Relaxing and Rewilding in Ironwood, MI

Photos by Andrew Stark
Photos by Andrew Stark

Yoop·er (n): A native or inhabitant of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

This is an umbrella term that can also refer to a lifestyle, a cultural ethos. Yooper is a sociopolitical identity, a gestalt, which has its roots in Finnish and Swedish and Native American. Yoopers can be reserved people, isolated, hermetic, remote as abyssal fish. They are a sturdy core sample of America, coexisting in their northern corner. In 1858, the first efforts were made for the Upper Peninsula to secede and become its own state, followed by similar motions in 1897, 1962, and the 1970s. That state was to be called Superior.

Michigan didn’t want the Upper Peninsula. At the time of the Toledo War (1835 – 36), a dispute between the territory of Michigan and the state of Ohio over a 468-square-mile border region known as the Toledo Strip (sort of the Rust Belt’s buckle, these days) and the economically coveted mouth of the Maumee, Congress offered Michigan statehood and three-quarters of the Upper Peninsula in return they give up the Strip. Voters widely rejected this proposal; a federal report at the time described the northland as a “sterile region on the shores of Lake Superior destined by soil and climate to remain forever a wilderness.” 

The U.P. and I share the same date of birth, 146 years apart, on the 14th of December. 

I’ve spent most of my life collecting Yooper moments. One time, my grandpa, a notorious curmudgeon (given to hollering things like, “Aw, shuddup!” when us kids would whimper on Sunday drives to Copper Harbor. “We’re pre’neer there.”), was pulled over north of Baraga Maximum Correctional on Westland Drive for running a stop sign. When the officer walked his license and registration back to the squad car, my grandpa drove off “because the son of a bitch took too damn long.” That was a Yooper moment. 

Or the time I was running phone cable with a paunchy Finn out on Horoscope Road. A storm broke, and we were waiting out the rain in his idling flat nose diesel, which jostled like a massage chair. I held my head in my hands.

“Hangover?” he said.

I grunted.

“Ever been so drunk you shit yourself?”

“No.”

He sniffed. “Then you ain’t never been drunk.”

But Yooper moments aren’t always like that. Some years ago, I was running Cat 5 cable in the new L’Anse high school and during my lunch break I hand-fed a fox most of my turkey sandwich. The fox would genuflect, skitter off and somersault before returning for a bite. Or the time I was digging a ditch in the woods outside the Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha Church in Skanee, and two raccoon cubs the size of softballs tottered out from a stand of birches. While the more aggressive chewed on my boot, the other clawed whining at my jeans. I picked it up, and it continued whining until I held it against the crook of my throat, where it quickly shut its eyes and fell asleep. These moments, rather than the compendium of horrors invariably affixed to an isolated and economically depressed people, define the essence of what it means to be Yooper. 

Gogebic, Ojibwa, meaning “where trout rising to the surface make rings in the water.” Gogebic County is bordered by Wisconsin to the west and south, and opens into Lake Superior 18 miles north of Ironwood, an iron ore mining town that saw its boom in the mid-1880s with the discovery of several deposits and the concurrent arrival of the railroad. Mines like the Norrie, Aurora, Newport and Pabst brought an inflow of immigrants from countries like Germany, Italy, Sweden, Finland and Poland.  

This is the westernmost tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—the bow, as it were, to Chippewa County’s eastern stern, where the hidden inland lakes and coves and scattered limestone jots of Drummond Island are just separated from Ontario’s Manitoulin District by the False Detour Channel. 

I’m staying for the weekend at Family Times, a luxury ski-in chalet at the base of Big Powderhorn Mountain, which is one of four major ski resorts within 10 miles. All told, the well-appointed and incredibly spacious condo has among its three levels: five beds, five TVs, three fireplaces, three bathrooms, a Jacuzzi, a sauna, a pool table and a mountainside patio.          

By late afternoon the sky looks like a galvanized lid. I drive into town and get a delicious Americano from Contrast Coffee on Aurora Street. The place feels incongruous, its citified appearance jarring among relics like Floors N’ Mor, Mattson’s TV & Appliance, Ben Franklin, Joe’s Pasty Shop, and, directly across the street from Contrast, the Historic Ironwood Theatre with its eight-bay limestone facade, bronze marquee, stained-glass transoms, and stoic griffons perched throughout.

This is what some younger Yoopers are doing: returning from college and infusing a kind of cultural dualism into the U.P.’s doggedly antiquated communities. Down the block, on the corner of Lowell and Ayer, Cold Iron Brewing opened in 2017, in the old Ottawa National Forest Building. In fact, as of this writing, there are about 20 breweries scattered across the U.P. In Hancock, Gitche Gumee Ciderworks crafts artisanal cider from local wild apples hauled in by the truckload. Cedar Naturals in Atlantic Mine harvests small-batch essential oils from nearby white cedar and balsam fir. On Washington Street in Marquette, my friend Justin “Bugsy” Sailor opened U.P. Supply Co., a brick-and-mortar hawking irreverent cool-kid Yooperwear. There are a number of wineries and marijuana dispensaries. Marquette’s waterfront has become a veritable bar graph of condos and hotels. At the Roam Inn, a boutique hotel over in Munising, house chef de cuisine Ali Adamczyk’s Gitchee Gumee Burger is an eight-ounce dry-aged short-rib blend with sharp Pinconning cheese, cherry tomato jam and veal-glazed onions. In Nahma Township, Michelin-starred chef Iliana Regan and her wife Anna opened Milkeed Inn, a glamping B&B that runs guests about $2,000 a night. 

I have dinner down the street, at the Olde Suffolk Ale House. Of the three portions of prime rib—King, Queen, Princess—I order the Princess, and it’s as large as my open hand. I have a nice conversation with some folks at the bar, a woman and two gentlemen.

One guy’s saying: “So you take this [unintelligible] and add a buncha’ kief, roll it up and dip it in this—” He turns to the other guy. “What kinda’ oil?”

Other guy shrugs.

“Anyway, single jay costs $20. Gonna’ smoke that and we’ll just zone out and gaze down at Silver Street [in neighboring Hurley, WI]. Welcome to join, bud.”

I consider this, the sumptuous detail that experience could lend to this story. But ultimately decide against getting my brain zapped among strangers in Hurley, a town known for its serrated energy.

The next morning, over a quick and delicious breakfast at Mike’s Restaurant (“Food so good,” the menu attests, “you’ll think we stole your Mama!”), an Ironwood mainstay, I pick up snippets of conversation from my packed surroundings.

“Hey there. How’s she goin’?”

“Ya. She’s goin’ good.”

“Oh ya?”

“Ya.”

And then: “My dad’s brother’s kids used to come over and help make wood. Well, my dad wanted to pay ’em, and his brother said, ‘You ain’t payin’ them kids to make frickin’ firewood.’”

Part of a different conversation over my shoulders: “You’re gonna’ make me choke on a damn cheese curd.”

I set off for the Black River Scenic Byway, but Copper Peak, “the largest artificial ski jump in the world” at 496 feet, is closed for the season. Just down the road, I park in the lot for Conglomerate Falls. The trail is vascular with tree roots. I touch the cold wood of a busted hemlock. Birds overhead sound like monkeys, and these calls follow me down the trail with increased urgency and volume, announcing my presence. I am alone. Another bend and I can hear the falls ahead like wind through pines. Then, the rushing Conglomerate is split by an enormous volcanic rise, on top of which huge forest debris sits piled like a prehistoric nest. 

Farther down the road, you’ll find Potawatomi Falls, which is an easy—and wheelchair-accessible—500-foot walk. A sign at the trailhead explains that “[t]he Black River is named for the dark color of its water,” which “is due in part to a naturally occurring dye called ‘tannin’ that leaches into the water from the bark of Hemlock trees.” Rotting leaves everywhere smell like red wine.

At Sandstone Falls, farther still, a sign posted atop 153 steps warns “STEPS AND TRAIL DROP SHARPLY TO FALLS PACE YOURSELF AND AVOID OVER EXERTION.” Certain portions of these steps list downhill, producing a kind of mal de débarquement. The falls themselves are breathtaking: intercut with jutting rocks large and smooth as luxury automobiles. It’s like stepping back into an unpeopled America. 

The climb back up those steps has me sweating and shedding layers, and so I decide to skip Rainbow Falls and head directly to Black River Harbor, where the journey terminates at Lake Superior. Along the way, some road signs are pocked with buckshot; others are dog-eared from, presumably, a drive-by with a baseball bat. Black River Harbor, along with Little Girl’s Point 27 miles west, are the area’s can’t-miss attractions, its crown jewels. 

The suspension bridge bobs underfoot as I cross—I’m tempted to jump up and down, but there are people here. Opposite one of the breaker walls, there’s a sandy beach that extends northeast to Porcupine Mountains, the leaves in this light the color of high-moisture rust. Stockpiles of gigantic driftwood polished clean. I watch a Red-naped Sapsucker study the surface of a tree so closely that I can see its pulse in its throat. 

Brilliant red plants explode from the trailside like blood vessels. 

“Excuse me,” I say to a passing elderly couple. “Do you know what kind of plant this is?”

The woman says, “Years ago I might of.”

The man rubs his chin, then points. “That’s red dogwood.”

“Oh, cool,” I say. “I’m in town writing a story for a magazine, and I’m kind of obsessive about details.”

As we part ways, the woman calls over her shoulder: “Be kind to us!”

The woods on the way out to Little Girl’s Point is so dense that, even in full daylight at 1:30 p.m., I can only see about 20 feet deep. The sun hits the aspens from such an angle that their slender shadows spill across the road by the thousands, producing an epileptic effect on my eyes. 

If America is, as Kerouac put it, “the same vast backyard [with everybody] doing something so frantic and rushing-about,” then the Upper Peninsula is where that yard meets the tree line. 

Little Girl’s Point drops dramatically into Lake Superior, and provides one of the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen, anywhere. The beach is sweeping and majestic, the Big Lake mighty and unforgiving. Superior’s been the final resting place of the SSs Edmund FitzgeraldEmperorKamloops, and over 60 others, victims to such unsettling ends as “floundered” “ran aground” “capsized” “lost” and “broke in two.” Lake Superior has a surface area of 31,700 square miles. Its deepest recorded point is 1,276 feet. If the entire population of earth drank half a gallon of Lake Superior every day, it would take us 2,348 years to drain it. The natives called it Ojibwe Gichigami, meaning “Ojibwe’s Great Sea.”

I hop back into my car and head west along the shore. For a moment, I’m compelled to keep driving, hitting US-2 at Saxon and following that through Ashland until I pivot north on 53 in Duluth. I’d feel the explorer spirits of my ancestors, smell the tang of burning sage, hear the circle’s rhythmic report when drumstick struck buckskin. North still, marveling at the spectral pines, Cotton, Virginia, Wakemup, then the widespread wilds of Koochiching and up into Canada, passing places like Emo and Sioux Narrows, Pikangikum and Pauingassi, the scalped earth of the oil sands. Eventually, I’d reach Nunavut and the Arctic Archipelago with their road signs in Inuktitut—no destination to speak of, just coordinates like the latitudes and longitudes of open water—guided by moss growth, by stick and shadow, Cassiopeia and Polaris. Ten-foot snowbanks under a fallout sky. And onward still, north, north to the unpronounceable inlets and regions without ownership, and into the great white void.

This is a Yooper moment.

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