Winter on the Edge of Keweenaw

A peninsula forms an irresistible piece of geography. When I scan a map, my eye gravitates to peninsulas and travels to their ends, lingering while I imagine the look and feel—the coast, the terrain, the people and their individualism shaped by peninsula isolation.

The Keweenaw Peninsula, arcing northeastward from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, draws my curiosity even more than its kindred. For one, it’s just plain large. Other than Florida and Michigan itself—entire states that are peninsulas—the Keweenaw is one of the largest peninsulas protruding from the perimeter of the lower 48. But more compelling is the kind of fearless statement that the Keweenaw makes, a stab of rock that dares reach 75 miles into the realm of the great, cold and powerful Lake Superior.

I don’t know if my regular crew of winter travel friends shares my peninsula fascination, but I do know they like snow, and the tip of the Keweenaw averages about 240 inches a year, some years receiving more than 300 (that’s 25 feet if you’re wondering). Even better, the snow falls on ridges that rise 700 feet above Lake Superior—worn-down remnants of ancient uplift and volcanoes. I have no trouble convincing my pals to accompany me to the Keweenaw for a February weekend of backcountry skiing and snowshoeing. Our mission: to sample from the Keweenaw’s winter riches.

Our specific destination is Copper Harbor, at the peninsula’s tip, named in the mid-1800’s when its port shipped more of the malleable reddish metal than any place in the world. But the verve of a mining rush subsided long ago. Today, when I ask Kelly Coltas, owner of the Gas Lite General Store (hacksaws, sardines, bags of Starbucks coffee, wine), how many families live in the area, her eyes look to the ceiling while she recites names from memory. (Well, there’s so-and-so, and then his daughter’s family, and then so-and-so down on that road … ) She pauses and looks at me. “About thirty, so see, that’s a lot.” She concedes, though, that there are more members of the school board—five—than there are students in the school.

We will have a gang of five ourselves this weekend, but we arrive in stages. Friday night it’s just Traverse photographer Todd and me in the tiny cabin we’ve rented in downtown Copper Harbor. We lucked out on the drive up the Keweenaw’s spine, stopping in to a grocery in Calumet just as the deli lady was pulling a tray of small stuffed chickens out of the oven. Todd picked the two best ones, $7 total, and we are now sitting on the cabin floor with the birds before us, toasting our timing with a cheap bottle of Australian shiraz.

While we eat, a small drama plays out around us. Turns out the plumbing froze outside, underground and beneath 3 feet of snow. The owner, Steve, arrives carrying a plumber’s snake. He heads outside to the crawl space, and soon we hear the pounding of metal on metal. He reappears with snow caked to his boots, jeans, jacket, eyebrows and hat and says he has to get a different tool. He comes back holding a hose. There’s more clinking, and soon he stops in again. “Have to get a torch.” At the tip of the Keweenaw, there’s no calling the plumber on a Friday night.

We continue our dinner, and Jo, Steve’s wife, stops by to describe the prime winter attractions: frozen waterfalls at the mouth of the Montreal River, the wind-blasted shore at Horseshoe Harbor, The Estivant Pines—virgin white pines loaded with snow—and a hike to the top of Brockway Mountain to survey this ancient landscape. She describes ice volcanoes—water erupting through holes in Lake Superior ice, building cones that at times rise 30 feet. Too much to see in a weekend, so we’ll choose when the whole posse arrives.

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