Life in a park with a four-year-old:
German Tourist: Excuse me, what is bobcat?
Ranger: It’s a kind of wildcat …
German: Like a cougar? Puma?
Ranger: No it’s smaller and with spots.
German: Like an ocelot?
Ranger: Not it doesn’t have such distinct spots.
Braden: What’s da stink spots? Why does a bobcat have a stink spot?
Hopefully this post makes a little more sense to everyone than that conversation.
Before we starting researching this trip, I knew very little about the Upper Peninsula. Basically, all I knew was that it looked like it should be Wisconsin or Canada or something, but it’s actually Michigan. It’s the part of the country most likely to be left off maps drawn by 5th graders. I’ve got a book “How the States Got their Shapes” and it says the UP was the result of congressional horse trading back when the stateliness were being drawn. Originally, Michigan was supposed to dip down far enough to get Toledo. Ohio didn’t like this because Toledo was a nice Lake Michigan port and without it, Ohio would only have access to some of the less exciting Great Lakes. So since Ohio had more people and therefore legislators at the time, the southern border of Michigan was rolled back north to keep Toledo in Ohio. They actually fought over this with 9 Ohio surveyors getting taken prisoner and a Michigan Sheriff getting stabbed.
So to make Michigan happy, Congress gave it the stretch of land that jutted out from between Lake Superior and Lake Michigan that should have belonged to Wisconsin. This made Wisconsin angry, but it didn’t have the clout in Congress to do much. I think they got the Packers out of the deal or something like that.
RVers love the UP and we now know why.
Sault Ste. Marie and Soo Locks
From the moment we’d entered Michigan, Gordon Lightfoot’s “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” was playing in my head. At Sault Ste. Marie (they say “Soo Saint Marie”) we toured a museum inside an old freighter that had a couple of life boats from the Fitzgerald. It was interesting to me that they still don’t know what exactly caused “the Pride of the American Side” to sink.
Across town the Soo Locks are some of the biggest and busiest in the world, connecting Lake Superior with the Lower Great Lakes and eventually the Atlantic. The scale of these boats is really hard to explain or even capture in a photo. The scale of shipping on the lakes is also hard to grasp, but consider this: shipwrecks are rare, but there are still 30,000 of them documented on the Great Lakes. Looking across Lake Huron, I could see Canada for the first time. Here, we also saw the end of Interstate 75.
Getting ready for this trip, Roadtreking the Podcast was an indispensable free resource for me. This Winter and Spring I listened to hours of the shows going back for a couple of years. The host of the show Mike Wendland lives in Michigan and frequently talks about Tahquamenon Falls. He holds a winter camping trip there where the state plows the snow out of the sites for the campers to come in. We weren’t that bold but we were excited to see it.
The falls themselves are gorgeous. As with the falls we’d find later in the Porcupine Mountains, it wasn’t just the falls that made it special, but a series of falls and the setting around them.
Braden and Jess visited the Upper Falls while I tried in vain to find cell service. There wasn’t much of any service there, which was very frustrating for someone trying to work. It was the first state park I’ve ever seen with a brewery on site. Unfortunately, it didn’t have Wi-Fi so I couldn’t work there. Or maybe that was a good thing …
If I’ve not mentioned it to you before, you should know that I’ve wanted to hear and see a loon in person ever since I watched Ken Burns National Parks Documentary. I’ve watched the series three times now and he used the loon sound so well in the documentary that it’s come to be the sound of wilderness to me. In the UP, we were squarely in Loon Country. At Tahquamenon Falls, I drug Jess and Braden along to a hike off of a rutted dirt road (hang on to your Honda!) to try and find one. It was pretty, but after a little hiking, there was no sign of anything with wings. More on this search later.
The coolest part of the trip for me was one evening when we stumbled across a man set up with a really nice tripod and camera at the Lower Falls. I asked about his set up and he told me he was trying to get some shots of the Milky Way that night. He had some super laser pointers, a Darth Vader mask, some fluorescent lights and a bag of camera gear. He invited me to join him so once it was good and dark, I hiked the 3/4 of a mile out to meet him. With two expensive cameras. And I didn’t know his name. The only identifying thing I knew was that he had the Vader mask. Jess didn’t try to talk me out of it, so maybe that means she had been feeling crowded in the RV.
As it turns out, my astrophotography instructor for the night was this guy: https://www.instagram.com/astropicsdaily/?hl=en
Brian has a PHD and runs a blog and twitter account about astrophotography. He’s also got a remote telescope in New Mexico where he can log on and check out the heavenly happenings.
Needless to say, his shots were better than mine, but it was still fun to play around and I learned a lot from him about lenses, focusing in the dark and lowlight camera tricks. We’ve emailed back and forth since then and I’m very glad we met Bryan. He said the sky conditions were so good, he didn’t need to “have any fun” with the Vader mask, so maybe I should be glad of that, too.
Bay Furnace in Grand Isle National Recreation Area and Pictured Rocks National Lake Shore
While walking Wrigley and O’Malley around the campground, I heard a sudden loud RIP, followed by cussing.
When I looked, a smallish black lab was running right for us. Looking past him, there was a gaping hole in the tent fabric that he had previously been on the other side of. Through the hole, I saw a man and a woman cussing at the dog. The dogs sniffed each other and moved on, but I’ve spent weeks trying to figure out how the dog was able to get up enough speed to break through! It was a fairly small, relatively new-looking tent. I don’t know how he did it. Unfortunately, the hole was stitched up before we could sneak back for a photo. Also unfortunately, the hole was not like a Wiley Coyote hole where you could see the outline of the dogs ears and tail and everything.
Beyond that incident, we went on a great little sightseeing boat ride from Munising, MI to see Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. I shot more than 600 photos, which I’ve paired down to 60.
We also had a great time getting to know Scott and Annette on the boat ride. By the time it was over Braden had told Annette she could come on the RV trip with us. This seemed to delight Scott, which made us a little leery.
Bay Furnace did not have any electric service, but it did have a wonderful little beach on Lake Superior. It was our first real experience with Lake Superior. The water is super clear and as cold as the mountain creeks in Tennessee. The bottom is also covered with ornately colored rocks ranging from the size of nickels to softballs. Lake Superior, it seems, is a very aptly named lake.
Our final accomplishment of the stay in Munising was to try a pasty. We’d seen the signs for pasties at many spots on the UP, but, (thinking the word rhymed with hasty) I decided that probably wasn’t a place we needed to go. The word in the UP actually rhymes with “nasty” and is best described as a beef stew calzone that local iron and copper miners used to take with them for underground lunch breaks. The pasty was tasty, even if those two words don’t rhyme.
Also while there, I had a working lunch with a pescavore from a telephone company at a whitefish place that had run out of whitefish. That was a challenge.
We looked and listened for loons once again, but struck out.
Van Riper State Park
Our next stop was at Van Riper State Park, which I had booked because the website mentioned moose and Wi-Fi. Both were hard to find. We didn’t see any moose and only found Wi-Fi in the hallway next to the bathrooms. I spent a couple of hours there working and trying not to seem creepy.
On Saturday at Van Riper, the campground host provided coffee and donuts. It was worth the walk to their site just to here the Yoopers (people from the UP), Canadians and Michiganders agree on things. “Oh yah” “Yah” “Yah” “Yah shoore” “Oh Yah” they would all say whenever someone was right about something, be it RV features, hiking trails or coffee.
We were also treated to a visit from Smokey the Bear and a parade of fire
trucks. After the parade, Braden reminded us that he had made a wish on a shooting star he had seen at the dark sky park in Lower Michigan. We explained to him that if he told us the wish, it probably wouldn’t come true. He said it was okay because it had already come true: he wished for candy and Smokey the Bear showed up at his campsite and threw some to him a couple of days later. That kid is going to be watching for more shooting stars!
The best part of our stay at Van Riper was meeting a couple camping in their Gatorade green VW Westfalia. Christian and Julie (of folksblogen.com) are a couple of Canadian artists who set out to live for six months in the VW — two and a half years ago. They’re loving the mobile life and shared some good tips on campgrounds with us. We also shared some common experiences on redneck neighbors, people who don’t understand how campfires work and the ridiculous names of RVs. Seriously, there’s a line of RVs called things like “Intruder” and “Prowler.” Neither of those things conjure images of a pleasant camping trip.
Braden enjoyed programs on invasive zebra mussels, pretty butterflies, a letter scavenger hunt, and making a bird feeder. At least some of the information stuck with him, because in the showers a week or two later in Wisconsin, Braden suspected something stuck on the shower drain was a zebra mussels someone had washed off of themselves. I didn’t inspect closely.
Tahquamenon Falls, Bay Furnace and Van Riper all continued the theme of Michigan Parks being absolutely packed.
We also had our biggest argument of the trip here that started with firewood selection and grew into a bunch of other things. I took the dogs for a walk to cool off and that calmed things down, but there was a lot of stress and arguing over these few days. A lot of it came down to expectations of each other, which in some shape, form or fashion was a topic of argument back in a “sticks and bricks” house. As we go forward we are both keeping in mind that this is new for both of us and that one downside of this lifestyle is having to figure a lot of things out. It’s not an easy life, but the frustrations (many just replaced frustrations from stationary living) are worth the experiences as the Upper Peninsula would prove to us.
Another frustration was the search for loons. Despite practically every park employee having seen loons in the park, we didn’t see any sign of them.
Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park
We’d heard great things about the Porcupines and it lived up to the billing as soon as we arrived. Upon just a few minutes we met Ben, who was on day 49 of his 53 day paddling trip around the entire shore of Lake Superior, a guy bike touring the US since he left California in March, a 75-year-old lady who had been living solo in a camper van full-time for 20 years, and the retiree who was the campground host for that month — in a tent.
We were also very happy to back into our campsite and see a familiar Gatorade Green VW in the sideview mirror. Julie and Christian had showed up that day and gotten one of the last sites available. It happened to be right behind ours which was a lot of fun.
The first night, we stayed up until 2 a.m. sitting around the campfire with Christian, Julie and Ben the paddler. We all swapped stories and there’s were much better than ours, so we came out better for it. Any story from British Columbia with a crazy man named Ivan is a good one.
We also discussed various body parts we had seen accidentally silhouetted on the outside of tents at campgrounds. For full-time campers, identifying the part silhouettes may become like Pokemon. Gotta catch ‘em all! We got quite a show from a nearby green and beige tent.
Sadly, Ben, Julie and Christian all headed out before we did.
Aside from the enjoyable company, the park had great educational classes where Jess and Braden found a billions-of-years-old agate and identified animals skulls. Braden and I went to evening classes on coyotes/wolves/foxes and birds of prey. It was cool to see how interested Braden was when Ranger Brittany was talking. One of the sessions was in an old growth (never cut) stand of trees that had a very different feel than any other forest I’d been to. The trees weren’t remarkably huge or anything, but I’ll always remember the way our voices echoed in the middle of trees and leaves. It’s like you would expect the echo to be near a big stone wall.
Since it was cool enough to sleep with the windows open, we enjoyed hearing coyotes one night and waves crashing against the shore one morning. The waves made me hope Ben had found a safe spot for that night.
One morning I got up early and photographed what I was certain were loons. When I told a birder that I had met in one of the ranger classes, he mentioned that he had seen mergansers there that morning, but no loons. Looking at the images in his bird book, it looks like what I had photographed was indeed mergansers and not loons. I’d never heard of mergansers before.
Lake of the Clouds was the spot where everyone talked about, and while it was pretty, I can name 5-6 prettier lakes in Tennessee and North Carolina. The prettiest part we saw of the Porcupines was the Pesque Isle area. A small river stained tea-brown from the leaves tumbles through a series of waterfalls before mixing with crystal clear Lake Superior. It was waterfall, after waterfall after waterfall along our hike.
In short, to summarize our longest blog post yet, the UP lived up to the billing.
Another wonderful thing about the UP — it has no venomous snakes!
Braden continues to really enjoy the Lewis and Clark book we got him at the Arch in St. Louis. Somehow though, he keeps thinking they are Indians.
Number of bald eagles seen so far: 4