Michigan and Ontario

Tuesday, 01 October 2013 15:30
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The mighty Niagara FallsFall is definitely well on its way.


 I wasn’t even planning on heading into Michigan when I started this trip, but faithful readers will remember that I ran into a couple from the Wolverine state when I was driving up to Mount Hood in Oregon, and they’d told me that the drive up Michigan Route 22 along the lake was not to be missed, so…I decided not to miss it.

The previous night driving into Kalamazoo, I’d discovered due to seeing the clue of my oil pressure getting suspiciously low that the oil pressure sending unit was leaking a bit, and on checking that out I also found that my oil level was also pretty low. The bad part of having a leak on the sending unit is that it’s on the pressurized side of the oil pump, so it’s going to be a pretty good leak there. I stopped and topped up my oil so as to make the motor a bit happier, and started driving north to Whitehall, MI, where I had a nice little motel on the lake lined up (hooray for off season prices!)  En route, I planned to figure out something for fixing the sending unit. I was pretty sure that soldering it was about the only repair that’d hold the pressure, but since I didn’t have a torch handy, I picked up a little epoxy for an attempt at an in-the-hotel-room repair. However, in the mean time I needed something to plug the hole.

Every good car guy has a secret weapon at his disposal—the ridiculously knowledgeable parts counter guy. About halfway to Whitehall (and another quart and a half of oil later), I stopped at a  NAPA Auto Parts to see if I could get a plug to put in where the leaky sending unit was now. Lo and behold, behind the counter was A Ridiculously Knowledgeable Parts Guy. We knew from the get-go that there’d be no way he’d actually have the part that I needed, and I had also stopped at a Home Depot earlier to try to fit an 1/8” NPT pipe plug in the hole, which didn’t work. Looking through a couple of parts crossing catalogs, he was able to determine that it was indeed a tapered pipe thread in the block, but it wasn’t NPT, it was British Standard Pipe Thread--exactly what you’d expect to find on a Japanese car, of course. This meant that a plug was probably not going to be forthcoming from his stock either, as that’s not exactly something they keep in on the shelf, but he was able to dredge up from the depths of his memory a few other cars that had oil pressure switches that came with 1/8” BSPT threads on them. The first one he had in stock, but it was $90. He dug a little more, and amazingly, he had one more in stock off of some sort of Volvo, and that one was only $8. He let me pull mine off in the parking lot and check to see if the new one fit before he sold it to me, and as predicted, it threaded right on in. I now had a very fancy plug in the hole where my sending unit used to be (it was a different thing electrically speaking, so no hookup there), and I was back on the road, this time not leaving a trail of oil drops behind me. I spent the rest of the trip up to Whitehall munching on some local Honeycrisp apples and stopping at a few lakes along the way to do a little fishing (the produce stand where I got the apples also had nightcrawlers; very convenient.)

Mmm...Michigan Honeycrisps Sadly, this didn't work

I got into Whitehall around sunset and checked into my surprisingly nice room—lakeside balcony, great view, in-room hot tub, the works. I had been expecting a normal room, but I’d take that, no problem. Naturally, I immediately turned it into a repair facility, and got on the epoxying job for the sending unit. Hopes were not high, but I figured it was worth a shot…I had a similar “temporary” repair on my Toyota truck that lasted 10 years. After getting the epoxy on, I spent the rest of the evening and most of the next morning catching up on a variety of bills and personal items (and letting the epoxy cure), and then I swapped my NAPA oil switch for the now-hopefully-repaired sending unit and headed up Route 31 to catch the fabled Michigan 22.

The view from my room in Whitehall, MI The artsy version of the view

Lake Michigan turned out to be surprisingly…Caribbean-esque. The water was crystal clear, and a lot of the shoreline and lake edge was fine, light tan sand, so in the sunlight it looked like you were in the Bahamas. If it was ringed with palms instead of maples and pines, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference.

Lake Michigan, in its Bahama-esque glory Another beach along the lake One of the bays, plus lighthouse

The little towns along Route 22 were all very artsy and cute. You could tell that they mostly lived for the tourist action during the summer (little known fact: Michigan has almost as much coastline as California does), but they didn’t have that cheapo ‘boardwalk’ sort of vibe. And Route 22 was as pretty as I’d been told. The leaves on some of the maples were just starting to turn color; it was still mostly green, but then there’d be this loud splash of orange or yellow in there. It’s got to be absolutely spectacular once fall gets into full swing.

Some local Michigan roadside art Fall: It's coming Another Lake Michigan lighthouse

I made a pitstop (hah) at another car museum, this time the Gilmore, which is largely dedicated to 1900-and-newer American cars (which makes sense, considering the proximity to Detroit and the other formerly glorious American car manufacturing towns in Michigan.) It’s a neat place, sort of divided into a “campus” of barn-like buildings out in the middle of a cornfield, with each building being dedicated to a specific marque or era. There was the Model A building, the Pierce Arrow building, the Cadillac building, and so on. The also had a full replica of a mid-century Shell gas station and a smaller building dedicated to toy cars, as well as a building for motorcycles. The Kalamazoo Model A club was also there that day with all their cars out on display on the lawn, which was pretty neat. I didn’t know that Kalamazoo was “The Celery City” until I saw that on the grille of several of the cars. 

The members of the Model A club. All original in foreground. The Celery City Some of the kiddie cars on display
Fonzie's bike from 'Happy Days', believe it or not The replica Shell station Next trip I'm getting fitted luggage and tool kit

I was planning on driving all the way out to the tip of a little peninsula to Leelanau State Park that evening to camp on the lake shore, so I stopped in Northport to pick up some groceries to have a little cookout that night. Being a sucker for local foods, I also got some local sausage, local peanut butter, local strawberry jam, local ginger ale, local salsa and chips, local cheese, and generally more local food than I can probably consume before it goes bad, but I was pretty hungry, and I had room in the trunk to take some along for later. I continued the drive up to the park through some very picturesque little towns, grabbed a campsite way out on the tip of the peninsula (there were hardly any people there—let’s hear it for off-season weekday camping), cracked open a ginger ale (very spicy, like raw ginger), and grilled up some very tasty chicken-apple sausages. After dinner, I checked in on my oil leak repair, and as feared the epoxy didn’t hold up to the oil pressure, so I swapped my nifty NAPA part back into plug duty until I can get a new sending unit. I also was able to see a very pretty moonrise over the lake right before I turned in for the night, which was pretty great. It was going to be a brisk evening, down around 40 degrees, so I made the tent interior as snuggly as possible and hit the hay.

Moonrise over the lake A slightly higher moonrise. Should have brought a real tripod.

My destination for the next day was an Airbnb stay in Sault Saint Marie (on the US side, not the Canadian side), and that was about a five hour drive around the edge of the lake and up across the famous Mackinac Bridge to the upper peninsula of Michigan. The drive also took me through Traverse City, which was my first encounter so far with a medium-sized city that was actually in good shape. Thus far, I’d either been seeing tiny little towns with really depressed downtown areas that looked like they were barely hanging on, or medium-sized towns that looked healthier, but had been infected by a ubiquitous covering of national fast food joints, Walmarts, Dollar stores, and payday loan centers. I was beginning to think that the American middle class was completely extinct, but Traverse City seemed to have a very healthy downtown that was teeming with middle class working folks going about their days, and the few fast food and cheap goods chains they did have had been pushed way out to the outskirts of town. Plus, its lakefront exposure was miles and miles of the entire north end of the city, so overall it was really refreshing to get into a good, healthy, mid-sized American town.

Going over the Mackinac Bridge

After driving though more really pretty lakeside edge-of-fall scenery, I arrived at my Airbnb stop in Sault St. Marie, a very nice house with a very nice couple whose back yard was right on a protected little bay of Lake Michigan. Directly across the water was Canada, just to the north were the Soo Locks, part of the Saint Lawrence Seaway, and to the south was the mass of Lake Michigan. Giant bulk transport ships traveled that corridor all the time, as it was a major traffic route of the Saint Lawrence.

It was about an hour and a half before sunset, and my host Jeff suggested that we grab the kayaks and take a little paddle a couple miles down-lake and back. After sitting in the car all day, it was a nice change of pace to sit in a kayak instead, and the weather was perfect for it—no wind, great temperature, and late enough not to get cooked by the sun. We paddled and chatted for quite a while; I told him about my trip so far, he told me about his job as a banker and their Airbnb guests to date, and we had a really nice, relaxing evening.

Kayaking into the sunset Putting the boats in for the night Me and Jeff on the water

My plan for the rest of the week was to make my way down to Grimsby, ON to meet up with some old friends from many previous projects and get to their 50th anniversary party for their company. That meant a little less dawdling than I usually do, as I had a lot of ground to cover between here and there, so I had lined up three Airbnb one-nighters (Sault St. Marie MI, Parry Sound ON, Toronto ON) with quite a bit of driving in between them. I got up the next morning after my kayaking adventure, said my farewells to the host, and headed back to the Great White North again. I made a stop on the US side to see the Soo Locks, but unfortunately there weren’t any ships coming through at the time, so it wasn’t as exciting as it could have been. The border crossing was easy, with a friendly border agent and more questions about the car, and from there I headed out on my seven hour drive down to Parry Sound, which is considerably longer than I usually do in a day.

The locks, looking west. Canada is on the other side of the bridge. There were a number of older hotels along the locks Locks, looking east

The Canadian countryside in Ontario was very pretty. Fall was getting even closer up here, with big patches of fiery maples dotting the landscape everywhere. It was still mostly green, but that was obviously not going to last for long. I stopped at a diner in Thessalon for the lunch special and some friendly Canadian hospitality, and then stopped farther down along the river to look at some rapids and try a little fishing. That turned out to be fascinating and frustrating all at the same time. Just below the rapids, there were dozens of pretty big salmon swimming around in the shallows scooping up whatever food was coming at them downriver. Some were jumping around and over each other in about 4” of water, so shallow that the top halves of the fish were all exposed above the water. I felt a little guilty about trying for those fish in a barrel, so I cast out a little further to see if I could get anything. Over the next hour or so, I threw everything in my tackle box in there—dry flies, wet flies, surface lures, spoons, spinners, live bait, the works. I even went after the fish in the shallows that I could practically reach in and pick up, but none of those fish were interested in anything I had to offer. I could stand there and watch whole schools of big fish practically swimming right up on shore, but not one ever gave me so much as a nibble.

More fall the more north I got Another angler, having about the same luck as me Big fish in shallow water. That's the top of his tail and dorsal fin.

A couple hours further down the road, I stopped in Sudbury for some gas and a little dinner. Sudbury is a small city with a big nickel producing industry, which is interestingly the result of having been hit by a giant meteor millions of years ago. (I’ve always liked the term for that kind of feature—“astrobleme”, meaning “star wound”.) They’re mining and smelting the remnants of that meteor hit, which was apparently really big and was either mostly made of the nickel they mine there or caused that metal to become concentrated there when it melted the earth’s crust (or both), but in any case it’s home to the world’s largest nickel smelting operations in the world as well as the tallest free standing smokestack in the western hemisphere. Sudbury also wraps around a lake (there are a lot of lakes up in this area), and it was pretty in spots, but pretty run down in other areas. I did not really spend enough time there to form an opinion, but I did catch a nice sunset, albeit one somewhat marred by that smokestack and its output.

Sunset smokestack That can't be good for the air quality From farther back, you can see the stripe it leaves across the horizon

It was dark and pretty cold by now, so I pulled over and put the top up, then finished the next couple of hours down to my next Airbnb in Parry Sound, which is right on the eastern shore of Lake Huron and is notable for being the birthplace of Bruins hockey superstar Bobby Orr. I didn’t really plan it this way, but apparently I will have driven around Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, and Lake Erie before I get out of the area, which is kind of cool.

My stay in Parry Sound was really very nice. I had a great host in a lovely 100 year old home, and after a tasty breakfast and chat with my host Sue, I headed out to do a little exploring in the area. I found myself down at the waterfront about 15 minutes before an around-the-islands boat ride was about to start, so I bought a ticket and jumped on. That area of the lake is known as Georgian Bay and it’s home to the “30,000 Islands”, and they say that there really are over 30,000 named islands right there. The boat took a thee hour cruise around the whole area and past many of those islands, which were all very picturesque. Many of them also had vacation homes on them, big and small, although they said there was now a moratorium on land sales there, so those are the last of them.

A three hour tour, just like Gilligan The marina was also an airport A very nice cruise around the bay
The view from the bow Up close and personal with the lake The bridge swung sideways to let the ship through

Once the boat docked, I jumped back in the car and headed southward to spend the evening in Toronto. This was another Airbnb stay, and although the hsots were not around much, the house was in a good mid-city location, and I got to walk around town a bit and get some food. They were also right next door to a laundromat, so I was able to get my clothes cleaned the next morning.

The Datsun is still not much of a city car, so I didn't stay long The CN Tower at night

Leaving Toronto with my bag full of clean clothes, I was off to visit some colleagues from way back—Handling Specialty in Grimsby, ON. Handling is the company that was responsible for designing and building some of coolest stage elevators in the world, including the underwater lifts in Vegas for “O” and “LeReve” and in Macau for “House of Dancing Waters”. They do lots of stuff outside of the entertainment industry as well in areas like industrial lifts for servicing railroad cars and machinery for handling nuclear fuel. It’s a great company with a really good staff across the board—management, engineering and design, fabrication, and installation. I had contacted my old friend Tom, the president of the company, a few weeks ago to let him know I’d be coming through the area, and as I got closer and the timing got a little more accurate, he told me that Handling was celebrating their 50th anniversary with a big open house at the factory, so if possible, it’d be fun if I could arrange the trip so that I arrived for that. Being pretty flexible, I did just that, and arrived just in time to see Tom giving a little speech to kick off the open house.

The HS open house was a lot of fun World Record lifts The gang and the car--Tom's to my left in the suit

I hung out at the factory for a while, checked out all the displays they had set up for the various industry sectors that they served, and sampled their wine and cheese and chocolate covered strawberries until the party wound down. Once the guests were gone, Tom introduced me to several of his friends, and after the all got a look at the car to see what I’d been driving around Canada, we all went out to dinner. It was a pretty cheerful evening—a 50th anniversary, seeing a bunch of old friends, and getting to meet some new ones over some good food and drink make for a really good day. Once we’d said our goodbyes, I retired to my lodging for the evening and got some sleep.

I didn’t know going in that the Niagara area of Ontario was quite the wine region that it is, but it’s pretty impressive. From a “niceness” standpoint, the orchards and wineries rival certainly anything in California’s central/Paso Robles region, and they hold their own against some of the best in Napa and Sonoma. From a wine standpoint, it’s mostly about the Rieslings and Gewurztraminers —they do a lot of other varieties as well (including some reds), but those are really the standouts.

Out in the orchards The air actually smelled like grapes as I drove through the region The orchard at Thirty Bench

I drove down Route 81/King Street, which is sort of Ontario’s answer to Napa’s Silverado Trail and stopped in at a few different wineries, including Fielding where Tom’s daughter works. The tastings were either free or really inexpensive and the wines were good, but as expected it was the Rieslings that stood out. Overall, it was pretty laid back (much like my experience in Paso Robles), and a really nice way to spend an afternoon. To cap it off, I headed down to the end of the road at St. Catharines where they were having their annual wine festival in the park. Like most of these things, there was plenty of food and wine to be had, as well as live music and other attractions. I didn’t hang out too long, as pushing my way through a festival crowd isn’t really my idea of a fun day, but it was good to check it out. It reminded me of the Oregon Brewers Festival that I hit in Portland earlier in the trip, but with wine.

I'm totally entering that contest The local police, helping citizens take better pictures Some of the wineries represented

By this time, it was getting late in the afternoon, so I drove down to Niagara Falls to see it before it got dark. Interestingly, Niagara was used as an example of what not to do and what can happen without sequestering land and natural features for the people when the first National Parks were being developed out west—sort of a “Don’t let Yellowstone get ‘Niagaraed’” campaign. The falls themselves are amazing, but the area is sort of an ugly combination of the worst parts of Orlando and Las Vegas—themed chain restaurants, endless souvenir shops, and several casinos and hotels, all built right up to the edges of the falls and obliterating any natural landscape that may have been there before. Combine that with a huge mob of tourists, and you’ve got a formula for a place that I will not have a lot of patience for hanging around for long. On the plus side, the low sun from my late afternoon arrival had a pretty much permanent rainbow going in the mist in front of the falls, and that was really pretty. After snapping some pictures, I got back in the car and crossed back over the border into the US at Buffalo (again, with a pretty friendly border agent…I think it’s the car.)

Rainbow over Niagara Soggy tourists at the end of the rainbow The Maid, heading into the Mist

Next stop: Upstate Western New York and the Finger Lakes region, and maybe some western Vermont



#1 laceytrynn 2013-10-02 08:57
I had no idea the Lakes were so huge and ocean-like... will have to check them out someday. Another entertaining and educational post!
#2 Monkeygym 2013-10-02 10:52
Hey Scott!
If you're still in the Buffalo area, you should try the wings at Duff's, near the Amherst campus of SUNY Buffalo. Not the healthiest food, but Buffalo wings are done right pretty much only in Buffalo...
I can't think of anything else worth experiencing there, though....and be sure to get out before it snows, which will probably be next week!
#3 sk8rchk 2013-10-03 08:17
Don't know if I've ever actually seen the end of a rainbow quite like that. Definitely have never been at one. Spectacular!!

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