Have you ever wanted to sell everything you own and just "take off?" Travel the country's back roads, paddle down a meandering stream, experience breath-taking mountain views, walk among 100-year old trees, and just marvel at America's beauty? That is the dream that my partner, Betsy, and I decided to make a reality. This blog describes our adventure. The food we eat, people we meet, sights we see, and the enjoyment we find in traveling.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Lake Muskallonge State Park in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

Here is one of those places that I picked for us to visit and things didn’t work out as planned.  The plan was that we would stay at this state park on a beautiful lake while we were exploring the eastern side of the 40 - mile long Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (NL), Tahquamenon Falls and the Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point.  The plan made sense – stay at a nice place and explore a beautiful area in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  But, things did not work out as planned.

As we were driving the RV to the campground Betsy pointed out a sign that said “Pavement Ends in 45 Miles.”  If my calculations were correct we would get there just before the gravel and dust but I kept my fingers crossed anyway.  Luckily, we got to the campground at Lake Muskallonge State Park just before the pavement ended but that meant the road we were going to take after the state park to our next campground was gravel and later we learned, full of pot holes, so plans were going to have to change.  We wiggled into our spot in the state park and had a nice view of the lake and were happy. 

The next day we loaded up the car and headed west to Grand Marais to see Pictured Rocks NL.  The washboard pot-holed gravel road was certainly not the 24-mile path we were going to take the RV down and it was good we drove it first in the car to discover this.  We arrived at the park and were eager to see some of the waterfalls and hike the trails.  A nice ranger greeted us and dropped the bomb that dogs were not allowed on practically 98% of the trails in the park.  Ugh!  I had even looked in the park brochure online which just gave generic information regarding dogs but no mention of the park being so dog-unfriendly.  We did manage to park the car in the shade, roll down the windows and make the quick trip to the falls without Spirit.  So much for visiting Pictured Rocks from this location so we headed back to Grand Marais where we walked around town and found a place on Lake Superior for Spirit to swim and forget about the long bumpy car ride.


We really enjoyed the state park and found it very relaxing but it was not as close to attractions as we originally thought.  Many of the roads to those attractions are gravel and take twice as long to get there so we scrapped them.  Sometimes all the hours spent planning just don’t work out but that’s o.k. too.  In fact, we spent more time relaxing about the campground and finishing long-overdue chores. 

One of the best aspects of our visit was getting to know the super nice family that parked next to us.  We freely admit to having anxiety when a truck with kids pulls into a site next to us.  Usually that scenario reeks of kids screaming, training wheels grinding on the asphalt, and parents eager to ignore their obnoxious rug rats.  This time was different.  The kids hoped out of the truck and started helping mom and dad ready the camper for their stay instead of fighting or starting to chop down a perfectly healthy tree.  Over the course of our stay we got to know this lovely family from Wisconsin who shared information about where to go and what to see in the area and their home state. 

Thanks for being such great neighbors and dispelling some of our myths.  We even ended up spending a great evening on a cruise boat with them exploring Pictured Rocks NL from the other end of the lakeshore.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

We Were Featured on MightyGoods!

When we were contacted by someone who expressed interest in highlighting our story in a segment called “car living,” we were skeptical that we fit their criteria.  Our response to them was “sure” if you consider a 45’ motorhome car living.   After all, we are always interested in sharing our story and encouraging those interested in full-time RVing to take the plunge. 

Turns out they did want to publish our story.  They picked our brains with questions that we gave lots of thought to and came up with this MightyGoods Car Living article that tells our story. 

Nomads Nancy and Betsy
We are so glad MightyGoods contacted us because they introduced us to so many inspiring people who do amazing things in their lives.  They feature people who climb, bike, run, surf, and lead nomadic lives (not like on a camel nomadic life but like us).  Travel is such an education that opens your eyes, mind, and soul to the beautiful places, cultures, and people that share our world.  Hope you enjoy their stories as much as we have.  Happy camping.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

RV Park Review - Mackinaw Mill Creek Campground (Mackinaw City, Michigan)

Mackinaw Mill Creek Campground is a really large campground comprised of 600 sites (200+ are full hook-up) and a mile of accessible shoreline along Lake Huron with awesome views of the Mackinaw Bridge and Mackinac Island.  The campground has all types of sites to fit any campers' desire from rustic tent, cabins, and those that fit any size RV's complete with full hook-ups.  The most desirable sites are the waterfront ones where you are greeted with great views of the Mackinaw Bridge, stunning sunrises, and pretty lake scenery.  The location of this park is only about five miles to downtown Mackinaw City and the ferry boat taking you to Mackinac Island.  

One great feature about this park is that there is a dog-sitting/walking service offered by the campground owners daughter.  For $20 she came to the RV twice during the day and spent an hour and a half walking our dog while we were gone all day to Mackinac Island.  It was the best $20 we spent!  We didn’t have to worry about our dog as she was having fun walking and swimming while we were away (we even got a picture texted to us and updates – thanks Amy). 

Some of the roads in the campground are gravel and were quite dusty when we were there in July. All sites are gravel/grass with fire pits and picnic tables.  We stayed in two sites (#697 pictured above) because we made our reservations late and could not get the same site for our entire stay.  Site #697 was a nice pull-thru on a corner but the tall bushes provided plenty of privacy.  The second site (#87) was a back-in and was not quite as private between us and our neighbors.  Both were plenty long and wide enough to accommodate our 45’ RV and tow car at our site and easy to get in and out of.  The roads are big-rig friendly and there are plenty of sites that will accommodate large RVs.


The most sought after sites are those right on the water.  The sites have great water views but you are much closer to your neighbors on each side than the ones right behind you.  Along the waterfront is a big green space where anyone is free to enjoy the view and use one of the many community fire pits. 


Although all sites have fire pits and picnic tables, we decided to have our fire on the water and really enjoyed the views.  There are tons of amenities at this park as you would expect with a park this size…swimming pool, arcade/game room, basketball court, swimming beach in the lake, playgrounds, kayak/canoe launch, free miniature golf, camp store, and much more. 


The park advertises that dog parks are “coming soon” but were not completed when we were there.  There are three bath/shower houses and a scattering of pit toilets around the property.  There are signs along the grassy waterfront area that say dogs are not allowed but if you go to the far western side of the park they can go in the water there.

If you are looking for a quiet place to camp, this is probably not the place for you.  There were lots of busy kids, activities, car traffic, and sites with big families.  Some of the features we liked about this park are that you are close to town and the dog walking/sitting service is super helpful if you have a dog.  The grassy area along the waterfront is a nice place to hang out and gather with other people.  There is a free shuttle to the Mackinac Island ferry terminal so you can avoid the cost and hassle of parking. 

Downtown Mackinaw City has numerous things to do including the old fort and lighthouse, the Mackinaw Bridge Museum, and (our favorite) the U.S. Coast Guard Icebreaker Mackinaw.  We found the Mackinaw Bridge museum to be very entertaining.  The museum is free and located above Mama Mia’s Pizza because the restaurant's owner is a former iron worker who worked on the bridge and started collecting and displaying items.  The museum has grown into quite the collection as other people started sending him memorabilia and artifacts.  The museum is free and has a few rooms of exhibits as well as three movies and films to keep you entertained.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Ship Viewing in the Soo, Michigan

The town of Sault Ste. Marie (commonly just called “The Soo”) straddles the U.S. Canadian border  and made a name for itself because of the shipping locks which are the spine of the coal, iron ore, and grain industries.  Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario Canada are divided by the St. Marys River which connects Lake Superior and Lake Huron.  The name Sault Ste. Marie in French translates to “Rapids of the St. Mary” and the rapids explain the need for the locks.  Sault Ste. Marie is the oldest city in Michigan settled by Native Americans and was a crossroads of fishing and trading of tribes around the Great Lakes.  In the 18th century, the settlement became an important center of the fur trade but the falls proved to be an obstacle with moving goods.  Boats and supplies would have to be ported around the falls which was a difficult and lengthy process sometimes taking weeks.

In 1796 a canal was dug on the Canadian side to allow ships a safe passage bypassing the rapids of the St. Marys River becoming the first lock.  The lock was destroyed in the War of 1812.  The first American lock, the State Lock, was built in 1853 and instrumental in improving shipping traffic as it was much larger and more efficient.  Over the years, the lock system has expanded and improved and sees more than 11,000 ships and millions of tons of cargo that pass through its gates.  Today there are four locks on the American side (one of which is closed) which has become a popular tourist draw. 

Image result for sault ste marie ontario
The locks are operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and there is an on-site visitor center and viewing area (both of which are free).  The visitor center plays a series of movies and has exhibits talking about operations and history of the locks.  A board displays the times, names, and lengths of ships moving through the locks and their estimated time of arrival so you can make sure you get to see the locks in operation.  Step outside  the visitor center to the viewing platform where you rise above the locks for a great view of the ships moving the 21 feet up and down in the lock.  This is especially impressive when it is a 1,000-foot long freighter in the lock.  For those wanting to experience the locks first-hand there are boat tours that will do just that.  They take you through the large locks on the American side and then back through the historic lock on the Canadian side.  While we were there we saw a Canadian Coast Guard ship and the 858-foot freighter the Roger Blough move though.


Gravity alone moves water in and out of the lock chambers.  Huge culverts run below the lock floors allowing water to flow in or out of the lock depending on which valves are opened.  To raise the level, the emptying valve at the lower end of the lock is closed and the filling valve is opened allowing water to flow into the chamber from the Lake Superior level.  To lower the lock the filling valve is closed and the emptying valve is opened allowing water to flow out to the Lake Huron level.  It takes 22 million gallons of water and an average of 40-60 minutes for boats to pass through the locks.

How the Locks Operate
The lock on the Canadian side is quite smaller and used for pleasure craft and much smaller boats than commercial freighters.  The original lock was constructed in 1895 and later updated in 1998 was and is flanked by historic buildings and is  an interesting contrast between the old smaller locks compared to the large ones on the American side.  The area is a National Park and also hiking trails that take you to the rapids and around the locks.  Two foot bridges span the locks which you are allowed to stand on during operation so as you straddle the locks you watch the water rise and fall.


A while back someone referred us to a restaurant in Sault Ste. Marie that he claimed has the best hamburgers.  When he also mentioned that it was a nothing to look at, eat in your car restaurant under a bridge, we knew we had to go there.  So off to West Pier Drive–In with empty bellies and high expectations.  The cheeseburgers were huge and really good with a bargain price of $5.50.  If you are in the Soo, we highly recommend dropping by for a bite. 


While in Canada, I decided to check out the Bushplane Museum while Spirit and Betsy went for a walk along the waterfront.  The museum is dedicated to preserving the history of bushplanes and incorporates their role in forest fire management in North America.  Inside the 64,000 sq. ft. hangar are 24 vintage aircraft many of which you can venture inside while others are transformed into interesting simulators giving you a birds-eye view.  Interestingly they have exhibits on the original style pontoons that were used in water drops and demonstrated how they were filled by being dunked into a water source and then released over the fire.  The museum has two movie theaters one of which is a really cool 3-D movie on wildfires and wildland firefighting that gives you an incite as to how aerial assault on forest fires is performed with amazing aerial footage.  The other movie takes you along on an adventure with a bush pilot flying over the Canadian wilderness.  The scenery in the movie is stunning and you understand the difficulties of flying in such remote areas.  Admission to the museum is $7 which I found worth it especially because of the emphasis on firefighting and my past experience as a wildland firefighter.


The town of Sault Ste. Marie definitely embraces its shipping history which is seen throughout the town.  There is the Long Ship Motel, the Lock View Restaurant, the Soo Locks Brewery, and many more businesses with names regarding the shipping industry and the locks.  To maximize your ship viewing opportunities, simply logon to the website BoatNerd which has real time data on ships in the Great Lakes.  Click on a ship icon and it will tell you where it is going, what it’s cargo is, how fast it is going, its length and other facts.   I found this website quite interesting and helpful to predict when the lock traffic was picking up.  The great thing about Sault Ste. Marie is that there are a couple of campgrounds (and an Elks Lodge for you members) right on the water so you don’t have to leave the campground or the RV to see the ships pass by. 


Thursday, August 3, 2017

Exploring Mackinaw City and Mackinaw Island, Michigan

One of the most photographed and recognizable features of Michigan is the Mackinaw Bridge.  The magnificent bridge rises high over the Straits of Mackinaw as it connects the lower and upper peninsulas of Michigan.  The idea for a bridge dates back to the 1880’s when Michiganders watched with envy as the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883 and bridged a watery gap similar to theirs.  Northern Michigan was becoming popular with tourists and city planners realized a change was needed to the existing ferry system and started looking into alternatives.  The concept to connect Michigan received favorable support and many ideas were kicked around but there was no funding source.  Despite the United States Army Corps of Engineers and President Franklin D. Roosevelt endorsing the project, Congress never appropriated funding and the Great Depression and World War II made securing funding difficult.  In the early 1950’s, the state legislature authorized the sale of $85 million (equivalent to $2.08 billion in 2016) in bonds for bridge construction.  Construction began in 1954 and took three years to complete making it the longest suspension bridge between anchorages in the Western Hemisphere.  Locals affectionately refer to the five-mile bridge as "Mighty Mac" or "Big Mac." 


Downtown Mackinaw City is really quite tacky and not really our kind of town.  Most of the shops are cheap t-shirts, junky souvenirs, and fudge shops.  In fact, fudge shops are everywhere and the sweet confections have been popular in the city for over a hundred years.  We are not much of fudge eaters so we had a couple of samples and kept on walking.  We popped in and out of  a few shops without anything really interesting to us, when we spotted a building with a big hot dog on top and a sign that said “Weinerlicious”.  We were all in.

Now that we had seen the downtown strip in Mackinaw City and had a bite to eat it was time to move on to more interesting things like the Mackinaw Bridge Museum (which is free).  The museum is located upstairs in Mama Mia’s Pizza.  That may seem like a weird location for a museum but not considering the restaurant owner, J. C. Stilwell, is also the museum’s founder and one of the many iron workers who worked on constructing the bridge.  Soon after Stilwell started the fledgling museum others began donating items and now it houses lots of memorabilia, antiques, news clippings, and a small theater and two small seating areas with videos on continuous loops offering history of the construction of the Mackinaw Bridge.  And if you want to enjoy the museum and movies with a pint of beer, the bar downstairs is the place you want to stop first as they have no problem with that.


Another museum not to miss is the U.S. Coast Guard Icebreaker Mackinaw.  A tour of the ship costs $11/adult but we found it to be well worth it.  Usually on these self-guided tours of ships you wander around reading captions and interpretive signs not really learning a whole lot.  But our experience on the Mackinaw was much different because of the volunteers scattered around the ship.  Down in the engine room was a volunteer who actually served on the ship and was eager to share his knowledge and experiences aboard the icebreaker.  It was so interesting to talk to him and we found ourselves there for a good thirty or forty-five minutes as he explained how the ship functioned and what it was like to break through ten-foot thick chunks of ice in the Great Lakes.  One of the most fascinating tidbits he shared was how loud the sound of the steel ship breaking hard ice was.  “Deafening,” he described it.


The Mackinaw was built as part of the war effort during World War II to meet the heavy demands for the increase in production of war materials.  Tremendous amounts of iron ore, limestone and coal needed to be moved to keep the nation's steel mills operating.  The Mackinaw was commissioned ten days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and is the largest icebreaker ever built.  It took three years and $10 million to build and she was in service for a remarkable 62 years.  The rounded hull was reinforced with 1 5/8" thick steel which was key to the operation of the ship.  The boat never got stuck as it had the effective method of rocking side to side and front to back by moving water or fuel in numerous holding tanks in the hull.  According to our volunteer there was no ice too thick for the Mackinaw (as he said with total “Coastie” pride) and they lived up to their motto “We move ships when no one else can.”

The real reason we came to Mackinaw was to visit Mackinaw Island – the Michigan tourist destination famous for having no cars on the island.  You step off the ferry and go way back in time as your feet hit the pavement the same time horse hooves clop by.  Oh sure you can hail a cab, but, it will be a horse and carriage.

In the late 1800’s the islands cool temperatures, laid-back vibe, and natural beauty began attracting larger waves of tourists.  In 1875, nearly 80% of the island was established as a National Park (second to Yellowstone) with the intent to be preserved.  As more and more people visited Mackinaw Island, the pressure to bring automobiles increased.  But locals were dismayed with the noisy and exhaust spewing vehicles that spooked their horses and broke the islands quiet tranquil way of life.  In 1898, the town banned automobiles.  But one pesky resident was determined to have an automobile.  He defiantly claimed it “was not against the law” and proceeded to buzz around the island in his automobile.  Finally residents had enough and made it a law that no vehicles were allowed onto the island for personal use.  The only exceptions are a fire truck (since a vast majority of the towns buildings are made of wood) and police vehicles for safety.

We opted to see the island via a guided carriage ride but you can also rent a bicycle, horse, or walk.  It was a two-hour narrated tour that took us through the downtown, out to Mackinaw State Park (formerly the National Park) to see some of the islands cultural and natural beauty.  The carriage made various stops including the Grand Stable to admire antique carriages and get an up-close look at the horses, Arch Rock and the bird’s eye view of the Lake Huron shoreline, Fort Mackinac, and the famed Grand Hotel. 


The Grand Hotel is the islands centerpiece.  Whether you stay there or just come to look around (which is a bit costly at $10/person just to go inside), the Grand is a highly visited Michigan attraction.  It is so popular for weddings that you have to book five years in advance.  The Grand Hotel dates back to 1887 and boasts that no two rooms are alike. The expansive porch is the longest in the world and draws a big crowd beckoning visitors to sit outside enjoying the views and soaking in the fresh air.  Instead, we headed downtown to meet a friend, Jill, for lunch and catch up with her travels.


Mackinaw City is a busy place in the summer, so if crowds bother you, come in the off-season.  The downtown is the hub for shopping, restaurants, and to book carriage rides or a bike.  Oh, and for fudge – they are “America’s Fudge Capital” and host a fudge festival every August. The whole island is a National Historical Landmark so there are many interesting historic buildings for you to see downtown and about the island.  The majority of the buildings are wood dating back to the turn of the century and preserve the islands history. The oldest grocery store in the country, Dowd’s (established in 1884), is right on the main strip and still operates as a grocery store (and a very busy one at that).  Now venture off the main drag a block to Market Street and you will find a quieter place to be and surrounded by beautifully restored buildings.  Here you will find the charming old post office, courthouse, city hall, and other buildings which are open to the public as museums. 


Mackinaw Island was a fun excursion and we very much enjoyed the ferry ride over that took us under the Mackinaw Bridge.  Having heard so much about the island (especially from friends Paul and LoAnn who got married over there) we were glad to have a chance to see it.  We were camped at Mackinaw Mill Creek Campground which offers a dog walking service while you are away.  The service was $20 and definitely worth the piece of mind knowing Spirit was fine.  Amy nicely took Spirit for an hour-long walk and then came back to check on her again before we got back.  Turns out she was the owners daughter so she lives onsite and is a lab-lover having a chocolate lab herself.  While at the campground we met two super nice work campers who we got to know better over a fire and wine.  They nicely arranged for the owner to give us a personal tour of the campground in his hand-made jalopy.  The man is a true collector and will build anything using practically anything.  He has a very creative mind and we got a total kick out of riding around with him and seeing his work shops.  We loved it!