The Mighty Mac

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A bridge-eye view of Emmet County

By Beth Anne Eckerle
Legal News

It starts with a high step off the narrow road shoulder into a steel tower, via an oval portal ringed in large ivory-painted rivets. You maneuver through a narrow passageway and into the elevator.

Wait, this is the elevator? Is it?

 “Are you sure?” I laugh with Bob Sweeney, as we finagle our way inside. (Of course he’s sure. He is the director of the Mackinac Bridge.)

Inside the elevator-slash-small broom closet, three of us squish in and start making jokes about how well we will get to know each other by the end of this adventure to the top of the South Tower. We begin our ascent and I notice that what this mini-vator lacks in wiggle room it makes up for in smoothness; you can scarcely tell you’ve just gone up 500-plus feet by the time it slows to a stop.

Sweeney is our tour guide today. He’s the executive secretary of the Mackinac Bridge Authority and while we’re ascending he occupies us with a couple interesting stories, like the time the power went out in the elevator when he was taking a reporter up (to say she was a little nervous is probably an understatement). Another time, a visitor broke his leg while making the climb; hours passed before they could get him safely out of the interior tower matrix.

Once the elevator stops and the accordion-like door opens, a maze of tunnels, portals and ladders awaits. We depart the elevator and have about 25 vertical feet to negotiate on our own, so here we go…
It’s obvious when you’ve committed to the climb that the South Tower’s navigational network was not designed for the casual tourist. But for the fortunate few who do get to make their nimble way up the tower, it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience made for sharing. It was one of the most incredible and unique opportunities I’ve had since living in Northern Michigan for the last 20 years. (Heck, anytime in my 41 years of living!)
After about 15 minutes of leveraging our way through the labyrinth, bending, crouching and high-stepping our way over and up, over and up, Sweeney was the first to emerge out the top. I followed the bright light shining through the opening as the next to summit. My colleague Gary Appold, who was filming the whole thing with a GoPro strapped to his forehead, followed behind me (and very discretely, I might add; I’ve thanked him many times after watching the footage).

If he tires of the view after taking visitors to the top over his years as the Bridge’s keeper, Sweeney didn’t show it. Together, we were all pretty quiet as we took in what we were seeing in all directions on this blue-sky, low-wind, mid-summer day in Northern Michigan. Once you wiggle yourself out of the top hole and emerge on the platform that connects the two towers, about all you can muster is “wow” … again and again. The vastness in every direction is equal parts beautiful and awe-ing: the color and clarity of the water; the natural shape of the jagged shoreline; the rooster tails from the speeding ferry boats (they look so tiny from up here!); and the many islands scattered like a handful of rocks thrown into Lakes Michigan and Huron.

So many times in telling the story about climbing the Bridge people have said to me, “Oh I could never! I’m claustrophobic,” “I’m afraid of heights.” Blessedly, I was cursed with neither phobia and was able to completely enjoy this experience without an ounce of fear; just complete gratitude to Bob and the Bridge Authority for providing us with this remarkable opportunity to see Emmet County from a vantage point not many get to experience. 

Standing up there and looking back south toward home was breathtaking, with the county’s McGulpin Point Lighthouse and the Headlands properties thick with their lush, green, forested beauty off to my west. To the east, we could see the ferry boats pulling out of the Mackinaw docks, and heavy I-75 traffic heading north signaled the start of a long summer weekend for many. It was 360 degrees of pure Northern Michigan beauty, and our cameras clicked and clicked and clicked until it was time to head back down to the Bridge deck.

It took a few days for the high of the experience to wear off, after relaying the story to families and friends and then talking about it to hundreds of people shortly thereafter at the Emmet-Charlevoix County Fair, where I lured visitors to my booth by playing Gary’s Go-Pro footage on a big TV screen behind me. (It’s amazing how many people have this climb on their “bucket list!”)

On a family camping trip up to Houghton a few weeks after our climb, driving over the Bridge had new meaning to me as I craned my neck up and out the window while passing under the South Tower.

“I can’t believe I actually climbed that!” I exclaimed to my son Drew as we drove underneath. “Me either Mom!” he answered, “You’re really brave!”

“And fortunate,” I told him, “that we live in a place like this where these things are possible.”

(This story first appeared in Emmet County’s Imagine magazine.)

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