Tag Archives: Grand Traverse Commons

Merry Christmas — and Happy Snowshoeing!

My daughter Liz (and some bearded guy) snowshoeing  near Sabin Pond on the Boardman River.

My daughter Liz (and some bearded guy) snowshoeing near Sabin Pond on the Boardman River.

By MIKE NORTON

If you like snow  (and I do!) this is turning into a great winter. There’ve been lots of lovely lake-effect flurries, with big fat flakes tumbling out of a sunny blue sky, and the weather’s been cold and dry enough to keep it all from turning into heavy wet glop.

I was thinking all these things over the weekend while shoveling the driveway out for the third time — and I have a very long driveway. But it’s been such great fun to wriggle into the snowsuit, put some Christmas music on the iPod and spend a couple of hours piling snow up on either side. Maybe I’ll be tired of it by March, but if you’ve got to have winter you might as well have snow to play in!

Living Nativity

Living Nativity

Speaking of Christmas, one of the most touching displays of reverence for this beautiful holiday can be spotted tonight on the south side of Grandview Parkway, when Bayview Wesleyan Church presents its 40th annual Live Nativity display. Each year costumed volunteers silently reenact the birth of Christ at night on the lawn in front of the church, surrounded by live sheep, goats and other farm animals. My kids always loved it — especially the animals! (Tonight’s display will be from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.)

The kids are grown now, of course. While my son Jacob and I were shoveling the driveway, his girlfriend was trying out snowshoes for the first time. She’s from Dallas, so the sheer amount of snow we’re getting was a novelty for her — there was much laughing and shrieking going on as she learned how to navigate without doing a faceplant into a snowbank.

Actually, it doesn’t take a lot of skill or training to use snowshoes. They’re easy to slip on and off, and they’re less likely to suddenly slide out from under you than skis. That’s why I seem to find myself doing more snowshoeing than cross-country skiing these days. Apparently, I’m not the only one; snowshoeing has become America’s top snowsport choice. Last winter over 5 million Americans strapped on a pair of snowshoes and went for a winter hike, and the sport has grown by around 17 percent each year over the past decade.

Traverse City is full of great places for snowshoeing, and one of the best is just south of town on the Muncie Lakes Pathway.  This scenic DNR trail system along the Boardman River, with its rolling forested terrain and small lakes, is a microcosm of the area’s natural beauty and its special winter delights.

On the Muncie Lakes Pathway.

On the Muncie Lakes Pathway.

The nice thing about the pathway is that it provides a variety of loops and distances so you can easily customize a snowshoe excursion to meet your own endurance and ability levels.  Distances range from an easy two-mile hike to treks of up to 8 or 9 miles, and it’s always possible to take off cross-country and boldly go wherever you like.  A couple of nice side trips along the pathway include snowshoeing along the frozen Muncie Lakes and out across the ice to visit the small islands that dot the lakes, and accessing overlooks of the Boardman River and valley from high bluffs.

At the Pelizzari Natural Area

At the Pelizzari Natural Area

Some of my other favorite trail systems include the trail system at Mission Point at the tip of the Old Mission Peninsula, the Pelizzari Natural Area off Center Road, the Lost Lake Pathway near Interlochen, the 3,500-acre Sand Lakes Quiet Area near Williamsburg and the Vasa Pathway, one of the finest cross-country ski trails in the Midwest. Inside the city, the 300-acre Grand Traverse Commons features great skiing and snowshoeing in parklike grounds among century-old, European-style buildings and stands of old-growth pines.

Young snowshoer at Sleeping Bear.

Young snowshoer at Sleeping Bear.

But seriously, some of the best snowshoeing in the area is at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which has eight marked trails, some leading up to panoramic overlooks high above the Lake Michigan. I just found out about one that I haven’t tried yet, and as soon as I’ve had a chance to check it out I’ll give you a report.

If you’ve never tried snowshoeing before, the National Lakeshore offers a great way to experience it as a first-timer. Starting this weekend, park rangers will be holding regular guided .  snowshoe hikes every Saturday at 1 p.m. through the end of February.  Just meet up at the park Visitor Center in Empire, where you’ll get a crash course in snowshoeing before heading out to the trail — and if you don’t have snowshoes, they’ll loan you a pair at no charge.  You’ll have to purchase a park entrance pass if you don’t already have one, and you should make reservations since the hikes are limited to 30 participants.  Call 231-326-5134, ext. 328 for details and to make reservations.

There are a lot of places in the area where you can rent snowshoes for a small fee, by the way. Brick Wheels, the Don Orr Ski n’ Beach Haus, GT Cycle and Timber Ridge RV & Recreation Resort are several outlets that have snowshoe rentals available.

In Traverse City, Fat Bikes Make Cycling a Four-Season Sport

Fat Biking on the Vasa Trail

Fat Biking on the Vasa Trail

By MIKE NORTON

This is the way winter is supposed to look. Snowy!

I’m looking out my window today at a wide expense of white that leads out past the marina breakwall to the slate-blue water of Grand Traverse Bay. Behind me, leaning against the office wall, is my bicycle — which I wasn’t smart enough to ride back home while the weather was still dry.

If I had a Fat Bike, now….

I’m seeing Fat Bikes everywhere these days, zipping along on the street and through the woods at all time of the year – but especially in winter. These specially-adapted mountain bikes, with large tires capable of cycling on snow and sand — have become a normal part of the local winter landscape. In this bicycle-obsessed town, where our winters are long and our bike trails are even longer, they’re turning cycling into a four-season sport.

fat tire biking on VASA - CopyNamed for their oversized tires, which come in widths of 3.7 or 4.5 inches, Fat Bikes were developed in Alaska only a few years ago and  have spread rapidly to the rest of the nation. Industry analysts expect Fat Bike ownership to double in the next year from 10,000 to 20,000. Warm-weather cyclists find them useful for riding on sandy beaches and desert trails, but their clearest advantage is on snow.

It makes sense that the interest has been particularly intense in this neck of the woods. Traverse City is a favorite year-round destination for outdoor sports enthusiasts of all kinds. Given the opportunity to add cycling to their repertoire of winter sports, they’ve wasted no time embracing the Fat Bike phenomenon.

“Fat Biking is the answer for a lot of people that don’t currently have a winter sport or are looking to try a new one,” says Jason Lowetz, co-owner of Einstein Cycles, one of the area’s biggest Fat Bike dealers. “There’s no learning curve.  You just get a bike and ride and have fun.”

Fat Bikers tend to be a sociable group, too. Lowetz’s shop sponsors weekly group rides for Fat Bikers that draw anywhere from 20 to 30 people, and there’s a popular winter ride/potluck event called Friday Night Lights where cyclists ride together in the dark forest south of town and get together afterward for food. There’s also the popular New Year’s Day 25K Fat Bike Ride, now in its third year.

Fat Bikers have already made some major ripples in Traverse City’s cycle racing community. Last year they created the Northern Michigan Fat Bike Series – three winter races held in difference parts of the region – and in 2013 Fat Bikes had their own category in Traverse City’s prestigious Iceman Cometh Challenge (the largest point-to-point race in the US).

In 2014 the venerable North American Vasa Festival of Races, usually reserved for cross-country skiers, is hosting a Fat Bike race, the Feb. 8 King Vasa, on the popular Vasa Pathway in the Pere Marquette State Forest.

Relations between skiers and Fat Bikers are not without occasional conflicts (in warm slushy 1461881_612229598814381_385736863_nconditions the cycles can damage groomed trails) but in Traverse City the two groups are trying to find ways to coexist peacefully. One fruit of that talk is a program called “Fat Bike Fridays” that opens the Vasa Pathway to Fat Bikers on Fridays in wintertime. In the long run, though, they acknowledge that the best long-term solution will be to create dedicated trails for winter cyclists.

One Fat Bike-friendly spot on the Vasa Pathway is the Timber Ridge RV Resort, which offers bike rentals and special Fat Bike passes for its own lighted trail system. But winter cyclists can be found on many other trails in the Traverse City area – from the steep but well-packed hills of the Grand Traverse Commons to the 15-mile Leelanau Trail between Traverse City and the nearby village of Suttons Bay.

The bikes don’t come cheap – a ateel or aluminum-frame model will run $1,600 to $3,300 and a titanium/carbon model ranges $3,300 to $5,500 – but they’re easy to rent in the Traverse City Area. Einstein Cycles offers Fat Bikes for $25 for two hours, $45 for four hours or $60 for six hours, Brick Wheels rents them out for $35 per half-day or $60 a day, Suttons Bay Bikes offers rentals for $50 per day, and Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak in Empire rents them at just $10 for two hours or $40 per day.

“Anyone who can ride a bike can ride a Fat Bike,” says Lowetz. “We’re still out riding every chance we get and it’s never a ‘weather pending’ type of ride.  We ride in all types of weather and have an absolute blast doing it.”

Still Searching for Sugar Man? He’ll Be at the TC Wine & Arts Festival!

In the Wine Tent at the TC Wine & Arts Festival

In the Wine Tent at the TC Wine & Arts Festival

By MIKE NORTON

I know June is a long way off, but this really can’t wait any longer.

Folk musician Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, whose life story was told in the Oscar-winning documentary “Searching for Sugar Man,” will be the star performer at the 2013 Traverse City Wine & Arts Festival on June 22.

“We’ve already sold more advance tickets than we did last year, especially after ‘Sugar Man” took best documentary at the Oscars,” says festival organizer Andrew McFarlane. “People need to get their tickets now, because this is going to be a sellout.”

Now in its fifth year, the popular celebration of “wine, culture & cuisine” features tastings & full glass pours from 30 of the region’s best wineries, paired with food created by local chefs, artworks by local painters, potters, weavers and other artists, and a diverse slate of musical performers.

Over 4,000 people attended the 2012 festival, which takes place at one of Traverse City’s most scenic venues: the wide tree-shaded lawn of the Village at Grand Traverse Commons – a former mental asylum whose tawny castle-like buildings have become a hub of Traverse City’s bustling culinary scene.

Sixto Rodriguez

Sixto Rodriguez

Rodriguez, a Detroit-born singer-songwriter, released two albums in the early 1970s and then faded into near obscurity, earning his living as a construction worker and manual laborer until it was discovered that his music had achieved cult status in South Africa. The story of how two of his fans searched and eventually found him is the subject of “Searching for Sugar Man,” which was the opening film at the 2012 Traverse City Film Festival.

“When Rodriguez came to Traverse City last summer, there weren’t a whole lot of people talking about him,” explained festival director Laura Herd. “We knew right away that Rodriguez was the perfect musician to anchor our fifth annual festival, and we’ve been so happy to watch the world discover him.”

Rodriguez will be joined by The Crane Wives, an indie-folk band from Grand Rapids, the Ben Daniels Band of Chelsea, and Blake Elliott and the Robinson Affair from Traverse City.

Checking out the Wine & Arts Festival

Checking out the Wine & Arts Festival

Another new feature in this year’s festival will be an exclusive Friday evening “winemakers party,” where attendees get to try some of the area’s best wines while chatting with the winemakers who created them.

Over the past decade, Traverse City has acquired a sudden reputation for its fresh, imaginative cuisine and its excellent wines.  In recent years the region has been attracting and retaining a great many talented young chefs. Some are recent arrivals, and an impressive number are graduates of Traverse City’s own Great Lakes Culinary Institute.

Recently, superstar chef Mario Batali touted Traverse City in Bon Appetit, calling the area a “modern gastro-paradise.”

But the original spark was undoubtedly provided by the area’s thriving wine industry. Traverse City’s wines have become world contenders, outscoring California and even European labels in major international competitions for their clear, fresh taste. Notable for Rieslings, Chardonnays and Pinot Grigios, Traverse City area vintners are even receiving high praise for their red wines.

Traverse City’s wine country is located on two long peninsulas – Leelanau and Old Mission — that extend out into Lake Michigan, each with its own AVA designation and growers’ association. It was the Leelanau Peninsula Vintners Association that first saw the potential of a festival to showcase local wines and foods. This year’s festival is the culmination of that vision, said Matt Gregory, president of the Leelanau Wine Trail.

The end of the evening....

The end of the evening….

“It’s the mission of the Traverse City Wine & Art Festival to bring rare and wonderful performances,” said Gregory. “Offering our fans the chance to see a budding superstar like Rodriguez on the big stage in a beautiful outdoor setting here in Northern Michigan is exactly why we created the festival.”

Tickets, packages and information about the entire weekend’s activities including the new Friday night Winemakers Party are available at www.traversecitywinefestival.com.

Tree-Lightings, Lighthouses and Winter Golf

TCCVB-Dec-4The 2012 Traverse City Christmas Tree — all lit up.

By MIKE NORTON

Maybe it was the warm weather, or maybe everybody was overdosing on Christmas spirit — but Friday night’s tree-lighting ceremony in downtown Traverse City was packed with people. Everybody seemed to be out having a good time, from strolling seniors to young stroller-pushing moms and dads. It’s was what my wife used to call a “Stars Hollow moment” back in her Gilmore Girls-watching days.

In fact, it was hard to get around downtown for a little while, so enthusiastic and eager were all the participants. (It’s been years since I’ve been downtown for the Santa Claus arrival; I didn’t know he had his own drum line now.)

It sounds as though the Village at Grand Traverse Commons also had a nice turnout for their Saturday night tree-lighting – and a good crowd headed out to the Grand Traverse Lighthouse near Northport on Sunday afternoon for the annual “Christmas at the Lighthouse” celebration, where they decorate the old lighthouse for a typical Christmas as it was celebrated by the keeper’s family in the 1920s and 1930s. Everybody mills around, listening to carols, sipping cocoa and waiting for Santa to arrive.

Old Mission Lighthouse -- ChristmasThe Old Mission Lighthouse lit up for Christmas…

What is it about lighthouses, I wonder, that makes them such powerful vehicles for nostalgia — even among people who’ve never lived along these stormy coasts? This Saturday, for instance, the Mission Point Lighthouse in Old Mission will be holding their third annual sleigh ride. This cozy little 1870 lighthouse is just up the road from our place, and it’s been wonderful to see it come alive in recent years, with a vibrant “volunteer lighthouse keeper” program and an ever-expanding schedule of events and festivals.

This week the folks at the lighthouse will be teaming up with the Peninsula Community Library to offer Christmas stories read by an old-fashioned storyteller) an old-time Christmas craft, and a sleigh ride that will jingle through the woods. There’ll be refreshments and climbs up to the top of the lighthouse tower. (There’s a $10 charge for the sleigh rides, which will be held even if there’s “minimal” snow.)

They say we’ll be getting snow by the weekend, but it’s gotten so warm over the past few days that the grass outside my window is very green – and this morning the bay is a beautiful misty blue. So I suppose it isn’t entirely ridiculous to talk about golf even though spring is months and months and months away.

At any rate, here’s the news: Golf Digest is planning to devote its January issue to a list of America’s “36 Best Buddies-Trip Destinations,” a ranking they created by surveying the roughly 1,100 panelists who produce the magazine’s biennial rankings of America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses. And thanks to a little early release by Senior Travel Editor Matt Ginella, we know that Traverse City not only made the list – but ended up in the top ten!

Matt talked about some of his favorite northern Michigan courses (Arcadia Bluffs, Forest Dunes, the Kingsley Club) but for overnighting, he reserved his recommendation for the Grand Traverse Resort & Spa, which has been ranked as high as #48 on Golf Digest’s own list of the Top 75 Gold Resorts in North America. “There are three courses, a nice restaurant, and its marketing staff gets creative with golf packages, but if I had time for only one round on the property, I’d play The Bear,” he writes. “I’d also play it from a mix of blue and white tees. The Bear can be obnoxiously difficult from the blue tees (6,618 yards).

Winter Golf SchoolScott Hebert and a student at the Grand Traverse Resort’s winter golf academy.

Writing about the Resort’s golf program in December isn’t really as inappropriate as it might sound, anyway – as it happens, they’re one of the few golf resorts in the area with a full-scale winter training program. Their Golf Academy – led by six-time Michigan Open Champion and 2008 PGA Professional National Champion Scott Hebert – is open all year round. In winter the whole 2,000 square foot facility with its three heated indoor/outdoor hitting bays becomes a “Winter Golf Center” offering lessons, open clinics, practice sessions and indoor league play.

The cool thing about their golf center is that you can roll up those big garage doors and smack your ball out into the winter landscape from the comfort of a heated hitting bay — a much more effective and emotionally satisfying experience than the average golf simulator.

So if you’re one of those golfers who just can’t wait for May to arrive, now you know what to do. They’ve got a full schedule of league sessions and winter hours up on their website. As for me… well, I’m enjoying the unseasonable warmth, but I’m ready for some skiing weather. This is Michigan, man! Let’s get some snow we can hold on to!

Walking in a Winter Wonderland: 5 Winter Strolls in Traverse City

A Black-Capped Chickadee, Faithful Companion of Winter Hikers

 By MIKE NORTON

OK, I know that by April I’ll be sick of snow. I know. But right now, the first real snowfall of the season is a wonderful thing.

I love the way it covers the brown grass, faded leaves, and stark tree limbs with a light sprinkling of sugary white, the way it gives depth and texture to the pines and spruces and hemlocks, and brightens these dark weeks of early winter with soft light. It’s so darned beautiful!

The problem with the early snow, of course, is that there isn’t enough of it to ski or sled on. It’s an aesthetic snow, not a recreational one. But I’ve never been able to hunker down in the house just because I can’t strap on my snowshoes; I’d go nuts if I couldn’t go outside.

Fortunately, there’s no need for enforced inactivity in this season, because early winter is a great time for simply walking about. You don’t even need any special equipment — just mittens, a hat, a warm coat and a good pair of boots.

On Saturday, I walked with Karen and Liz out to Leffingwell Point and back in a largely symbolic effort to rid ourselves of our post-Thanksgiving drowsiness. High in the sky we could see one of our resident eagle soaring effortlessly in the wind, while chickadees darted back and forth like little fighter planes as we strolled past shuttered cottages and watched the waves crash into the shore. It was a great time, and I think I could have stayed out another hour or so.

Here are five of my favorite winter walks for people who want to enjoy the beauties of winter when the snow is still too scanty:

City Sidewalks, Pretty Sidewalks:

Front Street and the Boardman Neighborhood

This “urban walk” is a good introduction to Traverse City’s historic downtown shopping district and one of its oldest residential neighborhoods: the splendid 19th-century homes along tree-lined Washington Street. It’s a particularly fine walk on a calm winter evening, when the holiday lights in the downtown trees and the turn-of-the-century streetlamps along Washington give the night a magical glow.

Directions: Starting at the corner of Union and Front, walk east for four blocks to Wellington Avenue. Turn right and go up two blocks to Washington Street, then go left and stroll as far as you like. (The street with its fine Victorian homes extends for six blocks, past charming F&M Park to Garfield Avenue.) To return, simply cross the street and go back the way you came.

Winter Moon Setting over West Bay, near Old Mission Point

A Stroll Along the Bay:

Old Mission Point

At the tip of the Old Mission Peninsula, which separates Grand Traverse Bay into its east and west arms, you can stand precisely halfway between the equator and the North Pole and feel as though you’re in the last place on earth. There’s a cozy 19th-century lighthouse, a picnic area and a series of walking trails that wander through deep evergreen forest, along rock-strewn  beaches and up to a highland plateau where you can look out over the bay to the distant shores beyond.

Directions: Take M-37 (Center Road) north from Traverse City. At its very end is Lighthouse Park, where there’s a parking lot and the trailhead for the lowland Old Mission trails. High country trailheads are located on Murray Road, at the north end of Brinkman, and at the end of Ridgewood Road. Maps are posted at regular intervals on all the trails.

A lookout at the Grass Lake Natural Area near Bellaire.

A Walk on the Wildlife Side:

The Grass River Natural Area

Just minutes from bustling Shanty Creek Resort, there’s a quiet spot where a tiny creek flows into a wide shallow river – and in wintertime this is the perfect place to catch a glimpse of some of our shyest wild creatures: deer, snowshoe hares, fox, coyote and bobcat. The 1,143-acre Grass River Natural Area has a well-developed network of trails, boardwalks and observation platforms where you can watch ducks, swans, owls, eagles and other birds.

Directions: Drive east on M-72 for 10 miles, past Acme and Williamsburg,to the turnoff for Rapid City. Continue through Rapid City and Alden; north of Alden turn right onto Alden Highway and follow it for about three miles. The entrance to the Natural Area is on the left.

An Enchanted Forest:

The Seven Bridges

About 20 miles east of Traverse City, in the hills of western Kalkaska County, the fast little Rapid River pauses on its way down a steep valley. Here in a forest of quiet cedars the river briefly divides into several branches that go wandering through the trees, crossed by a series of footbridges. It’s an enchanted, intimate place for a walk, and it’s at its very best when there’s a light snow falling.

Directions: Drive east on M-72 past Acme and Williamsburg to Valley Road, about a mile west of Kalkaska. Turn left and follow the road, which winds through a beautiful valley and past scenic Rugg Pond. After three miles, keep an eye open for the Seven Bridges parking area, on the right-hand side of the road. After your walk, continue west on Valley Road to the village of Rapid City or retrace your route to the top of the valley.

View of the City from the Old Orchard Trail, Grand Traverse Commons

Traverse City’s Central Park:

The Grand Traverse Commons

Behind the creamy brick castles of the former Traverse City Psychiatric Hospital (now being transformed into the swanky Grand Traverse Commons development) is a network of wonderful public walking trails. Some wander through deep woods and across open meadows; other climb high into the western hills above the city, providing splendid views of the surrounding area.

Directions: There are several trailheads within the Commons campus, but the easiest way to access the trail system is to take Front Street west out of town and follow it uphill. About a half-mile past Cedar Run Road, look for a turn-off on the left; it will lead to a small parking lot and trailhead kiosk.

September: Drama Queen of Seasons/Hiking the Grand Traverse Commons

Looking south on East Grand Traverse Bay. A little rain, a little sunshine, a little more rain… You get the idea.

By MIKE NORTON

September has certainly been a dramatic month here in the Traverse City area — great battalions of clouds racing across the sky; beams of thick sunlight  lancing out of the darkness like the searchlights of alien spaceships, fierce showers of rain followed by interludes of almost summery warmth and light.  Whew!

Local folks are fond of saying, “If you don’t like the weather here just wait ten minutes.”  But this month you didn’t have even to wait — you could look around and find several different kinds of weather going on simultaneously! Very beautiful, and exhilarating in a sort of “Wuthering Heights” way, but it’s been tough to figure out what to wear at any given moment….

(Two ladies from Knoxville, Tennessee got a chance to enjoy some of Traverse City’s autumn attractions  this month as winners in Coca-Colas’s MyCokeRewards sweepstakes. JoAnne Dixon and Ernestine Harris spent four nights at the Park Place Hotel, toured a number of Leelanau and Old Mission Peninsula wineries as guests of Celtic Tours and did a fair amount of dining and shopping during their stay. Apparently they had a GREAT time.)

Fall color continues to slowly make its way across northern Lower Michigan; I’d say we’re around 20 percent of the way to the season’s peak right now, and the maples (which give us the most variety of colors) are finally starting to get into the act. And although you can certainly cover a lot of ground on a driving tour, you’re nopt going to experience the full sensory richness of autumn unless you get out and listen to the crunch of leaves, smell the spicy aroma of apples and woodsmoke, breathe the crisp fall air.

Hiking high above Traverse City on the Old Orchard Trail(Don’t worry — the color isn’t this far along yet. These are last year’s photos.)

One of my favorite places for a fall walk is just minutes away from my office, on the lovely grounds of the Grand Traverse Commons. By now, almost everybody knows about the great work that’s being done there, restoring the beautiful old buildings of Traverse City’s former mental asylum and turning them into apartments, shops, restaurants and offices. But one of the best features of the Commons – and relatively unknown to outsiders –  is the extensive network of hiking trails that weave through the surrounding forests, fields and hills.

With hundreds of acres of forested hills, spring-fed streams, flowery meadows and winding trails – not to mention the imposing, if slightly spooky walls and towers of the old asylum itself – the Commons has long been a favorite with hikers, joggers, cyclists and birdwatchers.  People come here to walk their dogs, kids gather autumn leaves here for their school projects; it’s kind of like Traverse City’s version of Central Park.

In a sense, that is how it was supposed to be. In 1885, when the state of Michigan was looking for a place to locate a new asylum, they chose Traverse City because they believed that fresh air and beautiful surroundings could ease the sufferings of the mentally ill. Walking the grounds was a big part of the therapy of the time, and many of todays’ hiking trails were actually laid out for the benefit of the patients.

Fall Color on the Grand Traverse Commons trails.

For short jaunts, I enjoy wandering two of these shady trails — the Men’s Walk and Women’s Walk — both located just west of Divison Avenue inside the city – but the best fall color is higher up, in the area administered by Garfield Township as the Grand Traverse Commons Natural Area. Here you can choose from an impressive variety of landscapes – from the fragrant shadows of the Cedar Cathedral Trail and the storybook beauty of the Streamside Loop to the steep climbs and panoramic views of the Old Orchard Trail, where you can look down over most of Traverse City, and the Copper Ridge Trail, which runs just behind it. There are secret springs bubbling out of the hillsides, deer and fox peering out from the trees, and a multitude of birds.

Every season has its charms here. In spring the woods here are full of flowering trilliums, and in winter it’s great terrain for snowshoeing (many of the trails are really too steep for cross-country skiing, though that doesn’t stop some of us from trying). But the best time to be here is definitely autumn, when the meadows are full of asters and goldenrod, the old orchards still smell of windfall apples, and the leaves rain down on you like a technicolor  shower every time the wind runs through the treetops.

Even better, after you’ve worked up an appetite, you can wander down to the Left Foot Charley winery and quench your thirst with a tall glass of their deceptively refreshing cider. Yum!  (I think I know where I’ll be taking my lunch break today.)

“Magical History Tours” Explore Traverse City’s Past

Picnicking at Hannah Park  on “Silk Stocking Row”

By MIKE NORTON

For years, visitors have been drawn to Traverse City’s dramatic natural beauty and its reputation as a four-season staging area for outdoor adventure. These days an entirely different group of tourists has discovered that we’re also a vibrant food and wine (and beer) destination.

But when you get right down to it, that’s a fairly shallow way to encounter a community and its people. There’s much, much more to Traverse City than its scenic and recreational qualities. We have a brief but dramatic past – a story in which Native Americans, missionaries, lumberjacks, fur traders, fishermen and farmers all played important roles. And now, thanks in large part to persistent questions from curious tourists, we’re starting to do a better job of telling that story.

 For several years now, volunteers from the Traverse City History Center — a historical and cultural museum headquartered on Sixth Street in the city’s 1903 Carnegie Library building – have been conducting walking tours that highlight the city’s most interesting historical sights. This summer they’re taking an even more ambitious step by inaugurating what they’re calling a “Magical History Tour” – a 90 minute bus tour that showcases such key places as Front Street, Sixth Street, Old Town, the city waterfront and the Grand Traverse Commons.

I had the opportunity to ride along last week on a sort of “shakedown cruise” for the tour, and I think it’s got a lot of potential. Starting at the History Center, we rode comfortably through many of my favorite TC neighborhoods, as guide (and former city planner) Fred Hoisington chatted about the city’s early days as a wild lumber port, the career of founding father Perry Hannah and the most colorful of our many colorful mayors, “Wild Bill” Germaine. Obviously, a nine-mile bus tour couldn’t cover every detail of the city’s history, but it made for a great introduction.

There’s a lot to tell – which is odd when you consider that the Traverse City area was one of the last places in America to be settled. Indian hunters and French traders were the first people to visit the area, and it was they who gave the region its name – La Grand Traverse, because of the “long crossing” they had to make by canoe across the mouth of the bay. But they weren’t interested in staying; even the area’s historic Ottawa and Chippewa people didn’t arrive there until the early 18th century, and it wasn’t until 1839 that the Rev. Peter Dougherty established the first permanent settlement, an Indian mission at the tip of the Old Mission peninsula.

By 1847 a small but growing community was forming around the mouth of the Boardman River. In 1852 the little sawmill town was christened Traverse City — but until the first road through the forest was built in 1864 it remained a remote outpost, accessible only by water. It must have been a prosperous outpost, to judge by the number and size of the homes and public buildings that were built in the waning years of the century. The neighborhood along Boardman Avenue and Washington Street preserves some of Traverse City’s oldest and most ornate homes, many in the fanciful Queen Anne style, while the turn-of-the-century mansions of Sixth Street (known as “Silk Stocking Row”) include Perry Hannah’s immense 32-room “retirement house,” which dates to 1893.

After decades of neglect, our downtown has been extensively restored and is now a picturesque and pedestrian-friendly reminder of the city’s historical roots. Its tree-shaded sidewalks now border shops, restaurants and galleries that have made creative use of the Victorian buildings they occupy. Two special landmarks are the ornate 1891 City Opera House, reopened after more than $9 million in exquisite restoration work, and the art deco State Theatre, now the home of the Traverse City Film Festival.

Of course, not everyone in 19th-century Traverse City was a millionaire. The city’s west side – known as Slabtown – was home to mill workers and skilled woodcarvers, including a substantial community of Bohemian immigrants who built tidy cottages for themselves out of scraps from the sawmills. Many of their homes are still standing, and so is Sleder’s Family Tavern, a 123-year-old social club that is still a favorite hangout for locals and visitors alike.

When the lumber boom peaked, its place in the local economy was taken by manufacturing and agriculture – potatoes, apples, and eventually cherries. But the city’s biggest economic windfall came in 1885, when it was designated as the site of the Northern Michigan Asylum, a huge state institution whose founders believed mental illness could best be treated by a combination of healthy food, exercise and beautiful natural surroundings. The asylum became one of the city’s major employers and eventually housed a population several times larger than that of the town itself.

Spring at the Grand Traverse Commons

In what may be the country’s largest historic re-use project, the 480-acre site of the former hospital – now known as the Grand Traverse Commons — is being redeveloped into a unique “village” of shops, restaurants, apartments and galleries. Developers are preserving the castle-like Italianate century buildings that once housed staff and patients, while its lovely wooded campus has become a favorite place for hikers and cyclists.

If you’re interested in trying the Magical History Tours, they’ll be holding them on Fridays and Saturdays at 10 am and noon; after Memorial Day weekend they’ll be held on Mondays (when tickets are only $10) and Wednesday through Saturdays. Aside from those discount Mondays,  tickets are $14.95 for adults and $10.95 for students and seniors.

The TC Wine & Art Festival Moves to a New Date

Having fun at the 2011 TC Wine & Art Festival
Having fun at the 2011 TC Wine & Art Festival

By MIKE NORTON

After three years as a late August event, the Traverse City Wine & Art Festival will now kick off Traverse City’s summer season on Saturday, June 30.

The popular festival feature tastings & full glass pours from 27 of the region’s best wineries paired with food for purchase by celebrated local chefs, seasoned with a diverse slate of musical performers and an exhibition and sale of artworks by some of the region’s best painters, potters, weavers and other artists.

It takes place at one of Traverse City’s most scenic venues: the wide tree-shaded lawn of the Village at Grand Traverse Commons – a former mental asylum whose tawny castle-like buildings are now being redeveloped as the hub of Traverse City’s bustling culinary scene.

Festival organizer Andy McFarlane says the change of dates has breathed new excitement into the annual celebration.

“You wouldn’t believe the energy and the level of participation we’re seeing,” he says. “On the old date we were competing against the beach and everybody was exhausted – but now we’re the kickoff celebration for summer in Traverse City. Without a doubt, we are going to blow all our previous attendance figures away.”

Photo by Harts Photos
Photo by Harts Photos

The festival’s 2012 musical guests are headed up by national recording artists Rusted Root, a Pittsburgh fusion band famous for their blend of acoustic/rock  styles and a percussion section strongly influenced by African, Indian and Latin sources. Rusted Root has sold more than three million albums worldwide. Other acts on the program include Ann Arbor-based Orpheum Bell, Canadian artists Lauren Mann and the Fairly Odd Folk and Traverse City’s own The Naughty Neighbors – all Indie bands whose blending of styles and influences makes them difficult to classify, but easy to enjoy.

Since its inception, the festival has also built itself around local visual artists, inviting a wide range of them to exhibit and sell their work during the event. This year, organizers are working with ArtCenter Traverse City, the local artists’ collective, to select a suitable slate of exhibitors.

Over the past decade, Traverse City has acquired a sudden reputation for its fresh, imaginative cuisine and its excellent wines.  In recent years the region has been attracting and retaining a great many talented young chefs. Some are recent arrivals, and an impressive number are graduates of Traverse City’s own Great Lakes Culinary Institute.

Recently, superstar chef Mario Batali touted Traverse City in Bon Appetit saying “The food scene has really exploded in the region. It’s very cool. The chefs involved in the scene celebrate what’s here; they’re not trying to be anything they’re not. Now people are coming for gastronomic tourism.”

But the original spark was undoubtedly provided by the area’s wine industry. Renowned for their natural beauty, the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas are bathed by cool waters that protect them from early frost and extend the fall harvest season by several weeks. As a result, their vineyards have become world contenders, outscoring California and even European labels in major international competitions for the clear, fresh taste of their wines, which hold their aroma and fruit flavors much more faithfully than those grown in hotter climates. Notable for Rieslings, Chardonnays and Pinot Grigios, Traverse City area vintners are even receiving high praise for their red wines.

Each peninsula is a distinct wine appellation area with its own growers’ association and separate promotional events. Wineries on the Leelanau Peninsula, a roughly triangular land mass along the Lake Michigan shore, are represented by the Leelanau Peninsula Vintners Association (www.lpwines.com). Those on the narrower Old Mission Peninsula, which runs for 20 miles up the center of Grand Traverse Bay, belong to Wineries of the Old Mission Peninsula (www.wineriesofoldmission.com).

It was the Leelanau winemakers who first saw the potential of a festival to showcase local wines and foods on the picturesque Commons grounds. They quickly secured the participation of their Old Mission colleagues and  a good selection of local restaurants, artists and musicians.

“The Traverse City Wine & Art Festival offers everybody a chance to raise a glass of wine and toast another great summer in Northern Michigan,” says McFarlane.

The festival will be held June 30, 2012 from 3-10 p.m.  Tickets are limited and can be purchased for $20 per person. Ticketing and other detailed information can be found at www.traversecitywinefestival.com .

The end of the evening...

A New Festival to Honor Our Most Famous Cow

Flowering plum trees on the high trail at Old Mission Point Park
Flowering plum trees on the high trail at Old Mission Point Park

By MIKE NORTON

It was a splendid Easter weekend in Traverse City. A bit brisk (which is what we normally get in April, in case anyone has forgotten) but filled with sunlight, flowers and innumerable folks dressed up in their most colorful outfits – including Karen and Liz, who looked quite lovely in their Easter finery. (I even sported a lavender shirt and tie in the interest of marital harmony.)

On Sunday afternoon the three of us headed up to Old Mission Point Park to work off some of our dinner, and to admire the flowering apricot, cherry and plum trees that are still scattered around this former fruit orchard. Walking about on this lovely post-agricultural landscape made me think suddenly about Traverse Colantha Walker, one of this region’s few genuine celebrities.

This was not a random thought, by the way – it was prompted by the fact that the folks over at the Village at Grand Traverse Commons have just announced a new festival in TCW’s honor, the Colantha Unplugged Music Festival on April 29. Which is in addition to the Traverse Colantha Walker Dairy Festival that’s held at the Commons on June 10.

Well, we do what we can; Traverse City, being fairly small, is short on famous people. But we once had a famous cow, and Traverse Colantha Walker was her name.

In fact her gravestone can be found on the grounds of the Commons – which (as you probably know) was once the Northern Michigan Asylum. In fact, so far as anyone knows, TCW is the only asylum resident who’s actually buried there – for she was no run-of-the-mill bovine. She was a “supercow,” a hard-working, world-champion milker who belonged to the facility’s extensive herd of 96 Holstein-Friesian cows.

Today, the old asylum with its creamy brick buildings and barns is being transformed into an entire town of shops, restaurants, galleries, apartments and condominiums. And its 500-acre campus serves as a vast urban park where the spires of the old hospital buildings soar like the turrets of romantic castles above its miles of walking paths and trails.

Few historic sites are so well-suited to such a second life. The buildings of the former mental asylum were purposely designed to be brighter and more spacious than other 19th century structures – thanks to a Victorian visionary named James Kirkbride, who believed that the sufferings of the mentally ill could be eased by fresh air, hard work, abundant natural lighting and beautifully landscaped surroundings. The Traverse City facility, established in 1885, became a huge park, filled with Victorian-Italianate buildings of golden brick and planted with exotic trees collected from around the world.

It was also a small, self-sufficient city in its own right, with its own farms, gardens, fire department and power plant. At one point it boasted 3,500 residents – which was more than Traverse City’s population at the time. And of all its extensive herds of farm animals, Traverse Colantha Walker was the queen. In the course of her long and impressive career – from 1916 to 1932 – she produced 200,114 lbs. of milk and 7,525 lbs. of butterfat.

In her best year (1926) her annual production was 22,918 lbs. – a world record. (Compare that with an official state average of 3,918 lbs. per cow per year and you can see why she was such an impressive milker!) And she was loved; when she died in 1932, the staff and patients of the asylum held a banquet in her honor and erected a large granite tombstone over her grave.

TCW's impressive grave marker at the Commons
TCW’s impressive grave marker at the Commons

They still haven’t forgotten her. Four years ago, the fun-loving folks at the Village started the annual Traverse Colantha Walker Dairy Festival — a free, family-friendly festival that includes a pancake breakfast, live music, farmers market, arts & craft market, kids’ activities, food & drinks, a memorial parade to Colantha’s headstone, the Great Grilled Cheese Grill-off, and more.

Now they’ve gone and done it again. The new Colantha Unplugged Music Festival (on April 29 from noon to 5  p.m.) was created this year to coincide with what would have been TCW’s 96th birthday. This time it’s a music  festival featuring (as the name implies) a variety of acoustic music styles – from a cappela singing to “beatboxing & bongos and everything in between.” Since it’s still early in the year, this festival will be indoors — at the Mercato, the underground shopping center at the Commons, and at the Left Foot Charley winery on the other side of the piazza.

I do wonder, though, what kind of music Colantha enjoyed during her working years at the asylum. Something with lots of cowbell, I imagine.

Keeping Hope Alive for the 2012 Vasa and Winter Wow!fest

Beautiful winter weather at Sleeping Bear Dunes, but not much Snow!
Beautiful winter weather at Sleeping Bear Dunes, but not much Snow!

By MIKE NORTON

Putting together any kind of outdoor event — whether it’s a family camping trip or a week-long community festival — will keep you humble. You can plan and organize as much as you want, but you can’t control the weather. All you can control is how you respond to it.

This winter’s unseasonably warm temperatures and lack of snowfall this year have forced many Midwestern communities to cancel their winter festivals. This past weekend, the White Pine Stampede ski race in Bellaire had to be called off at the last minute because the trail was nearly obliterated by sun, rain and melting.

Here in Traverse City, fortunately, things are looking a bit better. The big North American Vasa Festival of Races is still scheduled to take place Feb. 10-12, thanks to some lucky breaks (the course is through deep woods, which protected the snow from too much melting) and some hard work from festival volunteers, who’ve been out shoveling snow onto the trail wherever it’s too thin. And since temperatures are starting to drop again, they think they’ll be able to hang on to what they’ve got.

No Snow for Wow!fest? Not to Worry -- the Show Must Go On!
No Snow for Wow!fest? Not to Worry — the Show Must Go On!

It’s the same story with the Cherry Capital Winter Wow!fest, which will also go forward as planned. Festival planner Trevor Tkach says organizers have devised a host of contingency plans for the Feb. 17-19 festival, and have been stockpiling their own snow supplies in anticipation of just such an eventuality.

“We’ve got snow – and come rain, come snow, come shine, we’ve got a festival,” said Tkoch.

Now in its sixth year, Winter Wow!fest is  a wintertime celebration of competitions, music, games, food, wine, entertainment and fun. It includes such events as the Soup’r Bowl soup contest, a Frozen Bed Race, a Winter, Wine & Wow!  food & drink reception, a Cardboard Classic downhill race, a Monster Dog Pull and fireworks, as well as new features like the Curb Crusher Rail Jam and the Soup r’ Chili 5K run.

Officials at  nearby Shanty Creek Resorts have been storing hundreds of cubic yards of clean white snow that will be hauled to Traverse City to supply what Mother Nature hasn’t provided.

For a full schedule of events and online registration for races, dinners and other reserved events, go to www.winterwowfest.com.

One event that may reap a little extra benefit from the warmer temperatures is the Traverse City Winter Microbrew & Music Festival which will be held this Saturday evening on the Historic Lawn of our 19th century mental asylum, the Grand Traverse Commons. Billed as a “winter wonderland of craft beer, live music and local food,” the festival will feature beverages from over 50 microbreweries, meaderies, cideries and wineries, a “silent disco,” and nearly a dozen live bands. (In a silent disco, dancers are issued wireless headphones through which music is broadcast via an FM transmitter – nobody else has to listen.)

The events will be held in a small city of heated tents: three main heated music and microbrewery tents, a silent disco tent with a full roster of DJs, a snow fort-building competition among local businesses — and for the first time, a polka-themed tent hosted by local comedian Marti Johnson.

Performing for the event will be several acclaimed musical and entertainment acts including Funktion, beatbox champion Heatbox, The Crane Wives, Whitey Morgan and the 78′s, Dragon Wagon, Rootstand, Laith Al-Saadi, DJ DomiNate, DJ Wulf Pak (and his popular laser show), the non-profit Grand Traverse Pipes & Drums and local fire dancers.

Celtic Dancing at the 2011 Winter Microbrew & Music Festival
Celtic Dancing at the 2011 Winter Microbrew & Music Festival

The polka tent, a promotional partnership with the Cedar Polka Fest held nearby during the first week in July, will feature popular polka bands (including Squeezebox and The Kielbasa Kings) with dancing, authentic food and special activities celebrating polka culture.

Already well-known as a food and wine destination, Traverse City is also making fans in the burgeoning microbrew community; Draft magazine just named it one of Americas’ three newest Emerging Beer Towns (along with St. Louis and Oklahoma City).The Grand Traverse Commons lawn has long been the home of Traverse City’s Summer Microbrew & Music Festival, which is held there each August, but the winter event has been more nomadic – the first one was held on a local golf course, and last year’s was in downtown Traverse City.

Festival promoter Sam Porter said the move to the Commons made good sense, but he regretted that downtown businesses won’t reap as much of an economic benefit from this year’s festival. To take some of the sting out of the move, his company — Porterhouse Productions — will host a pre-festival concert Friday night in Traverse City’s historic downtown opera house, featuring Grammy-winning band Blues Traveler.

Renowned for their high-energy live shows, Blues Traveler is behind such massive pop hits as “Run-Around,” “Hook” and “You, Me and Everything.” Their album “Four” reached triple-platinum status, and “Run-Around” was the longest-charting single in Billboard history. The Feb. 10 concert marks the band’s second return to Traverse City after their sold-out appearance at Porterhouse’s Paella in the Park festival in 2010.

“Our hope is that we’ll have a great sold-out show with Blues Traveler the night before the festival, with concertgoers eating, drinking and shopping downtown before and after the concert,” said Porter. His company is also planning several “after-parties” on Friday and Saturday nights at downtown establishments (including Union Street Station and the Loading Dock) to further connect festival attendees with the downtown district.

The festival will offer free shuttle service to attendees between the Commons, downtown, the Old Town parking deck, and participating hotels.

General admission tickets for the Traverse City Winter Microbrew & Music Festival on February 11 are $30 in advance or $35 at the door and include all festival entertainment, musical acts, shuttle service and five (5) 7-oz pours. Additional pours will be available for purchase on-site for $1 each. Tickets can be purchased online at www.porterhouseproductions.com or at Oryana, Blue Tractor and Left Foot Charley in Traverse City.

Attendees are strongly encouraged to purchase tickets in advance, as the festival has sold out in past years. Ticket buyers must be at least 21 years old. Attendees are encouraged to carpool, use the shuttle service or walk, sled or snowshoe to the event. Festival proceeds will benefit the non-profit Bay Area Recycling for Charities.

Reserved seating tickets for the Blues Traveler concert at the City Opera House on February 10 range from $29-$45. Tickets can be purchased at the City Opera House box office, by phone at 231-941-8082 or online at www.cityoperahouse.org