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Author Topic:   Blue Highway, Blue Water
jimh posted 07-07-2008 09:36 AM ET (US)   Profile for jimh   Send Email to jimh  
On the 4th of July we had an extra day or two off for the holidays, so we decided to take a mini-cruise as a shakedown for more adventurous ones to come later in the summer. For many years we have been hauling the boat up to northern Michigan, to Leelanau or Mackinaw, but the price of gasoline and bad memories of terrible traffic delays on the 4th due to road construction made us look for a closer destination. We chose Port Austin.

For those of you not familiar with Michigan and its many ports, Port Austin is located at the tip of the thumb. Hold up you right hand, with the palm facing you. Stare at the tip of your thumb. Now move 1/16-inch to the left, and that's where Port Austin is located.

The only roads leading to Port Austin are blue highways, that is, on the highway map they're shown in blue, denoting their secondary status. There are no Interstate Highways that even come close. The shortest route is to take M-53, which begins in Detroit and run straight north, more or less, all the way to Port Austin.

In the suburban Detroit area, M-53 is a multi-lane divided highway, with occasional stretches of limited access highway for a few miles as it bypasses one or two large towns. But once out of the urban sprawl, M-53 becomes an old fashioned two-lane highway. It goes right through the center of little towns like Almont, Marlette, Imlay City, and Bad Axe--all places we had heard of but never visited. On Friday, the 4th of July, traffic was very light. We hardly saw another car. We drove north at a leisurely 55-MPH, passing through the fertile farmland of Michigan's thumb.

We got a very late start on the trip, as we had not really made any preparations for it. We spent the morning on Friday packing and preparing, and then had lunch. We did not get on the road until 1:30 p.m.--a very late start if heading far north, but just fine for our short 120-mile trip to Port Austin.

We rolled into Port Austin around 4:30 p.m., and we were surprised to find the little town was packed with people and cars. The 4th of July parade had just ended. M-53 terminates, literally, at the boat launching ramp. We bought a $24 Michigan DNR launch ramp and parking permit (good all year any ramp), and dropped the boat in.

Chris had made reservations by calling the Marina--good thing, too, as we got the last slip! The charge was only $24 per night. We went for a short boat ride, then settled into our slip for the evening. We walked to dinner at a bar in town--a block away--and returned to watch the fireworks. The little town put on an excellent display, launched from the very end of the big breakwater pier. Port Austin's harbor is encased by two very large breakwalls. It needs them to avoid getting pounded by storms which could roll down the length of Lake Huron from the northeast or come across Saginaw Bay from the northwest.

Saturday we went for a 50-mile boat ride, running eastward and exploring the rather shoal and rocky coastline. The sea state was perfect, just a light chop to help the boat get some air under it on plane. We came back in the late afternoon, tidied up, and went to dinner at THE BANK 1884. It is a nice restaurant built into an old bank building. We ate there 21 years ago when we cruised by in our sailboat. The food was still good.

Sunday we went for another 50-mile boat ride, this time running west and down the coast to Caseville, the next harbor. Caseville is a real boating town. A long breakwall pier to the north protects a dredged channel that leads from the lake to a river entrance. Along the river both banks are filled with docks and boats. We explored the river up to the limit of navigation for our boat, ending at the municipal marina. We took on a few gallons of fuel for insurance on the return trip. The marina staff was very friendly, and invited us to tie up at no charge and explore the town.

We loped back to Port Austin with a following sea, and we tried to run more inshore so we could take in the sights. The sights consisted of a great many cottages, although some the size of small hotels and hardly what most would consider a "cottage." The coast is mainly sandy here with a succession of shallow bights between rocky points. Off each point is a nasty shoal, some extending a long distance into the lake. We tried to cross one which was charted as having 4-feet of water, but we ended up in a mine field of rocks. We had to tilt the motor up and glide across a 2-foot patch.

The weather was perfect on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, but the forecast for Monday showed some rain coming. We decided to haul out and drive home Sunday night. After we loaded the boat, we stopped for dinner at THE FARM, a gourmet restaurant run from an old farm about five miles south of Port Austin. Their large parking lot accommodated our boat trailer without a problem. The food was excellent.

The drive home was almost as traffic-free as the drive up had been. One nice feature of two-lane roads for us is that unlike the interstate we were able to drive 55-MPH (the speed limit) and not be passed by an endless succession of cars and trucks trying to go 80-MPH.

The mini-cruise revealed many omissions in our equipment and minor problems that need correcting before more extended voyages to come in a few weeks. It was a fun getaway, and driving the back roads was both nostalgic and relaxing. The blue water of Lake Huron was in a marvelously wave-free state all weekend.

Buckda posted 07-07-2008 12:33 PM ET (US)     Profile for Buckda  Send Email to Buckda     
Jim -

Sounds like a fun trip. Lake Huron seems to have a lot of those offshore shoals - on the south side of Drummond Island and all along the southern Eastern Upper Peninsula there are shoals that extend from the points well out into the lake - sometimes for more than a mile or so.

Glad you were keeping a sharp eye out and were able to get through unscathed.

We also had a great weekend on Lake Michigan out of Grand Haven. The Midwest finally got some really nice boating weather on a weekend.


andygere posted 07-08-2008 07:11 PM ET (US)     Profile for andygere  Send Email to andygere     
Some of the most enjoyable trips are those taken on the spur of the moment, with a minimal amount of planning. It sounds like you had a terrific weekend, and the light traffic is just the icing on the cake.
MarthaB posted 07-08-2008 08:24 PM ET (US)     Profile for MarthaB  Send Email to MarthaB     
One sometimes thinks that venturing far from home will be the best whaler adventure, but staying closer to home is enjoyable too.

With Grand Traverse Bay in our front yard, we stayed at home. Just put BW1 on the Shore Station July 4th. Weather here has been cold with a lot of rain. Saturday we took Fisher for his second boat ride (first was Memorial day weekend, which was cold, had to wear fleece lined jeans). Cruised to Traverse City for the National Cherry Festival Air show. Blue Angels put on a great show. Fisher was very relaxed. Actually, he slept thru most of the air show. We are looking forward to the Harbor Springs owner event.

jimh posted 07-08-2008 08:45 PM ET (US)     Profile for jimh  Send Email to jimh     
Martha--We missed getting up to Grand Traverse for the 4th of July. But the 350 miles of highway travel we saved made our gasoline costs more manageable. We'll see you, Con, and Fisher at the Owner's Event in Harbor Springs--I hope. We are still trying to resolve the conflict with work schedules that weekend.

Another small town anecdote: On Saturday there was a farmer's market held in Port Austin from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. We spent about an hour walking through it, just two among a very large crowd of people and vendors. The market was right across the street from the restaurant where we would eat dinner later that night. We walked over to make reservations.

Later, on Saturday night, we came out of the restaurant after dinner, and I looked across the street to see an empty lot. There was just a nicely mowed grass lot there. No sign of the farmer's market. There was no trash or rubbish laying around. Not a blade of grass--literally--out of place. I walked across the street and stared at the empty lot. "Was this where the farmer's market was this morning," I asked myself. I could not believe it. Not a trace of all the booths, the tents, the signs. It had all disappeared. Vanished. Nothing left behind. It was amazing. I could not believe how neat and clean that space had become.

dfmcintyre posted 07-08-2008 09:06 PM ET (US)     Profile for dfmcintyre  Send Email to dfmcintyre     
Jim -

Throughout the 60's and 70's, my folks and at times, my brother and I used to cruise Huron, and one of our favorite spots was Port Austin. We'd sneak around the perimeter of the USAF radar installation at night. One night it was so rough that all of us camped out in the sand under the main pier.

Good times.


MarthaB posted 07-08-2008 09:49 PM ET (US)     Profile for MarthaB  Send Email to MarthaB     
Fisher thinks Chris needs a dog fix. Hope you get the problem worked out. We would love to join the North Channel trip, but my new job, no vacation time is getting in the way.
Cicada posted 07-08-2008 10:22 PM ET (US)     Profile for Cicada  Send Email to Cicada     

Glad to hear that you and Christine had such a nice trip. An interesting area to visit. The Bank is highly recommended by many people. The traffic can be horrendous.

We had a cottage South of Lexington when I was growing up and a few years ago had some property in Port Hope on the East side of The Thumb. Port Hope was named as a result of some sailors drifting up on one of those rocky shoals after their ship had wrecked. Probably tossed about by violent seas as they clung to their hope and some planking from the wreck. A wild landscape at that time accessed only by train and boat. A lonely night on that rock.

Still some pretty wild areas on both sides of the thumb. A water fowler's paradise. Those boulders you see out in the fields are called sand. The lake bottom is strewn with boulders about the size of small homes.

M25 around the shoreline of the thumb acts as a barrier and provides a stark contrast between the cottages on the shore and the inland farms. Art shows during the summer on the shore and the farmers tending to their beans and sugar beets inland. Only a few complaints from the shoreline when the farmers spread manure on their fields. Good, hardy and honest folk.

North of the tip of the thumb is Charity Island. It has a privately owned lighthouse that serves meals and I think the balance of the island is Federally owned. Sits up about even with Au Gres. A short run from Tawas that I'm going to try to make this year.

Glad you had good conditions. Not unusual this time of year but the Lake can sneak up on you and add a little punctuation to your experience. The long fetches to the North and East can make things pretty interesting.

Sounds like a nice trp.


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