The Wonderful Wilderness of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

Immortalized by Longfellow, the Midwest’s preferred vacation spot offers unspoiled forests, waterfalls and coastal villages

Northern Michigan's rocky coast, shown here is a Presque Isle cove, has long beckoned as a summer playground. The picturesque region, wrote American naturalist Edwin Way Teale, is "a land of wonderful wilderness." (Scott S. Warren)
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“We have not far to go,” the Fitzgerald’s captain, Ernest McSorley, said on the radio. “We will soon have it made. Yes, we will....It’s a hell of a night for the Whitefish beacon not to be operating.”

“It sure is,” replied Bernie Cooper, captain of the nearby Arthur M. Anderson, another ore carrier. “By the way, how are you making out with your problems?”

“We are holding our own,” McSorley answered.

Those were the last words heard from the Fitzgerald. On November 15, 1975, the ship’s twisted remains, broken into two large sections, were located 17 miles off Whitefish Point at a depth of 530 feet. No one knows just what happened. One theory holds that the force of the waves opened the vessel’s hatches and filled the hold with water. But historian Stonehouse, author of The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, believes the ship probably “struck a rocky shoal, didn’t realize it, staggered off and sunk in deep water.” Because of the danger in sending divers into water that deep, the crew’s bodies have yet to be brought to the surface.

Tahquamenon Falls State Park lies 23 miles southwest of Whitefish Point. It’s the site of two cascades that disgorge up to 50,000 gallons of water per second, putting them behind only Niagara in volume among waterfalls east of the Mississippi. The Upper Falls, surrounded by one of Michigan’s last remaining old-growth forests, features a 50-foot drop. The falls might have saved the forests by making logging there untenable. The drop over the falls would have broken logs floating downriver. Today, majestic eastern hemlocks, four centuries old, stand 80 feet high in the 1,200-acre park.

The movement of glaciers shaped Lake Superior 10,000 years ago. Today, wind and water continue to mold its shoreline. Nowhere is this more dramatic than at Pictured Rocks, a 15-mile-long expanse of cliffs northeast of the small port of Munising (pop. 2,539). I board a tour boat that makes its way into a narrow bay created by Grand Island on the west and the lakeshore to the east. As we head toward the open lake, the cliffs become less densely forested; fierce winds have sheared off treetops and branches. Some cliffs are shaped like ship hulls jutting into Superior, and crashing waves have carved caverns into others.

After a few minutes, the Pictured Rocks come into view, looking like giant, freshly painted abstract works of art. “There are a few cliff formations elsewhere along Superior, but nothing this size or with these colors,” says Gregg Bruff, who conducts education programs at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Hundreds of large and small waterfalls and springs splash down the cliffs, reacting with minerals in the sandstone to create a palette of colors, including browns and reds from iron, blues and greens from copper, and black from manganese. The fragility of this natural wonder is apparent: large fragments from recently collapsed cliffs lie at the base of rock faces. In some places, the cliffs may retreat several feet in a single year. Eaten away by pounding waves, the lower portions are the first to go. “On top, there will be overhangs protruding above the water,” says Bruff. “Right now, there is one spot with an overhanging boulder the size of a four-bedroom house.” As we head back to the harbor, flocks of hungry gulls emerge from nesting holes in the cliffs, flying parallel to our boat.

Some 150 miles west, on the northwest shore of the scenic Keweenaw (KEE-wuh-naw) Peninsula, 1,328-foot Brockway Mountain offers a breathtaking prospect of Lake Superior. This is copper mining country. At Keweenaw’s tip, the tiny hamlet of Copper Harbor is Michigan’s northernmost point. During the Civil War, the port was a major loading dock for copper ore. In the century that followed, the peninsula drew vacationing families to holiday houses, many along the southeastern coast of Keweenaw Bay. Some of the beaches were created from massive amounts of gravel and sand excavated during removal of copper ore from underground mines.

Established in 1848 midway up the Keweenaw Peninsula, the Quincy mine grew into one of the largest and most profitable underground copper mines in the country, earning the nickname Old Reliable—until its lodes declined in purity in the early 1940s. By then, Quincy’s main shaft had reached a depth of 6,400 feet—well over a mile. Today, guided tours transport visitors on a cart pulled by tractor to a depth of only 370 feet. Below, the mine has filled with water.

Tour guide Jordan Huffman describes the work routine in the mine’s heyday. “You had a three-man team, with one man holding a steel rod and two men pounding away at it with sledgehammers,” says Huffman. After each blow, the miner grasping the rod rotated it 90 degrees. At the end of a ten-hour workday, four holes would have been driven into the rock. Sixteen holes filled with dynamite formed a blast pattern that loosened a chunk of copper ore to be transported to the surface. The backbreaking work was done by the light of a single candle.


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