YOU GET IN at 1:43pm from Detroit with enough daylight left to get you to Tahquamenon (rhymes with phenomenon) Falls. You will need a rental car. Getting around the 16,452 square miles of the UP means a lot of driving through pine forests.
Old-school snowshoes, the ones that look a bit like tennis rackets, are piled into the back of a truck. Later you learn there are three main types of classic snowshoes. These are Michigan style — teardrop shape, upturned toe, long tail.
“You’ve got those on the wrong feet there,” says state park ranger Craig Krepps with a distinct “Yooper” twang. You look up at him, unable to tell if he’s kidding. He has the deadpan delivery of a true Midwesterner, and you should know — you grew up in Kansas. You take a look at your feet in confusion. Craig kneels down and helps you cinch up the bindings without having you switch shoes.
Long strides, you quickly discover, are the best, and only, way to not trip yourself up in the snowshoes. A light snow starts to fall as you tromp through the old-growth forest along the short trail to the Upper Falls, one of the largest by volume east of the Mississippi. It’s 50ft high and 200 wide, and you’ve been able to hear it from the start of the trail. Craig explains the “Coca-Cola color” of the water is a result of the tannins from the spruce, cedar, and hemlock that border the river.
Four miles downstream are the Lower Falls, and there are 25 more miles of hiking trails throughout the park. But you don’t have the time or the energy for more exploring.
You drop your stuff at the Park Inn Hotel and go to The Antlers for dinner. There, you experience a number of firsts.
First time you’ve tasted venison stew (very much a calorific comfort-food item topped with mashed potatoes.) First time you’ve had a polar bear and three lions (taxidermy of course) watch over you as you eat. First time you’ve heard a series of whistles and bells pulled from behind a bar — a holdover from Prohibition, when they signaled drinkers to hide the booze that had been brought over the lake from Canada.
You’re up to head to Brimley and try snowmobiling for the first time. There are 6,200+ miles of snowmobile track throughout the state, and on winter weekends, parking lots fill with trucks hauling sled trailers.
Bright orange helmet on, seat and hand warmers turned on, and face mask starting to steam up from your breath, you get a quick Arctic Cat lesson from the guide at Indian River Sports Center: “Never let go of the throttle or the person behind you may run into you.” Great.
Not far into the woods and you realize snowshoeing is definitely more your speed, though others in your group are loving this. The feel of the sled slipping beneath you whenever you hit a little patch of ice (most of the time) isn’t one you enjoy, but you’re committed to, if not keeping up with the group, not crashing or quitting.
You find your own little sweet spot of speed at around 40mph, and after apologizing to anyone stuck behind you, push on at your own pace. Slow and steady doesn’t win the race here, but you don’t crash and die or break the sled, so you’re good.
At Karl’s Cuisine in Sault St. Marie, you find some of the trip’s best vegetarian options. You’re a Midwesterner at heart no matter where you travel and never find a menu of meat and potatoes off-putting, but after hearing some comments from your East Coast travel companions, you realize not everyone grew up thinking of salad as Jello based.
You order the vegetarian quiche of the day, but wish you would have tried one of the pasties.
You head out on US 75, the only main highway through the UP and the only place where you can legally drive over 55mph. You wonder if there are speed limits for snowmobiles — some of them got up to 100+ this morning.
You see a lot of forest and a lot of small country homes until you come to the Mackinac Bridge, a five-mile suspension bridge linking the Upper and Lower Peninsulas. All the Yoopers you meet seem to be proud of living in the UP, and they refer, with varying levels of affection and condescension, to those who live in the Lower Peninsula as “trolls” — since they live below the Mackinac Bridge.
The town of St. Ignace hosted the World Ice and Snow Sailing Championships (WISSA) in 2012, and they’re holding the North American Ice and Snow Sailing event in 2013. Catching the end of WISSA, you’re blown away by the idea of harnessing the wind with a handheld sail or kite while balancing on ice skates or skis.
Native Americans have lived near the Great Lakes for hundreds of years, and their presence in St. Ignace is seen in two major ways. One is the small Museum of Ojibwa Culture, housed in an old Catholic church. The other is the Kewadin Shores Casino and Hotel. You visit both, and you can’t get out of the casino fast enough.
At the Mackinac Grille along the waterfront, you try the whitefish you’ve seen billed everywhere. It comes grandly laid out on a cedar plank, but after a few bites, you realize that perhaps bottom feeder is an acquired taste. It hits you as both overly bland and overly fishy, and while you want to like it since it’s local and fresh, you wish you’d ordered the salmon or a steak.
The flavor is better when mixed with mayonnaise and spices as a smoked whitefish pate. That plus the deep-fried pickles, another local dish for whatever reason, means you’ve given the regional cuisine enough appreciation to have cheesecake for dessert.
From the balcony of your room at the Days Inn, you can see the water of Lake Huron and the Mackinac Straits. You like visiting places in their off-season, and St. Ignace is traditionally a summer getaway, but you kind of wish it were warmer so you could dive to some of the dozen wreck sites in the Straits.
It’s an early, early morning to make the 6:32am flight to Detroit — not an ideal time, but it’s a small airport with few options. The one bonus about small airports is the lack of lines and easy gate access.
You replay the trip in your head as the plane takes off and remember how 36 hours ago you didn’t even realize this little pocket of the world existed.
[Editor’s note: Kristin’s trip was sponsored by Pure Michigan.]