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Go With the Flow in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

You might say water flows through the veins of “Yoopers” – proud residents of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula near the Canadian border. From lighthouses and waterfalls to lakes and locks, water plays an integral role in their lives and the lives of those who pass through.

Fishermen in the Great Lakes angle for walleye, salmon, trout – and a favorite you’ll find on many Upper Peninsula restaurant menus, whitefish. Sailors draw an audience as they skillfully maneuver their huge freighters through the narrow Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie. RVers, after staking their spots at one of the peninsula’s numerous campgrounds, hike up to marvel at the magnificent Tahquamenon Falls.

The Upper Peninsula has been referred to as “The Great Waters” – where Lakes Huron, Michigan and Superior meet. The region is also known as the land “above the Bridge” – the Mackinac Bridge, which links the Lower and Upper peninsulas. The three lakes form the boundary of the Upper Peninsula, which is large in land mass (roughly 16,500 square miles, or about 25 percent of Michigan’s total) but sparse in population (only 3 percent of the state’s total). Just three cities have populations greater than 13,000: Marquette, Sault (pronounced “sue”) Ste. Marie and Escanaba.

Residents take great pride in the history and culture of the “U.P.,” as it’s affectionately called. History books indicate that in the early 1600s French explorers arrived to an area inhabited by Chippewa (Ojibwa) Indians on the eastern end and Menominee Indians on the western end of the peninsula. Early immigrants also include those from Britain, Finland, Sweden and northern Italy.

Water courses through this melting pot of cultural influences. Here, in no particular order, we present four places in the U.P. where water figures prominently.


“Living history” permeates Colonial Michi­limackinac, a 1770s fort and fur trading village located near the base of the 199-foot-tall, five-mile-long Mackinac Bridge, also known as Big Mac.

In 1715 French soldiers built Fort St. Philippe de Michilimackinac. The fortified community, known as Michilimackinac, became a major fur trade center of the Northwest. After their conquest of French Canada in 1761, the British took control of the fort. The Native Americans and British co-existed in the area, although not always peacefully. In 1780, the fort was relocated to nearby Mackinac Island.

Since 1959, archaeologists have been conducting ongoing excavations on the site of the fort and trading village, which is being reconstructed in its exact location.

A myriad of activities at Colonial Michilimackinac re-create life in that period. Visitors can explore 13 authentically rebuilt structures, as well as the fort’s watchtower. Costumed interpreters conduct demonstrations throughout the day.

You might see historic interpreter and colonial chef Cara Haapapuro baking bread by the hearth, or watch as interpreter John Anderson demonstrates drop spinning. Or perhaps you’ll see assistant lead interpreter Jim Evans firing a cannon in British Redcoat attire, fiddling or performing crafts.

For children, there’s a new Kids’ Rendezvous Interpretive Playground, in which they can explore the routes of the fur traders. It features climbing structures and a giant map of the Great Lakes. A Native American program educates visitors about the Odawa and Ojibway and how they interacted with British and French residents of the fort.

Entrance to the fort and fur trading village is at the Colonial Michilimackinac Visitor’s Center, situated beneath the south approach to the Mackinac Bridge. Here you will also find souvenirs and gift items representing military and colonial history. A glass wall offers a panoramic view of Big Mac and the Straits of Mackinac. There is a small admission fee to the village. A spacious parking lot accommodates motorhomes.

In Mackinaw City is the Mackinaw City/Mackinac Island KOA. The 50-acre campground has 63 large, pull-through sites. Features include a heated pool; LP-gas for a charge; modem dataport and Wi-Fi; and bathrooms with showers. The campground is open from May 1 to Oct. 15.


South of Paradise, the Tahquamenon (rhymes with “phenomenon”) River, made famous in the Longfellow poem “Hiawatha,” flows amid cedar and pine forests in Tahquamenon Falls State Park. The park, encompassing 47,000 acres, is Michigan’s second-largest state park. However, only about 20 acres are seen and used most often.

Park interpreter Theresa Neal ex­plained that the distinctive amber color of the water is a result of the tannic acid of decaying hemlocks and cedars lining the river’s banks.

The park features two falls: Upper Falls and Lower Falls. With as much as 50,000 gallons of water per second rushing over the Upper Tahquamenon, it is the second-largest falls (by volume) east of the Mississippi, topped by Nia­gara. The nearly 50-foot drop creates a fountain of root-beer-colored water 200 feet wide, with bright white foam from the high level of organic material.

Four miles downstream is the Lower Falls. Here the river cascades and surrounds an island, which offers the best viewing area of these falls. The island is accessible by canoes and rowboats that can be rented by a state park concessionaire for the short crossing.

The state park has marked trails and boardwalks with stops at prime viewing areas. An observation deck at the Upper Falls brings you so close you’ll get wet from the mist of the thundering water.

You can fish for walleye and muskie in the pools below the Lower Falls; and find brown and rainbow trout between the Lower and Upper falls. Black bear, whitetail deer, beaver and moose are among the wildlife inhabiting the park.

After an invigorating hike, stop for lunch at Tahquamenon Falls Brewery and Pub, located in Upper Tahquamenon Falls. The eatery resembles a large, rustic lodge, complete with a stone fireplace and animal heads on the walls. The menu features such specialties as pasties (pronounced “pass tees,” meat and vegetables baked in puff pastry) and Lake Superior whitefish.

Large parking lots that can accommodate motorhomes are at both the Upper and Lower falls, but camping is only available at the state park’s Lower Falls Campground. Some of the sites have electricity, and the campground features a picnic area, playground and concession stand. Sanitation stations are available at the Lower Falls and Rivermouth Unit. The campground at the Lower Falls is open year-round.


Some people buy bird-watching guidebooks, in order to identify the winged creatures by their size, shape, color and habitat. In Sault Ste. Marie, ship aficionados who want to identify the boats navigating the locks reach for the boat-watchers bible, Know Your Ships (www.knowyourships.com).

The field guide offers data such as color, name and size of hundreds of U.S., Canadian and international-flag vessels, from freighters to tugs to passenger ships. All pass through the famous Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan’s oldest city.

Construction of the canal and locks began in 1853. Nearly two years later, the waterway opened, providing a gateway to the country’s rich resources and helping to meet the demands of a growing economy. Over the years, the Soo Locks have been repaired, expanded, upgraded and replaced.

Each year, more than 10,000 ships pass through the locks, an engineering marvel and the largest waterway traffic system in the world. As the ships navigate through the system, they put on quite a show.

There are several ways to enjoy the locks – stopping in at a visitors center, watching from a viewing platform, or being in the middle of all the action on a boat tour.

The beautifully manicured Brady Park, in downtown Sault Ste. Marie along the river, is home to a visitors center managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which also manages the locks. The park grounds include flower gardens, and a walkway along Water Street is dotted with plaques chronicling the city’s history.

Inside the visitors center – which is open mid-May to mid-October – numerous exhibits detail the construction of the locks and the people who made them possible. Four movies about the Locks and the surrounding area are shown, offering a historical perspective. Here you can also get a look at a working model of the system, which shows how the locks raise and lower the ships by opening and shutting lock chamber gates, allowing water to flow in and out.

After you know how it all works, listen for a staff member announcing over a P.A. system the approach of a vessel. You can then hurry out onto one of three raised viewing platforms and join others cheering on the arrivals. The scene is a bit like Oscar night, in which fans in the stands shout and cheer as their favorite movie stars arrive to stroll the red carpet.

If you really want to get your feet wet, so to speak, hop aboard a boat for an up-close Soo Locks tour. A cruise will allow you to see the four U.S. locks, experience “locking through” from Lake Huron and Lake Superior; travel alongside giant freighters; and go underneath International Bridge, which spans St. Marys River and links the twin cities of Sault St. Marie, Mich., and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. The climate-controlled boats are equipped with restrooms and snack bars. Dinner, lunch and sunset cruises are available.

The locks and observation platforms are open during the Great Lakes shipping season, which is March 25 to Jan. 15.

For river-side accommodations, try Soo Locks Campground. Located along St. Marys River, it offers 100 sites, 31 with views of the river and the freighters heading into the Soo Locks. The campground also has a commons area on the waterfront so RVers without river-view sites can bring their chairs and watch the action. All sites include water and electricity. Other amenities include a general store; gift shop; game room; high-speed Wi-Fi; dump station; pull-through sites; and boat docks available for free. The campground is open from May 1 to Oct. 20.


Shipwrecks in Paradise? Yes, a museum that chronicles the area’s maritime tra­gedies is located just north of Paradise, at Whitefish Point.

Deceivingly beautiful Lake Superior is the largest and fiercest of the Great Lakes. Powerful and deadly Northwest storms along the 80-mile stretch of water from Grand Marais to Whitefish Point have earned the region the moni­ker “Graveyard of the Great Lakes.”

Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, about 70 miles northwest of Sault Ste. Marie, pays tribute to Superior’s sunken ships. The atmosphere within the unassuming white building befits the stories that are told from watery graves: haunting music amid low lighting. Maritime legends come alive in the compact museum, through artifacts, drawings, photographs and scale models. Descrip­tions detail the circumstances of each tragedy and tell about the rescuers, the survivors and those who perished. Among the wrecks highlighted are those of the John B. Cowle, Samuel Mather, Cyprus and Steamer Vienna. But the “star” of this ghostly lineup of ships is the Edmund Fitzgerald. Of the 6,000 ships lost on the Great Lakes, the “Fitz,” which went down 17 miles from Whitefish Point at a depth of 535 feet on Nov. 10, 1975, remains the most famous. It spawned the 1976 ballad by Canadian folk singer Gordon Lightfoot, “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” The ship’s bell had been left underwater, but in 1995, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society along with families of the Fitzgerald’s crew, the Canadian Navy and the National Geo­graphic Society recovered the bell. The 200-pound bronze bell is on display in the museum gallery as a memorial to the 29 men lost in the tragedy. The Ship­wreck Museum is open May 1 to Oct. 31 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. FOR MORE



231-436-4100, www.mackinacparks.com.


888-492-3747, www.shipwreckmuseum.com.




www.lescheneaux.org/Lodging/ Campgrounds/campgrounds.html.


231-436-5643, www.koa.com.


888-784-7328, www.michigan.org.


800-432-6301, www.soolocks.com.


906-632-3191, www.soolockscampground.com.


906-932-1472, www.soolocksvisitorscenter.com.


906-492-3300, www.superiorsights.com/ tahqfallsbrew.


906-492-3415, www.michigan.gov/dnr.


800-562-7134, www.uptravel.com.

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