Tourism helps and hurts town near Pictured Rocks

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News
Local residents and visitors enjoy Munising’s Bayshore Park on a hot July afternoon.

Munising — While most of the Upper Peninsula is parched for tourists, this small town is awash with them during the summer.

Restaurants run out of food. The closest hotel vacancy is sometimes 60 miles away. So many businesses are opening they don’t have enough workers.

A Mexican eatery was once so unnerved by the ravenous horde coming through the door it closed after one day.

Munising has gone from a ghost town to boom town in just a few years.

Mayor Rod DesJardins is downright giddy. For most of his 18 years as mayor, he has presided over a somnolent backwater. It is sleepy no more, he chortled.

“We’re the envy of the U.P.,” DesJardins said. “Most towns would kill to have the problems we have.”

Other towns, maybe. His own citizenry, maybe not.

The interlopers are threatening to destroy the very thing that draws them here — the nearby Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, residents said.

They’re also trampling a way of life.

Residents said they moved or stayed here to avoid the bustle of bigger towns. They sought a simpler, slower pace. They liked the solitude.

Now they’re watching the quietude dissolve before their eyes. From May to September, they contend with heavy traffic, long lines at grocery stores and beaches full of swimmers and kayakers.

“We’ve gotten too big too fast,” said resident David Chartrand, 62, a former Detroiter who moved here in 1990. “Our small town is not ready for the onslaught.”

How Munising became popular

Residents say the tourists aren’t a blessing but a pestilence, like the black flies that also arrive at the start of summer.

When a nearby highway was paved in 2011, allowing outsiders to more easily reach Munising, someone spread nails on the fresh asphalt, police said.

“What used to be Mayberry USA now is almost unrecognizable,” said Ron Rushford, 56, who runs a Facebook page, Rant N Rave Munising. “The current happenings are tearing the town apart.”

Munising is an unlikely setting for a boom town.

People don’t come here on the way to somewhere else. They have to seek it out.

It’s a six-hour drive from Detroit, over the Mackinac Bridge, across half of the U.P., a solitary trek through woods dotted with abandoned motels and gas stations, until the road ends at Lake Superior.

While Lake Superior looms on one side of Munising, its waves crashing ocean-like, the rest of the town is surrounded by the vast expanse of Hiawatha National Forest.

It’s not the end of the world, goes the running joke, but you can see it from here.

The local paper bills itself as ‘the only newspaper in the world that gives a darn about Alger County.”

The biggest employers are a paper mill and state prison. The population is 2,200.

“I liked it the way it was, our little hidden gem,” said resident Tony Zaleski, 59.

Zee's Pictured Rocks glee

The terrain is rugged but beautiful, and that’s what ultimately brought the tourists, local officials said. That and a television weathercaster.

The rock formation at Miners Castle stands out in Lake Superior Wednesday at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore near Munising.

Pictured Rocks, which runs along Lake Superior for 42 miles, boasts breath-taking views of 200-foot cliffs. The sandstone is streaked red, yellow and green from groundwater seeping from iron, copper and limonite.

In 2015, "Good Morning America," ABC's morning TV show, held a contest sponsored by Pure Michigan for viewers to pick a location from which meteorologist Ginger Zee would deliver the weather. Viewers picked Pictured Rocks, which had been featured in a recent Pure Michigan ad campaign for the U.P.

Broadcasting from Pictured Rocks, Zee described the size of the cliffs and their multiple hues.

“This is one of the most unique places in the nation,” she gushed. “One of the most gorgeous spots in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, really of the state.”

Visits to Pictured Rocks, which had been growing gradually, jumped by more than a third that year, from 528,000 to 723,000, according to the National Park Service. Discovered by travel writers, it has continued to rise, last year receiving 781,000 visitors.

It may sound like a lot of people for a bunch of rocks, but an earlier "Good Morning America" promotion helped another Michigan tourist spot, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore near Traverse City.

After the show named Sleeping Bear the most beautiful place in America in 2011, its visitors rose from 1.3 million to 1.5 million the following year, the park service said.

Meanwhile, Pictured Rocks’ visibility continues to grow. In May, Conde Nast Traveler named it the most beautiful place in Michigan.

Dilapidated turns developed

Munising has gone from a ghost town to boom town in just a few years. Mayor Rod DesJardins, seen here in downtown Munising, is downright giddy. For most of his 18 years as mayor, he has presided over a somnolent backwater. It is sleepy no more, he chortled. “We’re the envy of the U.P.,” DesJardins said. “Most towns would kill to have the problems we have."

It wasn’t long ago that Munising was just another U.P. city with a flickering pulse.

Downtown buildings were dilapidated. Twenty were vacant as recently as 2016.

With the tourist gold rush, all the empty storefronts have been knocked down or filled, city officials said. The expansion of a bank last year was the first construction downtown in decades, they said.

Nearly a dozen businesses have opened each of the last three years, said the Alger County Chamber of Commerce. Most are bars, restaurants and shops.

The Salvation Army outlet is now a high-end bar. An assisted living facility was turned into a boutique hotel. The former Commission on Aging building is a microbrewery.

“This year alone we’ve had 12 new businesses,” said Kathy Reynolds, the chamber director. “That’s a lot for a small town.”

The city has gussied up downtown with benches, banners, decorative flower boxes and street post flags with pictures of the cliffs.

The 781,000 people who visited Pictured Rocks last year spent $33 million in the region, according to the National Park Service. The money accounted for 425 jobs, the park service estimated.

'Madhouse of traffic'

M-28 Intersection: Visitors to Munising find easy access from Bayshore Park and Pictured Rocks Cruises to downtown Munising.

Little in Munising remains untouched by tourism.

Traffic is a daily grind, said residents. Left-hand turns are a rarity. Half-mile commutes can take a half-hour, they said.

“Summers have turned into a madhouse of traffic,” said resident Sandra Rousseau, 68.

In the old days, residents said they ate out of town because there were no good restaurants locally. Now they have good restaurants but still eat out of town because the restaurants are jammed.

The weekend of July 6, the Bear Trap restaurant closed its kitchen at 8 p.m. and sent customers to a restaurant in a neighboring town, patrons said.

The same weekend, a customer at Foggy’s steakhouse said she didn’t receive her food until 2½ hours after being seated. Other patrons left because of the long wait, said the customer, Kathy Vili.

“One lady was screaming at one of the (workers),” Vili said.

Foggy’s told the Detroit News that several large groups of 15 people and more showed up that night.

As for the Bear Trap, co-owner Lana Heyrman said it was caught shorthanded when a cook and dishwasher quit without warning.

“Summer has been busy for years, but never like it’s been the last few years,” she said.

Even housing is affected by tourism.

More and more apartments are being turned into vacation rentals, city officials said. For the landlord, it’s simple math. Vacation rentals fetch $1,000 a week while apartments go for $500 a month.

It took several months last year for Katy Gauthier to find an apartment. After a fruitless search this year, she bought a home 18 miles away in Chatham.

“All these families are going to be forced to move because there’s no long-term housing for them,” 23-year-old Gauthier said.

Uncle Ducky's dilemma

Kayakers paddle past the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

Since it opened in 1966, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore has tried to balance economic development and environmental impact, according to a 2016 report by Michigan State University.

Never has that been more true than now, said one of the report’s authors, Scott Jordan, an assistant professor at Northern Michigan University.

Like many national parks and lakeshores, Pictured Rocks is known for its quiet awe. But it’s not so quiet anymore, Jordan said.

“That has challenged a lot of locals, who once woke up in a town that wasn’t populated,” said Jordan. “Now they’re seeing people from all over the world. It’s bitter, and it’s sweet.”

Like the British army, the tourists come to Pictured Rocks by land and by sea, hikers and backpackers on the trails, kayak and cruise ships on the beaches.

Hikers stray from the trails, climb waterfalls, build illegal campfires and leave beer cans and other trash in their wake, the park service said.

Pictured Rocks has limited parking so people park along access roads, crushing vegetation, ignoring the “No Parking” signs. During a weekend in 2015, 200 vehicles were crammed into a parking lot with 51 spaces, according to the park service.

The national lakeshore also has limited facilities so there are long lines at bathrooms, which also are used for clothes changing. Other people use the woods as their bathroom.

“There’s a large concern about visitors to our parks,” said Johanna Bogater, 36, a member of the Munising City Commission. “As a municipality I would like to see our beautiful waters protected.”

Jordan remembers going to Pictured Rocks with his wife five summers ago and having an entire beach to themselves and another couple.

Now you have scenes like the one that unfurled July 3.

Residents arrived at Pictured Rocks to find half a beach lined with dozens of empty kayaks, according to a photo posted on Facebook. The neon yellow canoes were waiting for the customers of a popular rafting company, Uncle Ducky’s.

Several residents said they were so upset they left. The proliferation of Uncle Ducky’s kayaks is a constant problem, they said.

“Uncle Ducky and his crap has totally ruined Pictured Rocks,” wrote Deb Johns. “Uncle Ducky needs to be run out!!!”

The company declined to comment.

The park service said it is contemplating measures that would limit the commercial outfits’ impact on Pictured Rocks. The possible changes include fees and restrictions on when and where the recreational businesses could visit the lake shore.

'Just glad they are gone'

A Harley-Davidson shop featuring gear and apparel opened this summer in Munising, one of a dozen new businesses.

For businesses, U.P. summers may be short but they’re profitable.

The Subway shop in tiny Munising was the company’s biggest seller in the United States in August 2015, according to the MSU report.

Johnny Dogs also is swimming in customers.

The gourmet hot dog restaurant offers everything from Detroit-style coneys to the MacDaddy, which has fried mac and cheese. The menu includes piggy fries and Bob Marley tacos.

Owner John Flanders, a former fine dining chef who once worked in Washington, began with a one-man operation in 2008. He now has 14 workers.

He outgrew his old location and last year moved into a former Chinese restaurant, going from four seats to 40.

Most of the seats remained filled well past the lunch hour last week. For the July 4 crush, he rented a tractor trailer with a walk-in freezer.

“We have a line out the door eight hours a day,” Flanders said.

He smokes 150 pounds of pork butt a night, but it’s not enough. He sometimes runs out of food.

While Flanders savors the summer, locals can’t wait for it to end.

On Labor Day 2016, a resident took to Facebook to ask where everyone went. The streets were suddenly empty. The tourists had gone home.

“I don’t care where they went,” Holly Graves wrote. “Just glad they are gone.”

Twitter: @francisXdonnell