Munising MI isn’t what you’d call a destination city. Its main claim to fame is the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and boating, fishing, snowmobiling or ice fishing. We were in Munising for a week and promptly checked Pictured Rocks off the must-see list, an experience I blogged about earlier. We’d be poor travelers indeed if we didn’t look any further into the area. Another attraction is Grand Island; since we had plenty of time we took a day to check it out.
Grand Island is—well, it’s an island just off the shore in the South Bay of Lake Superior. To reach it requires a ferry boat ride. Like all things in the UP, the ferry boat is pretty casual. It’s more like an oversized pontoon boat. The island is a designated National Recreation area, though at one time not too long ago it was a thriving island community with many residents. It was settled by fur traders in 1846, mainly to establish trade with the Ojibway Indians. Naturally, indigenous people lived on Grand Island well before any white settlers. Artifacts as early as 1300 BCE have been found on the island. The island was designated a national recreation area in 1990. There are still private properties on the island belonging to families who have lived there for generations. The deal is that when the family decides they are done with island living, the property must be sold to the National Park Service. This arrangement is similar to Glacier National Park; there are family homes along the banks of Lake McDonald that remain in the family until such time as they are sold.
As long as you are a lover of all things outdoors, activities on the island are plentiful year round, everything from wilderness camping to snowmobiling. For the less hardy there are bus tours; not the mega bus tours you see in wester national parks, but bone-shaking short busses that roar along on the few interior island roads. More on those so-called roads later. The thing to do on Grand Island for day-trippers such as we is to bike around the island. We’d brought our hybrid bikes along, and spent every opportunity quizzing outfitters in town whether it would be OK to use our bikes on the gravel roads of the island. People were irritatingly non-committal. “Well, some people do use their own bikes.” they would say. One guy told us “just ride along until you can’t go any further.” We looked at the rentals, and they were definitely beefier off-road models equipped with fat tires and front suspension systems, but hardly exotic. They were also fairly expensive to rent, and we are cheap senior citizens with our own bikes. The island map designated roads and trails. We figured we’d be fine if we stuck to the roads, so we decided to take a chance. More on that choice (and the roads) later.
The ferry ride started at the Grand Island Visitor Center where we met Patrick. Patrick was kind of a cross between a college professor and Jimmy Buffett. As is the case in most everyone who works or lives in the UP his job involved double duty. He alternately managed the Visitor Center and operated the ferry. It was Patrick who had told us to ride till we could go no further. Patrick sold us our tickets and walked out to the dock to assume his role as Captain. Captan Patrick and an assistant helped stack bicycles in the free space of the boat and we were off for a pleasant 15 minute ride. He also showed us a shortcut on the map that would shave time off our island ride. Marking time is important on Grand Island, because the last ferry leaves at 6PM. Patrick stressed that we must make the last ferry to avoid a dreadful fate. Miss the last ferry and you’ll find yourself a castaway for 12 hours with only the pit toilets for shelter. It’s less than a mile from the visitor center, so those more fortunate than you can see you and laugh at you as you beg them to come back and get you. The few island residents are apparently done with rescuing clueless tourists for a night, so you’ll need to gut it out unless you are willing to contact the National Park Service for an emergency rescue. And. They. Will. Send. You. A. Huge. Bill. Having properly informed us with all due diligence Patrick unloaded our bikes at William’s Landing and headed back across the bay to the visitor center dock.
I was reassured when a rider came up using a bike that was similar to ours, pulling a small bike trailer. His presence and the size of his tires emboldened us and we set out on our adventure. As I mentioned earlier, we decided we’d stick to the roads rather than explore the single track paths. I’d read there were bus tours on the island which had set an expectation in my mind of what the road surface might be like. Dear readers, I was oh so sadly deceived by my imagination. My imagination lies to me frequently, I don’t know why I still trust it. The roads were roadlike in that they were quite wide and level, but most un-roadlike in that they were alternately a bone-shaking washboard texture or clogged with wide soft patches of sand that swamped our wheels. Both conditions made the bike ride agonizingly slow. Ride too fast and you’d come to an abrupt stop as the bike wheels sank two inches into a sand trap. Alternately a smoother patch would lull you into taking your eyes off the road surface and in an instant you’d be breaking your dental work clattering over ruts. Short busses roared past us from time to time cramped with bug-eyed passengers flailing in the seats. Perhaps the point of the tour was to give them a buckboard experience. We learned to dive off the shoulder and wait till the dust clouds settled to proceed.
All that aside, it was a beautiful ride. Trees arched over the roads making what could have been a hot dusty ride pleasant. Views of the lake came and went and there were plenty of opportunities to hop off the bike to explore, a nice thing when your bones, teeth and ass are taking a pounding. We found an old settler cabin with a beautiful view of the lake from its front porch, and the cemetery where generations of islanders have put their dead. I love cemeteries, and this one was unique because it was off the beaten path—literally. A narrow rugged path wound up to the burial sites, and the graves were set among the trees in such a way that they did not disrupt the forest. Pallbearers must have had to walk caskets up to the burial sites, no mean feat in that area. According to the marker, it is the oldest cemetery of white people in the area. Islanders and shipwreck victims are buried there, as are several unmarked graves.
What with the slow riding pace, frequent stops to take in views and cemeteries, we realized that we had gone about 3 miles in two hours, and weren’t yet at the halfway point of our ride. We’d arrived on the island at around 2:30, and if the rest of the ride was going to be as rough that would put us perilously close to the last ferry ride. It was at this moment of realization that we arrived at the shortcut Patrick advised us about. it was .06 of a mile—I couldn’t imagine it would be that hard—remember I told you earlier about my faulty imagination, right? Regardless, the short cut would lop off at least a 45 minute stretch of the nasty road. We got on our bikes and headed onto the broad leafy path of the short-cut.
As I have started a new paragraph, I’m sure you can predict there is more to the story. I was in front pedaling along all tra-la-la about this pretty shortcut when I nearly flew over my handlebars as both my wheels abruptly burrowed into sand. We labored through that section and then the trail went up. Straight up. From that point forward, it felt like a re-enactment of the movie The African Queen where Bogart and Hepburn are dragging their boat through a leech-infested swamp. It was almost like that but without the water and the leeches—and of course, no boat. Still. We pushed and dragged our bikes over ruts, roots and boulders. We passed a couple on bikes who were coming down hill, also walking their bikes. They’d rented fat-tire bikes but I was relieved to see that they didn’t look any happier than we did. Long after we passed I thought I should have asked them if they’d gotten a short cut tip from Patrick. Lost opportunity there. Maybe we were miserable but we’d saved 80 bucks. Still, that was the longest .06 of a mile I’d traveled. Finally we emerged on the road just in time for a tour bus to roar by in a cloud of dust. We coughed a few times and headed out. The ride back was much like the ride in, but by this time we were pros, spotting the sand pits just ahead and screeching to a halt on our own.
We rolled back into William’s Landing and joined about 15 other people who were waiting for the ferry. It was the penultimate ferry of the day, so we’d arrived with plenty of time to spare. There were lots of people with bikes waiting to cross over, so many I didn’t think there would be enough room on the boat for all the bikes. Naturally this was not Patrick’s first rodeo, and he carefully stacked and lined up all the bikes to fit in their allotted space.
On the short ride across the bay, we chatted with two guys who had spent a few days backpacking on the island. They’d had a grand time, loving the spectacular night sky that is visible only in the UP. If you’re in Munising, do visit the island. If you are hale enough to schlep all your belongings on your back for a few days, by all means do that. If not. I suggest you pony up the money and get the fat tire bikes. Your hiney will thank you for it.