Da Yooper: June 11-12
“It’s an edgy place… it still hangs on out there like a rawhide flap of the old frontier…The U.P. is a hard place. A person has to want to hurt a lot to live there”.
–— John G. Mitchell, Audubon Magazine, November 1981—
For years I have heard the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is a “must see” destination. Flâneries Nancy and I chose to find out why. As Bette Davis remarked: “Fasten your seatbelts; we’re in for a bumpy night.”
First, some needed clarification. Upper Peninsula is the dangling strip of land above Wisconsin and connected to the mainland of Michigan by Da Bridge, known by most of us as the Mackinac. Residents refer to themselves as Yoopers which is ubiquitous on every standing item in the U.P. There is a 1-minute YouTube which assists one to correctly pronounce Yooper. It should also include dialectal pronunciation for a bunch of other sites, too. For that we must learn as we travel among the Yoopers.
Yooperland, their term not mine, must be taken as a whole. From our sneak entry somewhere around Ironwood to our hasty exit over Da Bridge, Upper Michigan was an eye-opener. Dealing with two time zones within the U.P., to trying to adapt to sunny days rapidly turning to Artic blasts, there were lots of laughs and head-scratching. Is it true the U.P. wants to become its own country?
Rumors were that between the ticks and black flies, walks in the forests might be very unpleasant. Mix that with the hope to hear the historic emergence of the Brood X of cicadas meant bugs were on our minds. Never met one of any of them in Michigan. (Boo Wisconsin, three ticks but then one might have tried a repeat performance.) But lacking any snow still on the ground, our drive through the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park was quite nice. I knew we were entering a world of trees in this part of the states – I learned we were entering a massive world of trees, trees and more trees. No expansive view here without finding a high perch first.
Fun fact: U.P. geology was carved out by glaciers which left more lakes in Michigan than anywhere else in the states. They accuse Minnesota of cheating as Minnesotans dug a bunch of their lakes.
If one does hike to the top of an overlook, you will find fantastic views of lakes and trees. Heavy fog had lifted so, ignoring commonsense, we hiked to the top of an escarpment while enjoying rolling thunder and flickering lightening. One would think we were smarter than that but the desire to see something other than a tunnel of trees drove us. Later, our stop at the Visitor Center was educational, as all such centers are, if open, as many were not.
We boarded at the historic Laurium Manor Inn. This neoclassic home was built in 1908 for Thomas Hoatson as a surprise for his wife and six children. Hoatson’s father started out working for the mines in 1865 and his son ended his career practically owning them and as president of the local banks. Small Calumet was a typical mining town and the even smaller village of Laurium became the rich man’s suburb. The once thriving mining towns are now struggling to survive on tourism. Both towns are prominent spots on that little piece of land shooting north into Lake Superior. It is kind of like the Yoopers’ finger to the rest of the world.
Question to the young barista in Calumet coffee shop: “Where do you find excitement in town?”
Answer: “You’re looking at it.”
This retort pretty much summed up conditions. The Visitor Center did eventually open and most displays were available and interesting.
Question to the park ranger: “Is the Keweenaw Heritage Center open across the street?”
Answer: “If a volunteer shows up.”
But there were highlights of the area. One was not the Mining Museum (“Closed, they’re workin’ on it.”). But the tour of the nearby Quincy Mine was operating and, though transportation included driving our own cars from the visitor center to the mine entrance and included no warning as to how wet and cold it was going to be, the actual tour was interesting and informative. But ore mining, once the predominant source of wealth in the region, is gone and one can see the after-effects and downturn left in its wake.
Our day trip to Copper Harbor was shrouded in fog but once it cleared, the view from Brockway Mountain Lookout was gorgeous. This is like the “ends of the earth” with wonderfully named Lake Fanny Hooe, a severe lack of internet and cellular, and hardy people who “do whatever I can to live here year ‘round.” Which must be a challenge because winters average over 208 inches of snow and the average high temperature in winter is below zero. (Their record of snow was 390” in 1979.) Snow can come as early as September and melt as late as May. The visitor center park ranger commented that it could snow for days and she uses the time “to think.” That’s a lot of thinking.
“In winter we shovel snow and in summer we swat mosquitoes. During the spring and fall we rest up for swatting and shoveling”.
—Peter Oikarinen’s reply to the often-asked question of Yoopers, “What do you people do up there?” 1987—
We stopped at the head of Highway 41 which starts around Mud Lake east of Copper Harbor and passes within 3 miles of where I was born on its way to Miami. We did find Hungarian Falls, or at least part of it. We witnessed countless campgrounds, endless hiking and biking trails for those more rugged than I, and a plethora of trees and more trees. We were never more than a few miles from Lake Superior. We also saw many closed museums and historic sites, endless pizza and hamburger joints, craft breweries that were more bar than brewery, and a serious lack of food that was not deep-fried.
Question to shop keeper: “Do you have Thimbleberry jam found fresh only in the Upper Peninsula?”
Answer: “Sorry, all out, come back in August.”
It became clear, these two septuagenarians from California and Florida were just not destined to appreciate Yooperland. Our question remains: What do people do here?