Midwestern playground: Lake Michigan's eastern shore

Anyone looking for a summertime slice of Americana could do worse than explore the green eastern shore of Lake Michigan. Here is where people from the nation's heartland come to play. To play, and to escape the torrid heat of Detroit and Chicago and the Midwestern plain a few hundred miles to the south. Even before you reach Muskegon and the southern reaches of the Manistee National Forest, the land begins to grow greener.

It isn't long before rolling hills, tall trees, and lakes of all sizes surround you. They form a natural backdrop for fishing for coho salmon, listening to a summer concert at Interlochen's National Music Camp, or exploring the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. And in early summer, you can devour cherries in what is possibly every form they come in.

As is often the case, however, what really sets this region apart is the people - both those who come to play and those who make everything ready. At the risk of oversimplifying, there is a certain well-fed squareness in the physique of many Midwesterners that is often accompanied by directness in manner and a kind of ``what-you-see-is-what-you-get'' look in the eyes. The result can be a waitress, an innkeeper, or a motel clerk who gives you the feeling that somehow you've gotten to know him or her as a fellow human being.

The value of this warmhearted Michigan approach to people was made obvious at the beginning of our vacation. At the tip of the peninsula dividing Grand Traverse Bay from the main body of Lake Michigan is Northport, and it was here we arrived on one of the biggest weekends of the year, smack in the middle of the cherry harvest. Without any reservations, we were about to become impromptu campers. But Kay Charter at Hutchinson's Garden Bed and Breakfast took pity on us and sent us to see Violet Hall.

Mrs. Hall is a lovely little octogenarian who grew up on the corner next to what is now the Empire National Bank. That's only half a block from the neat white house where she lived for decades, across the street from a grassy park at the edge of the town beach marina.

Since Mrs. Hall no longer actively solicits guesthouse business, we were overjoyed to find we passed inspection. We were assigned a nice, fully equipped cottage with a view of the bay and two great shade trees in the park across the street. These were the same trees, Hall told us, which 70-some years ago bore twin tree houses - one for her, one for her brother - to which her mother regularly delivered afternoon cookies.

On our first night on the Grand Traverse Bay we attended a ``fish boil'' under those trees. A festive tent had been set up by the fire department and, as the sun set, we took part in a wonderful native feast. Lake Michigan ``whitefish'' is a breed purportedly unique to these waters, and when it is skillfully simmered with new potatoes, onions, and other local delights and shared at long tables with cherry farmers, locals, and tourists - well, it is a delicious taste of Michigan's lake country.

Violet's son is a fisherman; he brings his boat back from Florida in the summer. We came upon him cleaning big, silver salmon; chinook, he said. He had caught them on a trolling rig at the startling depth of 90 feet. These lake salmon feed only where the water temperature is 52 degrees. Normally, that would be at 30 feet, but in a truly hot summer, you need to troll 60 feet deeper.

Those who wish to try their skill with Lake Michigan's kings - coho, steelhead, and lake trout, depending on the season - will find charter services at various ports. A full day's outing for two people should cost $85 to $100 per person, a half day (five hours) perhaps $55.

If you really want a slice of Lake Michigan Americana, however, take in the various local parades and excuses to celebrate summer in this ``cherry capital of the world.''

Last year, in honor of the National Governors' Conference at Traverse City, about 200,000 people lined up all day and evening for a piece of ``the world's biggest cherry pie'' - at least that was the Guinness Book of World Records mark everyone was shooting for. The pie came out of a vat 18 feet across - it's still on display - which required a ladder to see into.

On our way back, we visited the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lake Shore, near Glen Arbor. This 71,000-acre preserve provides a marvelous overlook of Lake Michigan. Sand dunes up to 200 feet high, though shrinking every year, are a dramatic illustration that Lake Michigan is a product of the Ice Age, the remnant of a receding glacier.

Prevailing southwesterly winds and waves have formed the dunes at a point 54 miles across the great lake from Wisconsin. According to Chippewa Indian legend, long ago a mother bear and her two cubs were driven into Lake Michigan by a forest fire. After swimming many hours, the cubs tired, but the mother reached shore and climbed to the top of a high bluff to watch and wait for them. When they didn't appear, the great spirit Manitou created two islands to mark where they disappeared and a solitary dune to represent the faithful mother bear.

Now, it seems only a matter of time until the eroding winds and shifting sands cause ``the bear'' to disappear. It is a fitting vantage point for a farewell look at Lake Michigan.

Practical information

For more details about travel anywhere in Michigan, call (800) 5432-YES.

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