A fish with its mouth open depicted in a detailed drawing with the words 'white fish' sketched underneath.

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.

A historic black and white photo showing a large white building known as the Fort Mackinac Post Hospital with three cannons in the foreground.

The Hospital Corps at Fort Mackinac

For much of the United States’ history, military medicine was the responsibility of a few surgeons. These Post Surgeons would be stationed at forts and posts nationwide. They would travel with campaigning regiments across the country, often with limited supplies and help. These men often held commissions as officers in the army or were given civilian appointments when an army surgeon wasn’t available, as was often the case in Fort Mackinac’s history. Different forts posed different challenges to surgeons depending on the climate of the fort or the condition of the fort buildings and waste systems. This situation would change dramatically during times of war, as the risk of disease and injury increased significantly with a much greater number of soldiers interacting with one another even outside the chaos of combat.

A historic black and white photo showing a large white building known as the Fort Mackinac Post Hospital with three cannons in the foreground.

Fort Mackinac’s 1860 Post Hospital prior to 1887.

 During the Civil War, army surgeons could depend on a complex web of volunteer and charity organizations supplying them with volunteer civilian doctors and nurses (both men and women) to cater to the army’s needs. Both sides would implement formal and informal groups of soldiers to assist in transferring the wounded off the front lines to field hospitals and administering early wound treatment. While many new medical “firsts” can be exhibited during the Civil War in surgery, treatment, and staffing, many of the systems about medical staff went away after the war. Following the war, the army reduced in size, and all volunteer functions disappeared. The peacetime army of the 19th century was chronically under-size, underpaid, and poorly equipped, and the Medical Department faced the brunt of this problem.

A portrait of Charles Woodruff, Fort Mackinac's Assistant Post Surgeon, in 1895. The photo is black and white, and he has a beard and large mustache, and is wearing an overcoat with a large collar.

An 1895 photo of Charles Woodruff, who was the Assistant Post Surgeon at Fort Mackinac from 1887 – 1889.

 In the late 1860s, the army turned its attention west towards the Native Americans of the western plains. For the next 25 years, the army would engage in consistent fighting with several tribes in the final of the “Indian Wars” fought by the United States government against native peoples. This combat required soldiers to be mobile and often to go on campaigns to very remote parts of the country, where supplies for the army were minimal and the hope for help from civilian volunteers extremely slim. Surgeons found themselves to be the sole caretakers for 50-100 soldiers, with the only trained help they might rely on being an enlisted Hospital Steward. Hospital Stewards were specially trained enlisted men, acting more like pharmacists caring for medicine and supplies. This problem also became clear to many commanding officers in combat.

 Surgeons typically distanced themselves from the main line of fighting for their safety in battle. In the early stages, they might be seen closer, prepared to move wounded soldiers to the rear, but once casualties began to build up, the wounded soldiers would have to rely on the help of their fellow soldiers to move them to the rear. Commanding Officers found this to be a problem: now, instead of losing one combat-capable soldier, they were losing one to three capable men who should be fighting. Even having a handful of wounded soldiers could seriously inhibit a company, which was often barely at its capacity of 54 men.

A black and white photo from 1892 showing the undress uniform of the Hospital Corps.

Model of Hospital Corps undress uniform, from The Report of the Surgeon General, 1892

 Various Surgeon Generals in the early 1880s began advocating for an established group of specially trained soldiers to attend to the soldiers in both combat and garrison situations. On August 11th, 1887, Commanding General Philip Sheridan issued General Order 56, establishing a Hospital Corps. This Hospital Corp included Surgeons, Hospital Stewards, and Privates. Privates were a new addition to the Medical Department. Privates serve directly as assistants to the Hospital Stewards and Surgeons in Garrisons and, in battle, would operate an ambulance and provide care to wounded soldiers. General Order 56 also mandated four soldiers in each company to be “company bearers.” These four men were to be trained regularly on wound treatment and litter bearing and, in an emergency, would help the Hospital Corps.

 By November 1887, three privates of the Hospital Corps were stationed at Fort Mackinac, most having transferred directly from the companies already stationed at Fort Mackinac on the recommendation of Assistant Post Surgeon Charles Woodruff. These soldiers would attend division-wide encampments and training, the Corps soon proving themselves to be a valuable and effective part of the army. At Fort Mackinac these men would work regularly in the Post Hospital with sick and injured soldiers and would assist in the training of the company bearers. The Medical Department hoped that by training regular infantry soldiers to be company bearers they could create a consistent recruitment path into the Hospital Corps. Unfortunately, the Hospital Corps was consistently under staffed due to poor pay and negative feelings many soldiers had towards hospital work.

A black and white photo with men in military uniforms posing by three large cannons at Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island.

Hospital Corps Privates posing by cannons on the upper gun platform with fellow soldiers at Fort Mackinac, late 1880s or early 1890s.

 While the Hospital Corps only came into being toward the very end of Fort Mackinac’s time as an active military post, it demonstrates another way Fort Mackinac experienced the changing times of the army. The creation of the Hospital Corps marks a leap forward in military medicine, both in the chaos of the battlefield and the comforts of an army fort. Join us this summer at Fort Mackinac for our new “Medicine at Mackinac” Program. There you can learn more about how medicine was changing and the impact on Fort Mackinac.

A pencil sketch of a single potato with some indentations in the skin.

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.

September Stroll to Arch Rock

The summer season draws to a close in the North Woods. Join naturalist Kyle Bagnall for this easy guided stroll along the Mackinac Island Botanical Trail. Along the way we’ll savor lingering summer wonders and look for early signs of autumn, including migrating songbirds. At Arch Rock, you’ll enjoy one of the island’s most spectacular views and a short tour of the newly-completed Milliken Nature Center. Meet behind Fort Mackinac and we’ll cover about 1.5 miles total on paved roads and trails. Admission by donation. #thisismackinac

Civil War at Mackinac Weekend

In the summer of 1862 Fort Mackinac held a new title: political prison. Join reenactors portraying the “Stanton Guard,” the company mustered to guard the prisoners, as they present special programming throughout the weekend at the fort. All special programs are included with regular admission to Fort Mackinac. #thisismackinac

SCHEDULE OF EVENTS

Schedule of Events at Fort Mackinac, June 22 and 23:
9:30 a.m. – Morning cannon Salute.
10:00 a.m. – Rifle Firing Demonstration followed by The Changing Face of Fort Mackinac program. Civil War Group reports to Fort Mackinac.
11:00 a.m. – Cannon Firing Demonstration, followed by Guard Mount Program.
11:30 a.m. – Medicine at Mackinac Program
12:00 p.m. – Rifle Firing Demonstration, followed by Stanton Guard at Fort Mackinac Program.
1:00 p.m. – Cannon Firing Demonstration, followed by Civilian Culture and the Civil War Program
2:00 p.m. – Rifle and Drill Program
3:00 p.m. – Cannon Firing Demonstration, followed by Soldier’s Uniform and Equipment Program
4:00 p.m. – Rifle Firing Demonstration, followed by Michigan Civilians and the War Effort Program*
5:00 p.m. – Cannon Firing Demonstration
6:00 p.m. – Rifle Firing Demonstration
6:30 p.m. – Cannon Firing Demonstration
7:00 p.m. – Fort Mackinac Closed for the Evening
*June 22 ONLY