Bugs, Sweat, and Tears; Exploring the UP’s Copper Country

Just getting around to writing up this trip from a few weeks ago. My girlfriend Alyssa and I planned a little getaway up into the UP’s Keweenaw Peninsula to spend a few days recreating.

The Keweenaw Peninsula is the large protrusion of land that juts off to the north into Lake Superior from the mainland. It is rich with history, old mining towns, undeveloped shorelines, an old mountain range, and is comprised of a National Historic Park, a great State Park and alot of conservancy lands. It is simply put, one of my favorite places anywhere. A must see place for many reasons.

Day 1

We got on the road later in the day on Friday after Alyssa wrapped up some work she had to do and I got the vehicle packed. From Marquette we drove via highway up to Houghton/Hancock then stopped in the town of Calumet to grab dinner on our way to camp.

Red Jacket Brewery is one of those places I tell everyone to check out. In the old historic downtown of Calumet. Calumet was once a booming mining town, so booming in fact that it was in cosideration for the state capital back when Michigan was being formed. The dowtown still retains an old brick street and many of the buildings sit empty though, happy to report that many of the old buildings are being refurbished and taken care of through funding from various sources. It is definately worth poking around town and check out the old churches, store fronts, and architecture. The brewerey itself is very old with the original painted mural on the ceiling above the bar. They have great food and if you are a beer lover…. well I need say no more.

After eating we continued north. Right around Calumet are a handful of tiny towns, all within a mile of each other and all service different old mines none of which are still in operation. Many of the homes have seen better days but most are occupied and still retain the very original look and feel. We darted up US 41, peeling off for the requiste drive along Cliff Drive, then dropped down along the west coast of the peninsula to drive through the towns of Eagle River, Eagle Harbor, and ultimately, the end of the road Copper Harbor. The drive along this stretch is probably my favorite in the whole state. The pavement is sinuous, winding, climbing and diving constantly through a narrow passage of trees or along the rugged coastline. It is THE quintensential sports car road….. we had to make do with a Land Rover Discovery, still fun don’t get me wrong, but not quite the same thing 😉

Evening at the mouth of Eagle River.

One of the must see stops along this stretch is definately Brockway Mountain Drive. It is a narrow paved road that drives along the ridge of Brockway Mountain affording spectacular views of Lake Superior and the town of Copper Harbor to the north. The view in the evening is hard to beat with the sun getting low over Lake Superior, the curve of the earth is visible as you see the broad expanse of freshwater stretching to the horizon. It never fails to awe me, this largest lake in the world. A couple of freighters, one 700 footer and one 1,000 footer can be seen pushing their way towards Duluth Minnesota making the mandatory detour around the large peninsula. They look like tiny children’s toys, dwarfed by the freshwater sea.

Jason and his wife Blythe were meeting us out at the tip of the peninsula. The location is familiar to those that follow the UPO trips. Highrock point is the tip of the Keweenaw peninsula and requires one to push past Copper Harbor on dirt roads and a rough two track out to the end. Its worth the drive and despite having a couple of other vehicles out there camping, you have a sense of seclusion knowing you are WAY out there.

An evening mist hangs over the water.

Our camp.

We cooked dinner over a roaring campfire. We had premaid some food, potatoes and veggies in foil, corn cooked in the husks on the fire, and shishka bobs. Jason and Blythe joined us for s’mores later after the sun set. The full moon began its climb over the eastern horizon above Manitou Island. Soon a large frieghter came between the island and land, a rare sight as most go around the north side of the island. It is a surreal feeling seeing something so massive passing by so close, yet being out in such a remote place.

Day 2

Its always great sleeping to the sounds of the waves on the rocks. Not sure what it is, but even that medatative sound can’t keep me from waking up predawn to catch the sunrise. Highrock point faces directly east so there are some epic sunrises over the lake to be had, if you can get up early enough. Mid July in the UP means it is light out past 10 and sunrise before 6 so just trying to use up all the day light can wear you out pretty fast.

The sun coming up over the water

The agate strewn beaches of Highrock point

The shoreline stretching west

Our camp from down the beach.

The forecast was not looking all that awesome either. Temps were predicted to reach the triple digit mark inland with it a touch cooler near the coast. The heat combined with opressive humidity seemed to anger the insect kingdom in a way that inspired them to attack our defenses with full force. We had some activities lined up and would spend another night here at High Rock. The plan was to go paddle around Copper Harbor, hike, and do some touring via the Rover.

We bounced our way back to Copper Harbor and launched the canoe from a small park in town. Part of what makes the town of Copper Harbor so cool is the skinny, yet long natural harbor that it is nestled in. A rugged coastline of rock and islands creates a sheltered harbor of refuge. The town itself is small, one little grocery store, some motels, some gift stores, the ferry for Isle Royale National Park, a few small restaraunts are scattered about. The fact that the town boasts incredible mountain biking, sea kayaking and access to some great back country. In fact IMBA recently gave Copper Harbor “Epic” status for its network of single track mountain bike trails that spider web out and above town. Truely a world class riding spot. But…. we didn’t bring the mountain bikes, we debated bringing the tandem bike to actually ride some of the dirt and tarmac roads that are so scenic there but decided we would have a full weekend with just the canoe.

So there we were slipping through the calm, glassy water of the harbor. A veil of light clouds help reduce the intensity of the growing heat. Ducks and geese were leisurely floating about as we worked towards the east end of the bay.

cool sailboat off a private dock in Copper Harbor

Exploring an inlet on an island on the outer portion of the harbor and Lake Superior.

Copper Harbor light

Rocks that stand in the center of the chanel to Copper Harbor looming in the distance. The eerie chime of the channel marker buoy clanged with the occasional swell.

The cloud cover started clearing and the day was to start getting very steamy.

After getting back to the park where we put in, we drove up the Burma road to the trailhead for Estivant Pines. Estivant Pines is a cool spot. It is a tract of unlogged old growth forest featuring White Pines that have been hanging out here since before Columbus discovered the New World. The feeling of the old growth forest is much different then that of the thicker and younger second growth forests. The canopy higher, the spacing between the trees much greater. Makes you really feel a sense of awe for what the region was like back before it was logged so heavily. The giant whitepines are definately a thing of beauty and they were sought after for their valuable lumber potential. Much of Northern Lower Michigan was logged to rebuild Chicago after the great fire. There are alot of rugged nooks and crannies of the UP where the loggers weren’t able to get into and in these spots old growth still lives. The Estivant Pines tract is a great hike comprised of a couple of loops of primitive trail. Its a must do when in Copper Harbor.

The sun really heated things up. The mosquitos became intense and despite heavy applications of bug dope we had to keep moving. Not going to lie, the combination of heat, humidity and bugs was enough to make me suffer a bit!

We got back in the Rover and put on the AC to cool down and dry out a bit as we drove to Bete Gries, a great beach on the East side of the Keweenaw between Lac LaBelle and Lake Superior.

Thankfully the temps at the beach were a bit more comfortable due to the cooling effect of the lake. Good time for a couple of beers, and some swimming. Lake Superior was just getting nice to swim in for the summer, just in time for the hottest weather of the year. I heard on NPR about the death toll across the midwest due to this intense heat wave, I could think of no place I would rather be then here…..

Funny how your whole temperment and mood can change in the blink of an eye. All it took was a plunge in Superior to refresh, recharge and give me a whole new outlook on the day. I pity those who haven’t experienced it… honestly.

After a mellow afternoon at the beach we got back on the road and drove back over to Eagle Harbor via the Delaware Mine Road. Rally racing afficionados might recongnize the stage name from the long running Lake Superior Pro Rally (now called Performance Rally). Its a smooth, winding dirt road that the likes of the Subaru, Mitsubishi, Ford, and Mazda rally teams to name of a few, have wrung every last bit of speed out of. A spectator favorite on the national rally scene’s “oldest, toughest, meanest” rally. We buzzed back down the coast towards Eagle River for one reason alone… to stop at the Jampot. Put this on the must do list as well. The Jampot is a little store that sells homeade baked goods and jams (a huge selection) made lovingly by a group of monks who live in the monastery next door. The monastary itself is amazing, sitting by itself on a beautiful stretch of Lake Superior Shoreline, you can just imagine the monks out in the forest gathering the wild rasberries, blueberries, thimbleberries, and tending their large garden to create their offerings.

After buying some goods we headed back up to Copper Harbor and back to our camp where we left our tent standing. It was early evening now and a nice fog hovering over the lake kept the temps nice and comfortable at camp.

Spent some time in the nice light shooting some shots of my yogi travel companion for use on her website…

Evening two at camp

Day 3

Well the forecast today was looking brutal. It would prove to be the hottest day of the summer. We wasted no time packing up camp and rolling out. While our initial plan was to hike Bare Bluffs, the increasing heat made us rethink the plan and we ended up taking the dirt all the way down to the small beach of Bete Gries. Paddling along Superior and taking advantage of the cooler air off the lake proved to be the way to go.

A mist hung over the water and swirled over the shores as the incredible difference in temperature between land and water created cool effects with the local weather.

Working our way along the coast. This stretch of shoreline from Bete Gries towards Keweenaw Point is some of the best unknown paddling in the area. Large cliffs, rocky shoreline with many inlets and smal caves makes it a paddlers paradise. Paddle far enought to the mouth of the Montreal River and you can see a beautiful cascade of waterfalls as the river makes the final drop down to Lake Superior.

Paddling through a small sea arch.

We were both pretty spent from the heat and previous days activities. Surprising what 100 degree heat and insane humidity can do. We lounged about in the canoe, taking in the scenery and cooler air.

Rugged coastline with lush forest coming as close as it dares to the water.

Alyssa assuming her position still 😉

We eventually paddled back to the beach, took some time to swim before loading the boat and venturing off. We would drive tarmac down to the town of Gay. Along the way we stopped along the incredibly long stretch of beautiful shoreline to swim in an area that has smooth sandstone on the bottom with small bowls and features sculpted in the bottom. The water felt so good.

We stopped at the Gay Bar for the obligatory rig pic in front of the sign and decided to get some lunch. Quiet day in Gay. The owner was the only one working, there menu now features burgers, previously only a huge selection of hotdogs. Funny, eh?

Next stop was the Gay beach. It is a stretch of beach that extends 8 miles to the village of Grand Traverse to the south and is a designated OHV route. Cool photo opps abound. Get your mini Sahara fix here…..

We put the AC on high and heard reports on the weather band that a heat warning was in effect. I hear winter storm warnings giving residents directions for what to do, to stay in their homes, etc up here but a heat warning seemed alien. It really WAS hot. I had the front and rear AC cranking on the Rover and we were blissfully ignorant of the temps outside. We hit pavement for awhile, my original intent was to check out some trails I wanted to explore while working our way south along the eastern side of the Keweenaw. I had to throw in the white flag. Our campsite for the night was calling my name. A sugar sand beach at the mouth of the Huron River and water was all I could focus on! We crusied down the Keweenaw then out to the end of the road at the mouth of the Huron River which borders the western edge of the Huron Mountains.

This is a great spot with no developed campground but being on state forest land it is a prime place to “disperse” camp though some interpret that a bit differently than others. Honestly alot of folks abuse this great area. Driving atv’s and trucks on the beach, leaving human waste, leaving campers parked there all summer, etc. This time was no exception. I watched a grandma and two grand kids drive around the no driving on the beach sign to go… well, drive down the beach along the water. A Jeep Wrangler and a lifted Tahoe appeared on the other side of the river and started baja’ing along the beach, driving in and out of the water and along the rocks at the far end of the bay. Not cool, not legal, not treading lightly, and definately not doing anything good to keep this great resource available to the public. Its only a matter of time……. That said though, we found a great spot at the end of the road, set up the tend on the sandy ground and were getting ready to take a dip. We quickly realized the bugs were INTENSE. Mosquitos and biting flies, Oh My!

Severe storms were forecaste for this evening and three storms in a row approached then diverted around us. The humidity and heat was still high. This made for a great sunset though.

We took a couple swims that evening, the water was amazing and gave a break from the heat and the bugs! Occasionally a wind would blow through as storms skirted us. We grilled up some kabobs on the portable grill and enjoyed it with some beers. Despite the bugs best efforts we were having a nice night. Crawling into the tent we found the heat and humidity made for stifling conditions in the tent but eventually fell asleep. That night as we slept severe storms rampaged across the northern end of Lake Michigan. The Chicago-Mackinac sailboat race was underway and one particular squall pummeled the racers. Just off of North Fox Island on Lake Michigan the storm capsized one sailboat in the middle of the night, and two crew members were lost. Several other sailboats were badly damaged and forced to find safe refuge after riding out the storm. Sad night for sure.

Day 4, Monday morning

We awoke early and wasted no time packing up camp. Our plan was to cross back to Marquette via the Nortwestern road, an unimproved, narrow dirt road, that connects from Big Eric’s bridge on the Huron River to the village of Big Bay on the East side of the Huron Mountains. Its a bit of an adventure if you don’t have maps or GPS or know where you are going because nothing out here is marked.

Crossing an old bridge that has seen better days. Beavers have dammed up the upstream side of the bridge making a pond. The Rover was just wide enough to span the gap.

The rest of the drive was rather uneventful. We rolled back into Marquette by 10am which allowed Alyssa some time to clean up and get ready for work. She works virtually from home and her office is in Utah, 2 hours later which buys her some extra time in the mornings.

We had a great trip despite the challenging conditions. Usually in this region, challenging conditions mean, snow, cold, mud perhaps, but this was a whole other type of condition to reckon with. In the end we had a great time and came away with some great memories.

Categories: camping, Discovery, Lake Superior, Land Rover, Overlanding, Upper Peninsula | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Bugs, Sweat, and Tears; Exploring the UP’s Copper Country

  1. Wow, this looks like it was a fantastic trip! It’s officially on my list of things to do. I’ve been eyes Michigan for a while now, and now I just have to go. I much appreciate the write up. Very detailed, and well organized. Keep up the good work!

  2. Thanks! I am in the process of posting up more trips from the UP region right now so stay tuned. They will all be back dated so you might have to click around on the archives. From September 2011 there are a couple others already.

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