On Mackinac Island, Lake Huron’s waves are destroying an iconic highway

SLIDESHOW: Large pieces of state highway M-185 on Mackinac Island have been destroyed or heavily damaged by the record-high water levels of Lake Huron. (Bridge photo by John Russell)

High water levels combined with a warm winter that limited ice cover on Lake Huron created a nightmare scenario along M-185, where waves lashed against the shoreline for months on end, ripping the asphalt apart. (Photo courtesy of MDOT)

A sign at a roadblock along Michigan state highway M-185 on Mackinac Island warns of erosion that has destroyed or heavily damaged portions of the highway. (Bridge photo by John Russell)

Jeremy Burr, a Team Elmer’s foreman, works to place large pieces of rock along state highway M-185 on Mackinac Island to provide a barrier against crashing waves that have destroyed large sections of the highway. (Bridge photo by John Russell)

Large pieces of state highway M-185 on Mackinac Island were lined with boulders in the mid-1980's when record-high water levels threatened the roadway. This year, with Lake Huron threatening to break the 34-year-old record, more of the island’s pebble shoreline is being lined with large boulder revetments. (Bridge photo by John Russell)

Myron Johnson, Mackinac Island State Park manager, discusses the damage to large pieces of state highway M-185 on Mackinac Island, after record-high water levels on Lake Huron eroded the island’s shoreline. (Bridge photo by John Russell)

Mackinac Island is open for the summer after a spring in which most island stores were shuttered due to the COVID-19 virus. But flooding and erosion caused by high Lake Huron water levels created yet another obstacle for the popular tourist destination. (Bridge photo by John Russell)

Dominick Miller, marketing director for the Mackinac Island State Park, moves bicycles out of the way of a rock-moving loader along highway M-185 on Mackinac Island. (Bridge photo by John Russell)

Sean Barrie of Team Elmer's drops an 11-ton boulder on a portion of an eroded beach on Mackinac Island. (Bridge photo by John Russell)

This photo shows M-185 last fall, as raging waters crashed against the shoreline, ripping trees and asphalt into Lake Huron.

On a typical sunny summer day, Mackinac Island’s car-free highway would be teeming with walkers, bicyclists and horseback riders taking in virtually unbroken views of Lake Huron’s crystalline waters along the iconic 8.2-mile loop. 

But at the height of the island’s summer tourism season, much of M-185 is deserted. Large barricades block off half of the road’s length, with signs warning of dangerous conditions ahead. 

Beyond the barricades, record high Lake Huron water levels have flooded the island’s pebble beaches and swallowed large swaths of pavement, leaving craters where the road once stood.

In place of the tourists, heavy machinery rumbles down the highway, depositing 11-ton boulders into the water to absorb waves that have been gnawing away the asphalt. But with only $1.4 million to address an estimated $7.4 million in damage to M-185, only so much can be salvaged.

“Right now, the main focus is just getting enough rock down to keep it from falling in more,” said Myron Johnson, manager of Mackinac Island State Park, which spearheads day-to-day maintenance of the Michigan Department of Transportation-owned highway.

M-185 is just one of many casualties of high Great Lakes water levels that have wreaked havoc on public and private infrastructure statewide. But in tourism-dependent, car-free Mackinac, the damaged highway is perhaps just the most visible symbol of a summer beset by obstacles.

The island’s economy is already hobbled by COVID-19 business closures, capacity restrictions and sanitation requirements, not to mention flooding that has forced many downtown business-owners to run electric pumps 24/7 in their basements. With miles of outdoor space now inaccessible, visitors have a little less room to roam, making social distancing that much more of a challenge. 

“The world is edgy right now. We like to think of Mack as a place to get away from all of that, so we’re trying to be stewards of a place that can make that available for people.” — Phil Porter, Mackinac State Historic Parks director 

“It’s the perfect storm,” said Ira Green, who rents bicycles to tourists through his Mackinac Island Bike Shop. Now, in addition to sanitizing the bikes to ward off the virus, his daily routine includes breaking the news about the temporary closure of M-185 to visitors who hoped to circumnavigate the island.


“It impacts us quite a bit,” Green said, “But people are making the best of it, and they are finding new routes.”

State park and MDOT officials say they’re aiming to reopen M-185 as soon as possible. But unless water levels recede soon, more damage is likely once fall storms arrive.

Water, water everywhere 

All around Michigan, flooding and erosion are wreaking havoc on the state’s coastal roads and bike paths, along with private property and other public infrastructure. 

Take, for instance, Lakeshore Boulevard in Marquette. Or the Little Traverse Wheelway between Petoskey and Charlevoix. Or U.S. 31 outside Pentwater. Or the M-22 bridge over Betsie Lake.

Water levels across all the Great Lakes remain well above average, after cold winters in recent years produced widespread ice cover that curbed evaporation, while successive rainy springs filled the lakes ever-higher.

Inland aquifers are also full, rendering them unable to absorb water when heavy rains hit. That results in severe floods like the one that caused the Edenville and Sanford dams to fail in May outside Midland.

Lakes Michigan, Huron, St. Clair and Erie all set monthly average water level records in May. Huron and Michigan (which have identical water levels because of their connection at the Straits of Mackinac) are on track to continue rising through July, possibly breaking a 1986 record for their highest water levels ever recorded. 

Across the state, 40 state-owned highways and bridges are seeing high-water-related damage, said Brad Wieferich, director of MDOT’s Bureau of Development. 

The department will spend about $5 million this year to “keep things passable,” Wieferich said. Longer-term fixes such as raising bridges to prevent repeat flooding or moving roadways further inland would cost as much as $100 million, making high-water damage “one more priority to put on the stack of things that we have to determine how we’re going to fund.”

The speed with which Lake Huron destroyed large portions of M-185 on Mackinac Island speaks to the Great Lakes’ destructive power when high water levels collide with intense storm surges.

Johnson, the park manager, noticed the first signs of asphalt damage last August. While state officials worked to negotiate a maintenance contract for what was then a minor problem, Lake Huron continued to batter the island.

“The lake level just kept going up and up and up,” Johnson said. “Now it’s to a point where it doesn’t take a lot of east wind to get water up onto the road.”

By November, a huge chunk of asphalt had collapsed into the lake. In the months that followed, it only got worse. 

A winter without ice 

Winter usually offers a respite from the annual pummeling, as ice cover on the lake limits wave action. But last winter was mild, and Lake Huron remained largely ice-free. Water crashed ashore for months on end, scouring the earth out from underneath M-185 and causing the asphalt to buckle. 

When winds picked up, seven-foot waves slammed ashore with such force, they piled beach pebbles feet-deep on the highway. 

Mackinac State Historic Parks Director Phil Porter is all too familiar with the Great Lakes’ cycles of high and low water levels — he spent childhood summers on the island and has worked for the parks system since the 1970s. 

“But this is the biggest threat I’ve ever seen,” he said. 

For now, work crews are fixing only the most heavily-damaged sections of road, and hoping the new boulder revetments will help prevent further damage. MDOT officials hope to make more repairs next year, said Dan Weingarten, a spokesman for the department’s Superior region, but given the massive state revenue shortfall tied to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s unclear how much money will be available for the job.

Work crews are conserving boulders where they can, hoping to stretch materials far enough to armor an extra stretch or two of shoreline.

“We’re putting a Band-Aid on something that isn’t going to go away,” said Jeremy Burr, foreman for the Team Elmer’s construction crew in charge of the repair job.

Efforts to mitigate damage to the road are further complicated by the rocky topography that produces Mackinac’s stunning views. Along much of the island, limestone bluffs jut out nearly to the shoreline, making it impossible to move the road away from the water. 

“There’s nowhere you can go,” Porter said. “It’s either build it higher or abandon it, which we’re not going to do.”

Porter estimated as many as 400,000 people bike along the road every year. It’s an enormous tourism asset, not to mention a crucial transportation artery for island visitors, residents and emergency responders.

And in the time of COVID-19, when indoor recreation opportunities are scarce and many are hopping on their bicycles as a means of socially-distanced recreation, Porter said M-185 may be more important to the island than ever. 

“The world is edgy right now,” he said. “We like to think of Mack as a place to get away from all of that, so we’re trying to be stewards of a place that can make that available for people.”

MDOT officials hope to reopen the partially-repaired M-185 in the coming weeks, in time for late-summer tourists to enjoy it before the fall storms arrive to test the highway’s new rock armor.

The boulders won’t be the only noticeable difference: Repaired sections of road will be gravel-topped. After purchasing more than 9,000 tons of stone to reinforce the shoreline, there is no money left to lay new asphalt.

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Karen Dunnam
Thu, 07/09/2020 - 3:43pm

There are more good photos on the FB group called Mackinac Island News and Views. Just yesterday I was reaching out to M-DOT to see if the agency could provide more photos (civil engineering geek here!). Bridge, you beat them to it!

Mon, 07/13/2020 - 5:26pm

Team Elmer's has a photographer who has been taking photos too and is making a video of the project. Check out their Facebook Page, Instagram and website. I know they have photos of this project from when they did phase 1 in December.

Robert Grey
Thu, 07/09/2020 - 8:12pm

Yeah, except they don't sanitize as much as you think at the bike shop. One of my friends told me that they rarely sanitize when it's busy because it's hard to get to everything and sanitize it accordingly. There's also a sign that says they won't serve people without masks....which is also false because when it's busy they just push bikes out even to people without masks. Don't let these people fool you, some know a lot of what happens behind the scenes.

Darrin Peterson
Thu, 07/09/2020 - 8:24pm

Time to bring in some big rocks like is in Mackinaw city

Fri, 07/10/2020 - 9:25am

I'm going to have to get out there and check it out before it starts going down in the continuous up and down cycles that have always been part of the lakes and always will.

Fri, 07/10/2020 - 3:06pm

You mean like the invasive species hoax or the COVID19 hoax? Those crazy liberal scientists always making up stuff.

Sun, 07/12/2020 - 6:31am

When the Great Lakes were dropping to near record levels some years back, some liberal, alarmist climate scientists blamed that on global warming and said that the lakes would continue to drop unless something was done. Then in defiance of their dire predictions, the lakes started to rise up and those same "scientists" did an about face on their prediction and now are saying that due to global warming the lakes will now continue to rise unless something is done. The fact of the mater is that the Great Lakes have long been in rising and falling cycles and likely always will despite what some want us to believe. Many climate scientists have lost credibility on this issue.

George Hagenauer
Fri, 07/10/2020 - 9:27am

This is the canary in the coal mine of climate change. On the positive side with portions of the planet dealing with increase desertification and water shortages, we in the Great Lakes region increasingly have the fresh water we need. The downside is all that nice high values beachfront and lakefront property we love is going to go away. The article makes me wonder how Chicago is faring - not just with its beaches but the many high rises right on lake Michigan.

Fri, 07/10/2020 - 3:09pm

If you love the Great Lakes and science, read "Death and Life of the Great Lakes" by Dan Egan.

Leah Mogill
Sun, 07/12/2020 - 9:25am

Makes me think that if decades past the island or state or someone made the entire SHORELINE with sustainable native plants would that have decreased the erosion? There's a better way to state this, but I"m stir crazy blanking!

Sun, 07/12/2020 - 8:00pm

Strongly agree! It’s a fascinating read. Makes you realize that everything is always more complicated than I had appreciated.

Fri, 07/10/2020 - 9:43am

As Glen Haege, noted home advisor on Detroit radio, always used to say, "water always wins". Anyone who thinks the Great Lakes are high now only needs to come back in 3 or 4 thousand years and see the altered coastlines. Millions of years ago, the ocean levels were hundreds of feet above where they are now. Our only saving grace is that no one who knows todays coastlines will be around to see the flooding, and the people alive then will just build on dry land

Fri, 07/10/2020 - 9:53am

My favorite scenic bike ride every summer! So glad you are doing all you can to fix it up.

Claudia Smith
Fri, 07/10/2020 - 11:31am

Me, my husband and are grandson go up there every year and ride are bikes around the Island. We were just there last week. And we made are way around it by taking other ways, we also found a couple of way we didn't know was there. We enjoyed doing the other ways around. We had fun fun.

Marlene Augst
Fri, 07/10/2020 - 6:02pm

Pourous Pave. It's made from used tires, comes in colors and water washes right thru it.