There’s an impression that Northern Michigan makes on those who’ve lived here, visited here or grown up here. It’s the influence of wildness, no doubt, which is what brought resorters to our area from the metropolis’ of the steel belt in the late 1800s, and what continues to draw travelers ‘Up North’ to this day. But now, it’s hard to find true wilderness in the tip of the mitt region, save for a few sections of state land and the largely untamed river valleys of Pigeon River Country.
And then there’s Waugoshance.
An arm of land stretching off the west coast of the state, an extension of the aptly-named Wilderness State Park just west of the Mackinaw Bridge, Waugoshance is the definition of unspoiled land. Save for an occasional relic of human presence —research equipment, the rusted frame of an old ORV, a washed up water bottle or plastic bag — the primarily coastal wetland ecosystem lining the shores of the peninsula seems largely untouched by humans. The peninsula forms the north cove that makes Sturgeon Bay a bay, and is a byway and spawning site for large populations of migrating small-mouth bass and carp when water temperatures rise in late June.
The dirt road leading to Waugoshance is lined in cedar swamps and second growth red pines. Arrival at the parking area puts you around five miles from the very tip of the peninsula, which is interrupted by cuts of water and large inland ponds that make waders or tall boots necessary most of the year. Sand and loose rocks, as well as terrain varying from pine groves to stagnant ponds, make the walk out feel much longer than it really is. Still, hiking/wading — or cross country skiing in the winter — is the only way beyond the small parking area.
Birders frequent the peninsula for its populations of piping plover and various migratory bird species, and on weekends one can find fisherman swinging for a chance at the bass nesting in small seaweed beds below the Caribbean-blue surface of Lake Michigan.
An hour walk will take you to ‘The Big Cut,’ a quarter-mile wide inlet through which the bass and carp migrate, and where there’s a good chance you’ll find (or spook) a fish or two once the water warms up. The Waugoshance Lighthouse, off the coast of Waugoshance Island and therefore only accessible by boat, is one of the oldest lighthouses in the Great Lakes. Because it is located at the western gateway to the Straits of Mackinaw — despite having been out of commission since the early 1900s — the organization Waugoshance Lighthouse Preservation Society had made efforts to restore and reopen the lighthouse for historical and educational purposes after nearly 100 years of disrepair and abandonment.
Though perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Waugoshance’s history is the brief time during which it was used for bombing practice by the Navy in World War II. In fact, Goose Bay — located on the south side of the peninsula— contains a deep underwater crater, created by an old style bomb released from a Navy bomber in the mid 1940s. The Waugoshance Lighthouse was used as a target in the Navy’s bombing practice, in which they used primarily heat-seeking missiles, and there have been multiple World War Two era warheads and bombs found in the vicinity of the lighthouse.
For nearly 70 years, Wilderness State Park has provided locals and visitors alike with a glimpse of true wilderness that most aren’t familiar with. Just a 10-mile drive west of Mackinaw, the trip to Wilderness is well worth the seemingly never-ending curves in the pot-holed dirt road leading out to the Wuagoshance parking area. With migratory bird populations, spawning and nesting fish, extensive cedar swamps, pine groves, Mediterranean waters and coastal ecosystems reminiscent of Florida or the Caribbean, Wilderness and the Waugoshance Peninsula provide a glance at a Michigan most of us don’t know — one nearly untouched by humans (save for a few bombs) and, ultimately, one that shows us exactly what we expect from an experience in Northern Michigan — true wilderness.