Mackinac Island Biking: Northern Michigan's Isle of Bike

Mackinac Island Biking: On Mackinac Island, a bike is not just a bike. It’s a mobile expression of self, a pet, a friend, a piece of art, a truck. Photographer and island summer resident Andrejka Hirschegger shares images of and insight into the island’s two-wheeler ethos.

As a photographer on Mackinac Island, I often ask those who view my work to pick a favorite photo from among my images. Visitors name many of the unique locations: the Grand Hotel, Round Island Lighthouse, and of course Main Street and all it entails. However, when I ask locals to pick a favorite image of their island home, they never select a photo of a landmark. To an islander, one location is too limited. The image my island friends love most conveys something far more visceral, a feeling that all who live here understand. The photo is of a simple bike taking a ride on a perfect autumn day, with the leaves fallen on the dark pavement of a quiet island road. It isn’t just about the solitude of the open road, or the smell of the fall air; it is the love we have for our island bike and everything it does for us.

Before coming to Mackinac Island, I had no understanding of how connected a person could be to a bicycle. Over the past 10 years, I’ve come to realize that here, it’s not just a mode of transportation but also an extension of the rider. A bike is something that identifies you, your work, your personality, and your interests. Over time, I’ve developed this same bond with my own ride, though it started off bumpy despite the large tread of my tires.

I arrived for my first summer on Mackinac with a shiny new mountain bike. It was perfect, sleek, with shocks, wide tires with the aforementioned tread, small handlebars and an uncomfortable seat that said, “I’m sporty!” A mere few days in, I had a sore bottom and understood why locals thought I was a tourist. Where it would have been completely at home on a mountain, here there was no mountain, and my bike was out of place. For island locals, a bike is not about fun, it’s about function. Where was I going to put my groceries? My camera gear? And certainly my bum wasn’t going to survive the abuse of that insultingly unforgiving seat. Needless to say, the mountain bike was swiftly retired, and I procured a proper island bike: a faded green, used rental with fenders, a huge basket, comfy seat and stickers that can be spotted from down the street. My personalized two-wheeler decor yells, “This is Andrejka’s bike … don’t touch!”

But people do touch (and ride), even though bike “borrowing,” as it is kindly called—taking without permission, but not for keeps—is frowned upon by islanders. After all, we have special relationships with our bikes. They are our only means of transportation for work and play. We get a little peeved when we park them outside of one location and come out only to find them parked a few streets over where someone couldn’t be bothered to walk. Fortunately, islanders understand the importance of bikes, and we look out for one another’s. This past summer, my neighbor and I both had our bikes stolen out of our front yards. We walked into town, swearing revenge upon those who had wronged us so. After asking around, our “eyes” about town helped us get back that which was ours. Within 20 minutes our bikes were safe in our arms, home again. It’s a common enough story—bikes getting borrowed and usually returned. But I suggest not being a borrower. Someone is always watching, and you don’t want to get caught on another’s ride.

On Mackinac Island, a bike can be just as well known as the person behind the handlebars. One of the best ways to truly understand the heart and soul of an island bike is to know the story behind it. If you make it to Mackinac, you’ll most likely see a few of these bikes tooling around town.

1. Ben’s Bike Fly

Ben is the man in charge of the beautiful kites that fly over the lake all summer. The kites are a vacationer’s first welcome to the island as the mainland ferry enters the harbor. Ben’s bike reflects his love for kites and his pride in owning a wonderful toy store on the island, Great Turtle Toys. Ben’s once-yellow bike was too plain for him, so he had it painted jet black and then decorated with a one-of-a-kind painting by Mary Bea McWatters. The word FLY is displayed prominently on the frame as he hauls kites, riding swiftly down the road. He’s had “Fly” for over 12 years and never plans on replacing it. “It’s me. It’s my ride. We have a rich history and still so much more to accomplish together,” he says. “Fly has made many people happy delivering kites and toys for people to enjoy.”

2. Josh’s Mustang Sally

Josh and his bike are dock porters—the man and his ride go hand in hand. Josh built his bike from the ground up, customizing it to meet the demands of his job. He welded his own higher handlebars and a hitch to haul luggage from the ferry to wherever visitors might be resting their heads. Everything on his bike serves a purpose, whether it’s the bungee cords, the luggage bed, or the place for his water bottles (a porter gets thirsty hauling thousands of pounds of luggage back and forth). The most unique part of Josh’s bike? A Ford Mustang grill logo bolted to the front of his basket. “A mainlander rides a car, I ride a bike. Although I don’t have heated seats or an automatic transmission, I wouldn’t trade my bike for a brand new Camaro.”

3. Travis’s Bike Legacy

It’s not about the money you spend but the heart you invest in a bike that gives it its true value. Travis found his bike at the bottom of a junk pile. He took her apart and rebuilt her from the ground up, spending only $30 in parts. She’s now a gorgeous 1969 original Schwinn Typhoon with a metallic blue frame, red fenders, white-walls, a large basket and a nautical theme, complete with rope lining the seat post for decor. Travis rides his bike every day, all year, in all types of weather. Sometimes his dog Gia joins him, jogging along beside. “She is my prize possession. If someone offered me $10K for her, I would say no. Honestly, I can’t ever see giving this bike up! I hope my son rides this bike with as much pride some day … I want the tradition to carry on!”

4. Kate’s “Car”

She may get some strange looks from vacationers, but to an islander, it’s perfectly normal to see Kate cruise by on her bike with a vacuum balancing in her front basket. Kate is the owner of Caddywampus, a lovely store in downtown Mackinac, and her bike hauls not only inventory and cleaning supplies, but occasionally her border collie too. Her black and cream cruiser is easily identified by the big Caddywampus sign in the front and a bell that chimes “my bike is my car” on her handlebars. “My bike was a surprise. I wanted a classic looking cruiser with a basket. One day I walked into my store, and there it was … the perfect bike …  staring. I love my bike. The mechanics might be a bit dodgy, and it has a few dings and scratches, but it’s been my workhorse for 11 years and I’m pretty attached.”

Oftentimes a bike reflects the job of the owner. If you’re a maintenance guy you have wood glue, bungee cords, open handlebars to sling parts on, and a board in the bottom of your basket so small things don’t slip through. If you’re a storeowner your bike reflects your store, with flowers, signs, kites, etc. Dock porters have different handlebars, no gears, hitches and lots of oversized bungee cords to strap that luggage on tight. Bartenders have stickers and signs that brag up the beverage sponsors (sometimes the beverage itself) and restaurants they work in. And a photographer like me? … why camera gear, of course, and a towel for padding; cameras don’t like to be banged around in a basket.

And that’s just it. These funny two-wheeled things work for us. They are there to support us in our endeavors, and get us from point A to B in unique style. We are emotionally bonded. And those dings and scratches? Well, I can tell you a story about each one that decorates my own ride. An islander will look at you with a coy smile when you ask, “What happened here?” to an unusual looking scratch. Our bikes tell a story, about us, about life on an island that offers a bicycle culture different from anywhere in the world.

What's the Difference Between an Island Bike and a Tourist Bike?

Island Bike

Fenders: to keep rider dry Basket: to carry anything and everything
Bike License: $3.50 from the Police Station
Comfortable Seat (function)
Plastic Bag: keeps seat dry in rain
Dry Rag: kept under the seat to clean dirt/water
Bungee Cords to hold loose items (including mail) Any crazy sticker, decal, flowers, you can think of

Tourist Bike

Stripe up the back of shirt Fanny Packs or many trips
Day pass “bracelet” for bike
Painful Seat (fashion)
Wet seat
No rag, no clean
No bungee, no carry Only boring manufacturers decals

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This article was first featured in the August 2012 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan's Magazine. Click here to order your copy!

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