The Raw Beauty of Michigan's Upper Peninsula

Last week, a long time dream of mine came true: I got to visit Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

If that sounds like an exaggeration, it’s not. I’ve wanted to visit the UP for probably about 10 years, so a third of my life. My dad is a big fisherman and lived in Toledo when I was very young. The UP is the type of place Toledoans vacation, or would sometimes, especially if they were into hunting and fishing. There’s faded early 80s photos of he and my mom and me as an infant camping and tromping around in the sand dunes and hanging out by some lakes. Those images — happy adventures — I’ve been exposed to from my childhood, so I always wanted to explore those areas for myself. I think it has something to do with the sentimental tendency to sort of heroize the people your parents were when you were very young, and they were such uncomplicated, strong larger-than-life figures. Even the places they visited, the things they did seem romantic and somehow solid and wholesome. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me. Or maybe it is just sentimentality for the times and places that are familiar from my childhood.

So I spent about a year trying to talk my boyfriend into it, and I found the time off and the money. And I finally got my way last week. It was pretty dang exciting. I booked a place kind of blindly on the Internet. All I was looking for was a less expensive cabin that would allow dogs, because part of the dream was taking my six-month-old puppy, Minnie, along. As fate would have it, we wound up in a little town called Au Train, which isn’t even a town, but a “historic town” within a township that is home to a little over 1,000 people, right near the Picture Rocks National Lakeshore.

Here is what the view looked like when we arrived.

That’s Au Train Lake, which our “resort” cabins were situated around. This lake was ridiculously beautiful, although I’m not sure it was even all that special by UP standards. Perhaps there are hundreds of equally beautiful little lakes enjoyed by a dozen or so residents each throughout the UP. Only two sides of the lake were even accessible by road. It was like a mirror.

Why not? Here’s our cabin.

About a mile and a half down the road, was Lake Superior. So when we arrived, after about a 7 hour drive from Toledo, we set down our stuff and rode our bikes down to the big lake to see the sunset.

Again, OMG.

So that’s what it looked like. There was a little area where you could park and walk out to the beach. I saw these little stops, beaches, all along Lake Superior, the side we were on, but they seemed to be abundant along the Lake Michigan side as well, from what I could tell from the drive. So again, I’m not even sure how special this spot was by UP standards, but I was pretty blown away.

Gah. Ok. Just one more, from this spot, this night.

So I lied. This spot, near the end of the road where we were staying, this little beach was where the Au Train River meets Lake Superior. This is what the confluence looked like.

The Au Train River was something beautiful and different altogether. I spent a morning kayaking on it and it was pretty much completely free from visible human interference, as far as I could tell. I mean there were a couple houses on it and some docks, but none of the shoreline was disturbed, or cleared, no drainage pipes, nothing. It reminded me, I’m sad to say, or a Disneyworld ride, or something, some wild west imitation of nature. I don’t know why, because all of it was so different from what I’m used to, an unspoiled area reminded me of an imitation of an unspoiled area, I guess. The weirdest thing to me was that the whole floor of the river was sand. I’ve never seen a river like that in my life. I didn’t take any pictures of that though, because I didn’t want to drop my phone in the river.

Anyway. One of the highlights of the trip was we took a boat trip from a town called Munising, which was about 13 miles northeast of where we stayed. The only way to really see the Pictured Rocks is by boat, or a few overlooks from the shore.

The Pictured Rocks get their name from the colorful mineral deposits that line the walls.

Anyway, yeah. The UP is a really strange and beautiful place. Only about 3 percent of Michiganders live there, although it represents a third of the state’s land mass. The population density is extremely low, like 16 people per square mile. People that live there call themselves Yoopers. Everyone we met was pretty nice. The UP isn’t the type of place where there’s a super weird tension between tourists and locals because tourists and locals aren’t so terribly different — at least not compared to a Cozumel type place. The UP is not the place people go to show off their wealth. I didn’t see an ostentatious display of wealth the whole time, that I can recall anyway. Which come to think of it, is downright unusual for a touristy place.

The town of Au Train just had like two little groceries, and a little restaurant that had folded. The little groceries were always hopping though and they sold pasties, a meat pie basically that’s very popular in the UP. I guess it was a traditional food of the region’s miners. Mining, logging and tourism are the main industries. I guess the whole area’s not too good for farming because the growing season is too short. They clearcut the forests about 100 years ago. But now a lot of it is protected. The federal government owns a third of the UP.

Here’s what the little grocery looked like in Au Train. They sold icecream and pasties almost exclusively, as far as I could tell.

Munising, 13 miles up the road, was the big town around there. (Although we were only like a half hour from Marquette, the UP’s biggest city, with about 40,000.) Munising was a friendly, well-maintained, humble little town. We passed through a lot of little towns and each one seemed to have a bar and a restaurant, and a handful of little shops. Not like so many Ohio towns that are largely boarded up. I spent some time thinking about why this would be and I decided, maybe it was because the UP doesn’t have large enough population centers to support a WalMart — killer of small town centers throughout Ohio. Anyway, it’s just a theory.

So that was Munising. Someone told me the biggest employer is a paper mill that makes paper for sandpaper backing and the little Chiquita banana stickers.

I only spent about four and a half days in the UP and I have to say, I don’t get it. It wasn’t long enough. That always drives me crazy. I love to explore new places, but it’s so hard to understand them unless you really immerse yourself for a while. I always want to know more. What’s it like to live in the UP, I kept wondering? And I really didn’t get to have a long chat with any of the locals so I’m not sure.

Something about it was strange to me. I don’t know if I could just sense sort of a quietness from a general lack of people I haven’t been exposed to before. Even though much of the UP is wilderness, the forests aren’t that intimidating, because they were all logged about 100 years ago. They didn’t have loud bugs, at least where I was, like we do here. IDK, I haven’t figured it out. Maybe it was just something I sensed about being higher north than I’m used to. Maybe that’s just a feeling that comes from dropping in on a place far from home where you’ve never been, where you don’t know anyone.

There’s an example of what the forests looked like. They had more birch trees than I’m sued to, and the floors were covered with ferns. Whenever I travel, I always pay attention to the plants, how they’re different. There were also a lot of cool mushrooms. The air smelled like spicy pine, I’m not sure what it was. But it actually reminded me of a smell I could smell when I visited Australia. We didn’t see any big game except a wolf who had been hit by a car on the side of the road. But we did see some wild turkeys.

So there’s my sort of rambling post from my vacation to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I’m still sorta digesting it. I’m definitely glad I got a chance to go. Even though I’m a Buckeye, born and raised in Columbus, a graduate of OSU, I’ve always loved Michigan. I feel like places like this aren’t appreciated the way they were by my parent’s generation and I think it’s kind of a shame. Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is at least as beautiful as the Carolinas, and about the same distance for Ohioans. I can’t help but think these areas that depend so much on tourism for SE Michigan have seen some decline having to do with Detroit’s. But truly, there are so many great spots to visit in Michigan that are completely underrated. I don’t even think people realize what’s up there.


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