WINTER SCENES IN MICHIGAN'S UPPER PENINSULA:

By Keith Stanley

(Copyright 1999)

Munising Dairy Queen (snowy) Lake Superior shore Lake Superior Sunset Lake Superior frozen Houghton residential Marquette Loading Dock In Munising Lake Michigan

    As it happens, I grew up in Ohio loving the winter snow, always wishing for more. When I was old enough to go away for my higher education, I choose to go north to Michigan (at Michigan State U. and U. of Michigan), hoping to see a little more snow. Well, there was a bit more (and it stayed around longer, which was nice), but I always wondered what it'd be like living in the Upper Peninsula in winter, with all the lake-effect snow coming off Lake Superior. After graduating in 1981, I moved to the District of Columbia to take a job, and I've lived here in D.C. ever since. Several years back, we had a run of bad years here, in which very little snow fell. I was suffering from snow deprivation. So, I decided to take two weeks to do a driving tour of the U.P. in January, 1994. As fate would have it, there was to be a huge outbreak of arctic air (with the usual accompanying lake effect snow) just as I was getting to the lee shore of Lake Michigan, heading North toward the U.P.--so it was that my Winter Wonderland vacation adventure began.

    I kept a journal on this trip and even took a few pictures once the weather finally cleared. So, here is the story of my trip, as taken from my journal:

DAY ONE:

    Leaving Lansing, I went west over to Muskegon on Lake Michigan. Snow had begun falling and became fairly heavy with reduced visibility. Conditions on the road (I-96, then Route 131) grew worse. At first, there were only occasional streamers of blowing snow traversing the highway. Then there were abundant streamers. By the time I reached Muskegon, only one lane of the I-96 was clear to the pavement. Vehicles passing on the left would stir up great clouds of snowdust. A four-wheel drive pick-up that passed stirred things up so much that I could see neither out the front nor the rear windows for some seconds, a situation of considerable concern as I'd been doing about 60, with cars both in front and behind. I found that my traction was limited in the snowy left lane and decided generally not to pass.

    In all, Muskegon was to get 9 inches from the "storm." I wondered what portion was lake effect and what portion cyclonic.

    I went north to Ludington and found Ludington, in its snow-covered state, charming. I went to the beach and saw Lake Michigan. The beach itself was icy/snowy and Lake Michigan was there--dull, dark, colorless on a snowy day, with no swells but with some breakers as large as two feet high. I saw a lighthouse. I saw the auto ferries--large dark forms of a shape and size to warrant being called "ships."

    Next I went a bit up the coast to Manistee. It's classic, 3 block long, nicely restored downtown has its back to a river which, at either end is traversed by a drawbridge. There was no river traffic as the river was frozen and snow-covered.

    The drive from Manistee to Traverse City was scenic, two-lane, with buildings, sundry and various, scattered along the route.

    Traverse City.  A dream come true. Big snow. Maybe approaching two feet. Drifted and blowing and falling. Apparently a  very big tourist area, especially in the summer. There were many shops, restaurants, motels, and two good-sized, nice shopping malls. I had the antifreeze checked and it was set for 34 below (should be adequate); I also had dry gas added to the gas tank.

DAY TWO:

    At about noon, I set out from Traverse City, headed for the Upper Peninsula. On the way, the lake-effect snows, with the wind blowing snow occasionally, reduced visibility to almost nothing. I'd slow to 30 or so and turn the emergency flashers on. These bad periods generally lasted no more than a minute, but even during good periods, visibility was reduced,  as if I were in a fog. The visibility could deteriorate or improve very quickly--within a matter of seconds. Sometimes the visions of blowing snow ahead were dramatic. Once, with the passing of a snow plow going the other way, I was totally whited-out, as I heard a blast of snow hit the car.

    I was surprised and amazed when, within the period of a few minutes travel just outside Petoskey, the snow ceased and the sky was blue with the sun shining. I really enjoyed the clear visibility--so dramatically different from the "fog" of the past couple of days.

    Up ahead, the Mackinac Bridge (between the Lower and Upper Peninsulas) appeared, mystically seeming to float in beauty on the horizon. The lighting was just right. This was a good-sized suspension bridge (about on the same scale as San
Francisco's Golden Gate).

    Going over the bridge, from all I could see, all of the straights were frozen over.

    Once in the Upper Peninsula, I took Route 2 west, wanting to see if I could reach Manistique by nightfall. I was really interested in seeing how the conditions on the upwind shore of Lake Michigan compared with those I had just experience downwind.

    The weather remained clear, with the sun low in the southwestern sky often peering weakly through a cloudy haze on the horizon, shining over a frozen expanse of Lake Michigan. Nonetheless, I felt comforted by the warmth of the sun. The lake was frozen as far as I could see, but its white surface was not particularly flat. There were interesting contours and discontinuities on the surface.

    Some of the views were just fantastic and I wished I had someone to share them with. Dunes of drifted sand topped with drifted snow. Snow blowing in places, sometimes reducing visibility greatly for a minute or two. After a little ways, there was no more blowing snow to speak of. The road was in good condition and lightly traveled. I made good time and was rather surprised that I was able to get to Manistique with no problem by sunset.

    There was a beautiful sunset. I'd seen a couple of snowbows earlier, when the snow was blowing while the sun was shining.  At one point I stopped to get a picture of the snow covered lake (see image). Lake Michigan frozen I regretted not having taken any snow pictures on the Western shore of Lake Michigan, but then, all the snow in the air would not allow for a sharp picture.

    Route 2 from St. Ignace to Manistique is mostly wooded countryside but not infrequently one passes an eating place (smoked fish is popular), gas station, or a motel. Half the eating places and some of the motels were closed for the season.

    At Manistique, I spent the night in the Maple Leaf motel. It was 10 below about the time I settled into my room at 7pm.

DAY THREE:

    Starting out in Manistique this morning, the sky was perfectly clear. The beauty of the early day gave me some regrets that I'd chosen to go directly to Munising (then on to Marquette) rather than continuing along the Lake Michigan coast to Escanaba then going to Marquette. These doubts were renewed when, about 20 miles toward Munising, the lake effect snow began to fall, reducing visibility to that foggy state I so well remembered from the western shore of Lake Michigan. But I persevered and my efforts were well rewarded.

    Driving conditions became poor, with periodic, near-whiteout conditions. Never before have I had such a good appreciation of what "whiteout" is. At Shingleton, 10 miles from Munising, conditions got yet worse. First the road itself was completely covered with a combination of granular and packed powder. Traction seemed relatively good, but the ride was a little rough and noisy, reminding me of the driving on concrete that has been grooved to increase traction.

    The road was plowed very wide, at many points the equivalent of six lanes. I think the underlying concrete was a two-lane highway. Anyway, snow was piled a couple feet high on either side of the road, where the plows had pushed it, forming a type of low wall. There was little traffic. I never saw another car going my direction. Every few minutes, a vehicle would pass going the other direction. I was reduced to trying to stay on my side of the road, gauging by the walls of snow on either side and the paths of wear I could sometimes see in the snow-packed surface, while always keeping my eyes peeled for any oncoming vehicle that might appear out of the "fog," especially looking for headlights.

    I made it to Munising (on the southern shore of Lake Superior). There was as much (or more) snow on the ground as I'd ever seen in my life (other than at a ski resort, or perhaps, at Shingleton). Furthermore, there was a lull in snowfall, making it a good time for me to get a few pictures (below).   I was happy to get some pictures, having missed out on the possibility when I was in Traverse City.

Snowy Dairy Queen (Munising) Minising building

    From Munising, I moved on down Route 28 toward Marquette. Once again falling and blowing snow made the visibility as poor as I'd seen it, challenging me, in stretches, to stay on the wide-walled road.

    Surprisingly, things began to clear as I got closer to Marquette and Marquette was in the clear, with the sun shining in the blue sky. Marquette (also on Lake Superior's shore) had barely half the snow of Munising. It seems there's been a snowbelt just east of Marquette, to and including Munising. The high in Marquette this day was 15 below. I spent the night in Marquette.

DAY FOUR:

    I don't know what the official low was in Marquette yesterday morning, but, according to the weather channel, the then current temperature at one point was 28 below.

    I pulled out of the Super 8 just after noon. I went up Marquette's Lake Shore Drive to the park (Presque Isle Park) on the point on the north end of town. The day was beautifully clear and sunny bright and felt much warmer than it had, probably because the wind had died down and because of the bright sun. I got some good pictures of the shoreline, and its ice conditions, of the two massive iron ore loading docks (on the second of which I saw and heard the unloading of the small, half-sized cars of a short train), of a picturesque red house up a curving shoreline, and of a light on a point. See pictures:

Marquette coal loading dock Red house, Lake Superior shore

    It's quite developed near Marquette, what with Negaunee and Ishpeming just to the west. From then on, heading west on Route 41 toward Houghton/Hancock, the scenery was almost unremittingly fine. Trees, dark pines, boughs snowed-covered, interspersed with denuded deciduous; pure white snow and a bright blue sky with the sun on my left shoulder; Michigamme Lake, frozen solid and smooth and snow covered, dotted with (summer?) cabins; L'Anse MI and scenic frozen L'Anse Bay with Baraga on the opposite shore. As I started to drive up the eastern shore of the Keweenaw Peninsula, Lake Superior presented an excellent view. I could see, in the distance, where its surface would be unfrozen, clouds of fog on and above its surface, with clear sky above its feathered top. I presumed I was not seeing the lake effect where I was because of a change in wind direction from that of recent days, but I also noted that the amount of snow cover seemed, if anything, to be less than that of Marquette at some points. I wondered whether there'd really be much snow in Houghton. It was clear almost all the way to Houghton/Hancock, with light snow developing just before I arrived, and the trip took only two hours. I found a room at a Hancock Best Western by 5pm, then went out to get some pictures before the light faded. It felt colder again, with temperatures of about 10 below and a wind.

    Snow in Houghton/Hancock? Yes! The accumulated snow increased suddenly as one approached within a few miles of Houghton/Hancock (and a light, lake effect snow began to fall). Houghton/Hancock has a lot to recommend it! If one is suffering from snow deprivation, it is a great place to visit (February is perhaps generally the best month). Snow accumulations exceeded those in Munising!

    Downtown Houghton is quite classic and scenic, with stylish, older buildings extending for several blocks. Houghton and Hancock are on opposite sides of a fairly steep valley, one town on either side of the Portage Canal and joined by an impressive, double towered drawbridge. Hancock's classic small town downtown extends for about 6 blocks but is not stylish like Houghton's. Steep hill roads lead to residences above their respective town centers. Michigan Tech U (in Houghton) is quite a large school, with a good physical plant and a lot of surrounding fraternity houses. On campus, and in front of some of the fraternities, ice structures were in progress for the upcoming winter carnival.

DAY FIVE:

    I'd expected to get started early (shortly after 10am) to go to Copper Harbor, but found my tire flat when I went out to start the car. I took care of this, but lost two hours.

    The day was sunny with a few wispy clouds, a rarity in this part of the country recently (if not in any winter). In other words,  I lucked out!

    The scenery was the best I've seen on this trip and I got good pictures. There were areas of civilization on the way out, but much bigger areas of woods and snow. The trees were heavily snow covered. A special treat was the last 10 miles on route 41, which had become narrow with trees right up to the edge of the road forming a kind of natural bower over the road (or so it would have been had the trees had leaves). There were evergreens as well. Sometimes big clumps of snow would fall from a tree into the road (the biggest likely to fall from the evergreens, but some of the deciduous trees also had quite surprisingly large clumps of snow at places in the branches, n/w that the snow likely was very dry).

    The town of Copper Harbor is small. My map lists the population at some two or three hundred, which I suppose could have been true of the "metropolitan area." The part I could see was much smaller. A restaurant was open, as were a couple of general store/craft shops, and some gas pumps. The town was dominated by visiting snowmobilers, of which there were scores, congregating especially at the restaurant/bar and providing business for the gas pumps.

    I drove the roads that were open, in one case getting stuck starting down a road apparently intended for winter use by snowmobilers. It had been graded flat but the snow was deep enough that I quickly discovered, as I plowed in, my car stuck in snow up to its undercarriage. Just then a group of snowmobilers came up the road (in single file as they are wont to do). Feeling rather embarrassed about my predicament, I tried to busy myself with clearing the snow away so I could back out. But the snowmobilers came over and helped me, three of them easily enough pushing me out. For this I was grateful.

    Once finished looking around the town, I went to eat at the restaurant and to sample their beef tips over pasta. I also got to sample, vicariously, the culture of the snowmobilers. Guy stuff. Joking and kidding. Warming-up and drying out. Talking about the good trails, about being the first on the a trail, about mishaps, wipe-outs and near disasters. The food did not totally agree with me, but the bean soup was good and salty and the beef tips were good lean beef.

    Afterwards, I wanted to walk a little and went down to the general store where earlier I'd met the proprietor while taking a picture of her place. She'd been friendly and we had a very nice little visit--albeit, I sheepishly admitted that I'm a lawyer, and that I write regulations for the federal government. She was very well informed not only about that part of the country, where she and her husband had lived with great satisfaction for quite some time, but also about other parts of the country (including D.C.). She supports the extension service and small business and has a daughter in Richmond.

    She directed me to route 26 (the lake shore route) for my return trip and suggested I get started quickly, while the light was still good. I did so and this was the real highlight. Lake Superior was mostly covered with ice as far as the eye could see, but this was not a smooth ice cover. It was all rough, aggregated ice floes. The ice near shore was frozen-in solid, but, when I stopped to take my first picture, I was surprised to see that the ice further out was clearly moving, en masse, with a clear boundary line between it and the mass of frozen shoreline ice. A video camera would have been nice. The sun was out on the right and lake was on my left, with dark clouds on the horizon over the ice (presumably actually over open water but far enough off so I couldn't be sure). Sometimes in the foreground, close to shore there were these big ice/snow mounds. I wondered what they were. Were they some kind of solid ice hummocks or were there sand dunes underneath? See picture:

Lake Superior ice hummocks


The sunset was beautiful, often silhouetting the trees and the dusk seemed to last an hour. See picture:

Lake Superior sunset sillouette

    I continued to drive into the night, making it to Eagle River in northern Wisconsin to spend the night. The snow cover there was much less than it had been up on the Lake. I was pleased to have left the magical U.P. Lakeshore by cover of darkness, so as not to see its passing. I was back in the real world again, ready to head back toward my D.C. home.


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