We hadn’t given much thought to St. Ignace, Michigan. After almost two week of hanging out in the north woods of Wisconsin and on the shores of Lake Superior at Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, we needed a steady Internet connection and consistent workflow for about another two weeks. St. Ignace was to be a week-long workplace stopover and a gateway to the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, but that was about it. There was no way that there could be anything to do there or any inspiration.
I love it when I discover that I have no idea what I’m saying.
Unique and Interesting Bits
I remember sitting in my fourth grade classroom among all of my classmates reading a textbook on Michigan history. I remember seeing a map of the state with little pictures representing the Upper Peninsula’s mining history and tiny cars representing the Lower Peninsula’s auto industry, and maybe some corn representing farming in the middle of the state. I also remember thinking that it was all very boring. Fast-forward to our visit to St. Ignace and I now believe more than ever that there is no better place to learn than to be out in the world and away from a textbook. Michigan history is exciting.
St. Ignace, Michigan, on the southeast side of the Upper Peninsula, is Michigan’s second oldest city after Sault Ste. Marie. And did you know that “St. Ignace is the third oldest continuously inhabited city in the United States?” (City of St. Ignace) I did not until I went downtown and visited the Fort de Buade Museum and spoke with its curator Deborah. She told me. This came during her retelling of how the museum acquired the one hundred twenty portraits of Native chiefs and dignitaries displayed in its Captured Spirits exhibit. These images, commissioned by Superintendent of Indian Affairs Thomas McKenny between 1821 and 1837, undermine any assumptions we might make about our Native friends and their relationships and integration with white folks. The museum is a must-see — a really wonderful place.
The museum also brings to life the meeting place of the minds that is St. Ignace, a place where the great northern waters brought together French, English, Indian, American. The earliest inhabitants of the St.Ignace region were the Iriquois-speaking Wendat, better know to Michiganders as the Huron. Later, various groups of the Anishinaabe people — the Ojibwa and Ottawa — dominated the region. (Wikipedia) Modern life, integration, religion and imperialism shook down control of the fur trade, the land and its inhabitants. Nevertheless, it left a melting pot of mixed people with dark skin and blue eyes, and light skin with Native features. The shared history of American peoples is claimed and celebrated way up north in St. Ignace.
It was Father Jacques Marquette, however, who put St. Ignace on the modern map. A Jesuit priest and French explorer, Marquette founded many missions in Michigan, including the St. Ignace Mission in 1671, with the intention of converting Native peoples to Catholicism and imparting French culture. He later joined a French expedition to find the Mississippi River, and eventually the Jesuits abandoned the missions. Fur trading was a major industry in St. Ignace at the time, making it a source of power struggles among the French, Indians and British. Later on, the Ojibwa, who would dominate the region, joined forces with the French to fight the British in the Seven Years’ War, which the British won, giving them the upper hand in the fur trade. However, after the colonists’ victory in the American Revolutionary War, the village of St. Ignace was incorporated into the new America. As the fur trade declined during the War of 1812, so did St. Ignace’s importance, and all formerly interested parties retreated. (Wikipedia, City of St. Ignace)
Yet, as the fur industry met its fate, the new railroad connected St. Ignace to Detroit and other cities, and, thus, to a new way of life. Shipments of iron-ore and lumber made their way down south. Fishing boomed as well, and businesses and marinas began dotting the shoreline, filling in the gaps of the village of St. Ignace. Established as a city in 1883, it gained popularity as a summer playground, a direct connection to Mackinac Island and as a “rural heritage destination.” (City of St. Ignace, Wikipedia)
But remember, St. Ignace was not on our radar as a destination. Rather, it was the first of a few portals to get us through Michigan and out East. It was not supposed to be interesting. We just needed a place to unhitch, work and focus. We drove all day, west-to-east, across the Upper Peninsula on a Saturday in order to make it as close to the Lower Peninsula as possible. The closest we could make it was about two miles from the Mackinac Bridge at the St. Ignace KOA, which is how we came to know pretty, charming, important and historical little St. Ignace.
Camping in St. Ignace
Old school. That’s the St. Ignace KOA: It’s old school. It’s the kind of KOA that comes to mind when I think of KOAs — the A-frame main building, a small pool with a chain link fence, a dated playground and kinda crusty mini-golf course, people from all walks of life. But this KOA has a twist. It is a gateway between the Upper and Lower Peninsulas, as well as to other area attractions, such as to Mackinac Island and to the Mackinac Bridge; to Pictured Rocks and Tahquamenon Falls; to St. Ignace and Mackinaw City across the Bridge; the Hiawatha National Forest; the shores of Lake Michigan on the west side of the bridge and of Lake Huron to its east; to fishing; to history; to fudge and to pasties. St. Ignace is also en route on the Great Lakes Circle Tour. It’s also a place where lots of area residents take their families to play. On the weekends there is so much big-rig traffic that it sounds like a bus station. The St. Ignace KOA is a very popular place.
On one hand, the KOA in St. Ignace is quirky with its many small lots and even smaller firepits. We arrived and were placed on lot seven, perhaps the smallest of its kind. However, Scot made arrangements for us to move next door to site eight, which worked well for us. It is not that site seven or those like it are bad. Rather, it is likely that rigs have grown in size, making some of the sites at this KOA, tucked among the beautiful Hiawatha National Forest pines, out-of-date or better suited for pop-ups, smaller RVS like the Chalet, teardrops or tents. The KOA staff happily and effectively moved us to a site that could accommodate both of our rigs. We are still confused about the tiny firepits, sparsely lined with a few rocks. So we decorated a couple of them with the many rocks from Lake Superior that we brought with us for a more cozy effect.
Also, new to many of us, but not to some other more seasoned campers, were the shared electrical boxes, which created weaves of intertwined cables that crossed over and through the sites of neighboring campers. It’s not a big deal overall, but nowhere in the literature or upon arrival is it made clear that the electrical boxes are shared. It makes for awkward setup and some confusion about whose is whose. If it is possible, the St. Ignace campground experience could be heightened with a serious reconsideration and retooling of camper accommodations and expectations. There would be less work and time wasted for everyone involved if the KOA staff discontinued putting rigs over a certain length in spots where they don’t fit, as well as clearly indicating which utilities and picnic tables go with whom. We were undersold and wasted time, and the staff inconvenienced — repeatedly.
However and on the other hand, this campground is huge — huge — and, frankly, beautiful. The Hiawatha National Forest covers almost all of the eastern portion of the Upper Peninsula, and the St. Ignace KOA is stuck right in its southern-most tip. If you want a more quiet setting and don’t require a full hookup, request a campsite on the north side and visit during the week. There hardly will be a neighbor around you. The cabins are set in pockets in the forest, hidden at times, and utterly secluded. There are many other incredibly private areas for camping. There is something for everyone there.
The camp store is great and fully stocked with ice cream, eggs, canned goods, camping gear and U.P. tchotckes. Also for sale are tickets for the ferry to Mackinac Island. The staff is wonderful, and the owner is a really nice guy. The pool is fun and heated and highly utilized. There is wood for sale, and a helpful bulletin board with local activities posted, like the Fish Feast, which we attended downtown on the pier. Typically, there is an arcade and mini-putt-putt. (For the record, the putt-putt Mackinac Bridge is not to scale.) And the laundromat is great, just bring your quarters and a book as you will have to babysit the purple dryers, one quarter at a time.
Most of all, one cannot beat the location — location, location, location. Just two miles east off of Highway 2 is everything St. Ignace, and we took full advantage of it. We are so grateful to the forward thinkers of the region, who did not sell land to developers, but rather saved it for parks. To the west of the Mackinac Bridge is Bridge View Park, where one can wade in Lake Michigan waters and admire the bridge. On the east side of the bridge is the Straits State Park, outfitted in forest with campground, picnicking, hiking and a bridge view available from Lake Huron.
Head into downtown St. Ignace and one will find lighthouses, marinas, a charming city center and neighborhoods, lots of parks and boardwalks, and plenty of touristy things. Tons of history is there for one’s absorption and enrichment — OJibwa culture, French heritage, fishing lore and fur trading. At almost every corner, one can find a pastie shop. Our favorite was Suzy’s. She sells delicious vegetable pasties, among many other things, that hit the spot with Scot.
Another treasure is the Mackinac Straits Fish Company, our locavore fish utopia. Most of what they sell is caught off of the coast of Escanaba in Lake Michgian. The whitefish — a favorite of mine — is outstanding. We cooked ours simply on cedar planks, giving thanks to the fish and wishing Scot a happy birthday as we ate it directly from the board. There is a farm market, which I missed, and there are lots of ice cream and fudge shops for whatever sweet you seek. Luna and I visited my new favorite Fort de Buade Museum and the very charming bookstore.
And, of course, Luna and I traveled by rooster tail ferry to Mackinac Island. For those of you not in the know, “Mackinac” is pronounced “Mack-in-aw.” The ‘c’ in “Mackinac” came from the French spelling, but “aw” pronunciation, of the Ojibwa’s “Mitchimakinak” (mishi-mikinaak), meaning “big turtle.” (Wikipedia and Esteban from Mackinac Island Carriage Tours) So even though there are two spellings — Mackinac Bridge/Island and Mackinaw City — they are pronounced with the same “aw” ending, all owing to the mixed cultural history. This cross-cultural history is evident at Mackinac Island, too. The island, mostly made up of state forest, including the rare and declining tamarack tree and of which there are only five, is a beautiful northern Michigan Island and heavily-touristed destination. There are no motor vehicles of any kind, only horse-drawn carriages and bicycles. It’s a fun place to go and very busy in town. For more secluded adventures, ride a bike around eight-mile perimeter and go someplace hidden — on the lakeshore or in the woods — to find a personal paradise.
All of our visits to this part of northern Michigan have always started from the Lower Peninsula, but after this experience in St. Ignace, we will stay here again. Especially for another local Fish Feast to get to know the locals. St. Ignace is a small and charming place from which so many great big things can be seen and heard. We really enjoyed it. What a pleasant surprise.
What We Learned/Would Do Differently
- It’s a good idea to keep your holding tanks closed until you need to clear them out. Otherwise the sewer odor can come back through. Yikes. Hat tip to Tom, our wise and friendly neighbor for a couple days.
- “Get a wand to help rinse our black tank.”, Tom continued, “They have one at the camp store and it will help keep your tank healthy.”
- “Your grey/black sensors will never be accurate. Oh sure, they work well the first few times out in a new camper but after that, don’t pay attention to them.” -Tom
Tips and Tricks for Traveling with a Rig
- Ice keeps the beer cold.
We went locavore food crazy up north, because shopping and eating locally and seasonally is very important to us. Homemade pasties and fresh, local fish is abundant and accessible in St. Ignace, so we bought plenty for later. They serve as our “fast food,” our comfort food and for quick meal ideas when we don’t want to put a lot together. Still going through receipts, though.
- Rustic camping : $296 (37$/night)
- Groceries: $281
- Firewood: $15
- Travel fuel: $133
- Mackinac day trip: $121
- Pasties/Whitefish: $115
- Birthday: $43
- Fish Feast: $40
- Doughnuts: $6
Luna: I liked the bridge and the water and the horses and the carriage. That’s all.
Liza: Fun, charming, considerate St. Ignace. I learned a ton. I would love to stay there again.
Scot: My trail run started from the Straits Park and went into downtown. Nice but a bit sparse in between. I circled around instead of doubling back and returned in exactly one hour.