Life is an Open Road
R2S: Road to Somewhere

Upper Peninsula – Day 1

Upper Peninsula - Day 1

Aside from a few short out-of-state stints, I have lived near Lake Michigan for most of my life. I have been to numerous beaches stretching the shorelines of the southern half of the lake, including Kenosha Beach, North Avenue Beach in Chicago, the Indiana National Dunes, Warren Dunes State Park, Grand Haven and Ludington. I have swum in the chilled waters of Lake Michigan on hot summer days and I’ve buried my kids in the sand. I’ve climbed, hiked and tumbled down steep dunes on both Indiana and Michigan shorelines. I’ve golfed and watched the PGA Open tournament at Whistling Straits golf course which was literally sculpted into the Wisconsin shoreline. I’ve reeled in King Salmon, Steelheads, Brown Trout and more on fishing charters with both family and friends. The one thing that I have never done, however, is tour the lake.

The Great Lakes are rich in culture, lifestyle and history. Lighthouses, harbors, Indians, wars, shipwrecks, freight liners, seagulls and more come to mind. From East to West the Great Lakes consist of Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario. Together, these lakes form the largest group of freshwater lakes anywhere on the planet. They also contain 21% of the world’s surface fresh water and a whopping 54% of the world’s fresh water by volume.

Lake Michigan gets its name from the Ojibwa indian word ‘mishigami,’ meaning great water. Among all five Great Lakes, Lake Michigan is the second largest in volume and third largest in surface area. It also is home to the largest freshwater dunes in the world. It is 307 miles long and 188 miles wide with an average depth of 279 feet. There are 1,638 miles of shoreline around Lake Michigan. Circling the lake was something I’ve always wanted to do. I have seen those green “Lake Michigan Circle Tour” signs all my life and was always curious how scenic the drive really was. I remember my mother telling me that circling Lake Michigan was the one and only family vacation that she could recall. She told me that one day my grandfather got the itch for a family vacation. So, he packed-up the old station wagon and headed out around the lake.

Each year we like to target a “Big Ride,” meaning a ride that involves at least a few nights away from home and preferably some place adventurous. So, when we met during the spring of 2013 to discuss our riding destination plans for the summer, we all tossed around a few ideas where we wanted to go. There were proposals for the Badlands of North Dakota, Arkansas again, Tail of the Dragon and the Circle Tour around Lake Michigan, including the Upper Peninsula. We debated each but ultimately chose the circle-tour because it seemed as though it was the most adventurous of them all. Only later would we find out how right we were.

Departure

A number of riders contemplated joining the excursion, but only me, Dave and Pete would ultimately commit. We didn’t care; we were determined to go regardless of how many would join in the fun. Traveling with a smaller group has its advantages because there are fewer opinions to hear and needs to accommodate. On the other hand, a larger group adds spice and variety to the trip. We met at my place on the morning of departure, and then headed north to meet Pete. We continued north into Wisconsin, past Lake Geneva, and then northeastward on Interstate 43 towards Milwaukee. It was a crisp sunny August day. The feeling of adventure began to settle in as we approached the Port of Milwaukee where we would catch the high-speed ferry.

Bypassing the Southern Shoreline

When we were planning this trip, we had decided that we would like to eliminate the I-80/I-94 corridor that stretches across Northwest Indiana into Michigan. Having grown up in the outskirts of the Chicago Metropolitan area in Northwest Indiana, I knew first-hand what a ‘pain in the tuckus’ traffic could be along that route. Back in the day when they were building the Interstate system, someone in all their infinite wisdom decided that funneling four major Interstates (I-65, I-80, I-90, I-94) through Northwest Indiana was a good idea. Perhaps it made sense at the time, but however many years later it has been nothing but a headache from as far back as I can remember. Road construction and traffic jams are not fun on a motorcycle. So, why not take a ferry across Lake Michigan to bypass the mess in Northwest Indiana? There is nothing scenic there any way (unless you are into strip clubs, truck stops or steel mills), the traffic sucks (especially on or near a weekend), and we could get ourselves over to the ‘good stuff’ sooner than later. Sure it might cost a little more, but it would add to the whole adventure upon which we were about to embark.

Two Choices: Fast or Slow

When it comes to high-speed ferries across Lake Michigan, there are only two choices: the historic S.S. Badger or the more modern Lake Express. The Badger is a big coal-fired ship that shuttles passengers and vehicles between Manitowoc, Wisconsin and Ludington, Michigan. Heading out of Manitowoc would mean that we’d have to drive longer on the Wisconsin side first because it is about an hour and a half further north from Milwaukee.

The S.S. Badger is a pretty famous vessel on Lake Michigan that has been in service since 1953. The ship is a whopping 410 feet long and carries 600 passengers, 180 automobiles, tour buses, RVs, motorcycles, and commercial trucks. The thing is an absolute monster. The Badger is named after the University of Wisconsin’s athletic teams, the Badgers. Being an older ship, it obviously isn’t the most fuel efficient or environmentally friendly vessel out there on the waters. It clips along at about a 15 knot pace taking roughly 4 hours to reach the other side of the lake. In 2008, a number of environmental groups got together and lobbied with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to shut it down or at least stop tir practice of dumping untreated coal ash from the ship’s boilers into Lake Michigan waters. The Badger was previously exempt from newer laws and restrictions because it was a historic vessel. Fast forward through various litigious years and they finally agreed to implement a sophisticated ash retention system costing millions of dollars.

The Lake Express is a modern vessel that operates across Lake Michigan between Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Muskegon, Michigan. The vessel is 192 feet long and carries 248 passengers, 46 vehicles and 12 motorcycles. It moves along at about twice the speed of the Badger.

High-Tailing It Across Lake Michigan

The Milwaukee terminal is near the Port of Milwaukee, just south of the city. We didn’t realize how good of an idea it was to make reservations for the ferry until we arrived and say the long line of vehicles waiting to board. As we pulled up, a security guard motioned for us to bypass the long line of cars and head directly to the front gate. One thing I hate is long lines. One thing I love is riding a motorcycle!

We pulled up to the gate first only to notice a number of other riders parked on the other side of the gate who were gawking at my ‘blacked-out’ 2012 Triumph Thunderbird Storm. One guy and his buddy approached me saying out loud, “Now that’s a real bike!” I just smiled and tried to act rather solemn while simultaneously making sure my fellow Harley rider, Dave, heard the comment. He just rolled his eyes as I nonchalantly pointed out yet another unsolicited compliment pertaining to the styling and appearance of my bike.

The joke between us is that I make a point of raising his awareness of the complements that I receive on a bike because I paid about half-as much for mine than he did for his. What made this particular compliment even better was the fact that the guy was wearing a Harley-Davidson t-shirt! It turns out that he and his group were returning from the annual motorcycle pilgrimage in Sturgis, North Dakota – the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally – and they wanted to save some time by taking a ferry to avoid the Northwest Indiana corridor (sounds familiar).

Go Your Own Way

We chatted a little more and then I eventually asked him why he was so keen on Triumph. He said he rode a Harley, but appreciated the heritage of the Triumph brand just as much. Although I do not own a Harley, nor can I see myself ever owning one for various reasons, I do not believe that they are total pieces of crap. Conversely, most Harley riders have such nauseating brand loyalty that just the mere mention of another brand brings out the most misguided and biased opinions on what a ‘real bike’ is anyway. The ironic thing is that Triumph has an even longer, richer heritage than Harley-Davidson.

Yes, both companies have struggled over the years financially, and the players in both companies have also changed. But as a motorcycle brand, Triumph is actually one year older than Harley (Triumph was founded in 1902 vs. Harley’s founding in 1903). Tack on another 20 years or so that precedes the invention of motorcycles and Triumph has the greater heritage hands-down. When loyal customers claim their brand is the best just because of popularity and successful marketing campaigns, doesn’t necessarily mean that that brand is the best. There are a lot of “followers” out there who don’t make their own decisions, rather follow what the crowds do. Look at Harley riders and 99% of them dress the same way. This is why I connect with Triumph’s tagline of “Go your own way.”

In truth there are many great motorcycle companies out there with beautiful designs and solid mechanical engineering. The whole idea that only one company got it right is simply absurd to me. Don’t ever confuse brand loyalty with quality. They are two totally different things. And some companies are simply better than others at marketing to the masses. Still, I’m all for you riding whatever bike makes you feel happy. Just don’t tell me my brand is substandard because there aren’t as many on the road or I’ll give you an earful. It turns out that all of those bikers waiting outside the gate did not have reservations like we did.

So, the guard opened the gate and waved us in while everyone else waited for vacancies from no-shows. About 20 minutes and a few phone calls later, we drove our bikes into the cargo bay, dismounted and ratcheted them down using the tie down straps provided. Rather than wait on Pete, Dave and I headed companionway to check out the upper deck and quarters. As we headed out to open waters, we decided to take advantage of the down-time and enjoy a bite to eat and a cold refreshing beverage. I jumped in line before Dave and used the opportunity to grab the very last 16-ounce microbrew from the Milwaukee Brewing Company. This left Dave with a disappointing selection of boring domestic beers which I of course pointing out to him in between each sip. It’s the constant jabbing that brings friends closer together.

Eventually, Pete worked his way up to the cafeteria deck where Dave and I were relaxing. We all headed up to the upper deck as the Milwaukee skyline was fading into the Lake Michigan azure. When you’re out in the middle of Lake Michigan, it is just like being out to sea. Even in August, there is an absolute chill in the air, but we were fortunate to have a bright fuzzy yellow orb in the sky projecting heat down upon us that helped warm our bones. It was a bit breezy, but very refreshing. We found cover behind some of the vessel’s ventilation system where we basked in the sun soaking up the rays. In the distance, you could see the sand dunes on the Michigan shoreline slowly growing in size. The dunes around Lake Michigan are awesome. Many are six to twenty stories taller or more.

Arriving in Muskegon

The Lake Express ferry passing ends in Muskegon. The name “Muskegon” is derived from the Ottawa Indian term “Masquigon” meaning “marshy river or swamp”. The harbor entrance is an inlet to Muskegon Lake where the Lake Express terminal is located. Like many towns along the West side of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, Muskegon was once a lumber town. The area boomed after the Chicago Great Fire in 1871 as Michigan lumber was used to rebuild the big city. Many Michigan lumber towns boomed as a result of lumber demand from this period. During the late 1800’s, Muskegon was home to more millionaires than any other town in America. The breakers of the Muskegon harbor resemble the shape of an arrowhead. As we approached the harbor, we saw our first lighthouse of the trip. Lighthouses are becoming less relevant to serving their original purpose that they once held due to the advent of global positioning and other navigation technology. More commonly today, these beautiful structures are being decommissioned by the US Coast Guard, sold off to local municipalities and other organizations that are helping to preserve them as historical landmarks. The Muskegon South Pierhead Lighthouse sits on the South side of the harbor entrance. On the North, side sits another lighted structure, but I do not think it was ever manned and doesn’t technically qualify as a lighthouse. On the other side, however sits the Muskegon South Pierhead lighthouse. It is a 55 foot tall circular metal structure that was erected near the inner end of the south pier in 1903 and still stands there today. It happens to be a bit of an event when the Lake Express ferry pulls in as everyone within and along the harbor cordially waves to the passengers onboard. I must say that you tend to feel a bit like a celebrity. Cruising further into the harbor, we passed the U.S.S. Silversides. This submarine is credited with sinking 23 major Japanese ships during WWII. Today, it is a floating museum. We removed the tie-downs, started our bikes, disembarked the ferry and headed north on US 31 towards Ludington. All things considered, I would recommend the experience of taking a ferry across Lake Michigan if you’re considering the loop. Both ferry systems, the S.S. Badger and the Lake Express are considered part of the official Lake Michigan Circle Tour route. We stopped at the Ludington Rest Area, which was roughly 10 miles South of Ludington itself. The rest area has an elevated turnout area with a wooden look-out structure. We climbed several flights of stairs to catch a quick glimpse of beautiful Lake Michigan and then motored on towards Ludington.

Ludington

Ludington is another Lake Michigan harbor town located at the mouth of the Pere Marquette River. Ludington is the fifth-most-popular tourist city in Michigan, behind Mackinaw City, Traverse City, Muskegon, and Sault Ste. Marie. I remember coming up here with my extended family a few times in my childhood. The families would rent cottages near the sandy shoreline. I remember my Uncle Clarence reeling in a massive catfish from one of these channels one evening. I do not recall exactly how big the thing was, but I do remember everyone remarking on the size of that beast. We rode out W. Ludington Avenue to the Ludington shoreline where we saw the Ludington North Pierhead Lighthouse. The original lighthouse was named after a French Roman Catholic missionary, Pere (Father) Jacques Marquette, who explored the Great lakes in the 1600s. It was about time to give our cheeks a rest, so we decided to search for a local microbrewery in the area. We rode past Thompson Marina where people were “chilaxin” in their boats that were tied to the docks. Riding past a lakefront harbor gives you a real sense of the Great Lakes lifestyle. Boating is a big part of that lifestyle. The people just waved as we rode past them. Watching the S.S. Badger come into port is a favorite pastime of the locals here. The ship is simply massive. Pete wanted to catch a glimpse of the Badger coming into its home port, but it just didn’t timeout that way. We needed to continue northward. Jamesport Brewing Co. We eventually found the Jamesport Brewing Co. It was after 6pm, we had just missed their “Hoppy Hour.” We were not quite ready for dinner, so we decided to sample one of their craft beers and continue on our journey. I tried the IPA which was extremely hoppy and bitter, as it should be. We proceeded to strike up a conversation with a gentleman who happened to be the local brew master, Mr. Tom Buchanan. He told us all about the beers he made and how he had lived in the Chicago area before moving to the area. Tom was very passionate about his craft as you can read in his own bio. We told him that it was ‘one and done’ for us as we needed to head northward to begin to search for accommodations. He informed us about a Jaycee sponsored summer concert series, Roots on the River, in the neighboring town of Manistee. The locals gather at a large gazebo on the banks of the Manistee River every Thursday evening to listen to local roots music. He said that we should join him up there and that we could find accommodations for the night when we got in town. We were not sure if we’d like the style of music or not, but we decided to give it a shot as it added to our adventure.

Manistee

Tom said he would lead us there through the backgrounds between Ludington and Manistee, so we obliged. Tom instructed us to follow him and proceeded to hammer it towards Manistee. He about left us completely behind at a left hand signal. We eventually caught back up to him as we headed into the Michigan wilderness. Pete rolled up to me at one of the stop signs and said he desperately needed gas and didn’t think he’d make it. I knew we were less than ten miles away, so worst case one of would stay with Pete, and the other would run for gas. To me, it was not worth stressing out over because the real risk was small. Maybe it’d be inconvenient, but in the grander scheme of things I did not think it’d be a huge deal should he burn his last drop of dinosaur juice. We pulled into town, crossed the Manistee River and sure enough the concert was already in progress. There were probably less than 150 people there gathered in front of the gazebo when we arrived. Tom said that although they did not serve beer there, we could go get our own, so we did. We enjoyed the acoustic set from a couple of local musicians and continued to converse with Tom. Manistee is another Michigan town that made its mark as a result of the logging industry. Like Muskegon, this area grew tremendously in the late 1800’s. Ironically, Manistee was ravaged by its own terrible fire on October 8, 1871, the same day as the Great Chicago Fire. The Manistee River is one of the best trout fisheries east of the Rockies. It is also a major waterway that supports one of Michigan’s most popular logging areas. The demand for white pine helped develop Michigan’s lumber industry. As a matter of fact, Michigan was the nation’s leading lumber producer between 1869 and 1900. Today Michigan is more concerned about conservation than anything else. I decided that we should arrange for accommodations sooner than later. A river walk hugged the South side of the river that connected a number of restaurants and pubs along the river. It seemed like a happening place for being so remote from a major metropolitan area. I called a local motel on the river that was recommended to us and immediately booked a room with three individual beds. What are the chances of finding a hotel room with three individual beds for three grown men? We booked it and continued to listen to the music. We decided to head out to the lakefront to check out the harbor entrance. We timed it perfectly because the sun was just beginning to set. We walked along the breakers to get a closer glimpse of the Manistee North Pierhead. One of the original lighthouses in this area burnt down with the aforementioned Manistee fire. However a new lighthouse was built in 1872. When electric found its way to the area in 1925, the current 38-foot structure standing still today was erected. I snapped a few photos of the lighthouse and then I received a phone call from the front desk that we needed to check in before 10 because the front desk was about to close. It dawned on me that we were on Eastern Time and that we only had ten minutes or so to get checked in. So, we high-tailed it back into town to check into our room. As we were about to cross the Manistee River, the drawbridge signals went off, and we witnessed a massive ship sailing down the river. It was absurd how tall this ship was as it dwarfed most everything around it. It was taller than most of the buildings along the river. It was quite a spectacle.

As we were about to cross the Manistee River, the drawbridge signals went off, and we witnessed a massive ship sailing down the river. It was absurd how tall this ship was as it dwarfed most everything around it. It was taller than most of the buildings along the river. It was quite a spectacle.

The nice thing about the hotel was that it was right along the river and within walking distance to a few establishments. Another benefit was that it offered covered parking for our motorcycles (always a bonus). We checked into the hotel, grabbed some dinner and hit the sack. Day 1 had come to a close, and we were only a few hours from continuing the adventure with Day 2.

Day 2 coming soon….

Road to Somewhere

Road to Somewhere motorcycle blog is the personal journal of Christopher J. Vezeau. I am a writer and a rider.