by CLIFF AND NANCY HILL
Labor Day morning found the Hills in Mackinaw City to again participate in this year’s 55th annual Labor Day Mackinac Bridge Walk. This is a tradition we began many years ago and plan on continuing for as long as we’re able to walk or can find somebody willing to push us across in a wheelchair (as many do).
As usual, we were on one of the first school buses transporting walkers across from Mackinaw City to the walk’s origin in St. Ignace in the U.P. “eh”. We stepped off promptly at 7 a.m. right behind Gov. Snyder and his entourage in the vanguard of what would be some 45,000 participants to follow. It was a “bluebird” morning with a hazy sun rising on the eastern horizon. With cool temperatures and no wind it was, in our opinion, one of the best 5-mile “strolls across the Straits” we’ve ever taken.
We finished the walk in Mackinaw City in a very respectable one hour and three minutes. This being a Presidential election year, we were schmoozed by what seemed like hundreds of politicians at the finish line.
Enough of politics already, we headed off to our favorite breakfast spot, Darrow’s Family Restaurant just blocks away and were seated just before a waiting line of famished bridge walkers snaked out the front door and down the block. The place is just that good, and we certainly didn’t forget a piece of their famous homemade pie for breakfast dessert.
However, what follows is about an idea we have been toying with for the past few years, so here’s the rest of the story.
For the last three years we have been lodging a short drive of 20 miles southeast of Mackinaw City in Cheboygan, MI. We love Cheboygan; it is a special can-do City full of friendly and caring people, much like Rockford. Best of all, we are afforded reasonable room rates and no one is taken advantage of by the exorbitant holiday lodging rates in Mackinaw City.
Situated on the shores of Lake Huron, Cheboygan lays claim to being the homeport of the USCG Cutter Mackinaw. Cheboygan is a small city and with a population of 5,250. It reminds us of our own hometown Rockford, with a similar population of 5,700. It has a vibrant Main Street business district and just like Rockford a river, the Cheboygan, that bisects it. The Cheboygan River, connecting Lake Huron to northern Michigan’s famed Inland Waterway, it is a boater’s paradise.
We stayed at the Best Western River Terrace, one of two riverside motels with all rooms facing the river affording guests beautiful vistas and a continuous daily parade of boats of every description and size. Cliff especially enjoyed ogling the bikini-clad variety of boater (he even brought a pair of binoculars) from our room’s private balcony.
Now to the heart of our tale. For some time, we had been aware that Cheboygan also hosts an annual Labor Day Bridge Walk that kicks off at 11:45 a.m. We had often thought, “Why not do two bridge walks in one day?” And so we did.
This was to be Cheboygan’s 13th annual State St. (U.S. 23) Bridge Walk. Not five miles long like the Mackinac Bridge Walk but rather, a piddling 250 feet across the Cheboygan River. What began as a joke many years ago with a handful of walkers has become a family-oriented community event that in recent years has drawn upwards of 1,000 participants from near and far.
Stay with us readers, here’s the ‘human nature’ side of our story. While in the staging area, waiting for the Bridge Walk to begin, we met Karen Fish Wartella. Karen, a Cheboygan native, was on hand to participate in her very first Cheboygan Labor Day State Street Bridge Walk. She was doing the walk out of respect for her late husband, Charles F. “Chuckie Bud” Wartella, who was the original brainchild of the walk.
“Chuckie Bud” was the stuff of local folklore. He was a fun loving character well known by, it seemed, everyone in town. Besides Karen, he loved the Green Bay Packers (sorry Lions fans) and in particular his favorite libation, an ice-cold Budweiser beer. Hence his nickname – “Chuckie Bud”.
“I always thought the walk was stupid,” said Karen, “I never went. This is going to be my first time across and Chuckie’s last!” This is the point where we learned that the cremated remains of “Chuckie Bud”, who had passed away (Aug. 16), were at that very moment contained in a collapsible Budweiser cooler being carried by Karen!
So following a Knights of Columbus honor guard Karen, with “Chuckie Bud” in hand, preceeded hundreds of walk participants across the “not-so-mighty” State Street Bridge. All finishers (which was everyone) received a Bridge Walk certificate – even “Chuckie Bud”.
In true Cheboygan fashion, the bridge walkers were invited to continue another 2 blocks to beautiful Washington Park, a pocket park on Main Street in the very center of the City. There, as in past years, folks were treated to free hot dogs, chips, trail mix bars, orange Hi-C, and live music compliments of the walk’s sponsors. Needless to say, all shared a good time and a lot of laughs and fellowship.
Rich Adams, one of the walk’s sponsors and the former editor of the Cheboygan Daily Tribune, is ever so proud of this signature annual event for many reasons. “We don’t spend a cent, everything is fun and free! This is our premier fall event and is held with the Mayor’s de facto permission. No permits, no permission by anyone, it goes off with just a wink and a smile,” said Adams.
To which we add, “This Bud’s for you, Chuckie!”