A Back-Road U.P. Overland Tour

Raindrops are pocking the iron-red road grime on the hood of our four-wheel-drive pickup as we bump and churn through the groggy Keweenaw hamlet of South Range this cool, damp August morning. Our mud-caked headlights are pointing toward four more days and 400 more miles of octane-inspired back-roads tripping, while strung out behind our tailgate is a shimmying, shuddering parade of over 40 off-road vehicles from across the country.

This story was featured in the August 2011 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy.

I’m riding shotgun with Tom Dolaskie IV, co-founder of U.P. Overland, a two-man nonprofit quasi–tour group that’s leading this annual back-road tour of the Upper Peninsula. Tom’s got a CB in his hand, a V8 under the hood and a pistol in the glovebox; I can’t get that old C.W. McCall trucker song out of my head.

“Mercy sakes alive, looks like we got us a convoy.”

There aren’t many folks on the streets of South Range this morning, but the ones here are all looking at us. A surprised mother takes her young son’s hand, his mouth dropping and eyes bulging at the multicolored steel snake writhing slowly down the Bill Nicholls ATV/snowmobile trail that slices through his town on its way between Greenland and Houghton. There’s no reason for locals to worry though. The posse is poking along at around 10 m.p.h. They’re mostly couples, some with kids and dogs; even a few seniors. They obey all laws and self-imposed tread-lightly rules. Heck, some of them even pack out their own poop.

I have to admit, when I first heard about the 2010 U.P. Overland tour—a five-day, 4×4 vehicle–based traverse of the Upper Peninsula—I pictured Busch Light cans rattling in the back of jacked-up trucks as a bunch of mouth breathers ripped the living bejesus out of my beloved U.P. backcountry. Not so. The roots of U.P. Overland go much deeper than just a love of off-road vehicles, while the scope of the organization’s mission is nothing short of sparking a revolution in the way the U.P. is perceived, explored and enjoyed.

Throw it in reverse and roll back to Marquette in 2008. The talk around town is the impending sulfide nickel and copper mine on the nearby Yellow Dog Plains. Folks are concerned, alliances for and against are formed, but a soft-spoken guy who has chosen to live in Marquette when he could live anywhere in the world wonders why few outside the region seem to know or care about the mine.

Kristian Saile, 35, is a silent sports enthusiast. He likes to bike and kayak, and uses his pimped-out Toyota Land Cruiser to poke into sweet spots around the region to do his thing. He’s active on Internet forum sites like ExpeditionPortal.com, where folks of the same ilk lurk. He posts photos and trip reports of stuff he does in the U.P.—and realizes that for most people the Upper Peninsula is a blank spot on the map, or at best, a place they’ve heard of but don’t know where to begin to explore.

Then Saile’s mental gears mesh—how can people want to protect a region they’ve never heard of or seen? So he organizes what enthusiasts call an overland trip, basically a vehicle-based camping trip using existing two-track roads and trails to link a route across a region. In 2008 he hosted 23 vehicles, one of which was driven by my copilot Dolaskie, a Munising native who had recently returned to the U.P. after a decade of military service and business ventures around the United States.

Interest in the trip grew, and in 2009 Saile led 28 vehicles on a 500-mile run from the tip of the Keweenaw to Sault Ste. Marie over five days. Dolaskie was on that trip too and saw the potential of what Saile was doing, but knew, too, that Saile needed help.

Dolaskie, a tech-saavy serial entrepreneur, whipped up UPOverland.org by fall of 2009. The site boasts forums, tons of photos, trip reports and GPS routes that can be used to re-create overland trips. “It just went viral after that trip,” Dolaskie says of 2009. “There were hundreds of thousands of hits.”

Nearly overnight the site became a virtual fan club for the U.P., exceeding what the pair had originally hoped for while inspiring them to envision a new model for sustainable economic development for the U.P. in the form of adventure tourism. Saile, a world traveler through his career as a ski coach with the U.S. Ski Team, likens the U.P. to destinations like Moab, Utah, long known as an outdoor Mecca for mountain bikers and off-roaders. But, Saile says, the U.P. has much more to offer than places like Moab, because of its four seasons, proximity to Lake Superior, and abundance of lakes, rivers and forestland.

“It absolutely flattens me to think of the diversity of what we have to offer here compared to places like Moab,” Saile says. “The economic impact for the area is potentially enormous.”

But the partners emphasize that the concept expands way beyond off-roading.

“The four-wheel-drive crowd and their image is the biggest uphill battle we face,” Dolaskie says. “The U.P. is a vast region with a lot of out of the way areas; you need four-wheel drive, but we’re not about four-wheel drive. We’re about travel. The U.P. is a hybrid adventure destination and capable vehicles are a means to access your other interests.”

We rumble up the steep asphalt grade of Brockway Mountain overlook near Copper Harbor at the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula. The roar of straining engines in low gear subsides into an idle, then stops as doors slam and the overland crew hops out, cameras in hand and awestruck smiles on their faces. To the north, the land drops immediately to Lake Superior, blue as far as the eye can see, specked with a single freighter dwarfed on the inland sea. To the south, the view rolls away in a series of wooded ridges, the eroded spines of an ancient mountain range. Most of the travelers are seeing this for the first time.

“We had never heard of the U.P.,” says James LaFemina, a chef from Long Island, New York. “We had to look it up on a map.”

LaFemina and his partner, Lynn Pisciotta, both 53, saw the U.P. Overland trip thread on one of the websites that Saile and Dolaskie frequent and decided to make a vacation out of the trip. They’re driving a 1978 Toyota FJ45 Land Cruiser Arkana, a right-hand drive classic imported from Australia and commonly called a “troopie” because of the extended rear area that could be used as a troop carrier. LaFemina converted his rig into a sleeping quarters and storage area the couple shares with a Cavelier King Charles spaniel. The Arkana is the 131st Land Cruiser that LaFemina has owned. He’s done trips all over the country, lots of hardcore rock crawling, but this is their first real overland trip, and they’re blown away by this clean, friendly place they had never heard of only a few months prior.

Dolaskie is threading through the line of vehicles chatting with drivers, encouraging some to keep up, admonishing others to slow down and not lose the slower drivers behind them. The original plan was to have two groups of vehicles, a slow one and a fast one, but Saile is in New Zealand for his job, and the burden of wrangling a string of vehicles at times four miles long is squarely on Dolaskie’s shoulders.

The fit fourth-generation Yooper has jumped up on a stone guard-rail at the edge of the Brockway cliff, his iPhone extended arms’ length as he tries to eke out a signal for mobile uploads to Facebook and UPOverland.org. Dolaskie is a social media expert, and he’s constantly adding content, building a following and getting people hooked on the places he loves, the places that brought him home again. While Saile offered the initial vision, Dolaskie brought technical know-how and no-nonsense business acumen to the duo that has made it what it is today. A recent count of website stats shows over 200,000 hits in one month and over 1,400 “likes” on Facebook.

Dolaskie gives a whistle and a military hand signal to rally behind him and roll out. Back in the truck we talk about our favorite things in the U.P., compare notes on places we’ve been, places we return to time and time again. Dolaskie grew up hunting and fishing around Munising with his grandfather. He knows the land intimately, but it was when he left for the Air Force at 17, and later hit the fast-paced life of owning businesses in Florida and California, that he really appreciated what he had growing up. He’s 31 now, has a seat on the Munising city council and runs an Internet marketing business.

He wants to see sustainable economic growth in the U.P., not just the “jobs at any cost” mentality of the extractive economy that previously propelled the Upper Peninsula. We agree that what’s attractive about the U.P.—wide open natural spaces and freedom to pursue outdoor activities—is also its downfall when it comes to marketing.

“Outside the big attractions like state parks and national parks, etc., very little is known about backwoods U.P., it’s not very approachable,” Dolaskie says. “There are a lot of cool spots to camp, launch a kayak, fish, etc., but there is little information for someone visiting. People are apprehensive to explore because it’s such a wild place.”

In order to put on U.P. Overland 2010, a trip with no fee and no monetary benefit to the organizers, Saile and Dolaskie say they spent every free moment of the summer scouting. That’s about 3,000 miles in multiple personal vehicles, bumping down back roads, trying to link up existing public routes, both paved and dirt, to offer a trouble-free enjoyable time to participants. They insist that everything must be physically scouted, private lands avoided and state and federal guidelines followed for camping and travel. It’s exhausting and expensive. Dolaskie doesn’t like to think about the time and money he’s put into the scouting and website development, but feels it’s worth it to build the kind of marketing that the Upper Peninsula has been missing. The pair accepts donations, but last year forwarded the funds to a bike trail project in Munising in the name of U.P. Overland.

We roll down off Brockway and through Copper Harbor. A highway sign informs us that Miami, Florida, at the southern terminus of U.S. 41, is 1,990 miles away. A few miles out of town we hit the northern end of the highway and are jarred back onto a dirt road headed out to High Rock Bay, a patch of public land with a rocky Lake Superior beach at the extreme tip of the Keweenaw where we’ll camp for the night. It’s spots like High Rock, at the end of a rough, unmarked dirt road that the boys at U.P. Overland want to introduce people to. Arguably the best the U.P. has to offer, but with no signage, no park status or promotion, it’s a locals’ place in a region where folks tend to keep these sorts of things to themselves.

A broad-winged hawk swoops out of a tree overhead and leads the convoy down the two-track for a while before veering off into the dense green foliage along the road. We’re driving slowly enough for me to reach out the truck window and pick ripe thimbleberries along the road. The tart, overstuffed raspberry-like fruit crush easily and dye my hands red. Dolaskie stops the truck at one point and in his baggy beach shorts and Billabong T-shirt yanks a chainsaw from the bed of the truck to buck up a tree on the road so some of the wider vehicles can safely pass.

He’s most concerned about the behemoth piloted by Vince and Bettie Farace of Minneapolis. It’s called an Earth Roamer, a custom-built truck camper riding on a 4×4 Ford F550 chassis. The Roamer has a turbo-diesel V8, a Kevlar composite living quarters on the back with solar panels, heat, hot water, television and a microwave. At nearly 12 feet high and over 17,000 pounds it requires a bit more room and attention than the other rigs.

“It’s as eco-efficient as a monster vehicle can be,” explains Vince. The couple has been all over the country exploring by vehicle since the 1950’s, and for years camped out of a fleet of smaller Land Cruisers. Now entering their 70’s, they decided it was time for a little more comfort, and laid down the $250,000 for the 18th Roamer in production in order to keep living the overland lifestyle they’ve come to love. “We’ve been afflicted with occasional bouts of vehicle lust,” Vince concedes.

We squeeze through the verdant tunnel of trees and spill out onto the grassy meadow at High Rock Bay. The clingy odors of exhaust and hot metal mingle with the tang of sun-baked pine and lichen. Dolaskie heads straight to the low cliff at the edge of Lake Superior and unfurls his latest overlanding acquisition, a tent that springs open in the bed of his truck, complete with an access ladder. Others are doing the same, peeling off from the group for the required dispersed camping that the MDNR permit calls for.

Sean Rooney, an optometrist from Marquette, pulls everything he needs out of the hard cases on his enduro motorcyle—he’s basically a gas-powered, two-wheeled backpacker. Many of the overlanders have contraptions built for sleeping in, with tents like Dolaskie’s or compartments in the vehicles like LaFemina’s troopie. Others with smaller vehicles are pitching tents on the grass next to their rides. Joe Chmelar of Norton Shores, Michigan, has improvised a cooking area under a good-old blue tarp off the back of his 1978 Jeep CJ-5.

Chmelar, a manager at a foundry and former Marine, is under the tarp cooking burgers on a backpacking stove while his four-year-old son Crew is playing in the woods nearby. A smoky cloud from sizzling meat wafts out from under the tarp and mingles with fresh, big water scent from Superior. Joe bought the Jeep for $150 last October as a father-son project. The engine was locked up, and the floor boards a rust-rotted memory. Today is Thursday, and he was still working on it on Monday before he and Crew loaded up and headed north, but it’s running like a champ now. The pair finish their dinner and head down to Lake Superior for a dip before the road-weary little boy collapses in the tent with dreams of the wild U.P. in his head.

The next morning the whole crew assembles for a drawing of prizes donated by trip sponsors. For the first time I get a good look at everybody side-by-side. They range in net worth, age, fitness and race; gender is split 3:1 in favor of the guys. But, in a word, they are community. They know each other because of their online affiliation, yet many are meeting in person on this trip for the first time.

A key question is, will they come back? Does taking folks by the bumper and showing them your favorite places build a sustainable adventure tourism economy?

Dolaskie thinks so. He figures each vehicle spent on average around $1,000 on this trip. I prod him on the real-world economic impact of the trip, but he waves off my naysaying by pointing to the website stats again. Hundreds of thousands of people are using the site, gaining information and doing trips on their own with unknown monetary input for the U.P., he contends.

“I’m a busy guy, if I didn’t think this was sustainable I wouldn’t waste my time with it,” he says. “The trip is a catalyst that I think is leading to tangible, long-term benefits in generational tourism.”

Today is a short mileage day, the group is rolling on to the next campsite in the no-mans-land between L’Anse and Marquette. Their route over the final two days will take them near the construction site of the Kennecott Eagle sulfide mine and end in Dolaskie’s hometown of Munising.

Prior obligations force me to miss the rest of the trip. Dolaskie drops me off at a gas station in Houghton, at the Keweenaw Peninsula’s base, and as the convoy rumbles out of the lot I note dusty license plates from Michigan, Ontario, Minnesota, New York, Tennessee, South Carolina, Illinois, Florida and Ohio. Like the U.P. Overland organizers, I hope these freshly forged members of the newest U.P. fan club will tell their friends and family—and return. As much as Yoopers love their solitude and freedom to roam, it might take outsiders like these—and their willingness to spend adventure travel dollars here—to keep it that way.