Great Lakes Road Trip: We Were on a Mission

The Plan

Over an 8-year period, I schlepped my kids through all 50 U.S. states. I started working on that year’s summer adventure in January creating a 6–8-week itinerary of fun and adventure. This is the story of our “Mission” on a Great Lakes road trip.

Map of our Great Lakes road trip route.
The Great Lakes road trip route

This particular summer we had a plan to see Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Iowa. The only problem was that my oldest was doing soccer tryouts for her high school team the first two weeks after school let out. Faced with paying for two weeks of camp for the other two girls, I hit upon the idea of saying “Hey” to my cousins in Toledo and then heading out to tour the Great Lakes. The goal was to get some sand and water from each of the five lakes and maybe find some other fun things to do. After tryouts, we would grab the eldest in Pittsburgh and hit the upper mid-west. So I spent a couple of days drawing up a travel itinerary and away we went.

The First Three Lakes

Lake Erie

We flew to Pittsburgh, drove to the cousins for some catch-up time and then headed out on the first leg of our Great Lakes road trip. We found a beach just north of Toledo for our first water and sand acquisition. Both the sand and the water were gross, but we bottled them up anyway as proof of life. Then it was off to Detroit. As I recall, the city was eerily vacant with a kind of a post-apocalyptic vibe. In any event, we had a very unmemorable visit at the art museum and then headed out of Dodge. That was ten years ago and if things have changed please let me know.

Lake Michigan

Next up on the travel itinerary of our tour was Lake Michigan and Sleeping Bear Dunes. Sleeping Bear Dunes is a National Park that sits on the Eastern edge of Lake Michigan. It has some decent hiking trails, but the main focal point is, you guessed it, the dunes. Well, more like small hills that were exactly the right height for kids to run up and roll down over and over again. I had no idea all the places sand could hide in the human body. It was a blast and it wore everybody out. We remembered to grab our sand and water which looked noticeably cleaner than the Erie samples. The girls also acquired their 32nd Junior Ranger badges.

Lake Superior

The Lake Superior sunset was amazing.
Lake Superior sunset

The next day consisted mostly of a 5-hour car ride up to Lake Superior. We made it about an hour or so before sunset. As we arrived, my back seized up and I started to rethink long car rides. We pulled over as soon as we could and “got the goods” ninja style. We probably could have just sauntered to the shoreline. Doing the sneaky added a bit of much-needed excitement to the experience.

Lake Huron

Natasha Gets Weird

For a bit of fun on our Lake Huron quest, we decided to head over to Mackinac (pronounced Mack-in-aw) Island for the day. It was not on our road trip itinerary but hey, ferry rides are always a good time, right? At about this point in our trip our Garmin GPS, whom we christened Natasha, started getting real interested in hunky construction workers and neighborhoods where you could get your clandestine drug of choice. I say this because she started routing us through the sketchiest streets and past every single road construction site she could find. 

You need to take a ferry to get to Mackinac island.
On the ferry to Mackinac Island

Natasha’s fixation on the hunky guys was entertaining. Her need to drive through drug hoods was not. Now, I’m from Baltimore and I know sketchy when I see it. Some of these streets were worse than the ones back home. On one street, I started blowing through stop signs just to get out of there. When my youngest informed me that this was illegal and that a police officer would pull me over, I replied, “Honey, having a police escort about now would be fantastic and will you get your head down before you get shot!” 

Mackinac Island

Mackinac Island reminded me of Bar Harbor, Maine but without cars. Crowds of tourists wandered around in their own little worlds. Admittedly, I do not do well with crowds, especially when I need to navigate through throngs of inattentive people while not losing any of my children. When faced with this situation, my go-to is to find high ground and go around.   Lucky for me, Mackinac is a big island hill. On top of that hill is an old fort unsurprisingly called Fort Mackinac. So up we went to play some old-time games, put on some old-time clothes, and otherwise pretend we were soldiers stationed here in the 1800s.  

Experiencing life at Fort Mackinac includes dressing up and playing 18th Century games.
Dress-up at Fort Mackinac

Having exhausted the 1800’s cosplay possibilities, we rented bikes and toured the island. The youngest declared she was taking a hard pass on the ride around the island adventure and promptly sat down. Hmmm, what mom trick should I use in this situation? Ah! The old “let’s just see what is around that bend and then we will head back” worked like a charm. Needless to say, we always had to check out what was around the next bend and before we knew it, we had made the whole circle. 

Before the “you tricked me” drama had a chance to start, I suggested a celebratory ice cream. Bribery:  It’s what moms do to survive, am I right? Ten minutes before the last ferry was set to leave, we grabbed our samples and headed back to the car. We had strategically parked in a spot where Natasha could have a full day’s fix of watching the guys in the orange vests and yellow hats do manly things to the road.

Historic Mill Creek

About 7-miles from the ferry we came upon the Historic Mill Creek Discovery Center. This was not on our trip itinerary but what the heck, let’s check it out. Basically, this was one of those little villages that bring history to life. The period actors recreate life in the village and show how people lived without all our new-fangled technology. We got to see how the stream turned the mill wheel, which in turn ran the sawmill. Before we knew it, we were having “another learning experience.”

Exploring the Canopy

The best part of Historic Mill Creek was the treetop nature adventure tour. After being clipped onto a safety line, we walked along wobbly rope bridges and discovered the trees that made good tea and the plants that cured a headache. Canopy walking was old hat for both M.E. and Celia. Their favorite summer camp back home is all about the tree top obstacle course. Needless to say, the Discovery Village Nature Adventure was going to be no problem for them. I was a different story.

Doing a zip line when you are terrified of heights.
The zip line wimp.

Let’s start with heights. They are not really my thing so enough said. I’m a klutzy person and there are days when just walking on level ground can be a challenge. Trekking across a wobbly bridge? Yikes! The end of the tour involved a zip line careening over a pond to a dock an awfully long way off. Ok, a couple of hundred feet but still…. On the one hand, this whole set-up terrified me. On the other, I believe it is good to show your kids how you can overcome fear and persevere. This is the BS I tell myself when I have to be brave but would rather hide under the blankets. More importantly, I wanted to avoid the young whippersnappers laughing at me for the rest of the trip. 

Terror on a Zip Line

Why is fear so immobilizing? I mean, being afraid of something that is happening in the moment is one thing. Fearing what might happen is just made-up nonsense because it hasn’t even happened. In any event, I managed to find my inner Rob Schneider and channel a “you can do it!” chant until I stopped being afraid and started enjoying myself. But then came the zip line.

Rob Schneider gif "You can do it!"

I was so going to wimp out on that zip line. I was going to make up some kind of chest pain thing or pretend to faint or something just to get out of doing it. Although in retrospect, the EMT folks would probably have just done a controlled descent down the zip line anyway with me in a basket. 

I was terrified, but I could hear the girls screaming for me to “Come on, please, please, please, don’t be afraid” on the platform below. Ugh! Triple big phooey ugh! I jumped screaming in terror until I was smiling with such joy that I took out both kids when I crashed into them at the end. Lesson learned: Scream until you laugh! 

The Final Acquisition – Lake Ontario

The final lake on our tour was Lake Ontario near Toronto in Canada. The last time I went to Canada without the husband, the border crossing people treated me to a raft of suspicion that I was abducting the bickering lovelies in the back seat. Seriously, kidnappers would have duct taped their mouths shut. Border patrol finally let me through after I got my husband on the line and he gave is consent. As a former lawyer who did a bunch of divorce work, I should have known this could have been an issue. 

Centreville amusement park on Toronto Island is a fun place to spend the day.
Centreville Amusement Park on Toronto Island

Child abduction in divorce cases is a serious problem and at the time, countries were starting to address it during the border crossing process. When single parents with kids tried to cross the border, the guards would give you the third degree and practically demand proof that you were not abducting your children. In other words, I needed a notarized note from my husband giving me permission to take our children into another country. I understood it but it still rankled in a bratty elementary school kind of way. In any event, on this trip I made darn sure I had my signed permission slip.

A Cool Dude and a Crazy Mom at a Border Crossing

We pulled up to the border crossing in Sarnia just across the St. Claire River and I am digging around my backpack trying to find the damn note and not having any luck. It is now my turn at the booth so off I go. The conversation with the young guy who looked exactly like every cool camp counselor your kids ever had went like this:

Natural arches are hard to find in the wild. Arch Rock on Mackinac Island.
Arch Rock on Mackinac Island

Border Guy: “Good afternoon ma’am [I’m not that old I think to myself], where are you headed today?”

Me: “We are heading to Toronto.”

Border Guy looks at my Maryland driver’s license questionably and says, “Why are crossing here and not in New York?” 

Ah, I understand the confusion. It would indeed make more sense for someone from Maryland to head to Toronto via the New York crossing.

Me: “We have been traveling here in Michigan.”

Border Guy relaxing a bit, “Ah, OK. What brings you to Canada?”

Without EVEN thinking about it, out of my mouth comes, “We are on a mission.”

Clearly, this is not something one says to a border guard because he immediately perked up and got all serious and said, “Come again?”

Niagara Falls is so much more than the falls but the falls are spectacular.
Niagara Falls from inside the Schoellkopf Power Plant

Realizing my unfortunate turn of phrase, I reply extremely fast in one of those high pitched I am so trying to get out of trouble voices, “We are trying to get sand and water from all five Great Lakes like one of those goofy weird quest things you do with your kids.” 

In response, he called me an extra cool mom and wished me all the best.

Of course, not being able to keep my mouth shut, I blurt out, “Do you need to see the note from my husband?” 

Boarder Guard replies: “Note?”

Me: “Yeah, you know so you know that I am not abducting my kids or anything.”

Boarder Guard: “Well, are you?”

Me: “No.”

Border Guard: “Alrighty then, good day, eh?”

Tornadoes and a Giant Cheeto

We did it! Water and sand from all 5 Great Lakes.
Mission Complete

I floored it and off we went to Toronto and our last lake. We finished our quest on Centre Island and made it back to shore just before a tornado struck. We were grabbing dinner and somewhat oblivious to the whole thing until furniture started flying past the window.  The storm left some minor property damage in its wake but that was enough of an excuse to convince my kids that taking an elevator up over 1,800 feet on the outside of a building just to grab dessert at the 360 Restaurant in the CN Tower was probably not a good idea. Obviously, it would have been fine but heights. 

After the obligatory night in Niagara Falls, we grabbed the oldest, hopped a plane, and headed off to explore a big ball of twine in Minnesota and a giant Cheeto in Iowa but that is different story for another time. I am always down for some great border crossing tales so please share yours.

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Want more stories like this? Check out the Where in the World series.

By Carolyn

Carolyn is a seasoned traveler who finds amazing things to explore wherever she goes. Carolyn has explored all 50 states in the U.S. and has traveled widely throughout Canada and Europe, including Iceland. For over 15 years, Carolyn has been helping people make the most of their get-a-ways by personalizing their travel adventures. She believes "tailored to you" is the only way to make the most of your next adventure.

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