Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year from Michigan: An Explorer's guide

As we slip into our coldest month, I'm thinking about the warmer months when I'll be traveling the state working on a new travel book, The Paddler's Guide to Michigan, which will be published by The Countryman Press in the spring of 2011. As I work on the book this winter, I hope thoughts of warm Michigan waters will get me through the months ahead.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Michigan travel resolutions for 2010

The economy is keeping people closer to home, and for us folks in Michigan, that’s not a bad thing, there are plenty of places to see and things to do near home. There’s also a growing movement to buy Michigan made products, and travel in the state is one of those.
To consider yourself a Michigan person, here are ten places to put on your 2010 New Year’s travel resolutions.
1. The Mackinac Bridge. If you haven’t seen the five-mile bridge connecting the Upper and Lower peninsulas, you really can’t consider yourself a Michigan resident.
2. The Pictured Rocks. Located in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore between Grand Marais and Munising, the cliffs and sand dunes on Lake Superior are some of the most stunning sights in the state. For the outdoor minded, there’s a hiking trail the length of the area. Kayaking along the lake is also a good way to see them. For others, there are boat tours from Munising. One tip: Take the evening cruise; the colors of the rock formations are more vibrant at that time of day.
3. Keweenaw Peninsula. At one point during the 19th century, the region was one of the most important in Michigan because of copper mining. The town of Calumet had a population of more than 60,000, many of them immigrants from Finland, Italy and Great Britain, all drawn by mining jobs. A national historical park encompasses much of the old mining areas from Houghton/Hancock to Calumet, with many of the building open to the public. Calumet’s downtown looks as though it was abandoned in about 1910. The rugged Lake Superior shoreline looks more like Maine than Michigan.
4. Indian Village. The neighborhood of about 350 houses on Detroit’s near east side was home to the city’s elite, starting in the 1890s and continues to be that today. There are many Arts & Crafts homes, and there’s an annual home tour. Go to, for more information.
5. The Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area. Located about ten miles south of Manistee on Lake Michigan, the dunes are lesser known than the Sleeping Bear Dunes near Traverse City, but are just as stunning and there are fewer people. The 3,500-area area offers camping and lovely days at the beach. Nearby Manistee is less crowded and less expensive than Traverse City, and has two Lake Michigan beaches.
6. The Thumb. It’s probably one of the most overlooked regions of the state, but it has its charms, lighthouses, small towns and decent beaches, especially at Caseville. In the fall, the farm fields look golden, and there are many roadside stands offering produce.
7. Grand Rapids. The downtown is alive with activity and nightlife. The Amway Plaza Hotel is the centerpiece. Many of the older buildings have been renovated. Also, the Meijer Gardens attract many visitors.
8. Beaver Island. Located 30 miles from the mainland in Lake Michigan, the island isn’t as well known as Mackinac, but it has its own allure. Ferry service is based in Charlevoix, and you can take your auto to the island. Try taking a bicycle or just walking, they’re cheaper than taking your car over.
9. The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. Take the plunge this year, and stay in this historic Victorian hotel that was built in 1887. The iconic structure that presides over the island still has a Victorian feel to it. There’s a dress code, but that’s a small price to pay for staying in an elegant place. Room rates start at $230 night, so it’s not out of reach.
10. Cranbrook Art Museum. Located in Bloomfield Hills, the museum is part of the Cranbrook Educational Community and is filled with the works of contemporary artists. It also focuses on design and architecture.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Best Michigan spots for New Year's Eve

If you’re looking for a place to celebrate New Year’s Eve and don’t want to do much driving, here’s a list of hotels, inns and destinations that fit that criteria. They’re scattered around the state and range from high-price hotels and inns to simple places.
The Perry Hotel in Petoskey is one of my top choices. It’s a small, intimate hotel with a cozy bar in the basement and a good dining room. The gaslight downtown district of Petoskey is within walking distance, and offers shopping in specialty stores. The City Grill, nearby, an excellent restaurant for casual dining. Hotel rates, $55-$270. For reservations, call 231-347-4000.
The Landmark Hotel in Marquette is a top choice because of its view of Lake Superior and location in the Downtown area. The elegant 62-room hotel has a wonderful lobby to hang out in, a casual bar which also serves food and an elegant dining room for formal occasions. Rates are $125-$270. It’s just a few blocks walk to the Vierling Restaurant & Marquette Harbor Brewery, which serves up its only locally produced beer and casual to upscale meals. Prices, $12-$20. Snowbound Books is also nearby, and offers many Michigan-related books. Call 906-228-2580 for reservations.

The St. Clair Inn is about 50 miles from downtown Detroit, but seems a world away. The building, with a view of the St. Clair River, is a National Historic site, and opened in 1926. The rooms have been modernized over the years, and the rates are $50-$150. The River Lounge Bar is the casual watering hole in the Inn, and there are also more formal dining rooms. Call, 800-482-8327 for reservations.

The Ramsdell Inn in downtown Manistee in northwestern Michigan offers ten rooms and suits in an 1891 Victorian stone structure on the town’s main drag, River Street. It would be just the place for New Year’s. There’s a first floor pub, and it’s within walking distance of other downtown restaurants and taverns. There’s a boardwalk along the nearby Manistee River. Rates, about $100. For reservations, call 231-398-7901.

Detroit’s Greek town offers numerous restaurants and taverns in which to celebrate the evening. Our personal favorite is the Laikon CafĂ©, which serves up authentic Greek food. If you’re spending the night, the Atheneum Hotel on nearby Brush Street offers 174 rooms. For reservations, call 313-962-2323.

Grand Rapids is alive with nightlife in the safe, clean downtown area. At the center of the entertainment district is the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel. In the hotel is The 1913 Room, a top-flight restaurant, entrees, $20-$36. For reservations, call 616-774-2000.

Bay City’s Midland Street entertainment district is a draw for many younger folks, with numerous bars and taverns housed in older, restored buildings. Our favorite is the old Arlington Hotel, which was once a lumberjack hotel. The best place to stay is at the Doubletree Hotel on the Saginaw River. The hotel is newer and modern, and has a bar. Call 989-891-6000.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Hats off to Made in Michigan Kromer

The wool winter coat came out the other day and along with it, a battered Stormy Kromer, one of those wool caps that looks like it should have been worn by an Upper Peninsula logger in the 19th century or a European immigrant during the same time period.
They aren’t exactly what you’d call hip in an urban way, but they have a certain backwoods chic to them, if worn properly. They should be pulled down as far as possible, giving you a Finnish farm boy look. And if it’s cold and windy, pulling the flap down keeps the cap snugly on your head.
Only once did my cap blow off and that was on a winter day in Marquette when the winds off of Lake Superior hit about 50 miles an hour, so strong that the power in the downtown area was knocked out. And I did have to scramble for the cap, which was being tossed around by the wind.
They’re made in Michigan and have an Upper Peninsula heritage. As the story goes, the hat was created in about 1903 when George “Stormy” Kromer, a semi-pro baseball player and railroad engineer kept losing his hat when gusts of wind blew through his locomotive. He asked his wife, Ida, to do some work on one of his ball caps. She came up with the Kromer.
During my travels, researching Michigan: An Explorer’s Guide, I stopped in at the Stormy Kromer plant in Ironwood Michigan. It did my heart good to see local people working in the plant in the western Upper Peninsula, where unemployment is high. According to the company, it will produce 65,000 of the caps this year.
The firm also makes shirts, gloves, jackets and other items, all made in Michigan. Check out their products at their website,, they’re about the same price as sportswear produced overseas.
I had a particular treat this past fall when rambling around the western Upper Peninsula with a friend who was picking up a new vehicle. We went to a large hunting and fishing lodge, a classic north woods log lodge compound and discovered that the folks from Stormy Kromer shot the photos for their hats at the place.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Christmas shopping for made in Michigan

This is the Christmas for us folks in Michigan to try helping our neighbors by buying some of their goods and services. The buy Michigan campaign is growing, and even the Detroit Free Press is taking note. They recently had a decent spread on holiday books written by Michigan authors.
That’s a good start, but it got me to thinking how we can support Michigan folks who have real jobs making things. I’m talking about the stuff we use in real life, not just plates with the seal of Michigan on them or other trinkets.
Actually, I’ve been concerned about this for a while, and while traveling the state to research and write my travel book, Michigan: An Explorer’s Guide, I took note of all the great things we produce here in the state.
When writing the travel guide, I gave my Jeep Cherokee center stage because I wanted people from other parts of the country to know that we not only build cars, but we drive the ones we make.
From my travels, I compiled a list of Michigan products, things that we use in our daily lives that we need.
• Food: This fact from a state website struck me the most. If we all just spent $10 a week on Michigan agricultural products that would mean an additional $37 million would go into our economy.
• Wood: Yep, we still cut down trees in this state, and build things out of them. Timber industry workers and carpenters make decent living wages and support families, unlike the checkout clerks at big box stores. I mention this because several years ago, I remodeled a room in my home and tried to use as many Michigan products in it as possible. My carpenter used a local lumber yard, and for the ceiling, I went on line searching for Michigan white cedar. I found it at a small mill in Boyne City, Town & Country. We called, ordered the tongue and grove paneling, and the folks at the mill had it shrink wrapped and sent to us via UPS. It arrived just on time for my carpenter, and it was no more expensive than if I’d bought it at a big box store. Here’s the mill’s website:
• Beer: Here’s a product consumed in many Michigan homes on a regular basis. There are many brew pubs that serve their own products, but there are Michigan beers on the shelves of many party stores. Pick up a six-pack of Bell’s, Arcadia or Atwater, all Michigan made brews.
• Clothing: Carhartt is a Michigan firm that produces tough work and outdoor clothing, much of which is made in Michigan. But not all, so check the label before buying.
• Footwear – Wolverine Boots of Rockford Michigan produces rugged outdoor and work boots. Again, not all of their footwear is made in Michigan, so check the label, but at least the company is still located in Michigan.
• Wine – Michigan made wine is making a good name for itself. Picking up a bottle for the holidays is a way to keep you money working in your home state.

If you’re interested in supporting Michigan products, here’s a website devoted to the subject:

Also, is a good website to find American made clothing. Check out the prices, they’re really not much higher than the stuff from overseas.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Pure Michigan should be revived

It was a sad thing when the state legislature cut the Pure Michigan budget from about $30 million to $5 million this fall. It was not very noteworthy in a way, with the financial problems faced by the entire state, but the trouble is it really hit middle class families where they live – their businesses.
While traveling through Northern Michigan this summer, I heard nothing but good things about the public relations/advertising program that has been pushed through parts of the nation. Resort owners near Munising said it really helped bring people to Michigan this past summer.
That’s a good thing. Once folks start a family tradition of going to a certain place on a certain weekend, they tend to come back year after year. Motel owners in the Keweenaw Peninsula told me that Finnish family reunions in that part of the state are a big boon for business.
So how do we keep people coming back to Michigan? I think we all need to put pressure on our state legislature to revive the Pure Michigan campaign. Look, we’re giving tax breaks to Hollywood to make movies in our state, which I think is a great thing. But maybe we could tighten a few of those loopholes, and push the money toward the people who live and pay taxes in our state. It’s the least we can do for the people who live here.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A Christmas gift to help from getting lost

For years I resisted the GPS trend and stuck resolutely to my trusty compass when grouse hunting, but this year I came into at least the 20th century, and joined the woodsy, computer crowd.
The change of mind was precipitated by an unscheduled walk last year during a hunt in the featureless eastern Upper Peninsula. I was hunting with a group guided by a fancy GPS system. We became separated, as usual , and I followed my compass, heading back to where I thought the truck was parked. Along the way, I took an extra 45 minute walk, quiet out of the way.
I eventually got back to the truck, but I caused some concern for my son, who came looking for me.
This year was different. My son bought me a Bushnell Back Track, a simple one purpose GPS system that’s easy to use, and at $70, fairly inexpensive. He’d found it in the L.L. Bean catalogue.
When he gave it to me, I looked at it, hesitant to turn it on. But I plunged in, and was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to use. There are only two buttons, one to turn on the power, and the other to mark your spot. I was using it within a half hour. You can mark four way points on the device, and it also has an electronic compass for back up.
The device simply tells you how far you are away from your vehicle or any other spot, and tells you what direction to take to get back. It doesn’t have fancy, color maps of where you are and it’s only good for a range of 99 miles, but as my son said, “If you’ve walked more than 100 miles from your truck, you’ve got more problems than finding your way back.”
The Back Track served me well during our fall hunt, and saved me some walking. The only complaint I have about it is that the directional arrow on it, telling you which way back, is too sensitive to movement, and swings wildly at times while walking. I found that by standing still for a moment, and holding the device level, it would give me a true reading. However, the distance it read was always correct, and measured almost every step taken.
It also has other uses. It works well as a car compass, and would be great for those looking to find their way back to the car in a crowded mall parking lot. Runners, bicyclists and cross-country skiers can also use them to determine how far they have traveled. Paddlers could also use it to find take out points, or negotiate backwaters.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Why we paddle

There was ice on the bird bath this morning and I mournfully put away all my paddling equipment. It hasn’t been used in the past couple of weeks, but I kept it out anyway, probably as a way to forestall the inevitable onset of another Michigan winter.
As I put away the paddles and other gear, I got to thinking, why do we paddle? If we just wanted to cross a body of water or fish, we’d use a motor boat, they’re faster and easier. But I think motor boats cut down on our horizons, while canoes/kayaks expand them. I’m attracted to the irony that paddling expands your world.
That’s because it slow you down. Zipping quickly from place to place on a small lake uses up the scenery at a fast pace. When you’re paddling, the landscape gently unfolds and you notice the small bays and you don’t frighten the wildlife.
There’s a small lake near my house that I paddle in late summer and early fall to catch a glimpse of sand hill cranes. They only nest in two places in Michigan, one in the Upper Peninsula and the other near my home in southern Michigan. A motor boat would send the cranes flying, but in my canoe, I can glide close enough to them so they can put on their gangly dance of a walk for me.
Also, a canoe/kayak can easily be landed on a shoreline, where you can explore small wetlands or natural features.
The horizon of the natural world gets larger, rather than contracts when paddling.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

A snap shot of Detroit in the 1930s

“It is not at all unusual for extreme statements to be made about Detroit as a center of radical thought, or for the city to appear at times to justify them.”

No, that quote wasn’t from the Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine or The New York Times, all of which have shown up from time to time to chronicle the downward spiral of the city; it’s from the WPA guide to Michigan published in 1941 as part of a depression –era federal program to put writers to work.
As the writer of travel guides, I’ve long wanted a copy of the book, Michigan: A Guide to the Wolverine State, and found one recently in an Ann Arbor book store. I didn’t know what to expect. Chamber of Commerce stuff, a smiley face placed on the Depression. What I found was an honest assessment of Detroit in the 1930s. The writers at the time observed the growing seeds of what would become the city’s demise, the one-industry town where life revolved around an auto plant.
The word picture drawn by these writers 70 years ago are for the most part still true. Here’s how they described us: “Detroiters work hard. The bulk of them have little time for culture, for the theater, the night club, or the erudite lecture. They find their recreation in going on Sunday drives with the family or cheering for their favorites at the baseball park. The Detroit Tigers enjoy the most loyal following of any baseball team in the major leagues – whether they win or lose.”
Apparently following losing teams like the Lions has been ingrained in our DNA for several generations.
The book points out that Detroit was a “respectable size (285,000 in 1900) before the automobile appeared,” and had a diversified economy. That changed as auto production became the main job of Detroiters, and the factories became focal points of the city.
The WPA writers in the 30s saw it this way: “Where, then, are all the people? A vantage point near one of the large factories at the end of a working shift will provide the answer. Here is the most exciting spectacle in all Detroit. The exodus of the crowd from a big football game is as nothing compared with it. Shrieking whistles signal the end of the work period, and the factory disgorges a veritable flood that fills the streets almost from curb to curb. It is a flood, not of men, solely, but of automobiles, and on the steering wheel of each are the calloused hands of a workingman.”
As for glitz, Detroit never had much, the WPA writers noted. “…it lacks something of the bloom and glitter of such cities as New York or Chicago. ‘Doing the night spots’ consists mainly of making the rounds of beer gardens, burlesque shows, and all-night movie houses.”
If you substituted the words “top-less bars” and around the clock “cable TV”, it would still be an accurate look at Detroit.
If we’re to diversify our state’s economy, we have a lot of work to do, and a nearly century old factory culture to change.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving for a Jeep

As we take time out from our work on Thanksgiving to be with friends and family, we count our blessings, children, grandchildren, parents, friends, our faith, having a job, but this year as we give thanks I’ll secretly be thinking of my 2001 Jeep Cherokee sitting in my garage.
The black Jeep will be turning 165,000 miles soon, and it’s only now after nine years of ownership that I’m really trying to appreciate it. Over the years, I’ve neglected it, left it mud caked after grouse hunting season, and dusty after trout fishing in the spring and summer.
That changed last spring when I ran into a Chrysler “car guy” while attending a Trout Unlimited banquet in Ann Arbor. He give the Jeep an admiring look, as though it was a lost child, and told me it was the last of the tough Jeeps made during the last year of production at the Toledo plant and had a six-cylinder engine that was made to last. He said it was made for 60 percent off road use, and for 40 percent highway driving. These days the percentages are reversed, which makes me want to hold onto the Cherokee.
His comments give the old buggy a new shine in my eyes, and I took it in for an oil change and washed it. In its shiny condition, it drew an admiring glace from a DNR worker at a State Park toll booth, who said it looked to be in good condition, and that she’d like to buy one like it, and I was prompted into further action. I cleaned the rust off the rims with naval jelly and covered a few rust spots on the rocker panels with black primer.
But even with the new good looks, I still wasn’t certain I’d hang on to it for as long as possible.
Then came the rack. I picked up a paddling guide to research and write for my publisher, and I knew I’d be hoisting a canoe and kayak on and off the top of the Jeep. For years, I’ve just been using the luggage rack, and tying my canoe to the front and back bumpers. The rope burns on the hood have been mounting, although I view them as patina – battle scars, like the squashed bug bodies, which I don’t seem to get rid of.
I bought a new Yakima boat rack that will handle a canoe and a kayak at the same time, and which has clamps that make it unnecessary to tie the boat down – no more scratches on the hood. The rack was a commitment because it wedded me to the Jeep for years to come. That’s because it fits on the rain gutters, a feature most new SUVs don’t have any more. I’d have to buy new parts for the rack system, if I bought a new car, and the new piece of equipment wasn’t cheap.
Although I know it’s not true, I feel I have a rack that’s worth more than my Jeep. That thought led me to decide I’ll be this Jeep’s last owner. That's a wonderfully liberating feeling.
The scratches and dings won't bother me, they’re the patina of my life worn on my Jeep for all to see.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Real travel means letting a trip take us someplace

“We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”
John Steinbeck, from Travels with Charley

For years I’ve embarked on outdoor trips such as trout fishing, hunting, backpacking, skiing, and canoeing/kayaking with good reasons for going. I’d plan the trips down to the last detail, even though I knew they wouldn’t turn out the way I envisioned while sitting in my den.
There was always gear to buy. Always more gear. I would check it out to make sure I knew how to use it properly. I’d pack my bags in a way so that I was certain to find the gear when I needed it.
As we all know, those plans veer off course when we encounter our objective, just as we do when we’re hunting for grouse in a new woods. Over the years, I’ve given up the idea of staying on course, although I still make my detailed plans in the den. It’s a habit by now.
I’ve come to the realization that getting lost is a good thing. And being by yourself makes it a better experience. For once, you can’t blame your spouse for the mess you’re in. It’s only when you’re lost or when nothing goes according to plan that you actually learn something.
Of course there are different kinds of travel. No, you don’t want to get lost while going to grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving dinner, the kids will get bored and relatives will be waiting to eat, and you’ll have to embarrassingly try to explain how you got lost when you’ve been there hundreds of time.
As for business travel, you’re shuttled from airports to hotels, and back again. That’s not travel at all. There are also the packaged trips on cruise liners or to a destination resort. You’re usually with somebody, and there’s little chance to wander by yourself.
Real travel is when you have no timetables, obligations or routines to maintain, for it is only then that you can slow down and really look around.
One late winter I had the urge to see the South, the South I knew as a kid during the 1950s, and used the excuse of attending a relative’s wedding in Arkansas, so I packed up my Jeep, and hit the road alone. I got off the freeway and zig zagged through the Ozarks, and found a bit of what I remembered.
At one point during the day, there was a dog standing in the middle of the road and it wouldn’t move until I honked my horn several times. There was little traffic on the maze of Ozark roads which tend to follow valleys, and don’t stick to the normal north-south, east-west grid, so I could drive slowly and check out the mostly abandoned farmsteads. These days we see out buildings of farms as quaint, but in reality each had a specific, practical purpose, and I wished my father, who was from Arkansas, was with me, because he knew their uses.
I saw a few mules in a barnyard, and later a man walking a lonely high country road carrying a cross that said: “Jesus Saves.” I wondered who the sign was aimed at, as there was no traffic. Was I the only sinner around? I took it as a message aimed at me.
Another time while fly-fishing in the Upper Peninsula, I crawled out of a remote spot on the Fox River and saw a truck parked near mine. They were the only two vehicles around.
Its owner was looking at burned pine stumps, of which there were thousands in the cut over, burned out forest land of the central U.P. I’ve wondered why the forests didn’t regenerate over the nearly hundred years since they’ve been cut. The stumps still have the axe marks made by long-dead lumber jacks.
Midwesterners aren’t an effusive people, particularly the Finns who populate the U.P., and who tend to look at their feet when they’re forced to make conversation. Whether the guy was a Finn or not, he followed the model, and we exchanged a few words. He was from Escanaba, and was wandering around looking for a particular stump that he and his step-father used 20 years ago to cook a meal when fishing.
We chatted for a while, and he went on his way, looking for more stumps and I headed back to the stream for more fishing. I thought about his seemingly impossible task, and the futility of it. Was he telling the truth? Why was he really there?
Then as I made my seeming one hundredth cast into the bend of a river, hoping for a trout to rise and thought: “What am I really doing here? I’m no less ridiculous than the man looking for one stump among thousands.”

Monday, November 16, 2009

Finding a new, old favorite beer

For more than 30 years I’ve been a devotee of beers from the Upper Midwest, usually ones from Wisconsin and Minnesota. My relationship started on fly-fishing trips to the Upper Peninsula, where I’d stop at small party stores along U.S. 2 to see what they had to offer.
I discovered Leinenkugel’s during the 1970s when it came in simple, Old School bottles with an Indian maiden on it. The beer was fresh, unpretentious, inexpensive and made to be drunk cold after a day of trout fishing. However, my loyalty has waned in recent years as Leinenkugle’s has become more popular and has adopted fancy labels and joined in the Beer Revolution with different types and flavors.
When the Beer Revolution started, my sons filled our garage beer fridge with all sorts of concoctions that test the notions of what beer really should be – a simple refreshing drink. As a reminder of the excesses of beer makers, I keep a bottle of one of those revolutionaries in garage beer fridge. Even though my two sons have had tons of beer drinking occasions, nobody has ventured to try it.
Least of all not me, I don’t need my beer to be made by Tapist monks from Belgium or to know that the hint of orange in it reminds the brewer of the early morning sunlight in Germany.
There’s a line in Norman McClain’s, A River Runs through It that says it all about beer. It’s a throwaway line that doesn’t drive the plot or characterizations, and it jumps off the page for that reason. To paraphrase it: Life was better when every small town had its own brewery.
McClain must have liked his beer fresh, and I share his enthusiasm. The major brewers push out so much of the stuff that it sits on the shelves for a long time, and is trucked thousands of miles. Smaller, local breweries produce less, and ship it for shorter distances. They also tend to use bottles only, which is the only way beer should be sold.
My relationship with Leinenkugel’s held fast, even as the price increased from $5 to about $8 a six-pack, but is coming to an end with a discovery of Lakemaid Beer from August Shell Brewing Co., of New Ulm Minnesota. I was in quest of a six pack of Linnies during a recent trip to Manistee Michigan when I saw the Lakemaid beer. Upon seeing it was brewed in the Upper Midwest, I bought a six-pack.
It reminded me of what Leinenkugel’s once was – a simple fresh beer. I’ve noticed over the years that as a brand of beer becomes too popular, its quality tends to suffer.
As it turns out Lakemaid is a gimmick beer produced by August Shell Brewing Co. and Rapala, the fishing lure giant. The bottle features a mermaid-like woman and is obviously intended to appeal to anglers. They hooked me. Shell makes the popular Grain Belt beer, along with its own brand, which you don’t often see in Michigan.
Mermaid Beer comes in various types, pilsner, lager, dark lager, pale ale and other. Each type is adorned with an image of a different mermaid for the various species of fish, such as Miss Muskie, Miss Rainbow Trout, Miss Salmon and even a Miss Catfish.
When I returned home to southern Michigan, I unexpectedly found a 12 pack of it in my local store, and quickly purchased it. The clerk told me another customer requested the store carry it, and I was thankful to the stranger. The cost was $12, which is reasonable these days.
I’ll be back for a second round.

Friday, November 13, 2009

A brutal U.P. fly-fishing weekend

By Jeff Counts
MSJ publisher

So what should you expect in mid-May in the western U.P.? Hopefully the snow has melted in most places and you don’t have to wear fleece under your waders. That’s about all. You don’t expect to do any sunbathing, but you don’t expect to see snow swirling in the air most of the day, with high winds whipping it around. But that’s what we had on a certain Saturday. My guide and fishing complain Chris Gestwicki had one word for it – “brutal.”
It was all of that. Chris knows I love U.P. brook trout fishing and for several years he has been trying to get me to his favorite western U.P. haunts. For various reasons, I couldn’t make it until this year. The western U.P. along the Wisconsin border is a special place for me. It still has some mystery. After more than 35 years of traveling through the state, I can get along without a state map in most areas, but not in the western U.P. when I get disorientated, even though I wrote a travel guide to Michigan.
Time gets warped there because you’re in and out of the Central and Eastern Standard time zones, and the towns look similar and most have the word iron in them Many of the rivers are big sprawling ones like the Escanaba, Paint and Brule, and remind you of ones in the west, river where I have a hard time finding fish. With all my landmarks gone, I was in the hands of Chris, who is one of the few fly fishing guides in the area, and owns the Caddis Shack Fly Shop in Escanaba. The place is a throwback to the old days of fly-fishing, when some shops were operated out of a garage. It’s refreshing to find a shop features that sells nothing but flies, rods, reels, lines and a few other items. There’s no expensive clothing, art objects or trinkets and it’s only open when Chris is around.
Our brutal weekend actually started out fairly gentle. I made the six and a half hour trip from my southeastern Michigan home to Escanaba on a fairly balmy Friday, and in less time than I expected. From his shop/home, Chris drove to one of the Iron towns, and pulled over to the side of the road in the middle of the downtown area and said: “Here we are.”
I looked at him with disbelief. I have this innately held belief that fly-fishing should be done out of the watchful eye of people, preferably as far from town as possible. Part of that belief stems from my not wanting anyone to expose my fly casting abilities to on lookers. It’s like drinking martinis, if I’m going to humiliate myself, it will only be in front of family and friends.
I cast off that old belief fairly quickly. Chris and I rigged up and entered the stream next to the town tavern, when the locals were gathering for the Friday night cocktail hour. I briefly considered joining, figuring I’d have a better time in there than in the river, but I followed Chris to the stream that wound through a park, and past old. frame mill worker homes that looked to belong to the 19th century.
Before I stepped into the river, which was strewn with boulders and large rocks, Chris, who is more than 20 years younger than me, was quickly downstream, and I poked my way along with a newly adopted wading stick. A false pride has kept me from using one, thinking it signaled senior citizen status. But that changed last fall when I took a tumble on the Pere Marquette River while salmon fishing and I accepted one from our host, John Bueter.
It has expanded my fishing range, given me the stability to reach places I normally don’t, and it has save my bad knee a number of times.
To my surprise, a nice caddis hatch was coming off the river, and Chris hooked me up with a few of his specially tied flies for the river. It’s a good thing to have somebody like Chris around when you’re not quite certain about a new river, and what may do well on it. Before knowing Chris, I made several ventures to the Paint River in the western U.P., and was frustrated by my lack of local knowledge.
We caught a few brookies on dries, and it wetted my appetite for the next day. I was tired of using streamers and wet flies; dry fly fishing was the antidote. We then headed out of whatever Iron Town we were in, Chris has sworn me to secrecy, and headed to a back woods cabin in Wisconsin to meet up with the rest of Chris’ crew, mostly Wisconsin guys. Although I had purchased certain adult beverages, I’d forgotten the main ingredient for a trout fishing weekend – beer. Chris told me not to worry. I did, but shouldn’t have.
When we arrived in the camp, there was a fine camp fire going, and plenty of beer flowing, but most of it light beer, which is not to my taste. One of the Wisconsin guys said: “Hey, just look in the back of my truck, I won five cases of Linenkugles at a Trout Unlimited banquet and I can’t get rid of the stuff.”
All I could figure is that if you live in Wisconsin where much of our beer is made, you can get pretty blasĂ© about the stuff. Actually, Leinenkugel’s is my favorite, so I was in beer heaven. All we needed were some brook trout the next day, and I’d consider the weekend as close to a religious experience as I’d ever have.
In the glow of the fire and beer, Chris made a $20 bet that he and I would out fish two of the Wisconsin guys the next day, and we were to count all the fish we caught. In the warmth of the night and under the influence of the Leinenkugel’s, it made sense to me.
But that night it rained hard, and when I stepped outside shortly after dawn to answer the call of nature, I felt a chill in the air, and saw what looked like snow swirling in the air. I tried to make myself think it was ashes from the fire, but then I looked at a thermometer and it read 37 degrees. I went back to my bunk for a while, hoping that in another hour the sun would come out and brighten my spirits.
It never did that day, and the snow was still making its unscheduled appearance when we finally hit the bunks for the night. What occurred between dawn and dark was brutal, and as with any such fishing venture, it ended early and in a tavern.
We did fish though. We hit a tributary to the Paint River, a lovely looking stream. And as we went to the river, the fishing bet was still on. After four or five hours, all bets were off, and we were frozen stiff. Luckily, I’d remembered to bring my neoprene gloves, so my hands still worked at the end of the day. The others weren’t so lucky. One guy, half my age, and a fish guide himself, said his hands were so cold that he couldn’t tie on a fly. Chris went into the river, and had to spend an hour in the truck with the heat going full blast to keep hypothermia away. I actually couldn’t stay in the tuck, it was so stifling hot.
But I had my own casualty, a lost spool for my fly reel. My hands were so cold that I apparently didn’t properly zip up my vest while wading, and the spool went missing. All this for no fish. We’ve all had days like this, and they turn anglers into philosophers. The question asked is – Why? Why am I out doing this? Some fancy fishing writers come up with words that border on the poetic, others of us quote John Voelker and some just stand there freezing. I simply use my Midwestern pragmatism. “What else am I going to be doing? I’m not going to bring peace to the Mideast, find a cure for cancer or engineer a new economic boom, so I may just as well be standing in a river. It beats watching talking heads on TV.
That night at the camp fire, there was plenty of Leinenkugel’s, no fish, except some walleye one of the guys had been foresighted enough to bring, and there was not talk of the $20 bet on the number of fish caught. I was relieved.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Late fall travel reading

My backyard was pretty frosty this morning, so I didn't get out to rake the leaves. I considered other tasks, including cleaning hunting gear and putting it away. Instead I picked up a book, "Travels with Charley" by John Steinbeck, the author of "The Grapes of Wrath." I read the book long ago, but decided to revisit it. It's a delight. I've caught up with Steinbeck since I first read it. I'm now in late middle age, like the author was when he took his three-month long trip through America to get back into contact with real people, and maybe to see the country again for the last time, as he was in failing health.
When we pick up a book at various stages of our own lives, we bring something new to it because of our own experiences.
When I read the introduction this morning, a sentence jumped out at me:
"We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us."
After reading that simple sentence, I thought of a dozen places I would have liked to have been then, the Arkansas Ozarks, on the Shores of Lake Superior, Key West, Arizona, Montana, Scotland, Norway and others. I thought about where those places would take me.
We all have our lists, and dreams, and like any really good writer, Steinbeck gives you the solid words to hang your dreams on.
Steinbeck was ahead of his time. The trip took place in 1962, and to take it he had a firm put together what we would now consider an RV, but which was then fairly uncommon.
For any traveler, it's a good winter read.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A vist to Dublin's country store

This the in between time in Michigan, the salmon runs are done, and the grouse and woodcock season is on the wane. It's too chilly for a day at the beach, so it's a good time to wander around Northern Michigan, just checking things out.
On a recent Sunday, my son and I drove around Manistee County, where he lives, and checked out some trout streams for next spring, and look at some good grouse cover. It was a "pretty day," as my father from Arkansas would say, sunny skies and temps in the 60s. A gift from God in Novemember.
We made a stop in the town of Dublin, near Wellston, and visited the Dublin Country Store, which my son said had a large selection of jerky. Being a fan of the stuff, I couldn't resist the stop. I expected a small jerky shop, but instead stumbled into a classic country store, something out of the 19 century, but with 21st century goods.
There was everything from clothing, to food stuffs, hardware, shotguns and rifles, ammunition and even plumbing and heating fixtures. There's also a bakery and a deli. The store also sells alcohol. If you're a rustic person, like me, there was pretty much anything you needed.
And of course, there was jerky, all kinds, from wildgame like elk and venison to beef, chicken and turkey. We tried the tradtional venion. It was great. I like the softer version of jerky, having tired of trying to chew on the dry stuff and challenging my teeth. And that's what the Dublin store offers.
It would be a great stop during rifle deer season.

For more information, and for online sales of jerky, go to

Locations: The main store is on Hoxeyville Road near the town of Wellston. The store has another site in the Grand Rapids area at 4763 Wilson, Grandville, MI.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Support Michigan book stores

We listened to John Grishom on the Today Show recently, and a brought up a good point -- book prices. This guy doesn't need to worry about money, he sells millions of books, but he did a good deed by pointing out that readers need to support their local book stores, or they will be gone. Local book stores employ local people, rent buildings and pay taxes in Michigan, online stores don't. In Michigan we have are own local nationwide chain, Borders, which has its headquarters in Ann Arbor. They are worth supporting, along with Barnes & Noble, which has many stores in our state.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Finding a new campground

On my annual fall grouse hunt in the eastern Upper Peninsula, a companion and I spent a few hours exploring instead of hunting. It paid off. Like others who are passionate about a pursuit, I'm often too single minded searcing for grouse in the fall and trout in the warmer months, and I miss looking at my surroundings.
We were hunting near the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore between Munsing and Grand Marais, along the Lake Superior shoreline.
We tried an old hunting ground near Melstrand, but found it was no longer productive, so as we drove along, we decided to check out Little Beaver Lake. It was a real find. There are about eight campsites, all with a view of the lake. They are set up for tent camping, so don't even try getting an RV of any kind on the sites. Each has a fire pit, a soft sandy place to set up a tent, a picnic table and a lantern hook. There are outhouses nearby and water. The National Park Service deserve credit here for its thoughtful planning.
Little Beaver Lake is connected to the larger Beaver Lake. Anglers and paddlers could spend a week camped there and paddling the lake. There are panfish, pike and trout in the lake. There's a small boat launch.
I'm currently working on a new guide book for The Countryman Press, A Paddler's Guide to Michigan, due out in the spring of 2011, and plan on including the site in the book.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Fall color in southeastern Michigan

It's time to revive the Sunday afternoon drive, and with the Lions playing the way they do, you're not missing much by being away from home. In the 1950s, when the Lions won their last championship, they were worth watching, but the broadcasts were blacked out in the Detroit area, even when the stadium was sold out. My father was a dedicated fan, so we would take a Sunday drive to Mason, near Lansing, where we could watch the game at the home of a relative.
Those outing were fun, and since they cam in the fall, we had a color tour every couple of weeks.
It's unfortunate that southern Michigan doesn't often get the attention it deserves in fall, so I've come up with an Old Fashioned Sunday drive that takes you through some classic Midwestern towns in Washtenaw and Lenawee counties that haven't been spoiled by suburban sprawl. Dexter, Chelsea, Manchester and Tecumseh have retained their 19th century feel.
Take I-94 west out of the Detroit area to Dexter and get off the freeway. The first place to visit is the Dexter Cider Mill, 3685 Central. It's been in business for 120 years, and is thought to be the oldest continuous such mill in the state.
From there, head west on M-12 to Chelsea. Check out the Jiffy Mix mill downtown, and the main street shops and resturants. The Common Grill there is a top resturant destination. If you're looking to hike, take M-52 north to the Pinckeny Recreation Area, where there are numerious trails. If you're just up for a ride, take M-52 south to Manchester and then to Clinton, which is just east of M-52 on U.S. 12 From there head south to Tecumseh.
One lunch tip: Try the Tea Garden Cafe in downtown Techumseh. It's a break for pub food, and there are several authentic British dishes on the menu. And make sure to try the tea.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Fall storm watching

The winds of late October and early November are nearly upon us and there are no better places to watch the start of winter than along the Lakes Michigan and Superior coast lines, with their northern and western exposures to Mother Nature.
To get a good glimpse, try visiting Whitefish Point in the Upper Peninsula, just north of Paradise.It's about 1 1/2 hours north of the Mackinac Bridge.
The last ship to wreck in the Great Lakes, the Edmund Fitzgerald, sank in Whitefish Bay on Nov. 10, 1975, with all hands on board. A good stop is the Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point. The museum is open through late October and is the ceterpiece, with its exhibits on Great Lakes shipping, diving and artifacts. A display devoted to he Fizgeerald can also be viewed. A lighthouse at the location can also be toured. Cost: $10 for adults, $7 for children and $28 for families.
Tahquamenon Falls is nearby, and you could make a day between the falls and Whitefish Point.
Paradise is the nearest town, and it's located on Lake Superior, so you can do some weather watching from there.
The best place to stay is the Best Western Lake Front Inn, which offers lake views from its rooms. There is an indoor pool, sauna and hot tub.
The best place to eat is the Tahquamenon Falls Brewery & Pub on M-123 near Paradise. Food ranges from pub fare to steaks and whitefish. Prices, $15-$20.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Destination: Wilderness State Park

Fall colors are hitting their peak this weekend in the western Upper Peninsula and the Keweenaw Peninsula, but for many of us in southern Michigan, it’s a long drive to those areas. But the next best thing to being there is a trip to Wilderness State Park on the shores of Lake Michigan just west of Mackinaw City.
There the colors are about 50 percent. The 10,512-acre park stretches along the shoreline for miles and is a good place for kayaking, if the waters aren’t too rough. The park offers 250 modern campsites in tow units, six rustic cabins and three rustic bunkhouses for rent. The cabins and bunkhouses are often rented far in advance, so check with the state before you go. The state park system maintains a good Web site for reservations, .
Take along your bike. There are 16 miles of mountain biking trails in the park. A good bike trip would be between Mackinaw City and the park. The road carries little traffic.
You can either stay at the park or in Mackinaw City. Check out the Deer Head Inn, 109 Henry St., in the city. It’s a bit hard to find, but worth the look. There are plenty of motels in town, if that’s your choice.
Our top restaurant choice is Audie’s on Nicolet Street. There are actually two restaurants here, a family room, with an upscale menu, and a bar, which offers pub fare. You’ll find meals unusual for the area, including herb-encrusted lamb, duck and stuffed morel mushrooms.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Supporting Michigan farmers

As a Willie Nelson fan, I've always taken his advice seriously, and when he appeared on CNN news recently to talk about his annual Farm Aid concert I listened intently. His message was: Buy your produce directly from local farmers as a way to support family farms.
During a recent drive along M-22 between Manistee and Frankfort, I looked at the heavily ladened apple trees, and wondered why our local supermarkes bring apples in from the West Coast. It's a waste of fuel, especially when we have apples in abundance grown by Michigan farmers.
We stopped at a roadside stand and loaded up on apples and pears, and I couldn't help sampling them during the ride. The apples were crisp, not like the ones from the grocery store, which were probably picked green and shipped 2,000 miles. I was eating apples that matured on the tree, not in a box car or semi-truck.
Unfortunately I live in suburban Detroit, where there are few roadside stands. The efficent master plans of our suburbs have a way of wiping out such stands, one of the few free maket place for farmers.
In the Detroit area, we do have the Eastern Market, and a few suburbs have clung to their farmers' markets on Saturdays. Ann Arbor is a bright spot, with its Saturday market.
On a recent visit to Westborn Market in Livonia, I was pleasently surprised to see Michigan apples and tomatoes on display along side produce from Washington state. I bought the Michigan tomatoes.
From now on, I'm going to buy Michigan produce when I can, and shop in stores that sell it.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Michigan's Front Porch Towns

The front porch has gone the way of the outhouse in most suburbs these days, with family activity relegated to the back yard deck. We hide ourselves in an enclosed yard, often in a subdivision with no sidewalks. We end up closing ourselves off from our neighbors and the community.
But there are some towns in Michigan that still have front porch communities. Recently I spent the weekend in Frankfort on Lake Michigan in a small, nearly 100 year old cottage with a modest, but adequate front porch. It brought back delightful memories. I spent about 20 years living in another old lumber town, Bay City, in a house with a covered porch.
While hanging out on the porch in Frankfort, I met about a dozen people who were walking on the sidewalk. Unlike the suburbs, front porch towns don’t have large lawns separating the house from the sidewalk, so it’s pretty natural to engage with folks.
For many of us, we dream of having a house “Up North,” and that vision is often a remote cottage on a lake or a river. My Frankfort trip made me reconsider that dream, and I now would like a simple cottage in a small Great Lakes town.
As for a view of the lake, we had one less than a five minute walk from the beach on Lake Michigan. We could also walk to downtown restaurants, taverns and stores. It was a real feeling of freedom, not to be tied to a vehicle.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Canoe vs. kayak

One of the best ways to see the fall color changes is in a canoe or kayak, so I wasn't surprised when I picked up my daily paper and found a story about the increase of paddling trips in Michigan.
Paddling lakes or rivers gets you into the landscape in a way that just driving doesn't.
September is one of my favorite months to be out on the water. You've got a little summer and a little fall, and usually fewer people around.
But the newspaper story got me thinking about what's the best boat to use. I'm a dedicated canoeist, but I'm looking at buying a kayak. Both have their good points.
Kayaks offer paddlers better agility than canoes, but then again, canoes are more versatile and offer more room. I also like the stability of a canoe for fishing.
My wife likes going paddling with me, and we both fit into one boat. It's certainly less expensive to buy one boat than two, and it's also less of a hassle to slip one canoe off the top of my vehicle than take two off.
My solution to the dilemma is simple: Have one of each. With a good car top carrier, you can handle both a canoe and kayak on top.
Then you can take your pick.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Sandhill Crane Experience

A small flock of gangling-looking birds were walking near the shore of a small southern Michigan lake I was paddling on a recent Sunday. At first I thought they were herons, which often are found along the edges of small lakes and ponds, but as my craft glided closer to shore, I heard the distinctive squawk of Sandhill Cranes, a rare prehistoric looking migratory bird.
I’d seen them before on remote Upper Peninsula lakes, but never before so close to the heavily populated areas of southeastern Michigan, and on a little-used, undeveloped lake. I felt like I was in the Upper Peninsula instead of being surrounded by millions of people.
While the cranes aren’t on the Endangered Species list, they are fairly rare. There are only about 800 nesting pairs in Michigan, with the population split between the eastern Upper Peninsula and the Ann Arbor-Chelsea area of Washtenaw County.
According to the State Department of Natural Resources, Sandhill Cranes aren’t very sensitive to the intrusion of humans. That trait nearly lead to their extinction in the 20th century, when they were hunted as game birds. The best way to approach the cranes is by canoe or kayak, because of their silence.
The Washtenaw County lakes where the cranes are found are very accessible, and are less than a ten minute drive from the busy I-94 corridor between Chicago and Detroit. The drive times are about three and a half hours from Chicago, and under an hour from Detroit.
Take either the Dexter or Chelsea exits. Both are quintessential, small Midwestern towns where the main streets are lined with small shops and restaurants.

On Mill Lake, a paddler may encounter a few anglers in small boats, but on Four Mile Lake, in the fall there will be a few duck hunters. They’re usually only hunting in the early morning or evening. Both lakes can be paddled around in about two hours.
If you want to see the cranes, take it slow and stay 20-30 yards from shore. Although the cranes have distinctive markings, they do blend in to their surroundings. Get a bird book and make yourself familiar with the markings, and also with that of herons. Both species look similar and are found in the shallow waters near shore. Herons are either white or have a blue-grey look to them. Also, herons tend to be more solitary, and you will see lone birds hunting for fish. Cranes are more often seen in either nesting pairs or in family groups.
Paddlers will need to bring their own canoes or kayaks. There are no boat rentals on the lakes. The boat launches at both lakes are easy to negotiate and there is parking. Mill Lake has an outhouse, but there are no facilities at Four Mile Lake.
Mill Lake is in the Waterloo Recreation Area, which is operated by the state Department of Natural Resources. A State Park sticker is required.