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Upper Michigan

This northern peninsula is actually connected to Wisconsin, not Michigan.  It is surrounded by the Great Lakes and heavily forested.  The region includes Houghton, Marquette, Sault Ste. Marie, and Mackinac Island. 


America is incredibly diverse in landscape, and this is one of those regions that could be completely different than any place I've seen.  The closest I've been is Bayfield, WI which is a quaint town on the rocky shores of Lake Superior.  Everything onshore are forests and pockets of farms.  It's such a large region, I can imagine that people love to go hiking in the hills or kayak on the water.  Mackinac Island seems like a Martha's Vineyard as an exclusive island destination, made for tourism.  

I have no clue what Traverse City might be like.  The areas industries are known for quarrying and manufacturing.  The congress granted Michigan the Upper Peninsula for statehood as a compromise with Ohio to give up Toledo. I can see why Michigan ended up being glad that happened, since this region is rich in minerals and a great nature escape for many Midwesterners and Canadians.  I imagine this area as a great place to retire, although I heard the winters are the harshest in the country.  As they say, the weather keeps the riff raff out, leaving this place deeply cultured.  I do wonder how much Canada influences the region.   


I had yet to visit a territory of land that appeared so far out of reach, that even native Michiganders haven’t made the trek.  Driving to the Upper Peninsula from my home state of Oregon, where many famous American transcontinental passages took place, like the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the Oregon Trail, I felt a similar sentiment about entering a pinpoint on the U.S. map that seemed untouched and pristine.  A journey, decades in the making, I felt as if I was in company with those iconic American explorers mapping an uncharted route. 

I was too eager to begin my next day of driving from Duluth, that I was slated to cross the Montreal River into the Upper Peninsula before sunrise.  I paused at a local diner in Ashland, Wisconsin until I could capture this lifetime milestone in the daylight. Just before I had hit Michigan’s welcome sign, I swung through Little Finland Cultural Center, what I’d come to find as a precursor to the Keweenaw Region, in which I was headed.


My focus of travel is always getting to the heart of what’s valuable to the local community. That could touch on the rich cultural legacies, industries that influenced migration, and pastimes inspired by the natural environment.  When visiting the Keweenaw Region, I was aiming for it all.  I came during an unprecedented seasonal shift, where winter and spring were jostling for position, causing my ice-capades and snow time adventures to be canceled. At least, I was able to park steadily on the side of U.S. Route Highway 2, where I stopped at the break between Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I had been gazing at this portion of America, known as the Iron Range for over thirty years, and here I was making the map come alive.  The City of Ironwood set the stage for this performance into new territory, where tributes to the mining industry were prevalent, from hiking trails, murals decorating the sides of retails shops, to statues centered at heritage parks.


The State of Michigan coined a brilliant tourism campaign, where “Pure Michigan” signs endorse sites cherished by its residents that would intrigue tourists.  As I headed deeper into the north woods, I thought the entire region could be marked with these “Pure Michigan” signs.  The roads were pathways through nature’s undulating topography, passing through towns where commercial chains cease to exist, making for communities to be authentically branded by its locals.

As I descended into the larger city of Houghton, I felt an out-of-body experience as my preconception of the cityscape didn’t align with reality.  The hills draped with vertical mannered homes, a mining shaft darted the sky, as roads channeled down to the waterfront.  Moments like being confronted by the city’s welcome sign, stating The Birthplace of Professional Hockey, and not being surrounded the familiar national commercialization caught me off guard, making travel a great learning lesson.  After being awe-struck by the accessibility of downhill skiing right in town, the gleaming waterfront trail, and the graceful sandstone architecture lined with brick streets through downtown, I wanted to learn about the traditional cuisine from a popular Finnish bakery, NISU Bakery & Café. 

Crossing the Portage Canal Lift Bridge into the neighboring city, welcomed by flags of Finland, Hancock was founded by copper explorers and home to generations of Finnish Americans.  Owner, Irma Boyd was gracious enough to demonstrate how to make the iconic Nisu loaf. How hard could it be?  Like tying your shoelaces for the first time as a toddler, the art of crisscrossing dough as a sailor would knot-tie rope, takes months of practice.  At my pace, the bread would never make it to the oven, but fortunately NISU Bakery had plenty of qualified bakers to offer traditional dishes, making the locals feel like stepping into a small Nordic town.

Heading up a steep-grade, perplexed by how locals leave their homes on a snowy day, I was scheduled to visit the worksite that brought immigrants from northern Europe, mostly Finland in the mid-1800’s. If you’re scared of enclosed spaces, this 2-hour tour of the Qunicy Mines is not for you, but it truly offers a glimpse into what life was like for miners that put their lives on the line each day.  Nearly 1 of 3 workers would tragically die from working, a statistic no workplace in America would tolerate today. You’ll discover the largest steam hoist in the world, one of the engineering marvels that allowed minerals to be extracted 9,000 feet down. Hop on the cog railway, as you’ll crank down to the entrance of the mine. The tour demonstrates the conditions of workers, including how teamwork provided over 700 million pounds of copper to the world, used for jewelry, weaponry, transportation, building, electricity, and many others. 

The people of the Upper Peninsula are built tough. Surprisingly, they complained about the weather being nice. Witnessing the ski hill dried up, the roads bare from snow, I came across a 30-foot measurement stick on the side of the road, showing the snowfall per year. I couldn’t comprehend how land accommodates that much.  It’s no wonder that homes are raised from the ground and built vertically.  Although, I was scheduled for ice-climbing, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing, for research on a book of the Bold Cold North, I still wanted to venture to Copper Harbor and skip rocks on Lake Superior.  What locals call rock hounding, I have never seen such beautifully colored rocks decorating the shoreline. Under UV light, many of them glow in the dark.  Copper Harber is definitely the place to witness some of Earth’s lit wonders, like the Northern Lights. Staying in the cabins at Keweenaw Mountain Lodge, people flock to this tip of Michigan to capture a spectacular light show in the sky. 

My final stop was to continue the Nordic tradition by visiting the Mount Bohemia Ski Resort, which is home to Finnish saunas.  A place to rejuvenate your skin, yet challenge your heart and mind, the routine is to do everything in threes.  Sit in one of three saunas to build up your body core temperature until “the not comfortable anymore” stage and then plunge into the cold pool.  The changes in temperatures help expand and constrict your arteries, creating an entire flushing of the body. By repeating this routine, you’ll be following the traditional Scandinavian practice. 

Leaving the Keweenaw Region made me feel there’s so much to come back for.  I met many prideful locals, sharing their excitement of the region.  Headed east to Marquette, Sault Ste. Marie, and over the Mackinac Bridge, Michigan has the Upper Peninsula, where just three percent of the state’s population resides.  This is one of those places that reminds me of an autographed baseball secured inside a trophy case, where it’s preserved and cherished.  When friends come over, you want to show off what you have.  Michigan is fortunate to have such a collector's items.   


Marquette is worth noting. I stayed long enough to explore most the city, which had an impressive amount of church spires, almost on every block, reminding me of parts of New England, like Portland and Montpelier.  The waterfront was stunning, like Milwaukee on Lake Michigan.  There's a huge ore dock right in the smack of town, where boats come to load iron from the surrounding region.  Then, there's the Superior Dome that is Northern Michigan University's sports complex that is the 5th largest dome in the world.  Marquette is the largest city of the Upper Peninsula and the downtown is vibrant, without any vacancies. 


I did make a pass through Sault Ste. Marie, right on the Canadian border.  Crazy how it's established way back in 1668.  French fur tradesmen came through this region and made their way down to Mackinaw City and Mackinac Island.  Crossing over the bridge, one of the longest suspension bridges was beyond expectation.  Witnessing the merging of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, right underneath is a rare sighting for me.  I don't recall ever seeing Lake Huron before.  I got out of my car after making the crossing and went for a run along the shoreline of Lake Huron.  Mega-mansions along the waterfront made me think about all the incredible variety of living conditions across America.  From a historic mansion with crashing lake waves in Mackinaw City to being right on the border fence of South Texas in Del Rio.  This country is so diverse, you can't even compare the life on the Canadian border to the Mexican border.       

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Bayfield, WI



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