a  magazine  of  travel  and  discovery

By George Oxford Miller

At 4 p. m. in Munising, Michigan, pop. 3,000, we don’t find much to do except hang out and drink coffee in the town’s unofficial social center, the Falling Rock Café. One wall of the bistro-bookstore (50,000 titles) is covered with cups, each with a resident’s name. For $25 a year, locals can get in-house roasted java for fifty cents a cup, and unlimited conversation for free. I grab a coffee-table book with stunning photos of the Upper Peninsula, Michigan’s winter playground, and relax with the hot brew.

Since early morning, we’ve snowshoed through fresh power in the classic example of deep, northern woods, dog sledded behind a howling team of frenetic dogs, and snowmobiled to cliffside viewpoints of the frozen shores of Lake Superior. Yet, as off-itinerary activities often do, our unscheduled coffee break gives us the most authentic Upper Peninsula experience of the trip.

Group tours, all-inclusive resorts, and city-per-day bus trips often bypass the most unique feature of a destination: The people and local culture that give a place its soul. After two days of outdoor activities, we finally meet someone not directly involved with the hospitality industry.

Natalie Johnson, a twenty-something local, serves our coffee and chats about life in the snowbound town on the edge of Lake Superior. “Several years ago my father and I were snowmobiling across the bay to Grand Island and he hit a slushy spot and went through the ice,” she says matter of factually. “I sped up over the soft spot and then pulled him out. We’re always told that if you fall in you have 25 minutes to get warm and dry or you’ll die of hyperthermia, so I loaded him on my machine and raced back home. He was all right.”

Kids grow up fast when a quick decision can mean the difference between life and death. Her story gives me pause because the day before we made the same trip, and received the same instructions: Speed up if you hit slush ice. Hearing Natalie’s experience, I realize we were way too caviler about cutting wheelies across the smooth ice.

About one-half mile of lake ice separates Grand Island from the shoreline. On our rented snowmobiles going way too fast, but then snowmobiles are just motorcycles on skids, we reache
d the National Recreation Area in about five minutes. We parked beside the wooden East Channel Lighthouse, built in 1868, and explored the ice-encrusted cliffs along the shore.

“The lighthouse warned ships away from dangerous currents that run through Munising Bay,” Carl Hansen of Northern Waters Adventures, told us. “Dozens of ships have wrecked along this area of Lake Superior. The cold water preserves them and the water is so clear that they look like they sunk yesterday. If you don’t dive, you can see them from glass bottom boats in the summer.”

Natalie tells us more about the winter attractions of the U. P. “Have you been to the Curtains?” she asks. “They’re a local favorite, you’ve gotta see them.” She describes the sheet of ice that covers a cliff face in the National Lakeshore at the edge of town. “You can actually crawl into the ice cave behind the curtain, it’s really magical.”

As we saw yesterday on Grand Island, the sandstone bluffs and cliffs seep water continually like a sponge. The drip covers the cliffs with fantastic ice sculptures with secret “ice caves” hidden behind the frozen sheets. We look at the clock. Just enough time to catch the off-the-beaten-path favorite before dusk sets in.

We follow Natalie’s directions and find a trail leading from the road into the woods. The path climbs through snow up to an icy slope at the base of a 30-foot high cliff. Water dripping over the cliff forms a 50-yard-long crystalline masterpiece. Scalloped columns, giant icicles, and wavy sheets of ice cover the wall like a monumental work of art.

I climb to a gap in the frigid curtain and slither behind into a narrow crawl space. Backlighted, the translucent ice glows with subtle shades of blue. I slide along on my belly and peek through gaps. In the distance, a rising fog cloaks Grand Island and the lighthouse we visited yesterday.

We came to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to experience the spectacular winter landscape created by lake effect storms. Because of its position along the southern shore of Lake Superior, weather patterns make the region a snow magnet perfect for a winter holiday.

“The central part of the Upper Peninsula gets 140 inches of snow a year,” Jim Northrop, the superintendent of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, tells us. A dip in the shoreline between Marquette and Munising catches the brunt of the winter storms. “We get quality snow early and it stays late. People come from hundreds of miles to ski, snowmobile, snowshoe, and ice climb.”

Stretching across the top of Michigan like a flag whipping in the wind, the Upper Peninsula is surrounded by three of the Great Lakes. Lake Superior borders the north, Lake Michigan south, and Lake Huron touches the eastern tip. Instead of fighting the long, winter deep freeze, “Youpers” embrace the frigid season with snow and ice sports, festivals, competitions, and just plain frivolity. Downhill and cross-country skiing, snowmobile, and sled dog races, ice climbing, snowshoeing, and even outhouse races keep the short days and cold nights full of fun.

With Hiawatha National Forest (880,000 acres), Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (73,000 acres/40 miles of shoreline), and dozens of parks, and recreation areas, we find miles of groomed trails through some of the most scenic hardwood-hemlock forests in the north. The Valley Spur trail system in the national forest offers 27 miles of cross-country ski and snowshoe trails with 12 loops, a large warming lodge, and even a heated outhouse.

I buckle on a set of snowshoes and spend a morning tromping through pristine snow. Towering maples and hemlocks stand like silent sentinels along the loop. Only the gurgling of a meandering stream and the chirping of passing chickadees interrupt the tranquil winter scene.

One of the most spectacular winter phenomena I’ve ever witnessed lies hidden in a narrow horseshoe canyon at the edge of Munising. A short hike leads from the Munising Falls Interpretive Center, part of Picture Rocks National Lakeshore, to the frozen waterfall. We follow a flowing creek through deep, driven snow until we reach the 50-foot waterfall.

The subfreezing temperature tries to seize the stream, but only succeeds in creating a breathtaking example of the creative power of nature. The creek pours across an overhang into a cylinder of ice that reaches from rim to the valley floor. Inside the crystal column, the tumbling water creates a mesmerizing, ever-changing dynamic sculpture.

The frozen waterfall, ice curtains and caves, and deep woods blanketed in white make the Upper Peninsula a magical winter wonderland. And I haven’t even hit the ski slopes yet.


Michigan’s Upper Peninsular attracts snow and snow sports like a magnet.

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