Jun 22 2013
My life is a series of daily lessons, and I was surprised to learn recently that some U.P. residents don’t like to be called “Yoopers.” This term of endearment makes a lot of us grin, but to others it promotes a stereotype of simple thinking and excessive drinking.
Kind of like “Cheesehead,” I suppose.
How we define people and places depends on what we know or choose to see. Only 3 percent of Michigan’s population lives in the U.P., where about 85 percent of the land is forest.
Stick to U.S. 41 while driving into the U.P.’s largest city – Marquette, Mich., population 21,500 – and you’ll find little reason to explore or bust myths because a swarm of chain restaurants and discount stores do nothing to distinguish this place from others in the U.S.
But veer downtown, toward the Lake Superior waterfront, and the energy changes magnificently. I’m not talking about the store for bingo supplies or the skate-sharpening shop.
Here lives a mix of quirkiness, eco-awareness, earthy sophistication and many little surprises. On example: A big ball of aluminum foil, lights attached, descends at midnight on New Year’s Eve.
Nature lovers seem to have it all: birding, hiking, kayaking, fishing and bicycling. The destination is especially well-suited for active travelers who don’t mind walking the steep Front Street hill from lodging to shops to shoreline. Dress in layers because temps can change fast.
For rent are no-speed bicycles, to explore the gently graded Iron Ore Heritage Trail, under development as a 48-mile, paved, urban-rural path. Ride it on your own or take a guided tour that includes lunch.
Some bikers follow this route to reach trailheads for the more challenging Noquemanon Trail Network, whose 28 miles contain many dirt tracks, some brutal. The Noquemanon is popular with hikers, mountain bikers and lovers of extreme sports. One segment follows a 50-foot cliff, above a river.
Lake Superior water at McCarty’s Cove beach in Marquette usually reaches the mid 70s by mid summer. Hikes to the area’s dozen waterfalls require a wide range of physical exertion.
Outdoor gear that you need but don’t bring likely is for rent or resale at Switchback Gear Exchange and Outfitter. “We don’t take junk,” says co-owner Lindsay Bean. Staff conduct free classes about fly fishing, geocaching, compass/map reading and more.
Two-hour boat trips with Marquette Harbor Cruises follow the shore past iron ore docks and the black rocks of Presque Isle Park. Daybreak Charters will venture farther out for fishing and can arrange to clean and cook whatever is caught. Or just shop Thill’s Fish House, like Marquette chefs do, for smoked whitefish and catches of the day.
Trendy specialty shops add to the area’s vibrancy, as does Northern Michigan University, but downtowners also express pride about three century-old businesses: Washington Shoe Store, Getz’s clothing store and Doncker’s, a confectionary, soda fountain and cafe. On the menu at least 70 years is the Olive and Nut, a sandwich of chopped green olives, Spanish peanuts and mayo.
When a server wears a “Not Fred” T-shirt, it’s a reference to the longtime but now-deceased Doncker’s owner. His recipe for fudge survives.
So do signs of a proud Finnish heritage and the habit of easing sore muscles in an at-home sauna. Visitors book time at Second Street Sauna. Touch of Finland stocks traditional sauna supplies and Finnish collectibles.
Two hotels – a new Hampton Inn and the revamped 1930 Landmark Inn – face the waterfront downtown. So do some of the 20-plus independently owned restaurants that brand themselves as the Eastside Originals.
Choices for noshing include the vegan-friendly Sweet Water Cafe and gluten-free fare from Baby Cakes Muffin Company. Foodies shop at Marquette Commons on Saturdays, when dozens of farmers market vendors converge outdoors. The area turns into an ice rink in winter.
People find creative ways to work together in Marquette. Consider the three craft brewers: Blackrocks Brewery, Ore Dock Brewing and The Vierling.
From the ceilings of a two-story house that is Blackrocks hang 1,000-plus steins, each made by a local potter, numbered and owned by a local beer drinker.
Only one barrel of a beer is made at one time, so hoppy offerings sometimes change daily and taste a little different from one batch to the next. Some experiments sound wild: “Coconut Brown tastes like a Mounds bar,” co-owner David Manson mentions.
At Ore Dock, reclaimed materials are repurposed to furnish a former car dealership, and the second story is a community gathering space. The brewery and restaurant chefs offer monthly dinners that use beer in each of five courses. At other times, customers are encouraged to bring food with them or have it delivered.
Radlers are housemade lemonade mixed with the customer’s choice of beer on tap. The Porter and amber DreamWeaver earned World Beer Championship awards.
Accompanying taps at The Vierling, the city’s oldest brewpub, is fine dining and an artsy decor of stained glass panels, oil paintings and a century-old oak bar.
If beer’s not your thing, check out Everyday Wines, where bottles are priced under $25 and come from all over the world. Co-owner Betsy Rutz also is the Marquette Regional History Center‘s educator.
“When you’re living in the U.P., you always have to work with nature,” she notes, and exhibits show the Ojibwe, trappers, traders, sailors and coal miners doing just that.
“Many people work two jobs,” Betsy says, “We’ve always had to be innovative because distance is an issue.”
That helps explain the prevalence of sometimes-odd contraptions, often invented with makeshift materials. Trendy last winter were “snow bikes” whose tires look twice as wide as a mountain bike, with heavy gloves sometimes affixed onto handlebars.
Some find ways to attach a beer growler, too, and feed that fun-loving Yooper stereotype.
In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula are about 1,700 miles of mostly rugged Great Lakes shoreline. Marquette is 45 miles west of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, where sand dunes and sandstone cliffs, waterfalls and wilderness, beaches and boat tours stretch 40 miles. Learn more at nps.gov/prnl.
For more about tourism in Marquette, which is 175 miles north of Green Bay: travelmarquettemichigan.com, 800-544-4321.
Upcoming events include the annual Blueberry Festival on July 26 and Marquette Area Blues Fest on Aug. 30. The Ore to Shore Mountain Bike Epic, point-to-point mountain bike races on Aug. 10, covers distances of 50 yards (for little kids) to 48 miles on dirt and paved trails.
Fifteen miles southwest of Marquette is Da Yoopers Tourist Trap and Museum, 490 N. Steel St., Ishpeming. It’s on U.S. 41 and hard to miss because of bold signage.
The business is associated with the wacky U.P. musicians who are Da Yoopers. Artifacts include Big Gus, billed as the world’s biggest chainsaw that works, and Big Ernie, the biggest working rifle. For more: dayoopers.com/thetrap.html, 800-628-9978.