The Upper Peninsula’s Nautical Past
Lake Superior, the vast freshwater lake that spreads north of the Upper Peninsula’s northern border, has for centuries served as a major transportation route for Native Americans, explorers, tourists, and various industries. Several historic lighthouses dot the coastline, some of which still provide navigational assistance to passing vessels. Despite the presence of such aids, however, shallow reefs and violent storms have led to hundreds of shipwrecks in Lake Superior over the years. Today, numerous maritime museums and underwater preserves reveal this fascinating shipping heritage. Visitors can hit the highlights in a five-day tour of the U.P.’s northern shore.
From the Mackinac Bridge, head north on I-75 to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan’s oldest city, where you can watch ships passing through the incredible Soo Locks or opt for an up-close view aboard a Soo Locks Boat Tour, which offers a two-hour trip through the American and Canadian locks and along each nation’s shore. After lunch, spend the afternoon at the intriguing Museum Ship Valley Camp, which contains over 100 exhibits, including two lifeboats from the stricken Edmund Fitzgerald and four aquariums filled with various fish from the Great Lakes region. Head a few blocks east to the River of History Museum, which chronicles the history of those who explored and helped to tame the St. Mary’s River. Stay overnight in Sault Ste. Marie, perhaps at the quaint Longships Motel.
Following breakfast, drive west along the shore of Whitefish Bay. Stop in Bay Mills, where the 1871 Point Iroquois Light Station, now a maritime museum, invites visitors to tour a restored light keeper’s home and climb the tower for a pleasant view of the river and bay. Next, visit the 1849 Whitefish Point Light Station, the oldest operating lighthouse on Lake Superior and now part of a complex that includes the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, which chronicles several tragic shipwrecks, including the Edmund Fitzgerald. Experienced divers might want to take a detour and explore the Whitefish Point Underwater Preserve, a fascinating area that encompasses 18 excellently preserved shipwrecks in the cold, clear, deep waters of Lake Superior. Afterward, you can stay in a nearby campground or roadside motel.
In the morning, consider joining a guided tour of the 1874 Au Sable Light Station on the eastern end of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Alternately, you can take a narrated glass bottom boat tour of Alger Underwater Preserve, which protects a handful of intact shipwrecks near Grand Island. After your boat trip, head farther west along the Lake Superior Shore and spend the afternoon in the historic port of Marquette. The Marquette Maritime Museum is a particularly intriguing attraction, housing an interactive pilot house, several exhibits about shipwrecks, Native Americans, and the U.S. Coast Guard, and an impressive collection of lighthouse lenses; the museum also offers informative tours of the 1866 Marquette Harbor Lighthouse. After dinner, consider staying at the lovely 1896 Big Bay Point Lighthouse Bed and Breakfast, one of the nation’s few lighthouse inns; hopefully, you’ve reserved a room well in advance.
After breakfast, take a leisurely four-hour drive via Country Road-550 and U.S. 41 to the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula. Here, you can join a narrated round-trip cruise through Copper Harbor’s formerly bustling port, to the 1866 Copper Harbor Lighthouse, where a host will guide visitors through the historic complex, which includes shipwreck artifacts, a small maritime museum, and incredible lake views. Those seeking a challenge can opt instead for exploring the Keweenaw Underwater Preserve, a 103-square-mile area containing at least nine shipwrecks, including the oldest known one in Lake Superior.
From Copper Harbor, head south to Eagle Harbor, where the fog signal building beside the 1871 Eagle Harbor Light now serves as a maritime history museum. Exhibits feature the area’s past shipwrecks, the United States Lighthouse Service, and the perils facing long-ago lighthouse keepers. As the day winds down, stop for dinner in one of the peninsula’s several family-friendly restaurants and head south to Ahmeek, where you can stay overnight in the romantic Sand Hills Lighthouse Inn, constructed in 1919 and now serving as a Victorian-style bed-and-breakfast. Reservations might be necessary here, too.
True history buffs should rise early, head south to Houghton, and take the morning boat ride to Isle Royale National Park. Here, you’ll encounter a number of historic maritime sites, including the Edisen Fishery and the 1855 Rock Harbor Lighthouse, now a museum operated by the National Park Service. Stay overnight in the waterfront Rock Harbor Lodge, then return to the mainland via the six-hour Ranger III boat ride the next morning.
by Laura Martone from Moon Michigan, 3rd Edition, © Avalon Travel