advantage of KOA’s free shuttle to the wharf and loaded not only ourselves onto the high-speed catamaran ferry, but our bicycles as well. Cost for the shuttle for the two of us was $55, and that included $14 for our two bicycles. Bicycle rentals on the island are about $15 per day a piece, and there are at least a dozen companies offering a total of over 2400 bicycles for rentals, so there is absolutely no danger of finding yourself without a bike, if you want one—and almost everyone does.
Our 18-speed bikes were better than the average rental, though bikes like ours were also available for a stiffer price. Rental shops also offer an incredible variety. If you want a bike with a basket, they’ve got it. If you want a tandem, or a kid’s bike, they’ve got it.
The first thing we wanted to do when we unloaded from the catamaran was bike to the Grand Hotel. The route is easy to follow, for all you have to do is simply follow one of the horse-drawn carriages. They proceed toward the southern end of town, and from there, drivers direct their Belgian horses uphill. We followed, but on approaching the end of the property controlled by the Grand Hotel, encountered a lady attired in red jacket and black pants and complementary black bow tie, asking for a pass showing we were registered guests. She smiled, but said we could go no further without paying an entrance fee, which would have been $12. I asked what it would cost to spend the night and she said she wasn’t sure, but another cyclists said that he’d learned just yesterday what the price would be. “One of the inexpensive rooms,” he said, “is $220 a night, but if you want to stay on the side that offers a view of Lake Heron, it’s over $400, and that’s for single occupancy. If you all want to stay—and if you want to go all out—you could pay over $800 for a place to sleep.”
Obviously, the price includes more than a bed, and, who knows, after Janie and I produce the definitive travel book, we may return.
In the meantime, we continued our bicycle trip, chugging up Huron Drive to watch a company of Boy Scouts raise the American flag, and then, tour old Fort Mackinac, said to be one of the most important forts during the American Revolution. Here, we watched demonstrations typical of the times, such as firing a cannon, and firing rifles. We also learned that Fort Mackinac posted soldiers here in 1885, to protect what by then had become our nation’s second national park. We also entered the compounds book store and engaged in a conversation with the director of marketing, who explained why Mackinac has no cars.
He said that about 1898, someone drove a sputtering car down Main Street, and the noisy contraption scared horses and enraged carriage drivers. Drivers petitioned the town’s city fathers, who banned automobiles on city streets. Not discouraged in 1900, Earl Anthony, a summer cottage owner, brought a Locomobile to Mackinac with similar results. While driving, he frightened several horses and wrecked a number of carriages. In response, the Mackinac Island State Park Commission outlawed automobiles in the park, and today, the two bans stand. As a result, there are only seven vehicles on the island, and they are all emergency vehicles, such as the fire truck and a car for emergency police use. No other vehicles are permitted, and while sitting in a pub later in the day, we watched as a FedEx man peddled his load through town, all contained in a basket attached to his handlebars.
Not only are the streets of Mackinac ideal for cyclists, but so is the remainder of the island, and we took that in as well. An eight-mile asphalt road circles the island, and for the most part, it passes through what is now Mackinac State Park, Michigan’s first. The road passed by a number of pullouts that interpret the island’s natural features. Because the road essentially circumnavigates the island’s periphery, there is very little up and down, meaning you can peddle, then coast, peddle, then coast. A park brochure says that a top Olympic Marathon runner can cover the distance in about 35 minutes, but most cyclists will want to take 1 ½ hours, or even more, depending on how much they want to stop.
We stopped often, to look at the various birds, which included gulls, a family of mergansers and all sorts of different vegetation, which was similar to vegetation in Montana, our home state. We saw fireweed, white pine, white fir, white birch, and, of course, others with which we were not familiar. Our trip took about two hours, but we stopped lots, several times to gaze in the distance at the huge Mackinac Bridge, said to be the longest (at 4.8 miles) in the western hemisphere.
All in all, we spent almost 10 hours at Mackinac, and somewhat reluctantly returned to the real world of automobile fumes, and drivers honking horns to express irritation. It’s an island that harkens back to much more simple times, and one that certainly has a following, in part, perhaps, because it was once a national park, but more today because it reflects a life style that once existed and that our great grandparents might have known. If gas supplies run short, it’s also a testimony that there is another way of life that can be equally enjoyed.