Wolverine Traveler: Chapter 1
*By clicking on any photo, the slideshow will appear
When Blaine and I left from Rockford we didn’t have much on our map, a few towns circled here and there and a half finished circle drawn across the UP. It always helps to pick a point on the map as your true north; The point which you head to and turn back from. Depending on where you are and how far you plan on going, it’s easily determined by the coasts, and we wanted to hit all of them. We chose Isle Royale as our overall destination, booking a float plane out of Houghton to take us out there, aiming for the halfway point of the trip so we’d have enough time to get back. Isle Royale is the least visited national park in the Continental United States, 55 miles off the coast off the Keweenaw Penninsula. Classified as an International Biosphere Reserve back in 1980 and boasting a pack of wolves, over a thousand moose and not much else, just wilderness, it seemed like something we had to see.
We set out pointed in that direction to wander for a few days allowing us to get lost and see what we could see in the UP. We were told out of Rockford to hop on I75 north and ride it all the way to the Mackinac Bridge that would take us into the UP. Instead we opted for the more local 31N to take us to the entrance. Traveling by interstate is one of the most boring ways to travel the states, your entire view is limited to billboards and truck stops, often blurring by at 70mph. It’s hard to get a sense of where you actually are, so we stick to the local highways, with the occasional stop light in the smaller towns. This is a slower go but we weren’t particularly in a rush. You can tell you are starting to get North when the trees start to change, they seem to shrink in size, lower to the ground, hugging the horizon. It’s the same in Maine as it is in Michigan, and as the trees started to drop a few feet and we wound our way through towns like Petoskey, we knew we were getting close. We loaded up on groceries in a small town just south of the bridge, having no idea what to expect North of there as we crossed the bridge to the UP. We immediately turned onto Route 2, hugging the coast line only for a brief few miles through the tourist traps advertising “Mystery Spots” etc. which we had been told to avoid. We wanted to reach Eckerman that night so we could wake up in the UP and far away from downstate (the term for the rest of Michigan to a UP-er, pronounced Youper).
The sun didn’t set until 10pm when we finally set down our cameras and realized we needed to find some food and a place to stay for the evening. We started to press on the gas a little to make it to Eckerman in time but as we drove on and on we realized the three houses we had passed a few miles back was Eckerman. We soon realized a dot on the map up here didn't mean much. We decided to press on towards Paradise, a bigger dot which we assumed would have what we needed. As we rolled into town that night the first sign we saw glowing on the side of the road read “Vagabond Motel”, a perfect fit to end our day. We checked in and asked where we could still find food at this hour and were sent over to the bar on the corner. As we entered the bar we got a friendly hello from the bartender who stood behind the bar swinging an electric tennis racket battling the mosquitos, a sign of things to come for the next 10 days.
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As we explained what we were doing for the next 10 days, he introduced us to Ray who was seated at the end of the bar (who I swear I saw several days later in Munising at a gas station). He ran down his list of favorites west of here, “You’ve got to hike in the porkies (The Porcupine Mountains) and if you’re going to Copper Harbor you’ve got to get some Thimbleberry jam from the Jam Lady, $10 a jar but the best damn jam you’ve ever had!” He said, smacking his palm on the countertop. No one there had been to Isle Royale but had all heard it was beautiful. We added those points to our list, thanked them after a few beers and a snack, and called it quits for the night.
Waking up in the Vagabond surrounded by the morning mist, we decided to shoot up to Whitefish Point in the morning before we headed west to see the Tahquamenon Falls. We turned off into the Whitefish Harbor a few miles south of the point and found the point to mostly be a bunch of tourists taking pictures of the lighthouse and Lake Superior from the deck. The pier was far more interesting; the launch point for local fisherman and a boat graveyard as well. We wandered the cement pillars out into the mist beginning to feel like we were on the edge of the earth as Superior disappeared into the haze. As we left and made our way south, Bethany at the Whitefish Point gift shop had suggested we stop at Paradise Sporting Outfitters to pick up a snowmobile & offroad map. She told us that last year a section of the forest between the point and Pictured Rocks burned and we could take these dirt roads all through it and wrap around the coast to Pictured Rocks which would be a good place to stop for the night.
From Tahquamenon Falls we turned north on 500 straight into the burn. It’s a good sign that you are on the right (or wrong road depending on how you see things) when the only vehicles to pass you all day are 4 Wheelers tearing through the dust. Less than 20 miles of road took us more than 5 hours to travel, winding through sandpits that required us to backtrack and gun it through some tricky spots, the roads labeled impassable turned out to be just a suggestion, and we wound our way through the blackened woods. I’ve been in forests that have burned before but never one so fresh. I spent time a few winters ago out in Lama, NM where part of the mountain had burnt in 1996, but having had a few years to recover, the brush had returned and the only remnants of the fire were a few trees with scarred bark. Here in the northern section of the Lake Superior State Forest the trees were black spikes pointed at the sky with just a thin layer of ferns and grass growing beneath. The contrast was remarkable. Eventually we realized we’d never make it to Pictured Rocks at this rate of crawling through the sand. We meandered south again to pick up the 414 to 410, but not before pulling off for a quick dip in Muskallonge Lake just on the northern edge of the Penninsula.
Even with dusk coming at 10pm, we were quickly losing light as we raced through the local roads. We were trying to beat the sun to the horizon and to Pictured Rocks. We pulled into the parking lot just as the sun turned red, cutting through the trees. We ran down to the edge just in time to catch the last light as the sun disappeared into the night. We once again found ourselves standing in the darkness needing to figure out a place to stay and find food at 10pm in the UP.
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Wolverine Traveler: The Upper Peninsula
Photography & Text: Mikael Kennedy
Co-Pilot: Blaine Davis
Mikael Kennedy is a New York City- based commercial and fine art photographer. He is the author of the internationally acclaimed Polaroid travel blog, Passport to Trespass, documenting his 10 years of wandering the United States with a Polaroid SX70.
Blaine Davis Raised in the contrasting culturespo of South Texas and Eastern Europe, Blaine Davis quickly developed a taste for travel, photography and the outdoors at a young age. Currently working as a photographer, teacher and sometime writer in Brooklyn, NY.