A Winter Vacation Above the Mackinac Bridge in St. Ignace

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We pile into the truck with luggage, snow gear and a bag of hats, gloves and little packets of hand warmers. Our family of four is heading on a Northern Michigan vacation, almost three hours north to the place in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where two Great Lakes meet: St. Ignace.

It’s late Friday afternoon when we reach the landmark that indicates we are leaving one world for another: The Mackinac Bridge, a five-mile-long suspension bridge that connects the two peninsulas of Michigan.

As we drive north on the bridge, we fall into complete silence; radio off, headphones out, devices black. We are suspended 200 feet in the air, with Lake Michigan on the left and Lake Huron on the right. Not only can we see Mackinac Island to the right, but we can also seemingly see forever in all directions. Above, the twin towers of the bridge mark the winter sky.

Two lanes of traffic run in each direction, but, for the most part, cars travel in the outside lane. The inside lanes are, and always have been, a bit of a dare. There, the bed of the road is nothing more than metal grates that let wind pass through. You can drive on them, but alas, you can also see through them, all the way down to the water churning below our truck.

“Drive on the green grates, Dad!” The kids, Kendall, 17, and Nelson, 15, always say this, and they always watch for my reaction.

“I’d rather you didn’t,” I say, which may have been heard as, “Don’t you dare!” Five miles later, I breathe easier. We are back on land.

We pay $4 at the tollbooth to a worker wearing red and black flannel, britches and short, dark hair under a black Stormy Kromer hat.

“Welcome to the U.P.!” she says. “There’s a storm coming!”

The Start of our St. Ignace Vacation

The storm has been the talk of the trip. We’d even asked ourselves off and on whether we should head north into the eye of a storm with a forecasted 8–10 inches of snow and up to 30 mph winds. Yes, we’d decided. We are ready to see the U.P. winter at its wildest.

We start where I recommend you start: At the Huron Boardwalk. The boardwalk winds along the downtown St. Ignace waterfront, past restaurants, museums, parks and shops. It’s a recon mission for the family—finding the interpretive signs in the snow with the history of the Straits parted out for us. We find a weathered rudder from a 1,212-ton wooden steamer sunk in the Straits in the spring of 1894. It’s bigger than us, bigger than our truck, towering overhead. A reminder of how small we are in the face of Mother Nature.

This time of year, every rock in the break wall is topped with snow, and the red and white Wawatam Lighthouse stands tall against the blue-gray of sky meeting water. It looks like nothing short of a painting. We listen, following a sound we can’t immediately place. It’s the muted movement of ice shifting below our feet with unseen waves.

We stay, watching, letting the last of the daylight disappear from the sky, enjoying the calm before the storm.

It’s a stunning welcome to St. Ignace.

Check out the best things to do in St. Ignace.

The St. Ignace Shops

As we head downtown the snow has not started, but the air holds promise.

We find what is essentially a Hallmark movie set. The shops that are closed for the season look like props—quaint storefronts with snow-capped roofs. We see more snowmobiles than we do people. The road is quiet, and the view is unbelievable. We have the place to ourselves.

The first shop we stop at is, of course, a pasty shop. It’s Lehto’s Pasties, opened in 1947, and famous all over the “Yoop.” (Pasty is pronounced like it’s from the past—“past-ee”—and it is!) These hand-held meat-and-vegetable pies are made with beef, potatoes and onion, along with its most contentious ingredient, rutabaga. (Half my family will eat them; half won’t.) The Cornish pasty arrived in the U.P. with the miners from Cornwall, England, in the 1840s. Their favorite dish made a mark on Yooper life, even as Finns and Italians outnumbered them in the region’s copper, iron and silver mines. The pasty became the go-to miner’s meal then and remains the go-to meal for Yoopers (and visitors) to this day.

Next, we come across a toy and hobby shop, nestled like a mirage on a winter landscape. Kendall and Nelson can’t believe their luck. Inside, a woman greets us wearing a navy-blue sweatshirt and a bulky pair of headphones, holding court over the biggest inventory of remote-control car parts we’ve ever seen. There are also model trains, all kinds of toys and collectible cards. I soon find my own little jackpot; an entire row of Michigan-themed jigsaw puzzles. There isn’t an electronic screen in sight.

Trisha hitches one headphone up above her left ear as she rings us up. “There’s a snowstorm coming,” she says.

Your guide to St. Ignace shopping.

The Whitefish

The Village Inn parking lot is loaded with snowmobile trailers and trucks, and the restaurant is full of couples, families and, in the back, two old church pews sit against the wall for those waiting for a seat. The bar itself is all wood, glasses hanging from the ceiling. It’s a step back in time; beautiful and dark and northern.

I order the planked whitefish, their signature dish. Trisha from the hobby shop told me I had to. So did Lora at the St. Ignace Visitors Bureau. They were well informed. It’s delicious: A fresh whole fillet baked on a maple plank with sautéed vegetables and a Parmesan-crusted tomato crown, bordered with duchess potatoes.

I pair it with, what else, a “Yooper” pale ale from Upper Hand Brewery in Escanaba.

I pour my husband, Tim, half. We tip aluminum can and beer glass together.

“Cheers!”

The Bowling

Next, we head to Gateway Lanes & Fred’s Pub, just about the only nightly entertainment in town this time of year. The parking lot is packed, so I jump from the truck and hurry inside to put our name on the list.

There was no need. Inside there are eight lanes, seven of which are still open. Everyone is here for the Friday Night Fish Fry in the pub.

The boys must face the facts: They are trapped in a U.P. bowling alley, alone, with their parents. Our family togetherness is entering new territory.

Nelson decides to make it more interesting. He bets his brother, “Five bucks says you can’t beat me by 15 pins.”

“You’re on,” comes the response. Kendall picks out a 15-pound and a 10-pound ball. He throws one with form, then the other as hard as he can to see if that’s any better. The walls of the alley, we notice, are conveniently covered in carpeting to deafen the sound of two brothers fighting to the death.

Finally, the game is over. Nelson wins the bet, but Kendall wins the game. They are both winners. Still, there is a tense standoff between siblings with both parents telling them to drop it. St. Ignace, it turns out, is a perfect place for long-held family traditions, too.

At 9 p.m., the entire place clears out. “Where’s everyone going?” I ask.

“There’s a storm coming,” the bartender says.

The View

We head over to check-in at the Super 8 off of US-2. Up to the second floor we go, but when Nelson uses the key to open the door to our room, he slams his hand over the light switch and stops us.

“Wait, you gotta see this!” he exclaims.

We drop everything, the hotel door propped open because we aren’t even all the way in. And there, at the far end of the room, with the curtains open, we can see it: Countless blue, green, yellow and red lights are strung in parallel over the twin arches of the Mackinac Bridge, stretched from one peninsula to the other. Below, car headlights move on the deck, tiny and in slow-mo.

We rush to the balcony and step out into the crisp 19-degree night. We take pictures that don’t do it justice, then come in, turn up the heat and go over our finds from the hobby shop. Since we’ve crossed the bridge, our phones have all but disappeared. We are “unplugged” and happy.

It’s the only hotel room I’ve ever stayed in where I kept the curtains open all night.  At 3 a.m., I wake and look. The bridge is gone. The storm has arrived.

Where to stay in St. Ignace.

The Java

There is an overall sense of glee come morning. There’s nothing like a fresh blanket of the white stuff to make everything magical. Especially when it’s coming down in a blinding amount.

We drive into town. The wind is coming off Lake Huron, and the snow is blowing sideways. We drive through small drifts in the truck, trying to find our side of the road. But we’re not in danger. It’s dawn, the town is deserted and we can drive wherever we’d like.

We pull into Java Joe’s. “Sit wherever you’d like,” says the waitress. Donna has short, brown hair and is running the till. “Roberto!” she calls to the kitchen, “we have company!”

The walls are yellow and the floor is painted with a mural of the bridge. We sit at a table over the north tower. On the walls are dozens of ceramic teapots. There’s Miss Piggy, a white goose and a couple of bears climbing a tree-pot.

“Why teapots?” I ask.

“We like ‘em,” Donna says. “We sell about 1,200 teapots a year to our visitors.”

Donna has worked here for 19 years; she returns with omelets and piles of pancakes within minutes. “They just shut down the ferry,” she reports. “They can’t see past the bow of the boat in this snow.”

The ferry doesn’t run tourists to Mackinac Island this time of year. Instead, it transports workers to the island for maintenance and renovations to the hotels and restaurants during the off-season. When the lake does freeze over, the Coast Guard will place old Christmas trees across the ice to mark a path to the island for the workers to get there by snowmobile, Donna tells us. The five-mile ice bridge is a destination for tourists, too, often a once-in-a-lifetime experience to snowmobile, bike or hike across the lake to the island.

Donna warns us the Mackinac Bridge might close because of the storm. I have to admit, I’m nervous. Or maybe excited. What if we get stranded up here? I envision plenty of card games, bowling and hanging out with the boys. They probably feel a grip of fear to be stranded anywhere with their parents.

“Bundle up,” Donna says as we gather our things. “It’s storming out there!”

The Trail

We park at Straits State Park. We are the only ones here, and there are no tracks to be found. We get on our snow pants and jackets, and I slip heated charcoal packets into my mittens. We find our way to the trailhead.

Here, the state park trail overlaps the North Country Trail. In the woods, we hike to a lookout where a tunnel through the trees offers a view of the bridge. According to a chat with Tom Walker, president of the local North Country Trail chapter, the lookout is where, in 1954, the surveyors gauged the direction of the bridge as they built it, to keep it straight across the Straits. At the time, they were building the longest suspension bridge in the world.

According to the Mackinac Bridge Authority, the center deck of the bridge can move as much as 35 feet to the side from the force of steady winds. After the winds subside, the weight of the cars brings the bridge back to center slowly.

“Are you serious?” the boys ask. The drive home in 30 mph winds just took on a new level of excitement.

We hike to the Straits next. There are great ice heaves, and the wind is absolutely howling across the surface of the lake. We look, we listen, we withstand the elements. We are in the grip of Lake Huron’s power for a few moments.

St. Ignace is an outdoor lover’s paradise. Explore these places by land and water. 

“Should we go?” I ask, feeling the cold start to bite.

“No way!” the boys answer, digging up sand under the snow and picking up great sheets of ice created by the push of waves and wind onshore. The two kids who didn’t want to hike, are insisting we stay longer.

Eventually, we head back to the truck, walking in a real-world snow globe. Any hair peeking out from under our hats is drenched, and the snow keeps coming, huge fat flakes on our cheeks, our eyelashes, our lips. We hike on an unplowed road in the campground. It’s a white, unmarred expanse. It may be storming, the trees, the lake and the snow all bending and shifting, high above them the wind is raging. But down here, on the ground, we are content, windswept and together.

The Return

I have to admit that I wasn’t sure if the boys would enjoy a trip like this, secluded in the quiet, winter world of the U.P. But it’s been a joy, unexpected memories made. At home, we would have spent the last two days doing our own things, but here, we are battling a blizzard. It’s lovely.

When we climb into the warm truck, there’s news from the radio: They are escorting high-profile vehicles across the bridge because of the storm.

“Should we head home?” I ask. I’m reluctant to break the spell.

But Nelson isn’t concerned.

“Don’t worry, Mom,” he says. “St. Ignace is our new tradition!”

He’s right. We’ll be back.

Kandace Chapple is the editor and publisher of Grand Traverse Woman Magazine. Her essays have been published in Writer’s Digest, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Literary Mama, Motherwell and more. She loves to mountain bike on Northern Michigan trails, hike with her dog, Cookie, and spend time with her husband and two sons. kandacechapple.com

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