Northern Lights

(Originally published on MOLI 7/31/8)

Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula, a crook of land that sticks out into Lake Superior like God’s finger as painted by Michelangelo, was once a thriving mining and lumber region. Silver and copper made cities like Calumet boom towns, sites of fancy theaters, grand homes, and beautiful churches. Immigrants, mostly from Finland, but also from Italy, Scandinavia, etc., came to work and build, mixing with the native Anishinabe populations and the descendants of French and American fur traders.

But the last copper mine, White Pine, closed more than a decade ago (my husband worked there). Some say even the big trees are running out. The Keweenaw has tens of thousands fewer people than it did 100 years ago. There are abandoned houses and actual ghost towns scattered throughout the woods and backroads here — alongside old mining shafts, defunct railroad beds, and apple orchards gone wild.

But natural beauty, the Keweenaw has by the buckets. While most of the old growth has been deforested, there are stands of towering virgin timber in places like the Porcupine Mountains State Park and Estivant Pines Sanctuary, and thick woods of birch, hemlock, maple, and poplar have grown up where loggers once trod. The glacier-formed ridges and valleys yield vista after vista. Cliffs drop precipitously into the multihued water of Lake Superior in some places, while elsewhere the land rolls into the water as gentle white beaches decorated by driftwood sculptures. Rivers crash over red and green rocks in abundant waterfalls, and inland lakes are fishing paradises. And then there’s Superior herself: the world’s biggest lake, vast as an ocean, mirror-still and gin-clear one day, storm-tossed and deadly the next (remember the Edmund Fitzgerald?).

For years, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula has been a summer cottage getaway for downstaters from the lower peninsula (aka trolls, because they live beneath the Mackinac Bridge), Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois. I’ve been coming up for 40 years, since my family first moved to Beloit, Wisconsin. Now I make the trek from Miami every year, and I know people who come from Alaska, Montreal, Palm Springs, and San Francisco. It’s that kind of place.

With other industries depleted, the UP in general, and Keweenaw in particular, needs to find its place as a tourist destination beyond the cottage crowd — though it needs to do so in a way that won’t, once again, destroy its natural resources.

And there’s no reason that the Keweenaw can’t become an ecotourist and trekker destination. Spots like the Porkies already draw a tuned-in backpacking crowd. The park has dozens of trails that offer camping alongside streams and Superior. It has begun adding yurts to the log cabins that have been there for years. I have to admit: I stayed in one of those cabins for the first time in my life last weekend, and while it wasn’t glamping, it was an almost perfect nature experience.

The Section 17 cabin is across the stream from the Little Carp River Trail and reachable only by a simple plank bridge. It’s a mere 1.4 miles from the trailhead, so easily hiked into, even with a five-year-old who refuses to carry his own pack. It’s stocked with a wood stove, mattresses, cooking utensils, and, when we arrived, the complete ingredients for s’mores (left there by a previous camper).

It was a beautiful day. I laid on the bridge and read Jim Harrison’s Returning to Earth, a wonderfully written novel set in the UP, while my husband hooked brook trout and my son caught polywogs. We cooked brats over a campfire and, of course, enjoyed the s’mores. Even the bugs weren’t bad, and that night, I did something I never do while lying on the ground in a tent: I actually slept.

Of course, if you prefer to rough it more, you can pitch a tent just about anywhere in the Porkies. If you prefer not to rough it so much, the Union Bay Campground has full hookups for RVs alongside the lake. There is also a four-bedroom wooden cabin for rent by the week. If you want a hotel with bar and restaurant, the AmericInn in Silver City has lovely water views. There are numerous lakefront cabins and motels along the shore here, between the Porkies and Ontonagon; Scott’s Superior Inn in particular has some gorgeous log homes for rent.

The Porkies area offers numerous other pleasures. The Presque Isle River drops into Superior in a series of waterfalls that are hikable. Just outside the park, between Silver City and White Pine, the Big Iron River tumbles over rocks into pools. Cole and Bud jumped about 15 feet into one. We’ve always known this previously secret spot as Greenwoods Falls, but now it’s marked with a sign calling it Bonanza.

A group of locals, called the Friends of the Porkies, are helping increase the region’s visibility. They sponsor an artist-in-residence program and an annual music festival, which is August 22-24 this year.

There aren’t a ton of dining options, but both the Foothills in Silver City and Syl’s in Ontonagon have great breakfasts and decent lunches. Paul’s at AmericInn offers fish and prime rib buffets. Shopping wise, make sure to stop at my friend Jackie’s store, the Great Lakes Trading Company in Silver City, to check out pottery, jewelry, and other crafts by local artisans.

On Tuesday, I’ll write about the other end of the Keweenaw, and the picturesque towns of Calumet and Copper Harbor. The best overall guide to the UP is by the Hunts and available in print and online.

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