Sep 19: We’re not in the tropics any more

37
Not what I wanted to see on a September morning!

“Winter must be cold for those with no warm memories.” Anne Bradstreet

Using the reclining chair heater for the first time, I sat huddled in a fetal position under a crocheted blanket that was given to us as a wedding present from a dear friend who has always lived in Michigan. I was so pleased to have something made by my talented friend that I put the thought of never having to use it way in the back of my mind. But now, I was struggling to get every inch of my body under its warmth. Feeling like a wimp, I drank my hot coffee as I stared in horror at my ipad screen. The weather app was telling me it was a frightening 37 degrees outside. This is going to be an interesting month in Michigan.

Hiking
T-shirt weather.

Only three days ago it was Labor Day when we drove the RV into the northern Michigan campground that would be our home for 28 days. 70ish degree temperatures made camp set-up quite pleasant as we listened to the rowdy glee of several campers in the outdoor pool squeezing out as much summer as they could before winter preparations fell heavy on their minds. The amiable weather continued for the next couple days as we explored the outdoors in t-shirts and long pants. Fall can be so lovely in Michigan. But then reality caught up and it became clear as we watched the temperatures dip well below our comfort zone that we would have to buck up if we were going to do any kind of outdoor activity for the next four weeks.

Beach
Ahhh, the beach. That’s me off in the distance photographing Lake Superior. I don’t know what everyone else is doing!

 

When I left Michigan over 30 years ago, I moved to warmer climates and never looked back. My spouse Vivian is not from Michigan, she comes from a region about as far removed from the north woods as anything can be. Sixty years ago, she was born in Cuba, only 90 miles south of Miami where she has called home for the past 57 years. She is, for all intents and purposes, a tropical girl. To put her in the middle of northern Michigan is like planting a palm tree in a snowbank. As for me, I rarely miss the cold weather and am quite content sweating through a south Florida summer. When temperatures drop below 70, my body goes on alert. Get below 60 and it goes into defensive mode. Vivian, never having had a steady relationship with cold weather just doesn’t know how to respond, except to panic over how few articles of clothing she owns for such climates.

the falls
Well worth braving the cold temps, don’t you think?

 

During our visit to northern Michigan, the fall chill gradually became more consistent and during that final week up to October 1, we were completely covered in clothing while inside the RV and spending a good portion of each morning strategizing our wardrobe before braving the outdoors. Do I need my long johns? Do I need a hat? Which socks should I wear? Are you taking your Marmot jacket? But somewhere in there, a funny thing happened. Somehow, we began to embrace the cold.

the falls
You can tell who the Floridians are.

The turning point was at Whitefish Point and Tahquamenon Falls in the upper peninsula. I was so taken in with photographing Lake Superior and the falls that wearing four layers of clothing, hat and mittens just felt so right. I was really getting into the feel of the north winds whipping across my face as I set up the tripod on the beach of Superior. If I was going to photograph Lake Superior, I had to embrace the chill. In fact, I could have spent the entire day standing out in the cold, capturing that powerful great lake. I know from experience that as long as you can stay relatively comfortable while outside in 40-degree temperatures (wind chill well below that), you can be rewarded with warm inviting temperatures and hot beverages later on.

Superior
It looks cold, doesn’t it?

We spent the entire day in the frigid air of the upper peninsula with the exception of taking refuge at the Tahquamenon Falls Brewery and Pub. And when we got back to the RV, it was warm. And it was so cozy. That evening, I wore my flannels and cooked dinner while enjoying the warmth that seemed to accentuate the smells of garlic and spices in our closed-up RV. Instead of the usual loud blow of the AC, the gas furnace offered a comforting low hum. I was loving it. I began to remember what it was like a long time ago. Even in the winter, I always wanted to be outside doing something; running, skiing, shoveling snow, chopping wood. I thought of that sensation of cold wetness and the beautiful feeling of putting on dry, warm clothing afterwards. If you want to enjoy winter outdoors, it simply requires the right attire and you having the good fortune of a warm place to come home to. I was lucky back then and I was feeling lucky now, in my RV.

breakfast
Fueling up for a day outdoors.

Two nights before our departure, I had one last opportunity to photograph Lake Michigan. One hour before sunset we drove west enjoying our view through farm lands. Once we got to the great lake shoreline, the temperature was no higher than 40 degrees. But I was prepared for it as I walked up and down the beach carrying the tripod and camera, looking for that final shot. Vivian stayed in the truck to keep warm having had her fill of the cold weather from fly fishing several hours that day in one of northern Michigan’s many rivers. We were both embracing Michigan’s great outdoors, she through fishing and me through photographing. That’s what you do; embrace the cold, one degree at a time. The evening sky over Lake Michigan was a beautiful scene unfolding and I was captivated once again by a great lake. It was so easy to ignore the cold. After the sun set and a few blue hour shots, I got back in the warm truck.

Great lake
Thank you Lake Michigan, you were a lovely, lovely subject.

On our drive home, we reminisced about our time in Michigan and believed that we had experienced it as much as we could. We never stopped, even when the weather tempted us to stay in. We began thinking about more trips to northern parts with our home on wheels. This little excursion was only a small taste of what’s to come. But that is all in the future. In the meantime, we had things to do. It was time to pack up, torque the wheels, blow the leaves off the slide outs, and so on. We were preparing to head south; you know, like any self-respecting Floridian would do at that time of year.

deer season
You know it’s time to leave Michigan when you see this.

Sep 12 The Bridge

“When I was on top of a tower on a clear night, it was almost as if you could touch the stars. The sky was so beautiful.” Ron Zielke, Mackinac Bridge ironworker

The Mighty Mac
The bridge reflects on the calm Straits of Mackinac

When I was growing up in northern Michigan, my parents often drove us north on I-75 to Mackinaw City where our favorite aunt, uncle and cousins lived. The best memory I have of that hour-long drive was the exact moment when the Mackinac Bridge towers came into site. I can even remember my thoughts when I first saw the towers. My young brain did not comprehend a bridge because all I could think of was our car on the tower itself. “Are we driving on THAT bridge?” I would nervously ask my parents. The towers represented the bridge and that’s all I could see from a distance.

I-75
That exact moment.

Driving across the bridge was even more of a thrill for several reasons. The most obvious one is the bridge itself. The design of Mackinac Bridge was inspired from mistakes learned when the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapsed under high winds. The bridge that would cross the icy Straits of Mackinac would avoid that mishap by employing open-grids on the roadway to reduce wind resistance. Although the grids increase stability in winds up to 150 mph, it’s a little unnerving to drive over them.

Crossing
It never loses its thrill.

It’s even more unnerving when you are walking the bridge. Each year since the opening dedication in 1958, the bridge is closed to vehicle traffic so that thousands of people can walk it, a tradition held on Labor Day since 1959. While walking, you can’t avoid stepping on the open grids. If you dare and if the bridge sway doesn’t overcome you, the grid openings give you a bird’s eye view of the frigid straits water. This is the same water that is designated as a shipwreck preserve, dedicated to those who were lost on ships sunk in the dangerous shipping lanes.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of cars cross the bridge. For example, during the two busiest months of the year, over 600,000 vehicles cross the bridge in July and again in August. As I researched the bridge, I learned a new word, gephyrophobia, the fear of crossing bridges. A phobia condition has been identified for just about everything; like for instance, fear of ducks watching you or anatidaephobia. But gephyrophobia seems quite justifiable and even more likely to be common among people living in Michigan. Indeed, it is a very serious problem, so much so that the Mackinac Bridge Authority has a driver’s assistance program for individuals suffering from gephyrophobia. Over a thousand people each year employ this service.

Long exposure
A long exposure blurs the 1000-ft freighter passing under the bridge.

The fearful Mighty Mac has acquired several claims to fame over the years and perhaps the most notorious one came from a single event that happened in September 1989 when a 1987 Yugo driven by Leslie Ann Pluhar was blown off the bridge. The fact that it was a Yugo made it difficult for some folks to avoid a hint of humor when discussing the tragic event. But surprisingly, Pluhar’s tragic death is one of only two related to a vehicle falling off the bridge, the second of which was determined to be a suicide committed by Richard Alan Daraban in his 1996 Ford Bronco in March 1997. But these are not the only deaths associated with the bridge. I can remember talk about a man’s body forever sealed inside the concrete used to build the bridge during its construction. But this was an urban myth that just made the bridge appear sinister. In reality, five men did perish during the bridge construction and they are memorialized on a plaque in Bridge View Park, north side.

Aside from the tragedies blamed on the bridge, it is an inspiring piece of architecture. At night, it lights up with a stream of head and tail lights twinkling through the multi-color bridge lights arranged neatly along the trusses, catwalks and towers that are constantly being painted, repaired or maintained. The fact that the bridge connects mostly rural areas of the lower and upper peninsulas makes it look monumental with no interference from city lights. The towers stand boldly but also appear modest against the backdrop of the great lakes, especially in the winter when the straits become an icy plain. Those northern waters command respect and the bridge is a tribute to that fact.

Vertical
The bridge never sleeps.

Vivian and I parked the RV in a campground about 30 miles south of the bridge in the month of September. During that time, a new moon offered the opportunity for me to capture the Milky Way scheduled to appear in much of its entirety in the southern skies. I had a vision; I wanted to capture it above the Mackinac Bridge, which meant I needed to be in the upper peninsula. So, Vivian and I decided to load our tent & camping gear into the truck and head north on I-75 toward the Mackinac Bridge, leaving our comfortable RV for the night.

At about 10 pm, a few hours after setting up our camp, we walked to the shoreline of Lake Huron, a hundred feet away from our campsite. We took in the uninterrupted view of the Mighty Mac while enjoying the cool, yet comfortable evening air. The bridge was rumbling with traffic that could be seen and heard. The colorful lights reflected playfully on the relatively calm waters. Below the bridge, freighters about the length of three football fields passed under and eventually disappeared into the abyss of the great lakes. The water seemed so peaceful lapping gently on the shoreline, while the bridge stood out in the distance all lit up with lights and activity. The entire scene was an interesting blend of wilderness and commerce. As the temperature dropped, I stood over my camera continuing to capture the bridge’s glory as best I could. Our cozy tent was nearby, but we stayed at the water’s edge for a couple hours, enjoying the Michigan night. “The towers touched the sky and it was so beautiful.”

Milky Way
Not exactly what I was hoping for, but still beautiful to see.