August 31, 2011

The Upper Peninsula

I love the UP. A few years ago, I decided I hadn't been up there in too long and flew solo, going through the Pictured Rocks and the Porkies, before taking a route of questionable directness home through Duluth and Minneapolis. I saw no bears. Last year, I went up with my friend Josh and brother-in-law Jon. We again hiked the Pictured Rocks, but spent the remainder of our trip tooling around in the beautiful Huron Mountains northwest of Marquette, finding waterfalls and swimming in them. We again saw no bears. But I did come home with poison ivy.

And this year, it was Dad's turn to accompany me on what has now become an annual pilgrimage. Let me start off by saying we didn't see any bears. We did, however, see a coyote trotting off the road, and got a pretty good view of a bald eagle.

Dad, I think, had never seen one in the wild before and he was thoroughly impressed. I'd never seen one this close, but at camp a few years ago I saw one come flying in from a long way away, all glorious and majestic, wings flapping beautifully, soaring in the Michigan breeze, only to be annoyingly buzzed off by a couple of seagulls. It was beautiful, then disappointing. This time, though, we walked along the beach, pausing every few steps to get a closer picture. They really are beautiful birds.

The UP seems like a place where nature generally wins the battle. We stayed at Fort Wilkins, up at the tip-top of the Keweenaw Peninsula. If you take the road to the west, you can creep up Brockway Mountain and on a clear day see Isle Royale 50 miles out (we hit it on just such a day.)

(this view from Brockway Mountain does not show Isle Royale, which for the record is where I want my next venture to da UP to be.)

At Copper Harbor, they started a fort to protect the miners in Copper Country during the copper boom back in the 1840s. But it didn't last long and they shut it down. Everyone, it seems, got pretty bored. You get a real sense of this walking around the restored buildings on the fort grounds. The area is beautiful, but only if you're into that whole beautiful nature thing. There's not a whole lot else to do up there. The reputation of Michigan Tech, 50 miles to the south of Copper Harbor, and the rest of the UP for that matter, is that people drink for entertainment in the wintertime. They drink to stay warm too, I guess. This seems to have been true for the troops at that fort, judging by the stuff on the historical markers at the park. Yoopers have embraced it.

Apart from Marquette, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of commerce. The only thing to live on is what has been there for a really, really long time - natural resources. In the 1800s they mined copper. In the 1900s it was the iron industry and logging. Now, there's still a lot of logging (and paper mills to coincide) and tourism - people who pretty much just want to see nature. And lighthouses. (I still don't really see their appeal. Sorry, lighthouse apologists.)

The UP, I've heard, has 33% of Michigan's land and only 3% of its population. That means 97% of Michiganders are trolls (who live under the bridge.) You get a real sense for this as you drive the highways. First, there aren't all that many. There are huge tracts of land away from the highways that most people will never see without a snowmobile or a 4-wheeler. Second, the highways are lined with ghost towns, many of which have dead tourism efforts. And these, actually, are some of the most fascinating spots in the UP. Why did people ever live here? Where'd they go? What did they leave behind?

No question, I love the UP. As dad and I drove around, we realized that we were visiting some places that most Americans - and even most Michiganders - will never, ever see. I don't know many people who've been as far north as Copper Harbor, or as far west as the Porcupine Mountains, or hiked the trails of the Pictured Rocks. And that's kind of a shame because they're some of the most beautiful places in our wonderful state.

You should go see them.

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