Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a World Apart
When to go: The four seasons offer distinct options. Summer is slow to arrive and early to fade, but temperatures rise well into swimsuit range. Come September, dense forests make for breathtaking leaf-peeping from the last week of September to mid-October. U.P. Travel identifies different fall-color tours and provides color status updates on its website. The Keweenaw Snow Gauge, a roadside attraction in Mohawk, says everything you need to know about U.P. winters. The record snowfall recorded was 390.4 inches in 1978-1979. The U.S. Forest Service describes the approximately million-acre Ottawa National Forest, which gets about 200-plus inches of snowfall annually, as “Big Snow Country.” It draws skiers and is a playground for dog-sledding, ice fishing and snowmobiling. Spring brings the search for coveted — and elusive — morel mushrooms. It’s also prime time for wildlife at the Seney National Wildlife Refuge, where 95,238 protected acres are home to about 200 species of birds, plus beavers, river otters, frogs and black bears.
Logistics: The Mackinac “Mighty Mac” Bridge ($4 per car) connects the upper and lower peninsulas at the Straits of Mackinac. Drivers can also arrive by road from northern Wisconsin. The Sault Ste. Marie International Bridge links Michigan with Ontario, Canada ($4 per car). Sault Ste. Marie, which is the name of the city on each side of the international border, is the oldest city in Michigan (circa 1660s). Ferry service runs from both peninsulas to Mackinac Island, the popular car-free summer resort. Ferry service runs from the Lower Peninsula to Bois Blanc, a sparsely populated island in Lake Huron. Drummond Island, one of the largest in the Great Lakes, is reached via a one-mile car-ferry ride ($20 per car, $2 per walk-on passenger).
Health: Two words: insect repellent.
Itinerary for first-timers: Dip your toe in the water by beginning with Mackinac Island, which offers tourist amusements in the form of fudge, horse-drawn carriages, bicycling, golf, kayaking, a lilac festival and the Grand Hotel, before heading into the woods. Few U.P. sightseers return home without snapshots of Lake of the Clouds, which is nestled like a blue mirror among trees in the verdant Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore at Munising on Lake Superior includes stunning 50- to 200-foot cliffs at the water’s edge, which can be viewed from sightseeing cruises and by kayaking. The rocks are called “pictured” because of mineral stains streaking the stone in red/orange, blue/green, brown/black and white. Watch lake freighters as they’re raised and lowered 21 feet to navigate the elevation change between Lake Superior and Lake Huron at the Soo Locks. Close viewing of the ships allows visitors to experience their impressive mass.
Itineraries for repeat visitors: Venture deeper into the natural landscape. Isle Royale National Park (accessible by ferry, seaplane or private boat) is one of the least visited national parks. It is rugged and isolated, home to moose and certainly far from the madding crowd. It’s a place for canoeing, kayaking, hiking, scuba diving and night-sky gazing. Get into the water by kayaking at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore or sailing the bays and coves of Les Cheneaux, an archipelago of 36 islands. You also can go off-roading and birdwatching on Drummond Island.
Eat this: The pasty (rhymes with “nasty”), a hefty pastry pocket typically filled with ground beef, potatoes, rutabaga or carrots, salt and pepper, was a copper-mining stowaway, arriving with Cornish immigrants who carried them into mines as a calorie-dense portable meal. Good-natured debate is waged over carrots vs. rutabagas and whether to eat a pasty plain, with gravy or with ketchup. Menu mainstays also include white fish and pannukakku (pahn-noo-kahck-koo). Find them in the sister cities of Houghton (Suomi Home Bakery) and Hancock (Kaleva Cafe). Crispy outside, custardy inside, pannukakku are popularly served with blueberries.
Special events: The U.P.’s hearty embrace of all things winter includes fat-tire biking trails, dog-sledding (mushing) and various winter fests, including Houghton’s Winter Carnival, hosted by Michigan Technological University since 1922. It’s best known for its intricate snow statues. The Trenary Outhouse Classic, canceled this year but returning in 2022, may be the most eccentric of the season. It’s a race in which homemade outhouses on skis are pushed by pairs of runners.
Reading list: John D. Voelker, Jim Harrison and Ernest Hemingway are the famed fraternity of U.P. literature. Voelker (pen name Robert Traver), was a Michigan Supreme Court justice and U.P. native. He wrote the courtroom thriller “Anatomy of a Murder,” which was made into the 1959 Academy Award-nominated movie. It was filmed on location in the U.P. A more recent addition to the Yooper canon is “Here: Women Writing on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula,” edited by Ronald Riekki. The anthology of short stories, essays and poems features a diversity of voices, whose writing highlights Michigan’s northernmost reaches. If it’s your habit to buy books on vacation, consider Snowbound Books, an independent seller in Marquette.
Playlist: The best-known U.P. song is Canadian folk-rock composer-musician Gordon Lightfoot’s haunting ballad, “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” It recalls the November 1975 sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald ore carrier on Lake Superior. All 29 crew members perished.
Souvenirs: Stormy Kromer hats are de rigueur U.P. fashion. Hats, in general, are as signature to the U.P. as Lilly Pulitzer prints are to Palm Beach, Fla. For edible treats, try Mackinac Island fudge or jam made from thimbleberries. Find jars at farm stands or at the Jampot near Eagle Harbor, where it’s made by Byzantine Catholic monks. Much of the U.P. is steeped in Native American culture. Indigenous crafts are available in several locations, including at the Museum of Ojibwa Culture shop in St. Ignace.
Fun quote: “There is great pride in being a Yooper and sounding like a Yooper.”— Kathryn A. Remlinger, author, “Yooper Talk: Dialect as Identity in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.”
Powers is a writer based in Detroit. Her website is rebeccapowers.com.
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