Michigan’s Upper Peninsula: Northern Exposure

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula: Northern Exposure
I’ve been curious about Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (aka the U.P.) for a number of years. This northern exposure has plummeting wintertime temperatures and lake-effect snow piling high. The U.P. constitutes 29 percent of Michigan’s total landmass, but the unforgiving winter weather explains why only three percent of the state’s population lives here year-round. During the moderate summer months, though, this outdoor paradise begs to be explored by motorcycle. And we’re here to do just that.

Welcome to Yooperland

Full-time residents of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula are often referred to “Yoopers,” which is derived from “U.P.-ers.” Crossing over the Straits of Mackinac on the 26,372-foot Mackinac Suspension Bridge, we arrive on the U.P. in St. Ignace (pronounced Saint Igness), MI. Our eight-day adventure begins the next morning with me riding the red 2014 BMW F 800 GS Adventure and wingman Bob Brown on his 2012 BMW R 1200 GS.

From high atop the Porcupine Mountains on the Keweenaw Peninsula, Lake superior stretches as far as the eye can see.

We’re anticipating the same spring-like 70-degree weather of yesterday. But when I cast a glance to the west, dark clouds are mustering on the horizon. In partial denial of what may lie ahead, I don my rain top, but not the rain pants. I’m thinking that any shower we might encounter will be light and short.

Riding west on U.S. 2, we trace the scenic Lake Michigan coastline. Today, however, frothy whitecaps break over turgid waters, attesting to the ferocity of offshore winds. Intensifying raindrops streak horizontally across the road and form pools. Day rapidly turns to night. Shards of lightning dance across the sky, while some arc to the ground in the distance ahead. Visibility shrinks to a few yards. We need immediate shelter, but where? Finally I spot a rest area. We pull in and spend the next hour huddled under roof with a burgeoning group of fellow travelers.

A magnificent tree trunk carving, at Ironwood's former train station, pays homage to the men who risked their lives in the mines.

It’s always interesting how a common calamity breaks down barriers to conversation. A couple heading east is now concerned about crossing the Mackinac Bridge in possible high winds and rain. The storm finally abates and we continue. Bob is warm and dry in his one-piece Aerostich riding gear, but I’m soaking wet from the waist down. A hot shower and hot food at day’s end were never more appreciated.

Clear skies and warmer temperatures greet us on the second day of our U.P. adventure. We ride into Escanaba, take a few photos, and then continue west on 2, journeying deep into mining country. The Iron Mountain Iron Mine, in the 21st century, is mining tourist dollars more than ore. Underground trains transport visitors through 2,600 feet of tunnels that descend 400 feet below ground. We forgo the mine’s deep dive, but enjoy gazing at Big John, the giant-sized miner in the parking lot.

Motorcycles & Gear

2014 BMW F 800 GS Adventure
2012 BMW R 1200 GS

Helmets: Kabuto Ibuki Modular, Arai Profile
Jackets and Pants: Dainese Teren D-Dry, Aerostich Roadcrafter Light
Boots: Oxtar, Tour Master Solution
Gloves: KLIM Element Short Glove, REV’IT! Hydra

Just down the road, in Iron Mountain, are two co-located museums. One features a gigantic water pump and the other commemorates World War II-era Army gliders. Visitors with a mechanical bent, like the two of us, will find the Cornish Pumping Engine fascinating. This gigantic sump pump, which stands 54 feet above the engine room floor, was used to remove water collecting in the bottom of a former iron mine. The flywheel alone is 40 feet in diameter and weighs 160 tons. (Hmm, I could have used this a couple years ago when my basement flooded.)

The bell, recovered from Edmund Fitzgerald's watery grave in 1995, is an iconic reminder of the doomed crew of 29.

Of particular interest to me, though, is the next exhibit. During World War II, the Ford Motor Company plant in Kingsford, MI, built more gliders for the U.S. Army than any other company. In the early hours of D-Day in 1944, these gliders, filled with troops, were towed aloft by powered aircraft and then released behind German lines on the French coast. As a graduate of the U.S. Army Airborne School, I have long wondered about the glider on my Airborne patch. Now, here’s one fully restored and it’s bigger than I ever imagined.

Peacemakers, Parks, and Pasties

The next morning we linger in Ironwood to behold the world’s tallest Indian. The 52-foot-high, 18,000-pound fiberglass statue honors Hiawatha. This pre-colonial Native American was instrumental in promoting peace and banding together the Five Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. He’s depicted in full-feathered, fringe-leather regalia.

Jim peruses the display of World War II-era Army gliders at the museum in Iron Mountain, MI.

Arriving on the Lake Superior shore, we turn west into Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. The road ascends along several twists and turns and then dead-ends near an expansive overlook. Stretching far below, we see Lake of the Clouds and, in the distance, a series of ridges, some rising to almost 2,000 feet. The native Ojibwa People thought the mountains’ silhouette resembled the shape of a porcupine and named them accordingly. Who knew that Michigan’s U.P. had mountains?

Several miles east on Lake Superior is Ontonagon, where we break for lunch. We’ve seen numerous restaurant signs advertising “pasties” as a menu specialty. I’m more than a little curious about this gastronomical offering. Our waitress explains that the correct pronunciation of the delicacy is “pass’tees” and that it’s similar to an Irish meat pie. Cocking her head to one side, she asks, “What did you think it was?” “Oh right,” we reply, “that’s pretty much what we thought.”