The Mackinac Bridge is one of the most-recognized symbols in Michigan. Tourists flock to the bridge each year just for the view of, and from, the miles-long bridge.
As part of our series, Take This Job and Love It, Steve Keene met with someone whose job gives him a slightly different view of the Mighty Mac.
People typically cross the Straits of Mackinac over the Mackinac Bridge.
One man, meanwhile, makes his living from looking up at the span.
“It gives me a big sense of pride to be able to see so many people choosing this as their vacation and see people enjoy being here…’cause I think we live in a pretty awesome state.”
Ty Bugbee works with Great Turtle Kayak Tours. He manages the company’s Mackinaw City site. The other site is on Mackinac Island. He could be described as a Straits of Mackinac tour guide; he and his staff lead kayakers of all experience levels on excursions under the Mackinac Bridge.
He said it’s not uncommon for those who’ve never sat in a kayak to sign-up for the tours. Prior to each trip, he gives a brief training on procedures and safety...everything from how to direct the kayak to signals out on the water.
“We have a few paddle signals that we use on the water, just in case things get inaudible. With us being by the bridge, if we have a truck or anything that goes by, this just helps us to be able to communicate on the water. So if I ever go like this - it means hold your position where you are, if I go like this - it means come to me, and if I point to any direction with my paddle it means go in that direction.”
Ty started paddling seven years ago at a YMCA camp in Jackson. He eventually went on to become a counselor at the camp. That put him in an instructor role.
After several summers of paddling for the camp, he decided to move on. Although the Straits met the criteria that Ty describes as ‘big water’, he said it wasn’t just the location that drew him to work as an instructor.
“I was looking around for different places on the Great Lakes to work. And because of my interest in Line 5 and wanting to be a part of that movement to get it out of the water, I started to look at Mackinac a little bit more.”
Ty is referring, of course, to the controversial oil pipeline that runs under the Straits of Mackinac. It’s owned by Canadian corporation Enbridge and carries hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil per day. It might not come as a surprise that Ty doesn’t stray away from having conversations about the pipeline while with his tours.
“You can’t paddle in oil. Our Mackinaw City location would be one of the first businesses to be impacted, even by a minor leak on Line 5. It would take out our tour routes right there. We’re pretty vocal about it.”
Ty said his workweek fluctuates with tour demand and comes with early mornings and late nights.
This is Ty’s third season. Although he said he hasn’t grown tired of seeing majestic views over the Straits, he most looks forward to building connections with the people that come on the trips.
“We have some smaller tour sizes, so it kind of gives us an opportunity to develop more of a rapport on the water...ya know, being able to focus on one or two or three people and kind of create a relationship. It’s cool to be able to have someone from India or someone from Norway who’s never been to northern Michigan before. To be able to share our space with them and to be able to help them develop that connection with our water, and to have a really good experience in their trip here..it’s a really cool opportunity.”
He said the job certainly comes with its perks...the views, the location, the outside office. But when fall arrives, the office inevitably closes down for the year. Ty said the pay doesn’t deter him from working this seasonal job.
“There’s kind of this notion that if you want to do a job like being a kayak guide or any sort of adventure guide, you’re gonna be living out of your car, it’s gonna be a super-low wage job and you’re gonna struggle to make ends meet. But I think if you find the right places and really invest yourself, it’s easy to make a comfortable living and allow that to be the only thing that you do. I would say I’m super comfortable with what I’m doing and I’m really happy to, which is a big bonus.”
Ty said he plans on staying with Great Turtle for the immediate future. He admires the ethics behind the company and the work it does in pushing for environmental concerns in the area. And the view can’t be beat.