Longing for Indian Summer at the Mackinac Bridge

“Lot of water under the bridge, lot of other stuff too,” – Bob Dylan

When I was a young kid, I was given a small, white, spiral-bound booklet of color photographs that showed the Mackinac Bridge, standing tall over the ever-changing moods and complexions of the straits below.

I got the travel souvenir when my aunt took me on a trip to gain my first-ever glimpses of the Pictured Rocks, Tahquamenon Falls and the Mackinac Bridge.

I remember we stayed at a typical tourist-type single-story motel in St. Ignace where I played with green, plastic Army men on the carpeted floor, hoping to later splash in the pretty blue waters of the motel’s outdoor pool.

The booklet had no more than 10 photos, presented back-to-back, but it captured my imagination. My favorite shot was a wintry scene showing the Mackinac Straits locked in ice, at night, with colored holiday lights strung over the bridge’s towering arches.

Seeing Mighty Mac this way, along with the other pictures in the little booklet, helped burn “the bridge” into my mind as one of the truest, purest images of our state.

To me, the Mackinac Bridge was as iconic as some of our official state symbols, including the robin, the Petoskey stone, the brook trout or the white pine.

One other picture that has stuck with me from the booklet was a warm, glowing, summer scene that showed the waters of Lake Huron and Michigan casting a turquoise shimmer, while the sun glinted off the bridge’s cream-colored supporting structures and dark green decking.

In the days of my trip, it hadn’t been too many years since the

bridge had first opened for traffic in 1957.

Years later, I would read books and articles, and see more pictures and film footage, about the tremendous work undertaken to build the bridge, the efforts of former Governor G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams to make it a reality, and the brave men who gave their lives constructing the magnificent 5-mile span.

In 1984, the bridge marked the milestone of its 50 millionth crossing, with the 100 millionth vehicle crossing in 1998, and the 150 millionth in 2009. This November, Michigan will commemorate the 60th anniversary of the bridge, complete with some very cool posters.

Of course, at this time of year, a great deal of attention turns to Mighty Mac with the annual Labor Day bridge walk, which draws tens of thousands of people every year — including Michigan’s governor — who each take an average of about two hours to walk across the bridge.

This Labor Day, the bridge will be closed to traffic from 6:30 a.m. until noon for the first time in its history for the walk.

President Abraham Lincoln sailed through the straits on a sidewheel steamer in 1848, President Gerald Ford came to Mackinac Island, the only president to do so while in office, and President George Herbert Walker Bush was the only president to take the Labor Day bridge walk. He did so in 1992.

Walking the bridge means the end of summertime for many, a return to school for some, but the prospects of a wonderful fall color season ahead for others, complete with campgrounds still open to explore and enjoy.

Fall fishing for salmon and steelhead, and hunting for ruffed grouse and waterfowl are on deck, with a good deal of time left for biking and hiking and waterfalling too.

The autumnal equinox often brings with it a peace worth waiting for.

However, after that, once a sincere autumn bite is felt in the air, the view of the Straits of Mackinac from the craggy, white hills around St. Ignace seldom appears less than windy, wild, tempestuous and cold.

High waves churn up the coldest gray-blue water from the 300-foot depths, putting a white, wet-whiskered froth on the face of the straits. I’ve seen and taken pictures of these scenes, but I can’t say I like them much.

On those days, you can almost hear the creaking steel jaws of winter yawn open with a rumbling growl, set to unleash a full November howl over the frosted, ice-glazed gateway to the Upper Peninsula.

But even that cold, shivery image clears the way for opportunities to take new pictures of my still favorite Mackinac scene, that of the bridge decked out in holiday lights.

Other images I’m fond of include a black-and-white photo of then Senator John F. Kennedy at the bridge with Gov. Williams, who served in the Kennedy administration and was considered for Kennedy’s vice president.

I can see the green in the governor’s trademark white-spotted bow-tie, even in black-and-white.

I also like the grand sweeping colored photos taken from the top of the bridge towers that show the thick wire cables, the traffic and the decking below. That’s one photo I doubt I’d be able to take.

Just thinking about opening that hatch at the top of the of tower, feeling the gusting wind and looking down makes me very uneasy.

I’ve looked several times and I can’t find my little keepsake picture book from the Mackinac Bridge. I wonder if they still make those? I can’t find my bag full of plastic toy Army men either. I think that’s long gone, like my Hot Wheels and football cards.

Maybe I could take a sunny autumn drive, east along U.S. 2, to see the beautiful Lake Michigan shoreline, the view from the Cut River Bridge and revisit the reflective experience of the Father Marquette National Memorial.

There, in St. Ignace, I might find that same little lakeside motel still operating. I could shop for a spiral-bound picture book in town, order some salmon or whitefish for dinner and then sit by that outdoor pool.

There I could watch the little kids splash in the water and the sun sink down over the straits, waiting for Indian Summer to find me.

John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula.