Road Trip visits: Biggest, Longest, Bestest

Lighthouse On Lake Michigan
Lighthouse on Lake Michigan

The Great American Road Trip

Destination: The Great Lakes, Middle America (U.S. and Canada)

Book: The Third Coast: Sailors, Strippers, Fishermen, Folksingers, Long-Haired Ojibway Painters, and God-Save-the-Queen Monarchists of the Great Lakes (2008) by Ted McClelland

In the grand tradition of road trips–where people drive miles to see the largest ball of twine or the oldest carving, the largest Lumberjack statue or the longest yard sale– we join Ted McClelland as he visits the superlative lakes of Middle America.( For more about road trip oddities, see Go BIG or Go HOME, which blog I learned about from a guest post at Nerd’s Eye View.)

We are talking about the Great Lakes, The Third Coast (as he calls his book), the inland waterway which contributes as much as fertile soil does to the success of American agriculture, providing easy access to world-wide transportation.

It certainly would be possible to write an article (or a book) about the Great Lakes without launching it with a set of statistics, but when the stats are so stupendous, why bother?

Ted McClelland says in the Introduction to The Third Coast:

  • Only the polar ice caps hold more freshwater.
  • Drained they would cover the continental United States to a depth of nine-and-a-half feet.
  • Because they’re as deep and broad as seas, they allow saltwater ships to sail a third of the way across North America.
  • Since they contain a fifth of the world’s drinking water, they’d be much harder to live without than the Himalayas, or the Sahara Desert, or even the Amazon rain forest.

So he went on a 9,600-mile journey, taking 106 days, and you can tag along by reading The Third Coast.

Here’s where I wax nostalgic again, so you can skip down if you get tired of hearing about my Ohio childhood.  Summers meant a trip to Lake Erie. Sometimes just a long day jaunt up to East Harbor Park for a picnic and swimming at the 1500-foot long beautiful sand beach; sometimes it meant renting a cottage  where the grown-ups would stay up late playing poker and drinking “highballs” and we kids would spend days on sandy beaches.

We even rented a place at Lakeside one summer. Lakeside is a village by the lake that runs like a Chatauqua.  We could walk the leafy streets, swim at the beach, and in the evening go to the lecture hall for a concert or to hear from some famous speaker of the day. The antithesis of peaceful Lakeside must be Cedar Point, the venerable amusement park along the lake, where my mother listened to Guy Lombardo’s band in the 1920’s.

Cliff on lake
Cliff at Catawba Island, Put in Bay, Lake Erie

Sometimes a trip to Lake Erie meant fishing, and usually it meant swimming. Often it involved a few history lessons as we took a ferry boat from Marblehead– where we visited the historic lighthouse— out  to see the Admiral Perry Monument at Put-in-Bay.Long before I saw an ocean, I saw the power of the sea at Lake Erie as I watched waves crash on rocky cliffs on stormy days.

The Third Coast makes an interesting travelogue around both the U.S. and the Canadian shores of  ALL of the Great Lakes, but spends quite a bit of time in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. (I visited there earlier this year, and wrote about Hemingway, a mystery in Paradise, and Hiawatha.) To McClelland, that’s where the history begins–with the French fur traders who crossed the rapids connecting Lake Suprior and Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. Now boats cross easily through canals at Sault Ste. Marie and continue the long trek that starts at the eastern seaboard and follows the St. Lawrence seaway.

While McClelland manages to squeeze in quite a bit of this kind of economic history and some geography of the area, there is nothing dry and lifeless about the book.  Instead, he finds interesting people at each stop and tells their stories. That leads to a book that reflects the lakefront and the life of the sailor  to a much larger extent than it reflects the lives of the people in the neighboring states and provinces that enjoy the lakes for various other purposes,and I hope that no one will be misled to believe that all life along the lakes is as blue collar and gritty as the selections here indicate.

Ted McClellan is a humorous story teller and the book is worthwhile. Your own road trip around the Great Lakes will be greatly enhanced by taking a look at The Third Coast.

The photos come from Flickr and are used under Creative Commons license. Click on the photo to learn more.

Do you have a Great Lakes story in your past? Tell us which lake you have  loved.

Vera Marie Badertscher

About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

8 thoughts on “Road Trip visits: Biggest, Longest, Bestest

  1. I’ve heard about this book…sounds like something I should definitely check out!
    As for my stories about this Great Lakes…where do I begin? I’ve yet to run out of Great Lakes stories in two years with Midwest Guest :)

  2. Deb: I was in Upper Peninsula last September. It was already too cold for this desert rat. My hubby is there today–having a look at Tahqua–whatever– Falls last time I talked to him. What a gorgeous area.
    Traveler’s Bro: I was thinking as I wrote this about how the lake receded some decades and then encroached on people’s lakeside homes in other years and was wondering how it is now. From the looks of things on the sites I linked to, it’s back to the way I remember it from the fifties. (I was thinking we should have a family reunion at Lakeside, what do you think?)
    Laura: I tend to forget that Ohio had to share Lake Erie with a few other people!!

  3. We always went boating on Lake Erie when I was young. We lived outside of Buffalo so a trip to Lake Erie happened rather frequently. I remember collecting the round stones and adding them to the sandcastles we’d make and enjoying the waves. I didn’t get to the real Ocean until I was over 14, so I would imagine the lake waves were like the ocean. I’ve always loved water and can tolerate even the stinky times when the lake was prettier to look at than to smell. (Seaweed would wash up sometimes). Lots of picnics in the sand.

  4. Though I remember some pleasant sandy beaches and fishing spots from early trips to Lake Erie, I also recall that the relatively shallow Erie shore became less pleasant in the later fifties as pollution increased.You could smell the rotting, beached perch and other fish from miles away. Long stretches of shoreline were shingled with dead fish. To this day I can recall that pungent odor. Happily, the industrial and urban pollution was greatly reduced and the lake “turned over” so that commerical fishing as well tourist sites were restored…along with my memories of better days on the Lake.

  5. Thanks for sharing McClelland’s Third Coast. I enjoy local stories the most, and will have to check it out. -r

  6. I’m definately going to have to read this book.

    I live in northern Michigan and we spend a LOT of time at Lake Michigan. Plus we try to get to the Upper Peninsula once a year. My favorite place in the U.P. is Munising—there are lots of waterfalls in that area. The best time to visit is in the fall with the color change.

    There are many wonderful sights in Michigan, but unless you like freezing cold temps and lots of snow I suggest you visit between May and October (its already cooling down here and its only mid August)

    If anyone needs any tips/hints for visiting Michigan’s third coast, drop me a line…I’m happy to share.

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