INDIAN RIVER, Mich. — In the late 1800s, wealthy families from Ohio and other Midwest states would travel by rail, boat and horse-drawn wagons through rugged wilderness to reach this tiny lakeside town in northern Michigan.
Today the rustic community is not much bigger, still set among seemingly endless stands of pine trees and an intricate system of serene rivers and lakes. But now it is easily accessible and more than living up to the Michigan slogan, "Water Wonderland."
Indian River lies at the southern tip of Burt and Mullet lakes, two of the largest lakes in the state, about a four-hour drive north of Detroit. It is a center for water sports and outdoor activities, from fishing and bicycling to canoeing and boating. (The annual National Championship Outboard Marathon Races will be held on Indian River Aug. 12-13.)
Because northern Michigan is almost as well known for its fudge as its vacation appeal, visitors have come to be known as "fudgies" by the locals.
Via Highway or River
Luckily for the fudgies, northern Michigan is easy to navigate by land or water. The main highway, Interstate 75, extends from one end of the state to the other, passing through Indian River and into the Upper Peninsula.
To get a feel for the area's rugged past, the adventurous shouldn't miss taking a canoe trip down the Sturgeon River. The Sturgeon wriggles its way across wilderness, through Indian River and into Burt Lake. There are two canoe liveries in town, and because both are owned by the same family, the rates are identical and so are the routes.
Viewing the scenery is exhilarating, but the canoe ride is occasionally rough where fallen trees have created challenging obstacles. Fudgies and other novice paddlers should start with a one-hour trip, allowing time to bail out the canoe.
Fishing Boat--or Pontoon
For those who prefer a more substantial craft, River Junction Marina on the Indian River rents fishing boats and equipment, Burt Lake Marina and Crooked River Marina (in nearby Alanson) rent pontoons. Indian River, a long, meandering connection between Burt Lake and Mullet Lake, is a popular route for fishing or sightseeing.
At piers along the way the boater can buy gas and supplies. One pier belongs to Pinehurst Inn in Indian River, a rustic bar/motel that's more widely known for its lounge, food and, on some evenings, live entertainment.
If seasickness should set in, there's Burt Lake State Beach, where landlubbers can camp or picnic beneath the pines on Burt Lake or sunbathe on the beach.
But outdoor recreation isn't the only draw at Indian River. It also can be used as a central base to visit the Upper Peninsula and other northern Michigan attractions.
Within a 45-minute drive are historic St. Ignace and Mackinaw City, both gateways to Mackinac Island. And 1 1/2 hours away are the Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie, a hub of trade and shipping activity in the mid-1800s.
When dining in northern Michigan you'll notice that portions are plentiful and inexpensive. A good place in Indian River for a home-style meal is Christopher's, where most meals are under $10.
Waterfront lodging in Indian River runs about $30 to $40 a night; campgrounds include Burt Lake State Park, Spring Lake (formally KOA) and Jelly Stone Park.
If a rustic motel in the woods or cottage on the river isn't your idea of a vacation, St. Ignace and Mackinaw City are larger towns where Best Westerns and Ramada Inns will take you out of the woods.
Mackinaw City is the northernmost city of the lower peninsula (at the "tip of the mitt"); St. Ignace is the southernmost of the Upper Peninsula. The 8,614-foot suspension Mackinac Bridge, "Mighty Mac" over the Straits of Mackinac, connects the two peninsulas where Lakes Michigan and Huron meet.
View of the Island
St. Ignace is a little less congested and easier to navigate than Mackinaw City. A cluster of contemporary beachfront motels, on State Street overlooking Lake Huron, offer a clear view of Mackinac Island for $48 to $86 a night.
Nearby is Al's Pancake House, once a private home, on a hill with an impressive view of Mackinac Island. Blueberry pancakes made with fresh blueberries, sausage gravy with homemade biscuits and three-egg omelets make it tough to eat a light breakfast.
From St. Ignace or Mackinaw City the public ferry lines--Shepler's, Arnold's or Star Line--take you on the 15-minute ride to Mackinac Island. All charge $9 for adults and $5.75 for children 6-12, round trip.
Setting foot on Mackinac Island is like taking a step into the past, when Ft. Mackinac stood guard over the bustling northern fur trade. No motorized vehicles are allowed on the island. Transportation is by foot, bicycle or horse-drawn taxis.