Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Up, up and away to the U.P. (Upper Peninsula)

On Saturday, July 9, Cousin Bob rode out with us before David and I headed north to begin our journey along the shores of Lake Ontario. We drove in circles around Victor, N.Y. looking for a place to have coffee (it wouldn't be the last time) and ended up sitting in a convenience store parking lot eating donuts. The coffee was good, though, and when it was gone we said aloha to Bob and the trip began.

Bob rode out with us for coffee and a send-off on our first morning on the road.

We took the Interstate to Rochester and up to the lakeside parkway, where there was almost no traffic. It was sunny and warm, we saw a large buck dash across the four lanes ahead of us and we turned south to Lockport at the western end of parkway.

At the Erie Canal locks in Lockport, N.Y., our tour of Great Lakes waterways began.

On my first big motorcycle trip in 2009, the recurring theme was the Civil War. For the first part of this trip, the theme was to be "canal." David grew up in Western New yorkl and knows a lot about the Erie Canal, connecting Buffalo with the Hudson River, the steel mills, coal mines and grain fields of the Midwest with the commercial centers of the East Coast.

The St. Lawrence Seaway has bypassed picturesque towns like Lockport, once bustling centers of commerce.

We spent an hour or so at the locks and visitor center in Lockport, watching small pleasure cruisers and yachts negotiate locks built for barges laden with raw materials.

Today's Lockport focuses more on entertainment, history and trying to promote tourism.

Bypassing Buffalo, we slipped through Niagara Falls, N.Y., where the parking lots at the riverside parks were jammed with noontime visitors and crossed the bridge to Canada. Getting through cuctoms was easy enough, since we were prepared with passports and motorcycle insurance "yellow cards" required in Canada and available from your friendly insurance company. The customs man even showed me where to wait by the side of the border crossing while he processed David through.

Getting into Canada at Niagara Falls meant waiting in line in the hot sun.

We caught fleeting glimpses of the Falls from the Canadian side before heading west across Ontario.

The Canadian was as busy as the U.S. side of the Falls, but we could catch glimpses of the spectacle from the riverside road. We did one swing up river and back and then joined the Queen's Expressway West. There were giant signs warning Americans that the speed limit of 80 kilometers per hour was only 50 miles per hour. We tried to comply, but most of the cars -- including nearly all with Ontario license plates -- were actually doing 80 miles per hour. We decided to get off the expressway as soon as we could.

The Welland Canal allowed ships carrying iron ore, grain and limestone to pass the Niagara Escarpment to Quebec and Montreal, while bypassing Buffalo, where previously goods had to be transshipped by train or the Erie Canal.

Our first stop was for lunch, where we spent most of the Canadian currency we picked up at an ATM at the border. The next was at the Welland Canal locks, where we were fortunate to catch up with a huge freighter going from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario.

Our afternoon was a long, hot grind through prosperous-looking Ontario farmland into the sun and wind. We'd found and booked a spot at the London KOA campground on the Internet on Friday night and made camp for the first time. David's tent is similar to mine, but a little bigger with three poles instead of two. He'd had it up once, months ago, in his front yard in Honolulu. So, it took us a little while to figure it out. Once we did, we were off to town for a pizza and pitcher of beer.

After a long afternoon's ride across Ontario, we made our first camp at a KOA outside London.
Our morning ride across western Ontario to the border at Port Huron, Mich. was uneventful, although rain threatened a few times. U.S. customs was more thorough than Canada's the day before, but equally professional. The agent made me take off my helmet so he could check my passport photo with my face, for example. He told David that, in 20 years on the job, he'd never seen Hawaii license plates cross the border in Port Huron before.

The lines to re-enter the U.S. at Port Huron moved even slower than Canadian customs in Niagara Falls.

From Port Huron, after stopping at a Walmart to pick up a few things, we started north along the Lake Huron coast, up the outside of Michigan's "thumb."

In Port Sanilac on Michigan's Lake Huron coast, we enjoyed the local fare at spots, such as Mary's Diner. I had the tuna sandwich; David the BLT.

In Harbor Beach, Michiganders gathered to enjoy each other's company and shiny old cars, like this pre-war Cadillac.

There were hot rods as well as classics, like this 1932 Ford Roadster with a chromed Chevy V8 engine.

If you got tired of cars, there were treats waiting at Bob's Ice Cream Shoppe and Dollar House.

Sunday in Harbor Beach was like a Norman Rockwell painting. We stopped for an ice cream cone at Bob's and toured the car show before saddling up to ride to Port Crescent State Park at the tip of the thumb. Our campsite was just behind the beach dune and David had an easier time getting the tent up this time.

In Port Crescent State Park, on the tip of Michigan's "thumb," David gets his tent in order.

Our campsite at Port Crescent was just inside the dune at the water's edge.

Cheboygan State park was our next destination. David remembered the lyric "Remember my name in Cheboygan." I found the rest of it with Google's help: "but please don't tell them where I am." As we approached, the temperature dropped at least 10 degrees in two miles. We were getting close to Lake Superior.

Monday night, we camped at Cheboygan State Park, sharing the waterfront with some aggressive mosquitoes. There was a heavy dew overnight and we woke up to find everything soaked.

In Cheboygan, we got our first taste of true northern cuisine, such as this ground sirloin steak with mashed potatoes smothered in mushroom gravy.

The Mackinac Bridge will get your attention, even if the wind isn't blowing. The outside lanes are concrete, but the inside lanes are steel grates that make the bike swerve unexpectedly. The concrete lanes were closed for repairs. Even at 30 miles per hour, it was a white-knuckle ride of more than four miles, much of it 200 feet above the water.

Tuesday morning, we broke camp and crossed the Mackinac Bridge to the "U.P.," Michigan's upper peninsula. I could see the water through the steel decking, when I looked down. David said he didn't look.

At Sault Ste. Marie, visitors examine an aerial photograph's of the Soo Locks, which allow ships as long as 1,000 feet to leave Lake Superior into the lower Great Lakes.

From the bridge, we went north to Sault Ste. Marie, where we did more canal exploring. Just as we arrived at the Soo Locks, a giant ore carrier was leaving, heading into Superior from Lake Huron. Today's Soo locks can handle two 1,000-foot ships simultaneously -- one going west and another east. Across the border, on the other side of the river, Canadian locks handle their share of the traffic.

We left the locks after an educational film -- I fell asleep in the warm, dry, dark theater, recovering from my damp, restless night in Cheboygan. Our next stop was southwest of the locks, at Tahquamendon Falls State Park, near Paradise, Mich.

The upper Tahquamendon Falls drop about 48 feet and carry more water than all but two other waterfalls east of the Mississippi, Niagara Falls and Cohoes Falls, both in New York.

We camped at Tahquamendon Falls State Park campground at the mouth of the river on Lake Superior, about 14 miles from the waterfall.

After too many miles on straight, flat roads, the ride up to the upper falls was a delight -- the kind of riding we'd hoped the Upper Peninsula would offer. As David put it: "We made the mistake of starting out this year riding on the Blue Ridge Parkway down in North Carolina."

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