Horses return to Mackinac Island in rite of spring
Mackinac Island — Horses do the heavy lifting on Mackinac Island, hauling people and cargo across the car-free tourist destination in northern Michigan.
Before their work can begin, however, they have to get there.
Many of the 500 horses that are so vital to the island's operations during the warm-weather months overwinter on farms. Come April and May, the Coast Guard clears away all remaining ice from the Straits of Mackinac and the process gets going.
"This time of the year, you start getting the horses back … get a lot of employees back that you haven't seen for six months or so. It leads to the excitement" of the busy tourist season to come, according to Mark "Beau" Bielinski, a year-round resident who has spent three decades working at Mackinac Island Carriage Tours, the island's largest horse-and-buggy livery. Carriage Tours has about 300 horses during peak season.
On a recent day, Bielinski accompanied a dozen horses on a 35-minute ferry ride from St. Ignace to Mackinac Island. The horses were driven to St. Ignace by trailer earlier that morning from a farm 40 miles away.
Bielinski and others walked the horses into the hold of the Arnold Transit Co.'s Huron ferry, which took them across the straits. After the passengers disembarked and all other cargo was unloaded, the horses walked onto the island, where four handlers — responsible for three horses each — led the animals on a 15-minute walk to Carriage Tours' barn. Onlookers took photos as the procession moved along.
The horses are housed at the barn until they're ready to be sent off to their assigned tasks, which could include pulling taxi cabs or tour carriages, or shuttling hotel guests to golf courses or restaurants.
"There's usually something going on here all the time," Carriage Tours' operations manager Mike Beaudoin said, "but the busy season is actually July and August."
All of the horses will be back on the island by June in time to meet the demands of the invading tourists, ready to take "people from point A to point B," Beaudoin said.
Then in the fall, the horses again will board the ferry and head to their winter homes.