Down Home in Michigan's Upper Peninsula
The area is gorgeous, remote, and quirky—where the people prefer ATVs to cars, and menus feature meat pockets and Paul Bunyan-size cinnamon rolls.
Day 1: Marquette to Copper Harbor
The Upper Peninsula is the part of Michigan that shares no borders with the mitten-shaped rest of the state. On a map, the peninsula looks like it should be in Wisconsin--it extends from that state and divides the waters of Lakes Superior, Michigan, and Huron. But while researching our trip, I learned that in fact the U.P. used to belong to Ohio. It was traded to Michigan in 1837 for a piece of land that would become part of Toledo.
Remote, quiet, and mostly raw wilderness, the U.P. is about the size of Denmark--far too big to explore in its entirety during a long weekend. My girlfriend, Lydia, and I board our connecting flight from Milwaukee to Marquette, the peninsula's biggest town, on a rattletrap prop plane so small that the airline doesn't bother with a flight attendant. Before the plane takes off, a recording comes on and tells us to fasten our seat belts.
As the plane bumps along above Lake Michigan, Lydia and I are discussing our plans when a young man named Luke chimes in. "Oh, I go fish camp there," says Luke, referring to one of our intended stops. Fish camping, he explains, entails a week or so of little more than fishing and drinking beer with your best buddies; it's a tradition among Yoopers, as U.P. locals are proudly known. Luke recommends we pick up some bug dope (bug spray, naturally).
Our goal for the first day of this early-summer trip is to make it to the U.P.'s northernmost tip, a smaller peninsula called the Keweenaw, for a swim in Lake Superior. First, though: lunch. Marquette is a tidy lakeside town with wide, clean streets, sturdy brick buildings, and a glittering marina. Luke recommended theSweet Water Café, which turns out to be excellent. It's a hippieish spot with lots of vegetarian options that uses "cooking techniques derived from the diversity of Earth's cultures." We have a killer falafel platter served by a waitress with dreadlocks.
Almost as soon as we get outside of Marquette, it's apparent that visiting the U.P. is a little bit like traveling to a foreign country that has only recently been colonized by the U.S.: Nordic flags fly, and accents are a strange blend of Canadian and Scandinavian. Then there are the ATVs, which seem to be a far more popular mode of transportation than cars. Four-wheelers are everywhere: at drive-throughs, at grocery stores, at churches. It's not unusual to see an entire family of Yoopers, including grandparents and young children, following each other astride thundering Kawasakis. Begoggled posses scream down the highway shoulder, peel off onto overgrown dirt paths in clouds of billowing dust, and disappear into the woods.
The road to the Keweenaw is lined with tempting stops. First is Canyon Falls, with its churning water the color of a Coke Slurpee. Next we pop into the freeIron Industry Museumfor a primer on the area's mining history. A few miles down the road, we can't pass up seeing the world's largest working chain saw atDa Yooper's Tourist Trap & Museum. The place lives up to its billing, selling lots of useless but amusing stuff like a "U.P. wind chime," which is a bunch of empty Bud Light cans hanging from a stick. We also get our first taste of a local obsession at theHilltop Restaurant. All over the U.P., restaurants and bakeries specialize in cinnamon rolls--or rather, giant sweet rolls, as the Hilltop calls them--that are roughly the size of a toddler's head.
Eventually, we make it to the Keweenaw. We first drive up the peninsula's eastern side to Bete Grise Beach. What a gem! The afternoon light is perfect, and as this is early season, the sandy cove is empty except for a couple with a Subaru, a tent, and plans to camp out for the night. I politely ignore their warnings about the water temperature and charge in. My heart skips several beats, but the sensation is great anyway. I'm thrilled the trip is getting off to such a promising start.
Back in the car, we meander up and over Brockway Mountain on a wooded road that is dappled in sunlight and ends with a postcard-perfect view of the tiny town of Copper Harbor. I can't argue with the sign outside theHarbor Hausrestaurant that proclaims: YOU ARE NOW BREATHING THE BEST AND MOST VITALIZING AIR ON EARTH.
Inside the restaurant, waitresses are dressed in dirndls. A terrific wall of windows looks out onto Lake Superior, and hearty German food is served in enormous portions. The whitefish wrapped in bacon, the potato pancake with feta cheese and apples, and the bison sausage with peppers, mushrooms, and cheese are all wonderful. Lydia and I share a raspberry cobbler with bourbon-cream sauce, and it's good enough to inspire something of a race between us.
I don't know if it was the swim, the beer, the sunset view, or all the fantastic food, but I'm in a full-on state of first-day-of-vacation rapture. After dinner, we are directed to the nearby Bella Vista Motel, where an employee tells us to look out for the northern lights in a little while; they have been appearing of late. But Lydia and I are too exhausted and go to sleep, fast.