Head to the great white north of the upper peninsula of Michigan. Michigan has been in the news quite a bit lately, but the Upper Peninsula or 'UP' (pronounced as individual letters) has managed to stay out of the spotlight. The people of Michigan love the outdoors, and this is taken to the extreme in the norther half of the state.
For a large part of the winter, most people prefer snowmobiles to travel around their city instead of their cars. A whole snowmobile road system springs up and you could ride all the way to Minnesota if you wanted to. My trip to the UP was not only my first trip to Michigan, but my first experience in actual snow. It's true that here in Houston we get light dustings, but that is like comparing playing in the sprinkler to going to Splashtown. Luckily for me, it turns out that I love snow, and I got to experience plenty of it. I was there in February and there was an accumulation of roughly 30 inches in the 5 days I was there. This played right into the theme of the trip as I was going to be spending quite a bit of time outdoors experiencing all that 'da UP' can provide for outdoor activities in the winter.
Actually getting to the UP is quite easy coming from Houston. You can fly to the wonderful Detroit airport and then take the short hop into the UP. My group specifically flew into Marquette, one of the larger towns. Although the airport in Marquette is small (a handful of gates) the runway is quite large as it was a former military base. It's actually one of the backup landing locations for the space shuttle. The moment we walked out of the airport, I was immediately slack-jawed by the large amount of snow on the ground much to the enjoyment of the locals. They couldn't even wrap their minds around that the far off place I came from didn't ever get snow of any stature. People from the northern peninsula call themselves 'da yoopers' (think about it. Da u-p-ers) and have managed to make their best of the situation with some wonderful things to do. The first thing they recommended for us to do at the hotel is jump into the sauna. These are widespread and considered a must have to warm up from the cold. It's not pronounced like the word sauna though. In yooper, it's pronounced saw-oon-ah. I did take advantage of the saw-oon-ah and had a very introspective moment about what exactly I had gotten myself into. The yoopers themselves are wonderful, and although they carry a redneck-tinged reputation from the more southernly Michiganders, they are extremely friendly. If you had told me that a large group of friendly East Texans had moved to a snowy peninsula, then that would have perfectly explained who they were.
My first outdoor activity came the next day in the form of a snowmobile. Admittedly, I am a car junkie and love all things motor sports, but I had no idea how much I was going to love snowmobiling. Arctic Cat had been contacted and brought some brand new models out for us to ride and after a quick training run I found myself on the world's fastest factory produced snowmobile. 4 cylinders, a turbocharger and nearly 200 horsepower. The whole snowmobile with me on it weighs less than 1000 pounds, and it was geared for top end. The whole group of us were flying across the frozen over bay and I look down and I'm doing 70mph. A group shoots out in front of me and I catch up to them. I briefly glance down and see a number somewhere in the mid 80s. The large belt that propels these machines across the ice is studded with medal screws for extra traction and as I went over a 3 inch snowbank, I felt myself lose traction. For a split millisecond the snowmobile shifted a few degrees sideways, and I thought it was all over. A vision of my being thrown from the snowmobile and sliding (for miles) across the ice until my body slowed to a stop. Very fortunately for me, the metal studs caught and I continued on my merry way. I decided 65 was my new speed limit on the lake (which is still rather insane) and I let the more experienced drives push 115-120 out on the ice. Noooo thank you. I was hooked though and will be taking every opportunity for the rest of my life to jump on one of these. There are many snowmobile outfitters that can get you and your family on a very safe and fun trip (and to keep you away from us yahoos tearing it up out on the lake).
My activity the next morning was dog sledding, which I was really looking forward to. This is something that most locals haven't even done before, and it was a great privilege. The dog owner mentioned that it was borderline too warm for the dogs to run (it was 30 degrees aka below freezing) and that they really loved it another 20 or 30 degrees cooler. With the warmer temperatures, we would have to keep the runs to a short 30 minutes. The dogs LOVE to pull the sled. The owner, Carl Hansen of Valley Spur Lodge organizes rafting trips in the summer and dog sledding trips in the winter told us that when the temperature is cooler that the dogs will just run for hours. Actually being on the sled was as magical as I hoped it would be. It had just started snowing and we were running through Hiawatha National Forest. We were going through fresh snow, and the lack of noise was very enjoyable. Just the sound of paws hitting the snow and the sled making it's track through the freshly fallen fluff. Definitely something I'll hold onto for the rest of my life.
My afternoon activity was ice fishing. Another legendary cold-weather activity that turned out exactly as I expected. Ice fishing may involve dipping a line in the water, but it's really a great excuse to get away from the wife and enjoy some quality time with your buddies. We actually just drove straight out onto the frozen lake in a truck with a local that had adopted us and headed to his shack. In the shack was a large hole in the ice where we would be fishing for pike. This wasn't fishing in the traditional sense, it was pike spearing. We had a piece of bait hanging from the roof of the shack going down into the water and we had a trident ready to drop and speer the fish. While you are waiting for the pike to come by (we didn't actually see any for the few hours we were out there) we consumed some local micro-brewed beer and the owner of the shack brought out a 1.75L Smirnoff bottle. There definitely wasn't any vodka inside as it was bright red. He explained that every year he made his own chokecherry wine. The chokecherry is a local berry and makes for some pretty good drinking out on the lake. After we grilled some burgers on a metal plate set on top of the heater we headed back into town at dark.
The next day, we left Marquette behind and headed to Munising. Munising and Marquette are not from each other, and that was our station for the rest of the trip. My first activity for the next day was downhill skiing. Another traditional snow activity I had never done. I started with a half-day lesson and immediately took to the sport. The bunny hill lift was broken, so my instructor went ahead and took me to the top of Marquette Mountain and in effect threw me into the fire. I had terrible form, but I could control my speed, and as a result managed to not fall the entire day! So, for you first time skiers, please please please go take a lesson and your skills will increase tremendously.
Although you may be thinking by some of my experiences that da yoopers are not a very cultured and refined group, but that is very far from the truth. We ate at some fantastic restaurants including the Brownstone Inn which is in-between Munising and Marquette where I had some excellent whitefish. We went to Foggy's in a little community outside of Munising called Christmas. Foggy's is more of a bar, but still family friendly. I had a burger and a beer and was very happy to put my feet up. My favorite place was definitely a restaurant in downtown Marquette called The Vierling. Steaks, seafood (whitefish of course) and they even brew their own beer! I ordered a flight, which is a small glass of every kind that they brew. My favorite was the blueberry wheat beer that had real Michigan blueberries in the bottom. The atmosphere and the service were wonderful. This is a can't miss if you ever make it into Marquette.
As far as lodging, there are several great choices in Marquette. Our group stayed at 4 different hotels right next to each other, the Cedar Motor Inn, Comfort Inn, Country Inn & Suites and Days Inn and everybody had a great experience between their rooms at the saw-oon-ah. In Munising, we were split between the Comfort Inn and Days Inn, and again both hotels were clean, warm (very important!) and were trouble free. The upper peninsula is a whole different world in the best way possible. Your cell phone will still work, but you really can get away from it all and enjoy some outdoor adventures that we aren't privy to here in Texas. Not only do they shine for winter sports, but it tends to be a summer sports destination as well providing lots of wonderful hiking and mountain biking opportunities. If Texas is a 'whole nother country' then the UP must be a 'whole nother world' as I've never experienced anything like it.