I Must Go Down To The Lake Again by
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Copper Harbor, MI. US-41 enters the town on the lower right, passing by the white “Minnetonka” building

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula has been, ever since our first visit in 2006, one of our Happy Places. We love the low-key, land-that-time-forgot atmosphere. We usually stay in non-chain one-off family-run motels furnished in Camelot-era mid-century modern, where the big old freezer full of bagged ice cubes by the front office is run on the honor system when the office is closed. This casual it’ll all work out attitude helps us shed our mundane worries and slide into a relax, have a drink and watch the sunset lifestyle for a while.

It's a challenging, exhilarating drive that cries out to be done fast in a small nimble open-top rear-wheel-drive sports car, or a good motorcycle.

The UP has a lot of interesting drives. We once drove for an hour through the Hiawatha National Forest between Sault Ste. Marie and Munising without seeing another car. The trip from Green Bay to Ontonagon winds through a number of pretty and interesting little towns (and right past the amazing Ice Cream Station, may it live forever!). But for us, the Mother Road of the UP is the stretch of US-41 that runs up the Keweenaw Peninsula between Houghton and Copper Harbor.

Starting at the Houghton Lift Bridge over the Keweenaw Waterway, US-41 takes you north through old mining towns like Calumet (the Big City with about 6,500 residents), Ahmeek and Phoenix. Side roads will lead you to interesting places like Eagle River, where a group of Eastern Rite monks run an amazing bakery, or vanishingly small Gay, known mainly for its Bar.

But for me the most memorable part of US-41 is the ten or so miles between the turnoff to Lac LaBelle and Copper Harbor. On this stretch, the trees that line the road in most places grow thicker and taller, while the road is only single lane. Their crowns begin to extend over the pavement, until you are driving through what is called “the tunnel of trees.” The terrain becomes hillier, and the road twistier; soon there are very few places where you are not turning, braking or accelerating. There are constant transitions from patches of sunlight to deep shadow. It’s a challenging, exhilarating drive that cries out to be done fast in a small nimble open-top rear-wheel-drive sports car, or a good motorcycle. I want to do it in my classic Jaguar XK-E if ever I get one.

At the north end of the Tunnel of Trees, 41 intersects with M-26, which comprises Copper Harbor’s half mile long main drag. Straight ahead you will see the harbor and the sign for our favorite UP motel, the King Copper, which is visible on the left side of the cover photo. At this point we know that, for a few days or a week, we are home.

Profile photo of Dave Ventre Dave Ventre
A hyper-annuated wannabee scientist with a lovely wife and a mountain biking problem.


Tags: roads, driving, michigan, UP, upper peninsula
Characterizations: moving, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Laurie Levy says:

    I’m ashamed to admit that, as a native of Detroit, I have never been to the UP. Your story inspires me to add it to our bucket list.

  2. Khati Hendry says:

    Great description Dave! I have actually been there—a few years ago, aimlessly exploring on the way to a family reunion—and recall the tunnel of trees in the fall. Didn’t realize it was a famous “thing”, but were surprised and amazed as we took videos and smiled all the way up and back. Thanks for the beautifully-crafted memories.

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    Let me echo Laurie’s comment. I, too, am a native of Detroit and summered around the Charlevoix or Traverse City area (on Lake Michigan) for many years, but only got as close as Mackinac Island to the UP. You do make is sound enticing.

    • Dave Ventre says:

      We did a vacation to the LP in the Fall of 2019, ending up in Traverse City. A lovely town; the drive up the Old Mission Peninsula (mmm….wineries! Fresh apples!) is enchanting. Traffic in town scared the hell out of me though!

  4. John Shutkin says:

    Great story, Dave. I’ve never been to the UP, but heard about it for years, though primarily in the context of horse drawn carriages, not internal combustion vehicles. (I’m sure you know where I’m alluding to.) You describe this drive beautifully.

    My gather had an XK-150 when I was growing up, and I was dying for him to heold onto it until I got my driver’s license. But it died well before then, as those Jaguars were wont to do. Ah, well…..

  5. Marian says:

    This was a fun travelogue for someone who has lived on both coasts but never has been to Michigan, let alone the UP, Dave. Now that I’ve read about the beautiful scenery and quaint stops, I hope to get there someday.

  6. Thanx Dave for this moving slice of your life, I’ve not been to that part of your world, but now have vicariously.

    There is nothing like a change of scene and a few days in a naturally beautiful spot. Here’s too many more wonderful travels once we’re out of our Covid nightmare!

  7. Suzy says:

    Wonderful story, Dave, as everyone else has already said. Love your line about wanting to do the tunnel of trees drive in your classic Jaguar XK-E . . . if you ever get one. (I used to have an Alfa Romeo Spider convertible, which would have been a fun car to do that drive as well.)

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