Winter Arrives at Mackinac

Winter views of Mackinac Island: the Father Marquette statue and stone ramparts of Fort Mackinac.

Winter on Mackinac Island is a special time of year. The sun sets early, temperatures fall, and a crust of ice forms along the lakeshore. By late January or February, perhaps an “ice bridge” will form between the island and Saint Ignace. In the meantime, on a visit to Marquette Park, you’ll find that lilac blooms and bugle calls have been replaced by a bright, snowy stillness. On especially frigid days, your imagination may conjure Father Marquette stepping right off his pedestal, if he could just find a way to thaw out a little.

Seeds inside white spruce cones are an important food source for winter wildlife.

Red crossbills by
Bruce Horsfall (1908).

 Leaving downtown, the winter woods invite you to explore. Some years, the island is visited by flocks of red or white-winged crossbills. As its name implies, this unusual songbird has a highly specialized beak which crosses at the tip. This adaptation equips a crossbill with a perfect tool for slipping between hard, woody scales of spruce and pine cones. Under each scale, the bird finds a single, tiny seed which is quickly removed with a flick of the tongue. Standing under a spruce tree while a flock of crossbills feeds high above is a unique experience. Discarded bits of seed drift to the ground like softly-falling spruce snow.

Snowshoe hare tracks near the airport.

A cottontail rabbit sits alert in the snow.

 While the North Woods are quiet this time of year, lucky explorers may enjoy other animal encounters. Both cottontail rabbits and snowshoe hares live year-round on Mackinac Island. While the fur coat of a cottontail grows a bit thicker, it remains a tawny brown. The winter coat of a larger snowshoe hare, however, turns white to blend with the snow. While they both take shelter in the thickest underbrush, these crafty creatures may flush and scurry past as you glide by on cross-country skis or snowshoes. Look for hares and rabbits along field edges, especially near the Mackinac Island airport. Even if they remain undercover, you still may discover their tracks in the snow.

Staghorn sumac berries add color
to the muted winter landscape.

Cave-of-the-Woods has provided shelter from winter storms for 10,000 years.

 Exploring fields near the airport might leave you wondering if the word “windchill” was invented on Mackinac Island! Return to the trees by following nearby trails and enjoy a visit to Cave-of-the-Woods, one of the island’s oldest limestone formations. Persistent wave action formed this low opening about 10,000 years ago when this rocky outcrop rested on a prehistoric beach of ancient Lake Algonquin. The rounded cave floor was sculpted as the erosive power of water cut through softer material in the limestone mass. Today, this spot lies 140 feet above modern Lake Huron, providing shelter as you watch snowflakes fall and experience the quiet beauty of winter on Mackinac Island.

Staying Warm: Women’s Winter Clothing at Colonial Michilimackinac

 With winter settling in on the Straits of Mackinac, it can be difficult to image what life was like here in the 18th century. When guests visit Colonial Michilimackinac during the summer months, they get to see staff dressed for warm weather, but people often wonder: what did they do they when it got cold?

 For most women living at Michilimackinac year-round, the first thing to think about was changing the type of textiles that they were wearing. Light-weight summer wools and linens would be swapped for warmer or heavier layers. Wool was the obvious answer and imported from Europe in abundance. Some wools were so soft that they were more than comfortable to wear next to the skin while others were coarser and better suited for outerwear.

 Silk was another winter fabric option. It was lightweight, came in an amazing array of colors and allowed for less bulk. It has the ability to hold heat close to the body and is still used for long underwear today. In the 18th century it was used for mitts, petticoats, gowns, neckerchiefs, stockings, hats, and cloaks. Fur was another warm option but considered to be a little too bulky to make into a full garment. It was used more often as a trim for cloaks, gowns and for accessories such as muffs and mittens.

 Another option was to mix fabrics. Petticoats or skirts could be quilted with wool or down between the layers of wool or silk. Some women also wore quilted under-waistcoats that were meant to hold the heat close to the body and be hidden under their other clothing. Cloaks with hoods were sometimes lined and quilted with eiderdown to keep the head and core especially warm.

 The key to staying warm for the 18th century woman was to choose the right fabrics and layer up. If you are interested in seeing 18th century women’s winter clothing in action, come to Colonial Michilimackinac on December 11 for a celebration of the holiday season. For more information or tickets visit mackinacparks.com/a-colonial-christmas

Autumn Berries of the North Woods

“On the 20th of September [1835] the snow fell one inch, with quite a severe frost. The bushes were still loaded with whortleberries.”   – Benjamin O. Williams

In late September 1835, Lieutenant Benjamin Poole was completing an arduous months-long survey for the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers. His crew’s mission was to survey a proposed military road from Saginaw to Mackinac, with a terminus at Dousman’s Saw Mill (now Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park).

Lowbush Blueberry

Poole’s survey crew was guided by brothers Benjamin O. and Alpheus F. Williams on a route “through a trackless wilderness nearly two hundred miles in extent, about which nothing was known, but that it presented obstacles of an unusually formidable character.” In short, the crew encountered long stretches of cedar swamps, shaking bogs, and alder thickets, ran out of provisions, and nearly starved. In his official report, written at Detroit on September 30, 1835, Poole admitted, “The assistants were frequently employed for days, and even weeks, in creeping through thickets and windfalls, where walking was quite out of the question.”

Much of what isn’t included in the official report was later recalled by B.O. Williams in a vivid account read before the Michigan Pioneer Society in February 1878. He wrote, “The density of some portions of the spruce, fir, and cedar lands exceeded any tropical forest I have ever seen…” His account follows their crew as they trek through the wilderness in moccasined feet, enduring swarms of gnats and mosquitoes, suffering illness and injury, and were saved from near starvation after stumbling upon “whortleberries [bilberries or blueberries] in great abundance.” Thankfully, shaking bogs and cedar swamps are excellent places to find many species of wild berries. Yet too much of a good thing caused a different digestive dilemma, as Williams noted, “eating whortleberries had affected some of the men unfavorably.”

As flowering plants bear fruit in early autumn, many species of wild berries ripen, each containing seeds to perpetuate a new generation of plants. While some berries are edible by people, others are inedible or even toxic to humans. Instead, most are best enjoyed with a photograph and left to the birds, squirrels, and other creatures of the north woods as they prepare to migrate south or endure the long, cold months of winter. The berries that follow were all photographed along the trails at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park.

Common Chokecherry

Bluebead Lily

Western Poison Ivy

Starry False Solomon’s Seal

Hawthorn

Staghorn Sumac

Jack-in-the-Pulpit

Riverbank Grape

Wild Rose

Common False Solomon’s Seal

Canada Mayflower

White Baneberry (Doll’s Eyes)

Greatcoats: Another Cold Winter Garment

With winter descending on the Straits of Mackinac, it can be difficult to image what life was like here in centuries past. When guests visit Colonial Michilimackinac during the summer months, they see historical interpreters dressed for pleasant weather in the 1770s, but people often wonder: what did they do they when it got cold? (more…)

The Winter Table at Michilimackinac

Michilimackinac in the 18th century was an important transshipment point for the fur trade. With the abundance of material goods and huge shipments of supplies coming through the Straits of Mackinac on the waterways all summer long, there were many opportunities to source fresh and tasty foods. Some items were sourced from the farms at and around Detroit, while others came through the Great Lakes from Albany, New York and beyond.  Once the lakes and rivers froze, however those shipments stopped and the eating habits of the Michilimackinac population had to change. (more…)

The Changing Seasons at the Straits

The sawmill at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park in winter.

There always seems to be changes this time of year – for the parks, the locals and the wildlife.

After another exciting and busy season, we have closed our historic sites on Mackinac Island and in and around Mackinaw City for the winter. The end of the season doesn’t mean things stop at the Mackinac State Historic Parks. We continue our mission by shifting our focus to new projects and the off-season work of preparing for the next year.

As the local human population levels drop for the upcoming winter, the resident wildlife undertake a variety of changes in order to survive the cold and snow that will soon arrive. Migration, hibernation and seasonal adaptations are important tools that wildlife use to help them get through the winter months. (more…)

Preparing for the Season

Preparing for the Season

The site (between the barrels) buried under several feet of snow.

After the spring melt.

Ready to excavate.

Spring has sprung in the Straits of Mackinac region, and with spring comes the preparation for another archaeological field season. Regular blog readers will remember that at the end of last season we lined the site with heavy plastic sheeting and bales of straw. The long snowy winter was very good for preventing the wall from slumping too much. When we removed the straw and plastic last week, the site was in fairly good condition. (more…)

Winter in the Lab

Winter in the Lab

The long winter has given the archaeology staff plenty of time in the lab to process and catalog the artifacts from the over 500 separate contexts excavated at Michilimackinac during the 2018 field season. A context is a single soil type in a tenth of a foot level in a 5’ x 5’ square. (more…)

Ice Fishing at Michilimackinac

Ice Fishing at Michilimackinac

Archaeologists excavated this nearly-completed whitefish skeleton from a trash pit in the southwest corner of the fort. It is now on display in the Treasures from the Sand exhibit.

Right now, it’s cold at the Straits of Mackinac. The straits are almost completely iced over, apart from slim shipping tracks kept open by Coast Guard icebreakers. While today those of us who live here can drive our cars to the store for food regardless of the ice conditions in the straits, the 18th century residents of Michilimackinac were much more limited in their choices of food. For the most part, during the winter they relied upon foods that had been shipped in and stockpiled before snow and ice closed trade routes on the lakes and rivers of the Great Lakes watershed. Fortunately, there remained a ready supply of fresh food just under the ice covering the Straits of Mackinac: fish. (more…)