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True north in Michigan's Upper Peninsula

Special to The Los Angeles Times

Bayfield, Wis.

It was a good sunrise. It was a true sunrise. Hemingway would have liked it.

I stood on the shore of Lake Superior in this tiny Wisconsin town -- not exactly Ernest Hemingway country -- but I was traveling on the way to one of Papa's youthful fishing spots in neighboring Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and I didn't figure he would take offense at my slight geographical error.

Hemingway spent time in Michigan, mainly in the lower part of the state at his family's summer home on Walloon Lake in the Charlevoix-Petoskey area. He visited the Upper Peninsula, bounded by Lakes Michigan, Superior and Huron, at least once, in 1919, while recovering from his war wounds.

He later memorialized his trip in one of his Nick Adams stories. "The Big Two-Hearted River" was set in the Upper Peninsula town of Seney, although Hemingway wrote it in 1922 in a Paris cafe. This paean to fly-fishing, roughing it and solo traveling is a classic Hemingway story.

So it was fitting that I, a Hemingway fan, set off alone from Madison, Wis., my hometown, on this trip last fall. I prefer to travel with friends, but there's something romantic and daring about the thought of solitary wandering. Peter Esser, a friend who is more traveled than I, swears by William Hazlitt, the early-19th century English essayist: "One of the pleasantest things in the world is going a journey, but I like to go by myself. I can enjoy society in a room; but out of doors, nature is company enough for me."

Indoors, at Bayfield's Old Rittenhouse Inn, I reminded myself of that as I ate a fine dinner alone, the only single in a dining room full of chattering couples, families and friends, "just a gentleman in the parlour," in Hazlitt's words.

The solo drive north from Madison had been pleasant enough, about 325 miles through central Wisconsin and the North Woods region on a sunny mid-September day. I had arrived early for fall colors, but the farther north I drove the more golds and reds I spied in the trees.

The next morning I witnessed that Hemingway-esque sunrise, having the dock almost to myself in the predawn chill. The only activity was the ferry to Madeline Island, just a mile across the lake, plus a ship or two plying the channels between the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior. The sun came up behind a fog bank that periodically engulfed the ferries and islands, muting the deep oranges, golds and blues that filled the sky and reflected off the calm waters.

But the journey intruded. I had to hit the road.


Michigan's Upper Peninsula -- UP, for short -- feels as though it ought to be part of Wisconsin, to which it's attached, rather than Michigan, to which it's not. But, oddly, it doesn't matter much, because UP residents, or "Yoopers," have their own identity, nurtured in part by the area's rugged, northern isolation.

It was my second solitary day on the road, but by dinnertime I would have company: my friends, Nina and Phil Bogetto, whom I would meet at their summer home on Little Shag Lake near the town of Gwinn. Before that, though, I had decided to trace as much as I could of the UP's northern shoreline, including the Keweenaw Peninsula, which jabs like a finger 80 miles into Lake Superior.

As often happens in September, I was granted a wonderful late-summer day, so I stopped often along the wooded roads to take in autumn. Except for the twin cities of Hancock and Houghton, about halfway up, the Keweenaw is sparsely populated, given over mostly to second-growth forests, small gem-like lakes and quite a few rivers.

Michigan Highway 26 avoids the coastline for most of its length, but at Phoenix it swings north and hugs the coast the last 24 miles to Copper Harbor. This is vacation country, and Copper Harbor is a vacation town. Even though it was after Labor Day, I was surprised to see few tourists. The beaches were all but deserted, despite the good weather, and several local businesses had closed for the season.

Lake Superior seemed welcoming that day, like a sheet of blue-green glass. Superior is about 350 miles long, 160 miles wide and 1,330 feet deep. The sight of 800-foot freighters hugging the coastline makes it look more like a sea.

As enjoyable as my drive up the Keweenaw was, Hemingway never left any tracks up there. So I beat a hasty retreat to Gwinn and my waiting friends.

After a dinner of barbecued ribs at the "Almost World Famous" Up North Lodge in Gwinn and a couple of glasses of good wine, some conversation and a night's sleep, Nina, Phil and I set off to find Hemingway.

But first we took a roundabout way along the Lake Superior shore and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. We stopped in nearby Munising and the Interagency Visitor Center, then drove to Miners Castle overlook to get a first glimpse at the Pictured Rocks and the neighboring, offshore Grand Island National Recreation Area.

The castle is the shoreline's iconic natural landmark, a distinctive rock overlooking a clear, shallow inlet. Though these formations seemed eternal, just a few months before our visit, one of the two rock turrets that gave it a castle-like appearance had collapsed and fallen into the lake.

Pictured Rocks, established as the first national lakeshore in 1966, is the name given to 42 miles of brilliantly colored sandstone cliffs, from 50 to 200 feet tall, that grace the UP's north shore. You can hike the area's 90 miles of trails or camp in the backcountry, but the weather-sculpted cliffs and the many beaches interspersed among them are easily accessible by car and short walks. We took a milelong walk on the Grand Sable Dunes trail, which led, after a climb through the dunes, to a spectacular view of the lakefront.

At the eastern end of the national lakeshore is the tourist town of Grand Marais, Mich., which is close to the Big Two-Hearted River, the setting of Hemingway's story. We had lunch at the Sportsman's Main Stop, which had excellent whitefish and chips, plus an old, buckled wooden floor so wavy that it probably chastened a lot of the late-night drinkers. After lunch we tried to track down Hemingway in Seney.

The real Big Two-Hearted River is many miles from Seney, and Hemingway may never have seen it. It's clearly a sexier name than the Fox, which does run through the town.


Around the turn of the 20th century, Seney was a bustling logging center once referred to as "hell town in the pine." It had 13 saloons, three hotels, 11 houses of questionable repute and lots of hyperactive lumberjacks. Today -- and probably when Hemingway visited to fish the Fox -- it's a pretty quiet place, with a few stores and a couple of motels. The saloons and hotels are long gone, and the only landmark remaining from the story is the old railroad station, which has been turned into a tiny museum with a display case and a few photos memorializing young Hemingway's visit. It was closed when we arrived, but we could see what we needed to through the front window.

Surprisingly, when I asked at a couple of stores about the Hemingway connection, I was greeted with blank stares.

In the story, Hemingway described walking a hundred yards from the station to where the river -- actually the east branch of the Fox -- crosses the right of way, and, sure enough, the river is there, though it's barely more than a creek.

Never mind. Papa had trod this ground, and so had we. The drive back to Little Shag Lake took us near the Seney National Wildlife Refuge and then to the outskirts of Marquette, the UP's largest city and home to Northern Michigan University.

For dinner, we had decided to take home a local culinary favorite, the "pasty" -- basically meat, potato and vegetables rolled in pastry dough -- originally brought to America by Cornish miners and adopted by the Finns and Swedes of the UP. We found some at Marquette's Crossroads Bar & Restaurant, reputed also to have the best fish fry in town. (Keep in mind, though, that Thursday is "Biker's Night.")

The next day, I was back on the road by myself, heading south by way of the Lake Michigan shore. I had one more stop on my way back to Madison, at a place I have long wanted to visit: the Peshtigo Fire Museum.

You are forgiven if the name "Peshtigo" draws a blank. On Oct. 8, 1871, the same night as the Great Chicago Fire, the town of Peshtigo in northern Wisconsin also suffered a fire that was among the most destructive in American history. About 300 perished in the Chicago fire, but as many as 2,400 died as a forest fire swept through Peshtigo. The small museum commemorating the fire occupies a former church and sits next to a cemetery with the graves of the fire's victims and heroes, the only visible evidence of that great tragedy. There are times when one needs to pay one's respects.

And so it was a good finish. It was a true finish. Hemingway would have liked it.

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