Up North Michigan

Text: Ken Aiken • Photography: Ken Aiken

The dark, narrow pavement defined by nothing more than white stripes at the edges winds through the deep shade of the forest canopy. Occasionally I catch glimpses of water far below. Impossibly blue, it stretches to the horizon and sparkles in the late afternoon sun. Homes are tucked away, nestled in the woods, which only enhances the visual treat of riding this route. With little to detract from the view, "The Tunnel of Trees" has almost everything I look for in a scenic touring road. Like the saying goes, I'd saved the best for last.

I love riding over big bridges, and the Mighty Mac, stretching over the Straits of Mackinac, is one of the great ones. Far removed from the ocean, a transatlantic freighter passes under me on its long voyage there. Water everywhere, it's no wonder the early explorers were convinced they had discovered the elusive Northwest Passage when they ventured up the St. Lawrence River and entered the Great Lakes.

The narrow strait connecting Lake Michigan to Lake Huron was a strategic military location long before fur traders arrived on the scene. Underneath the southern end of the bridge in Mackinaw City is the reconstructed early-eighteenth-century Fort Michilmackinac. Mackinaw City has only 860 year-round residents, but up to 15,000 visitors a day during a busy summer weekend. A large portion of these visitors are taking the ferries (no motorized vehicles allowed) from downtown Mackinaw City to historic Mackinaw Island, site of the British fort and village established after Indians captured Fort Michilmackinac in 1763.

When riders cruise down the Sunrise Side Coastal Highway to Cheboygan, then south through the woods of Up North Michigan, the effects of clear-cut timber operations are visible mile after mile. Vast acreage has been stripped of all trees in some sections, and most of the woods passed are simply pine trees of uniform size and spacing. But there's plenty of wildlife in the area. I have to slow to second gear for a wild turkey deciding to cross or not. A few miles later it's a whitetail deer, and then another turkey. My approach even alerts a bald eagle ripping road kill from the pavement to gather its powerful wings and slowly lift toward the treetops.

Wildlife adventures aside, the straight line down Route 33 bores me. So when a sign to SINKHOLES - 3 Miles appears, I turn left onto a gravel road. In fourth gear on loose crushed stone, I quickly shift to third when hitting a stretch of tooth-chipping washboard. The consistency changes to loose sand covering gravel. The Beemer is now in second. And then I wallow along in traps composed of ultra-fine, pastry-flour sand that fills the deeper ruts in the gravel. Struggling in first gear with my feet stretched out like outriggers, I'm no longer bored. Finally coming upon the remote environs of Tomahawk Lake (one of the sinkholes), I discover a beautiful body of water preserved for all as a state park with campsites along the shore. The need to make a phone call is the primary reason I don't make camp early (fees paid on the honor system), but also if it rained, the thought occurs, I'd never be able to get back out.

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the November/December 2003 back issue.