Technically, it’s a vacation
For a few days each August, a group of dedicated PWC riders and support crew embark on a journey of 350 miles in three days, from Mackinaw City to Holland, Michigan. Known formally as The Grand Tour to Benefit Leader Dogs for the Blind, the money raised by each participant helps support the privately-funded organization. Leader Dogs trains guide dogs and the clients they serve all over the USA and the world. Tour participants come from as far away as West Virginia and Florida.
The experience is one every rider wishes for…mostly. Lake Michigan can dole out big, generous, forgiving rollers or four-foot hard chop that pounds both human and watercraft. Rain and cold make it hard to hold the handlebars. Then there was 2012’s ride, which included the worst Day Two in 17 years: 40-50 degree water, 5-12 foot waves, the gray so dense that the water and sky blended.
Michael LaBelle, Grand Tour Event Organizer, and leader of the on-water portion of the tour, recalls, “I torpedoed my ski and was thrown off. When I surfaced, another rider pulled alongside me. As I tried to get aboard, we were both thrown into the lake by another wave. We tried again and again, and eventually flipped over. Now, we were both exhausted. A third rider lassoed my ski, and I managed to get back on. I’d been in the water long enough for someone to tell me I looked bluer than my Yamaha.”
Then there was 2014, with three days on Lake Michigan so calm riders were commenting they’d never seen clouds reflected on the water.
After a ride like 2012 or other similar years, why would anyone do it again? “I didn’t really know why we were raising money for Leader Dogs,” says Tim “Digger” Dryer. “Then I was introduced to a client, who told me the story of how her dog guides her to and from her job, and as far as Chicago via Amtrak. Her story brought tears to my eyes. That’s when I realized maybe I am making a difference in someone’s life. But the Grand Tour is more than just fundraising. I now have ‘family’ members from all over, and I look forward to our reunion each year.”
Day One started at dawn, bringing checklists and a short trip on foot. Our little parade makes its way toward Mackinaw City Marina, hauling dry bags and life jackets. The sun brightens as we idle out. We turned left and raced toward the Mighty Mac Bridge, slapping wet handprints on the bridge pier, tagging it to signal the start of three unforgettable days.
Our first stop was Cross Village, a gut-check after about 30 miles of riding, but no one was supposed to notice. For newbies, riding through the straits of Mackinaw can be an eye-opening glimpse of the 320 miles to come.
We arrived in Charlevoix for lunch and fuel. Riding the channel two-by-two showed we are polite and an organized group event. People on the walkway above wave, point, and take pictures. A few find us and asked what we’re doing, becoming googly-eyed at the answer, occasionally making a donation.
Thirsty skis and hungry humans well-fed, we headed on to Traverse City. Our amazing Land Support Crew had facilitated our hotel check-in with our luggage is waiting. Other than carrying all that gear, Land Support seems like a nice way to do the Tour—in air-conditioned comfort of a vehicle with an (hopefully) empty double trailer. Land Support tracked everything. Every gallon of gas was recorded, who is where and when, even pizza toppings are documented. It’s why the tour runs so smoothly. Land Support does a lot of heavy lifting, waiting and sometimes, worrying.
“Back when we didn’t have great cell phone or radio coverage, we waited at Leland more than three hours during heavy rain and rough water. Words can’t describe the pit in my stomach while making sandwiches and waiting,” says Jonathan Dennis, Grand Tour Event Organizer and leader of the Land Support crew. “But this is like an anniversary, a reunion. No matter how I feel, I have to do it. I chose Land Support because it takes many pieces to complete a puzzle. I’m grateful to be one of the pieces.”
Day Two begins with us riding 150 miles from Traverse City to Ludington. “When I asked someone for a donation, they told me to have a ‘nice, relaxing vacation’ and I laughed and thought of 2012,” says Mary Lynn Graham. She and husband Jim are veteran tour riders, but were taken aback at the size of Day Two. “I was worried about getting back on my ski if I fell off! But hearing a Leader Dog client talk of their experience makes me glad I keep choosing this challenge,” Jim says.
Just past our first fuel stop at Leland, we started to see massive sand dunes. It’s easy to forget why we are here, and simply enjoy the sights. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore runs about 50 miles, almost to Frankfort, our fuel and lunch stop. Soon we are on our way to Ludington, and another overnight.
Land Support awaited us at the dock, ready to help fuel up for Day Three. Roy Saul, Mark Hastings, and Jonathan ran the pumps. Kelly Hastings did the math while Audra Schuessler takes our money.
“I chose Land Support because I don’t have the thrill-seeking need my husband does, but I still get to spend the day with everyone,” said Audra. The Schuessler’s are a Grand Tour family, as Dad “Farmer” Bob and daughters Erin and Liz all ride. “I was looking for an organized ride and it sounded slightly over the top,” Bob said. “The people make Grand Tour special, whether it’s someone new or those we see every year. We all have the same goal in mind. The bonus is we have made great friends.” Even John, the youngest Schuessler, got into it, helping Land Support, and riding with Dad for a while.
Day Three presented 94 miles to conquer, but today our “family reunion” came to a close. After a fuel stop at White Lake, the pace sped up as we see the red lighthouse at the channel to Lake Macatawa, at Holland. We rode side-by-side again, and then came together to ride the last mile together. No one wins Grand Tour, except Leader Dogs and clients.
The Holland Lions Club provided a lunchtime feast as we trailer-up, celebrating with hugs and high fives. Hours later, we were in a banquet room, learning from Leader Dog client Jeff and his dog Gracie; remembering with misty eyes why we were there. Beyond water and weather, vacation days, gathering donations, gas money, fun surprises, packing and unpacking; is the purpose and pride of being a Grand Tour participant.
Join our family: Ride with us, become part of our Land Support Crew, or make a donation to the Grand Tour to Benefit Leader Dogs for the Blind. Next year’s Grand Tour is scheduled for August 6-8, 2015. Plan to be in Holland, Michigan, August 5th at 8am for the ride to Mackinaw City.
And for fun, here are some amazing fast facts: Over 17 years, more than 108,000 water miles and 25,000 land miles. Average of more than 1,000 gallons of watercraft fuel pumped over three days. 8,400 pounds of luggage, coolers, and gear hauled in and out of trucks over three days. Over 17 years, more than 100 people have ridden the Grand Tour, some veterans have ridden every year, every mile. Most important, more than $280,000 raised for Leader Dogs for the Blind.
Additional images courtesy of Thomas Russo