Friday, May 28, 2010

(Michigan's) Irish Hills

In 20 square miles of rolling, rural area in southern Michigan, there are over 30 lakes. The lush, green hills and the ethnicity of resident farmers whose ancestors came from Ireland’s Great Famine gave the area its nickname, the Irish Hills.
The heyday of this area was between the 1930’s and 1950’s. It flourished under folks who had extra money for recreation during a genteel time in our history. Located squarely on the route between Detroit and Chicago, the Irish Hills became a popular getaway for travelers and area residents alike. Observation towers were built from which visitors could take in sweeping views, camps and cottages were constructed, dance halls were erected and hotels opened where travelers could dine and get a room for the night.

Like many tourist havens from its era, the Irish Hills area has declined as people traveled further from their homes for R&R. I believe there is only one observation structure left, and it’s in bad shape. The touristy nature of the area has brought about some cheesy “tourist traps” like Mystery Hill and Stagecoach Stop USA (although I would LOVE a giant Paul Bunyan statue in my yard!). Much of the advertising emphasizes leprechans and 4-leaf clovers.

Yet, the Irish Hills still holds a charm. The abundance of lakes in the area ensures its continued popularity. The state developed both a state park and a state historic site in the area, which also bring people to the Irish Hills. Another big draw is an international motor speedway, built in 1967. The 100,000+ spectators to each race generate welcome tourist dollars for the local economy, even as residents (part-time and year-‘round) grimace their way through the drunken gridlock created each “race weekend” in the summers.
The Irish Hills area is about 40 miles from where I grew up, so my family has spent a lot of time there. My mom has great memories of time spent at her aunt’s cottage, from the fried chicken packed in my grandma’s picnic basket to the sound of the wooden screen door banging shut. Mom taught my sister and me to swim at the state park. It’s one the first places I went camping. Mom regularly took us to a tavern in the Irish Hills for dinner because it had live piano music. I’ve swum in many of the lakes and been to quite a few races. I guess the Irish Hills area will forever be a recreation staple for me.
So, when I got my kayak out for the season; I went straight to the Irish Hills! I plopped it into a lake on a chain of six and spent a near-90 degree afternoon skimming across the water. I’d never kayaked through canals between lakes; it really makes for an interesting paddle. This chain is great for fishing and the lake foliage looks like sunken evergreens, so there’s plenty of underwater scenery to enjoy.
I can’t wait to go back!

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