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The Other Mackinac Island

Ferry to Another World
View down an empty Main Street in April on Mackinac Island.

Mackinac Island in April is not Mackinac Island in July. If you have been to the island during the heat of the summer crowds, you experienced one island. But there are others. There are lonelier islands. You really feel the seasons in a place like this, and they’re not only defined by weather. The first speed ferry of the year left Mackinaw City on April 21. We boarded at noon.

Mackinaw City. It’s cold. Waiting for the ferry. It’s April, 41 degrees. Sky clear, sun shining. The wind whips off the water. Unforgiving. Harsh even for the winterized face of the Northern Michigander. Wind off water cuts in a way wind off land doesn’t. 

Mackinac Island ferry speeding across the water.
Photo by O.W. Root

A crude building doubles as a waiting area and welcome relief. A shop on one side and a few benches on the other. A few soon-to-be passengers sit and wait. On the shop side, tourist knickknacks, Mackinac Island shot glasses, and candy bars. Empty refrigerators soon to be lined with Monster for summer tourists. A whiteboard reads, “Today’s Last Boat Off Island – 5:00 PM.” If you miss it, what do you do? Where do you stay? 

The ferry floats up to the dock, ropes tossed ashore, a few brave souls wander aboard. There’s no more than 10 of us. An old man in a cardigan slowly creaks by with the help of a walker. A couple of girls in their 20s wearing hoodies, huddled like penguins, scrolling on their phones. A couple in their early 30s. A guy with unkempt hair who looks like he just woke up. He’s in work boots, sweatpants, and Carhartt. He’s not happy to be there. The majority go down to the lower deck, a few of us find our way to the middle deck. No one is bold enough to sit up top. 

Two ferry workers throw a rope to each other to dock the ferry.
Photo by O.W. Root

It’s a brisk 20-minute ride to the island. In summer, the breeze in your hair and the mist from the water is like heaven. In April, it’s a biting wind tunnel. Speeding over the waves of Lake Huron, the hull smacks the dark blue water in a constant rhythm. Whack, whack, whack. A guy with big headphones sits far in the back. An American flag dances in the wind. Your face automatically assumes a steely statue-like squint. The wind punishes your upper lip. You feel like an old hood ornament, fixed and immovable. Exposed against the wind. 

An empty harbor. Two horses and a wagon. Those horses crank the dial. There are no cars here, and as soon as we step off the ferry, we fully realize what that means. There’s horse manure in the middle of the empty road. You hear the clomp of the hooves on the pavement. Bikes with trailers clog the sidewalks. 

Two horses with an empty wagon behind them outside the welcome building on Mackinac Island.
Photo by O.W. Root

Main street. A ghost town. All the shops are going to be open in a couple months. Windows shined. Pristine. Idyllic. On a Sunday in April, it’s a different story. Walking along, almost every shop is dark. Window signs read, “Closed for the Season.” Cupping my eyes, I look through the windows and see the disarray collecting dust. It’s sleeping. There are garbage bags sitting on the side of the road. Small groups of people wander around here and there, unconcerned about oncoming traffic (bikes and horses) when the island is shut down. There are a few workers preparing shops for the season. A painter touches up trim around a door, another works to secure an awning. A few others wearing dirty workwear sit talking. There are mattresses sitting outside, resting in front of an Inn.

Benches and view of lake from inside the Mackinac Island Ferry.
Photo by O.W. Root

As I walk down the road, it feels like I am seeing something I shouldn’t be seeing, like watching someone clean their house before company arrives. Beds for rooms that will go for $400 a night in three months, sitting on the street like old milk cartons. Fewer rental bikes. More local bikes. Rusty bikes with stickers on the frames. Garbage bags on the sidewalk. Tool boxes and screwdrivers left on benches.

There’s one bike rental open. It’s 15 bucks for an hour, and I have a few hours before the last ferry leaves. I hop on and start riding east. Closed cottages line either side of the road. Bags full of raked leaves rest against white picket fences. Historic Mission Church, the oldest surviving church building in Michigan, towers above, reaching into the deep blue sky. Far from the gears of “progress” and the steamroller-cult of newness, it’s only fitting that this beautiful relic of Old America be found here, quietly watching over Lake Huron. An outpost. A triumph of civilization.

Summer Mackinac requires nothing of you. In the empty world of Mackinac Island in April, something is required. 

Summer Mackinac requires nothing of you. In the empty world of Mackinac Island in April, something is required. It doesn’t matter if you forget your jacket in the summer. You can buy one there. It doesn’t matter if you need a swimsuit last minute. There are shops for that. You can get what you want when you want it. April is not like that. There’s no wiggle room. If you get there and you don’t have what you need, too bad. You need to plan. You need to bring the right jacket. A scarf. Hat. Gloves. If you don’t, you’re not going to like it. Submit to the wind. It’s an acquired taste.

View of a church and buildings down an empty street on Mackinac Island.
Photo by O.W. Root

Back on Main Street, I walk around searching for somewhere to grab a drink before the last ferry leaves. Closed, closed, closed. The Mustang Lounge is the only place open. It’s a small, rustic bar. Michigan State Police decor hangs from the rafters. There are about 25 people inside, three or four outside on the porch. You can tell the locals from the visitors. It’s hard to explain, but you can feel it. It’s the clothes and the manner. When you live somewhere, you act like you own the place. Because you do. You don’t have to leave when the vacation is over. They obviously all know each other sitting at the bar. Joking, catching up. No pretense. No “what do you do for a living?” They all know already. The majority wear beanies. Used and abused dirty hiking boots. Heavy denim jeans. Work coats. Sturdy clothes for the elements. The bartender tells me they are open all year and that in the dead of winter it’s actually packed. He tells me the snowier, the busier. He says, “No one can get out.”

Back on the ferry headed to the mainland, the sun is lower now. The crew tells us that it’s going to be a bumpy ride. They are right. The ferry rocks from side to side as we speed across the water. Looking to the west, the Mackinac Bridge rises above the sparkling blue. This great steel beast separates Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. Squinting, I can see trucks passing on the bridge. Nature and industry. As the ferry slowly rolls up to the dock at Mackinaw City, we see the first signs of normal life. There are cars in the parking lot, an SUV is idling, there are no horses. This “real” world underwhelms. 

View from inside the Mackinac Ferry with the Mackinac bridge in the distance.
Photo by O.W. Root

It’s shocking the way a place changes the way you see the world. Even if only for a day, where you are matters. Even in our digitally connected world, we aren’t everywhere at once, and thus where you are might matter even more than it ever has. Empty Mackinac Island is a separate space. The blue water of Lake Huron is a moat. It’s a lonely place. And you feel more yourself, if only for a moment, because of it. And in that way you are free. Mackinac Island in the summer might be beautiful and easy, but Mackinac Island in April is free. 

O.W. Root is a writer based in Northern Michigan, with a focus on nature, food, style, and culture. Follow him on X at @NecktieSalvage.

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