August 2004


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Presque Isle Lighthouses.

Our main reason for being in Alpena, MI, is to spend two weeks here with other RVers working on a Habitat for Humanity build, our first.  Alpena is on Lake Huron, approximately 90 miles southeast of Mackinac Island and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  The town itself is very picturesque with a scenic boardwalk jutting out onto Lake Huron, miles of bicycle paths and a bird sanctuary almost in the center of town.  The Great Lakes we’ve seen so far (Lakes Ontario and Huron) are so large, you forget you are looking at a fresh water lake and you expect the tide to go out any time.  There are two interesting and old (built 1840 & 1870) lighthouses just north at Presque Isle.  The oldest has some neat hands-on exhibits, like a manually operated foghorn, a large cast bell that you can gong, and several other seafaring/”lakefaring” gadgets.

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Thunder Bay River (Looking out of our back window).

The local Habitat affiliate made arrangements for us to stay at the county fairgrounds campground at reduced rates.  Our sites overlook Thunder Bay River and the bird sanctuary.  We’ve spotted several trumpeter swan families nesting or paddling around with their little ones. The 13-mile bicycle path is immediately behind our RVs, so one of these days, we’ll hop on our bikes and see where it meanders.

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Our Habitat Crew.

From Day One, we have been working our tails off.  There are thirteen of us, all staying at the fairgrounds, which in itself has been fun.  We can get together in the evening, or not.  We often have social hours, sometimes enjoying a campfire, root beer floats, and sharing stories of our RVing experiences.

As far as the build itself - well, we are building the house from the floor up.  The foundation and floor were already built.  In just three days, we've got the exterior walls and all the trusses up.  A local prison usually builds the walls to order and Habitat then just has to pay for the freight.  There was a snafu and the prison didn't get the lumber in time, promising and missing two deliveries, and then didn't tell the local affiliate till late Monday (we were expecting the delivered walls that day at 4:30) that the walls weren’t coming.  So the executive director of the local affiliate made the decision to buy the lumber locally and build them completely from scratch.  Good news/bad news.  Good news because then we don't have to unload those heavy walls (each at least 8' tall, 16' wide at a minimum, 2x6 framing, headers for doors & windows, all covered with OSB (particle board).  Bad news - we had to build it all.  But it's gone quickly.  Besides our gang, there have been a couple of other volunteers that have shown up.  Our construction supervisor is super, very patient, taking the time to show you how to do something, or how to do it quicker/easier.  He's not just supervising but working with us.  While we were waiting for the non-existent walls on Monday, we worked on two other Habitat houses that were in the siding stage or even further along.  So we helped install vinyl siding, built the front porch, installed soffit & fascia and set drywall screws.  Lucille learned how to use a chop saw and a power nail gun (why do Mel Gibson & Danny Glover keep coming to mind--one of the Lethal Weapon movies where they were nailing the bad guys with that gun???)  And we did lots of hammering—2x4s, 2x6s, headers, bucks, cripples, OSB (all construction terms we are learning).  Lucille bought a cheapie hammer at WalMart that isn't big enough to swat a fly so she’s borrowed whatever hammer was left laying around. Larry has his own favorite and he's spent a lot of time dangling on top of the exterior walls nailing 2 x 6 headers across the tops and helping to install the trusses.

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In our two week build we went from a bare deck to a finished exterior.  Inside walls were framed.

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The work is hard and you're only asked or expected to do only what you can.  No one gets upset if you take extra breaks.  We start at 8 am, break around 10 am, then again at noon when lunch arrives, try to quit around 3 pm, gathering our tools.  It doesn't sound like a long day but it is when you're not used to working so hard and when it's so manual.  Luckily the weather has been cooperative and not too warm.  We did get rained out one day right at quitting time and another day had to wear rain ponchos during a quick drizzle. 

The local churches get together and provide lunches at the building sites and we haven't starved yet. For some reason, those nails get harder to drive in after our lunch break.  We all start to feel worn out around then. So when quitting time comes, we drag home and hit the showers.  But Shelley has to be walked first so we squeeze out a little more energy.  One morning, we were comparing our aches and pains and Lucille asked if it gets better as our days here go on and was told that we'll be feeling this way till we're done - oh joy!  But you forget about your screaming muscles when you work with the future homeowner, see him grab his camera as the walls or rafters start going up, see him proudly show you where the kitchen and bedrooms will be. 

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Habitat for Humanity provides a "hand up, not a hand out."

Habitat for Humanity is a Christian organization so the day starts with a scripture reading and blessing as well as grace before our meals. The executive director is a pastor herself and stops by whenever she can. 

Work on a Habitat house doesn't usually go this quickly.  Volunteers typically come out on Saturdays and maybe one or two days during the week, so it's slow going.  But when you have a group our size or bigger committed to working there at least 10 days, a lot gets done during that time, especially when most of the RVers have already done this and are more experienced than some of the volunteers that just come out for an hour or two.  It's no surprise to have the local community be supportive by providing lunches and offering discounts while the RVers are in town. 

Week Two of our first Habitat build seemed to be less strenuous than the first week – possibly because our muscles were getting used to the workout, possibly because the most manual work, such as hoisting the trusses and walls, was done the first week.  Besides the sumptuous lunches brought in every day by local churches, the future homeowners got together and provided a hot lunch one day, welcome because the temp had cooled some. 

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Socials added to the camaraderie and team spirit.

By the end of the week, our team, consisting of thirteen RVers, some of the local volunteers and a great site supervisor, accomplished far more than what was expected, in spite of the glitch on the first day.  We walked away Friday afternoon with all exterior walls up and covered in vinyl siding, all soffit and fascia installed, the porch built, the roof shingled, all windows and doors installed, and most of the interior walls built.   What a great feeling to have accomplished so much on our first build!  The key to our success was the team itself--our excellent team leaders (John and Noreta who helped foster our cohesiveness with nightly happy hours and campfires), our construction site supervisor (Craig, who worked side by side with us and patiently taught us new skills), the local volunteers and most importantly, the camaraderie and willingness of all to work well together, doing whatever had to be done.  Several people noted that we didn’t pair off as husband/wife teams—we all just jumped in wherever we were needed, doing whatever we were most comfortable doing.  Larry spent the last couple of days putting shingles on the roof with Mickey and JoAnn, two of our women who had no problem with heights.  Lucille and Pen got proficient on the table saw, providing soffit and vinyl sheets cut to order, including the angle cuts for a peak’s roof line.  It was a wonderful two weeks and a very rewarding use of our time.  Muscles have quit aching and bruises have healed--we’re looking forward to doing this again in October in Guyton, GA. 

While in Alpena, we attended the annual steam engine and antique tractor show – what a fun way to see mechanical history in action.   Among the most memorable engines--a gasoline-powered 1901 fire engine water pumper; a thresher, a sawmill, a shakes (wood shingles) cutter, all belt-driven by huge steam-engine tractors; and a cement mixer, that resembled more an assembly line than the large mixing tanks used today.  The highlight of the afternoon was the antique tractor parade – all shapes, sizes, ages and styles chugging past the reviewing stand.

Fellow team member Sam entertained us one evening by putting on a Christian magic show.  Until that evening, we didn’t know that an organization of Christian magicians actually existed.  Sam held everyone’s attention while getting a Biblical message across.  We attended a church in the park service on our last Sunday there.  Alpena has a beautiful band shell lakeside on Lake Huron.  The view from the hillside, overlooking the lake, was inspiring and breathtaking.  What also made the service special was the sermon given by the local Habitat affiliate’s executive director, Karen, who is an associate pastor at a Presbyterian church.  A few nights earlier at the same location, we had attended at concert put on by the Grand Traverse Pipe and Drum Corps, consisting primarily of bagpipes and snare drums.  Members of the corps explained the history behind the tunes they played, their uniforms, and their equipment.  Did you know bagpipes have kitty litter inside to help keep the moisture level manageable? 

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The Mackinac Bridge to Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

From Alpena, MI, we headed north, crossing into the Upper Peninsula (UP) on the Mackinac Bridge.  The Mighty Mac is at the junction of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron and links the UP to the rest of the state.  Opened in 1957, it is considered the 8th wonder of the world.  Approx 5,000,000 vehicles annually cross its  five mile length. 

UP highlights:

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The Locks in Sault Ste. Marie.

We visited Sault Ste. Marie to tour the Soo Locks.  St. Mary’s River, known as St. Mary’s Rapids, is the only water connection between Lake Superior and other Great Lakes, falling about 21’ from the level of Lake Superior to the level of the lower lakes.  Construction of the locks was made necessary to navigate the rapids.  One of the busiest lock systems in the world, more than 11,000 vessels, carrying up to 90 million tons of cargo (iron ore, coal, grain, stone) annually navigate the locks.   Factoid: capacity of one 1000-foot lake freighter (approx 60,000 tons) is equal to six 100 car trains with 10,000-ton capacity each or 2,308 large trucks of 26-ton capacity each.  It is estimated that the Soo Locks water route reduces transportation costs by an average of more than $4.90/ton with annual costs savings to the nation of approx $450 million.

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USCG Life Boat Station and Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point.

Next was Whitefish Point to visit the Great Lakes’ Shipwreck Museum.  Among the exhibits is a memorial room to some of the many ships that sank nearby, including the Edmund Fitzgerald, an ore carrier, in 1975.  The reasons for that ship sinking remain a mystery even today.  Also on the premises is a restored USCG Lifeboat Station with the boats and equipment used to assist ships in peril along the Shipwreck Coast.   

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Mackinac Island is great for walking or bicycling since motorized vehicles are not permitted.

Mackinac Island, accessible only by ferry, private watercraft, or plane.   No motorized vehicles are allowed on the island except for emergency vehicles but horses and bicycles are everywhere.  We left our bikes behind thinking the weather was going to be bad but it was a gorgeous day; riding the bikes on the island would have been great – next trip.  We did a walking tour from the center of town to Arch Rock, a natural formation spanning 50 feet and rising 146 feet above the water formed thousands of years ago by wind and water eroding the soft rock below, leaving only the rock which forms the arch.  Our hike took us to see Sugar Loaf, another natural formation (a stack that rises 75 feet above the ground).   Centuries ago a lake covered all but the center of the island and Sugar Loaf was then a small, eroding island cut off from the surrounding land area.  When the water receded, the stack was left standing as a tower of rock. 

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Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore overlooks Lake Michigan.

Our next destination was back to the Lower Peninsula of Michigan to the Traverse City area and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.   A Chippewa Indian legend explains the name:

 “Long ago, in the land that is now Wisconsin, a mother bear and her two cubs were driven into Lake Michigan by a raging forest fire.  They swam and swam, but soon the cubs tired and lagged far behind.  Mother bear finally reached the opposite shore and climbed to the top of the bluff to watch and wait for her offspring.  But the cubs drowned.  Today, Sleeping Bear, a solitary dune in Michigan overlooking Lake Michigan, marks the spot where mother bear waited.  Her hapless cubs are the Manitou Islands.” 

We snagged a nice campsite at the Platte River Campground, part of the national park system.  Within the campground is an old railroad trail converted to a hiking path, about 1.3 miles long, from the campground to Lake Michigan shoreline.  It was moderately strenuous as we got closer to the dunes and soft sand but worth it for the view of Lake Michigan awaiting us as we crested the last dune.  Shelley enjoyed the walk and barking at the waves on the lake.

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The Life Saving Service was a precursor to the Coast Guard.  The cannon, left, fires a lifeline.  The life line is wrapped along the pegs shown in the manner shown to ensure the lifeline does not get tangled.  (The pegs are removed after the line is securely in its storage box.

The Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive is a 7-mile loop with a great view of Lake Michigan, Sleeping Bear Dune, and nearby smaller lakes.  Not far from the drive is the Sleeping Bear Point Coast Guard Station Maritime Museum (interesting exhibits telling the story of the US Life Saving Service which then came to be the USCG).  We watched a video of the breeches buoy rescue method.  A line, about 300 yards long, was shot from a Lyle cannon, then lifelines were secured to the beach and the rescued person would get back to shore via the breeches buoy, which was a pair of canvas pants sewn to a life ring.  On display are the surfboats used to row out to wrecks to help rescue.  Sleeping Bear Point also has a display of antique boats, an old general store and a blacksmith forge.  The forge is still active, making replacement parts for the local exhibits.

The ranger programs are the best part of staying in national and other federal parks.  One evening’s program put on by Ranger Marie was on stars that can be seen that time of the year from that part of MI.  Another evening, Ranger Verne spoke about the birds, animals and fish found in that area.  He brought several pelts for a hands-on experience.  We learned about beavers, skunks, porcupines, black/brown/gray/13 stripe squirrels, pileated woodpeckers.  This bird, the largest of its species, has a 13” tongue, longer than its body, that coils into the back of its head and is extended searching for bugs inside trees. Verne told us that there have been signs of cougar in the area, a new species there, with a story about a park volunteer that was followed on her trail walk by a cougar.  She kept her cool (how???), made herself look big, calmly walked out the 1.5 miles back to the parking lot.  One morning, Ranger Marie, along with a volunteer, led us on a hiking tour around parts of Bass Lake, learning more about beavers, their habitat, dams & lodges, as well as describing different plants, trees, and finding the remnants of turtle eggs.  The volunteer that helped Marie was Eleanor, the woman who had had the cougar as a hiking companion.  What a surprise to see how small she is – very gutsy! 

As August came to a close, we hit the road again, continuing south to Goshen, IN, to spend some quiet time catching up on ‘stuff’ until the Escapees’ Fall Escapade starting on September 12th.  More later on our volunteer work at the Escapade.


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