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2017 Aug

Nature's Playground: Michigan's U.P.

On a recent visit to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I petted a bear cub, rowed a tranquil river, climbed historic lighthouses, and biked along fossil-laden trails, but I never saw the region’s ubiquitous symbol. Traversing the U.P. from one end to the other, I watched and waited to see a majestic moose, maybe two, standing in a peaceful meadow munching on grass or moss or whatever it is moose eat. Fond childhood memories of Bullwinkle probably fed my fantasies. But there wasn’t a moose to be found in the U.P.—not while I was there anyway.

Luckily I found plenty of other activities besides moose-watching to keep me busy, and along the way I discovered that this northern region—surrounded by three of the five Great Lakes—has a certain magical quality that sets it apart from other places I’ve been. Maybe it’s the Native American tribes and traditions that lend a sense of spirituality to the land. This is the place, after all, that inspired Longfellow’s epic poem, “The Song of Hiawatha.”

When I read the poem recently, its measured cadence, like a drumbeat, transported me back to my childhood when I first heard the story of Hiawatha. “By the shores of Gitche Gumee, / By the shining Big-Sea-Water, / Stood the wigwam of Nokomis, / Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis…. There the wrinkled old Nokomis / Nursed the little Hiawatha, / Rocked him in his linden cradle, / Bedded soft in moss and rushes.”

Way up there in the U.P., I discovered a special population of people—they call themselves Yoopers—whose roots trace back to the Native Americans and French Canadians who first settled this rugged land, plying the waters of the Great Lakes in canoes and sailing ships, trading fur and logging, moving goods from shore to distant shore. Sometimes ships sank in horrific storms, like the Edmund Fitzgerald did one November night in 1975 on Lake Superior, a shipwreck immortalized forever in Gordon Lightfoot’s poignant ballad.

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula was a place I’d never been before, yet I felt a connection to it and an admiration for the people who live by the rocky shores of Gitche Gumee and have learned to survive its harsh environment. Folks then and now show a fierce respect for the power and strength of nature while at the same time taking pleasure in their surroundings, valuing simple traditions, and building stable communities.

But there’s more than just history and culture. Michigan’s U.P. is nature’s playground, a sportsmen’s paradise where recreational activities abound. But watch out. Once you inhale the fresh wind off the lake, hike through the deep forests, and taste the region’s bounty, you’ll likely connect with the soul of this tranquil peninsula, where water, land, and sky join together in a harmonious dance.

Perhaps in the process, a drumbeat will begin to sound deep inside you, at your core, and your soul will be awakened, too. “Ye who love the haunts of Nature, / Love the sunshine of the meadow, / Love the shadow of the forest, / Love the wind among the branches, / And the rain-shower and the snow-storm, / And the rushing of great rivers…/ Listen to these wild traditions, / To this Song of Hiawatha!”

Sault Saint Marie makes an ideal base for your wanderings through the region. It’s where the three lakes—Superior, Huron, and Michigan—converge. Here ships seeking passage to and from Lake Superior have to pass through the “Soo” locks, as they’re called. You can tour the lock system by boat and even experience a dinner cruise that takes you through four locks raising you a total of 21 feet. Another option for dinner on the waterfront is Goetz Lockview restaurant, where you can enjoy specialties like whitefish prepared five different ways in a rustic, cozy atmosphere.

A great place to familiarize yourself with the local history and culture is Sault Saint Marie’s River of History Museum. It was here I met Carol, a member of the Ojibwe tribe, who shared her Native American name: Gentle Summer Rain Woman. Carol explained that the museum is a means for teaching visitors and residents alike about Native American roots in the U.P. “We want to educate people about who we are,” she explained, “not just who we were.”

In nearby Saint Ignace, I learned more about the culture of the Ojibwe tribe, also known as Chippewa, an anglicized name. I met Becky, whose Indian name is Woman from the North. She explained that the word Ojibwe means puckered and refers to the style of moccasins her ancestors wore. She also shared that unlike Native Americans further south, the Ojibwe tribe resisted resettlement and were given reservations in the same land where they were born.

Tony, an Ojibwe elder whose Native American name is Winter Man, demonstrated a fire ritual in a teepee beside the museum. When you walk around the fire clockwise, he explained, it’s called a spirit circle and helps you find answers to questions. He also said that in the Ojibwe people follow the teachings of the seven Grandfathers representing wisdom, mutual love, respect, bravery, honesty, humility, and truth. The pungent smell of a smudge pot filled the teepee as we listened to Tony’s stories, and when I left, I felt cleansed, inspired to “walk the red road” of goodness and kindness.

In Cedarville to the east, where the Les Cheneaux Islands jut into Lake Huron, stop by the Great Lakes Boat Building School and watch students create wooden boats. You’ll also want to visit the Les Cheneaux Maritime Museum, where marine artifacts, antique outboard motors, and historical photos provide a visual reminder of days gone by. I found some old Motor Boating magazines from the early 1900s and was amazed to see that the ads didn’t even have telephone numbers. 

Further east lies Drummond Island, where I met Jessie Hadley, owner of Woods & Water Ecotours, which specializes in a variety of outdoor adventures including kayaking, biking, birding, dog sledding, and camping. She’d invited me to join her for a mountain biking trek to Fossils Ledge on the north shore of the island, where a peaceful stretch of shoreline reveals 350-million-year-old coral and shellfish fossils in dolomite rock. Rain poured off and on during our ride, but I actually enjoyed biking through puddles and feeling the wet rain on my face. At Fossils Ledge, wet but exhilarated, we relished a soggy picnic and tranquil views. Staring out toward the Northern Channel, I felt like a small speck in history’s long continuum, taking up space on this old planet for a blink of an eye, especially considering the rocks and fossils at my feet, which were hundreds of millions of years old.

Other natural formations of the Upper Peninsula include the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore to the west, where magnificent sand dunes overlook Lake Superior. In Grand Marais, a sleepy town on Lake Superior’s shore, we stopped for lunch at the Lake Superior Brewing Company, where I had delicious fried whitefish served on a bed of salad with olives, carrots, onions, and raspberry dressing. At Upper Tahquamenon Falls, the river raged as I hiked along a trail under moss-covered old-growth trees, the largest stand in Michigan. At Lower Tahquamenon Falls, I rowed out to an island with another gorgeous hiking trail. An excellent place for lunch is Tahquamenon Falls Brewery, built to resemble a logging camp, where smoked fish dip and meat pasties are among the specialties of the house.

In nearby Newberry Oswald’s Bear Ranch is the largest rescue bear operation in the United States. Owned by Dean Oswald, a retired boxer, and his wife, the ranch offers visitors a chance to get up close and personal with bears. Dean invited me into a cage where bear cubs scampered about, and before I knew it, one stood up and wrapped his furry paws around my knee, looking for a treat, no doubt. Dean babies the bears, and as they get older—and stronger—he moves them into age-appropriate groups. His ranch has three large penned habitats, ranging in size from 5-10 acres, where groups of bears forage for food and generally live an idyllic existence. Dean’s love for the bears is clear as he treats them like overgrown puppies.

Just to the north the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point overlooks a part of Lake Superior that’s known as the graveyard of the Great Lakes. Six thousand ships have been lost in its waters, and the museum pays tribute to the sailors who lost their lives in the chilly depths of Lake Superior. Most poignant of all is the story of the Edmund Fitzgerald, whose tragic sinking a generation ago claimed the lives of all 29 men aboard, leaving behind mothers and wives and children still haunted by the tragedy today.

When the wreck was discovered in the late 80s, family members agreed not to disturb the remains of the sailors and instead to recover the ship’s bell, which was raised in 1995 and is on display at the museum. You can watch a film about the recovery of the bell, which includes interviews with family members and footage of the annual memorial service, during which the bell rings once for each man lost. Bring tissues.

Back in Sault Sainte Marie, I finally got a glimpse of a moose. Unfortunately it was the head of a moose at Antlers Restaurant, a lively saloon full of stuffed animals—the real kind—of every size and description. Antlers are everywhere, and the eyes of the mounted critters gave me the creeps. Luckily, the convivial crowd and happy vibe quickly dispelled any trepidation. Antlers offers a variety of dishes including cedar-planked salmon (yum!), buffalo steak, venison pie, and their signature Paul Bunyan burger. Calorie-counters will have a hard time resisting temptation.

On Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, you’ll discover tasty food, local history, Native American culture, outdoor activities, and authentic, interesting people. What you see is what you get in the U.P.—and what you get is pristine nature, honest living, and plenty of good, clean fun!

For information, please visit www.saultstemarie.com or www.michigan.org.

For additional family travel ideas, visit www.tidewaterfamily.com/travel.

Peggy Sijswerda

Peggy Sijswerda is the editor and co-publisher of Tidewater Family and Tidewater Women magazines. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Old Dominion University and is the author of Still Life with Sierra, a travel memoir. Peggy also freelances for a variety of regional, national, and international magazines.

Website: www.peggysijswerda.com