Sunday, September 21, 2008

One More Great Lake

Sept 19-20, 2008

Being so close to Lake Erie, it was impossible to imagine simply getting onto the interstate without dawdling our way along the lakefront for a while. Who ever thinks about Ohio's "north coast"? Our first stop was Sandusky, Ohio, which is famous for Cedar Point Amusement Park. We sat for a bit on the wharf, with the roller coasters visible right across the small bay.

Then we drove on a small 2-lane road with the lake visible through the trees until we came to Vermilion, Ohio, "A Small Town on a Great Lake", as the signs said. Vermilion has a little historic downtown with buildings from the late 19th century, and a Maritime Museum literally adjacent to a small sandy beach. We sat on the "boardwalk" benches and I was threatening to doze off, because it was so perfectly warm and lovely. Joe woke me up just as I was drifting off, however, so I took a delayed-shutter photo of us with the lake in the background.

Then we walked on the main street to get ice cream. I also had to take photos of the two shops we saw, because they were obviously put there to welcome us to the town! Granny Joe's was especially entertaining. The sign informed us that it is one of the oldest buildings in Vermilion, built in 1850, and it was also the first funeral parlor. So the building now serves up "ice cream and desserts to die for!" It was a difficult choice between that, or Admiral Debbie's place... in the end, we went to Granny Joe's.

We finally had to start driving in earnest after that. We picked up I-80 again, and made it as far as central Pennsylvania before stopping for the night. We had a bit of a challenge, due to the fact that we made it exactly as far as Bellefonte--a town only a few miles from State College, PA. For people who just visited the College Football Hall of Fame, we were pretty dumb not to think just a little bit ahead. We had a specific KOA campground in mind, and we certainly could have called in advance. But we didn't. We arrived shortly before dark to find the campground full of Nittany Lions with RVs all decked out in Penn State decals and regalia (the KOA campstore looked like a Penn State Spirit Shop!!) Not only were they full, but so was the campground a mere 1/2 mile away. In the end, we drove another 30 minutes east before stopping at a campground which had room for us. Joe quickly grilled us a steak despite the darkness, and we had a great dinner, which did a lot to mollify our moods (we were cranky after having our first campground frustration on our very last night.)

We crossed the Delaware River at noon, and stopped for sandwiches at a scenic overlook back "home" in New Jersey. And so our wonderful vacation finally came to an end at 2 pm on Sunday, Sept. 20. It's not that we are sorry to be home.... but vacation was a LOT more fun. We watched the odometer go around 60,000 miles just after we crossed the river. Now it's time to plan for the next 10,000!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

For Old Time's Sake

Sept 18, 2008

We are definitely heading toward home now—tonight we are at a campground which probably the less said about it, the better. I chose it because it was the closest campground to get to at 5:30-6:00ish, but by the time we got here, it was a lot later than expected, due to a detour. I only wish I’d chosen a more upscale sounding place a little further down the road. Come to think of it, it’s probably not too late—I’m tempted!

OTOH, we have a view of the Portage River directly out our window—that was the other reason I chose this place, because the ad said it was “right on the river.” It *is* indeed on the river, and I should try to focus on that for the next 10 minutes or so, until it will be too dark to tell where we are. [Morning addendum: here is a photo of our view in the morning--pretty, even though the rest of the place is a dump!]

So yesterday we left St. Ignace (and our beautiful KOA campsite) and headed down the center of the lower peninsula of Michigan toward Chesaning, the little town where Paula, my college roommate, lives. It was a beautiful day and we enjoyed the drive until Mo pulled another inexplicable engine incident. The situation was similar to our other, presumed vapor-lock, incidents, except there was no backfiring. We ended up waiting on the side of the road for about 2 hours before Mo decided it was time for us to continue our trip. No big harm done, except we really can NOT figure out what is causing this, and it’s very annoying. OTOH, it is pretty comfortable to be stranded for 2 hours in an RV. We had some lunch, read our books, had a bathroom handy…. And eventually the engine DID turn over. So we got to Paula’s house at 5 pm instead of 3:30.

We had a lovely visit! Paula owns 20 acres of property, including the house which she built herself, woods surrounding it on all sides, a nice field at one end, and a pond. Roxy was in absolutely heaven, because we let her off the leash and she could run and chase squirrels and drink from the pond and just general be a happy dog. We pulled Mo in around the pond and up near the house, next to Paula’s boat. She has lots of motorized toys, including 5 motorcycles of various sizes. In fact, as we pulled into the driveway, she came zooming up to us on one of the bikes. Pretty soon Joey and I were trying them out, including the little 3 wheeler. Paula said that her daughter Kristy had ridden that 3 wheeler when she was about 3 years old, and Casey, her younger daughter, had actually driven it into the pond! Paula is the person who turned Joe and I onto motorcycles in the first place, and I suspect him of contacting her in advance to try to get me hooked again. I have to admit, it WAS a lot of fun zooming around on the moped, and maybe if we did more RV-ing, it would be better to have scooters than to tow a car. A decision for the future!

After we played on the bikes, we went for a walk through the woods. It was really beautiful, and I can imagine the girls growing up with their own motocross track through the trees and over the sand (the back part of the property has a lot of sand because it is part of a right of way underneath power lines.) We saw deer tracks and turkey tracks everywhere—Paula was telling us about the animals which regularly visit her yard. Roxy was in olfactory heaven, and did some chasing off into the woods as we walked and talked.
Roxy, Debbie and Paula

As it was getting dark, we went inside for some dinner with Casey. She and Joe went to sleep early (he had done all the driving again, and his eyes were tired), but Paula and I sat up until almost midnight catching up on the past 26 years since we last saw each other. We’ve exchanged holiday cards through the years, so we weren’t completely out of touch, but it was nice to see her again. She, too, loves to travel and has visited all the lower 48 states. Maybe if she comes through NJ again, she will call me!

Roxy alerted us to Paula’s departure early in the morning (she is a special education teacher in Saginaw) and we woke up again around 8:00. Joe took Roxy out for another run in the woods as her morning walkies, and then we carefully backed Mo out of our parking space and followed the long driveway through the woods and back to the road. Our next destination was East Lansing, about 45 minutes away.

The last time we were in East Lansing was in 1999, almost exactly 9 years ago. Things had changed a lot then since we’d lived there from 1970-1973. We drove down Grand River Avenue, the main street through town which looked a lot like Main Street in Newark, DE, where Beth went to school. A lot of the same chain restaurants, for instance, and a Barnes & Noble. Michigan State University is, however, really more like a small city—the student population is about 43,000 or something like that. So there were a LOT of places to eat, shop, etc. We parked Mo, had some breakfast at Cosi’s, and then walked around campus for about 2 hours.

Some things are just the same—Beaumont Tower chimed 11 a.m. just as we walked past, and the Red Cedar River, while apparently quite swollen from the recent rains, was still as lovely as ever, with the same ducks paddling in the side eddies, and students sitting on the banks reading or relaxing, just like we used to do. Although Joe did point out, no one was on a cell phone back in our day! We walked through the center of campus, then toward the east campus where we lived during our freshman year. I was struck with how huge the dorms were…. They really dwarf almost everything at Rutgers or at UD. I was also kind of dismayed at how much I did NOT remember… I am so good with maps and directions, but I was constantly getting confused about exactly where we were on the campus. Of course, there are a lot of new buildings since 1973, also. So perhaps that contributed to it.

Joe in front of Holmes Hall, his old dorm.

However we decided we still think that the MSU campus is the most beautiful campus we’ve ever seen. The large natural area behind Holmes Hall (Joey’s old home) is beautiful, the center of the main campus is fabulous, and overall we just love the entire place.

We went back to Mo, fed the parking meter some more quarters, and then went to Bell’s Greek Pizza place for lunch—we used to really love their pizza. Joey decided the recipe is not the same, but it is still really good and definitely a bit different from Italian pizza. Then he went back to Mo, and I indulged in about 30 minutes at the Spartan Spirit Shop section in the Student Book Store. It is ridiculous how many items you can get with Michigan State logos. I knew I wouldn’t get out empty handed—but I actually NEED license plate frames (I must get rid of the dreaded dealership not-to-be-named plate frames on my car.) I left unpurchased everything from MSU keychains, clothing, mugs, pens, and backpacks to MSU baby clothes, toys, dog collars and leashes, scrapbook supplies, clocks, housewares, mailbox covers, hammers and screwdrivers, footwear, artwork, and jewelry.

After that there was nothing left to do but chart a course for home. We took a few unexpected turns, first because I fell asleep and Magellan is clueless about avoiding Detroit at rush hour; and second when we hit a detour on the way to this campground. On the plus side, we found a Dunkin Donuts, and we found that people in Michigan are just looking for opportunities to be helpful. We pulled into a parking lot to route our way out of the Detroit-suburbs traffic and construction, and as we sat there, a man drove up and asked if we needed help, because he saw we were looking at a map. Someone else pulled up next to us at a red light to tell us one of our brake lights was out (Joe fixed that in the Dunkin Donuts parking lot while I got the coffee.)

So all in all, it was a nice day, and tomorrow we plan to add one more Great Lake to our collection for this vacation before finding our way back to the interstate toward home. Of course, we’ll have to find a wifi spot also…. Needless to say, this campground is SERIOUSLY not near ANYTHING. Although as Joe says, one thing we’ve learned from our travels is that MOST of the U.S. is “the middle of nowhere.”

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

An Island In Time

Sept 16, 2008

We got up late today--slept until 8:30! By the time we showered, dressed, ate, walked the dog, etc., we had already missed the chance to catch the 10:30 ferry to Mackinac Island. Oh well, we are lazy! The ferry service sent a car to pick us up right here at the campground (free!) at 11:00 and we took the 11:30 ferry over to the Island.

I have to confess that althought I had heard lots of wonderful things from people who love Mackinac Island, I was feeling sort of ho-hum about it. I guess the whole concept didn't really grab me in the abstract. But as the ferry approached, I could see not only the Grand Hotel from the water, but some very intense Victorian houses lined up on the bluff near it, and the picture was lovely.

Mackinac Island is isolated in time--it is a little Victorian island where motor vehicles are prohibited, and where everything has to be sent over via boat. There is no bridge or any way other than boat or a small plane to get there. We arrived on the dock and Joe's first reaction was that it was like Main Street in Disney World--horse-drawn carriages awaited us, and there were bicycles everywhere. The town was very clean, the only thing was that as in Victorian times, the streets had the obvious evidence that horses had been there. However we did see people with pushcarts or bikes, with large containers and shovels and rakes, and they drove down the street cleaning up, so it was by no means offensive or difficult to avoid horse "evidence".

The shops were all very cute, albeit touristy--the t-shirt and souvenir places were liberally interspersed with fudge shops. I think there were three or four main fudge "chains", and each had probably 4-5 stores, plus there were a number of independents. On the "inside" of the street (front porches facing the water) were a number of beautiful small hotels with verandas and picturesque columns, flowers, etc., and of course there were restaurants everywhere too.

We sort of vaguely walked up the block, not quite sure where to start with ourselves. We'd been advised to go horseback riding; bike riding; take a carriage tour; visit the butterfly conservatory; etc. We had about 5-1/2 hours; the last ferry back to St. Ignace left at 5:30. So we took stock as we walked, and the delicious smell of rotisserie chickens is what hooked us first. We decided to first eat lunch at the restaurant with the chicken, and then go for a bicycle ride.

Lunch was very good--only our second meal eaten "out" since our trip began. And after that, we stopped at the first bicycle rental place we came to (there were a dozen of those, also.) Joey decided we should rent a tandem bike because we'd never done that before, and then drive it around the perimeter of the island. The lady who rented it gave us a map, which showed us that many of the historical things to see were a few blocks "inland", but the road around the island, which was 8.2 miles, was flat, and just our speed for biking.

Well, we had only gone a few blocks before we were totally enchanted. (Of course, it's easy to be enchanted when the gentleman on the bike in front of you is singing "Daisy, Daisy".) The only "traffic" on the road once we passed the downtown area was other bicycles, although we passed a lot of horse droppings, which told us that we might encounter some equine traffic as well. At first we passed some very nice houses right along the road, but soon they stopped and we simply biked along a two-lane road with trees on our left and the Lake Huron shoreline on our right. It was about 65 degrees, the sun was shining and glinting off the water, and it was absolutely gorgeous!!

It is amazing what it's like to be in a place with NO motor traffic. We often saw no one but ourselves, and the only sound was our bike pedalling. Because we were riding tandem, we ended up chatting as we rode, about all kinds of subjects that popped into our heads. It was simply delicious. Sometimes we'd pass other bikers coming the opposite way on the road, and we'd greet each other, and occasionally people would pass us on faster bikes. But otherwise we simply rode and admired the view out onto the water. At first the water was very calm, and we saw lots of seagulls simply standing there in water only a few inches deep. We could see the stones under their feet. The water was completely clear, green at the shoreline and deepening to a beautiful blue.

We passed lots of places where we could have stopped and simply sat and looked at the water, and I made mental notes. Next time, we should come with sandwiches, earlier in the day, and bathing suits if it is hotter, and bike more slowly, stopping often, picnic and nap on the shore, etc (although mostly the shoreline was rocky, so napping might have been trickier.) I was sorry we'd gotten there so late. We'd sometimes pass private homes tucked into the trees, but mostly it was pretty empty and secluded. We turned a corner about 1/2 of the way, and the wind picked up. The shoreline was less warm and inviting, although it was still beautiful, and we could see the Mackinaw Bridge in the distance. The water washed up in little wavelets, and became a bit rougher.

About half-way around the island is a rest area with bathrooms, a refreshment stand, and picnic tables. We stopped for a quick bathroom break, and then kept going. Soon after that, we started meeting the occasional horse-drawn carriage, and we felt we might be getting back to civilization. We passed more houses, and then the public school--there is a year-round community that lives on the island. I don't know the population, but the school looked surprisingly large--I imagine it houses kindergarten through high school (or maybe 8th grade?) And suddenly we were passing the edge of the town again, and we were back where we had started from! We'd biked around the entire island in just over an hour.

We returned our tandem bike and looked for what we felt were well-earned refreshments! Joe got a coke, and i got ice cream--I felt I'd already biked off the calories (do NOT tell me differently, LOL!) We sat and ate and people watched for a little while, and then decided to walk up some of the streets and see what lay beyond the main street and all the fudge.

We discovered a little picturesque town with more bed-and-breakfasts and small hotels, as well as the little historic post office. More horse-drawn carriages passed us, and we saw one group of horseback riders come out of a stable and head down the street.

We wandered up the hill (all the streets coming off the main perimeter road went UP!) and soon we saw ahead of us the Grand Hotel, the signature building of Mackinac Island. A sign warned us as we began to approach that it would cost $10 for anyone who is not registered at the hotel to go inside! Humnph.... pretty high handed, especially since one of their own carriage horses made a BIG poop right in front of the buildling! We were able to get a good idea of their spectacular view, however, and appreciate the elegance of a bygone era.

We didn't want to offend their sensibilities (another sign announced that "Proper attire was REQUIRED at night--gentlemen must wear jackets and ties, and ladies MAY NOT wear pants"). So we continued up the hill, walking past a large stable and yard where the carriage horses are kept, past a small golf course, past the Governor's House, and on to Fort Mackinac. At that point, we headed back down the very steep hill to the main street again. As we walked down, we got a nice view of the harbor below us. We by no means had seen all the sights, but I guess that just means we need to come back again some day.

We were tired by this time, but before we could leave we had an important task--buying fudge! The person taking care of my cats likes chocolate even more than I do, and I felt he deserved some Mackinac Island Fudge. I had already decided that Joann's was my Fudge Of Choice, and I spent some time determining what flavors to indulge in. After that, we made our way to the dock, and at 5:00 we boarded our ferry back to St. Ignace. We sat on the top deck in the sun, and it was warm and breezy as we sped across the water back to the mainland. I snapped a few last photos of the beautiful waterfront houses as we pulled out of the small harbor.

We were back at the campground quickly, and it has occurred to me that I am REALLY TIRED. I guess that's what a day in the sun, a long bicycle ride, lots of Lake Huron breezes, and a Major Fudge Encounter will do to a person. I am quite sure we'll be sleeping soundly tonight.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Our Day: All Locked Up

Sept. 15, 2008
Today we were locked up, locked down, and the fun was all locked in too! We spent the day at the Soo Locks, which definitely lived up to our expectations.

We got up early enough today so that Roxy and I could take a walk by the river (and see a ship go past) before we drove about a mile up the road to the Soo Locks Boat Cruise. We took the 10 a.m. cruise, along with a bunch of people on a bus tour from, of all places, New Jersey!

View from the Campground

Anyway, the cruise was great. We started out heading up-river, which took us right into Lock #1, the MacArthur Lock, of the four US locks. I have to correct something I wrote yesterday--we didn't cruise on any Great Lakes today--we were only on the St. Mary's River, which runs for about 20 miles or so between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. Lake Superior is about 21 feet higher in elevation than Huron, and until about 100 years ago, the area by Sault Ste Marie was known for the wide rapids which existed there as the river rushed down from the Superior side to the Huron side. The locks have reduced the rapids to about 4% of what they originally were, and ships can now be lifted in safety the 21 feet of difference, enabling shipping from the ports of the midwest to the ports of the eastern Great Lakes (Erie and Ontario), and on into the Atlantic.

The lock doors open to let us in

Waiting to be lifted up

We're up and the lock doors open to let us out

So our little cruise ship chugged into the lock, and we were accompanied only by a couple of very small barges which made us look big. Too bad, we didn't get to share the lock with a freighter. From there, we cruised a little bit on the upper St. Mary River. We went under a railroad bridge and then under the International Bridge, a 3 mile crossing between the US and Canada. Then we past a large steel factory on the Canadian side, but not much else of note. It was interesting though, that on the horizon we could see large wind turbines. The guide said there were about 125 of them. On our way back through the locks, we saw a ship locking up, carrying more turbines.

International Highway Bridge

Coming back downriver, we locked through on the Canadian side. All the freight goes on the American side, whereas the lock on the Canadian side is very small and is used for smaller boats. In fact, on that side they don't even need to be motorized, meaning that canoes and kayaks have gone through there--that sounds like a totally fun thing to do! On either side of the lock is a park--the side toward the river itself is an island which is accessible by foot traffic right over the lock doors, when they are closed. The entire experience is much more bucolic. We saw a family on bikes with a baby trailer cross over in front of us, before the lock doors opened. We took photos of them while they took photos of us, and I had a fleeting thought to call over to the father and say, "Hey, take our picture and then email it to me--here's my address!!" But I didn't quite have the nerve to do that, LOL!

Entering the Canadian Lock

Once back on the Lake Huron side again, we cruised a bit more before turning back to our pier. It was a great couple of hours. We had some lunch in the RV, and then we walked over to the Tower of History. This is a 20-story tower a block away from the pier, which offers an odd little "video" (really a slide show) of the history of the Sault Ste Marie area. After watching it, we went up to the top for the panoramic view of the river and the lock area. We were SO lucky--the day was so clear and bright and sunny, and the view was fabulous.

One thing of note was several hydroelectric power plants right at this point in the river. 100 years ago, they built a canal through the town to connect the upper and lower rivers. At the mouth of the canal on the Huron (lower) side, there is still the original hydroelectric plant. It is about 1/4 mile long, entirely built from local stone taken out of the river when the canal was built. In the photo below, you can see it. The canal widens out at its mouth (i.e. to the right of the stone building), and goes through the valves which are located along the entire 1/4 mile length of the building. The 20 foot drop in elevation occurs underneath the building, where the turbines are located. It operates just like a little "water mill", with Lake Superior being the mill pond! This power plant has been in use for over 100 years, and it is simply beautiful in its construction and utility. By the way, that is Mo at the edge of the parking lot by the grass, at the center near bottom of the photo!

In the river behind the power plant, you can see a black boat named the John J. Boland heading up toward the locks. While we were on the tower, we saw a boat coming downriver in Lock #2 (the Poe Lock), while a red boat (named the James Barker) was waiting its turn to be locked upriver. We left the tower and quickly drove to the park and visitor center by the locks themselves, thinking we could catch the Barker going upriver through the lock. We got there while it was still locked in, but had already been raised. However, we did watch the black boat (the Boland) go into the lock and get lifted. We had a great ringside view, with observation decks set up at the edge of the lock. The one closest to us, #1, was the one we'd gone through, and the #2 lock is the largest--that is the one the "supertankers" use.

Ships passing

The James Barker leaves the Poe Lock (#2)--Lock #1 is at the lower Lake Huron level

The John J. Boland at the lower level in Lock #2

The John J. Boland raised to the Lake Superior level

As I was watching the Palmer travel out of the lock upriver, and turned to leave, I was stunned to discover yet another boat coming into the MacArthur Lock closest to me, the same lock we'd used in the morning. This was the Frontenac, which TOTALLY filled up the MacArthur slip (which is noticably smaller than the Poe) from front to back and side to side. I couldn't bear to leave until I watched the entire process as the boat was locked through to the Lake Superior level.

It was almost 4 pm before I finally tired of watching the ships (Joe had gone back to Mo about an hour earlier, LOL!) We both went across the street to a fudge and ice cream shop, where we were so happy to find they had several flavors of sugar-free fudge. I had ice cream . Then we finally got back on the road, and drove down to St. Ignace, only a mile or so from where we'd stopped last Thursday to look at the view of the Mackinaw Bridge. We are now at the KOA here, making good use of their very good wifi connection. Tomorrow we plan to go to Mackinac Island, and then Wednesday we are going back south through the center of Michigan. We will be stopping about 200 miles south of here to visit with Paula, my roommate from college! I just called her tonight, we talked probably for an hour, and I am excited to be seeing her again. Last time we saw each other was...... 1980!!!!