Mackinac Island claims to be disabled-friendly, but its rough surfaces are not conducive to using walkers. The bike rental shop does indeed have motorized wheelchairs for rent, but no one in our group, including me, trusted me to navigate safely around horses, bikes, and lots of pedestrians. We did locate a standard wheelchair, and that (and Steve’s assistance) served me for a good part of the island tour, and horses helped with the rest.
Our horse-drawn “bus” took us along some of the residential streets, many of the houses now bed and breakfasts and historic-landmark buildings (the entire island is listed as a National Historic Landmark). As we began to climb uphill, the route took us past the famous Grand Hotel, which opened in 1887. I had regretted on the trip through Michigan that our route didn’t include Holland, noted for its tulips, but the hotel’s lovely tulip bed in full bloom helped compensate. And the island’s native lilac trees were to be seen everywhere—also in full bloom.
Turning farther up the slope, we began to travel through the forested area of Mackinac Island State Park. The park, which comprises about eighty percent of the island, including Fort Mackinac, was originally established in 1875 as a national park, the second one in the United States. However, in 1895 the land was turned over to the state of Michigan to become a state park. The fort was shut down in that year since it no longer had a strategic purpose, and since the soldiers at the fort were the ones who maintained the national park and would no longer be stationed there, turning it into a state park made sense.
Our guide told us that since those days in the late 17th century virtually nothing has been touched in the forested area, and there are heavy fines for disturbing anything. Picking even one dandelion can generate a $5.00 fee, and I believe fines go up to $500.00 for disturbing one of the more endangered flowers or plants. There are 600 species of wild plants, less than 200 of which are wildflowers, obviously prized. We had a lovely, peaceful ride through the woods and on to other scenic and historic spots. There was no need to try to envision the forest as it once was, because apparently it had changed so little.
Then, when we reached the halfway point in the tour, came the rude awakening—a centralized tourist trap with food, souvenirs, restrooms, etc., which confirmed what we had been told: Mackinac Island has been a major tourist destination since the end of the Civil War, and tourism is the mainstay of the island economy. In addition to the commercialized touristy things there were also collections from past eras at this location, so we were able to do a little wandering also. And there were barns, which provided an opportunity for our team of horses to eat and get a well-earned rest, since they work in shifts.
In the next blog look for a little history of the island, some description, and some of our adventures at the fort.