2018-09-08 / News

25,000 People Took Part in 61st Annual Mackinac Bridge Walk

By Kevin R. Hess


For the first time in the event’s 61-year history, people walked both sides of the Mackinac Bridge during the annual Labor Day Bridge Walk. Here, people can be seen walking north from Mackinaw City (left) and south from St. Ignace. People had the option of walking the entire span of the bridge, or turning around at the halfway point and heading back to where they started (right). For the first time in the event’s 61-year history, people walked both sides of the Mackinac Bridge during the annual Labor Day Bridge Walk. Here, people can be seen walking north from Mackinaw City (left) and south from St. Ignace. People had the option of walking the entire span of the bridge, or turning around at the halfway point and heading back to where they started (right). In its 61st year, the Labor Day Mackinac Bridge Walk saw a first-of-its-kind change as people walked simultaneously from Mackinaw City and St. Ignace Monday, September 3. It’s not the first time walkers have embarked from the south end of the bridge, but it was the first time walkers left both ends of the bridge at the same time.

The Mackinac Bridge Authority (MBA) estimated more than 25,000 crossed the Mighty Mac afoot on a beautiful day for walking. That’s about the same number as last year, except then hundreds more were turned away when they didn’t get on to a bus in time to start the walk. In 2016, 45,000 people walked the bridge and an estimated 30,000 participated in 2015.


A group of runners earned the right to be the first ones on the Mackinac Bridge during the 2018 Bridge Walk. They are seen here making their way south from St. Ignace to Mackinaw City. A group of runners earned the right to be the first ones on the Mackinac Bridge during the 2018 Bridge Walk. They are seen here making their way south from St. Ignace to Mackinaw City. Under the new format designed by Mackinac Bridge Authority, participants had three options. Those taking off from either side could walk the whole five-mile span between the peninsulas, walk halfway before returning to the city from which they left, or walk the full length of the bridge in both directions – a 10-mile roundtrip.

The St. Ignace Visitors Bureau provided free shuttle service from Little Bear East to the bridge. The MBA covered this cost in years past. While the service was free of charge, donations were accepted to offset the cost to the Visitors Bureau. Executive Director Quincy Ranville said the organization may charge a minimal fee next year to offset the cost. It chose not to do that this year because the MBA hadn’t charged for the shuttle service in the past and the Visitors Bureau lacked the manpower to collect money.


Governor Rick Snyder (front, center) and his entourage lead the Bridge Walk from St. Ignace. The new format this year meant that in addition to leading a southbound crowd of participants, the governor was met for the first time by a steady stream of walkers coming north in the opposite lane. Many of them called out friendly greetings to the governor and requested photographs, while some others shouted unfavorable comments, some regarding the Flint water crisis and other concerns. The event will have a new governor to lead it next year as Governor Snyder is serving his final eligible year in office. Governor Rick Snyder (front, center) and his entourage lead the Bridge Walk from St. Ignace. The new format this year meant that in addition to leading a southbound crowd of participants, the governor was met for the first time by a steady stream of walkers coming north in the opposite lane. Many of them called out friendly greetings to the governor and requested photographs, while some others shouted unfavorable comments, some regarding the Flint water crisis and other concerns. The event will have a new governor to lead it next year as Governor Snyder is serving his final eligible year in office. “We’ll make sure we get information out well before the event next year so people know if there is a charge and will not be surprised by it” said Mrs. Ranville. “Any rate we charge will be minimal.”

MBA secretary Bob Sweeney attributed the lower turnout to uncertainty among participants.

“I think a lot of people weren’t sure how things would go with the new format, but as we get more consistency and people experience it for themselves, I expect the numbers to increase again,” he said. “Overall, things went really well and we received many compliments.”

For the second year, owing to security concerns, the bridge was closed to all vehicles, except for emergencies, from 6:30 a.m. until noon. This year, buses were not available to shuttle walkers back to their starting side. Walkers were responsible for arranging their own transportation after finishing the walk. The U.S. Coast Guard and local police patrolled the waters below the bridge, while the Michigan State Police patrolled the bridge.

“We had to put safety first,” said Governor Rick Snyder, who led walkers from St. Ignace for his eighth and final time. “Unfortunately, we live in a dangerous world, and to have vehicles on the bridge while we have so many people walking would be a bad idea. I appreciate people cooperating, being excited, and you can still see people are having lots a fun.”

Concerns about traffic backups might have kept some people away in each of the last two years, said Mr. Sweeney, but backups were minimal both years. This year, traffic was clear and running smoothly within 40 minutes of the bridge’s reopening at 12:30 p.m. Weather is always a factor and early forecasts predicted a chance of rain, and that may have kept people from the event. The bad weather, however, never materialized.

To accommodate the new rules, some walkers chose to park their vehicles on the opposite side of the Bridge early in the morning before it closed to traffic, while others walked halfway and then returned to the same place from which they started. Some walked the 10-mile route north and south. Others took advantage of the special ferry services between Mackinaw City and St. Ignace.

Shepler’s ferry service offered three early morning departures to transport walkers to their desired starting point. Three boats were offered for each departure. Two of the boats had a capacity of 220 passengers and the third had a capacity of 100. The boats departed Mackinaw City for St. Ignace at 6 a.m. and 7 a.m., and from St. Ignace to Mackinaw City at 6:30 a.m. Each boat was at full capacity, transporting more than 1,500 walkers between the two communities.

“Things started a little slow when we first began advertising, but in the last 48 hours before the walk tickets started flying,” said Erik Heffernan, director of operations for Shepler’s. “Once people saw that the weather was going to be good, they started purchasing tickets. Everyone seemed really happy with how things went.”

Mr. Heffernan said the special service was a success and he anticipates it will continue, possibly with additional runs.

“The key,” he said, “is making sure we get people to the starting point on time, if they want to walk the entire bridge.”

Following the walk, Shepler’s didn’t offer trips directly between St. Ignace and Mackinaw City, but walkers could “boat hop” at Mackinac Island, choosing to immediately board another boat to their desired destination or spend time on the Island before returning.

Star Line offered direct services between the peninsulas every hour from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m.

To cross the entire span, walkers had to reach the halfway point by 10 a.m. Anyone who didn’t make it by then was forced to turn back to where they started. The new rules got mixed reviews from walkers and business owners in both communities. Some were unaware of the changes and had to turn around instead of being able to cross the entire bridge. Those who were turned around finished the walk right about noon, the designated time to end the walk.

“We advertised with press releases, through MDOT, YouTube video, and our website,” said Mr. Sweeney. “Although most were aware of the new format, unfortunately, some were not. We can’t adjust that time because we need to have the bridge open for traffic at 12:30.”

Some walkers loved the new format and the opportunity to walk both directions. They dubbed themselves

“double-crossers” and even formed a club of the same name. Two walkers who took advantage of that opportunity were Maria Maddocks of Mayville and Sandra Errity of Davison. This was Ms. Errity’s ninth time walking the bridge and first time walking a 10-mile route.

“It was kind of a slow start, but I like having the option to do both,” she said.

Ms. Maddocks walked the bridge for just the second time, but she said she hopes to make the 10-mile walk a new tradition with her friend. Ms. Maddocks walked the 10-miles dressed as Wonder Woman and waving two American flags.

“I like superheroes, so I decided to dress up like one,” she said. “I can’t believe how many people liked it. I just wanted to make it more fun.”

Another walker who had fun was Phyllis Googasian of Oakland Township, who walked with her husband, George, grandson, Ryan Graydon, and his wife, Jessica, as an 80th birthday celebration. The Googasians own a cottage in Iron Mountain and have crossed the bridge numerous times in their vehicle, but never by foot. The group walked from Mackinaw City to St. Ignace and then continued Mrs. Googasian’s 80th birthday celebration with a Labor Day trip to Mackinac Island.

“We’ve crossed the bridge 100 times in our car,” she said. “Now we’ve finally walked across it. This was on my bucket list.”

Susie Hierholzer, pastor of United Methodist Church in St. Ignace, walked with her family and liked the new format, saying it was nice to have the option to turn around or keep going. She also noted that traffic was smooth afterward without all of the buses.

Jimmy McDonald of St. Ignace liked the quietness of the walk without the vehicles and was one of several walkers who were supportive of the changes because of the lack of vehicle congestion. Mr. McDonald tuned around at the halfway point. He and his family weren’t going to walk, but decided later in the morning to go. He said without the option of turning around halfway, they likely would not have been able to start when they did.

“It was pedestrian-friendly with a lot of options,” he said. “I really liked it and was more satisfied than I thought I would be” walking halfway and turning around.

The event featured walkers of all ages and all experiences. Some made their first trek, while others, like Marv Schwartz of Grand Rapids, were seasoned veterans. Mr. Schwartz made his 40th and 41st trip across the Mackinac Bridge, taking advantage of the opportunity to be a “double-crosser.” He first walked the bridge in 1972 and has walked it every year since 1982. He donned a sweatshirt printed with “Marv’s Mackinac Bridge Walks” and each date that he has participated. This year, he made the trip with a motorized cart decorated with a flag commemorating his 40th walk.

As people walked in both directions, some interacted, waving at their counterparts and offering pleasantries to one another. It was Governor Snyder’s first experience walking south to Mackinaw City while a group of northbound walkers met him. Many waved, stopped, and took photos as his party passed.

While most were there to simply enjoy the walk and the views of Lake Huron and Michigan’s peninsulas, others walked with a political, environmental, or spiritual message. A small number either offered praise and support for the governor or expressed their displeasure with his leadership. The governor treated it as nothing new.

“It was great to see people going back and forth and waving and taking lots of pictures,” he said.

Many families and groups of friends had special shirts made as they shared the experience of walking together.

“We’ve done this every year for the past four years and we hope to keep doing it together,” said friends Kathy Thomas of Brimley and Terri Ludlow of Schoolcraft. “We’re trying to recruit more people to come with us. You don’t know how fun it is until you try it.”

Business Impact

Some business owners in St. Ignace and Mackinaw City reported increases over the holiday weekend, while others reported a slight decline in business from previous years. It’s hard to determine the direct impact of the Bridge Walk on the holiday business, some say, but each knows that it is a major factor.

Mackinaw City business owner Joe Lieghio said it was slower than usual in Mackinaw City, but noted that it was still a great weekend and the Bridge Walk is a big reason why.

“If we didn’t have this event, we’d take a huge hit,” he said. “It’s our biggest event and we appreciate it still going on. It’s a great event, great experience, and is great for business.”

Mr. Lieghio said he hopes adjustments can be made along the way to maximize the effectiveness of the event, but his biggest concern is keeping it going.

“I want to make sure we find ways to preserve the event,” he said. “It’s not just an event for our communities to make money, but it connects the two peninsulas, shows people what Pure Michigan is all about, and introduces people to the area who might then make plans to return another time to see all we have to offer. If we ever lost the event, it would have a huge long-term effect.”

In St. Ignace, results of the new format were mixed. Luke Paquin, co-owner of Cedar Hill Lodge, said the motel was full on Saturday and near capacity on Sunday, but in past years, it had been full well ahead of Labor Day weekend.

“Numbers were down a little from years past,” he said. “Throughout town, I saw more ‘Vacancy’ signs than usual. With the changes to the walk, I think it just needs a little time to build consistency. It’s a work in progress, but it seemed like it was relatively smooth sailing.”

As of Thursday, August 30, many hoteliers were concerned about low numbers, said Mrs. Ranville, the St. Ignace Visitors Bureau director.

“Many hoteliers were still 40% to 60% below capacity before the weekend,” she said. “Although many guests did book rooms over the weekend, overall, our hotels were not as full as usual. They’ve had every weekend booked throughout the summer, except for Labor Day weekend.”

Mrs. Ranville believes too many are afraid of staying in St. Ignace that weekend with the bridge closure on Labor Day. She hopes with more consistency and a better understanding from guests, business will increase, but she is a little concerned that people won’t come to St. Ignace on this weekend as they have in years past.

“Traffic control has been really good the past two years, but I think most people would prefer to stay in Mackinaw City to avoid the potential of traffic problems,” she said. “We’re putting all of our efforts into getting people to stay here and will continue to do so.”

Mark Sposito, owner of the Mackinac Grille, said business was up around 5% this Labor Day weekend compared to last year. The numbers for Labor Day weren’t yet available, but he said it was a good weekend, overall, especially at his ice cream shop out front.

Jeremy Werkheiser of St. Ignace walked the bridge with his family. They parked a car in Mackinaw City Sunday night and started their walk on the St. Ignace side. That option worked well for them, but Mr. Werkheiser believes it could affect St. Ignace businesses.

“It was almost impossible to find parking in Mackinaw City,” he said. “I think St. Ignace could be losing business that we used to get.”

St. Ignace Mayor Connie Litzner did not walk the bridge, but said she believed there were more people in downtown St. Ignace than usual.

“I talked to one restaurant worker who said they were swamped,” she said. “I ate in a different restaurant and they were busy, also.”

Mr. Sweeny said the MBA was “very pleased” with the event and believes it will regain traction and interest as it finds consistency in its format and people become familiar with its flow.

Individual teams and organizations will begin to evaluate the 2018 walk and look at any needed changes or adjustments for next year. MBA officials will meet later this month with representatives from each participating organization.

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