Once a year, people are allowed to walk across the Mackinac Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the western hemisphere and the fifth longest in the world. This long-standing Michigan tradition happens on Labor Day, and we were able to arrange our schedule so that I could participate in this year’s walk.
The “Mighty Mac”, as locals call it, is an engineering marvel that links Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas across the Straits of Mackinac. Built over a four-year period, the Bridge opened to traffic in November 1957. At just a few feet shy of five miles long, it was the longest suspension bridge anywhere in the world at that time.
Unlike some other suspension bridges, such as California’s Golden Gate Bridge, the Mighty Mac does not have pedestrian walkways, because the traffic lanes occupy almost the entire width of the structure. So the annual Labor Day Bridge Walk is a special treat.
This year was the 61st Bridge Walk. In the past, one lane of the Bridge has been kept open for vehicle traffic, while the walkers occupied the opposite lane. But this year, the Bridge was completely closed to traffic, and walkers could start from either St. Ignace on the north end or Mackinaw City on the south end. Other walkers told me that the absence of vehicles made for a more peaceful and less crowded walk. (By the way, that’s not a typo. “Mackinac” is pronounced like “Mackinaw”, with a “W” at the end, but the City and the Bridge are spelled differently. I think it’s mainly to confuse tourists like me.)
After a forecast all week for rain during the walk, Monday morning dawned with mild temperatures and cloudy skies, but no precipitation. The Bridge closed at 6:30 am, and the first walkers started across it at 7:00. We had spent the previous night in the RV park at the Kewadin Casino in St. Ignace. At about 6:45 am, I caught the casino’s courtesy shuttle to the starting line at the north end of the Bridge, and I was walking by 7:15 am.
I wanted to get an early start for a couple of reasons. First, anyone who didn’t make it to mid-span by 10:00 am would be turned back to their starting point at the nearest bridge tower. And second, I planned to take a ferry back from Mackinaw City to St. Ignace, and I wanted to be sure I got on one before they stopped running at 11:00 am.
The road on the Bridge is actually Interstate 75. It was pretty strange to be standing in the multiple lanes in front of the north toll plaza with only pedestrians around me.
Once I passed the toll plaza, I was on the Bridge itself. The north tower sure looked far away at this point, and it was–almost two miles distant!
There are four traffic lanes on the Bridge, two in each direction. The walkers used the outside lanes in each direction, leaving the inside lanes open for emergency vehicles. At the early hour that I started, nobody from Mackinaw City had yet made it across to our side, so the rightmost lane was still empty.
As I walked, I half expected to see many people in crazy costumes, much like I’ve observed at the Susan G. Komen 3-Day walks. But apparently most Michiganers are more reserved than that. I did, however, spot a trio of walkers in their Mackinac Bridge hats, as they were being interviewed by a television reporter.
Later on, as walkers from the south end began to appear, I saw Ronald McDonald, Waldo (now I know where he is!), a guy in a hot dog hat, and a few other characters.
More often, though, participants wore shirts festooned with embroidered souvenir patches from each of their past walks, or with designs in memory of past walkers, now deceased. One amazing woman’s shirt announced that she was on her 59th walk–quite a feat since this year was the 61st walk, so she’d been walking the Bridge since 1959, just two years after it opened.
Security was tight. Not only were vehicles physically barred from the Bridge, but most boat traffic beneath it was restricted as well. The Sheriff’s Department had boats stationed on either side of the Bridge, near the middle of the channel, with smaller boats patrolling up and down its length.
Still, at least one ship, which appeared to be a small passenger liner, was allowed to pass under the Bridge, although at a much slower speed than usual and escorted by a couple of law enforcement boats.
Law enforcement watched from the sky above us as well. And I’m pretty sure those weren’t violins in the black backpacks worn by the dozens of Michigan State Police officers stationed along the Bridge.
After about a mile and a half of walking, I got to the start of the suspended portion of the Bridge. Here at the “cable-bent pier”, the 24 1/2″ diameter main support cables coming from the towers bend on a concrete pier and then go into the enormous anchor piers that keep the cables under tension. (They’re supporting 104,000 tons of weight, so you can’t blame them for being tense. 😉
By this time, a steady stream of walkers who had started in Mackinaw City was flowing down the opposite side. Some of them, I knew, planned to turn around in St. Ignace and walk all the way back across the Bridge, covering a total of 10 miles.
As I got closer to the north tower of the Bridge, the inside lane decking changed from concrete to steel grates. At this point, I was glad not to be walking on the inside lane, except when I needed to get around someone, because it was pretty uncomfortable on my feet–and it was a bit unnerving to look down at the chilly waters 200 feet below me.
I reached the north tower a few minutes before 8:00 am, as the overcast began to break up, allowing some sunshine to reach the surface of Lake Huron. (The Bridge is the dividing line between Lake Huron on the east and Lake Michigan on the west.)
Finally, I got to the exact middle of the Bridge. This was the turnaround point for people who wanted to walk five miles and return to where they started, rather than having to shuttle between the two ends of the Bridge.
The Mackinac Bridge Authority even had steel ramps to make it easier for walkers pushing strollers and participants in wheelchairs–of which there were dozens–to cross over the hump in the middle of the road. I arrived at mid-span at 8:04 am, with almost two hours to spare before the turnaround points began to move toward the ends of the Bridge.
Naturally, many of the walkers gathered right at the middle of the span for photos. Not me, of course. 😉
It was all downhill from here, literally, which I appreciated after the gentle but long uphill walk on the other side.
Instead of the Bridge looming above and ahead of me, I now had a good view of Mackinaw City at the tip of the Lower Peninsula. It looked so close, but I knew it was still more than two miles away!
Fort Michilimackinac, an 18th-century French (and later British) fort and trading post, was built on the northern tip of the Lower Peninsula. It has been restored and exists today as an open-air historical museum called Colonial Michilimackinac. I had a great view of the park as I approached the southern end of the Bridge.
At the “finish line” (not that this was a race), each walker received a certificate attesting to the fact that he or she had participated in the 61st Annual Mackinac Bridge Walk.
The certificate was suitable for framing, I guess, but being a paperless household, we scanned it for posterity and then recycled it instead.
After buying an obligatory 61st Annual Mackinac Bridge Walk commemorative t-shirt, I walked another mile or so to the Star Line dock in Mackinaw City. That brought my total distance covered to just under 6 miles, according to my Fitbit.
I got to the dock at 9:30, and chatted with some other walkers while we waited for the 10 am walker shuttle ferry. From there, it was a leisurely 45-minute ride back to St. Ignace, with plenty of beautiful views of the waterfront and the Bridge.
I had a seat on the top deck on the bow. I was tempted to stand right on the bow and yell, “I’m king of the world!”, but I restrained myself. The little platform on the bow says “CAUTION – DO NOT STAND OR SIT”, so I guess I wasn’t the only one who’d had that idea.
We cruised past the berth of the US Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw, a fabled icebreaker responsible for opening the Great Lakes shipping lanes in the spring until a few years ago. It’s now a museum ship, and we’d toured it a few weeks earlier before we left the Lower Peninsula. It was cool to see it from the water. (Fun fact: the father of one of our RVing friends, Lisa from Always on Liberty, served on that very ship.)
As the Bridge came into view at 10:08 am, we could see that it was still packed with walkers. By this time, the turnaround points had been moved from mid-span out to the towers, but there were obviously walkers who were already past the towers who were still making their way across.
Fortunately, the water was calm, so the ride was smooth. As we passed the Bridge, we saw a bulk carrier ship approach and then pass underneath it, probably on its way to the Soo Locks in Sault St. Marie.
Finally, we arrived back in St. Ignace, where Cheryl met me at the dock and we went out for brunch.
I’m glad to have been one of the 25,000 people who participated in the 61st Bridge Walk. It’s clearly an important tradition in Michigan, and it will be an exciting memory from our summer in the state.