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.

North of Lac LaBelleFinally we hear a hoot of victory and Steve re-enters. “I’ve won, I beat it,” he says. He beams a grin. He and Jo are nearly out the door when suddenly it reopens, and Steve’s face appears. “If you want to sauna across street, it’s on me.” We accept.

We head to Randy’s, the sauna at the Harbor Hideaway motel and appreciate its Finnish authenticity. All of the cedar planks were milled from trees cut on the property. “Every board is that thick,” Randy says, holding his thumb and forefinger about three inches apart. The wood seats are worn smooth and turned coppery from decades of heat and steam and rear ends. We settle into the 200-degree heat and reach for the ladle in the pail next to the stove. A quick pour and steam erupts from the red-hot metal. Sweat soon beads us from forehead to feet. After, we walk outside with wet hair, coats unzipped and emanating warmth, feeling invincible in the 5 degrees, wind and whiteout. When we hand our towels back to Randy, he explains that he’s lived here for a couple of years and, while he likes it, he wouldn’t mind living in “a place not so at the end of something.”

By next morning the rest of our team has arrived—Dean, Tim and Jon, each a physician of one sort or another. Todd and I feel taken care of, but if something bad happens to them, well, all we can offer is to take some final photos and sell the story to Outdoor Life. About noon all five of us are clicking into x-c ski bindings at the day’s trailhead near the north end of Lac LaBelle. Our route is a 12-mile roundtrip to the mouth of the Montreal River. The Nature Conservancy had recently purchased much of the terrain we’ll ski to save 6,000 acres of globally rare and glorious shore and forest.

I’m about to close the hatch on the SUV when my snowshoes catch my eye. A few what-if ski scenarios run though my mind—a twisted knee, a broken ski. I recall what a retired Great Lakes ship captain told Todd at the Mariner North bar last night: “You won’t be able to ski to the Montreal, the woods are too tangled the last half mile.” We laughed it off—what’s a guy who lived on the water know about terrain you have to ski 6 miles to reach? Still. So I take a moment to sling the snowshoes flat against my back.

Our ski abilities range widely. One guy, Tim, finishes about 100th in Wisconsin’s American Birkebeiner each year, which may not sound impressive, but the race has an average of 11,000 skiers. Todd, on the other hand, bought his skis the night before we left and had never skied anything but his backyard.On our trail, snowmobilers have packed a firm base of snow, and a foot of new powder lies on top. Perfect. In summer, the trail is a two-track logging road, but this morning it cuts a flawless white swath through the forest, the surface interrupted only by an occasional set of animal tracks—whitetail deer, tiny feet we can’t identify, a set of fisher tracks. Fishers, which do not fish, are relatively rare in the United States, and for habitat each one needs about 4 square miles of the kind of dense forest The Nature Conservancy preserved here.

Conifers, hemlock and white pine droop with snow that sits a foot thick on their branches. Even the leafless hardwoods are loaded with snow, in the crooks of branches, clumps plastered to the trunks. When views of Lake Superior open to our right, we stop at each one to see the Western Hemisphere’s biggest lake sparkle from our perch about 50 stories high.

When we veer from the path to cut through a valley—a shortcut—we lose our firm base and plow through 3 feet of powder and a tangle of downed trees. Todd, inexperienced skier that he is, figures it’s easier to walk and takes off his skis. When we hook up with the trail again, though, he finds his binding jammed with snow, and it won’t lock his boot. We knock the binding, pick at it, blow warm breath on it, but ice remains lodged in the mechanism. We bury the skis in a snow bank and Todd puts on the snowshoes.

It’s 4:00 by the time we reach the tangled forest the freighter captain had mentioned to Todd. The going is slow as we ski over, around and under one fallen log after another. Dean breaks a pole climbing up an embankment. “I’m turning around,” he says. Jon goes with him.

Eventually Todd, Tim and I find ourselves standing at an opening on the forested shore, looking across a half-frozen bay surging with the dark force of winter. We see the Montreal River mouth a half-mile distant and realize we will need an hour to get there and back here. We sadly acknowledge that we consumed four hours reaching this point and darkness is two hours away. We’re here for the journey, not the destination, we tell ourselves, and turn back. By the time we reach the car, we’ve traveled in dark for two hours, and the moon shines through a wispy layer of clouds.

In the morning, over banana pancakes, we agree on Horseshoe Harbor for the day’s destination. Opening to the north on Lake Superior, the small bay takes the brunt of the lake’s winter brutality. We also like that it’s only a few miles from town, almost no driving and an easy snowshoe hike on clear trails.

We take explorations off the trail, meander around trees, shouldering past pines that drop snow on our heads, enjoying the cushiony joy of snowshoeing through deep snow.

Horseshoe Harbor delivers the raw landscape we’d hoped for. We climb a wall of blue ice piled 25 feet high that reaches across the mouth of the natural harbor. Wind pushes 6-foot swells through a field of floating ice and whips snow into a hazy whiteness down the beach. The wind also sweeps heat from our bodies, and soon we seek shelter back in the forest. On the hike back, the sky clears, and the rounded rise of Brockway Mountain dominates the horizon as dusk comes on.

As a crew of silent sports guys, we’re not the norm here. Snowmobilers fill every other room in town and surround every table at the Mariner North bar on Saturday night. We shoot pool with a spidery young man who shared a snowmobile triumph with us. He won a race up a super steep, new ski hill nearby—not an official race, just a midnight trespass challenge. “It was so steep, the front skis never touched the snow!” he boasts, his eyes open wide with the telling. “Thing is, I was on a Ski Doo MXZ440, stock. And the only other one to get up there was a Polaris 900 with a 4-inch paddle track!” Then he leans close and speaks into my ear, “Thing is, I won on a freaking rental!” He slaps my shoulder. He laughs loud. He can hardly believe it himself. It’s all meaningless snowmobile-speak to me, but I get the gist—he was outgunned, but prevailed on pure skill. I have no doubt that 50 years from now, he will tell his tale of Keweenaw conquest four times a day in a nursing home somewhere. The bar closes, and we head back to the cabin, snow swirling in our faces. Later we hear the throaty roar of snowmobiles drag racing up and down the main street.

Sunday we have the morning to ski before leaving, so we head to Estivant Pines, a 377.5-acre preserve of virgin white pines, some nearly 500 years old. The weather cooperates again, with rare sunshine and 6 inches of night snowfall spread over the trail. We ski the trail to the lip of a bowl and survey the forest below, expressing a quiet gratitude to locals who rushed to save the trees back in the early 1970’s as loggers were moving in. As we stand there, wind races in off the big lake. Snow blows from the branches and drapes the scene in a translucent curtain, and millions of crystals become dust-size prisms of light, glistening rose, blue and white as they drift. It’s a fine moment to end a trip on, we agree, then turn back, our minds now on the travel home from this most worthy peninsula.

Article Comments