Return to Germany – Part 3 (Munich to Berlin)

Munich is one of the largest cities in Germany and used to be the capital of Bavaria. Frederick the Great ruled from Munich. For history buffs one of the major attractions was the Residenz, the Palace of the Wittlesbach dynasty. They may have spent their summers in other castles, but they ruled Bavaria from Munich. Touring the Residenz you get a feel for what it was like to live in the palace. If I thought Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein were gaudy, the Residenz was even more so. There were murals, portraits, statues, marble and gold leaf everywhere. Huge halls for every purpose and large rooms with only one chair for the emperor. We only toured a portion of the Residenz and by the time we left I was glad we were not members of the royal court.

Munich is home to Germany’s largest, and most famous beer hall, the Hofbrauhaus. The Hofbrauhaus is actually owned by the State of Bavaria. The Hof comes from the brewery’s history as the royal brewery for the Kingdom of Bavaria, which why there is a crown in their logo. It is a huge place, but still local. Locals have their own tables, and have their mugs locked in racks on the walls. We originally visited in the morning when things were calm, and considered it for lunch until we stopped by and found it already too crowded and too loud.

One of my fondest memories of previous trips of Germany was sitting in Gasthauses, sharing a table with Germans, and doing my poor best to carry on a conversation with them. Usually their English was better than my German, but it was always fun and they appreciated my attempt. In Munich I had a chance to do that again. We went to the Augustiner am Dom, one of the brewhouses (brauhaus) owned by the Augustiner Brewery. It was smaller and less chaotic than the Hofbrauhaus. Shortly after we were seated a German couple was seated with us at the table (the normal custom in Germany). They were from Karlsrule and were spending the night in Munich before continuing their trip. I spoke to them in German and they answered me in English, when we didn’t know a word they looked it up on their phone. I had a wonderful time and it will be one of my fondest memories of our trip.

I thought I had planned our trip to avoid the crowds of Oktoberfest, little did I know that Oktoberfest would start on our second day in Munich and the festival grounds were only a five minute walk from our hotel. Oktoberfest was originally a wedding reception for the Royal Wedding on 12 October 1810 for Crown Prince Ludwig, later to become King Ludwig I. The citizens of Munich were invited to attend the festivities held on the fields in front of the city gates to celebrate the royal event. It was such a good time, they decided to make it an annual event. Over the years the activities began earlier and earlier until it moved into September to take advantage of the warmer weather.

It wasn’t as chaotic as I thought it would be although we saw people all over town dressed in the traditional Bavarian attire of Lederhosen and Dirndl skirts. Even though the festivities did not start until the Mayor tapped the first keg at noon, we saw people walking to the festival grounds in lederhosen and dirndl skirts, beer in hand, at 8:30 in the morning.

After we finished our sightseeing in downtown Munich, we went to the festival grounds late in the afternoon. It was like a huge state fair but without the livestock exhibits. There were food booths, rides, souvenir booths, and beer tents.  The beer tents were actually beer halls. They were two stories high and could hold thousands of people, each of the major brewers in the area had their own beer hall and there were open air beer gardens for anyone who couldn’t get a ticket to the beer halls. We had a lot of fun. People go all out for Oktoberfest, young and old, and enjoy this unique celebration.

Munich was also the birthplace of the Nazi Party and Hitler’s “Beer Hall Putsch.” Just outside Munich is the first concentration camp, Dachau. The day of our tour was a gloomy, drizzly day and set the perfect tone for this visit. A number of things were interesting to note about Dachau. It started out as a punishment camp for political prisoners. They were not put to work because the Nazis needed the laborers, but to punish them. As bad as the initial conditions were, they got worse. Two of the barracks have been reconstructed and show how the accommodations got worse as the camp population grew. Dachau was opened in March 1933 with a population of 5,000 prisoners, when it was liberated in April 1945 there were 30,000 prisoners, of which only a fraction survived. While everyone knows Jews were kept in the camps, there were also thousands of Poles, Russians, Homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Gypsies. Also four female British SOE (Special Operations Executive) agents were confined and murdered at Dachau. Over 188,000 prisoners passed through the gates of Dachau. In the Memorial area of the camp is a Jewish Memorial that shows images of prisoners who threw themselves on the electrified fence to kill themselves to avoid further suffering. In Dachau, death was often preferred to suffering. Our visit to Dachau was a very sobering experience, but one that I think everyone should have. We can never let something like this happen again.

Rothenburg ob de Tauber is one of the few medieval walled cities left in Germany. Rothenburg was a major trading hub, but war, plague, and a change in trade routes left Rothenburg in dire financial problems until it became a tourist destination. In Rothenburg you can walk along the ramparts of the old wall, walk the cobblestone streets, and get a sense of what it was like in medieval Germany. One of our highlights was the Night Watchman’s Tour. Hans-Georg Baumgartner, dressed as a medieval night watchman leads a 100+ audience through the streets of Rothenburg in a humorous, entertaining, but factual description of the history of Rothenburg. I thought this was the best part of our visit.

In our initial planning we decided a trip to Germany would not be complete without including Berlin. I grew up during the Cold War, and as an Army officer I trained to fight the Soviets and East Germans. The Berlin I knew was divided, not like it is today. Our first stop in Berlin was the Brandenburg Gate. This used to be just across the border in East Berlin and now the U.S. Embassy is right next to it. You can see where the Wall used to be by a pattern of cobblestones set in the sidewalk. Across the street from the Brandenburg Gate is a memorial to those who died trying to escape to freedom in the West.

We used our Rick Steves App to explore Berlin, but one site he didn’t cover was Checkpoint Charlie. This was the primary crossing point in the American Sector. There are several museums around the area and the one we visited told the story of Germans fleeing to the West and the risks they took, with some losing their lives in the process. The U.S. checkpoint was nothing more than a small shack, like a toll booth, while the East German side was a large complex of gates and inspection stations. I guess it took a lot less to let people into the West than it did to keep people in the East. I think too many of us take our freedom for granted because we have never really lost it.

On September 20th we flew back to Michigan. We had a wonderful time and I think we will need to take some time to rest after our busy, but rewarding trip.

Auf Wiedersehen

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Return to Germany – Part Two (Schwangau to Salzberg)

We had a lot of fun and made new friends on our cruise, so it was with mixed feeling that we left the cruise in Basal Switzerland. As we wondered through Basal it was a pleasant surprise to continue to run into people we knew from the ship.

We took the train from Basal to our first stop, Schwangau, Germany. Before leaving the U.S. we had purchased a Eurail Pass. This is a great deal. It is only available to people who don’t live in Europe. It must be purchased ahead of time and sent to you by mail. We purchased a package that gave us five trips in three countries over a two month period – a perfect fit for our plans. I figured we saved about one third of what it would have cost us to pay for each of these trips individually, plus all of our seats were in First Class. With the Eurail Pass you don’t have to make a reservation, but just get on whatever train you need. We had only one time when we thought it was necessary to have a reservation and in that instance we were glad that we did.

The reason for traveling to Schwangau was to visit the castles (Schloss) of Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein. These castles were residences of the Wittlesbach family, a dynasty that reigned over Bavaria for generations. The most famous Wittlesbach was King Ludwig II, better known as “Mad King Ludwig.” He was largely ineffective, recluse, and spent his time and family fortune on building many castles throughout Bavaria. As a young man he lived in Schloss Hohenschwangau, which was one of the summer residences of the Wittlesbach’s, and built Schloss Neuschwanstein. Neuschwanstein was his most famous castle and was the inspiration for the Castle in Disney’s Magic Kingdom. How would you like to have that for your summer cottage?

It was clear to me that these castles were built as residences, not fortresses. While they dominated the countryside they were not defensible. As we toured the castles I couldn’t help but think these people had way too much money that could have been spent more wisely. Gaudy does not begin to describe the interiors of these castles. Ludwig loved medieval history and there were murals on almost every wall depicting medieval scenes. The wildest example of excess I learned about was Ludwig’s bed in Hohenschwangau was carved from wood and took 400 woodcarvers fourteen months to complete! None the less, both castles were impressive sites to see. Included in our tickets was a pass to the Museum of Bavarian Kings, which I found to be almost more interesting than the castles. If you visit Neuschwanstein, don’t pass up the Museum, it is well worth your time.

When selecting where we would stay I tried to pick non-chain hotels that would offer a more personal experience, that would be inexpensive, but not a dump. The Landhotel Guglhupf in Schwangau was everything I hoped for. The room was nice with a balcony had offered a view of the Bavarian Alps and Neuschwanstein. They offered a breakfast with so much food we wouldn’t need anything more to eat until dinner. The performance of the staff was an example of professional customer service. I’d be willing to go back to Germany just to stay there for a while.

Our next stop was Salzburg, Austria, the birthplace of Mozart and home to the Sound of Music. Yes, the Von Trapp Family lived there and fled the Nazis from there, but most people in Salzburg don’t make a big deal about it, it is purely an American thing. While the movie was filmed in the USA, it was based on locations in Salzburg. We were able to see the steps in the Mirabell Garden where the Von Trapp kids sang the “Do-Re-Me” song. If you recall where the family hid in the church cemetery, that is St. Peters Cemetery and we were able to see the caged grave sites along the wall where they hid. We also learned an interesting tidbit – the graves are not owned, but rented by the families. If the family does not keep up with the rent the headstones are removed and cemented to the exterior wall of the church. No one said if they moved the bodies!

In our tour of Salzburg we relied on a cell phone App by Rick Steves. I used his travel guide as my primary resource in planning our trip. This is a free App and is an excellent way to tour a city in Europe. As opposed just an MP3 file, it includes a map and a complete written transcript of what he is saying. You can find it in the Google Play Store. I found this much better than a “Jump Off and On” bus tour or a walking tour with a guide. We would listen on our own phones, we could wander as much as we wanted, and repeat portions of the narration. I found the map to be a good navigation aid even after we were finished with his narrated tour. If you have ever watched Rick Steves on PBS, you’ll know that he knows how to find the best in every locale.

On our second day in town we took a bus to Berchestgarten. From there we took a bus tour with Eagles Nest Tours to Obersalzburg and Hitler’s Eagles Nest. Here we learned Hitler did not live in Berlin. He and many of his key leaders, such as Heinrich Himmler, Hermann Goering, and Martin Borman lived in Obersalzburg. Many people have the impression that Hitler had a residence in the Eagles Nest, high above Obersalzburg, but it was built as a “tea house.” In fact, Hitler didn’t like heights and visited the Eagles Nest only fourteen times.

After WWII the German government made a deliberate effort to remove all of the Hitler sites, so they could not be used as shrines or rallying points for Hitler followers. The big hotel at Obersazburg and the Eagles Nest were taken over by the U.S. as military recreation sites. After they were turned back over to the Germans, the hotel was torn down, but the local Bavarian governor asked to keep the Eagles Nest intact and turn it into a tourist attraction to bring revenue into the area. His request was granted and it is awash with tourists every day.

The Nazis also built a bunker system under Obersalzburg to serve as air raid shelters for the Nazi leaders. They were so well furnished that they were essentially a continuation of the above ground quarters, like a super finished basement. There are only two places where you can go into the bunkers but all that remains are the walls and the stairways. After the war the U.S. Army allowed the residents of the area to take whatever they wanted from the bunkers to rebuild which is why there is not much left to see.

Next stop – Munich

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Return to Germany – Part One (Cruising the Rhine River)

In the early 1980s I commanded a National Guard unit that was the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP) company for the US VII Corps in Germany. Over the years I took several trips to Germany for conferences and war planning and participated in two Return of Forces to Germany (REFORGER) exercises. I loved traveling through the country and talking with the locals and always wanted to return. Finally, after over 35 years, we did it.

We traveled with Viking River Cruises from Amsterdam to Basel, Switzerland. From there we traveled on our own to Fussen, Salzburg, Munich, Rothenburg ob de Tauber, and Berlin.

We visited and experienced far too many sights to cover them all in a blog post, so I’m going to try to share the highlights in the next few posts. I hope you enjoy them.

We arrived in Amsterdam a day before the cruise. The two most fascinating sites we visited were the Ice Bar and the Anne Frank House.

We had heard about the Ice Bar in Amsterdam from a friend and stumbled across a coupon for it, combined with a canal cruise and we jumped on it. The weather had not been nice, a lot of rain off and on throughout the day but fortunately it was clear while we took the cruise. Two things stood out as highlights of the cruise. The number of people that live in boats moored in the canals and that many of the buildings were leaning as their foundations settled into the marsh land that Amsterdam was built on.

The Ice Bar is literally the coolest bar in Amsterdam. When we entered the bar our virtual host “Willem Barentsz” welcomed us via a video into his world as a Dutch explorer. He invited us to experience the feeling of living on his ship, the Mercury, in 1596, survive the hardships of the extreme cold and be brave enough when the ship becomes stranded on the island of Nova Zembla.

Inside the Amsterdam Icebar we found two bars. In first, the lounge, we were given three coins, two gold and one silver. The gold coins were used inside the Ice Bar, and the silver one for a cocktail in the normal lounge to enjoy while we warmed up. At the back of the lounge was the entrance to the second bar, the Icebar. Here we were given a thermal coat and gloves to keep us warm at -10 degrees Celsius! Inside we were surrounded by a staggering 60 tons of natural ice, sculpted into the form of a real bar. The furniture, the walls, the art – everything was made of ice! State-of-the-art light effects gave the Icebar all the colors you can think of. Our drinks were served in a glass… made of ice, of course! It was certainly the most unique bar we have ever visited.

The next morning we walked to the Anne Frank House. If you do this make sure you get tickets online ahead of time as time slots fill quickly. While I had never read the “Diary of Anne Frank,” I was familiar with the story.  Anne’s father, Otto, owned and operated a business in the front of the building and he turned the back of the building into the “secret annex.” I always imagined the family hiding in an attic, but it was actually three floors behind hidden doors. There were two families and one friend hidden in the annex and they lived there for two years before they were betrayed and captured by the Nazis. It’s hard to imagine how eight people could exist in such close quarters, not being able to walk around, use the toilets, or pour water down a drain during the day for fear of being heard.

No one knows who betrayed the families.  With the exception of Otto Frank, all of them died in the concentration camps. After the war Otto was given Anne’s diary by a neighbor and he had it published. This was an amazing place to visit and one we will not soon forget.

Our stop in Cologne was a unique blending of new and old. First we saw the cathedral. It is a massive structure and the building of it spanned, not decades, but centuries. The cathedrals of Europe are so huge that it was not unusual to take hundreds of years for them to be built.

As in most of the cathedrals we visited there was a central aisle and naves on either side. The naves were typically decorated with paintings or wood carvings of the cruxification. The most unique thing about the Cologne cathedral is the ark that the church claims holds the remains of the three Wise Men (Magi). The church has performed DNA testing on the remains and believes they have sufficient proof to make this claim.

While touring another part of the city we found that the excavated remains of the residence of the Roman governor, the Praetorium, were discovered on the site of the current city hall. An earthquake had destroyed the residence and in digging the foundation for the city hall, it was uncovered. Archeologists excavated the site and once the archeological work was completed they put a roof on it and built the city hall on top of it. This is probably the most unique archeological site I have ever visited.

An interesting aside is that civil weddings are often conducted at city hall on Saturdays. We saw one wedding party after another come to the city hall for their wedding and then they would hold the reception in the square outside of city hall. Our guide told us that passersby are sometimes invited to join in the festivities. We stopped to listen to a wedding party sing to the new couple, but we weren’t invited to join them.

During our time in Europe we saw more cathedrals than ever before. Being an American gives one a rather limited view of history. Yes, we have studied it, but until you are looking at it you don’t have an appreciation for how young our own country is.  For example, construction of the cathedral in Strasbourg, France was begun in 1015, almost 500 years before Columbus landed in America.

I struggled to comprehend the amount of time it took to construct these huge houses of worship. Using the cathedral in Strasbourg as an example, while construction began in 1015, it was not completed until 1439 – 424 years. Can you imagine being on the board of trustees for your church and trying to get approval for a building program that would last for more than 400 years?

After seeing so many cathedrals and churches they started looking very similar, but each had their own unique features. For example, the cathedral in Heidelberg was used by both Catholics and Protestants and each faith had their own entrance.

Also unique, in the Black Forest local farmers didn’t have the time to attend religious services at large central churches so they built their own small chapels on their land so they could worship whenever they had some time.

Near Koblenz we toured the Marksburg Castle. This was one of many castles we would see on the Middle Rhine. The Marksburg Castle was built to protect the silver mines in the area, but the royalty of the castle would also maintain the tow paths on the Rhine to pull boats upriver through the rapids and would collect tolls from boats traveling upriver.

The fortress was used for protection rather than as a residence for royal families. Consequently it is smaller than many of the other castles we saw and had, at the most 30-40 people living there. Of the forty hill castles between Mainz and Koblenz, the Marksburg was the only one which was never destroyed.

Our final stop before the cruise ended was the small town of Breisach. From here we took a bus ride into the Black Forest (Schwarzwald). The Black Forest is so named because it is so thickly forested that little light penetrates to the forest floor. Legend has it that the Romans called it the black forest because they were afraid of the monsters they thought lived in such a mysterious looking place. Maybe it’s true, but who knows?

We stopped at Hofgut Sternen, the Black Forest Village. I joined a group going on a short hike in the Ravenna Gorge and Pat watched Cuckoo Clock building and a glass blowing demonstration. I wouldn’t say that the Black Forest is any different from any other forest I have hiked in, but it was fun. The mountain streams were beautiful to see and it was interesting to see how the water power was harnessed to power a mill. I got back to Hofgut Sternen in time to watch a demonstration of how to make an authentic Black Forest cake. I swear the baker doing the demonstration must have been a comedian on the side.

We ended our cruise in Basal, Switzerland. The cruise was a great introduction to Europe and our Viking crew did an outstanding job. I’d be happy to recommend Viking Cruises to anyone who wants to do a river cruise.

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A Michigan Summer, Part Two – August 2017

After our trip to Mackinac Island, we returned to the family cottage on Rifle Lake. While Dave and Elisabeth enjoyed the day with the twins, Pat and I drove to Detroit Wayne County Airport to pick up our other granddaughter, Katrina.

At the cottage, the girls wanted to spend as much time on the lake as possible. Being towed on a tube behind the boat was their favorite activity. From the cottage we went back to Bad Axe. The girls loved playing with the dogs, picking berries in the garden, and getting rides on Geri’s four-wheeler. Of course we had to go back to the Grindstone City General Store so Katrina could have a “Kiddie Cone.” She wasn’t able to finish it.

The highlight of the trip was being invited by Pat’s cousin, Rosemary, to come to their place for horseback riding. Rosemary has three horses that we could ride. It is a much better experience than riding at a stable where the horses only follow the one in front of them. Here we were able to ride our horses all around her place. After the ride, we went to dinner and blueberry picking. Blueberry pie was definitely in our future!

We would have enjoyed spending more time in Bad Axe, but we had plans to go to the Detroit area for my 50th high school reunion. We camped in an RV park near Ypsilanti, the Detroit Greenfield RV Park. It was a convenient location, but a bit of a disappointment with the sites being pretty cramped and the office staff nickel and dimed us with charges for most of the park’s amenities, such as the water slide. They had a nice lake but wouldn’t let us use our own kayaks, they had kayaks for rent.

The reunion was a great time and I was able to see classmates, some of whom I had not seen in twenty years. The dinner was great and the conversations better. On Saturday one of our classmates, the former high school principal and district superintendent, took us on a tour of the upgraded high school, complete with a new 650 seat auditorium. A big improvement from 1967!

Sunday we drove to Lansing to stay in the Cottonwood Campground. Cottonwood is a great park with a swimming pool and pond. The girls enjoyed the pool, went kayaking on the pond trying to catch turtles, and generally had a terrific time. We especially like the fact that it is close to the Lansing River Trail. This bike, walk, and running trail goes from the south end to the north end of Lansing as well as east to East Lansing and Michigan State University.  It’s a great place to exercise and bike ride to events downtown and on the MSU campus.

It’s not possible for us to visit Lansing without going to dinner at DeLuca’s. DeLuca’s has the best pizza in Michigan, if not the whole USA. At least that is our opinion! The leftovers made a perfect lunch for the girl’s last day in town.

One night we made pie iron pizzas for dinner and with my special Dutch oven, pineapple upside down cake for desert. I may have burned a couple of the pies, but the cake came out perfect.

All good things must come to an end and on Thursday, August 10th we had to take the girls to the airport for their flight back to Washington. Fortunately everything went without a hitch and we got a text message from their dad that they had arrived safely.

Saturday Pat and I rode our bikes on the Lansing River Trail to East Lansing for the Great Lakes Folk Festival. This event began years ago as the National Folk Festival through a grant from the National Council for Traditional Arts. The funding was for three years and the organizers were able to draw big names like Gordon Lightfoot; Peter, Paul, and Mary; Amy Grant, Hootie and the Blowfish; and Peter Cetera. Although the national funding ran out, both the City of East Lansing and the MSU Museum were committed to continue the festival tradition. The festival continues as the Great Lakes Folk Festival. While the performers are not the big name shows of the past, the Festival continues to attract great performers. Between ballad singers, country-western singers, and Celtic bands we had a wonderful time. A new addition was the street performer tent where local performers can entertain whomever walks by for 30 minutes. I wish I had known about this in advance, I would have brought my guitar and given it a try!

During the next week we simply relaxed, finished doctor appointments, seeing old friends, and preventive maintenance on the truck and trailer – a very easy week. Monday, August 21st, we headed up the road, back to Bad Axe. There we will make our final preparations for our next adventure – a trip to Germany. Next stop, Amsterdam where we will board a ship for a cruise on the Rhine River.

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A Michigan Summer, Part One – June/July 2017

As I mentioned in an earlier post we have now camped in all of the fifty states. We are often asked what is our favorite place. We don’t have a favorite place, but I think we would both consider Michigan our favorite state. Maybe that is because we are from here and we still call it home. Michigan is a special, unique place. As one of our early explorers once said, “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look around you.”

This year we had a special reason to return home. My sister’s husband passed away in April and we came to help my sister put on a “celebration of life” to memorialize her husband’s life. Gerry was very generous with his time and resources. As well as I knew him I was even more impressed as some of the 150 guests shared their stories with us. I know my sister will continue to grieve her loss, but it was our honor to help her to celebrate Gerry’s life.

From there we headed to Bad Axe, to Pat’s brother’s place, where we “moochdocked” in his backyard. Pat’s sister and brother in law from Milwaukee pulled in the next day with their trailer and our niece and nephew from Florida. From then on the pace got rather hectic. We all went to the cottage the two brothers have near West Branch. A couple of days later we went to the Detroit Wayne County Airport to pick up our oldest son, Scott and his twin daughters, Sierra and Clarissa.

We all had a great time at the cottage. There was way too much food to eat and it was all delicious. We went swimming, kayaking, and tubing in Rifle Lake. I was able to get in some good time on my small sailboat and Scott and I serenaded the gang on the deck of the cottage, overlooking the lake. Unfortunately I had to drive Scott back to the airport on July 5th, but we were able to keep the twins with us!

On July 9th we drove back to Bad Axe, where the Pat took the twins to enjoy Bad Axe Days. Sierra was even featured in the local newspaper!

North of Bad Axe is Port Austin and Grindstone City. These are a couple of the most popular  tourist attractions in the area. We walked out on the breakwater in Port Austin, looked for old grindstones and geocaches in Grindstone City.

Grindstone City is a collection of homes and a few businesses clustered around a crescent-shaped harbor a bit off of the beaten path of M-25 as it traces its way around Michigan’s Thumb. This natural harbor drew Captain Aaron Peer to Grindstone City in 1834 when his schooner, the Rip Van Winkle, found safe harbor here during a storm on Lake Huron. The ship’s crew went ashore to explore the wooded wilderness and found some unusual flat stones along the waterfront. Peer’s sailors rigged up one of the stones to use for sharpening their tools, and Peer decided the stones would make excellent grindstones.

In 1836, he purchased 400 acres of land to establish a grindstone quarrying and manufacturing operation. The outcropping of Marshall Sandstone that Peer discovered was an abrasive stone with a very fine grit, unique to Grindstone City, and perfect for grindstones and scythe stones. Worldwide demand soon earned the town the nickname of Grindstone Capital of the World.

Our highest priority was the Grindstone City General Store, they have the largest ice cream cones I have ever seen. The cones in the pictures are “Kiddie” size.

Later in the week our daughter, Elisabeth, drove up from Raleigh, NC. She met us in Bad Axe and we took the trailer to Mackinaw City, where we were met by our son, David, from Lansing, MI. The campground was a short drive outside of Mackinaw City and we walked along the shore of the Straits of Mackinac and checked out some fudge shops (a must do activity in Mackinaw City).

From the beach at the campground we could see the Mackinac Bridge. As night fell the bridge lit up like a chain of jewels suspended above the water.

Our plan was to make a day trip to Tahquamenon Falls, but the weather didn’t cooperate so I met a fellow geocacher and his wife for coffee while everyone else went shopping (and more fudge tasting). That afternoon we went to an indoor water park where everyone had a great time.

The next day we woke up to beautiful weather and took the Shepler ferry to Mackinac Island. Mackinac Island is a unique place. When the first horseless carriage arrived on the island in the early 1900’s it scared the horses and the local carriage companies lobbied to have them banned from the island. That ban continues today and the only motorized vehicles on the island are fire engines and one police car. Because everyone travels on foot, bicycle, or by horse there aren’t a lot of high speed pursuits.

We signed up for a carriage tour and our guide told us that there were seventeen fudge shops on the island. She said if we tasted the fudge in every shop we would eat about one and a half pounds of fudge! My wife, Pat, and I have visited the island several times and have never visited the stables. Here we discovered more about the history of the island and the horses on the island.

One of the most popular stops on the tour is Arch Rock. The Indian legend goes like this:

“A long time ago, a beautiful young Indian woman named Ne-daw-niss (She who walks like the mist), while gathering wild rice, met a handsome young man who was the son of a sky spirit. They fell in love, but she was forbidden to marry the non-mortal by her cruel father. He beat her and tied her on a rock high on a bluff on the Island of the Turtle. She wept softly for her lover. Tears flowing down the bluff washed away the stone and formed the arch. In time the young man returned, untied her and took her in his arms. Together they returned to the home of his sky people.”

This could be why some believe the arch is a way for departed souls to cross over to their resting place.

Our final stop on the tour was Fort Mackinac. In the 1800s the Straits of Mackinac were a center for commerce. The French built Fort Michilimackinac on the southern shore at what is now Mackinaw City as part of the French-Canadian trading post system. In 1761 the French relinquished the fort along with their territories to the British. In 1781 the British decided the wooden fort was too vulnerable, moved to Mackinac Island, and constructed the present limestone fort. Americans took control in 1796. In July 1812, in the first land engagement of the War of 1812 in the United States, the British captured the fort. It was returned to the United States after the war under the Treaty of Ghent.

The fort remained active until 1895. During these years Mackinac Island was transformed from a center of the fur trade into a major summer resort. The stone ramparts, the south sally port and the Officer’s Stone Quarters are all part of the original fort built over 225 years ago. In 1875 Mackinac Island became the nation’s second National Park. Like Yellowstone, as a National Park, it was operated and maintained by the U.S. Army. In 1895 the fort was decommissioned and turned over to the State of Michigan to become a state park. The buildings have been restored to how they looked during the final years of the fort’s occupation. Interpreters depict U.S. Army soldiers from this same period, dressed in distinctive uniforms.

We all enjoyed touring the fort and watching the demonstrations, such as marching and cannon firing. The girls really enjoyed the “Kids Barracks” that provide hands-on activities for kids.

One stop the girls found fascinating was the American Fur Company Store. Here they were able to learn about how on June 6, 1822, an employee of the American Fur Company on Mackinac Island, named Alexis St. Martin, was accidentally shot in the stomach by a discharge of a shotgun loaded with a buck shot from close range that injured his ribs and his stomach. Dr. William Beaumont, the surgeon at Fort Mackinac treated his wound, but expected St. Martin to die from his injuries. Despite this dire prediction, St. Martin survived – but with a hole in his stomach that never fully healed.

Beaumont recognized that he had in St. Martin an unusual opportunity to observe digestive processes. Dr. Beaumont began to perform experiments on digestion using the stomach of St. Martin. The girls looked at every one of the displays about this. After a stop at the blacksmith shop, we took our tired bodies back to the ferry.

Back in Mackinaw City we had one last opportunity for souvenir shopping, and then we treated everyone to a northern Michigan specialty – pasties.  The girls had never had one before, but gave them their seal of approval.

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Exploring the Thousand Islands, June 2017

The fastest route from Vermont to Michigan is through Canada. We had an option to travel straight north through Montreal or to go west through New York and cross farther down the St. Lawrence River. We chose to do the later and cross the border into Ontario at Ogdensburg. It’s usually easier to cross at a smaller crossing, away from a major urban area, and our crossing was uneventful.

We decided to camp at the Ivy Lea Campground, an Ontario Provincial Park. Ivy Lea is a good location to use as a base to explore the region. We had been rained on rather continuously since we left Virginia and it was apparent the rain had been in this region as well. The grassy areas were very wet and signs warned us not to drive in the grass. We awoke to heavy rain the next day and we decided it was a good day to sleep in, catch up on our reading, make some plans, and just “chill out.”

I had been in touch with the Brockville Adventure Centre, a SCUBA dive center on the St. Lawrence River, and was able to join a pair of divers who booked a charter to dive on a couple of wrecks in the St. Lawrence River.

Wednesday afternoon our dive boat took us upriver to our first site, the Henry C. Daryaw. This steel freighter had struck a rock, penetrating the hull. After multiple salvage attempts the Daryaw rolled upside down and sank into an underwater ravine.  The water level of the St. Lawrence was five feet above its normal level as a result of all of the rain in the region. Consequently, the current was running faster than normal. The three of us descended along the mooring line to the stern of the wreck. I could feel the current pulling on us as we descended. The water was very clear with visibility of 20 – 30 feet. Unfortunately there were a lot of micro particles in the water that made it a bad day for underwater photography. When we swam under the wreck we were sheltered from the strong current and we could explore the ship’s holds. You really don’t know what black is until you are 95 feet underwater and underneath a wreck. If it wasn’t for our underwater lights we wouldn’t have seen a thing. We swam out at the bow and ascended to the keel. There we were literally blown towards the stern. We skidded along the surface of the ship, dragging our hands and feet on the surface to try to slow down. When we reached the stern, we dropped out of the current, checked each other out and made our ascent up the mooring line. A unique feature of our dive boat was a platform that is lowered into the water where we could stand to remove our fins, then walk up a set of stairs onto the deck, much better than climbing a ladder!

Our second dive was on the Lillie Parsons, a sailing schooner that ran aground and capsized in 60 feet of water. Unlike many sailing vessels, her masts had not been removed and her masts were visible on the dive. She is lying on a slope with her stern at 60 feet and her bow at 30 feet. When we jumped into the water the current was flowing so fast it pulled the mooring buoy underwater.  As we descended we could feel the current pulling on us even harder than on the Henry Daryaw. We had been briefed to follow a guide line on the river bottom, but soon discovered it was no longer attached to the wreck. The current was so strong that we had to hold on to rocks on the river bottom and sort of crawl along the rocks until we reached the wreck.  As we worked our way along the ships gunwale, we had to hold onto the exposed ribs to keep from being swept away. We were able to look at some of her cargo of coal that was spilled on the bottom and some other artifacts from the ship. After exploring the Lillie Parsons we were to follow the rock wall of the island to the ascent line. We controlled our drift by holding onto cracks in the wall. At the ascent line, when we held onto the line at our safety stop, the current stretched us out like flags in a strong wind. Both of these dives seemed like I was swimming in a hurricane. Without a doubt, the most challenging dives I have ever made and I hope to return to Brockville to do more dives in the future.

Thursday, we launched our kayaks from the campground and paddled upriver. By staying close to the shore we were able to avoid the worst of the current. You could easily tell that the river was high. We saw one cabin after another where the water was above the level of the dock. There were many nice homes and cabins built on the shore and on the islands. We were able to paddle out into the channel, using the islands to shield us from the current as we explored them. It was a beautiful day for paddling and the current was not as much of a problem as we thought it might have been.

That afternoon we drove over to Rockport where we had our lunch in a park overlooking the St. Lawrence. After lunch we boarded a sightseeing tour boat for a tour of the Thousand Islands. As we cruised through the islands we saw all kinds of cabins, cottages, homes, and mansions. Some of the islands were so small there was hardly enough room for the building. In fact, in one case, a cabin was built on nothing but a rock. They built the cabin so big that you can’t even see the rock it was built on.

This island is international. The house is in Canada and the small island, across the bridge, is in the USA.

We saw many mansions of all sizes and shapes on the river. However, the most talked about mansion is Boldt Castle on Heart Island. George C. Boldt, proprietor of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City,  built this massive structure on the heart shaped island for his wife. He employed 300 artisans and craftsmen to create this 120 room castle. In 1904 a telegram from Boldt announced the death of his wife and commanded, “stop all construction.” Broken hearted, Boldt abandoned the project and never returned to Heart Island. For 73 years, the castle and various stone structures were left to the mercy of the wind, rain, ice, snow and vandals. When the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority acquired the property in 1977, it was decided the castle would be preserved for the enjoyment of future generations, funded through the use of all net revenues from the castle operation. Since 1977, several million dollars have been applied to rehabilitating, restoring and improving the Heart Island structures. Today it is an impressive structure and hosts daily tours.

One of the benefits of camping at the Ivy Lea Campground is that you get a free pass to tour Fort Henry or Upper Canada Village. We opted to visit Fort Henry. The original fort was constructed during the War of 1812 to protect the Kingston Royal Naval Dockyard on Point Frederick from a possible American attack during the war and to monitor maritime traffic on the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario. Fort Henry was used for several different purposes, including a compound for enemy Prisoners of War. In the early 1900s it began to fall into disrepair, but in the 1930s, under the leadership of Ronald L. Way, restorations took place as part of a government work program during the Great Depression. “Old Fort Henry” was opened on August 1, 1938. What sets Fort Henry apart from many other restored forts that I have visited is the pageantry. When Ronald Way began the restoration he knew that the physical restoration was only part of the effort. He wanted the fort to come alive and tell a story. Today Fort Henry is administered by Parks Canada, operated by the St. Lawrence Parks Commission, and is a living museum with the introduction of uniformed military interpreters known as the Fort Henry Guard. These interpreters staff the fort, conduct demonstrations of British military life, and lead tours for visitors. Our tour guide played the role of a Canadian soldier in the fort and the Afternoon Parade by the Fort Henry Guard was impressive.

The next morning, Sunday, June 11th, we  began a two-day drive to Lansing, crossing the US/Canadian Border, the longest undefended border in the world.

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Burlington, VT – Where Ethan Allen is More Than a Furniture Store, June 2017

Hurray! Vermont was state #50, Fifty states in six years. This didn’t start as a goal but it does feel good to have filled in the map.

As we planned our route into Vermont we discovered that we would be driving right by the Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream Factory. With a little research we learned that they give tours every hour and have parking for RVs. Having decided that this was too good to pass up, we made it a planned stop.

Ben and Jerry’s is a unique operation. They buy their milk and other ingredients from select, local farmers who meet their standards for raising their herds and growing their crops naturally. They use Fair Trade growers, support non-GMO agriculture practices, and educate their employees in environmental awareness. They are active in the community, supporting local food banks, rebuilding houses in New Orleans, and donating ice cream to local organizations to celebrate events or fund-raising.

I may not agree with all of Ben and Jerry’s political positions, but I have to respect a company that operates with a set a values that supersede profit, puts its financial capital behind what it deems to be important, and doesn’t denigrate others in the process.The tour was great, very informative, and fun. We finished the tour with sample of ice cream. After that we had lunch – more ice cream!

We thought it would be nice to stay on Grand Isle, unfortunately we were not able to find any campgrounds on Grand Isle with vacancies for a trailer of our size. We did find a site in the North Beach Campground, just north of Burlington. This park, operated by the City of Burlington, is a nice location. There is a row of sites that are “big rig friendly,” a short walk to the beach, and right on the Burlington Recreation Path. This path is another “rails to trails” path and made it possible to ride our bikes into downtown Burlington.

We decided to take a cruise on Lake Champlain. We found a website called “” that let us get two tickets for the price of one. This looked like a good deal and we went with it.

The next morning we rode our bikes to the City Hall Park for the Burlington City Market. Our first pleasant surprise was free, secured parking for our bikes. As we wandered by the vendors stalls I was impressed by the number of local food vendors. There was everything from cheese and organic vegetables to wine and distilled spirits. It was the first time that I felt the food vendors outnumbered the craft vendors.

After the City Market, we rode to the docks and boarded the “Spirit of Ethan Allen” for the cruise. As we traveled around the southern portion of the lake we discovered that Lake Champlain was named after Samuel Champlain who discovered it in 1609. Lake Champlain is also believed to have the best collection of historic shipwrecks in North America. Shipbuilding was big business in Lake Champlain’s history and at least one shipyard is still going strong. I found it interesting to see the “ways” where the ships are constructed and then launched. Locke Ness in Scotland has its monster and Lake Champlain has its own, called “Champ.” As with the Locke Ness monster, there is evidence that Champ exists, but also plenty of doubt. The largest mass sighting of Champ was aboard the “Spirit of Ethan Allen” in 1984.

After the cruise we were more than ready for lunch and rode to the Shanty on the Water. Fish is definitely popular on the menu and the maritime decor was right up my alley. We had great seats overlooking the harbor, but it was too bad the weather was so poor.

The next day we drove to Grand Isle to see whatever there was to see. Our first stop was the Snow Farm Vineyard. This is a great place to visit. When we got there we asked if they did any tours. They told us we could look around, and suggested a trail that led to a hill behind the vineyard that was the highest point in Grand Isle County. We took that advice and hiked to the hilltop and enjoyed our picnic lunch from some benches with a magnificent view of Lake Champlain. The winery has a patio and picnic tables outside so you can enjoy your wine and the view at the same time. Inside we did a wine tasting, discovering some wines we liked. Unfortunately we were going to cross into Canada the next day and we already had more wine than we would be allowed to take into Canada, so we didn’t want to buy a bottle, and maybe have to dump in out. We’ll just have to come back again!

The State of Vermont operates the Ed Weed Fish Culture Station to do research and breed fish to feed into the lake. The displays were educational and enlightening and we could see the fish raceways where the fish are bred.

Burlington is the home of Ethan Allen. Ethan Allen was the leader of the local militia, known as the Green Mountain Boys, in the Revolutionary War. Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys were instrumental in winning the battle of Fort Ticonderoga. The artillery cannon that were captured in that battle were sent to General Washington and helped him defeat the British in Boston. At the Ethan Allen Homestead Museum you can learn about this history and tour his former home.

We enjoyed our brief stays in New Hampshire and Vermont, but the biggest thing we learned was there is a lot more to see in these states. We are looking forward to returning to spend more time exploring them in the future.

The next morning we had some more rain, but not very heavy as we hooked up the trailer and headed northwest to cross into Ontario.


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