Spoiler alert: These are lakes.
I live on a Great Lake. We’re friends. When I talk to her I say, “Hello, old friend!” and “Hello, gorgeous!” Even “What ticked you off today?” Without words she displays her moods to me.
Yes, I call it a she; she is moody and beautiful and temperamental but has been a great friend to me. She’s a great listener. Lake Michigan is easily my go-to subject on Instagram. With four distinct seasons here, she’s always boasting something worthy of photographing.
Because of their ocean-like characteristics — rolling waves, panoramic horizons, strong currents, and depths — the Great Lakes are sometimes called the inland seas. They will rock you and roll you, toss you and turn you. They will wreck your ship if it gets in the way.
They were formed more than 10,000 years ago when basins carved into the land trapped melting glacial ice sheets filling up with melt off. If you’ve ever seen a Great Lake, you’ll think, “Those were some ice sheets!” These lakes maintain that fresh and cool melt-off vibe today.
I’ve seen the lake sitting on the top of my state a few times, the one with the Superiority complex. It’s amazing. But I’ve never been on the Michigan side of my lake. And I’ve never visited the eastern three: Huron, Erie, and Ontario. That was our destination.
First thing: Go to the other side of Lake Michigan. There are dunes there. And a warmer environment for growing things like peaches and blueberries, and grape vines And warmer water to swim in since the warmer top water is blowing toward them from the west.
After making it through Chicago and northern Indiana we got off I 94 in New Buffalo and got on the Blue Star highway [also called the Red Arrow, also called the Michigan Wine Trail). It was a lovely, sometimes beautiful drive near the lake to reach Holland.
Holland has the unique position to have an inland land adjacent to the Great one. Lake Macatawa is the drowned river mouth of the Macatawa River. The Army Corps of Engineers created a channel to connect the two lakes to allow passage of boats. Though intended and initially used for commerce, it now begets all kinds of fun.
The channel is adjacent to Ottawa Beach State Park. Boats entering Lake Michigan from the calm inland marinas pass through. And you see every possible kind of boat. And that goes for the people driving them too.
Windmill Island features not just any old windmill but one imported from the Netherlands in 1964. Before Covid it was a working grist mill. When the Dutchy-Americans went to Holland to purchase this windmill for their Lake Michigan island, there were still plenty of mills in the Netherlands. But with technology, the unused windmills diminished and became endangered items. Today, they would never sell one of them to another country, whether it was named Holland or Amsterdam.
On to lakes unseen! Our next stop was Lake Huron from the vantage point of Port Austin, Michigan. We walked along the breakers and the beach. Some friendly locals recommended a short drive to Point Aux Barques lighthouse. It was first built in 1847 but like an amazing number of structures we saw on this trip, it burned down and was rebuilt in 1858. Historic plaques told the story of the the shipwrecks off these shores. Most notable was the White Hurricane of November 1913. Twelve ships went down off the shores of the lighthouse on that day.
Our trip from Port Austin to Port Huron took us along a very scenic Hwy 25 along the eastern thumb of Michigan. Sometimes it reminded us of the Holland, Michigan area and sometimes we could have sworn we were in Wisconsin’s Northwoods. Not a lot going on except for lake and woods so it was sparse but ooh la la beautiful.
Lake Huron was and is important for shipping. That the White Hurricane occurred in November brought up memories of the witch of November from the “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” We learned that November is the most volatile month on the Great Lakes because of their geological location and the meteorological conditions. There is intense low pressure that pulls cold air from the Arctic with warm air from the Gulf of Mexico. The “witch” that sunk Edmund was equivalent to a category 1 or 2 hurricane.
Besides ship wrecks, Lake Huron has 30,000 of the Great Lakes’ 35,000 islands. It reminded us of Lake Superior. It’s vast and deep and large. There aren’t any notable large cities on its shores either but you may have heard of Bay City (the Scottish band Bay City Rollers named their band after this town) and Saginaw. Mackinac Island, the idyllic carless city, sits between the lower and upper peninsulas on Huron, ushering you to Lake Michigan. Much of the lake is in Canada. We had coffee and a donut at Tim Horton’s in Port Austin, just a jump from Canada.
Checking the lovely Huron off our list, we traveled east around Detroit, past Toledo to Sandusky, Ohio. Many know Sandusky for Cedar Point Amusement Park, famous for its 17 world-class rollercoasters. Sandusky is the hub for South Bass, Middle Bass, and North Bass Islands, and Kelley’s Island. Cedar Point is on a peninsula. Put-in-Bay is on South Bass Island so we traveled to nearby Port Clinton to take the Jet Express boat. It was a 35 minute trip to Put-in-Bay, where we hopped off the boat in the heart of downtown and hopped on a golf cart. Golf carts are the transportation mode a la mode on Put-in-Bay. There are almost too many golf car rental places.
For good reason. The island is 5 miles long and 2 1/2 miles wide. The golf cart is the perfect vehicle. They outnumber cars 4 to 1, a stat I just made up based on subjective viewing. On our cart we visited Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial, a state park, bays, neighborhoods, and shopping. We passed the one school that serves the children of the 400 year-round. Once the ferries stop running around late-December they don’t start again until mid-March, depending on weather conditions. Locals stock up for the winter. Only occasionally will planes drop in with supplies during the winter. Admiral Perry’s slogan from the War of 1812 “Don’t give up the ship” is plastered in every shop in downtown. More than 200 years after, we were inspired not give up the golf cart!
Leaving Ohio behind, we ventured for Buffalo, NY on the opposite side of Lake Erie. It took about 4 hours. We spent the afternoon walking on the outer harbor walking park, visiting the canal side park downtown (the canal being the Erie one) and strolling through the Naval and Military Park on the Buffalo River. We talked to some volunteers replicating a canal barge for the 200th anniversary of the Erie Canal in 2025. They suggested nearby towns with still functioning segments of the Erie Canal, which connected the east coast to the midwest via Lake Erie. It opened up trade and made the Midwest viable for trading agriculture and other products.
Buffalo’s namesake, the Buffalo wing, started at the Anchor Bar so we had to try it. We had to try the roast beef on weck too. Weck, say what? The kümmelweck is a locally baked specialty bun topped with kosher salt and caraway seeds. The beef on weck is served with horseradish, ours was on the side. The salty weck and spicy wings are guaranteed to make you thirsty for a cold, delicious beer or tasty highball. Or water. The inside of the Anchor has Italian lounge/bar written all over it. The walls are full of autographed photos of celebrities often with one of the owners, everyone from Elvis to Brittney Spears to John Candy. Besides wings and weck you can get pizzas and pastas and a stereotypical waitress. What did we think of the wings and weck? The wings were good but others around the country have duplicated and improved the wings game. But the weck was a fantastic, one-of-a-kind beef sandwich!
We capped off Buffalo driving through the historic Elmwood and Richmond Avenue neighborhoods and a stop at the former Buffalo Asylum for the Insane which was designed by Henry Hobson Richardson and famed landscape duo Frederick Law Olson Calvert Vaux and finished in 1870. It was everything you’d imagine an asylum for the insane to look like. The only thing missing was a crackle of lightning and sudden downpour of rain.
En route to Lake Ontario, we spent the morning at Niagara Falls. I was last there in 1978 and thought it was spectacular. We stayed in the US, though the Canada side is deemed to be the better view. We lodged no complaints about the view except all the hotels and casinos on the Canadian side. In the US, Niagara Falls is a state park and there’s little development. Rainbows erupt from all the mist in the air. One rainbow emptied right into the side of the casino enforcing the legend that there’s a pot of gold at the bottom of the rainbow. The Canadian casinos couldn’t pay for better advertisement.
We walked around the many observation decks and then saw the horseshoe falls and three sisters island. We wanted to take one of the poncho and sandals tours, but which: the Maid of the Mist boat ride or the Cave of the Winds? We chose the caves though we didn’t enter a cave. We rode down an elevator close to the bottom and then walked up a series of drenched wood stairs to get close to the Bridal Veil falls. We were right under it, wind whipped and every inch not under the poncho was soaked. It was thrilling! We could look down at the boats approaching the falls and then turning around while gallons of water were crashing down on us, confirming we made the correct choice.
The Niagara Falls trip was planned before we left but we took the advice of the friendly folks in Buffalo to visit Lockport, NY. It was on the way to Rochester and it allowed us a chance to see working locks on the Erie Canal. At Lockport, we could see both the original canal and locks as well as the wider canal with mechanized locks that function today. Downtown Lockport, near the canal, has many information signs about the history of the Erie Canal and its lock system.
Less than an hour away, Rochester, NY awaited, sitting prettily on Lake Ontario. Toronto is the other city of note on that Great Lake. We found Ontario Beach Park and walked on the beach, waded in the lake, and then strolled on the breakers, watching a little regatta of what looked like sailing lessons. Looking for a place to eat dinner with a view of the lake, Siri took us to Marge’s Lakefront Inn. It’s not a restaurant but we cut Siri a break (this time) because this was a delightful place. Marge’s is in a residential area where it and other “backyards” are beachfront property. We sat in beach chairs with our feet in the sand listening to a band with a drink in our hand and a great view of people dancing and mingling and a fantastic view of the sunset on Lady Ontario. While we weren’t sure neighbors enjoy the heavy traffic Marge’s brings, but we loved it.
Our introduction to Huron, Erie and Ontario was over, we still had one more date with Lake Michigan. To get there, we headed southeast away from the Great Lake. We were in the neighborhood and a mission to see lakes so why not one of the famous Finger Lakes. We visited Conesus Lake in Livonia, NY, walking around the lovely little lake dotted with fishing boats. These inviting inland lakes are seen all over Wisconsin. This one has mountains in the background.
Based on the recommendation of a friend from Buffalo, we drove and hiked through Letchworth State Park called the “Grand Canyon of the East.” It is nestled in the Allegheny Mountains. There are hills and valleys and forests and beautiful views to attract you. And waterfalls! We saw the Mt. Morris Dam, Hogsback Valley, walking to the Lower Falls (both the upper path and lower path) in trails and paths created by the CCC during the Depression. We walked to the Upper Falls and drove past the Middle Falls with an impressive view from our car. Leaving the park, we passed through hilly, rural Amish lands to get to Interstate 86 W.
It was a long drive through the western edge of New York, a portion of Pennsylvania, into Ohio to Toledo on the westernmost edge of Lake Erie. It really was a pretty drive, hills and valleys and little peeks of fall color. We had dinner in downtown near the Promenade Park where the Maumee River meets Lake Erie. Then we walked to First Third Field where the most famous minor league baseball team, the Toledo Mud Hens, was playing. We bought some Mud Hens merchandise.
On our last day, we went to Warren Dunes State Park in Michigan on Lake Michigan. It’s been on both of our lists, and though it’s only 2 1/2 hours from our house it does mean driving through Chicago which makes you think twice about making the trip. We loved it, Besides having a gorgeous beach with warm waves, there was a very inviting walking trail in the woods away from the unrelenting sun you’d imagine at a dunes beach park.
Mt. Randall Loop Trail was unlike any other. The trail was sandy. I wondered why they didn’t use the traditional wood chips to line the trail. The trail wandered up and down big and little hills. Climbing up in sand is challenging to the quads and gluts. Descending in sand is delightful and easy on the knees. Turns out the loop is a series of connected wooded dunes. Well played, Mt. Randall!
For lunch we stopped in nearby New Buffalo, Mich. Quaint. All the lunch spots were busy, filled with tourist wearing Cubs shirts and other Chicago propaganda. New Buffalo has a large refuge harbor so boaters attracted restaurants and shops and those attract tourists. Its proximity to Warren Dunes doesn’t hurt! It’s a pretty little town.
There are certain physical characteristics of all these lakes, their ocean-like qualities. You do have to remind yourself that these are lakes. The cities on these lakes are mostly former industrial powers who have seen better days but are trying to balance industry, community, and beauty. They seem to be cities that are trying, not to replace the old, but to make a new path. You’ll find shabby run-down neighborhoods and opulence and lots and lots of middle class.
No matter the size of the city, you’ll see people fishing off a breakwater pier, sailboats, yachts, and swimmers. You see people gathering at their lake and enjoying it. Cities, the smart ones, that emphasize the beauty of the lake and find ways to draw people there. I think you could move from Milwaukee to Rochester or Toledo to Buffalo and not feel much of a culture shock. There’s that Great Lakes vibe to all these places.
Robert Henri wrote this about the oceans. I think it applies to the Great Lakes too. “Why do we love the sea? It is because it has some potent power to make us think things we like to think.” You can lose yourself in the tempestuous beauty of the Great Lakes and connect to metaphysical powers you can’t see. That’s why we’re friends.