State Park Staff Busy With Improvements All Winter Long
Mackinac Island State Park encompasses 83% of the land on the Island, and with that comes a constant slate of tasks throughout the year. Wintertime may appear slower from the outside, but a multitude of daily responsibilities, along with numerous renovations to improve the park experience, keep Park Manager Sue Topham and her staff busy, even as snow covers Fort Mackinac.
With only nine full-time employees and the need to complete most projects during the winter season, the lead-up to the parks opening is anything but downtime.
This year Mrs. Topham and Park Director Phil Porter have plans for extensive renovations throughout the park. In the Major’s Quarters at Fort Mackinac, plumbers and a construction crew are renovating one upstairs bathroom and adding another. The guardhouse at the fort will also receive some extensive work, and the complete rebuilding of porches and the boardwalk along the front wall must be finished before this spring. Renovation at the recently reopened British Landing Nature Center on the northwest side of the Island is in the planning stages.
Nine painting projects and six roofing projects are needed to keep the buildings in proper condition.
Future projects include adding new restrooms and a shelter near Greany Grove outside the fort’s entrance, and the renovation of a space in the second floor of the Visitors Center for use by artists. Neither of these projects is expected to be underway this winter, but purchasing and planning is ongoing.
Purchasing and acquiring the proper equipment and supplies for renovations can be one of the largest impediments to their wintertime tasks, and Mr. Porter manages the purchasing of supplies. To be able to complete the extensive number of projects that Mrs. Topham needs to finish before the park opens for the season Tuesday, May 2, supplies must arrive on the Island before shipping lanes are closed for the winter.
A shipment of rough sawn lumber for the fort’s boardwalk came over on the Sacré Bleu in mid-January.
“We’re obviously not going to put it on a plane, so then [if it couldn’t come by boat] we would have to wait until spring. Thing is, you never know when spring comes here. It could be March, it could be April, and we have to have this project done before the fort opens,” she said. “To purchase these things, it all takes time to bid and spec things out and order from here when everything’s over there [on the mainland]. It takes a lot of time.”
Daily responsibilities for the park staff during the winter include plowing the roads throughout the park and the city.
“We also maintain the airport, the only state park airport, of course, and that keeps us really busy. So especially now [on] Sundays, there are no boats, so that’s the only mode of transportation off and on the Island. And then when the boats stop, that becomes the transportation hub for all goods, mail, medicine, and people,” Mrs. Topham said of the airport.
To plow the airport runway and the rest of the Island, the staff requires two snowplows. The airport runway must be plowed down to the pavement, but the road plow has “shoes” on it to leave enough snow for snowmobile use. There are also a number of mechanical systems in the park that must be winterized and monitored periodically, including fire suppression systems inside fort buildings and a humidity-controlled room for the storage of historical artifacts.
There are fewer visitors to the park in the winter, but there are still many recreation opportunities in the park. Lantern-lit ski events, groomed ski trails, and an iceskating rink require continuous upkeep throughout the season. After storms, staff members comb the more than 20 miles of trails in the park for fallen branches and trees before volunteers from the ski club can groom the trails for use.
“Our volunteers are incredible; they groom a lot,” Mrs. Topham said. And the ski club “is really committed to keeping the park open and usable in the wintertime.”
Fort Mackinac’s guardhouse will be reinterpreted and redesigned later in the winter. This will entail inside carpentry, the installation of new interpretive panels, and construction of new furniture.
The Major’s Quarters, one of the large houses just outside the fort, accommodates state officials, park commissioners, and others who survey the fort or attend conferences. It has 10 beds but only one shower. Adding a bathroom requires a crew to renovate an unused space adjacent to the current bathroom before installing fixtures. Renovation of the current bathroom is underway, as well, and wallpaper is being replaced in the ornate foyer.
The nature center at British Landing had sat unused for almost two decades before reopening last summer. This season should see the appearance of a fully functional nature center. Original renovations already completed prior to this winter included a new metal roof and removal of inside access to the toilets. Having the entrances to the restrooms inside the nature center, Mrs. Topham said, disrupted the ability to use the space for its intended purpose, so access will be only from outside. The centerpiece of the new nature center will be a floor-toceiling northern white cedar tree inside the building. Roughly 14 feet high, the installation of the trunk will require the staff to remove an exterior window. Once they have succeeded in this task, Mrs. Topham hopes to make an exhibit out of the tree.
The 200-year-old tree will have a section removed to show its growth rings, and historical events, such as when the British attacked in 1812, will be marked on the rings.
In addition, there will be woodpecker holes and branches with local wildlife, including a pileated woodpecker, mounted atop.
“It’s going to be really cool,” Mrs. Topham said.
An Artist-in-Residence program will begin as soon as renovations can be completed on the second floor of the visitors center adjacent to Marquette Park. Formerly used as Coast Guard barracks and housing for summer employees, the second floor has sat unused since the 1980s. Updates will involve designing a small, functional living space for the artists, and a large open studio surrounded by windows looking onto the harbor on one side and the fort on the other. As part of this new program, the artists will be required to add a piece of art to the Island’s art museum and offer classes in their craft. A classroom will be constructed across from the studio space to accommodate these courses.
Lastly, Mrs. Topham has begun planning for the construction of a new set of restrooms and shelter space outside the fort.
“One of our number-one visitor concerns is that they get up the hill here and, if they weren’t going into the fort, there’s no restrooms anywhere around here. For now, they would have to go all the way to Arch Rock, get admissions into the fort, or go back downtown. It is a high demand, so we were able to get some funding and we’re going to start the plans.”
Projects involving new structures may be challenging, but not when compared with the upkeep of the centuries-old fort buildings. Funding received for extensive painting and roofing projects will keep the fort in proper condition to weather the cold months. Mrs. Topham said that visitors never seem to mind the peeling paint on the fort buildings, but for preservation purposes, a fresh coat is required.
“This state park with Fort Mackinac in it and buildings that were built by the British, some in the 1700s and a lot of the buildings in the 1800s, there are so many old historically significant buildings, it is a real challenge to keep them all maintained,” she said. “Most state parks have five or six restroom/shower/campground spaces and they’re not built in the 1800s, so that’s huge [for us].”
Although these projects must be completed, almost none of the work can occur during the summer season.
“Primarily in the fort, you’re not going to want hammering and sawing, but our painter will paint on areas that are not where the visitors are. But you don’t want to have scaffolding up when you are trying to set this historic tone,” she said.
The painting and roofing will be contracted to outside companies to allow her staff to focus their energy elsewhere.
Mrs. Topham said she is eager to help improve the park for the community and visitors alike.
“You think about how many visitors come, and how they love the place. It’s pretty incredible to be part of that,” she said.
Mrs. Topham worked at other state parks and recreation areas across the state before landing what amounts to her dream job on the Island five years ago.
“Anytime I would come to Mackinac Island… and see the park people… I always thought, ‘I’ve got to work here at some point,’ and to be able to be here as the manager in this best state park in Michigan. Especially now that we’ve got really awesome projects going on, it’s really exciting.”