Touring Mighigan’s Upper Penninsula By Motorcycle

1 of the reasons I ride is for the spirit of facing the road and life with a can-do attitude, and yet another is for the joy of seeing the landscape unfold. If that’s component of your riding psyche, too, you’ll feel proper at house in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, or “The U.P.” as the locals call it. Stretching 310 miles from Sault Ste. Marie near its eastern end to Ironwood near its western border, it’s a wild land separated from the Lower Peninsula by the Mackinac Bridge, and from Detroit (293 miles to the south) by main cultural differences.

I was born and raised in Michigan’s western Lower Peninsula, and can keep in mind in grade school singing the unofficial state song, “Michigan, My Michigan” (to the tune of “Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum”). In the 1970s I utilized to ride up into the U.P. on vacation. Despite a move to California far more than 30 years ago I still return to my hometown, but had not been back to the U.P. since 1975. That’s why I was specifically enthused about the chance to ride there for a couple of fall days last October.

On this newest trip I discovered the U.P. refreshingly unchanged, and rather than my early 1970s Honda CB450 I was now riding an Electra Glide Classic borrowed from Bald Eagle Harley-Davidson in Marquette. I was also accompanied by Brad Kolbus, from Munising, on his Road King; he publishes a rider’s guide to the U.P., appears to know everybody, and knows where to ride and what to see.

Just after we began riding along the Superior lakeshore by Marquette Bay, I immediately pulled Brad over at a vision that seemed proper out of a Star Wars movie to ask, “What the heck is that?” It was a enormous structure, massive and gray, and hundreds of feet long, a succession of high, close-set concrete archways extending out into the water. Brad informed me that it was the old Lower Harbor Ore Dock, now no longer in use. Railroad cars full of iron ore were shunted onto it, workmen lowered chutes and the ore rattled noisily into the holds of the huge ore carriers that utilized to dock here.

Next we ride west, where we note signs of the approaching fall season: Pontoon boats up on blocks, firewood neatly stacked on porches and the leaves turning yellow. We reach Big Bay; this little town was the scene of a murder in 1951 that inspired the book Anatomy of a Murder, and the 1959 movie by the same name starring Jimmy Stewart and Lee Remick. We grab lunch at the Thunder Bay Inn, which was the setting for scenes in the classic film. The pub in which we dine was built onto the hotel for the filming.

Though Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario are referred to as “The Great Lakes,” they’re in fact fantastic inland seas. In Munising I board a 60-foot observation boat for a cruise along the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The captain informs us that Superior alone contains sufficient fresh water to cover the entire continental United States to a depth of 5 feet! It’s cool and blustery this day, and once we clear Grand Island we’re in Lake Superior appropriate where the waves start to rock and roll. Most of the patrons abandon the cold, windswept open viewing area on top for the glass-enclosed seating on the main deck, as I take into account abandoning my lunch over the side. All along the Pictured Rocks we’re treated to a humorous, running commentary about the rock cliffs that have been eroded by eons of wind, rain and freezing weather, and painted in shades of brown, tan and green by the runoff of the limonite, copper, iron and manganese. We sail past caves, arches and a rock referred to as the Indian’s Head. A wide, filmy waterfall drops like a veil from the striated cliffs.

The next day Brad and I ride from Munising east on M28 along what is referred to as “the Seney Stretch,” 25 straight miles via scrubland full of stunted trees and pines. Thirty-some years ago I had stopped in Seney to commemorate that it was correct here, where Highways 28 and 77 intersect, that a young Ernest Hemingway had disembarked the train in 1919. Wounded in World War I, Hemingway had hiked north to fish the Fox River, and would later fictionalize the experience in 1 of his Nick Adams stories called The Huge Two-Hearted River. But wait, the Two Heart is truly well north of here; did Hemingway get it wrong? Nope. Like a true fisherman, he had misnamed the river in an attempt to keep his favorite fishing spot a secret.

We ride eastward on a tree-lined two-lane road, and when we pass the sign for Deer Park I recall camping near it on Muskallonge Lake in the ’70s. My evening was enlivened when five raccoons came snuffling up from the lake, begging on their hind legs. I gave them some bread, and half an hour later was toasting marshmallows over the fire when something tapped me on the shoulder. Startled, I turned around to discover a raccoon, and when I turned back one more was running off with the toasted marshmallow as two other people had been hot-footing it into the darkness with the entire bag between them! They do not wear those little bandit masks for nothing!

Lake Superior is cold, gray and whitecapped on this blustery day, and when the rain begins I huddle into my electric gear and crank the thermostat to “weld.” The Classic’s fairing and lowers keep the worst of the weather off me, and Gordon Lightfoot’s haunting dirge “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” plays by means of the stereo on our ride to The Excellent Lakes Shipwreck Museum on Whitefish Point. The song recounts the sea disaster that occurred on November 10, 1975, when the ore carrier sank in a storm with all 29 men, just 17 miles northwest of here. In the Museum’s boathouse I meet Tom Farnquist, executive director of the Excellent Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society. Speculation is that the SS Edmund Fitzgerald was too close to Caribou Island some 40 miles northeast of here, where 35-foot seas in 45 feet of water allowed the carrier to strike bottom, which damaged her hull and caused her to take on water. She eventually broke in two and sank in 535 feet of water off Whitefish Point. Farnquist has dived on the wreck and personally helped recover the ship’s bell, which now comprises the centerpiece of the museum.

Dinner was at the Antlers Restaurant in Sault Ste. Marie, which was packed this Friday night. Yeah, it’s a Yooper location all correct, with trophy heads and stuffed wildlife arranged along the walls and among the rafters. Suddenly, a siren sounds, lights flash and we ask the waitress what the heck’s going on. “Oh, they do that each time they open a new keg,” she explains.

In the morning we cross the street from our motel for a view of the famous Soo Locks. Unfortunately, at this specific moment there’s not a ship in sight. The International Bridge looms in the distance with Canada just across the way.

It’s about a 55-mile freeway ride south to the Mackinac Bridge, then we turn westward on Highway 2 via low scrubland with Lake Michigan on our left. In Blaney Park Brad introduces me to Steve Zellar, who puts on an annual motorcycle event known as The Blaney Park Rendezvous. He gives us a tour of his expansive campground that accommodated three,000 riders last year; his 2010 rally will be held June 18-20.

The thumb-shaped Garden Peninsula hangs down into Lake Michigan, and is home to Fayette Historic State Park. Fayette was established in 1867 as an iron-smelting operation with large furnaces, an extensive dock and homes; about 500 men and women lived and worked here. When the charcoal iron marketplace declined, the operation was discontinued in 1891 and Fayette was abandoned. Nowadays, it has been left as an arrested ruin, a gift from the past with its unpainted foreman’s houses, the old hotel and castlelike stone remains of the smelter on picturesque Snail Shell Harbor.

We stop in Nahma at the Nahma Inn, a bed & breakfast with 14 charming rooms and a full bar and restaurant. Brad introduces me to owners Charley and Laurie Macintosh (he appears to know everybody) who are planning a bike event there in the near future. Next door is the old general store, which was abandoned in the ’50s with some of its merchandise still intact. Its owner, a gentleman named Pat, gives us a tour of its time-capsule interior.

Brad leads us up H13 north into Alger County, and this fall Sunday afternoon we enjoy the turning leaves as the Harley feels surprisingly nimble following the road’s hills and gentle curves. Each few miles a trail or two-tracks leads off into the yellow woods, where muddy dirt bikes and ATVs disappear; we long to follow them into the forest.

From there it’s west where we go to Da Yoopers Tourist Trap near Ishpeming. As an ex-Michigander it was just as corny as I’d hoped, with life-sized dioramas of a Jeep driven by a deer with a hunter tied across the hood, of deer playing cards, the location full of Yooper bumper stickers and souvenirs. Out front is “Gus,” the world’s largest running/working chain saw (it’s in The Guinness Book of Records), and “Huge Ernie,” the largest working rifle.

The ghost town of Fayette serves as a symbol for a lot of the U.P. that, regrettably, is suffering economically.

Along the roads are abandoned homes and factories. Tourism is now the primary economic driver in the region, and there is a lot about the U.P. to love. To me, the true charm of the location-with its pines and cedars, maples and birches, hidden lakes and bays, and rustic cabins-is how the whole thing comes together. On this fall Sunday we rumble along backroads to The Up North Lodge near Gwinn. The sunlight dapples the red-and-yellow maple leaves, and there’s a cool dampness in the air from a recent passing shower. We tromp inside as the fragrance of wood smoke wafts from the stone fireplace. Numerous patrons turn to nod and greet us. Burgers and pollock, ribs, whitefish and smelt populate the menu, and a football game illuminates the huge screen. This welcoming, rustic friendliness confirms that this genuinely is still Michigan…my Michigan.

— Bill Stermer

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