Ice Fishing at Mackinac

“A delightful drive the ice is very smooth this season, and there is just snow enough for good sleighing. The net poles for fish are so thick, that the Lake looks like a forest.” Amanda White Ferry, 1832

Ice breaks up near St. Ignace, March 21, 2022. 

This winter, the Great Lakes have been nearly devoid of ice. Although floating masses filled portions of the straits, the larger lakes have been nearly ice-free. While mild winters weren’t unheard of in centuries’ past, Mackinac Island was often ice bound for six months at a time, nearly cut off from the outside world. Strong ice was counted on by local residents to obtain a critical winter harvest. For many generations, ice fishing provided an important source of food throughout the northern Great Lakes during cold winter months.

Long before European contact, Anishinaabek families at the straits were ice fishing experts, particularly for whitefish and lake trout. The tradition continued in Métis families, a culture of mixed French and American Indian ancestry. Spending the winter of 1767 at Fort Michilimackinac, Captain Johnathan Carver joined local residents in trout fishing through the ice. He described the process in detail, noting three or four hooks affixed to strong lines often caught two trout at a time, frequently weighing up to forty pounds each. Preserving them in cold months was accomplished simply by hanging them outdoors, where they froze solid in one night.

 Although they’re smaller (weighing about four pounds) lake whitefish have long been described as notably more delicious. Generations of writers raved about their delicate flavor and seemingly endless abundance. Whitefish live at deeper depths than trout and have small mouths, so they were typically caught with gill nets sunk beneath the ice.

Amanda White Ferry, wife of missionary Rev. William Ferry, lived on Mackinac Island from 1824–1834. Her correspondence included many references about ice conditions, winter fishing, cutting ice, sleighing, and dog sledding. On January 8, 1824, she wrote, “The weather is remarkably mild so that the Lake is still open …  Recently, many who had had been entirely out of provisions, set their nets upon a small patch of ice, surrounded by water. In the night a wind arose, carried off the nets ice and all (eleven in number); they have no method of making more.”

Warm season view of gill netting on Lake Michigan. In winter, floats were replaced with wooden stakes or poles, ca. 1861. 

When good ice was present, fishing was pursued vigorously. Mrs. Ferry described the process in late February 1831, writing, “We went onto the ice and saw the manner of setting the nets for fish. Two holes, several rods distant from each other are cut in the ice. By each of them a stake is driven and a cord is strung with nets, weighted to fall, and attached to the stakes. The fish in passing with the current are caught in the nets, and whoever has tasted of Mackinac White Fish knows how delicate and delicious they are. As we glided over the ice on the bay, we could see clearly through its clearness stones on the bottom as plainly as though they lay on the surface.”

Amanda’s sister, Hannah White, spent the entire winter of 1831-32 on Mackinac Island, visiting from Massachusetts. On March 12, a letter to her parents described a morning adventure to witness a net being taken up. “As we rode along,” she wrote, “we could see through the clear ice all that lay upon the bottom of the Lake, even when the ice was two feet thick. When there is no snow, fisherman can frequently see through the ice what their nets contain.” Sometimes, net poles were so numerous it appeared as if a forest had sprung up on the icy Straits of Mackinac.

Pancake ice forms along the shore as the Straits begin to freeze. 

Such dramatic scenes have long since faded beyond the memories of Mackinac’s oldest inhabitants. If a forest appears on the lake today, it’s likely a row of Christmas trees marking the elusive “ice bridge” for snowmobiles to follow between St. Ignace and Mackinac Island. Someday, this too may become a forgotten tradition. In recent decades, unpredictable winter weather has caused warmer lakes and more thawing, promising an uncertain future for winter forests on the ice.

A picture of the Mackinac Island State Park sign, with a small building behind it, fall colors including red and orange, and Fort Mackinac behind everything.

The Seasons of Mackinac

A picture of the Mackinac Island State Park sign, with a small building behind it, fall colors including red and orange, and Fort Mackinac behind everything.

Marquette Park in fall.

Perhaps the best part of Michigan is the changing of the seasons. Fall in northern Michigan brings a peace and calm as nature starts to go to sleep. Winter brings a respite – everything gets a fresh start. After the break, spring arrives, and everything is renewed with energy. Summer is when nature truly blooms and thrives, only for the cycle to reset in the fall. It’s fair, and possibly safe, to say Michigan is one of the best states to experience the extremes of all seasons, and what better way to experience them than by exploring the Straits area? Here is your guide…

Winter:

 The best way to spend your winter visit to the Straits of Mackinac is outside! The island can be hard to get to so try exploring Mackinaw City. Michilimackinac State Park is as beautiful in the winter as it is in the summer, with amazing views of the Mackinac Bridge, Mackinac Island, Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse, and the Straits of Mackinac. As winter progresses and the lake freezes, moving currents can create sheets of blue ice. Visiting Michilimackinac State Park offers the best views of the blue ice when it forms.

Snow on the ground and trees covered in snow, with the Historic Mill Creek sawmill in the background.

One of the many amazing winter views available at Historic Mill Creek.

 Historic Mill Creek, just east of downtown Mackinaw City, is also a wonderful winter spot. It offers over three miles of beautiful snow-covered trails so you can get your steps in and experience the North Woods at the same time! There are occasional winter programs hosted at Mill Creek, including a Snowshoe Stroll in March. Mill Creek State Park is always open, with parking available near US 23.

 Spring and Summer:

 Lilac season is one of the most sought-after times to visit Mackinac Island. The island is abuzz, gearing up for the annual Lilac Festival. The scent of lilacs flows through the air following you on your exploration of the island. It’s a wonderful time of year to visit as the island comes alive after the sleepy winter season.

A white and purple lilac bush with green grass around it and Fort Mackinac in the distance.

Lilac time on Mackinac Island.

 Historic Mill Creek is also special in the spring. Wildflowers are abundant along the guided trail system, and the sound of singing birds can be heard throughout. The Mill Pond is also full from the spring thaw, creating a beautiful waterfall over the Mill Dam.

 Summer is prime time in the Straits area. It’s the time for family vacations, festivals and races, chances to catch warm summer breezes and a chance to extend your Straits visit with the long sunny days. If you are looking to catch a break from the busy downtown, one of the best ways to spend a summer day on the island is to explore Mackinac Island State Park. The island has wonderful nature trails, overlooks, historical sites and more to explore. It is a nature junkie’s haven. A suggested itinerary for the more experienced nature enthusiast is taking a hike on Tranquil Bluff Trail. After visiting the new Milliken Nature Center at Arch Rock, take the stairs up to the Tranquil Bluff trailhead and begin your journey along the bluff. If you are looking for a more leisurely stroll, the Arch Rock Botanical Trail would be for you. A paved path featuring signage with information the nature of the island will give you an easy, undisturbed adventure out to Arch Rock. Bonus: If you are staying over night on the island and want to catch the sunset or go stargazing, Mackinac State Historic Parks has the perfect spots. Catch the sunset on the west side of the island either on the beach just off M-185 or up the bluff at Sunset Rock. The perfect spot for stargazing is the highest point on the island – Fort Holmes. On a clear night, it will seem like you can reach out and touch the stars. Bonus two: sunrise at Arch Rock is hard to beat, and, most likely, you’ll have the place to yourself.

People sitting on a bench looking out at the Straits of Mackinac and the Mackinac Bridge.

Enjoying the view from Michilimackinac State Park.

 In Mackinaw City, there may be nothing quite as peaceful as sitting on a bench in Michilimackinac State Park enjoying the sunset as you look out over the Straits of Mackinac and the Mackinac Bridge. With the lighthouse standing guard behind you, the gentle sounds of the waves reaching the shore will bring you a sense of calm to wind down your busy day in the Straits. If you want to see what Colonial Michilimackinac is like in the summer in the evening, join us for Moonlit Michilimackinac, a free special event in August.

 Fall:

View from Fort Mackinac in the fall, featuring houses, cloud cover, and colorful leaves.

View from Fort Mackinac in the fall.

 There is no scientific data to back this up, but, if you ask seasonal and permanent residents of the Straits, most will likely tell you fall is their favorite season. Everything starts to change. The colors turn and cooler temperatures flow in. On the island, people (and horses) board the ferries for their final departure, and a sort of quiet sets in. This is the perfect time to hike on Mackinac Island. The color views from Fort Holmes and the bluffs are incredible. A fall bike ride to the interior and then down to British Landing has to be done to be truly appreciated.

A child throwing leaves in the air in fall at Historic Mill Creek.

Fall at Historic Mill Creek.

 Over in Mackinaw City, Historic Mill Creek is the place to be in fall, just like in winter and spring. As you walk along the trails you are enveloped in a sea of colors, with the ever-present creek noise in the background. Mill Creek is also a great place to take your dog (on a leash, of course). If there is ever a place to get those Pure Michigan vibes in the fall, it’s Mill Creek.

 No matter what season you decide to visit the Straits area, you will not be disappointed. There are always beautiful things to experience while exploring northern Michigan. Explore the different activities Mackinac Island State Park, Michilimackinac State Park, and Mill Creek State Park have to offer. And don’t forget to stop and appreciate all the natural beauty in the seasons of Mackinac.

The Famous Mackinaw Potato

The best potatoes in the world grow at Mackinac.” – Army and Navy Chronicle, September 1835

 Most people easily recognize two kinds of potatoes. A sweet potato has orange flesh and belongs to the morning glory family. Distantly related, the common potato is large and white-fleshed, being part of the nightshade family. The latter type was domesticated by Native Americans in South America at least 7,000 years ago. Introduced to Europe by the late 16th century, it eventually became a dominant crop, especially in Ireland. Potato plants flourish in a variety of soils, providing more calories per acre than grain. Today, more than 5,000 different varieties are grown across the globe.

A black and white photo of farmland on Mackinac Island, in what is now known as Marquette Park.

Gardens below Fort Mackinac, ca.1890

 Common potatoes weren’t grown in North America until the early 18th century. Brought to New England from Ireland, this variety became known as the “Irish potato.” Potatoes were first planted at the Straits of Mackinac by the British. John Askin grew them near Fort Michilimackinac in the 1770s, keeping meticulous records. As the garrison relocated to Mackinac Island, large gardens were planted below the new fort, near the harbor. When Americans arrived in September 1796, they found a commandant’s garden “filled with vegetables” and an adjacent plot “filled with potatoes.” A government garden provided fresh produce for soldiers for more than 100 years before being transformed into Marquette Park.

 Gardeners at Mackinac discovered these hardy tubers needed little soil to thrive there. In 1820, Henry Schoolcraft noted, “Potatoes have been known to be raised in pure beds of small limestone pebbles, where the seed potatoes have been merely covered in a slight way, to shield them from the sun, until they had taken root.” By this time, several small farms dotted the island where potatoes were a staple crop.

An artist rendering of the Mackinaw Mission in the 1830s, featuring a large white building known as the Mission House surrounded by trees.

View of the Mackinaw Mission, ca. 1830

 Rev. William Ferry operated a Protestant mission on Mackinac Island from 1823–1834. The Mackinaw Mission operated a school and boarding house for Anishinaabek children. Located near the southeast shore, staff and pupils maintained a five-acre garden stocked with potatoes, peas, beans, and other vegetables. In 1826, the mission also purchased the John Dousman farm, along the western shore. There, they grew 10 acres of potatoes and other crops.

 As tourism grew, the reputation of Mackinac potatoes (usually spelled Mackinaw) spread far and wide. In 1835, visitors found a potato patch near Fort Holmes, writing, “There are about eight or ten acres on this summit cleared up, part of them being enclosed as a potato field. The best potatoes in the world grow at Mackinac, and this plat of them looked very flourishing.” They were amazed, observing plants “flourishing among pebbles where there is no more earth than in a stone wall. The Mackinackians do not regard earth as necessary in a garden, and perhaps would dispense with it even in a farm.”

A drawing of a potato plant.

The Potatoe Plant, Its Uses and Properties, 1847

 As tourists departed, some carried seed potatoes to plant at home. In 1837, Solon Robinson experimented with several northern crops in Iowa, including an early variety named Mackinaw blue. By the 1840s, some voiced the opinion that Mackinac Island potatoes rivaled those grown in Ireland. Extolling virtues of the straits, Dr. Daniel Drake wrote, “the potatoes of this region, rivalling those of the banks of the Shannon, and the white-fish and speckled trout of the surrounding waters … render all foreign delicacies almost superfluous.” On July 31, 1847, a correspondent for the Detroit Free Press boldly stated, “The fine potatoes raised on the island are irresistible –all passengers want them, and sailors will have them.” For decades, the Mackinaw potato enjoyed a celebrated status, renowned across the nation.

A historic newspaper ad for Mackinaw Potatoes in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 9, 1850

 What made Mackinaw potatoes so special? They grew large, ripened early, and were celebrated for their “mealiness.” A mealy potato is dry, fluffy, high in starch, and low in sugar. These traits make them excellent for baking, mashing, or serving deep fried. The plants themselves were also resistant to potato rot, a disease which decimated crops in Ireland, resulting in widespread famine between 1845-1852. Many Irish immigrant families settled at Mackinac during this period, some fleeing desperate conditions in their homeland.

 By the late 1840s, potato blight had also affected crops in the United States. Disease reduced production by more than one-half, while doubling the price per bushel. Blight resistant varieties, including the Mackinaw, were highly sought after. In 1852, Samuel H. Addington displayed Mackinaw White potatoes at the New York State Fair. Two years later, a report for the U.S. Patent Office noted, “Most of the fine varieties formerly cultivated … have been abandoned, and those less liable to disease substituted, such as the Boston Red, the Carter, and the Mackinaw.”

A drawing of the King of the Earlies, a potato sold for $50.00.

Best’s Potato Book, 1870

 At the same time, hundreds of new varieties were being developed. Fueled by a robust profit motive, “Potato Mania” gripped the farming community. In 1869, George Best wrote, “during the past two years the most intense excitement has prevailed in regard to the Potato, and fabulous prices have been paid for seed of new varieties, which, it was hoped, would more than take the place of old kinds.” An extreme example, King of the Earlies sold in 1868 at the price of $50.00 for a single potato. With such advancements, old varieties, including the Mackinaw, eventually fell out favor. By the 1920s, it had virtually disappeared from the market.

A picture of Mackinaw potatoes ready to be made into chips.

Mackinaw potatoes ready for chipping, Michigan State University photo

 In January 2022, researchers at Michigan State University unveiled several new potato hybrids. One of the most promising lines was named the Mackinaw (MSX540-4). A cross between “Saginaw Chipper” and “Lamoka,” it stores well, and it is highly resistant to several diseases. This attractive variety also performed highly in the Potatoes USA National Chip Processing Trials. With any luck, the new Mackinaw potato may even find its way to your next game-day celebration.

What’s in Store for ’24?

As the calendar flips to 2024, the Mackinac State Historic Parks crew is hard at work constructing new buildings, creating new exhibits, fine-tuning programs, preparing the historic sites, and finalizing special events to share the rich historic and natural treasures of Mackinac Island and Mackinaw City.

 “We are excited to welcome visitors to experience our parks and numerous attractions,” said Steve Brisson, Mackinac State Historic Parks Director. “We are hard at work and busy preparing to have everything ready for our spring openings.”

A rendering of the new Milliken Nature Center at Arch Rock.

A rendering of the new Milliken Nature Center at Arch Rock.

 The Milliken Nature Center is built to accent the natural beauty of Arch Rock – not dominate it. The exhibit inside, Arch Rock: Unsurpassed in Nature’s Beauty, will celebrate what was known as the “Jewel of the Mackinac National Park” and is still today known as a “Star Attraction of Mackinac Island State Park.” It features dozens of stunning historic images of Arch Rock as well as a timeline on how the arch was formed. In addition, the center will highlight geology on Mackinac Island as a whole, from the formation of the island itself and how stunning features such as Sugarloaf Rock and Skull Cave came to be. A highlight of the center will be an interactive 3D map of the island. Finally, modern new restrooms will also be located at the site.

A rendering of a new exhibit inside the Milliken Nature Center at Arch Rock.

A rendering of the new exhibit, “Arch Rock: Unsurpassed in Nature’s Handiwork,” at the Milliken Nature Center.

 “The Milliken Nature Center will be a welcome and fitting addition to Mackinac Island State Park,” Brisson said. “We look forward to welcoming guests this spring. We’re honored it will feature the name of Governor Milliken, who loved this island, and are appreciative of the support of Governor Whitmer, the state legislature, and Mackinac Associates to see this project come to fruition.”

The Milliken Nature Center and restrooms are slated to open May 3.

Construction in front of a historic building with a construction worker.

Progress on the Southwest Rowhouse addition in mid-December.

 Moving to Mackinaw City, construction is underway on the first new building at Colonial Michilimackinac since 2013. Located on the east end of the Southwest Rowhouse, the building will host a new exhibit, combining archaeological and archival research to help present community life at Michilimackinac in the 1700s: Slavery at the Straits. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, slavery was integral part of the community at Michilimackinac, as well as the rest of Michigan. Enslaved Black and Native American men and women worked in all levels of society, doing everything from domestic work to skilled labor. Already a hub of the Great Lakes fur trade, Michilimackinac also served as the center of the regional trade in enslaved workers as French and British colonists exploited preexisting systems of Native American enslavement to feed a growing demand for enslaved labor.

“This new exhibit explores the lives of these enslaved individuals and how their experiences fit in with the larger story of Michilimackinac, allowing us to present a more complete vision of the site in the 18th century,” Brisson said.

An overview of the archaeological dig and historic buildings in the background.

A new tour highlighting historic architecture adds to the robust schedule at Colonial Michilimackinac.

 Staying at Michilimackinac, the year 1781 will be explored, when local and global forces uprooted the entire community as soldiers and civilians relocated to Mackinac Island. After six decades as a thriving diplomatic and economic hub, Michilimackinac came to an end in 1781. A special daily program will go into detail on the end of Michilimackinac.

 Other programs throughout the day explore the rich history of the site and showcase how it was more than a military outpost. Get an up-close look at the merchandise that passed through Michilimackinac during the height of the fur trade; learn about the different architectural styles found at the fort; explore dining culture at a Merchant’s House; explore the 5,500 square feet of gardens during an engaging tour; have tea at a British Trader’s home and dive into the complexities of British society; find out what civilians and soldiers were up to; and, of course, feel the power of Michilimackinac’s weapons with musket and artillery firings.

 “The gorgeous setting and beautiful reconstruction of the 18th century fur trading village and fort overlooking the Straits of Mackinac are worth a visit for everyone that comes to Mackinaw City,” said LeeAnn Ewer, Curator of Interpretation. “Here you will be able to explore and learn about what the last year of Michilimackinac was like for the soldiers and civilians that disassembled the community and moved to Mackinac Island. Our newest tour will highlight the move to the island, as well as the historic architecture that would have housed the community daily from Michigan weather as well as the occasional war.”

A person holding tweezers looking for artifacts at the Colonial Michilimackinac archaeology dig.

Mackinac State Historic Parks archaeology program will enter its 66th year in 2024.

 The Mackinac State Historic Parks’ archaeology program will enter its 66th season in 2024. Work will continue in House E of the Southeast Rowhouse at Colonial Michilimackinac. Archaeologists will be out daily (weather permitting) during the summer months. Guests will have the opportunity to see the most recent finds at Colonial Michilimackinac with a “Recent Excavations” display inside the Colonial Michilimackinac Visitor’s Center.

 Want to get closer than ever to the action at Colonial Michilimackinac? Guests have two opportunities to fire black powder weapons: an opening cannon blast, at 9:30 a.m., or they can fire the full complement of weapons at Guns Across the Straits. Reservations for either program can be made by calling (231) 436-4100. More information can be found here.

 Special events at Colonial Michilimackinac include exhilarating “Fire at Night” programs, deep dives into Michilimackinac’s maritime history, a celebration of the King’s Birth-day on June 4, a look at Askin’s Men and Women at Michilimackinac in August, a moonlit Michilimackinac evening, the ever-popular Fort Fright, and A Colonial Christmas. More information can be found at mackinacparks.com/events.

Colonial Michilimackinac opens for the 2024 season May 8.

An oil house added at Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse under cloudy skies.

The Oil House added in 2023. A privy, pump, and flagpole will be added in 2024 to complete the restoration of the house to its 1910 appearance.

 Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse, across the park from Colonial Michilimackinac, will see the continued restoration of the site to its 1910 appearance. This summer will see small details added to the site, including a privy, pump, and flagpole. A small sidewalk will be added to the privy and pump, and, along with the oil house that was added in 2023, new interpretive signs will be added. Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse opens for the season May 9.

 Programs at Historic Mill Creek feature daily demonstrations of a reconstructed 18th century sawmill. With the smell of fresh sawdust in the air, the awesome power of the water never fails to impress as the mill springs to life, fed by the pond and ever-flowing currents of Mill Creek. Log hewing and pitsaw demonstrations will be relocated near the millpond, providing easier access and shaded seating for visitors of all ages. At the workshop historic farming programs highlight what life was like beyond the sawmill more than 200 years ago.

A young raccoon.

Themed weeks, including a Wildlife Week, highlight the Historic Mill Creek schedule in 2024.

 During the summer months, special themed weeks will dig deeper into the story of Historic Mill Creek. From June 23-29, enjoy “Wildlife Week at Historic Mill Creek,” featuring the amazing animals of the North Woods. From July 21-27, enjoy “Hay Cutters & Summer Pasture,” as programs explore historic hay making at the Straits of Mackinac. Finally, August 18-24 will feature “Lost Rocks & Mackinac Millstones,” where guests will earn about the grist mill at Mill Creek, and how the Mill Creek millstones were hewn from “lost rocks” deposited by glaciers thousands of years ago.

 On the wild side, Historic Mill Creek’s 3.5 miles of interpreted hiking trails are always open and available to explore. During the summer months, join a trained naturalist at various times of the day for a guided walk along the trails, looking for blooming wildflowers, fruiting fungi, and singing birds among the trees, as well as for any wildlife along the banks of Mill Creek.

 “We’re excited to enter a year of transition at Historic Mill Creek,” shared Park Naturalist Kyle Bagnall. “This year, special themed weeks will highlight aspects of the site’s amazing history. Guests can join a naturalist for short, guided trail walks. We’ll bask in the summer sun as we listen for the swish of the scythe and tales of historic hay cutters. Finally, we’ll join a hunt for “lost rocks” which traveled hundreds of miles thousands of years ago before landing at Mackinac.”

 Historic Mill Creek will also host two special Snowshoe Strolls, on February 10 and March 3, both from 2:00-3:30 p.m. Bring your snowshoes and explore the snowy North Woods on this guided stroll. This two-mile guided hike will allow you to search for signs of wildlife and other wonders of the natural world. After the walk enjoy treats near a campfire. This event is admission by donation.

 Historic Mill Creek opens for the regular 2024 season May 10.

A person dressed as a historic soldiers leads a group at Fort Mackinac on the Parade Ground.

A new ‘Medicine at Mackinac’ tour will showcase Army Surgeons and military medicine in the 1880s.

 Moving back to Mackinac Island, Fort Mackinac opens for the 2024 season on May 3. Guests can discover two new programs: “Medicine at Mackinac,” where interpreters will provide the history of Army Surgeons and how the Army began changing military medicine in the 1880s. In addition, a Guard Mount Program will show guests how soldiers would conduct this complex military ceremony. Other programs at the fort include a walking tour about the changing face of Fort Mackinac, an exploration of the people who lived and worked at the fort, how the Army of the 1880s conducted itself, a look at Mackinac’s time as a national park, a program showcasing the equipment a soldier was issued, and an exploration of what happened at Fort Mackinac after the sun set. In addition, the classic rifle and cannon firing demonstrations will both feature refreshed presentations.

 “2024 will be an exciting year because we are continuing to expand the programs we offer as well as adding greater depth to our classic programs, creating a fun and educational experience for anyone coming to Mackinac Island,” explained Jack Swartzinski, Mackinac State Historic Parks’ Interpretation Coordinator.

 The Tea Room at Fort Mackinac, operated by Grand Hotel, will feature new menu items for the 2024 season, and, as always, will feature one of the most stunning views in Michigan. Perhaps the way to make a Fort Mackinac visit most memorable is firing the opening cannon salute, which is available to one guest daily. More information can be found here.

Fairy Arch by Henry Chapman Ford 1874

Fairy Arch by Henry Chapman Ford (1874).

 The Richard & Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum, located in Marquette Park in front of Fort Mackinac, will feature Mackinac Rocks!, a juried exhibition in the second floor changing gallery. From looking in wonder at the natural curiosity that is Arch Rock to skipping rocks at Windermere Point, to maybe enjoying some ‘rock’ at a local establishment or the fact that Mackinac Island is itself a large rock, it is safe to say that Mackinac Rocks!

 An art attendant will lead guided tours of the galleries, including a look at Native American art on Mackinac, and the works of photographer William Gardiner. In addition, the attendant will lead two “Kids’ Time” crafts in the lower-level art studio. The sixth nine artists-in-residence will stay on Mackinac Island throughout the summer. Each artist will host a special, free workshop on the second Wednesday of their residency.

 Elsewhere on Mackinac Island, the Biddle House, featuring the Mackinac Island Native American Museum, shares the continuing story of the Anishnaabek on Mackinac Island, with daily interpretive programs and engaging exhibits. The Benjamin Blacksmith Shop, located next door to the Biddle House, is a working blacksmith shop that dives into the 1950s and the changing culture of workers on Mackinac Island. The American Fur Co. Store & Dr. Beaumont Museum and McGulpin House have both received new exhibits in the past two years. Admission to all of these sites is included with a Fort Mackinac or Historic Downtown Mackinac ticket.

 The Biddle House, featuring the Mackinac Island Native American Museum, Benjamin Blacksmith Shop, and The Richard & Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum open for the 2024 season on May 10. The McGulpin House and American Fur Co. Store & Dr. Beaumont Museum open June 1.

A baseball player getting ready to swing a bat wearing a blue and gray uniform.

The annual ‘Vintage Base Ball’ game is a highlight of the summer season.

 Special events at Fort Mackinac and Mackinac Island include Twilight Turtle Treks on January 13, February 3 and March 2; the Fort2Fort Five Mile Challenge May 11; the annual Vintage Base Ball game July 27; special activities for July 4; special history evening programs including a guided tour of Historic Downtown Mackinac as it would have looked in the 1830s and a tour highlighting the creation of the village of Mackinac Island; special nature and birdwatching tours; night sky programs at Fort Holmes and Arch Rock; bike tours looking at Mackinac’s forgotten features and the War of 1812; and much more. More information can be found at mackinacparks.com/events.

 Every museum store will feature new items inspired by the site they represent. The Official Mackinac Island State Park Store, inside the Mackinac Island State Park Visitor’s Center, will continue to have new items inspired by the historic and natural elements of Mackinac Island.

 Most major projects were funded, in part, by Mackinac Associates. Visit mackinacparks.com for a complete listing of updates and projects at Mackinac State Historic Parks, hours of operation, daily events, special events, and more.

The Mackinac Walrus

“The one thing on Mackinac Island that keeps stirring my mind is a skull … the uncouth skull of a great beast.”

Lee J. Smits (1931)

 The next time you’re in Ann Arbor, be sure to stop by the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History. In the Exploring Michigan gallery, look for the oddly-shaped object shown here. On the label, you may be surprised to read: “Walrus – Recent – Mackinac Island, Michigan.” This specimen is the front portion (rostrum) of a walrus skull, with its tusks missing. Sketches from a History of North American Pinnipeds (1880) and Encyclopaedia Metropolitana (1845) are shown for comparison.

 This raises several questions. When was a walrus skull discovered at Mackinac? What does “recent” mean? Did walruses once swim in Lake Huron? Read on for the amazing story of one of the most unusual objects ever unearthed at the Straits of Mackinac.

The Discovery

A portrait of Frank Kriesche taken on Mackinac Island.

Frank Kriesche on Mackinac Island, by William H. Gardiner

 Franz (Frank) Kriesche (1863-1946) is well remembered for operating an art glass store on Mackinac Island. His shop, founded in the 1890s, offered custom glass engraving for tourists and local residents. Samples of his fine craftsmanship are on display in The Richard & Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum.

 On a date unremembered, Frank visited nearby Round Island, perhaps on a family picnic. Imagine his surprise when he noticed a strange lump protruding from the sand. Unearthing it did little to solve the mystery of what he discovered. At some point, the unidentified item was donated to Fort Mackinac’s first museum. Established in 1915, the exhibit was a rather haphazard collection of relics, mostly displayed in the officer’s stone quarters.

 Lee J. Smits, a columnist for the Detroit Times, visited the museum in July 1931. He wrote, “the one thing on Mackinac Island that keeps stirring my mind is a skull … the uncouth skull of a great beast. Frank Kriesche found the skull on Round Island, close by Mackinac, many years ago. For a long time it was not identified. Lately there have been learned visitors who declare it is the skull of a walrus. It is not fossil, but bone. The tusks are missing. There were no other bones around the skull where it lay on the sand beach, and no one has ever come forward with the slightest clue as how it came to be there.”

Michigan’s Marine Mammals

A portrait of Dr. Russell C. Hussey

Dr. Russell C. Hussey, University of Michigan

 Amazingly, this wasn’t the first marine mammal found in the state. In 1861, a whale vertebra, found in western Michigan, was noted by state geologist Alexander Winchell. In 1914, a walrus bone was unearthed at a gravel pit near Gaylord. And in the late 1920s, a sperm whale vertebra and five whale ribs were excavated at various locations throughout the state.

 During the summer of 1930, Dr. Russell C. Hussey, professor of historical geology at the University of Michigan, conducted fieldwork in the Upper Peninsula. About the same time, he identified Frank’s mystery object as a walrus skull. That same year, Dr. Hussey published a report of Michigan whale bones which received national attention. His theory stated that marine creatures swam inland after the last ice age, when “the Great Lakes were once a gigantic arm of the sea,” connected by ancient river channels.

The Walrus Departs

The Journal of Mammalogy, in which the Mackinac walrus was described.

The Mackinac walrus was described in the Journal of Mammalogy (May 1953)

 While it had been identified, the Mackinac walrus remained at Fort Mackinac for the next two decades, unreported in scientific literature. In May 1953, Charles Handley, curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, was the first to describe the specimen. He noted that details of its discovery had turned fuzzy over time. He wrote, “R.C. Hussey… was told that the skull had been found many years ago in a beach deposit (Algonquin or Nipissing) on Mackinac Island. The original data was lost in a fire.” While Fort Mackinac’s wooden soldier’s barracks did catch fire in 1951, very little damage occurred. Perhaps the incident served as a convenient smokescreen for years of poor record keeping.

 In 1954, Fort Mackinac’s collection was assessed by Alexis Proust, a curator from the Kalamazoo Public Museum. Proust spent a month on the island, “examining, sorting, and considering the potentialities of the museum.” Objects “not germane to the museum’s purpose” were to be returned to donors or disposed of. As Frank Kreische died in 1946, his walrus skull likely sat in a pile of unwanted and forgotten items. From there, it was recovered by a student and given to Dr. Hussey. In 1955, it was officially donated to the U-M museum by MSHP park superintendent Carl Nordberg.

Untangling the Riddle

 In 1977, Charles Harington, curator at the National Museum of Canada, focused on a special detail of the Mackinac walrus. He wrote, “A series of nearly parallel, commonly long, cut and scratch marks are seen on the smoother parts of the cranial fragment. They are most evident on the right side of the rostrum, where a crosshatched effect is produced. I think these were produced by man … they deserve closer inspection by an archaeologist.”

 Harington doubled down on his assessment in 1988, calling the skull a cultural artifact, not a natural phenomenon. He noted a similar incised pattern was evident on a walrus tusk found near Syracuse, New York. He also reported specimens from New York, Ontario, and Quebec all revealed radiocarbon dates younger than 800 B.P. (before present). As the modern Great Lakes formed about 2,000 years ago, this meant sea creatures could not have swum to Michigan, and their remains were likely transported inland by Native Americans.

 After sitting in museum displays for about 80 years, the Mackinac walrus was finally subjected to radiocarbon dating. In June 1999, an expansive report, “The Late Wisconsinan and Holocene Record of Walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) from North America,” was printed in the journal Arctic. Its authors noted specimens across the U.S. and Canada likely represented long-distance acquisition of walrus ivory. They wrote, “This would also seem to be the only plausible explanation of an even more remote find: the anterior part of a walrus cranium lacking tusks that was recovered from a site on Mackinac Island, Michigan, reportedly from a beach deposit, yielded an age of 975 ± 60 B.P.”

Visit the Walrus

The walrus skull on display today at the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History.

Display of ancient marine mammal bones from Michigan at the U-M museum of Natural History

 Today, the well-traveled and sometimes mysterious Mackinac walrus remains on exhibit at the U-M Natural History Museum. The ancient skull fragment is displayed with a sperm whale vertebra and the rib of a bowhead whale, also found in Michigan. At the straits, new mysteries will be revealed during the 66th season of archaeological excavations at Mackinac State Historic Parks, which begins in June 2024. For more information, visit www.mackinacparks.com/more-info/history/archaeology

A covered cave on Mackinac Island

Mysterious Mackinac Caverns

“It is absolutely beyond my power in a letter like this to give you a proper delineation of the objects seen in this extraordinary cave.” J.M.W.  (July 1855)

An unknown cave in a black and white photo taken on Mackinac Island

Photo of unknown Mackinac cave by C.E. Kelso, named “Hanging Rocks” in Legendary Lore of Mackinac (1901)

 The natural wonders of Mackinac Island have drawn people to its rocky shores for thousands of years. Described as “one mass of limestone,” the island first emerged after the last ice age, about 11,000 years ago. Post-glacial lakes gradually sculpted Mackinac’s durable breccia, forming arches, sea stacks, cliffs, and caves. Features such as Arch Rock, Sugar Loaf, and Skull Cave, have been renowned for centuries and are visited often.

 Just beneath the surface, however, are stories of fantastic discoveries, now long forgotten. While the Musical Well once captivated listeners, its tunes had fallen silent by 1845. Scott’s Cave, where “the giant Goliath might stand erect,” was destroyed in the early 1950s. Fairy Arch has fallen and Wishing Spring no longer invites visitors to its “fragrant, fairy grotto.”

 Most enticing of all are tales of large caverns beneath the island’s surface. In 1892, Harold Corbusier, son of the post surgeon, explored a winding cavern with a small party, including several soldiers. With the aid of ropes, they were lowered about 20 feet, making their way to “a large chamber with branches leading away in different directions.”

“Another Mammoth Cave Discovered”

A painting of Mackinac Island with Fort Mackinac prominently shown.

Cropped portion of “View of the Town of Mackinaw,” first printed in May 1855. Likely drawn by Major Thomas Williams, 4th Artillery Regiment

 The greatest discovery reportedly occurred in July 1855, when sensational news broke of a newly-discovered cavern on Mackinac Island. The original account was penned by J.M.W., a correspondent of the Detroit Tribune. Reprinted in newspapers from coast-to-coast, the find was often compared to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky.

 “The day before yesterday, a tremendous storm sprang up,” he wrote, “accompanied by the fiercest thunder and lightning I ever witnessed … Streams ran through the streets, tearing them in ridges; and the little board race at the Garrison gate roared and threw the spray like a young cataract; rocks, stones, and gravel were displaced in quantities from the brow of the bluff.

 The following morning, boys in going along the base of the Fort hill, east of their stables, found that several large masses of rock had been displaced by the rain and rolled down from their original beds. One large one was noticed, having left an opening of some 4 feet by 10. Some of the boldest of the boys immediately explored as far as the light would admit. The report spread far and near and many people soon came and examined the entrance. Finally, a party of gentlemen and ladies was organized to explore the opening the following morning …

 The party of ladies and gentlemen before alluded to, having provided themselves with lights, cords, arms and eatables, entered the new-found opening. The entrance is small, not being over four feet high by ten feet in width, descending gradually after passing through a long and rather narrow alley surrounded on every side by stalactites and small crystals of calcareous spar, which glittered in the torch-lights like diamonds. We after some time entered a dome or amphitheater; we stood transfixed in astonishment. The dome is 350 feet in length by 240 in width, and in most places 180 feet in hight [sic.]; the whole lit up by our numerous torches, yielded a splendor and beauty not to be described … On the parade ground north-east of the fort a cannon was discharged, and a slight tremulous jar was felt, accompanied with a very faint rumbling sound.

A drawing of the entrance of Scott's Cave.

Scott’s Cave entrance, drawn by Alfred Waud in 1853

 After passing through alleys, looking down here and there into a deep abyss, and viewing in haste temples, palaces and chambers, and having also stepped over a small swift stream of cold clear water, we finally, after some slight work, guided by a dim light in front of us, excavated a place large enough for one to pass through, and found ourselves in Capt. Scates’s [Scott’s] Cave; thence we stepped into the beech and maple grove which surrounds that opening; from here we walked to Dousman’s farm-house, where the ladies found carriages for home. The time occupied was five hours, and the computed distance traveled in the cave was a trifle over three miles.

 It is absolutely beyond my power in a letter like this to give you a proper delineation of the objects seen in this extraordinary cave. If the first chamber through which we passed excelled in splendor, beauty and brilliancy of the diamond ornaments, produced by the lights and torches, they were thrown far in the back ground by the superior grandeur and sublimity of the apartments which we subsequently passed after reaching the first amphitheater. More of this when I shall have again the pleasure of seeing you.”

Unsolved Mystery

 Could this cavern of wonders really exist on Mackinac Island? Was this story an accurate account, a fanciful exaggeration, or even fabricated entirely? Elsewhere, J.M.W. noted, “The inhabitants and strangers, as I am informed, say that large caves must and do exist, from the mumbling sounds heard when heavy carriages pass over the island. Scull Cave, [Scott’s] Cave and Devil’s Cave are renowned, which are believed now to be outlets of others of greater magnitude.”

A covered cave on Mackinac Island

Entrance to Mackinac’s underground world

 This theory was supported by Eleanor Bussell in “The Story of Mackinac’s Caves,” from the July 8, 1948, edition of The Island News. One resident she interviewed claimed there were once up to 29 caves on the island. She wrote, “One particular place known as Hell-Hole Cave located on the path along the West Bluff was covered over years ago. If this old story is correct, it must have been the only subterranean cave on the Island.”

 As you explore the island’s wild side, imagine hidden wonders which lie beneath your feet, deep below the rocky surface. Perhaps a future rain storm or winter rock slide will uncover the entrance of a new marvel under the Wonderful Isle, making new headlines in the 21st century.

Trekking Through Nature: A Journey Along some of Mackinac Island’s Best Trails

For us, there’s nothing much better than an early morning or evening hike, especially when those hikes take you through the North Woods and feature views overlooking the sparkling waters of the Straits of Mackinac. Welcome to Mackinac Island State Park. Many tourists, travelers and people from all walks of life journey to this timeless island for the food, fudge and historical sites. However, the incredible trail system within and around the island are not to be missed. More than 80% of Mackinac Island is parkland – containing more than 70 miles of incredible hiking and biking trails to explore. Whether you’re an avid outdoor enthusiast, or a novice looking for a pretty view, there is something for you within the park. We’ve compiled a list of five favorites – some very popular, some lesser known. Read on for some inside information to make your visit to Mackinac Island all the more enjoyable!

A sign for Tranquil Bluff Trail on Mackinac Island.

Tranquil Bluff Trail.

A clearing through some trees showing blue sky and blue water on Tranquil Bluff Trail on Mackinac Island.

One of the gorgeous views on Tranquil Bluff Trail.

 The trail you can’t miss:

Tranquil Bluff (~1 hour and 30 minutes)
DIFFICULTY LEVEL: Moderate

 Tranquil Bluff Trail most certainly lives up to the name. This winding tree covered pathway borders the eastern edge of the island. It’s serene with spectacular views of Lake Huron on your right and a lush forest on your left. Tranquil Bluff is a truly unforgettable experience. We recommend going on the trail in the early hours of the morning, right as the forest wakes up. Listen closely and you’ll hear the singing of chickadees, warblers and the occasional wail of a loon from the lake. For this hike bug spray is recommended, and hiking shoes are a major plus as there are several steeper slopes to traverse.

 

 

Skull Cave on Mackinac Island.

Skull Cave on Mackinac Island.

View of trees, water, and an island from Fort Holmes on Mackinac Island.

One of the views from Mackinac Island.

 For a good workout:

 Fort Holmes Loop (~30 minutes)
DIFFICULTY LEVEL: Hard

From Fort Mackinac continue onto Garrison Road until you reach Skull Cave. Then make a right and follow signs for Fort Holmes/Point Lookout. You will soon approach a wooden staircase on your left. This is where the workout begins! After climbing several flights of steps catch your breath while enjoying one of the most beautiful views on the island. Fort Holmes is perched atop a hilltop providing a 360-degree view of the surrounding topography (including Round Island and Bois Blanc Island). Hawks and turkey vultures fly close by so make sure to keep an eye out for them! Also take some time to explore Fort Holmes. No ticket is required for entry! After your visit at the fort continue onto Fort Holmes Road until you reach the cemetery. Then make a left and continue back down to the Fort Mackinac!

A set of stairs found on Pontiac's Trail on Mackinac Island.

Pontiac Trail.

Yellow wildflowers along Pontiac Trail on Mackinac Island.

Wildflowers on Pontiac Trail.

Best views of Mackinac Bridge:

Pontiac Trail (~15 minutes)
DIFFICULTY LEVEL: Easy

Pontiac Trail may be short, but it has the longest panoramic view of Mackinac Bridge. The trail offers a spectacular array of picture-perfect shots. Every angle captures the sparkling water, flowered trees, and gleaming bridge in the distance. You can also spot ferries passing to and from the mainland! If you descend the staircase to the water’s edge, you’ll find one of Mackinac Islands prime sunset watching locations.

 

 

Tall trees on Leslie Avenue.

Tall trees on Leslie Avenue.

A yellow ladyslipper along Leslie Avenue on Mackinac Island.

A ladyslipper found along Leslie Avenue.

Most scenic hike:

Leslie Avenue Loop (~1 hour)
DIFFICULTY LEVEL: Moderate

A local favorite that has a direct connection to Mackinac’s military history! Soldiers cut this trail in the 1870s and named it after Captain Leslie Smith. From Arch Rock look for the wooden sign that says Leslie Avenue and begin your journey. The trail is narrow but paved so no hiking shoes are needed. However, don’t let the paved trail fool you because along this path you are still very much surrounded by nature. Beautiful maple, pine and oak trees create a brilliantly green canopy overhead. White, purple and yellow wildflowers line the trail, and a symphony of birds will make you feel like you are the only one on the island! It’s a hike you cannot miss.

Signs at the beginning of the Mackinac Island Botanical Trail.

Start of the Mackinac Island Botanical Trail.

For the botanists/naturalists:

A White Pine with a sign in front of it located along the Mackinac Island Botanical Trail.

Michigan’s state tree, the White Pine.

Mackinac Island Botanical Trail (~30 minutes)         DIFFICULTY LEVEL: Easy

This hike will take you on a true learning journey! A massive sign reading Mackinac Island Botanical Trail is the start of the trail. As you traverse the path, signs placed throughout will give you insight into the common and scientific names of the trees that grow on the island. Meander along this trail and you’ll eventually reach Arch Rock. From here you have several potential hiking routes. Turning left will lead you onto Leslie Avenue, continuing straight will lead you down a flight of stairs to Lake Shore Boulevard and turning right onto Huron Road will take you to East Bluff. I recommend walking along East Bluff for the most picturesque views of the lake and Round Island’s Lighthouse. From East Bluff you can take a sharp left turn back down to Main Street. You can also continue onto East Bluff until you reach Fort Mackinac.

These are just a few hikes to be found on Mackinac Island. We hope you enjoy them, but always encourage you to find your own favorites –  there is no wrong turn! Happy Trails!

 

Lilac Scented Memories

Newly-discovered accounts of Mackinac Island’s lilacs from the 1840s.

A lilac bush.  Blooming lilacs are now just a memory for the 2023 season. These sweetly-scented flowering shrubs typically bloom between mid-May and mid-June in northern Michigan. For many years, the earliest known reference to lilacs on Mackinac Island was by the famous author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau. Suffering from tuberculosis, Thoreau visited the island from June 30 – July 4, 1861, with Horace Mann Jr., a seventeen-year-old budding botanist and loyal traveling companion. Thoreau’s unpublished journal emphasizes the lateness of spring, recording about 30 species of trees and shrubs and more than 75 varieties of herbaceous plants and wildflowers. Thoreau noted, “No corn or only green corn. Strawberries (both kinds) hardly ripe here & scarce.” He also observed “apple in blossom … & lilac.”

 Recently, two earlier accounts of Mackinac Island lilacs were discovered, both from the 1840s. On a trip from Xenia, Ohio, William Mills penned a letter home on July 3, 1847. Published in the Greene County Torch-Light on July 15, his longer column concludes,

 “But lest I become too prosy, I will finish with a glance at the particularly interesting and picturesque locality of Mackinac … We reached here about sunrise this morning and all walked upon the island and inspected whatever of interest came our way. Mackinac is on the 46th degree of latitude, some 450 miles north of Xenia, and now the fresh blooming lilac and opening buds of the apple tree, too plainly told the chilliness of a late spring … We had some invalids among us when we left home, but there are none on that list now, if hearty appetites and a full flow of playful spirits are considered the signs.”

A photo of William Mills.

William Mills (1814-1879) Credit: Antiochiana Collection, Olive Kettering Library, Antioch College

 Interestingly, William Mills was a founder of Antioch College, whose first president was the noted American educator, Horace Mann. Their families were undoubtedly familiar, with Horace Mann Jr. attending the school in 1859, just two years before his own trip to Mackinac Island.

 Currently, the earliest known account of Mackinac’s lilacs was written June 18, 1845, by “J.I.M.” an unknown correspondent from The Boston Post. His visit was described in rich detail through a series of letters, reprinted that July. After securing comfortable accommodations at the new Mission House hotel, he spent several days exploring the island’s natural wonders. “Jim” penned a goodbye note aboard the steamer Madison as it pulled from the harbor. He wrote,

 “Adieu, beautiful island of Mackinac! … Farewell to your rocks and caves, your shady walks and stony beach, your clear air, sweetened by the lilac and apple trees but just in blossom – your delicious trout and white fish, and the kind hospitality of your people! all, farewell.”

 Local lore places the origins of Mackinac Island’s lilacs even earlier than the 1840s. Today, the oldest known trees are about 200 years old, placing them among the eldest specimens in the nation. If treated with care, the island’s clear air will be sweetened by lilacs for centuries yet to come.

Mackinac at the Museum (1798)

On February 28, 1798, an article in the Greenfield Gazette detailed plans for an exciting new museum. A veritable “cabinet of curiosities,” the institution would be housed at Deerfield Academy, in Deerfield, Massachusetts. Today, the organization is one of the oldest preparatory schools in the United States. Their eclectic collection included donations from Dartmouth College, Boston area museums, and “many curious articles from many private gentlemen and ladies.”

A portrait of Joseph Priestley by Rembrandt Peale

Joseph Priestley, by Rembrandt Peale (c.1801)

 The late 18th century was a pivotal time in the development of scientific understanding. The “tree of knowledge” flourished during the Age of Enlightenment, with new discoveries by curious scientists, including Benjamin Franklin, William Bartram, and Joseph Priestley. Science also became more accessible as everyday citizens attended popular lectures, read printed works, roamed public gardens, and patronized museums.

 Joseph Priestly, an influential chemist, wide-ranging educator, natural philosopher, and radical theologian, epitomized this spirit of discovery. Priestly published and lectured often, becoming a close friend and collaborator with Benjamin Franklin. Deerfield Museum founders were  influenced by his advice, writing, “Dr. Priestley, in his lectures, shows the importance of such collections, as they respect history; and as the natural history of America is yet very imperfect, gentleman may be of essential service to it, by depositing specimens of minerals the skins of peculiar animals, or whatever may appear to them uncommon…”

 Which Mackinac wonders would you pick to display in this “infant museum” of early America? A unique specimen of Mackinac limestone? Animal pelts from the world-renowned fur trade? The delectable whitefish, or a 70-pound Mackinac trout? A closer look at this fascinating assemblage reveals the following curiosities:

  • Petrifications [fossils] from different parts of the country
  • Stone tools, clay pots, pipes, a bow and a number of arrows
  • Crystals and ores
  • Several fish hooks and lines
  • A spoon and a comb, made by Pacific Island inhabitants, visited by Captain Cook
  • The saw of a sawfish
  • A tooth of the spermaceti whale and jaw of a mackerel whale
  • The jaws of a Shark, with the teeth
  • Bills of a toucan and a pelican
  • The head and egg of an ostrich
  • A puffing fish, a coney, and sea wolf
  • A centipede of the West Indies
  • A young alligator and the egg of the albatross
  • Rare insects and reptiles, including a two-headed snake
  • “Nuts from Michilimackinac, called by the natives Pickens – and Indian rice from the same place”
A beaked hazelnut growing along the trail at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park.

Beaked hazelnut growing along the trail at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park

 “Nuts from Michilimackinac, called by the natives Pickens,” likely refers to fruits of the hazelnut tree. The word pecan originates from the word pakan, meaning “hard shelled nut” in the Algonquian language family. Spelled with many variations over eastern North America, the word translates as bagaan in Anishinaabemowin, spoken by Ojibwe and Odawa people in the Mackinac region. A member of the birch family, there are 15 species of hazels in North America. Beaked hazelnut (Corylus rostrata) grows in the North Woods at Mackinac. In his 1912 botanical report, Charles K. Dodge noted they were common in “rich open ground from Bay County to St. Ignace and on Mackinac Island.”

A painting of people gathering wild rice from 1853.

Gathering Wild Rice, by Seth Eastman (1853)

 Wild Rice is one of the few staple grains native to North America. It belongs to a genus of tall, aquatic grasses of the genus Zizania, which thrived in marshes throughout the upper Great Lakes. Anishinaabek call the plant manoomin. In Ojibwe culture, its importance rises beyond a rich food source, with many related stories, symbols, and ceremonies associated with its use and harvest. While wild rice grew in the eastern Upper Peninsula it was never overly abundant here, often being traded from Green Bay. Draining of marshes and impaired water quality greatly reduced its range in the 20th century.

 In 1800, a large birchbark canoe made its way from Lake Huron to Peale’s Museum in Philadelphia. Founded in 1786 by artist Charles Willson Peale, the institution is considered the most important museum of early America. Peale’s expansive collection featured portraits of prominent individuals, natural history specimens, and cultural artifacts from around the world. The canoe was donated by Dr. Charles Brown, U.S. army surgeon at Detroit, who paddled it to New York. Constructed at Saginaw Bay by “an Indian woman,” the lightweight craft measured 23 feet long, 4 feet in breadth and 26 inches deep. Canoes were indispensable for transportation on the Great Lakes, plying rivers and lakes throughout the U.S. and Canada, including the Straits of Mackinac. It was said the donated craft “carried six persons and 1,200 weight of baggage across the Lakes.”

 The next time you visit the straits, consider which items might be fit for a museum of the 22nd century. Would your futuristic exhibit feature a slab of petrified fudge? A bicycle with pedals? Or fragrant blossoms of a lilac tree? Whatever change may come over the next century, we can rest assured that Lake Huron waters will lap against the rocky shore, welcoming visitors to Mackinac as they have since time immemorial.

Whitefish – Deer of the Lakes

“The great business of life at Mackinac was looking out upon the lake and munching the fish,

and I felt when there that I would not have the heart to look at a fish in the face for years to come.

In fact we all began to feel decidedly fishy before we left the island.”

                                                                                                               – The Venango Spectator, October 21, 1857

Before the Straits of Mackinac became a center of international fur trade, its waters were renowned by generations of Native Americans as an abundant fishery. Of the many species in these freshwater seas, the delicate whitefish, usually weighing 3-5 pounds, was the most prized catch of all. The importance of fish at the Straits was noted early, with French Jesuit Jacques Marquette writing in 1673, “This place is the most noted in these regions for the abundance of its fisheries; for, according to the Indian saying, ‘this is the home of the fishes.’ Elsewhere, although they exist in large numbers, it is not properly their ‘home,’ which is in the neighborhood of Missilimackinac.” Whitefish are called adikameg in Ojibwe or Anishnaabemowin, effectively translating as reindeer (or deer) of the lakes.

Whitefish (left) in the Codex canadensis by French Jesuit Louis Nichols c.1700

Normally living in cold, deep water, lake whitefish spawn on shallow shoals each autumn, where they lay and fertilize their eggs. For centuries, whitefish have been widely regarded as the best-tasting and most important of all fishes in the lakes. Writing from St. Ignace in 1688, Louis Armand, Baron de Lahontan wrote, “You can scarce believe, Sir, what vast sholes [sic.] of white Fish are catch’d about the middle of the Channel, between the Continent and the Isle of Missilimackinac. The Outaouas and the Hurons could never subsist here, without the Fishery… This sort of white Fish in my opinion, is the only one in all these Lakes that can be call’d good; and indeed it goes beyond all other sorts of River Fish.” About 1695, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac noted “the pleasure of seeing as many as a hundred whitefish caught in a single haul of a net. This is the most delicate fish of the lakes…”

Many early travelers repeated similar exultations. Although sturgeon and trout were larger, whitefish were most prized. In 1721, Jesuit Pierre Francois-Xavier de Charlevoix, the first historian of New France, wrote, “The Michillimackinac live entirely by fishing, and there is perhaps no place in the world where they are in greater plenty… the most famous of all is the white-fish; it is nearly the size and figure of a mackerel [sic.], and whether fresh or salted, nothing of a fish-kind can exceed it. The Indians tell you that it was Michabou who taught their ancestors to fish, invented nets of which he took the idea from Arachne’s, or the spider’s web.”

This preserved whitefish skeleton, was discovered by archaeologists at Fort Michilimackinac.

While French and British residents preferred domestic fare, they readily ate fish and wild game when necessary, particularly during lean winter months. In 1761, British fur trader Alexander Henry noted high prices of grain and beef “led me to be very industrious in fishing… White-fish, which exceed the trout, as a delicious and nutritious food, are here in astonishing numbers.” Having small, delicate mouths and a habit of schooling, they were most easily caught in gill nets, mainly in fall and winter. Detailing the process, Henry continued, “The white-fish is taken in nets, which are set under the ice… The fish, running against the net, entangle their gills in the meshes, and are thus detained till taken up.”

While important locally for centuries, fish at Mackinac didn’t gain economic importance until the 1830’s, when commercial fishing replaced the fur trade as the predominant industry. In his 1835 Gazetteer of the State of Michigan, author John T. Blois bragged, “The numbers, varieties, and excellent quality of the lake fish are worthy of notice. It is believed no fresh waters known, can in any respect bear comparison… Their quantities are surprising, and apparently so inexhaustible, as to warrant the belief, that were a population of millions to inhabit the lake shores, they would furnish an ample supply of this article of food, without any sensible diminution.”

In 1836, about 1,200 barrels of whitefish and trout were taken at Mackinac. In just 20 years, the number skyrocketed to 20,000 barrels annually at the Straits, with comparable increases throughout the Great Lakes. In 1857, Mackinac’s fish-munching “Viator” wrote, “The staple article of trade is fish… These fish are taken in exceedingly deep water in what are called gill nets…The net is then sunk in 300 feet of water and left over night, when it is drawn up, and the fish are found fastened by their gills. They are then, opened and cured on the schooners, brought to the dock, inspected and barreled, when they are fit for the market. It does not add to one’s appetite for white fish, to see them piled up by cart loads on the dock, and to notice the decidedly filthy odor, that fills the whole atmosphere.”

In his 1860 publication, Old Mackinac, Or Fortress of the Lakes, W.P. Strickland wrote, “White-fish are more highly prized than any other kind found in our waters, being the decidedly the most delicious in a fresh state, and when packed command a higher price than any other by $1 per bbl… They were once so numerous that eight thousand were taken at a single haul. At present a haul of one or two thousand is thought a very good one. In all the rivers they are growing scarce very gradually, but surely. The ratio of decrease cannot be arrived at with any degree of precision.”

The decline, recovery and future threats to Great Lakes fisheries are a long tale for another time. Restocking and other 20th century conservation efforts resulted in stabilized populations, along with efforts to restore Native American fishing rights granted by 19th century treaties. Today’s commercial fishery sustainably harvests more than eight million pounds of lake whitefish each year. Residents and guests alike continue to enjoy this humble, tasty member of the salmon family at restaurants, markets, and fisheries throughout northern Michigan.