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Shore of Lake Superior at Whitefish Point

One third of the landmass of the great state of Michigan lies within an area larger than the states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Delaware combined. It's called the Upper Peninsula (or UP), a place where you will never feel crowded.

The mighty Great Lakes - Superior, Michigan, and Huron - border the Upper Peninsula on three sides, cutting the UP off from the rest of the world if not for the Mackinac Bridge. Even the bridge is a masterpiece, the world's longest suspension bridge, with a total length of five miles and arching over five hundred feet high.

The Mackinac Bridge rises over Lake Michigan and Huron and is the only link between the UP and the rest of Michigan. It's also the gateway to the Upper Peninsula for the rest of the states south of Michigan. The UP also shares a border with upper Wisconsin, and this is the way that my hubby and I came into the area, via motorcycle and Michigan Highway 28.

The northern region of the UP is a world of sand dunes, lighthouses, cascading waterfalls, deep forests, and the powerful waters of Lake Superior. It is a mecca for artists of all disciplines. Painters, photographers, weavers, woodworkers, and writers perfect their craft here. One resident was Ernest Hemingway, whose deep brooding personality found a match in the Great Lake called Superior.

We began our journey just across the Michigan border. First up is Bessemer and neighboring Wakefield, once noted for their logging and mining days. Today it's Blackjack Mountain that's the attraction, located in the heart of "Big Snow Country" where skiing and snowmobiling rule.

Towns appear along Highway 28 like small beads on a string: Bergland, Matchwood, Bruce Crossing, Trout Creek, Kenton, and so on. They are all like Anchorage, Alaska - five miles out of town in any direction and you're in the wilderness. To give you a better idea, 90% of the peninsula is forest, with 12,000 miles of rivers and streams and 1100 miles of Great Lakes shoreline.

We found the geography of the UP to overlap into three distinct landscapes. From Wisconsin to the middle of the peninsula, the terrain is hilly. The Porcupine Mountains in particular, stretching between Wakefield and Bergland, command the view. But beneath the hills of the UP lies the Iron Range. Called the Menominee Range, the western half of the peninsula is punctuated with a great number of mines. Towns like Iron Mountain, Ironwood, and Iron River give testimony to the once booming mining and lumber industry.

The second distinct landscape is the Great Lakes and the small towns that dot their coast. We found a difference here in the U.P. from the north shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota. There the terrain is pure wilderness: churning water, gorges, deep forests, wolves and moose. And while one can certainly find the same in northern Michigan, the towns along the shore are like towns on the Ocean. One is quickly transported into the domain of lighthouses, shipwrecks, and fishermen.

Munising FallsBypassing the larger city of Marquette, we made our fist stop in the town of Munising located right on the shore of Superior. We stayed at Scotty's Motel, just one block south of Highway 28. After traveling all day, it's my hubby's unspoken rule to take the first clean-looking motel that comes in sight. And after a home-cooked meal at a local café, we're off again to visit Munising Falls.

The town of Munising has 15 waterfalls total, six of which are within the city limits. At Munising Falls there is a visitor center, a small park, and a self-guided nature hike. The falls are easy to get to. And the first thing I notice is the semi-circle of gouged rock behind the falling water. It's like someone took a huge knife and slashed deep ruts across the stone. I watch the mesmerizing drop of the water as Richard takes pictures. The after-dinner light is okay, but he wants to return in the morning when the light will be at its best.

Leaving the Falls, we move toward the other half of the park. Lake Superior is here, and in the parking area that faces the lake there are several vehicles with people quietly viewing the water. I notice a few have brought a book. Superior is benevolent today, with the early evening sun golden on the calm bay.

There are gulls walking around on the beach, and Richard grabs his camera to snap a few shots. I notice there is a duck in the middle of the gull crowd. He has learned quickly that where there are gulls there are tourists ready to feed them. The mallard is a funny sight, waddling after the long-legged birds. They lift and land so gracefully, while the duck sways back and forth in the deep sand, never quite finding his footing.

Later, when Richard is finished taking pictures, we decide to take the nature hike. As we begin our walk through the woods, we notice we are being followed. The mallard is waddling along behind us. His little webbed feet don't move very fast, but he seems quite cheerful and confident as he plods along after us. Richard remarks that I am not giving the nature walk my full attention, but I can't help it. Every few seconds I turn around and smile at the little fellow, who keeps coming nonchalantly along.

I enjoy a few more moments of this, when someone on a bicycle comes whipping along the pathway, and the mallard breaks into flight, quacking his displeasure all the way. With the mallard and the bicyclist gone, the walk becomes quiet. It is that perfect light before sunset, and Richard has found a pond to point his camera at. I sit on a bench that has been provided, and simply "contemplate" as he sets up his shots. This lasts a whole three minutes, and then I am up again, searching for waterbugs in the pond.

The next morning, after a quick stop for a few shots of Munising Falls, we head north to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. A natural phenomenon, the mammoth and beautiful rock formations extend twenty miles along Superior's south shore. Here the awesome power and strength of the UP can be seen in these towering rock formations. The waves of Lake Superior either gently caress the 200-foot sandstone walls or relentlessly pound the formidable shoreline. The National Park actually stretches for almost 50 miles between Munising and Grand Marais.

Miners CastleThis place of beauty was the country's first national lakeshore. In 1966 it was set aside to preserve the shoreline, cliffs, beaches and dunes for recreation and discovery. I love the colors here - sandstone, ochre, tan, brown, sandwiched with layers of white and green. And Lake Superior, so vast, so blue, glistens against a cloud-streaked sky.

Miners Castle is the most famous image of Pictured Rocks. There's an overlook here, a beach and picnic grounds, a good place to get out and walk around and make your own discoveries.

In 1820, Henry Schoolcraft, Indian agent and wilderness scholar, said this about the place: "We had been told of the variety in the color and form of these rocks, but were wholly unprepared to encounter the surprising groups of overhanging precipices, towering walls, caverns, waterfalls...mingled in the most wonderful disorder."

The name "pictured rocks" comes from the streaks of mineral stain that decorate the face of the sculptured cliffs. The streaks occur when groundwater oozes out of the cracks. The dripping water contains iron, manganese, limonite, copper, and other minerals that leave behind a colorful stain as water trickles down the cliff face.

Light changes the colors, and the morning light is best for photographers. As Richard takes his pictures, I climb down and behind some of the cliffs and watch with fascination as water appears and disappears under the rocks. It's like Superior is blowing out and sucking in. Back and forth the water laps. I find it mesmerizing.

The next morning finds us traveling to the small town of Seney. We pop in at a small motel, where the proprietor is quite friendly, but then remarks, "It's quiet here, we don't have trouble like they have in Detroit. No Blacks living this far out." He turns around to get our key, and Richard and I look at each other and shake our heads.

With the motel business over, we hit highway 77 for Grand Marais and the Grand Sable dunes. This is our favorite place on the trip.

Between Seney and Grand Marais there is nothing but 25 miles of woods and streams. It is exhilarating and frightening both at once not to see homes, towns, or people - nothing but a lonely stretch of highway that moves around or across wilderness creeks. I wait with anticipation, my eyes scanning down the long road as I wonder, where will this end? And perhaps it has one of the greatest endings of all roadways, for Highway 77 literally stops at the door of Lake Superior.

Grand Marais is a wonderful place, a tiny village with the rugged feel of the Maine coast. Out on Coast Guard Point, waves rise high on both sides, with the lighthouse and museum in the center. Superior is huge here, vast as the ocean, moody, dangerous. You can't take your eyes from it.

There is no one else visiting today at the Historical Museum, and we have a very pleasant talk with the curator. She tells us how the village of Grand Marais is cut off from the rest of the world, particularly in winter. During this time, residents rely on those who dare to venture out to bring back supplies and medicines. Since there are no towns anywhere close by, citizens must create work in the village - services mostly, a grocery, a gas station, arts and crafts. We were told that the local vet also doubles at times as a doctor.

We also learn of times past, the lonely life of the light-keeper, cut off from the rest of the world, as he diligently maintains the lighthouse. Some were lucky enough to have families to keep them company on those tempestuous nights on Lake Superior, between October and March. Then, gale winds seemed to blow straight through the house, and indeed, the wind still blows fiercely 15 out of 30 days the year round. The pay was poor, and on occasion, the light-keeper was forced out into a storm to rescue sailors and cargo from shipwrecks.

Wind-blown grass making patterns in the sandAfter leaving the museum, we find the footpath that would take us out to the sand dunes. The walk through woods and creek is about two miles, which seems twice as far because we are anxious to get there. And at first, as we come up a small hill and see the orange sand amidst some grass, it doesn't look that fabulous. But as we continue moving on, the sand spreads, until at last the Great Sable Dunes stretch as far as we can see. I break into a run just to see how far I can get before the waves of sand pull me down. Quickly, I find that running in sand is the same as running in snow - you get tired, fast. I let myself fall. The sand is warm and soft, and I roll a few feet just to feel it.

I'm five years old again, digging in the sand, burying my legs. There is no one else around. It's late afternoon and the handful of tourists that were hanging about are gone. Richard is doing his own thing with his camera, and I have miles of sand to myself. As usual, I simply walk a ways, exploring, needing to see what's over that next hill. I try to invision a great desert. But the sand seems too benevolent, too interesting. Also it's rather hard to imagine a waterless world with the hugeness of Lake Superior crashing at the "desert's" feet.Dead tree weathered by the wind and sand

I stand on a cliff and look out to "sea." Superior is at its widest here - hundreds of miles of water, clear into Ontario. Thousands of years ago the raging wind and water beat the earth and rock to a pulp. The result is what lies behind me, the Great Sable Banks, sacred sand dunes of Longfellow's "Hiawatha."

I climb one of the sand hills and find a cluster of dead trees. Just thin, barren limbs are all that is left. Over the years bits and pieces have broken off and have become driftwood. I sit down in the sand and finger a few of the fragments. Then I stare up at the sky through the lifeless trees.

The next morning we leave Newberry and take Highway 123 toward Whitefish Point, our final destination on this trip. Along the way we stop at Tahquamenon Falls. Michigan claims it is the largest waterfall west of Niagara, and it is also located in their largest state park. We take the paved trail to the falls, along with many other tourists, and stop here and there along the way to gaze at the water. It's quite nice, but I was expecting more. Maybe the water was low this year?

Whitefish Point juts off the coast of Michigan like a finger aiming toward Canada. It is the most northern point in the UP and one of the most notable. It is here, just 17 miles out, that the Edmund Fitzgerald sank with its entire crew of 29 men. It is also home to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. During the summer of 1995, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society, Canadian Navy, and National Geographic Society raised the bell of the Fitzgerald to establish a permanent memorial to the lost men and their families.

Lighthouse at Whitefish PointYet the Fitzgerald is only one of 6,000 ships lost on the Great Lakes. Throughout the museum and theatre, artifacts and exhibits tell fascinating stories of sailors and shipwrecks. But it is Lake Superior that holds the unrelenting fury. Deceivingly beautiful, it is the most treacherous of all the Great Lakes.

So why all the wrecks near Whitefish Point? It's because this area is the critical turning point for all ships entering or leaving Superior. The dangerous waters that extend from Whitefish Point, 80 miles to Munising, have earned the ominous title "Graveyard of the Great Lakes." Violent storms, poor visibility combined with congested shipping lanes at the Point, have exacted a heavy toll on ships and lives.

We found the museum remarkably absorbing. Ship after ship, the exhibits and their artifacts tell a chilling tale of bravery and miscalculations. There's also a video theatre with a short film on the Fitzgerald, plus a fully restored lighthouse that can be toured. Lastly, there is quite a unique gift shop that offers a variety of maritime gifts exclusive to Whitefish Point.

Richard and I enjoy the simple pleasure of walking along the shore, watching the gulls and loons, and imagining the Edmund Fitzgerald disappearing somewhere out there in a raging storm.

But today the sky is turquoise blue, and Superior's fits and rants are asleep. I climb on top of a rock to have a better view. From the crest of this mighty structure, I can just make out the waters traveled by Indians and voyagers...all those centuries ago.

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Copyright ©2001 Judi Schiller, Richard Schiller

May 23, 2001