Michigan‘s Upper Peninsula is the red-headed stepchild of the Great Lakes region.
Like kids left alone who’ve formed a tree house club, the people of the Upper Peninsula have developed a domain unto themselves, even a secret language all their own.
A conversation about a moose walking through town would sound something like this:
“Just seen a snow cow at da stop-and-go light.”
Or if hands and head need to stay warm while cutting firewood:
“Get my chuke and choppers, I go make wood.”
“I go with?”
Completely separated from its own state, yet attached to another by its only border, should the U.P. join up with Wisconsin, its only land neighbor?
Or Canada, whose shores are actually closer than the lower portion of Michigan?
The UP just doesn’t fit in, so the ever clever Yoopers have decided to embrace their uniqueness and just be themselves.
They have proudly dubbed themselves Yoopers (U. P.-ers). All other Michiganders (who live on the “mitten”) are Trolls. As in:
“We go cross da bridge to DA mitten, see DA Trolls, eh?”
We had encountered the Troll label several times before discovering its meaning. Yoopers look down on the rest of Michigan…only geographically, of course. There is a huge bridge that connects the UP and the mitten, and the Trolls live below the bridge. Pretty clever, eh?
The two peninsulas of the Wolverine State are linked by the magnificent Mackinac (pronounced Mack-in-naw) Bridge.
Spanning the five miles of The Straits of Mackinac between Lake Michigan with Lake Huron, Big Mac is an engineering wonder. Its 8,614 foot center unit suspended between two five-hundred-fifty-foot-high towers makes it the longest single-span suspension bridge in the western hemisphere.
In the shadow of Big Mac’s span lies quaint and quirky little Mackinac Island.
Folks rely on horse drawn carriages, bicycles and their feet to get from point A to point B, as motorized vehicles have been banned on the island since 1898.
The only way out to the island is by boat. Well, sometimes by ice bridge when the miles of open water actually freeze over.
Oh yeah, it gets crazy cold in the wintertime.
Preferring to visit at a time of year when fishing, golf, softball and bridge don’t begin with the word ice, we booked passage on the ferry. We disembarked into a sea of Fudgies fighting their way inland. We brought our own bikes on the ferry, for a small fee, but they are for rent all over the island.
This creates a multitude of mobile maniacs maneuvering on two wheels for the first time since childhood. It’s pretty insane.
We, of course, were Fudgies too. Hey, wait, there’s nothing nasty going on with the name, it’s just what locals call anyone who visits the island because of the tourist’s inability to resist partaking in the wares of the island’s famous fudge shops.
Being human, we had to sample the goods.
We visited Murdick’s, a Mackinac staple since 1887, to take in the making of the famous confection.
The workmen of Murdick’s are a lively bunch, walking us through the process, adding in little anecdotes along the way.
Our guides had even hatched up a business plan for their lives after Murdick’s, taking their fudge making skills and moving to a part of California that had deregulated the use of marijuana. They figured when the munchies set in they’d basically have a captive audience.
They did worry about the health hazard of the plan, however. Eating fudge with the munchies could very well end up in diabetic coma!
Other candy shops offered umpteen varieties, our favorite being Krispies, a Rice Krispy treat impaled on a stick then coated with fudge, because the gooey marshmallow squares simply are not nearly sweet enough on their own.
The smell of cooking sugar and chocolate is overwhelming along Main Street. Luckily, some friendly horse always comes along and leaves a gift that changes the olfactory landscape.
Once clear of the chaos around the docks, the island is a lilac festooned cyclist’s paradise.
Roads and trails lead anywhere and everywhere of interest with no cars to worry about–just a surprisingly few horse apples to dodge along the way.
The state highway, Michigan 185, encircles the entire island along the coast. It’s a gorgeous eight-mile ride on the only state route in America that doesn’t allow cars.
Many of the horses on Mackinac Island are in the employ of the Grand Hotel.
Home to the longest porch in the world, the hotel is opulent, expensive, beautiful and a bit uppity.
Biking up the hill to check it out, we were stopped by a sign that read:
“After 6 PM gentlemen must be attired in coat and tie. Ladies may not be attired in slacks.” Even on the street in front of the hotel.
Having foolishly set off bicycling without our evening apparel, we felt it best not to upset the sensibilities of those called to a higher standard of vesture.
We did notice that for some reason they dress their horses in what look to be some sort of S & M outfits. We chose not to investigate further.
Back on the mainland, it was time to sample the staples of the U. P. diet–whitefish and pasties. Yoopers can — and will — serve whitefish any and every way imaginable.
Whitefish dip, smoked whitefish, whitefish chowder, whitefish cakes, broiled whitefish, deep-fried whitefish, whitefish boil, baked whitefish, whitefish jerky…
We tried many, our favorite being the cheesy, smoky flavored dip, but holy cow, how could we possibly try them all?
It seems the only thing a Yooper won’t do with whitefish is stuff it in a pasty.
Pronounced pass-tee, pasties are a sort of meat, potato and rutabaga turnover.
Brought to the iron and copper mines of the U. P. by Cornish miners back in the 1800s, pasties were invented in Cornwall for the miners to carry a portable meal that would stay warm while they worked underground.
The crust is made tough, it is said that a proper pasty should survive a drop down the mineshaft without breaking open, and the filling is dense to hold the heat.
A pasty can also make a good hand warmer while sitting around in your pocket. If it should get cold, just warm it up on the miner’s shovel held over the headlamp flame. The later groups of Finnish and Swedish immigrants also embraced the pasty, making it something like the Yooper’s national meal.
We sampled several pasties across the peninsula and found some small, subtle differences in seasoning or the ratio of rutabaga to potato.
Generally a pasty is a pasty and most of the establishments that sell them, sell only them and only one kind of them (to the purists, there is only one kind: meat, potato and rutabaga). A typical menu is: hot, cooled, or frozen with pop. “How many ya want, eh?” and “What kinda paap you want with?”
Ketchup is the condiment of choice, but sometimes gravy is poured over the top–but only if you want to get all fancy about it.
Like pizza in Brooklyn, Yoopers each have their own favorite pasty place.
We never had to go far to find a pasty, even though towns are few and far between in the UP, pasty stands don’t need no stinking town to spring up. They are everywhere, nestled into the fabulous natural beauty like the abundant wildlife that dominates the landscape.
From the rolling copper and iron rich Porcupine Mountains around Crystal Falls, through the old mines of Iron Mountain, past the stunning formations of Pictured Rocks National Shoreline and a town where it is always Christmas, to the old French fur trading settlements of Sault Ste. Marie and St. Ignace (“a drinking town with a fishing problem”), every one of the Yoopers that we encountered was friendly, helpful, and always ready to buy another round.
David & Veronica,