Monday, July 2, 2012

The Keweenaw

The Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan is a de facto island cut off from the rest of the State, geographically & culturally set adrift upon the big lake by a shipping canal that separates the twin cities of Houghton and Hancock.

When Heather and I first traveled there (can that really be near 35 years ago?) we heard it said there were folk living in its more remote reaches who’d been born, grew up, grew old and would die without ever once crossing the bridge off the Peninsula. There was reason to believe that, then.

Today that mightn’t be so but the 2010 Census put the population of Keweenaw County at 2,156 souls scattered across 540+ square miles of territory surrounded by water. You could lose that number of people on that expanse of wild land so who can say what they’re up too out there? Their own business, mostly. And they’ll remind you of that if pressed.

It's Heather's favorite place in the Northwoods, primarily because we've found a quiet spot where we can walk out the door of our tidy motel room directly onto the sand of a protected Lake Superior bay. A splendid place for a beach vacation spent dozing over good books, provided the fog doesn't too often intrude. For me the Peninsula's a hard place of rising rock and when there I miss the rivers and swamps that fuel robust life on the Gogebic.

Regardless, the Keweenaw is arguably the most geologically and historically significant landscape of the entire Superior Basin. For both the idle tourist and devoted traveler alike, its resources are rich & diverse.

These run the gamut from scenes of surpassing natural beauty,

to delightfully retro kitsch,

to post-industrial wasteland.

On the Keweenaw you'll find an opera house and a Monastery. Boreal Forest and an EPA Superfund site. Remote beaches, a respected Institute of Higher Learning, a tract of old growth White Pine forest, an 1840's fort, at least one manmade desert, fields of wild berries and the Quincy Smelter. It's the last vintage copper smelter on the lake -- a rusting hulk of cyclopean measure long abandoned but now being slowly stabilized in the hope of attracting the cultural tourist of years to come. With the last icons of the past finally falling to rubble, we've come to care about such things.

It was at Copper Harbor that the 1st American commercial schooner ever to ply Superior burnt and sank.


Formed by millions of years of volcanism, the Keweenaw boasts more than 200 individual lava flows, with its Greenstone Flow being among the largest on Earth. A hard place.

It's commonly referred to as "Copper Country" because the Peninsula was home to the single greatest deposit of pure native copper in the world and when taken together the number of mines worked at one time or the other totals in the hundreds. And that's not even counting ancient pits left by aboriginal peoples, upon which many of our historic mines were first dug and whose 'Copper Culture' remains a subject of hot dispute between archaeologists and other interested parties.

For a while, the Keweenaw produced 95% of the nation's copper. Abraham Lincoln ordered a road be built from there down to Green Bay, to secure the North's supply of copper during the Civil War.

And over time, nearly all of what we'd built there was abandoned -- left to tumble back to the landscape from which we'd bid it rise. Above all, the Keweenaw is a place of restive ghosts and well kept secrets.

Over the coming weeks, together we'll explore this magnificent, magnificently difficult place. Sadly, we'll have arrived a bit too early to savor the wild blueberries, but maybe we'll stop along the way to see if we can pick up a jar of Thimbleberry Jam, a Keweenaw specialty...

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