What is it about Lake Michigan that keeps us coming back? Every year, the waves seem to get bigger, and the landings get a little harder. At the same time, the big picture becomes clearer. We do it for more than us. We are the Grand Tour to Benefit Leader Dogs for the Blind. Celebrating its 19th year in 2016, the Grand Tour has raised $325,000 for Leader Dogs. It’s a huge accomplishment for a relatively small family of riders and land support crew.
The Grand Tour exists to raise funds for leader dogs. It’s the sole purpose for this ride… well, almost. OK, it’s the biggest purpose for the ride. We’ll admit it. The adrenaline, the challenge that is Lake Michigan, compels us. Every year it’s a little different, sometimes better, sometimes worse, and sometimes both in the same day.
Day 1 was gorgeous, as Thursday, August 11th brought us everything that was perfect for summer, even the 90-degree high. Unusual in northern Michigan, we began peeling neoprene layers off at our first stop in Cross Village. The lake cooperated with a few little ripples and not much else. Even if the lake isn’t challenging, often something else is.
We arrived at the Mackinaw City Marina at 8AM to find one ski up to its cylinders in water. Quickly, Land Support stepped in and trailered the ski in, as the rider and crew drained it and began landside diagnostics.
On our way to Cross Village, another ski lost power, idling in to the small launch ramp at the park. Now Ski #2 was trailered and repaired on the spot by our incredible Land Support Crew. Later in the day, Ski #2 began taking on water, limping into Clinch Marina at Traverse City. More wrenching and some JB Weld, and it was good to go for the rest of the ride.
On Day 2, we pulled out of Clinch Marina in Traverse City at dawn to more smooth water. Land curving around the bay protected us for a while. Northport, our first radio checkpoint, was re-dubbed “ankle-breaker bay,” as it has been the site of two unfortunate injuries. The wind here always kicks up and big waves from multiple directions build quickly.
While everyone’s ankles remained intact, our first hard luck ski had a further electrical problem, and Land Support took over repairs again. When we arrived at Northport, waves were 0-to-2 feet. Ten minutes later, they were 2-to-4 feet, and a few more miles out, 4-to-8 feet, and building. The rest of the day we fought northwest winds, with waves pushing us hard from the back and side as we headed toward Leland, Frankfort, and finally, arriving in Ludington late afternoon.
Day 3 was brutal. A solid wall of gray greeted us at Ludington’s Harbor View Marina in the morning. As if that wall was holding back the wind, the water in the channel was deadly calm. We got out into the lake, and small rollers hidden in the water bounced us around a little, and misting rain fell for the first 20 miles.
By our fuel stop at White Lake, skies cleared, and 15-plus-mph winds were again blowing from the northwest. We were in White Lake for less than an hour, but when we left the channel and turned south into Lake Michigan, we were slammed by waves that just kept getting bigger as we rode toward Holland.
Safely off the water, sore but uninjured, wobbly but walking, our attention turned to our celebration banquet and the Leader Dog client who would tell us her story—reminding us why we do this. We were privileged to see her dog “off duty.” “Lady” was out of her harness and ready to play with the group after dinner.
Next Year is the Grand Tour’s 20th anniversary. The event will include an extra day; an overnight trip by ski to Mackinac Island. Then, along the regular Grand Tour route will be some special surprises. Come join us! Ride with us, join our Land Support Crew, or make a donation to help make 2017 the best Grand Tour ever! The adventure begins in Holland, Michigan on Tuesday, August 8, 2017 at 9AM. Find us on Facebook in the Grand Tour group, www.grandtour.org, or contact Event Leader Mike LaBelle at firstname.lastname@example.org.