Yesterday I turned the hourglass over to start my 14 day trip to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Isle Royale National Park. A rain delay prevented me from leaving home until 11:00 am but I wasn’t in any hurry. It’s about 450 miles to Houghton, Michigan and the boat that will carry me to the island so I planned on stopping for the night in Wisconsin. The Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest sprawls across northern Wisconsin with hundreds of lakes and deep woods. Dozens of campgrounds offer hundreds of reasonably priced camping spots. I rode Interstate 39 north then exited north of Wausau onto Wi-17. It’s here that I enter the country with small towns and businesses that cater to everything outdoors: fishing, hunting, hiking, snowmobiling. Lots of bars and restaurants are carved into the woods with Friday night fish fry signs. But it’s Sunday evening and most are closed. I whisk past one place as glowing neon script catches my eye – “Burgers.” I squeeze the brakes and slowly roll across the gravel driveway to their door. Inside a few regulars are sitting at the bar hunched over their bottles of beer. I order a Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR), also affectionately known as Pap Smear Ribbon, and ask for a cheeseburger. I’m informed they don’t have any – ever. The kitchen’s been closed for years and the only thing served now are those disgusting frozen cardboard pizzas zapped in a small toaster oven behind the bar. Yikes! He asks if I still want the beer (uh, no thanks) and I set off seeking better food. Think it might be time for them to unplug that sign?
Further north, I stop at a restaurant with quite a few cars in the parking lot. I step inside and plenty of folks are consuming what appears to be digestible material. I sit beside a woman and her husband at the bar and this time order a Dr Pepper. I ask for a menu but there aren’t any. Food choices are displayed up on the wall with a white plastic board, affixed black letters spelling out the enticing possibilities. Oh, oh. The woman notices my concern and reassures with, “Everything’s good here.” So I got a fish sandwich with mac & cheez [sic] bites. NOTE TO SELF: when a menu item has ‘cheese” spelled with a ‘z’, RUN! Good Lord – I thought the Geneva Convention banned bio-chemical warfare and also stipulated the humane treatment of prisoners of war, including nutrition and food provisions. Ahh yes, I’m not technically a prisoner here. But now I know where all the shit they used to feed the POWs went. I never in my life thought I’d look forward to morning oatmeal at camp, but after this meal…
I pass through touristy Eagle River, Wisconsin crammed with mom-n-pop motels, bait shops, bars and restaurants. Where is everyone? It’s Sunday, June 7th at 6:00 pm and I’m the only vehicle on the road. A few miles east the national forest boundary is crossed followed by a sign for Anvil Lake campground. Riding atop a newly constructed black asphalt loop, site #2 is occupied by the campground host and one other site has a tent. Arriving at site 16, the lake can be seen through the trees, a wooden staircase dropping from the drive to the site below. Beautiful. In addition to 18 campsites, Anvil Lake offers a beach, picnic area, public shelter with stone fireplace, water and clean vault toilets. Camping is $12. A loon’s tremolo drew me down a short path to the lake where I was treated to a pretty sunset.
The light patter of droplets falling from towering trees nudged me from sleep this morning. An overnight drizzle had stopped and I was able to enjoy my oatmeal without getting wet. I set off east on Wi 70 then north onto Wi 55 where I cross over the Brule River into Michigan. I stopped at a bait shop east of Iron River to purchase mosquito netting for my head then continue north on Mi 141. A grey, murky sheet is seen ahead, my cue to get rain pants and gloves on. Stopping on the shoulder of a low bridge, I’m able to use the guard rail as support while slipping my rain pants over my boots. The grey ghostly sheet is now upon me, thundering logging trucks, laden with timber, blast past with a fury of wind and road spray. By the time I arrived at Canyon River Falls, the rain had stopped. Pulling into a shinny parking area with puddles all around, I took a short hike over a loamy damp path alongside the rapids and falls.
Riding through L’Anse and then Baraga, I’m at the base of the Keweenaw Peninsula, also known as Copper Country. The peninsula runs north into Lake Superior for 80 miles, ending at the small town of Copper Harbor. Formed from the same lava flow that created Isle Royale, the ground is rich in mineral deposits. Further south, the mined metal is iron ore but here in the Keweenaw it’s copper. Deposits were mined on an industrial scale starting in 1844 that created thousands of jobs and great wealth. Boom towns prospered then went bust around the time of the Great Depression when falling copper prices made mining unprofitable. Today, mines shuttered and abandoned, only ghosts remain of many of the boom towns. Logging, tourism and Michigan Technological University in Houghton are now the primary job providers in the Keweenaw.
Separated by the Keweenaw Waterway, twin cities Houghton / Hancock are the bulls-eye of the peninsula. During the iron mining heyday, the waterway was dredged and cut to provide a 100 mile shortcut across the peninsula for iron ore freighters plying the Great Lakes but the decline of mining has now left the waterway nearly devoid of any commercial ship traffic. North of Houghton, the land is technically an island, its only connection to the south over a 75 foot lift bridge. Crossing over the bridge I stop at the Quincy Mine for a tour of the historic facilities. Over its lifetime, the mine produced nearly one billion pounds of copper. A hoist consisted of a 30 foot diameter drum, wound with 10,000 feet of 1 5/8 inch steel cable extended to the mine shafts dropping 9,200 feet into the earth. The steam-driven hoist could lift 10 ton buckets of ore at a rate of 35 MPH. Four man crews would work a dedicated channel along horizontal tunnels, cut in from vertical shafts: one man held a two foot star-tipped steel chisel while two others took turns striking the chisel with sledge hammers. A fourth “low skilled” member of the team carried the rock to vertical shafts for removal. Each month, a supervisor would measure the area to calculate the volume of rock removed and the team was paid accordingly. The tour went through the hoist building then a trolly ride took us to the base of a hill and the entrance of a tunnel leading into the mine. There, everyone boarded a trailer for a tractor pull one mile into the earth. All tunnels below this level have long since flooded with water. The tour lasted about 1 ½ hours and was a fascinating glimpse into the backbreaking effort needed to coax metal from the ground.
Back over the bridge I stopped at Keweenaw Brewing in Houghton for a couple of pints. The bar is in the historic district along the canal, the interior wrapped in wood. Look up for the loooooong yellow rowing shell hanging from the ceiling. Their beer is tasty and at $2.75 / pint, a hell of a bargain. Except for bags of salted peanuts, no food is served but it’s OK to bring your own. Then it was three miles east to the outskirts of town for my motel this night at Julie’s Motor Inn, their sign promising, “Smiles Guaranteed!” Julie did indeed welcome me with a beaming smile. Clean and comfortable, the room came with WiFi and cable TV. At $60, this motel is the best value in the area. Once checked in, I loaded the backpack while watching my beloved Blackhawks lose to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Tomorrow, I set sail for Isle Royale and a communications blackout. This is to be the last Stanley Cup game I’ll see this year.