The Ramblin' Man: A Journey to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, or, Trolls Cross the Bridge

Fast Facts:

  • Where: The Keweenaw Peninsula (Hancock, Houghton, Calumet, Copper Harbor)
  • Distance from Ann Arbor: 540 miles (~nine hours by car)
  • Trip Duration: Four days, three nights
  • Expenditures: $175 (gas, food, and alcohol primarily; lodging costs not included)


    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 didn’t matter that it wasn’t time for brunch; nor that, save for an older gentleman reading a newspaper by himself near the back counter, we were the only people in the restaurant.

    We were at the Kaleva Café, a mainstay of downtown Hancock for nearly one hundred years. When you’re here, especially after a long day of travel, you order brunch. My steak and eggs were 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 funky little towns. The most memorable: 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 98-year-old cafe on Quincy Street is often packed for brunch.

The 98-year-old cafe on Quincy Street is often packed for brunch.

    Moments later, breakfast was served. 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, it tasted great but I am no connoisseur. Anything black and caffeinated does the trick.

    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/guide spends half his time buried in snow, and the other half buried in equations.

    I visited Hancock for a special reason: this week was Michigan Tech’s annual Winter Carnival, and shenanigans of all kinds were in full swing. Seasonal events included like broomball, cross-country skiing, human dog sled races, and a fiercely-competitive snow sculpture contest. Winning the snow sculpture, I was told, means year-long bragging rights within Michigan Tech’s Greek community. This year’s theme: “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 high honors.

    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 year-round foot and vehicle 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 — colloquially known as Copper Island — 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 charmed me as soon as I stepped inside. We were greeted by Connie herself, who is simultaneously abrasive and endearing. She is snappy, 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. These are good people in Hancock.

    After the quick food stop, we hit the road. 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 views so breathtaking I couldn’t look away. On this picturesque morning, I’m just glad I wasn’t driving. The tree-lined hills reminded me of southern West Virginia, and the winding tunnel-filled roads seemed as much route as roller coaster.

    After a long stretch in the tress, the landscape abruptly opens up into Copper Harbor. You are greeted with a magnificent view of the largest and coldest Great Lake, Lake Superior. The little town of Copper Harbor sports a few motels, some gift shops, and a couple of restaurants, including the Harbor Haus, the fresh-catch fine dining establishment. 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 titular island, the largest natural island in Lake Superior and a national park. 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. It was impossible to move: looking out over the lake’s vastness, you are mesmerized by your place in nature. You are small; you are young. The view itself is worth the drive. 

The icy waters of Copper Harbor.

The icy waters of Copper Harbor.

    Then again, so is most of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It’s a destination not just for winter — when snowmobiling, snowshoeing, skiing and snowboarding take precedence — but for all seasons. I can only imagine watching leaves change across miles of unblemished forests. Untouched by the development of the Mitten, this natural wonderland Up North truly is “Pure Michigan.” If you’re looking for some adventure, you’ll find it in the U.P. 


NEXT TIME: Chasing the Sunset in the City of Angels