Monday, July 20, 2009

A River Runs Through It in Grayling, Michigan

When I first “mapquested” Grayling, Michigan, I saw that it was three hours north of Detroit and dead in the middle of Northern Michigan. (Yes, the U.P. is farther north, but people call this area Northern Michigan. Yet another slight!) My initial thought about the town we’d be staying in can be summarized as: “Looks like the boonies.”

As it turns out, historic Grayling (population 1,952) has been “on the map” as a top fishing destination for well over a century. For that, it can thank the famed Au Sable River, which flows right through the middle of town and ends at Lake Huron. Back in the late 1870s, this lovely river began drawing trains full of fishermen looking to hook the town’s namesake species, the Grayling.

According to the Old AuSable Fly Shop, the fishing was ridiculously abundant at the time – upwards of 100 Grayling per person could be caught per day, with yields of three to four fish per cast. But that was soon to be all over, though. The logging industry began using the Au Sable River for transportation (inventing the flat-bottom “Au Sable Boat” to navigate such a shallow river), and in doing so, built dams, stripped the banks, cleared/leveled the river and essentially destroyed the Grayling’s habitat and spawning beds.

Not surprisingly, the Grayling are gone. 100% wiped out. Wealthy individuals (including Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and others in 1914) as well as the state tried to reintroduce them, but to no avail. It’s a damn sad story. But Grayling, the little town, held on. So did the fly fisherman, who now rent riverside cabins (much like the one we’re staying in, pictured below), put on fancy waders and set their sights on brook, brown and rainbow trout. (The Au Sable is designated a "blue ribbon" fishery for brown trout.)

But that’s not all this lush, beautiful area has to offer. In addition to being a fishing mecca, the Au Sable River attracts kayakers and competitive canoe paddlers. Yes, unbeknownst to me (and I suspect many of you), there is a sport involving racing in canoes, and it’s a big deal in these parts. Every July since 1947, the Au Sable River Canoe Marathon, one of three events making up canoeing’s Triple Crown and the longest such race in North America (120 miles), has started right here in Grayling.

I say starts here because it doesn’t end until roughly 14-15 hours later (and that’s for the first-place finishers, mind you.) It begins at 9 p.m. and goes all night, non-stop, until the next afternoon. The approximately 180 paddlers (in teams of two) must first sprint down the main street on foot, carrying their canoes over their heads, before jumping into the river in the center of town. Locals have told me it’s “pure chaos.”

From there, it’s about skill, speed (50-80 strokes per minute!), endurance...and good help. Paddlers have crews, much like race car drivers. But in this case, they’re known as “feeders” or “bank runners.” These dedicated folks position themselves at various points on the river and hand off food and water to their paddlers every two hours. That means a lot of standing in the dark in cold water.

(Photo credit The Bay City Times)

Making things even nuttier is the fact that spectators, too, stay up all night, driving and parking along the river and watching paddlers go by at various locations. The event guide recommends that the “the fully equipped spectator” have, among other things, a full tank of gas, toilet paper, an alarm clock, rain gear, a first aid kit, a battery-powered radio and a flashlight. Now you can see why the race has come to be known as “The World’s Toughest Spectator Race.”

Tragically, I fly out hours before the 2009 canoe marathon begins. So I’ll have to have my boyfriend report further. But consider yourself previewed – and myself enamored by yet another small town that’s way more interesting than I anticipated.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

How to Speak Michiganese

We’ve been having a lot of fun trying to master the accent here in Northern Michigan, which primarily involves elongating your “o’s” by pulling in the sides of your mouth. For example, you say, “Oooooooh yeah.” Or “Minnesooooota.” But beyond the accent, there’s also a colorful regional vernacular, which I will now share with you.

The U.P. – Pronounced “the U-P.” This is the Michagenese abbreviation for the Upper Peninsula, the horizontal finger that is north of Lake Michigan and south of Lake Superior. Check out this state map if you don’t follow.

Yoopers – These are people who live in the U.P., which is pretty much an entirely different world. Case in point: the Yooper language was named the official state dialect by the Michigan legislature in 2003.

Trolls – What Yoopers call people who live “below the bridge,” or in other words, south of the famed Mackinac Bridge, which connects the Upper Peninsula and Lower Peninsula. Thus, folks in Grayling, where I am, or Detroit, three hours south, are all trolls.

Fudgies – This is Michiganese for “tourists,” particularly those who visit the popular Mackinac Island area. Apparently there are an inordinate amount of old-fashioned fudge shops on the island. I’ll find out how many when I head there this Sunday, so stay tuned!

Oh, and one more thing. Mackinac is not pronounced "Mak-in-nac," as it would seem. It's pronounced "Mak-in-NAW." Say it wrong, and you'll out yourself as a serious first-time fudgie.

Monday, July 13, 2009

From Polka to Perched Dunes in Cedar, Michigan

Cedar, Michigan, is the “Sausage Capital of the World." Yet it’s so small it doesn’t even warrant its own Wikipedia entry. (Rather, it shares one with the two other towns that make up Solon Township, a rural enclave 20 minutes west of Traverse City.)

How I came to know this was pure serendipity. We were driving to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which spans 35 miles of Lake Michigan coastline, when we saw a banner stretched across the road that said “Annual Polka Festival – July 2-5th.” As it was the 5th, there was only one thing to do. “Pull over!” I yelled. Soon, we were handing over $5 to enter a big tent in the middle of town.

What we found was this: a live polka band (called “PMS”), old folks dancing, lots of red and white outfits (the colors of Poland, where many area families hail from), long tables dotted with pitchers of beer, a “Polish Pride” souvenir booth, and, of course, sausages galore.

You see, Cedar is home to the famed Pleva’s Meats, known for premium sausages as well as the “Plevalean” burger. What makes it special is the addition of a little something extra. It’s – wait for it – cherries. Of course. Founder Ray Pleva got the idea from his daughter Cindy, the 1987 National Cherry Queen, who wanted to help the struggling cherry industry.

Today Pleva’s supplies “cherry burgers” for school lunches in 17 different states (!) and sells over 40 “cherry-enhanced” products, including the popular Cherry Pecan Sausage. I’ll admit, however, that I didn’t care for the latter. I tried a sample, and it was a bit too nutty/gamey for me.

Still in a Polka-induced daze, we piled back into the car and soon crossed into Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. It wasn’t until then that I realized I didn’t know where in the park we were going. After some scenic detouring (aka getting lost with no help from the GPS), fate again took over. “What’s that huge thing over there?” we asked simultaneously.

Amidst a sylvan backdrop, there appeared to be the largest, steepest sand dune ever. Just sitting there. As if it belonged. Mouths open, we turned into the “Dune Climb” parking lot, bought a $10 park pass and took our shoes off. Craning our necks to see the top, we took off, racing and sprinting like giddy children. It’s amazing what the unexpected sight of a gigantic sand dune can do to a person.

About three quarters of the way up, though, reality (aka near cardiac arrest) set in. Fortunately, this gave us the chance to look back for a stunning view of Glen Lake below. Like many lakes here, it’s a light, almost Caribbean blue color. Finally, after our breathing returned to semi-normal, we made it to the crest, where if you stand on top of the right mound, you can glimpse Lake Michigan, 3.5 miles away.

So how did this towering 110-foot sand dune (one of many in the area, some as tall as 400 feet) get here? The maddening question soon had me nose-deep in the National Park Service brochure. But alas, the answer is not simple. Let’s just it involves the Ice Age, glaciers, receding waters, sediment, “perched dunes” (like this one) versus “beach dunes,” strong westerly winds, dune migration, “ghost forests” and more.

In other words, I still don’t get it. But even that can’t take away the awe of stumbling across two very different wonders in one perfect afternoon.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries in Traverse City, Michigan

Summer in Northern Michigan is all about the cherries.

Case in point: we arrived at Traverse City’s Cherry Capital Airport on July 4th, the first day of the National Cherry Festival. We’re talking cherry pie eating contests, cherry pit spitting contests, “cherry d’vine” buffets, cherry pie make-and-bakes and more, as well as plenty of good old-fashioned Americana, including air shows, big wheel races, toddler trots and sandcastle contests. A whopping 500,000 people come to the grassy shores of Lake Michigan for this weeklong event, held every summer since 1926.

Why the cherry craze? Turns out 75% of the tart cherries in the US are grown here – a figure I truly believe. Driving the bright green countryside outside of Traverse City (population 142,000), cherry farms are ubiquitous, along with some of the prettiest old barns I’ve ever seen. You also see drive-in theaters named the Cherry Bowl and everything else cherry-themed you can imagine. (It reminds me of how no matter where you go in Atlanta, it’s likely to be named “Peachtree Place” or “Peachtree This-Or-That.”)

Naturally, we had to go to The Cherry Hut, the legendary restaurant that a friend told me was a must-see. Located southwest of Traverse City in the little lakefront town of Beulah, The Cherry Hut is exactly what I pictured – only better. It’s the epitome of unintentional kitsch, with its cherry wallpaper, red-and-white striped waitress uniforms and cherry-shaped menus. And of course, it’s home to the ultimate cherry pie. I kept the meal light – a cherry and walnut salad, which I split with my boyfriend – so that I could gorge on this signature item, which came with a gigantic mound of vanilla ice cream.

Meanwhile, our friend ordered the drowned turkey sandwich, which is the equivalent of Thanksgiving between two slices of bread, while my boyfriend got the cherry brownie sundae, which is the dessert of choice if cherry pie is too sweet for you. This is a complaint I hear from him and others, although as the possessor of the world’s biggest sweet tooth, I have no such gripe. I found the whole thing perfectly balanced thanks to the ice cream, which, by the way, I couldn’t finish. There was still almost a full scoop left after the pie was gone.

But our cherry spree wasn’t over. The next day, we discovered the Cherry Soda at Dawson and Steven’s Classic 50’s Diner (aka The Bottle Cap Museum) in Grayling, an hour east of Traverse City. And no, I don’t mean cherry-flavored soda pop, as they’d say here. This was dessert in a glass, a true fountain soda with cherry syrup, fountain water, ice cream and whipped cream. It was pink and frothy, and it went down awfully quick. So we, ahem, ordered a second.

And since we’ll be staying in Grayling for a few weeks, chances are there’ll be a third - which is why I'm going out to exercise this very minute. Right after I have a peanut butter sandwich with my new favorite, cherry raspberry preserves. (The latter, by the way, is made by Food for Thought, an organic, fair trade company located right here in Honor, Michigan. Order your own!)

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Baydreaming in St. Michaels, Maryland

On the Eastern Shore of Maryland, about two hours from DC, there is a tiny fishing village known as St. Michaels (population ~1,200). Some know it as the place where Wedding Crashers was filmed. Others know it as the place where Washington politicos (including two by the names of Cheney and Rumsfield) own second homes. Natives, however, call it “The Town that Fooled the British.”

Strolling the charming, walkable downtown, it’s easy to see why residents are proud of their history. The well-preserved colonial, Federal and Victorian architecture shows how long the place has been around – since the mid-1600s. But it was in 1813 that the town’s reputation was made. Facing attack by British war ships, the crafty Episcopalian settlers – who grew tobacco, and later wheat – hung lanterns on top of masts and tall trees. As a result, the cannons overshot the town, and only one home was damaged.

Unscathed, St. Michaels went on to become a shipbuilding center, inventing an oyster dredging vessel known as the Skipjack. Chesapeake oysters and blue crabs were caught and sold by generations of watermen. But when the oyster and crab populations dwindled in the 1990s (thanks to two oyster viruses plus fertilizer runoff in the Chesapeake Bay), the town morphed into a weekend tourist destination. Now former oyster fisherman give ecological bay tours, and “boatiques” sell mementos from “the Shore.”

If you can get past the sad fact that local restaurants now have to import crabs frequently, your first meal in St. Michaels should be at the legendary Crab Claw – just as ours was. Overlooking the harbor, it’s THE place to don a bib, crack some claws and watch the ships. We arrived to find my friend’s wedding party and other early guests slurping down mounds of crab and pitchers of beer amidst a rather strong aroma of fishiness. They didn’t seem to mind the smell, but I opted for the tasty crabcake sandwich. I know, I know – heresy.

But it’s not just about the Old Bay Seasoning here. Two days later we found our way to Sugar Buns Bakery (pictured above), where I enjoyed a sweet potato biscuit drizzled with honey. It was rich and dense and more like a meal than a biscuit. Sugar Buns is also known for its cakes, including the St. Michaels/Smith Island Cake, aka the Official State Cake of Maryland. It’s a yellow cake with seven thin layers of chocolate icing. We’d enjoyed a slice the day before while the wedding party took a tour the bay with Captain Ed aboard the restored H.M. Krentz Skipjack.

I managed to not get sunburned (which for me is a real accomplishment), but unfortunately, none of us managed to completely shake off Captain Ed’s long and depressing assessment of the Chesapeake Bay’s health. Let’s just say the largest estuary in the US is in real bad shape – and getting worse. Fortunately, after an open bar rehearsal dinner and further drinks at the Carpenter Street Saloon, we perked up enough to mingle with the locals. For all of St. Michaels' growing affluence and famous residents/visitors (Jenna Bush was spotted in town when we were there), the rollicking dive was a reminder that real people live here too.

By Saturday, though, we had stepped back into the fantasy life. The bridesmaids got ready at the gorgeous “estate home” my friend’s parents had rented, which had a fantastic old barn – converted into a game palace with ping pong, pool, air hockey and more – as well as a swimming pool, a pool house, a rose garden and a big blue sailboat docked in front. Though nowhere near as posh, our own rental house, Swan Harbor, had exceeded expectations too. A rambling white brick waterfront home, it sat on a tree-lined drive with its own private dock. Though I fawn over B&Bs, St. Michaels rental homes are surprisingly affordable and the way to go here if you’re with a group.

Speaking of lodging, St. Michaels is home to over 20 B&Bs, but the Inn at Perry Cabin (an 1812 country manor turned into a hotel in 1990) is the town’s best-known and swankiest option – a massive compound with big white columns and Adirondack chairs dotting the waterfront grounds. It’s old-school luxury with all the modern amenities, including an Aveda spa. See below for a stunning view of the Inn from the water. The wedding reception was held here, and it began with a sunset cocktail hour on the patio. Let’s just say it simply doesn’t get better than that time of day at this kind of location.

Crab Claw place setting photo credit: Ron Lynch.