Get U.P. and Get Out
By Karen Mulvahill | May 20, 2023
“We’re located in the Upper Peninsula. Do you know where that is?” the man asked over the phone.
“Yes,” I responded, thinking Duh, but learning later that a lot of southeast Michigan residents have only the vaguest awareness of that vast expanse north of the mitten and shaped like the hand turned sideways with the thumb up.
“We’re in the Keweenaw Peninsula. Do you know where that is?”
“We’re in Hancock. Do you know where that is?”
Not really, but I was about to find out. The man on the other end of the phone line was the HR rep for a company located in Hancock and, following a little more discussion, offered to fly me up for an interview. Recently divorced and underemployed, I thought living in a small town surrounded by wilderness might be just the kind of adventure I needed. I already enjoyed cross-country skiing, hiking, and camping, so what better place for me? Thus began three years of living there and a lifelong love affair with the U.P.
Crossing the Mackinac Bridge in my VW filled with books and clothes, I felt I was entering not just a different part of Michigan but a different country. Canada, maybe. The landscape immediately changed to dense cedar swamp on both sides of the road, and there was a feeling of wildness more intense than any place in the Lower Peninsula.
I rented an old house built during the heyday of mining in Houghton, just across the portage from Hancock. From my kitchen window, I could see the lift bridge between the two cities go up and down and watch the red sea plane take off and land between the mainland and Isle Royale. In winter, there were plenty of days I could see nothing but white out the window. An average snowfall of 200-plus inches per year provided great conditions for cross-country skiing.
Camping and hiking opportunities were endless. I took up backpacking and hiked the incredible Porcupine Mountains, Pictured Rocks, and Sylvania Tract. Of course, no account of the U.P. is accurate if it leaves out the bugs. I recall one trip where my companion, walking in front of me, his pack covered with deer flies (which have a nasty bite and seem to consider insect repellent an aphrodisiac), threw down his pack and began swearing. On another occasion, we wore head nets and smoked cigars to keep the mosquitos away.
One year, at the start of a camping trip in the Sylvania Tract, the notoriously fickle weather turned on us. It was Memorial Weekend, and a friend and I were to meet two others at a specific campsite. We pushed our canoe out into the water just as it began to snow. Despite the wetness, we were able to start a fire, and a few hours after sunset I heard my name being called across the lake. Our friends were never so happy to see a campfire.
Wilderness involves challenge. I’ve never been on a camping trip that didn’t have its unpleasant, uncomfortable, or downright dangerous moments. But the thrill of sticking your head out of a tent in the early morning, surrounded by nothing but trees and perhaps a lakeshore or a riverbank, is incomparable.
While camping isn’t for everyone, there are plenty of accessible day hikes and canoeing or kayaking experiences, and not just in the U.P. Since moving to northwest Michigan, I’ve discovered wonderful places to be outside. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is maybe the most obvious, with its many trails, inland lakes, and miles of lakeshore. Our local conservancies have preserved wonderful places, like the Leelanau Conservancy’s Palmer Woods or Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy’s Arcadia Dunes. Chances are good that, if you live in northwest Michigan, you’re very close to a preserve, park, stream, lake, dune, or bike trail.
It’s a no-brainer that outdoor activity contributes to physical conditioning. But there are plenty of other health benefits to being in nature.
According to an article by the U.S. Forest Service, “There are many mental wellness benefits associated with being outside in green spaces, such as lower risk of depression and faster psychological stress recovery. Studies have shown that being in nature can restore and strengthen our mental capacities, increasing focus and attention… Studies also show that being outside in nature is relaxing, reducing our stress, cortisol levels, muscle tension and heart rates – all of which are risk factors for cardiovascular disease.” (“The Wellness Benefits of Being Outdoors,” U.S. Forest Service, March 24, 2021)
It’s Memorial Weekend. At the same time as we honor the dead, we northerners feel more alive than ever. Does anyone in a temperate climate feel the almost uncontainable joy we do when we finally get warm, sunny days? When the hillsides are filled with blooming trees and the forest floor is carpeted with wildflowers? GET OUT THERE!
Karen Mulvahill is a writer living in northern Michigan.