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.