The Upper Peninsula of Michigan

Black Rocks – Lake Superior

The Upper Peninsula (U.P.) of Michigan is the northern and more elevated landmass of the two major landmasses that make up the state of Michigan. The UP is larger than Switzerland and larger than 9 US states. I love the Upper Peninsula because it is a land of forests, water, snow, and few people. There is 2,700 km of Great Lakes shoreline (Great Lakes Superior, Michigan, and Huron), 43,000 inland lakes, and 19,000 km of streams and rivers. 84% of the peninsula is boreal forest with 8.8 million acres of wilderness. Much of the peninsula is located in the “snow belt” due to westerly winds picking up moisture from Lake Superior and dumping 2-3 meters of snow annually. With only just over 300,000 residents, it is quiet and remote from urban centers. The closest cities by driving distance are Minneapolis, Chicago and Detroit, all over 6 hour-drives, depending on where you start in the UP.

How I became a Yooper (phonetic UP-er) was a bit serendiptious. My birth mother before I was born, spent time in the Air Force and was stationed at the Kinross Airforce Base. When she had an out-of-wedlock pregnancy as a young nurse in Pennsylvania, she returned to Sault Ste. Marie, the Chippewa County seat near the base to give birth to me and put me up for adoption in secret from her family and friends. I was adopted by a family from the western side of Upper Peninsula, Iron River, through Catholic Social Services in 1967. I was twelve days old when my adopted parents picked me up from a foster home in Trout Lake, Michigan. As a parent, I know how painful this was for my birth mother, but I understand her predicament. I’ll cover this whole story in my memoirs someday, but for the sake of this blog post, I am glad she had ties to the UP and I grew up in this distinct region of the USA. The four western counties of the UP that border on Wisconsin are in the Central Time Zone while the rest of the peninsula and the state are in the Eastern time zone. The Upper Peninsula became part of Michigan thanks to President Andrew Jackson. He offered the UP to Michigan to stop the war with Ohio and the claims to the Toledo Strip, a piece of land south of Detroit. I think Michigan won the deal by gaining such a big piece of wilderness to add to their state. I’ve been to Toledo and northern Ohio, and it is nothing special.

Ottawa Lake – Iron County

The UP reminds me of Winterfell and the North in HBO television series, Game of Thrones. The long, harsh winters forge an identify on the people and landscapes of the region. The bitter cold keeps most people away, and unlike the western and southern parts of America, the region is actually slightly depopulating. Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world is approximately the size of the state of Maine, and acts like the Wall in the Game of Thrones. I guess that would make the Canadians the “wildlings.” 🙂 As the two maps below demonstrate, there are a lot of trees and not much noise or light pollution in the peninsula.

I still own my childhood home in the village of Caspian, in Iron County with my brother. We also bought a home in Marquette, the largest city in the UP (19,000 people) and my son goes to Northern Michigan University. As many Yoopers, as I get older, home is calling me back. I loved seeing old friends and family. I also have a lot of nostalgia and being back there reminds me of things I’ve lost, my parents and family/friends and my youth. The quiet, cool evenings, dark forests, seemingly endless gravel roads leading to inland lakes, brings me contentment.

Oliver, Ocean and Nadia X-country skiing in the Sylvania Wilderness (2012)

I was disheartened to read much of Nancy Langston’s “Sustaining Lake Superior: An extraordinary lake in a changing world.” Climate change experts predict if current trends continue, by the end of the century (2100), the UP will have a climate equivalent to Arkansas. That would be a shame as the cold-weather plants and animals that make the UP home give it a distinct identity. Lake Superior is the fastest warming lake in the world. Surface temperatures of Lake Superior rose 4.5 F between 1979 and today. For now, it is still very cold most of the year because of its immense size and depth. This allows nutrients to cycle up and down twice a year, keeping from eutrophication. However, with increased air temperatures and decreased winter ice cover, this will change. 

“The climate change scenarios currently projected for Wisconsin at the end of this century utterly boggle the mind. Conservative middle-ground scenarios show Wisconsin becoming the climatological equivalent of Arkansas, while Madison’s climate will morph into a twin of Oklahoma City…Meanwhile, the North Woods may gradually transition into an oak savannah…Forests will change as well, with models predicting that our forests may become similar to those now in Arkansas. Nearly 85% of the Lake Superior basin is currently forested, with a mixture of boreal forests in the north and aspen-birch, and white-red-jack pine trees along the southern shores.”

Climate change will increase stresses on trees and may cause the loss of the boreal forest in the basin. These stressors include drought, wind, insects, fires and insects and increased deer herbivory. 

Another thing I learned from the book is that the first European explorers to the Great Lakes Basin came across abundant beavers. There were perhaps 200 million beavers in the USA and over 10% of the land near the Great Lakes was flooded with beaver dams. This benefited the area, increasing biodiversity and keeping the lake free of sediment and toxins. Langston describes the impact of the logging and mining boom on the region and lake. She lives in the Keweenaw Peninsula and it was largely deforested to fuel the copper smelters and remained bare for a three quarters of a century. Sawmills in Wisconsin during the lumber industry boom processed 60 billion board feet of lumber between 1873 and 1897 alone. A forestry expert at the time estimated that only 13% of the white pine in Wisconsin was still standing. 

Although humans have altered the UP a lot, it is still one of the wildest areas in the USA. It will be interesting to see how the global economy and climate change impact life in the UP and the Great Lakes region as a whole. It will always be home for me.

One thought on “The Upper Peninsula of Michigan

  • Kind of cool how the four counties in the Eastern Time Zone are West of counties in the Central. I use this for occasional trivia and am, so far, undefeated. Michigan also has more shoreline than any other state. Most folks never guess this.

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