“I’ve always wanted to drive across the Mackinac Bridge,” said Tim, ever so innocently, once upon a time in Wisconsin.
So it was that two hours north of Eagle River we found ourselves at a three-way intersection in Michigan confronted by the enormity of Lake Superior. We had entered Yooper Territory. See, Michigan consists of two halves, the Upper Peninsula and the Lower Peninsula, connected by the Mackinaw Bridge. Residents of the UP refer to themselves as da Yoopers and have a very distinct dialect. See here.
There’s no wonder less than five percent of Michigan’s total population resides in the UP. It’s a beautiful but harsh environment. Here, mosquitoes laugh in the face of DEET and coordinate relentless aerial assaults against humans at all hours of the day. Carnivorous flies penetrate multiple layers of clothing to rip away tiny chunks of flesh for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The weather is also much harsher in the UP. Our first night at the Porcupine Mountains State Park we experienced a thrilling thunderstorm. For hours, sheets of rain buffeted our tent, threatening to rip through its seams. Indeed, there was a fair bit of duct tape maintenance to be done the next morning.
The Porkies are a small group of mountains at the far western edge of the UP, once the site of copper mining. In the heart of the mountains lay the Lake of the Clouds. This is the park’s most popular site, so we went there first for a relaxing little nature walk.
After admiring the scenic vista for a while we headed over to the Union Mine Trail, a one-mile jaunt through the forest promising views of sparkling waterfalls, old growth forest, and the remains of the Nonesuch Mine. The previous night’s rain made for a distressingly humid day. As it heated up past 90 degrees, I entered the forest thinking, “It’s only a mile.”
One mile my ass.
It felt more like three or four miles through the Amazon rainforest. If my life was a movie, Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Run Through the Jungle” would have been playing in the background. Clawing through that hot soupy air, swatting away clouds of biting flies at every turn, wiping sheets of perspiration from my brow, I felt like a National Geographic photojournalist on the hunt to get shots of a rare species of tropical bird. A dense canopy did provide shady relief in several spots, including those along rust-colored babbling brooks and waterfalls. By the time we emerged from the trail, I felt a great sense of accomplishment from just making it out alive.
Our plan to cool down at the beach was thwarted by reports from our neighbors back at camp, who’d tried to do the same and were driven away by droves of biting flies (again with the flies!). A short time later we found ourselves walking through the doors of Porky’s Pub ‘n’ Grub down the road.
“Hey dere, what can a get fer you guys?”
“What do you have on tap?”
[laughs] “Oh nothin’…I just got what ya see dere.”
At first I thought, “Oh, great. This is going to be the lamest bar.” I was wrong; that was merely an introduction to the Yooper way: straightforward and not without a sense of humor. Tim and I spent a good three hours in conversation with Dennis the Bartender and other Yoopers who told us all about life in Ontonagon, Michigan. They regaled us with tales of driving through multiple feet of snow in the winter and joked about plans to lure tourists into the trees across the street in their quest for cell phone service.
We learned a lot over the course of five beers, a basket of fries and two pan-fried Walleye filets. The most memorable part of the evening came when we overheard Dennis in a dark corner of the bar speaking in hushed tones to a new arrival. Words like “pounds,” “ounces” and “I got it” floated over. Glancing over at them, I saw a mysterious object pass between the two and examined under the bar. Drugs?
No…copper! Eventually Dennis came over to us with a huge smile on his face and excitedly plunked down a huge piece of copper on the bar. Michigan has one of the largest concentrations of copper in the world, he told us. After the copper boom dwindled, mining operations folded and left remnants strewn about. Now copper hunting is a local hobby.
That evening a violent thunderstorm drove us into our tent before the sun even went down. The bugs, the heat, the humidity, the sudden weather changes – it can all be summed up by something one of the guys at the bar told us. “Welcome to da UP. Everything here bites.”