Thick clouds roll off Grand Traverse Bay, leaving a fog that hangs over the edges of the harbor. A chill breeze wipes away memories of the warm, sunny day. It’s a perfect evening for a Twilight Walking Tour with Jim and Mary Couling, who share ghost stories at Clinch Park. The hour and a half tour is filled with a variety of short stories and vignettes. We were left entertained, enlightened and a bit surprised by their tales that test the very limits of logic and reason.
Entering their 11th season of tours, the Coulings recently moved to Traverse City from St. Ignace and brought their beloved business with them. The official opening night was July 20, and more tours are scheduled every week for the rest of the season. You can even book a private tour, if you’re brave enough to go alone. The husband and wife duo shares ghost stories from all over Michigan, including Traverse City. Throughout the narration, Mary incorporates her beautiful voice in song, adding to the charm and spirit of the tour.
Over the years, many stories have been collected by the Coulings by interviewing authors and experts, and customers have shared their own experiences and knowledge. Miners, lumberjacks, lighthouse keepers, sunken ships are at the center of many of their stories. Each tour, however, is slightly different; one never knows what will happen on a Twilight Tour.
“Things started happening,” says Jim Couling, referring to spiritual happenings during his tours in St. Ignace. “Things started happening a lot, things that we didn’t put in the walk. One person came up at the end of a walk and said, ‘When we were standing in that alley, something put their hand on my neck.’ I didn’t tell anyone. A couple weeks later it happened at the same place to a different person. We’ve had a hundred things like that happen.” As the tour becomes established, perhaps “things” will begin to happen here in Traverse City, too.
Often at the end of a tour, people will come and talk to Jim and Mary. They share all sorts of experiences and accounts. “People tell me about their life, things that don’t fit into normal parameter. They are giving [me] a gift of confidence. I’m not a minister here, I’m just a storyteller,” Jim says. “Then I realized that this is a place that’s safe.This is a place where you can talk about something and nobody looks at you like you need a rubber room. Most everybody has had something happen to them that really is at the edge of unexplainable. It’s really an honor because you just meet this person an hour and a half ago, and now they are going to give you a gift that’s very personal, complete with tears sometimes.”
“Most everybody has had something happen to them that really is at the edge of unexplainable. It’s really an honor because you just meet this person an hour and a half ago, and now they are going to give you a gift that’s very personal, complete with tears sometimes.”
Jim and Mary Couling were first introduced to the idea of ghost tours in Stratford, Ontario at the Shakespearean Festival over 10 years ago. Their daughter Emily suggested they venture out to a local ghost tour where they witnessed a fellow with a top hat, a fake Irish accent and a less-than-entertaining walking tour. To this Emily said, “If he can do this, why can’t we?” Thus, two magical words were introduced: what if? Jim took the idea and ran with it.
Back in St. Ignace, no ghost tours had ever been attempted, making it the perfect place to test out the new family idea. After interviewing authors and looking for a route, Jim began practicing with his daughter. Emily was quick to help her dad, saying, “You want this to be good or not? I’m the director. You are going to learn to walk backward and tell stories too.”
After getting a Michigan Arts Council Grant, things began to take off for the walking tour.
“We’ve had several ghosts show up [like] a little girl in a long white skirt. It’s fantastic,” Jim says. According to the Coulings, a majority of the ghosts in St. Ignace, are from the 1920s and 1930s during prohibition. “People were having such a good time they didn’t want to leave,” Mary says. One spirit they call Guy in Business Suit, or Gibs for short, has been seen by patrons as well, reportedly asking them, “Do you like gatherings?” a 1920’s way of asking, “Where’s the party?”
These ghost stories are not fabrications, but myths and tales that have been passed down to them, often with strong cultural ties. The Coulings incorporate Native American culture, beginning the tour with a formal Anishinaabe greeting. They also are both of Celtic background and share stories and folklore in connection with their Scottish background.
In the future, Twilight Tours may expand to different variations of the Ghost Tour, depending on the demand in Traverse City. The couple hopes to initiate a tour they call “Strong Women of the North.” There is a whole genre of incredible women whose stories are not being told, Jim says. “I would love to see this tour take off.”
“People come up and say, ‘I don’t believe in this stuff, but …’ What you’ve got is someone who normally doesn’t believe but their personal experience overrides their bias,” Jim says. All people, even the most ardent non-believers, often have some experience that makes them wonder about the possible spiritual world. To Jim and Mary, it’s very real; a tour with them will reveal their passion for sharing stories and belief of the beyond. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll even meet one of the ghosts that seem to be drawn to the spirited Couling couple.