That Time We Traveled to the Tippy Top of the Keewenaw Peninsula

Admiring the icy waters of Copper Harbor

Admiring the icy waters of Copper Harbor

*This post first appeared on the website for SHEI Magazine, back in my days as a travel columnist for that student-run publication at the University of Michigan. Originally published on Feb. 26, 2016, it describes a trip my brother and I took to the very upper reaches of Michigan's Upper Peninsula to visit a friend attending Michigan Technological University — and to explore, of course. 

On a Thursday night at about half past eight in the evening, I sat down with my younger brother and a friend of ours in a quaint little joint on Quincy Street in Hancock, Michigan. Looking over the menu, I steered my eyes toward the breakfast items.

With my friend’s assurance that we were eating at the best place to grab brunch in town, I told the waitress — a college student — that I’d enjoy an order of steak and eggs, accompanied by a cup of black coffee. It did not matter to me that it wasn’t time for brunch, and I was equally unconcerned with the fact that we were the only people in the restaurant save for an older gentleman that sat in a booth by himself near the back counter, reading one of the local newspapers.

We were at the Kaleva Café, a mainstay of downtown Hancock for nearly 100 years, and this was about to be my first real meal since crossing the Mackinac Bridge into the Upper Peninsula earlier that day. The drive took about seven and half hours from Mount Pleasant, where I’d spent the previous night at my brother’s apartment.

On the way up and over, we’d passed through lots of little funky towns, none more memorable than the unincorporated community of Christmas situated on a bay near Lake Superior’s Grand Island, which sports a gargantuan, 35-foot tall plywood Santa Claus ready to greet those driving by on highway M-28.

The 99-year-old cafe on Quincy Street is often packed for brunch

The 99-year-old cafe on Quincy Street is often packed for brunch

My steak and eggs did not disappoint, but I do wonder if just about anything would have tasted marvelous after the long car ride. As for the coffee, I am no connoisseur; almost any concoction of the black nectar of the gods does the trick for me.

Snow fell from the sky as we walked back to my friend’s apartment down Hancock’s main drag, passing by places like The Bleachers Sports Bar and Nutini’s Supper Club, both housed in buildings of a certain age, like the Kaleva Café.

The City of Hancock is built into a gradually sloping hillside that leads down toward a body of water called the Portage. Across the way is the City of Houghton, home of Michigan Technological University, where my friend spends much of his time buried in mathematical equations.

It was the week of Michigan Tech’s annual Winter Carnival, and shenanigans of all kinds were in full swing. Activities included things like broom ball, cross-country skiing, human dog sled races, and the fiercely-competitive snow sculpture contest, which the university’s Greek community goes all in for.

The theme [in 2016] was “As Snow Accumulates at Alarming Rates, We Show Our Love for the Fifty States.” Accordingly, Phi Kappa Tau’s rendition of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, and other famous New York City landmarks took home the highest honors in the snow sculpture contest.

The cities Hancock and Houghton share a single man-made land crossing: the aptly-named Houghton-Hancock Lift Bridge. The double-deck vertical lift bridge is the only one of its kind in the state of Michigan, accommodating foot and vehicular traffic, as well as snowmobiles in the winter months.

The Portage beneath is part of a larger waterway that separates the Keweenaw Peninsula into two halves. The upper half of the peninsula within a peninsula — called Copper Island colloquially — was the site of our explorations on Friday.

The Houghton-Hancock Lift Bridge as seen through my car's windshield.

The Houghton-Hancock Lift Bridge as seen through my car's windshield.

We began by stopping at Connie’s Kitchen in Calumet to try the proverbial U.P. pasty, a baked pastry typically filled with meat, potatoes, and vegetables. The bakery’s folksy aura was apparent as soon as we stepped inside. We were greeted by Connie herself, who is simultaneously abrasive and endearing. She is snappy and sassy — the kind of woman that likes to get straight to the point. After sparing with us for a bit, she offered us two free cups of chili to accompany our pasties.

U.S. Route 41 takes you directly from Hancock to Copper Harbor, the northernmost bit of civilization on the Keweenaw Peninsula. The drive takes just under an hour, and is filled with scenic views that I could not take my eyes off; it was a good thing I wasn’t driving. The tree-lined hills reminded me of southern West Virginia and some stretches of the road were rollercoaster-esque, winding through arboreal tunnels.

Eventually the landscape opens up into Copper Harbor, and a magnificent view of the largest and coldest Great Lake, Lake Superior. The little town sports a few motels, some gift shops, and a couple of restaurants, including the Harbor Haus, a fine dining establishment on Brockway Avenue featuring local seafood.

Unfortunately for us, it is only open from May through October. Copper Harbor is also home to the Isle Royale Line, a ferry that transports passengers to the largest natural island in Lake Superior that serves as home to a national park, Isle Royale [— one of the nine fewest visited national parks in the country]. The ferry’s schedule runs from early May to late September.

We drove a little further northeast on U.S. 41 and pulled into a scenic outlook. It was a sunny afternoon, but a chilly one nonetheless. The path from the parking lot led us down to the frozen shore where we could see the Copper Harbor Lighthouse out on a point. We stayed for a while, mesmerized by the view, looking out at a lake whose vastness makes you feel small.

But then, so does most of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a natural wonderland that packs some pride into the term “Pure Michigan.”

It’s a destination not just for winter — when snowmobiling, snowshoeing, skiing and snowboarding take precedence — but for all seasons. If you’re looking for some adventure, you’ll find it in the U.P.