By PETER H. MILLIKEN
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
Northern Michigan is a freshwater nautical paradise and an ideal place to experience cooling Great Lakes breezes on the hottest days of summer.
This region is the crossroads of the Great Lakes, with the Straits of Mackinac linking lakes Michigan and Huron, and the St. Mary's River and Soo Locks linking lakes Huron and Superior.
Visitors should be sure to bring their cameras and binoculars to fully appreciate the area's scenic shoreline vistas, complete with watercraft ranging from small pleasure boats to 1,000-foot freighters.
Engineering marvel: At the northern end of Michigan's Lower Peninsula, Mackinaw City offers magnificent views of the famous, five-mile-long Mackinac Bridge -- one of the great engineering wonders of the world.
In the shadows of the four-lane toll bridge, which carries I-75 over the straits and connects Michigan's Upper and Lower peninsulas, are a lighthouse, Colonial Fort Michilimackinac, and a free museum devoted to the bridge and its construction.
The suspension bridge, built between 1954 and 1957 for about $100 million and designed to withstand 120-mph winds, has a 3,800-foot center span between twin 552-foot towers. The center span is 155 feet above the water, which is 295 feet deep. Having one of the longest suspension spans in the world, the bridge carries 2.5 million vehicles a year.
Mackinac Island: After marveling at the bridge and other sights in Mackinaw City, it's time to leave your car behind in long-term parking near the docks of one of three ferry lines going to Mackinac Island, where no motor vehicles are allowed.
Pedestrians and bicycles are ferried to the island, where one escapes into a 19th-century world. On the island, people, luggage and supplies are transported in horse-drawn vehicles, and the only ways visitors travel are on foot, bicycle, horseback or horse-drawn carriage.
The island's downtown dock area features numerous fudge and souvenir shops, bicycle rental facilities, horse rental stables, a visitors' center and Fort Mackinac. Horse-drawn carriage tours of the island are also available.
A short uphill climb brings the tourist to the luxurious 1887-vintage Grand Hotel, featuring a long colonnaded verandah and calling itself the world's largest summer hotel. At this elegant hotel, peak season room rates range from $285 to $750 per night; non-guests pay $10 admission; bicycles and saddle horses are barred from the front of the building; and a strict dress code is in effect after 6 p.m.
A level, scenic, seven-mile bicycle ride around the island's coast offers cool breezes and a relaxing departure from the motor vehicle traffic on the mainland. The main sites on this ride are the Arch Rock natural bridge and Devil's Kitchen -- a group of caves and niches carved by the waves.
Soo Locks: Some 50 miles to the north, at Sault Ste. Marie, tourists get a free close-up look at freighters as they pass through the famous Soo Locks, which are operated by the Army Corps of Engineers.
The visitors' center at the locks is open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. and features a daily bulletin board listing each freighter's scheduled locking time. As they arrive, freighters are announced over a public address system to visitors on the observation platform.
A steady parade of freighters hauling commodities including wheat, coal and iron ore passes through the locks. Some are more than 1,000 feet long, and some have only 21/2 feet of clearance on each side between the ship and the lock walls.
As watercraft are raised or lowered in the locks, visitors' center staff and assembled nautical buffs and photographers offer a wealth of detailed information to anyone who will listen. Serving as elevators for watercraft, the locks raise vessels 21 feet from the lower St. Mary's River to the Lake Superior level on a westbound trip and lower them equally on an eastbound trip.
Sightseeing boat tours through the American and Canadian locks, some of them including visits to lighthouses, depart nearby. Also featured nearby are the docked museum freighter Valley Camp, a 21-story obervation tower and the River of History Museum.
Aboard the Valley Camp are two lifeboats from the Edmund Fitzgerald, a freighter that sank in a Lake Superior storm in 1975, killing all 29 crewmen aboard.