Monday, July 19, 2010

Fudging at Mackinac

A week ago today I made my inaugural visit to Mackinac Island (which, for some reason, is pronounced as if it were spelled "Mackinaw," which, amazingly enough, is the way that the city from which we took the ferry to get there is spelled—go figure).

The island once housed a fort of some significance in the development of the fur trade, which first opened up both western Canada and the northern portion of the western US to European expansion. The fort was first built by the British in the American Revolutionary War, and later played a role in the War of 1812 as well. The island is located just east of the Straits of Mackinac, which separate Lake Michigan from Lake Huron, and there is ferry service from both the north side of the strait (St Ignace) and from the south (the aforementioned Mackinaw City).

Visiting the island is one of those quintessential tourist experiences, roughly akin to a foray into Gatlinburg TN, Cody WY, or Myrtle Beach SC. Though there are only about 600 souls who live on the island year round, there are about 15,000 tourists who visit there daily during the peak season—which last Monday we were smack in the midst of. My wife (Ma'ikwe), her mother (Kay), her son (Jibran), and I bravely contributed four to the tourist tally for July 12.

There are a number of ferry operations servicing the island and we availed ourselves of Kay's favorite: Shepler's, a family operation that runs a boat both ways every 30 minutes, and supplies free parking to boot. They've been in the business since 1945, and were well positioned when the Mackinac Bridge opened in 1954, connecting Michigan's Lower and Upper Peninsulas via car traffic.

Mackinac Island is not big. The bike path around the outside edge is only 8.2 miles. One of the peculiarities of the island is that there are no automobiles (excepting one or two emergency service vehicles that are kept under wraps as much as possible). If you want to get around, you can do so by foot, by bicycle, or by horse drawn carriage—take your pick. We took Kay out to lunch (at the Pink Pony Patio in the Chippewa Hotel, where the whitefish sandwich was divine). In a quid pro quo, she popped for the carriage ride to tour the island.

Among the oddities that we learned from our tour guide, is that there are 17 fudge shops on the island—and every one of them will gladly offer you a free sample. Uffda. The very thought of it made my fillings ache. In fact, the fudge traffic is so firmly associated with off-island touristas that the local nickname for mainland visitors is "fudgies"—which
I did not get the sense was an honorific. Unlike the artless way that Indianans will sometimes refer to themselves as "hoosiers," or dedicated listeners to sports commentator Jim Rome will proudly style themselves "clones," I did not get the sense that island visitors gleefully refer to themselves as fudgies. Given that the island economy is wholly dependent upon tourism, there is a certain delicacy about the locals indulging in a pejorative that deprecates both their major export and its main consumer.

On the carriage ride we got a peek at the Grand Hotel, which sports the longest front porch in the world. At a whopping 660 feet long, it's more than two football fields lined up end to end. Billed as the ideal location for Flirtation Walks (to augment romantic aspirations), it seems to me it might also be suitable for cardio-vascular testing, to ascertain if the relationship is up the rigors of an aerobic courtship. Hell, if the fog is bad, you can't see the east end of the porch from the west end. I imagine some sparkers pack a lunch when they go wooing on the porch at the Grand Hotel.

In any event, the hotel was built in 1887 in 93 days. As the story goes, there was a $1 million bonus (which was real money back then) if the job was completed in 90 days, but the contractors made the strategic error of not informing the construction crew about the bonus (in the hopes of splitting the pot among far fewer participants). When word leaked out among the workers, they went on strike for three days—long enough to make sure that no one got the bonus. Which just goes to show how long mendacity, cupidity, and stupidity have been well acquainted with one another.

Though we were told that franchises are not allowed on the island, I'll be damned if we didn't spot a Starbuck's within 50 feet of the ferry terminal. While I will freely admit that the marriage of fudge and coffee is likely to be a happy one for most consumers, my sense of fair play was offended by this apparent breach of franchise etiquette. I suspect some pushy fudgies sweetened the deal to the point where the ruling locals were willing to fudge the rules. But that's just a guess.

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