Those Yoopers Are Real Troopers!

Saturday, August 25, 2012 Road Junkies 2 Comments

Highways and Byways:  Michigan

Though we've traveled in Michigan before, we never really explored the Upper Peninsula, known in the local vernacular as Yooperland, home of the Yoopers (UP-ers).  From the perspective of the UP, the people of the Lower Peninsula live below the (Mackinac) bridge, so they're jokingly referred to as the trolls.

Our Yooperland route
Nearly one-third of Michigan's land area is in the UP, but because of the harsh winters and fluctuating economic conditions, Yooperland is home to only 3% of the state's population.  And those 300,000 souls are a hardy bunch.  Because of the long, bitterly cold winters, agriculture on the UP is not practical.  With a wealth of mineral resources and forests, mining and logging were the traditional economic backbone of the region.  Though timber continues to be a significant industry, most of the mines have now closed, and tourism has taken a front seat in the UP economy.  With up to 30 feet of powdery, lake-effect snow each winter, the area is ideal for snow sports and offers more than 3,000 miles of snowmobile trails. 

Friday morning, we entered Yooperland from Wisconsin on US-141 into the town of Iron Mountain (pop. 7,630), home to the largest steam-driven engine in the U.S.  As its name suggests, Iron Mountain was once a great center of iron mining.  When a massive iron ore deposit was found there in the late 1800s, part of it was below a cedar swamp, and water constantly seeped into the mine.  As mine owners sought to tap deposits deeper and deeper below the swamp, more extensive draining was needed.  Borrowing an idea from Cornwall, England's deep tin mines, the mining company ordered the construction of a steam engine to pump water out of the mine.

 
Cornish Pumping Engine
The engine that E.P. Allis Company (now Allis-Chalmers) built in 1890 did the job quite well.  Boilers that powered the pump devoured 42 tons of coal each day.  The 40-ft. flywheel sent power to pumps that removed 3,000 gallons of water from the mine per minute.  After producing more than 27 million tons of iron ore, the mine was closed in 1932, and the pump is now housed in a very interesting museum which tells the story of iron mining in the region.

Many of the immigrants who flocked to the UP to labor in the mining industry in the late 19th century came from Nordic countries.  These snow-loving miners brought their winter sports with them, and in 1937 Iron Mountain became home to what was then the world's highest artificially created ski jump.  At 120 meters, the Pine Mountain Ski Jump glides a fine line between ski jumping and ski flying.  (The maximum height permitted for Olympic ski jumping is 90 meters.  Ski flying is not an Olympic-sanctioned sport.)

Pine Mountain Ski Jump in Iron Mountain, MI
Pine Mountain has hosted annual ski jumping competitions since 1937, attracting the top athletes in the field.  Thousands of spectators converge to watch jumpers leave the 176-ft scaffold at 55 mph to soar 400 feet before landing at the bottom of the hill below.  Numerous world records have been set here.

The Pine Mountain 500
But skiers aren't the only ones who climb to the top of this daunting hill.  When the jump was first built, a set of wooden stairs was built to transport skiers from the bottom of the hill to the top.  There's no lift in operation here.  The stairs have been repaired and replaced several times in the last 75 years, most recently with the 6-ft wide concrete steps completed earlier this year.  Sponsorships were sold to help pay for construction, and the number of steps was increased from 400 to 500.  Each step has a plaque personalized with its number, the donor's name, and sometimes an inspirational message.  Both locals and visitors like to take on the challenge of what's known as the Pine Mountain 500.  We did not climb the 500 today but met a local guy who said that he goes up and down four times for his daily workout.  (We told you these guys are hardy!)  Every 100 steps, there's a rest station and bench—for the tourists, of course.

US-141 south of Covington, MI
Continuing north on US-141, we drove through long stretches of thick forests—no power lines, no side roads, just an occasional snowmobile trail crossing the highway.  Between Iron Mountain and the shore of Lake Superior some 80 miles away, we passed through only one small town and a couple of crossroads.  A bit like southwest Texas except the landscape is vastly different.

Near the hamlet of L'Anse (pop. 2,011) on the shores of Keweenaw Bay, we came across a shrine to another Yooper trooper.  Born into a wealthy family in Slovenia in 1797, Frederic Baraga dedicated himself to a life in the Catholic priesthood.  In 1830, he departed his homeland for life as a missionary in America.  Having learned several languages as a child, Father Baraga showed an aptitude for learning the languages of the native tribes and was assigned to work among the Ottawa and later Chippewa nations.

Father Baraga, the Snowshoe Priest
Baraga began working in the UP among native tribes and later with immigrant miners and lumberjacks.  Even the heavy snow of the area's formidable winters did not prevent him from ministering to his flock.  Traveling hundreds of miles on snowshoes each winter earned him the nickname "the Snowshoe Priest."  To honor the legacy of the man who eventually became the first bishop in the UP, a shrine was completed in 1974, featuring a six-story statue of the priest holding 26-ft snowshoes, quite an impressive site.
 
Almost to Houghton, our destination for the night, we stopped briefly to search for a letterbox in a small park near Chassell Township (pop. 1,822).  Before we could look for the box, we had to investigate some very interesting boats docked at this small park.  As we scratched our heads and tried to figure out what kind of boat this might be, another pulled up and tied up.

Great Lakes fish tug
We chatted with the sturdy fishermen who brought the boat in and learned that this type of vessel is a Great Lakes fish tug.  This design evolved over a period of years as fishermen experimented with various means of covering the decks of their fishing boats to withstand the rigors of Great Lakes winters.  These boats are used to set nets, sometimes as large as a mile long, and later pull the nets on board, removing the fish by hand, where they are iced.  Inside the deep hull is a modified processing plant, so the catch can be prepared for market on the way home.  With their steel hulls, these rugged boats can even break through ice to continue their work when the lakes freeze over.

Tunnel Boat testing
At the same park, we also encountered another robust Yooper, a petite forty-something woman who races tunnel boats.  She and her husband were there to test a new carburetor they had installed on her boat in preparation for the Outboard Performance Craft Sport C national championship races coming up next month.  If you've been listening, it won't surprise you to learn that this tenacious Yooper is the defending national champion in her class.

Leaving these friendly natives to their testing, we finally we turned our attention to the letterbox hidden nearby, found it, and got back on the road toward our destination for the evening Houghton (pop. 7,710).  The gateway to the Keweenaw Peninsula (that crooked finger poking into Lake Superior) and the area known as Copper Country, Houghton is home to Michigan Tech, its largest employer. 
Houghton, MI
With the advent of fall semester, the town was teeming with students and their parents.  After a terrific vegetarian pizza at the local Ambassador restaurant, we strolled along the Keweenaw Waterway, a canal dredged in the 1860s to allow easier transportation of mineral production to other parts of the Great Lakes.  Still used for commercial shipping, today the waterway is also a favorite of canoeists and sea kayakers.

Quincy Mine shafthouse
On Saturday, we headed out to see the end of this "crooked finger" of Superior, driving north on US-41, the same highway that goes down through Georgia all the way to Miami.  Our first stop was across the waterway in Hancock, where we visited a remnant of a bygone era.  Now part of the Keweenaw National Historic Park, the Quincy Mine was an extensive set of copper mines operated from 1846 to 1945.  The remaining shafthouse sits over a shaft that extends almost two miles down into the earth.  Guided tours into the shaft are available in summer, though we passed on this opportunity.

Where the Gipper resides today
As we continued our trek toward the fingernail, we stopped in the town of Calumet (pop. 726) to pay our respects to another Yooper trooper.  A native of the Keweenaw Peninsula, George Gipp was selected as Notre Dame's first All-American football player.  Two weeks after the announcement, Gipp died of pneumonia, but not before asking legendary Coach Knute Rockne to encourage the team to "win just one for the Gipper."   How did we know where to find Gipp?  From the clue of a letterbox nearby, of course.
Pine Grove Cemetery, Eagle Harbor, MI
In Eagle Harbor (pop. 281), farther east, we located three letterboxes, one of which was in Pine Grove Cemetery at the outskirts of the village.  Established in 1859 in a pine forest, the cemetery today has become the victim of benign neglect.  Victims of several mining accidents are buried here as well as families of miners and company executives.  Many headstones are now obscured by overgrowth.
View of Copper Harbor
Eventually we made our way to the end of the finger, Copper Harbor (pop. 190), a popular center for recreational activities and also the site of the terminus of US-41, which seemed like a great location for us to hide our Michigan letterbox.  Before leaving Copper Harbor, we made the popular drive to the top of Brockway "Mountain" (720 ft above the surface of Lake Superior).  

Though our journey to the end of the peninsula was complete, it was after 3 p.m., and we still had another 220 miles to reach our resting place for the evening at Bayfield, Wisconsin.  We turned the car around and began retracing our tracks to Houghton, where we turned west toward Wisconsin.  Wanting to arrive before nightfall, our aim was just to cover miles as efficiently as we could.  We didn't even plan to search for any letterboxes along the way.  As we drove through Wakefield, MI, however, a familiar sight caught our eye, causing us to stop in our tracks.
Whispering Giant #59
It was another of Peter Toth's Whispering Giant sculptures.  And since Illinois letterboxer Shorty has made it a mission to plant letterbox tributes near each of these statues, we grabbed our smartphones and began scrambling for clues.  Sure enough, Shorty had been there before us and left another of his remarkable rubber stamp carvings of these beautiful memorials.

Before we left Wakefield, we had a chat with a former Chicagoan who operates the local tourist information office.  Finding the Windy City too expensive for a retirement pension budget, he jumped on his wife's suggestion that they move to her home town of Wakefield.  When we asked how his life had changed from the big city, he immediately cited the robust UP winters.  In response to our puzzled reply, he said, "In Chicago, if we had 25 inches of snow, it was a big winter.  Here we get 25 feet."
Ironwood Miners Mural (click to see detail)
Shaking our heads in amazement at his nonchalance, we wandered further west to our last stop in the UP in the border town of Ironwood (pop. 5,335).  While looking for one last letterbox, we came across the town's pride and joy.  Just dedicated this June, the Ironwood Miners Mural on the side of a building in the downtown area honors the dedication and sacrifice of men from the area who worked in local mines.  The last shipment of iron ore left the local mines in 1967, but few have forgotten the town's mining heritage.  

A longstanding movement favors the secession of the Upper Peninsula from the state of Michigan to form a new state called Superior.  The completion of the Mackinac Bridge in 1957 strengthened ties with the Lower Peninsula and weakened the movement.  However, there are still Yoopers who prefer to remain aloof from Troll Land.  Based on our experiences in a couple days in the UP, we found it to be pretty special, too.

Yooperland Stats:
  • Entered the Union:  (not yet, but it could happen)
  • Largest city:  Marquette (pop. 21,355)
  • Inland lakes:  4,300
  • Snowmobile trails (in miles):  3,000+
  • Greatest snowfall season:  390 inches (1979)
  • Lowest snowfall season:  160 inches (2000)
  • Land area:  16,452 sq mi
  • Population:  299,184 
  • Miles we drove in the UP:  380
  • Letterboxes found:  13
  • Inspirational people we met:  24
More Photos from the UP
Miner Gear at the Iron Mountain Museum
Snowmobile Trail crossing in Ironwood
Snowfall Thermometer, Keweenaw County
Bishop Baraga Shrine
Portage Lake Lift Bridge, Houghton, MI
Recreational traffic on Keweenaw Waterway
Part of the Pine Mountain 500 and sample plaque
Hornets nest in Keweenaw Park
Eagle Harbor Lighthouse
Remains at Quincy Mines
Remains at Quincy Mines
Remains at Quincy Mines
Remains at Quincy Mines
Sunset over Lake Superior