Back in the US, our last stop on Lake Huron is Mackinac Island. From there we proceed south down Lake Michigan, starting on the Michigan side and then crossing over to the Wisconsin side to Chicago, our final destination on Lake Michigan. Weather proves our biggest challenge, and we get visits from old friends friends during an extended stay in Milwaukee.
Click the Google Map button below to open the map in a separate window. There you can zoom in/out, and click on the icons to see pictures and more info on the various places along our route.
Mackinac Island, MI
Sept 9-10, 2022
Rather than a straight shot from DeTour to Mackinac, we took the scenic route through Cedarville. It was an hour on some rough open water of Lake Huron at the start, but once in the shelter of the barrier islands it was a calm and scenic meandering route past big homes and large properties. By the time we popped out to cross the last few miles across the lake to Mackinac, the seas had calmed considerably and it was a pleasant final dash to Mackinac.
Mackinac Island was lovely, even though it’s 95% tourist. It’s a trip back in time, and in fact the time travel movie from our teen years Somewhere In Time was filmed there. No motorized vehicles are allowed on the island; it is horse-drawn or pedal-powered everything – taxis/buses are carriages, garbage collection and even UPS deliveries are by horse-drawn carts, as resort shuttles from the ferry docks. Bicycles are everywhere. It’s very charming, but does come with a downside: it smells like horse manure everywhere.
- Biking(no e-scooters allowed, so Dave had to brush off the cobwebs on his bike) the full 8.2 mi around the island, admiring the Caribbean blue tones of the water along the beaches.
- Toured historic Fort Mackinac, the second national park after Yellowstone but now is a State Park.
- Walked all over the main downtown area, with its numerous fudge stores, each seeming to lay some claim to being the ‘original’ Mackinac fudge.
And oh! the gardens! Every inn, rental cottage, hotel and resort takes great pride in their landscaping; the whole town was a Botanical Garden with people actually living in it. I couldn’t get enough of them, and was driving Dave nuts. with all my picture taking.oh!
Cruising Lake Michigan
a new challenge
This leg of The Great Loop had its own set of considerations new to us. The Atlantic ICW and Chesapeake Bay focused on routes, tides, and current plus. Canada was all about the journey, enjoying the natural beauty of the changing landscape and the varied views from along the locks and canals. Lake Michigan is about the destinations, because routes are straight lines through deep water. It’s so big it acts more like a fresh water ocean, but with more rapid weather changes and effects. Coming down Lake Michigan in September is a little later than the bulk of Loopers, mostly because the number of good weather days rapidly decreases and all the summer events in the towns stops after Labor Day so most try to get off the lake in earlty September.
A big weather issue on all Great Lakes is winds and wind direction, which can change quickly. Winds coming directly along the long north-south axis result in waves building rapidly over 300 miles (called ‘fetch’). But it’s also so wide that if the wind is coming across the lake and from the direction you want to go, you’re also going to be dealing with fetch. We quickly learned that a forecast of 2’ waves on the Lake may still be a rather uncomfortable ride depending on the direction. We also quickly learned that days with waves less than 2’ are few and far between.
All make for a constant mental challenge to synthesize weather forecasts, timing, waves, and destination. Our rumination with each forecast update went along the lines of:
how strong are the winds going to be in the morning,
which direction is it coming from,
are they picking up or decreasing over the day,
oh wait they’re shifting direction when we’re about halfway,
but if we leave a little later (earlier) they’ll be in a better direction,
what arethe waves like?
once the wind shifts the waves will be going against (with) the wind and that’s going to be a bumpy (better) ride,
but if we leave too late then we won’t make it before the marina closes,
although if we go faster we’ll burn more fuel but get there before the rain
wait — rain??? Is there a side of thunderstorms with that?
Are you dizzy yet? We were. Twice a day. The forecasts didn’t always agree across the three weather apps we consulted, so we’d use the scariest one to make our go-no go decision. The easy part was then just pointing the boat in the direction we wanted to go and sitting back for the duration. But it wasn’t unusual to have a plan, and even within the 48 hours before when the forecasts were the most reliable, it would changek
Thus cruising Lake Michigan is about the journey in the sense of careful route planning is required, but the real beauty of Lake Michigan lies in the destinations; there are many towns to stop and visit — too many for anyone to do all of them — each with their own history, culture, and charm. Summer is a busy time with local events and festivals. But these stop after Labor Day, so we missed most of these. Okay, we missed all of these and just enjoyed exploring the towns. We had knowingly traded more time in Canada for fewer stops on Lake Michigan in the time we had to get to Chicago, so we picked our stops based mostly on the distance we needed to cover with the weather windows we had.
The Michigan Side of Lake Michigan
Charlevoix Sept 11-12
Frankfort Sept 13
Ludington Sept 14
Charlevoix is a perennial favorite of Loopers, most famous for its unique mushroom houses. I would call it an ‘updated quaint’ style of Main St, with a boutique shopping and dining district (our favorite actually being a little French bakery where we got breakfast). The city marina is phenomenal with its own surrounding fish ponds. There was a large group of Loopers here as we all hunkered down a couple days to wait out some weather, and we held docktails in the large marina lounge.
Our favorite surprise discovery in Charlevoix was the old 1927 school that had been repurposed/renovated as the public library. We ducked in there when a rain shower started, and spent an hour in the periodical room in front of a huge stone fireplace reading magazines. The old gym was the main library, and the children’s section opened up into a park complete with a whimsical carved gnome bench and a music area with drums and chimes.
The timing with the weather was everything the day we transited to Frankfort. Several boats left Charlevoix early, only to turn around and come back an hour later because it was rougher than they expected. We pushed our ‘no-go’ criteria a bit, because winds and seas would be behind us, but waited until about noon to give the seas a chance to calm down as the winds dropped. But even with the 3+’ waves behind us the bow rose up and down, left and right as we surfed along them. Arriving later in the afternoon, we didn’t have much time on the very small town – but it was a Tuesday and so most things were closed anyway. We did walk down to their gorgeous fine sand beach, and Roxy had a blast between wading and rolling in the sand. A big bonus was the chance to see the Odyssey crew from our Big Chute time; they were in their final voyage before selling their boat so this was a last chance to see them.
The trip to Ludington was another day of wallowing through following seas, but at least was shorter. We had time after arriving to walk through the waterfront park, home to a dozen or so sculptures — some whimsical, some reflecting the history and lore of this town and its industrial roots. The coolest thing was watching the Badger come in and dock at dusk. The last coal burning steamship to ply the great lakes, it had been converted to a car ferry across Lake Michigan to Wisconsin. When it returns to Ludington, it comes into the harbor, drops its huge anchor while still moving forward and uses it to pivot around and dock with the stern to the pier so the cars can drive off. It’s quite the spectator event each evening at sunset, with so many local boats going out into the harbor to watch that a police boat patrols to make sure everyone is back far enough to not get run over by the steamship.
The Wisconsin Side of Lake Michigan
Manitowoc Sept 15-18
Milwaukee Sept 19-28
Kenosha Sept 29
All along we had planned to come down the Wisconsin side of Lake Michigan after Charlevoix, and it was a matter of finding a good enough weather window to make the 60-something mile across open water. The unusually persistent north-south winds made that difficult. Hence we had continued south along Michigan’s coast while waiting for an opportunity. Our goal now was to get to Manitowoc, WI, where two hot water heaters that Dave had ordered weeks before waited for us. From Ludington it was the shortest distance to Manitowoc, and we had been eyeing a single day on the weather apps that showed about as good conditions to cross as we could get. We caught a break and that forecast held.
We left as soon as it was light enough, because the forecast was for conditions to change later in the afternoon. It was a little choppier than expected, but no big waves, and improved as we got closer to the Wisconsin side. We crossed into Wisconsin at the midway point, and 30 minutes later it was Land Ho! But we really knew we were approaching civilization when we saw a partially deflated balloon floating past us on the is water.
The long weekend in Manitowoc was mostly for Dave to get some much-needed projects done. He jumped into replacing the failing water heaters the day we arrived. He also had to dismantle our bum radar unit, because after many hours online and on the phone with Garmin, they had finally said he needed to send the unit to them for repair. We felt a little socially isolated with with no other Loopers there. There was a lot of activity with hauling boats out for winter storage, which made us a little antsy to get to Chicago.
It wasn’t all work and we did get some time to explore the town. Manitowoc’s maritime industrial history is deep, with the most interesting aspect for us being the building of 28 submarines in WWII. After being built in Manitowoc, they were taken down the inland rivers – on a barge most of the way – to the Gulf for final touches and to be commissioned. We visited the Manitowoc Maritime Museum, where we toured the USS Cobia (note: you can even arrange an overnight stay on this fully restored submarine – it’s listed on AirBnB!) and learned all about the local submarine history.
Ten day layover in Milwaukee for lots of reasons. It was nice to have the extended break after weeks of traveling almost every day. I took the opportunity to go see family in California for a long weekend, while Dave was happy to have the time to work on a whole slew of boat projects. Dave’s old high school running buddy Joe came out and kept Dave and Roxy out of trouble the weekend I was gone. Later a couple of Dave’s former USS Albany shipmates, Dave and Michael, stopped by for a quick visit. This was also our chance to do a major Amazon and online shopping spree; it was like Christmas for Dave with spare parts and gadgets to install. All except for one package, which Fed Ex spent a week trying to deliver to a gazebo, and when that failed tried a building under renovation, but never the marina office 50 yards away. Seriously.
Milwaukee was new to us, and has a lot to offer. We did a self-guided walking tour, which included Riverwalk, the Third Ward, Public Market, the Bronze Fonz, and admiring the varied old and new architecture. The art museum right by the marina was really unique with its sailboat shape and ‘wings’ that opened and closed. Another day we bootered north on the bike path along the shoreline – who knew there was so much sandy beach in Wisconsin? Roxy loved the huge park right at the marina, and did regular public service chasing the flocks of geese.
An example off how quickly the weather can change, we could see this front quickly moving in from the northwest while we were in Milwaukee. These three photos were taken over about five minutes, and the ominous cloud formations gave way to a thunderstorm with winds that had whitecaps in the protected marina basin.
Finally had two good weather days in a row to make our way to Chicago, stopping in Kenosha for the night. Highlight of our brief time there was riding the restored cable car that loops through downtown. Dave and I played a round of ping-pong in the marina lounge before going to the nearby Octoberfest celebration hoping to score a bratwurst for dinner, but found only tacos and nachos and a Coke. Pretty sure we missed the whole point of Oktoberfest.
Sept 30 - Oct 3
And finally, Chicago! Our last stop on Lake Michigan and a major milestone on The Loop. Four days at a marina in the heart of downtown gave us access to everything. We walked everywhere, took in all the usual tourist stuff, and bootered the bike path in both directions along the lake. Highlights included:
- Architectural Boat Tour – a must if you visit Chicago. We did the one through The Architecture Foundation.
- Trib Tower, with stones/rocks/pieces of historic sites embedded in the walls. Really cool.
- The U-505 submarine exhibit at the Science Museum – the German WWII submarine itself was cool, but a fascinating history of how it was captured, kept secret, and how it ended up in Chicago.
- Stumbled upon a Trader Joe’s – woohoo! Provisioning Nirvana!
- The Riverwalk
There were many other Loopers here in Chicago, quite welcome for us as we had seen virtually no others since we crossed to Wisconsin. They were there, but the Wisconsin side is the less traveled option, and those that chose it just didn’t stop in the three places we did. We were happy to reunite with our ‘buddy boat’ Inconceivable in Chicago. We had last seen them in Mackinac, and then they had meandered down the Michigan side while we had to book to Wisconsin and our layover in Milwaukee.
In Chicago the Great Loop route funnels all Loopers to the next segment – – the Inland Rivers south to the Gulf. This will be yet another change in cruising style and a new skill set to master. Fall and cooler temps are gaining on us at this point, so we will be having a lot off travel days. To be honest, the weather vigilance required daily and this year’s weather delays had left almost everyone we know ready to get off Lake Michigan. It’s been great, but time to get south.
We were in Milwaukee when Hurricane Ian devastated the Ft. Myers area on the western Florida coast. Several Loopers we know of lost their boats completely, or were heavily damaged. This will also impact all Loopers, as there will not be dockage and/or fuel along a hundred plus mile stretch during the time we would be passing through, charts are obsolete, and it will take many months if not years to clean up all the sunken everything that create hazards to navigation. We were supposed to spend Dec-Jan in Ft. Myers, but all the marinas there are now gone or condemned. Like everyone, we will be rethinking our whole winter plan, even as I write this in October.
Pops’ Stats Corner*
- No of Days: 25
- Travel Days: 8
- Miles Traveled: 456.9 (397.3 nm)
- New Loop States: 2
Cumulative Great Loop
- Started March 17, 2022 in St. Augustine, FL
- Travel Days: 90
- Miles Traveled: 3281 (2852.8 nm)
- States Visited: 14
- Provinces Visited: 2
*Pops is what the family affectionately called Dave’s dad. He had a mind for sports statistics, earning him the nickname Numbers from the coaches of several Stillwater teams with whom he worked. This regular section of the blog is in his honor, because it’s the kind of thing he would love.