Blessing of the Bikes returns to Baldwin

BALDWIN — If you hear the sound of revving engines and can smell the exhaust in the air in Baldwin, you know what time of year it is. It's time for the 43rd annual Blessing of the Bikes celebration.

Once a year thousands of bikers from all over the country gather together at the Baldwin Airport to receive a blessing on the new riding season, but before they do they get together for a weekend of fun, fraternity and roaring engines.

"This event is a legend," said June Sanborn, an organizer with the Para-Dice Motorcycle Club, who puts the whole event together. "People arrange their vacations around this, the whole community comes together and people from all over help out of the kindness of their hearts. It's amazing."

It was established in 1972 by a small group of passionate motorcycle owners who wanted a blessing for the start of the riding season. That small group has since grown into a flood of thousands of people.

"I started coming probably 20 years ago with my brother," said longtime attendee Stacy Petersen, of South Custer. "Now I come with my son. He enjoys the motorcycles and likes walking around and checking everything out. It's such a fun time and the event really helps the town."

The blessing itself will begin at 1 p.m. on Sunday, May 17, at the Baldwin Airport. A market place will be set up near Wenger Pavilion in downtown Baldwin and will be open from 9 a.m. until dark. Several other businesses in the area will be out in force for the weekend as well. Visitors can also check out other events like watching the airborne poker run at the airport on Saturday, May 16, or visit the Vietnam Memorial Wall at AMVETS Post No. 1988

Sunday will feature the blessing led by Father Ron Schneider, the pastor of St. Ann's Catholic Church in Baldwin, and awards for those at the blessing, for achievements like most miles ridden, biggest family and oldest and youngest riders.

This will be the sixth year Schneider had led the blessing. He said it is an honor to do this in the name of the community and explained his blessing this year will focus on how the event is as much a blessing for the people of Lake County as it is for the bikers who come to the area to receive one.

"Their coming here is a blessing to us," said Schneider. "I'm happy to share a blessing from us and in God's name and I wish them all safety, but they return that good will to us, especially with the funds their attendance at the blessing provides to the meals program."

Schneider said his one concern was faltering numbers at the blessing itself. While more and more people seem to come to Baldwin every year, he said many seem to be forgetting what lay at the heart of the weekend: the airport blessing. He hopes people will remember the original premise of the weekend's festivities and how their attendance at the airport helps people.

Beyond the money going to the meals program and other worthy causes in the county, the money spent by the visitors provides a strong financial boost to a large number of the businesses and attractions in Lake County.

"It's a nice shot in the arm for all businesses here — whether they are food, lodging, gas or goods — and it helps us get over the hump after a long winter season," said Terri Jamieson, owner of Jones' Ice Cream in Baldwin. "This weekend is usually our big breakout for the year."

Rick Delamater, who owns the Outdoor Inn motel near the airport with his wife Karen, said their rooms have been booked for the weekend since last year's Blessing of the Bikes.

"It's a great event and it's really a regional event," said Delamater. "People several counties away can feel the economic impact of this many people hitting the roads and coming to Baldwin. I think what a lot of people forget is Baldwin is naturally a good place for bikers all year round. You've got these nice, scenic roads between White Cloud and Ludington and Cadillac, and Baldwin sits right between them."

Sheriff Robert Hilts expects the huge influx of visitors will go smoothly, but is still taking no chances when it comes to safety.

"We're bringing in everyone," said Hilts. "A Michigan State Police detail will be coming down to help us and there will be no leaves for department members this week, but we're not expecting any trouble. This is mainly for traffic purposes and ensuring the roads are safe. Blessing of the Bikes is one of the great draws of Lake County and we want to make sure everyone will be able to enjoy themselves safely."

Beyond a few speeding tickets and noise complaints, Blessing of the Bikes has never produced any increase in crime for the community. Hilts said in there haven't been any major disruptions during the weekend for more than 20 years. He said people can carry negative stereotypes about riders, but most of those attending the blessing are just regular citizens who want to come together with fellow bike enthusiasts.

"When I first heard of Blessing of the Bikes years ago, I had this image of scary biker hooligans invading the town," joked Jamieson. "Then I actually saw one of the blessings. It turned out the people who were coming could be your neighbor or your doctor and the entire thing is just a big party where everyone comes together for a good time."

When it comes to maintaining safety, Hilts said the best advice is common sense. When traveling, plan some extra time to accommodate for the increased traffic, drink in moderation, always use designated drivers and be respectful of each other — good advice, he adds for both residents and visitors.

Much of the event's success is dependent on the weather. A warm and sunny weekend can mean record attendance, while poor weather can easily discourage visitors, especially since the vast majority are traveling via motor cycle.

"It can vary from one year to the next," said Jamieson. "One year is snowy and the next is 80 degrees and sunny. Hopefully we'll get good weather this year."

Most forecasts are predicting a chance of rain on Friday, May 15, but clear skies and temperatures in the 70 to 80-degree range for Saturday, May 16 and Sunday, May 17.