(This article appeared in a Kentucky newspaper in April)
Michigan's sparsely populated scenic upper third boasts natural and man-made marvels
By Zach DunkinThe Indianapolis Star
PARADISE, Mich. -- They don't call this place Paradise for nothin'. Just ask Gene McClellan.
The mechanic from Grand Rapids and his wife, Sherri, moved here 4½ years ago to live in the middle of 16,452 secluded square miles full of lakes (4,300), waterfalls (150), lighthouses (40) and fishing streams (12,000 miles).
Montana has its Big Sky. Texas has its wide-open spaces. And Michigan has its Upper Peninsula.
Bounded on the north by Lake Superior, on the east by St. Mary's River, on the south by Lake Michigan and Lake Huron and on the west by Wisconsin, the U.P. -- as locals call that isolated land mass connected to mainland Michigan only by the Mackinac Bridge -- is about the size of Denmark. The terrain is nearly 90 percent forest; summer temperatures range from 55 degrees to 85 degrees; and the air is dry.
Three percent of the state's population lives here on almost one-third of the state's territory. If the land were divided equally among its 340,000 residents -- proud Yoopers (for UP-ers) -- each would get 310,000 acres.
That space and solitude attracted the McClellans, who now own and operate the sky-blue Tahquamenon General Store and Canoe Rentals on Mich. 123.
"People downstate are in too big of a hurry. You've got to slow down and smell the roses, so to speak," said Gene McClellan, 51. "My only regret is that I didn't do it soon enough."
On the other hand, he admits, "it is a long way to anywhere else."
With the east-west distance maxing out at 300 miles and the north-south measurement reaching 125, both resident and visitor can expect to spend a lot of time on the lightly traveled roadways. The only four-lane highway here is a 50-mile stretch of Interstate 75 between Sault Ste. Marie and the Mackinac Bridge.
With that in mind, a first-time visitor might want to focus on just the eastern portion of the U.P., where the majority of the attractions are.
Here's our recommended "Seven Wonders of the Eastern Upper Peninsula," enough action for a five-day visit. After all, one can only take so much peace and quiet.
The Soo Locks (Sault Ste. Marie)
Now a National Historic Site, the world's largest waterway traffic system has been in operation for more than 100 years, providing a passage for deep-draft ships to the Great Lakes. The locks were built to bypass the rapids on the St. Mary's River, a surging cascade formed by a 21-foot difference in elevation between Lake Superior and Lake Huron.
Watching the huge vessels pass through the locks is a rare experience; visitors are able to look down on the vessels from an upper viewing area. The Visitors Center, open daily from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. mid-May through November, has a schedule of arriving vessels and general information, such as size, cargo and destination. Plus, there are artifacts, photographs and a working model of the locks on display inside.
You can also "do the Soo" on a two-hour narrated expedition that takes riders through the locks where the big freighters -- some 1,000 feet long -- ramble.
Information: Soo Locks Boat Tours (800-432-6301, www.soolocks.com). Check out its live cam at webcam.crrel.usace.army.mil/soo.
Canadian folkie Gordon Lightfoot made a bundle of money off the infamous Shipwreck Coast -- the Graveyard of the Great Lakes -- near Whitefish Point. His 1976 ballad "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" chronicled the perils of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, which joined many a ship sunk in Lake Superior's cold and raging waters.
The tales of Fitz and others are told in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum through artifacts, film and exhibits, including the 400-pound brass bell recovered from the Edmund Fitzgerald.
Information: Open daily, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., May 1 through Oct. 15. (906) 635-1742, www. shipwreckmuseum.org.
Across the street from the museum is the Whitefish Point Observatory. The area's location at the northeastern tip of the U.P. makes it ideal for migrating water birds, songbirds and raptors each fall and spring. Check the observatory's Web site at www.wpbo.org for tips on the best times to visit.
Tahquamenon Falls (Paradise)
What Lightfoot did for the U.P. in music, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow did for these awe-inspiring falls in his poem "The Song of Hiawatha."
Cascading in the bosom of Tahquamenon Falls State Park, the 200-foot-wide Upper Falls is the second-largest east of the Mississippi, dropping nearly 50 feet; Niagara's American Falls and the Bridal Veil Falls span 1,060 feet and drop 176 feet.
The Upper Falls is easily accessible by paved pathways from the parking lot.
The more adventurous can take a stairway down to a wooden platform where the waters begin their drop. It's a steep climb back.
A four-mile riverbank path connects the Upper Falls with the less spectacular, but still stunning, Lower Falls downstream.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (Munising)
Allow at least a day for the U.P.'s most dazzling attraction. Depending on your drive, you might even want to come back the next day for a different view. How you observe the colorful rock and sandstone formations depends on how much time, money and energy you have.
Some say the best way is by cruise boat or guided kayak tours along the 18 miles of Lake Superior coastline. But those wanting to be "one with the cliffs" choose to earn their own breathtaking views by hiking some of the 40-plus miles of the Lakeshore Trail from Munising on the west to Grand Marais on the east.
The cliffs -- some as steep as 200 feet -- are the result of billions of years of nature's forces on minerals like copper, iron and manganese, resulting in vivid bands of red, orange, tan, brown, white, yellow, pink and rust. While the narrated boat tours -- call (906) 387-2379 for a schedule -- afford the traveler the big picture from a distance, you'll see things on the trails -- sand dunes, waterfalls, grottos and caves -- that you won't see by water.
One thing is certain: You won't see anything from your car.
Seney Wildlife Refuge (Germfask)
You'll have another decision -- seeing the attraction by foot or by vehicle -- at the Seney Wildlife Refuge. Its nearly 100,000 acres of protected habitat are open year-round for wildlife watching, hiking, canoeing and cross-country skiing.
At the perfect moment, you might see four-legged critters such as moose, bear or wolf or winged wonders like a bald eagle, sandhill crane or trumpeter swan. If you're lucky, the loons will croon for you.
Stop at the visitor center for an orientation program and to pick up a guide pamphlet for your one-way auto tour. Set aside an hour or so for the drive, which should include stops at a lookout deck or two (free telescopes are provided). Better yet, get out of the car and take advantage of the more than 50 miles of hiking and biking trails.
Oswald's Bear Ranch (Newberry)
OK, so maybe America's largest bear-only ranch doesn't measure up in magnificence to the nation's largest lock system or the country's second-tallest waterfalls, but Oswald's is still worth a visit.
Dean and Jewel Oswald have been raising bears since 1984, purchasing them from the state's Department of Natural Resources and federal breeders. Rescued cubs are also brought here, and the locals return annually to see how they have grown.
Oswald opened the ranch to the public in 1997, and now 30 bears call Oswald's their haven. Visitors observe the bears as they rotate among three natural, fenced-in habitats on 80 acres of woods and lakes.
Information: Open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Memorial Day through Sept. 30; admission is by the carload, motorcycle or RV. (906) 293-3147.
More than 40 lighthouses occupy the U.P.'s shoreline. Eight serve as museums, some are there to climb, and others are bed & breakfast inns.
Sand Point Lighthouse and waterfront museum, located in Ludington Park, Escanaba, is carefully restored to its original form, including interior rooms with 19th-century furnishings that re-create the feel of the times.
The refurbished 1923 Whitefish Point Light Station near Paradise offers five themed rooms for overnight stays, priced from $125-$150 per night.
Au Sable Point at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore near Munising is an 87-foot brick tower built on a rise that places it about 150 feet above Lake Superior's surface. It's accessible only by a 1½-mile walk.
Crisp Point Lighthouse, 37 miles north of Newberry, was inaccessible for years, but now can be reached by car on a scenic, narrow road through Lake Superior State Forest.
Point Iroquois, near Brimley, is a renovated 65-foot tower resting on the bluff above Lake Superior, where visitors can climb 72 steps to view Whitefish Bay.
Seul Choix Lighthouse and museum, near Gulliver, is a 78-foot tall "haunted" lighthouse. Visitors and workers there have reported strange occurrences, such as the strong smell of cigars and someone (maybe the keeper of the light?) climbing the lighthouse steps.
You also can take the St. Mary's River Lighthouse Cruise, where you'll ride through the Soo Locks and see three lighthouses and the lightkeeper's residence at Cedar Point.
For the Record Book
1 week ago