Lake Superior may not be an ocean, but she certainly acts like one. Making her own weather and changing on a dime, she gives the Upper Peninsula of Michigan a sense of awe that I previously thought you could only find on the coasts. I am visiting Black Rocks, a craggy slab of ancient rock bubbling above the shoreline in Marquette, Michigan. Varied promontories create a perfect viewing platform for the power of “Mother Superior,” as the locals call her. Standing on the edge of a particularly narrow slab, I feel the waves crashing below. To my surprise, a huge one explodes high above my head. I didn’t know lakes could act like this.
I’d always thought of the Midwest as a tamer part of the country—cozy and inoffensive. While visiting friends in college, I heard people talk of the Upper Peninsula with an air of mystique and adventure. I am here to dispel my assumptions and spend a week in the U.P. learning everything from the term “Yooper” to the 101 different ways to eat a whitefish. Looking at a map, everyone knows the Michigan mitten. Now imagine the mitten has a loose and wild string being pulled on by Canada—that’s where I am.
I land in Marquette, where a main street full of vintage signage, historical architecture, and shops with classic window displays makes it easy to fall in love. I spot more than one local unironically wearing a T-shirt listing the hikes nearby. They love it too. Many old industrial towns experience a haphazard revitalization that quickly converts everything into an aesthetic I can only describe as “Brooklyn adjacent.” Marquette is not that. The downtown holds onto its history, most literally in the towering presence of the historic ore dock. The architecture is symmetrical, drawing your eye out to the heart of the lake. What once played an active part in the daily iron ore trade now looks like both a massive spaceship ready for takeoff and a relic of an ancient civilization.
A short walk from the water brings me to BODEGA, another mini-wonder of architecture housed inside a converted schoolhouse. The owners, Libby and Amber, act as ambassadors to the food and arts community. They are committed to connecting with local farmers and creating a space where everyone is welcome to enjoy their delectable menu. Amber is an illustrator and has filled the restaurant with artwork that depicts local highlights such as Sugarloaf Mountain and Little Presque Isle. There is this literal connection to nature, but the people of Marquette are connected philosophically as well, seeing themselves as part of an ecosystem. As a small and mighty community, they have crafted a balance of artists, restaurateurs, and shop owners who rely on and champion one another.
I regretfully pull myself away from the charms of downtown and head north to Copper Harbor, where every mile levels up the degree of wilderness. The drive is typically three hours but takes me much longer because there’s plenty to distract me along the way. First is the Jampot, a small bakery run by Catholic monks, where I have one of the tastiest muffins of my life (that is also, somehow, the size of my head). The historic town of Gay, a hamlet with barely 93 year-round residents, has an impeccably preserved 100-year-old schoolhouse, plenty of cheeky signage, and their famous The Gay Bar. When dusk arrives, the sky meets the lake in an optical illusion where I see no horizon, and the blue is so surreal I break the cardinal rule of being a New Yorker in the driver’s seat: coasting along at 10 miles under the speed limit.
Eventually I pull into the Keweenaw Mountain Lodge (KML), where it feels like arriving at summer camp. Dozens of comfy cabins come into view, with the marvelous main lodge resting in the center. KML was recently certified as an International Dark Sky Park, and next to the check-in counter are all the week’s upcoming astrological events. During my stay, I am lucky to be close to the new moon, with no chance of Mercury being in retrograde. The first evening is a bust, as thick gray clouds keep me from my midnight meeting with the stars. In the morning, I meet with Chris Guibert, a local photographer who specializes in brilliant nighttime images. He promises to be my star chaperone but emphasizes that seeing the Milky Way is a marriage between patience and luck.
I am not eager to once again set my alarm for 1 a.m., but I wake up giddy to a text message with an image of a green circle that my fuzzy brain eventually processes as an image of the aurora forecast. It is the first time in my life I might see the northern lights. Scrabbling with my tripod, a red headlamp, and nausea that could be attributed to either excitement or exhaustion, I stand at the lapping edges of the lake and look up. At first it was faint, as if I stared at my phone and then turned my head toward total darkness. Then it is green, purple, twitching, and stretching in different directions. As it gets brighter, I am astounded by how quickly they move. I want to say “it,” but “they” look alive; these lights are like no others. They are a plume of fairy dust dancing in the sky, a waking dream that keeps me up in the middle of the night for nearly four hours.
After a brief nap, I head over to Keweenaw Adventure Company to meet my tour guides for the day. Their names are Bonesy and Zeke, and no, they are not characters from a young adult sci-fi novel. On the contrary, they are two fantastic outdoorsmen who quickly teach me how to be comfortable on a mountain bike. After getting fitted, learning the term “dropper seatpost,” and being told repeatedly not to “brake like I’m in danger,” we shuttle to the top of Brockway Mountain. I have spent a lot of time on a road bike, but I am relatively fresh on the mountain alternative. Copper Harbor offers some of the longest, most difficult, and best mountain biking trails in the world. I quickly learn that it is like being on a roller coaster that you are in control of. The voice in my head slowly transitions from “Oh no, oh no, oh no” to “Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow” as we hit small jumps, turn on sweeping corners, and glide across wooden platforms that look like an architect’s schematic designs.
From the top of Brockway, I see far out on the lake, where we find our next activity for the day. Spending so much time around Lake Superior, I look forward to getting a closer look via kayak. All within a short distance, we see the remnants of a sunken ship easily visible through the clear water, float through an archway of colorful rock, and discover a shallow cove that provides a respite from any wind. My arms are tired, and looking across the lake I pretend to see a mirage of my final destination, the mythic islands of Isle Royale National Park.
I have never been on a seaplane, and I am surprised to see all the sneaky places you can hide backpacks and camping gear. Every inch counts on these tiny marvels. There are only two ways to arrive on Isle Royale: by sea or plane, and both provide a unique sense of embarking on an expedition. The islands have no cars or roads, only endless miles of hiking trails. The singular place to stay that isn’t a campsite is Rock Harbor Lodge. Visitors spend their days backpacking through pristine wilderness peppered with moose, wolves, foxes, hares, and all sorts of other wildlife to discover.
The moose are rare, with some travelers sticking around for a week and not spotting one. I meet a kind woman with a cartoonish moose pin on her beanie. “It’s my moose-spotting good luck charm,” she beams. Not moments later, tucked between two campsites, I spot a mama moose with her two babies. Her luck must be contagious.
There are a few sites in Isle Royale that break up the daily bouts of forest bathing. The Edisen Fishery shares what the day to day was like for the commercial fisheries that used to operate throughout the archipelago. Nearby, walking up to Rolf and Candy Peterson’s research cabin, I spot Rolf patching up holes in a handcrafted wooden canoe. As he finishes up, Rolf takes off a wool hat patterned with wolf silhouettes and shakes my hand. For 53 years, he has spent the summer living in a small section of the park to study the relationship between the wolf and moose populations. His goal is to better understand the rhythm of nature when humans do not hold a heavy influence.
Chatting with Rolf, surrounded by decades of research materials, I feel his connection to the land and the creatures that call this place home. He describes how moose have been seen swimming many miles from the mainland to arrive at this special and isolated place. My journey to the U.P. has not been nearly as uncomfortable and freezing as a lake crossing, but this knowledge does help me understand why people take the time to travel to a remote location like the Upper Peninsula. It takes effort to arrive in a place where the crashing waves beneath you glitter with the colors of the northern lights shining above. Where wolves are hiding in the forest and monks bake pastries in the middle of nowhere. After years of hearing tales of this secluded section of Michigan, I now realize the last word I should ever use when describing the area is “tame.”