- April 20, 2017
- Posted by: Phil Block
- Categories: Lights of the Lakes, Michigan's U.P.
I have been in a love affair with Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for over fifty years. We native Michiganders call this wonderful part of God’s creation the “U.P.” for short. I happen to be a “Troll,” because I was born and raised “below the bridge.” That would be the Mackinac Bridge, in case you’re wondering. Those fortunate enough to actually have been born in the U.P. call themselves “Yoopers,” as does anyone who lives there. Since I lived there myself for nearly five years during my college years, so maybe I can stretch the truth a little and call myself at least a temporary Yooper. Now I live in Wisconsin, where residents call themselves “Cheeseheads.” Even though I’ve lived here for over thirty years, I don’t consider myself a Cheesehead. Maybe guilty as charged as a Green Bay Packer Backer, but not a Cheesehead.
The U.P. I love is a place of incredible natural beauty. It’s nirvana for outdoor enthusiasts. One of the reasons I wanted to go to college in the U.P. is because when I was young, I was into downhill (Alpine) snow skiing. Well, all of the U.P. gets at least 100 inches of snow each winter. Most of the northern half of the U.P. get 200 inches of annual “lake effect” snowfall. Some parts, like the Keweenaw Peninsula and Marquette area, get more than 250 inches per year. As a result, the U.P. is a premier destination for Midwest skiers. Ditto for snowmobilers, cross-country skiers, and even ski jumpers.
Here is a sampling of U.P. ski areas:
– Big Powderhorn Mountain (Bessemer)
– Indianhead Mountain Resort (Wakefield)
– Mont Ripley (Hancock)
– Mt. Bohemia (Keweenaw)
– Pine Mountain (Iron Mountain)
– Porcupine Mountains (Ontonagon)
– Ski Brule (Iron River)
Of those listed above, I’ve personally skied Big Powderhorn, Indianhead, Porcupine Mountain, and Mont Ripley, which is owned and operated by my alma mater, Michigan Technological University. (Does your school have its own ski area?)
At Michigan Tech, students could take skiing as gym classes. I pride myself on having two credit courses in skiing on my official college transcript.
Michigan Tech even offered National Ski Patrol training and certification. I once thought I’d like to join the ski patrol, but balked at the full year of classroom first aid training required. I loved the look of those wearing the rust-colored ski patrol parkas with the big yellow cross on the back. I thought it would be a great way to help others who get into trouble on the slopes.
The U.P. is a popular destination for snowmobilers. With hundreds of miles of groomed trains and reliable snow conditions, catering to the interests of snowmobilers has become an essential part of the U.P.’s tourism-focused economy. I’ve shared my collection of winter images of the U.P. in an Upper Peninsula Winter Wonderland gallery on my photo web site.
Maybe your preference is hiking or backpacking. Well, I’ve been there and done that, too. The U.P. has two premier backpacking destinations: Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, both on the shores of Lake Superior.
The best destination of all is Isle Royale National Park, is not part of the U.P. land mass per se, but it is an island in Lake Superior northwest of the Keweenaw peninsula. It is politically part of the state of Michigan, but actually much closer to Minnesota and Canada. For over fifteen years I was a backpacker, and hiked the trails of all three of those destinations. I’ve hiked all 40 miles of the trails in Pictured Rocks, and camped at most of the campgrounds there.
While I was a college student at Michigan Tech, I gazed at the big blue ship, the Ranger III, which was based in my college town, Houghton. I knew where that ship went, and longed to someday get there myself. I set a goal to get there by the time I reached the age of 40. I did. And went back every year for the following five years. On my first trip, I experienced my first flight in a float plane, and hiked the entire 45-mile length of the island carrying a heavy backpack.
Two other times, I explored the island by canoe. One of those trips was a week-long solo journey; the second a tandem trip.
Another time, I circumnavigated the island by boat, on an Isle Royale lighthouse tour. Hiking boots, camp stoves, canoe paddles, and 35mm cameras were the primary tools of the trade at this magical place. The haunting cry of the loons, the sight of moose browsing in front of a camping shelter early in the morning, and the far-off call of wolves at dawn are memories deeply embedded in my soul.
The natural beauty of the U.P. includes almost 200 named waterfalls, and dozens of smaller unnamed ones. I’ve visited and photographed dozens of them, and offer this gallery as proof.
My first experience with U.P. waterfalls involved exploring two major falls in the Keweenaw peninsula, Douglass Houghton Falls and Hungarian Falls. I’ve rappelled Hungarian Falls at both height of the fall color season and during the depths of winter, on snowshoes.
The natural beauty of Michigan’s U.P. is perhaps best experienced during the fall color season, which peaks in early October across the U.P. Vast regions of northern hardwood forest take on vivid hues of red, yellow, and orange every year. Moderate temperatures, low humidity, and the disappearance of insect pests make this a great time to plan a visit. To get a taste of what awaits you, visit my Fall Color Extravaganza, The Reflections of Autumn, and Tandlund Lake photo galleries. Or maybe take a longer Keweenaw Peninsula Tour here.
Maybe even consider heading someplace like the ghost town of Fayette, on Lake Michigan in the southern U.P. There’s a preview of what awaits you there: Fayette in the Fall.
The early economy of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula was based upon copper mining. Douglass Houghton discovered copper there in 1840, leading to one of the biggest mining books in U.S. history. In college, I lived in Douglass Houghton Hall at Michigan Tech, named after him.
For over a century, copper was king in the U.P. Massive veins of native copper run up the spine of the Keweenaw Peninsula in the western U.P. Dozens of mining towns sprung up all along the hundred-mile length of the Copper Range. My college, Michigan Tech, was founded as the Michigan Mining School at the firehouse in Houghton in 1885 to train men to enter the local mining industry. The school’s focus remained mining education well into the 20th century.
By my college years I had adopted one of my lifelong passions, photography, and enjoyed exploring the mining locations, towns, and buildings of the Keweenaw Peninsula.
The last major mining company, Calumet and Hecla, shut down in 1967 while I attended MTU. Excessive union wage demands spelled doom for the company, hundreds of employees were thrown out of work, and an era ended in the Keweenaw.
Copper mining continued in the western U.P. into the 1980s. The White Pine Copper Company operated there. This company mined, milled, and smelted copper at their location in White Pine. My father-in-law, Jack Harris (link), was mill superintendent there. After taking his degree in metallurgical engineering at Michigan Tech, finishing in only three years, he entered the Army during World War Two. Later in life, he entered the mining industry managing mill operations at Freda, Michigan. This tiny outpost west of Houghton processed the ore mined at the nearby Champion No. 4 mine at Painesdale.
The mining lore of the Keweenaw and the appeal of the surviving copper mining buildings and structures drew me as a photographer. After starting my photographic pursuit of the copper mining buildings and relics during my college years, I returned in mid-life with better equipment and serious resolve to photograph what was left of vanishing history. This ultimately led to the creation of online photo galleries for the Champion No. 4 Mine, Centennial Mine, Osceola Mine, Quincy Mine and Smelter, and Quincy Reclamation Plant. At the latter location, my galleries even include some fascinating Yooper Graffiti.
The Copper Country mining towns of the U.P. are mostly gone now, retaining only shadows of their former glory in most cases. However, the graves of many who lost their lives working as miners in the 1800s and early 1900s remain. I have explored and photographed several of the small cemeteries where their graves are located. I’ve shared my images of Evergreen Cemetery, Irish Hollow Cemetery, and Pine Grove Cemetery in galleries on my photo web site.
The residents of the Copper Country nourished their souls in faithful spiritual pursuits. One of my photo projects was to visit and photograph over fifty of the churches in the Keweenaw and surrounding areas. At one time, there were 31 different churches in Calumet alone. I’ve shared this work in a Copper Country Churches gallery.
Over the years I’ve also sought to locate and photograph many of the historic buildings in the U.P. before they vanish forever. Examples include company town homes, abandoned stores and churches, deserted log cabins, and even a dude ranch. My pictures of these remembrances of the Old U.P. led to the creation of my Rustic and Derelict Buildings gallery.
The Upper Peninsula’s early economy depended heavily upon shipping on Lake Superior to get its mineral and timber resources to market. The opening of the Soo Locks in 1855 provided the first practical access to Lake Superior for commercial vessels. As a result, commercial shipping from U.P. ports boomed during the latter decades of the 1800s and early decades of the 1900s.
There were many natural hazards facing ship captains on Lake Superior. Fierce gales led to heavy seas. Reefs and dangerous shoals lurked beneath the waves. Fog often hid the coastlines. This led to the construction of many lighthouses and U.S. Life Saving Service stations along the shores of the U.P.
The earliest lighthouses were built in the 1840s at Whitefish Point, Copper Harbor, and Manitou Island. Many more were added in the decades that followed.
These lighthouses have always fascinated me. Just traveling to the locations where they are found is reward enough. But add to that their visual appeal, and my ability to capture it through photography, led ultimately to my visiting almost all of the lighthouses in the U.P. Many of the land-based lights are accessible by auto travel. Others require taking passage on vessels offering lighthouse cruises. For over 20 years starting in the 1980s, I sought out and visited these essential and symbolic structures.
For over 25 years, I’ve shared my Great Lakes lighthouse photos and their history with over 6,000 people in over 100 presentations of Lights of the Lakes, my Great Lakes lighthouse slide show.
The indigenous people of the U.P. and cultural attractions also have provided photographic subject matter to me over the years. Examples of this are my Keweenaw Bay Indian Pow-wow and Ontonagon County Fair galleries. Even something as mundane as the Classic Neon Signs in Escanaba have caught my eye.
The Upper Peninsula is also home to one of the biggest populations of ethnic Finnlanders in America. Thousands of Finns emigrated to the U.S. to work in the mines during their heyday. Their descendants still call the U.P. home, and there are more Finns here than anywhere in the world outside of Finland. You’ll never find a more industrious, friendler group of people.
I hope that by now you’re gotten a pretty good understanding of why Michigan’s U.P. has attracted me for over 50 years. I’ve managed to get there in almost every one of those years, and in the years when I couldn’t, I felt deprived of something vitally important.
I suggest and invite you to discover the wonders of the U.P. for yourself. You’ll be glad you did!