Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Touring Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on Michigan's Upper Peninsula by Boat

On our recent trip to Michigan late in August, one of the highlights was taking a Sunset Boat Cruise along the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The tour takes off from Munising, Michigan and lasts about three hours. It's a bit pricey, but I thought well worth it.

The boats fill up quickly, but good views can be had all around. You can get up and walk around and even hang out on the open-aired back deck. There's a restroom on the boat, and they sell soda and water if you find yourself thirsty.

The first half hour of the cruise is simply getting out to the Pictured Rocks, and on the way you cruise past Grand Island, on which is the cool old Grand Island East Channel Lighthouse, first operational in 1868:

As the ship's captain and crew take you out past Grand Island and into Lake Superior - slipping in corny jokes with the narrative - you soon start to see how the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore got its name.

There were caves and grottoes galore.

The colors come from water seeping through various minerals contained in the sandstone cliffs. Iron produces the reddish colors. Copper creates the green. I love the palette of the picture below. It looks like someone dipped a giant paint brush in various paints and made bold up/down strokes along the cliff wall.

My wife and I kept mistakingly calling the place Painted Rocks National Lakeshore instead of the proper Pictured Rocks...

The black and white colors below were created by water seeping through manganese.

There are also a number of cool rock formations. Though you can't really see it in my picture of Chapel Rock below, the tree on top of that rock has a huge root that juts through the air to the mainland like an extension cord, where it is embedded in the earth.

On the way back, the sun began its descent (thus the name 'Sunset Tour'), and people stood on the back deck of the ship to watch.

The clouds were incredible that evening.

As the boat headed back to Munising, the sun flared into spectacular molten gold.

I highly recommended this tour for all ages. And if you go, make sure to bring your camera. 

Another option for the more adventurous is kayaking the lakeshore. There are companies in Munising (like this one and this one) that will give you a ride out to the main area and drop you off, then haul you back to town when you're done.

If you're interested in books about Michigan's Pictured Rocks, here's one by well-known photographer Craig Blacklock, as well as one by William Blewett which is more about the geology of the area. Clicking on either one will take you to their respective Amazon pages:


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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Mackinac Island Butterfly House, Michigan

On our recent trip to Michigan, we took the ferry to Mackinac Island, home of dozens of fudge shops, horses & bicycles (no cars are allowed on the island) beautiful mansions, the Grand Hotel, picturesque everything, and - what this entry is about - the Mackinac Island Butterfly House.

The day we went to Mackinac (pronounced mack-in-awe) Island was gorgeous. Perfect temperature, bright blue skies, and a gentle breeze. The ferry was a short relaxing ride across a smidgeon of Lake Huron. After getting a few squares of obligatory fudge we walked a short distance to the Butterfly House.

Typical scenes on Mackinac Island

To be honest, I wasn't expecting to be as impressed as I was. The place didn't look too exciting from the outside - rather nondescript and small. But we went inside, paid a reasonable admission fee, were handed a butterfly identification chart, and headed into butterfly central.

And I've gotta admit, it was lovely. Butterflies of various types and sizes all over the place in a greenhouse-like setting that begged to be wandered slowly.

Slower! Ssssllllloooowwwweeerrrrrr!!!

And did I mention there were butterflies?

Butterflies landed on us, snacked from flowers and feeders, flew among a variety of vegetation, and taught us how to love again. Well, okay, maybe not that last part. But my family did have a great time. 

After leaving the butterfly chamber, we headed into another room that had various displays of mounted exotic insects (many that you would not want crawling up your leg) as well as live turtles, tarantulas, lizards and a hive of honey bees. And yes, of course they had a gift shop.

If you go to Mackinac Island, I highly recommend this place. It's great for young and old alike. Both of our kids - often hard to impress - were quite mesmerized by the experience.

And if you do go, make sure to send me back some fudge!

Monday, September 5, 2016

Crossing Lake Michigan on the SS Badger

My family took a trip to Michigan from our home in Minnesota. To save time, we took the last remaining car and passenger ferry in operation on the Great Lakes - the SS Badger - on a four-hour cruise across Lake Michigan from Manitowoc, Wisconsin to Ludington, Michigan.

Below is a picture of the SS Badger's twin ship, the SS Spartan, which has been out of service since 1979. It's docked at Ludington, Michigan, and its parts are often cannibalized by the Badger. (And...I forgot to take a picture of the Badger...)

We arrived the recommended hour before departure and waited in a long line of cars, motorcycles, semis and mini-vans. Once the line got moving, it moved quickly as we passed drug-sniffing dogs and gave our tickets to the...ticket taker. The boarding of vehicles was impressive to watch, as the workers run out to the vehicles and drive them expertly onto the ship. Once your vehicle is on board, passengers don't have access to them until they are unloaded at the end of the trip.

Once on board, passengers have access to two decks. There are plenty of amenities; a couple cafes, a bar, gift shops (pretty much the only place to find air conditioning) a tiny (tiny, tiny) museum, a small movie theater (two free movies shown during the voyage, a kid movie followed by a movie geared to older audiences.) There are also a couple TV lounges scattered about where you can sit and watch whatever happens to be on at the time.

Most people, however, scramble to get good seats on the decks if the weather is cooperative. It was hot when we went, and I found the best place to catch a good breeze was on the bow of the upper deck. Seats and lounge chairs were at a premium.

An available option we used was renting a state room. The cost is $50, but it was definitely worth it to us since our son has autism and often needs to escape crowds. We were assigned state room #1. Below is the cute old-fashioned key we used!

The state rooms are tiny. They have a small bed (actually two, if you want to pull the other down from the wall and have no room in which to walk.) There's also a fan right above the head of the bed, as well as a sink and toilet at the foot of the bed. The window can be opened to let in the lake air and allow you to listen to the soothing sound of the ship passing through the waves. Melissa, Zach and I took turns taking naps.

Zach with his stuffed animals and Melissa

Many passengers spent time chatting, reading, or just gazing at the lake while sitting on the decks.

Speaking of reading, the gift shop contains a small selection of books. One of the books was Final Crossing: Murder on the SS Badger, by Richard Baldwin. I always find it fun to read a book that takes place in the same location I'm going to, am in, or have recently been, especially a mystery novel like this one, so I bought it.  The novel was fun to read for that aspect, though I didn't think it was very well written. The dialog, in my opinion, is amateurish, and there are many hard-to-believe leaps of logic. enough.

Just a note to those prone to motion sickness; the ferry does not have the same stabilization features as the big ocean-going cruise ships have, so you really feel the motion of the waves, even on a relatively calm surface like we had.

Below is the pilot ship guiding us toward the picturesque marina at Ludington, MI.

Disembarking was also an efficient and painless process. Overall, it was an enjoyable experience - one I'd recommend, especially to shave off a few hours in lieu of traveling around Lake Michigan.

Prices and booking information can be found at the SS Badger website. The site also contains many more (and better...) pictures than I took.

Here's a book about the SS Badger itself: SS Badger; The Lake Michigan Car Ferry if you'd like to learn more. It's an affiliate link to Amazon, and if you purchase it through that link, I get a small commission which helps support my enormous cocaine habit writing endeavors.

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Our 'Making a Murderer' Tour of Manitowoc and Waupun Wisconsin

Like many people, Melissa and I were riveted by the Laura Ricciardi and Moria Demos documentary series Making a Murderer, about Steven Avery, a man exonerated of a brutal rape (from DNA evidence) after serving 23 years in prison, only to become convicted of the murder of Teresa Halbach. Whether you think he's guilty or not of Teresa's murder, the documentary shows how poorly his case was handled, as well as that of his nephew Brendan Dassey, convicted, but recently exonerated, of helping his uncle carry out the crime. (Brendan's conviction was only recently overturned.) 

Since my family was on a trip to Michigan and we were taking a ferry across Lake Michigan to save time AND the ferry leaves from Manitowoc where much of the documentary takes place, we decided to check out the sites related to the case.

The city of Manitowoc is actually a cool little town with plenty of neat shops and reasonably priced hotels. We arrived late, so spent that night in a Quality Inn for about $76, including breakfast. We didn't have to be at the ferry until noon the next day, so spent the next morning touring the sites related to Making a Murderer

First we drove to the Manitowoc County Courthouse, located at 1010 South 8th Street, Manitowoc, WI 54220 in the town's historic district.  The day was a bit dreary as you can tell by our photos. Many scenes of Making a Murderer were filmed in and around the courthouse.

Above: same courthouse, different angle. It's a beautiful old building, built in 1906 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Apparently tours are available of the building, but we didn't have the time.

Below is the Courthouse Pub, located just a few steps away from the Courthouse building at 1001 South 8th Street. The menu on their website looks delicious, and I'm guessing many news anchors, lawyers and family members related to the case ate here.

Only a block away from the Courthouse and pub is the (infamous?) Manitowoc County Sheriff's Department. Located at 1025 South 9th Street, this is where many of the frustrating interrogations of Avery and Dassey were held. As of this writing, it holds a 1.1 out of 5 rating on Google Reviews (with over 500 reviewers weighing in.) The jail is also located here, and I begged Melissa to get herself arrested so that she could give me a better description of the cells, but she came up with some lame excuse about being a mom, etc, blah, blah, blah...

Manitowoc also has other worthwhile sites unrelated to the case, like the Lincoln Park Zoo, the Rahr-West Art Museum, the Wisconsin Maritime Museum, and the USS Cobia; a WWII submarine you can tour.

Next, we drove about 14 miles north along mostly country roads to Avery's Auto Salvage, which is also a major player in the docu-series.  It's located a bit out in the boonies at 12930 Avery Road, Two Rivers, WI 54241. It is still in business, so we were not trespassing when we drove into the area, although I did feel like a bit of a creep.

Melissa took the great pic below featuring the Salvage Yard sign featured prominently in the series, plus the two other signs that seemed appropriate.

Here's a closer view of the iconic sign:

We didn't stick around long on the property; we felt a bit too gawkerish - but here are a couple shots of the place.

On our way home from our trip to Michigan, we stopped in the city of Waupun to see the Waupun Correctional Institution (200 South Madison Street, Waupun, WI 53963) which is about a 74 to 81 mile drive (depending on the route you take) south and west of Manitowoc. This is where Steven Avery is currently serving his time.

It's a really cool old building, and if you're going to commit a major crime, and the judge asks you where you'd like to be incarcerated AND you're a history buff, you could do worse. Part of the prison that still stands today was built in 1854. More additions were made as time went on.

Here's an illustration of the prison from an 1895 edition of the Wisconsin Blue Book:

As you can see from our current photos compared with the above illustration, much of that old architecture remains. It was put on the National Historic Register in 1992 as the "Wisconsin State Prison Historic District."

Perhaps Steven Avery saw us wandering around on the sidewalk outside taking pictures. Once again, however, Melissa refused to commit a crime in order to get a closer look of the inside. 

Whether you think Avery is guilty or not, Making a Murderer is a fascinating documentary series that I highly recommend. And of course, I cannot imagine the pain that Teresa Halbach's family has gone through (and is still going through.)

If you're interested in learning more about the series, Steven Avery, etc, here are a couple affiliate links to some books on Amazon:

And okay, this just seems wrong but:

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Friday, September 2, 2016

An Afternoon at the Minnesota State Fair, 2016

I left work early on Wednesday to go sign books with the amazing Twin Cities Sisters in Crime group for Read & Ride Day at the Minnesota State Fair. My signing shift was 1-3, so after that, I took my camera and went exploring the fairgrounds. It was a beautiful day to be there.

What better place than the fair to see...

Thrilling rides!

Cute animals!

Profiles in butter!

 Colorful funhouses!

Freshly bathed llamas!

Prince-themed grain art!

Betty's (I'm assuming) award-winning pie!

Equestrian competitions!

Giant pumpkins!

Giant udders!



As the day wore on and my feet grew weary, I decided to head on out. 

It was a fine day at the Minnesota State Fair!

Oh, thing to always remember, however...

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