Mackinac Island in winter an off-season adventure
Mackinac Island -- There are no armies of bicyclists, no horses clomping down Main Street pulling wagons of sightseers, no whiffs of fudge drifting through the air. No boats are docked along the shore or moored in the waters off the island; not even the ferries from the mainland are running.
It’s midwinter, and Mackinac Island is virtually a ghost town. Blanketed in snow, Main Street is abandoned, its Victorian-era hotels and shops resembling a deserted holiday movie set. Snowmobiles parked outside Doud’s Market are the only signs that life continues on Mackinac after nearly all of the hotels and resorts shutter for the season.
And that’s what has lured me here: winter. I’ve come to explore this tourist destination without the tourists. The nearly 4-square-mile island becomes a snowy playground in the winter, with miles of groomed trails for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. The 8-mile-long road hugging the perimeter of the island is ideal for fat tire biking.
To visit in the winter requires planning. Ferries don’t run when the Straits of Mackinac freeze. That was the case when I showed up in early February with my son-in-law, Brendan. Great Lakes Air offers daily flights from St. Ignace in the Upper Peninsula. We packed our own cross-country skis and snowshoes, and made arrangements to rent a fat tire bike at the island’s Mackinac Wheels. We also secured a horse-drawn taxi to meet us at the airport.
It’s all part of the off-season adventure on Mackinac Island, more famous as a summer resort and for its century-long ban on motorized vehicles -- cars and trucks, not snowmobiles. The island is home to about 500 year-round residents, who ease winter’s isolation with community gatherings, including chili cook-offs, Super Bowl parties, holiday celebrations and a Winter Festival, held in early February. Only two stores are open: Doud’s Market and Island Hardware. Typically, two restaurants stay open in the winter; one of them is usually the Mustang Lounge.
A different experience
On arriving at Mackinac Island Airport, in the center of the island, we learn it’s a 40-minute ride in a horse-drawn cab to Mission Point Resort, our homebase for a four-day venture. After loading our gear, our driver, bundled in a parka and hat, with a scarf wrapped around her head, offers each of us a blanket. The airport is only one nautical mile from downtown but it’s a long, cold trek, she warns. She’s right. The blankets come in handy, as the plastic draping the sides do little to keep out the cold.
Like most Mackinac Island hotels, Mission Point Resort closes at the end of the fall season, typically in late October. While doing some pre-trip research, I stumbled upon Liz Ware, whose family owns Mission Point and who was enthusiastic about me coming in the winter. She could offer Brendan and me accommodations, but with a couple of conditions because the resort’s Straits Lodge was in the midst of renovations. Construction workers would be painting, pounding and pushing furniture, and the resort’s restaurants would be closed.
That renovation work turns out to be far from intrusive; workers come and go, but the lodge is serene. Brendan lands a nicely appointed double room, and I’m in an apartment-style suite, a home away from home. The sitting area by the fireplace proves the perfect spot for nightcaps. And if rain or blizzard had hampered our outdoor pursuits, neither of us would have had qualms about staying inside, playing games or reading.
“People who come here in the winter have a completely different experience than they do in the summer,” said Ware, who splits her time between the island and Metro Detroit. “Both seasons are great and there’s something special in each of them. I love Mackinac in the winter. I would love to see more people here.”
Mission Point has hosted occasional winter guests and an artist-in-residence program in the snowy months. Ware would like to see more cold-weather visitors, but there are logistics to consider, such as transportation and finding staff to work in the winter.
There is a sense, too, that the community relishes the quiet, slow months, a much-needed respite from the grind of the tourist season. About 1 million visitors descend on the island from spring into fall.
Time to explore
Our first morning the temperature is a bone-chilling 3 degrees, but the sun shines brightly across expansive deep-blue waters and a cloudless sky, encouraging us to get out and explore.
Most of Mackinac is a state park, with more than 70 miles of hiking and biking trails that criss-cross the rugged, heavily wooded interior. The Mackinac Island Ski Club helps groom and maintain several miles of trails for cross-country skiing and skate skiing. We arrive too late in the month to join the Twilight Turtle Trek, a lantern-lit run along two miles of trails capped with a bonfire and hot chocolate.
With our skis in tow, we climb a snow-packed road to East Bluff, where we’re drawn to a trail leading to Arch Rock, perhaps the island’s most famous natural landmark. We glide along the groomed, narrow path, framed by a thick line of snow-caked pines. At Arch Rock, we slip out of our skis and climb the icy stairs of the Nicolet Watch Tower. The tower affords an up close look at the Arch and a panoramic view of frozen Lake Huron. Standing 146 feet above the shore, the Arch was revered by Native Americans as a spiritual place. Without the intrusion of bicyclists and tourists, it’s easy to understand why, and the desire is to linger.
In the afternoon, we meet up with Mark Ware, Liz’s brother and the resort’s CEO, who is an avid cross-country skier. He invites us to join him on some of his favorite trails, and we venture deeper into the hardwood forest. On our way back to town, we press along the northside of the walls of Fort Mackinac, an eerie presence. Despite many visits to Mackinac over the years, this is all new terrain to me.
The view of snowy Arch Rock from Route 185 along the shoreline during the winter on Mackinac Island. (Photo: Brendan Spitzley, Special to The Detroit News)
Later, while skiing along the main road on the island’s eastern side, we stop in our tracks, alarmed by the crescendo of cracking ice, from somewhere offshore and moving toward us. Just as we figure out what’s happening, we spot a bald eagle soaring high above frozen Lake Huron, searching for prey.
Fat tire biking
By our final day, we have cross-country skied and snowshoed a variety of trails, mostly in the state park, and are ready to tackle fat tire biking, a new endeavor for both of us.
We pick up the bikes from Mackinac Wheels, which isn’t officially open during the winter but owner Jimmie Fisher is easily accessible by phone to accommodate visitors. He counts a couple dozen each season, and notes the locals, who bike everywhere most of the year, are uninterested in fat tire bikes, opting for snowmobiles.
Fisher, who has lived full time on the island since 2004, recommends we stick to the main roads, which have been inadvertently groomed by snowmobiles. The park trails are geared for skiers and snowshoers.
“Where you ride a fat tire bike is similar to your walking capabilities in the snow,” Fisher explained. “If you have trouble walking in the snow, you’re going to have trouble riding a fat tire bike in the snow. You can walk on packed ground, so you can fat tire. You’ll glide.”
Heeding Fisher’s advice, we tackle Route 185, the main road around the island and the state’s only non-motorized highway. We pedal at a brisk pace, past shuttered stores, restaurants, bars and hotels, some still wrapped in Christmas lights and decorations. We breeze by the sole public school, where a makeshift parking lot is teeming with snowmobiles, and notice the Grand Hotel standing sentinel on the West Bluff.
Riding a fat tire bike is a true test of your fitness level. By the time we reach the British Landing, about 2 miles northwest of downtown, we’re reconsidering circling the island. Named after the British forces who landed here and captured Fort Mackinac from the Americans during the War of 1812, the landing offers us an unexpected diversion. We bounce the bikes off the road and down to the shore, spinning around on the frozen lake, tickled that we’re essentially riding on top of a Great Lake in full view of the majestic Mackinac Bridge.
Time to leave a magical place
Between outdoor pursuits, we either walk or ski the half-mile from Mission Point Resort to the village, shopping for food supplies at Doud’s Market or grabbing meals at Mustang Lounge, which offers plenty of comfort food like chili and meatloaf, perfect after a day of outdoor activities in frigid temperatures.
We encounter a few shoppers at Doud’s and diners at the restaurants, but, for the most part, we have the island to ourselves. Snowmobiles are scattered everywhere, and occasionally, a wagon loaded with supplies passes us, the clip-clop of the horses muffled by the snow.
You can almost feel the chill winter air in this view of the frozen harbor with Ste. Anne Catholic Church in the foreground on Mackinac Island. (Photo: Brendan Spitzley, Special to The Detroit News)
Without cars and trucks, the snowy landscape remains white and pristine. And except for the whirr of snowmobiles and the pounding of hammers and buzzing of saws emanating from buildings under renovation or repairs, it’s relatively quiet.
By the time we head back to the airport for the five-minute flight to the mainland, I feel as if I’ve spent four days in a snow globe, free from the drama of everyday life and encapsulated in something magical.
And as always, the island is difficult to leave. We’re already talking about making this an annual winter trip.
If you go
Great Lakes Air
1220 N. State St., St. Ignace
No reservations necessary; first-come, first-serve.
$30 one way
Mackinac Island Taxi Service
Early morning or evening reservations must be made by 5 p.m. the day before
Pontiac Lodge & Village Inn Suites
1376 Hoban St.
Rates from $100 per night
Bogan Lane Inn
1420 Bogan Lane
Rates from $110 per night
7200 Main St.