Da Yooper Delicacy Motorboats, Meat Pies and Boa Constrictors on Michigan's Upper Peninsula
On Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the question is a big deal. It can have serious consequences, at least for your reputation with the locals.
Ketchup or gravy?
The query references a pasty (pronounced “pass-tee”), a meat pie loaded with potatoes, rutabaga and onion that is the culinary pride of the Upper Peninsula. The pies are testament to the area’s Cornish roots: Immigrant miners would bring the pasties down into the mines for lunch, heating them on shovel blades over a candle.
I’m not sure what the miners went with, but in modern times your condiment choice is the test as to whether you’re a real “Yooper”—the term for Upper Peninsula residents. Ketchup is the local choice; gravy, apparently, is for tourists and “trolls,” or residents of southern Michigan.
Despite my gastric naivety, this isn’t my first experience in the state. I visited while racing in college, travelling to different trails and slalom tracks. But those trips had given me very little taste for the peninsula’s riding or food traditions. If anything, it’d left me with impressions of mediocrity.
But over the past 10 years, rumors have come out of Michigan of incredible trails and world-class riding, so good that I’ve even had friends relocate to the area. So when the opportunity arose to revisit the Great Lakes State, my curiosity convinced me to go.
A few weeks later I sat in Marquette, MI, at the end of a quest to find the best riding—and pasties—in the state’s northern zone. After brushes with boa constrictors, motorboat shuttles and endless microbreweries, I found both my tires and taste buds thoroughly surprised. Maybe because I always went with the ketchup.
From an airplane window, Marquette looks surprisingly tropical. The largest city in the UP sits on the shore of Lake Superior, and despite the heavy forests has a Northern California feel, with long beaches and numerous parks. It’s also surprisingly trendy, with multiple microbreweries, a university and—our focus—what we’ve heard is the best riding on the peninsula.
Upon landing, we wasted no time seeing if the rumors were true. After picking up our rental truck, an overly powerful, brand-new Dodge Ram, we beelined to Munising, another waterfront town to the east of Marquette. Or rather, we headed to the “Party Store,” apparently the local gathering spot and the best source of trail beta in the area.
The official name is “Hillside Party Store,” and it carries all the supplies its name would suggest: beer, snacks, refreshments and directions to the best of the nearby trails. We purchased a selection of local brews while the employee behind the counter pointed us to the Spur Trail, a new machine-built flow trail of the style that’s becoming popular in the UP. It was our first taste of Michigan-style riding—fully pinned, all the time. It lived up to its reputation, and served as a reminder why the UP kicks out so many fast bikers.
After our daily dosage of flow, we headed back to Marquette and the Harlow Lake trails, just north of town. The rock rides, roots and technical stunts are a stiff contrast to the Spur’s smooth, high-speed berms. It felt more like Squamish than the Midwest, further enhanced by the sweeping views of Lake Superior that accompanied the steep, choose-your-own-adventure lines. The system kept us busy well into the evening, and we enjoyed the sunset from the top—meaning we also rode down at dusk, sans headlamps. Par for the course, I guess. The view was worth the risk.
Like many mountain bikers, I am a sucker for dive bars. Luckily the UP has them in droves, and on the way back to the hotel we stopped into a tiny, hole-in-the-wall establishment to celebrate the day. It was a good choice. In addition to intense bubble hockey games, a UP tradition, we shared a beer with a local sporting a massive, live boa constrictor around his neck. They definitely do things differently up north, and God bless ’em for it.
The best accompaniment to a dive bar is a high-class microbrew, and our next stop for the evening was the Black Rock Brewery. Black Rock pours one of the better IPAs out there. They also have an entire room dedicated to storing ceramic mugs for the locals, all of which are numbered and hung. Having a mug is a highly sought honor. The spots are limited and competition is fierce—which, considering the quality of the beer, makes sense.
The next morning, we headed to Houghton, where Eric Isaacs, president of Michigan Technological University’s Copper Country Cycling Club, showed us around the Tech Trails. The “tech” refers more to the location than the riding style, as the area is literally across the street from the university’s campus.
Michigan Tech’s trails consist mostly of cross-country loops, but a select few are packed with jumps and berms more of the style for which we’d been searching. We swooped and boosted, flowing from one feature to the next like it was a pump track. Considering the amount of work that’s been put into the system, and that it was all done by a university, Houghton is a showcase of the growth of mountain biking in Michigan, especially the UP. It’s also one helluva good time.
Michigan has no shortage of water. Its official nickname is “The Great Lakes State,” and so it’s natural the local mountain bikers would incorporate their aquatic abundance into their adventuring. We discovered this the next day when we met up with Tony Schwenn at his lakeside house in Dollar Bay. Tony has a vintage motorboat named the Lady Agate, purchased new by his grandfather Carl in 1959.
The 23-foot, 170-horsepower craft is covered in mahogany, and is beautiful, an unlikely choice for a shuttle rig, but a role the Lady plays nonetheless. Tony occasionally uses the Agate to ferry bikes to nearby, lake-accessed trail systems (of which there are a surprising number) including the Churning Rapids trail, a 30-minute ride from his house and our destination for the day.
Churning Rapids is one of the original riding zones in the area, and has a completely different feel from the more modern flow trends. It was an almost refreshing change, and we learned it’s a feeling shared by many of the area’s veteran riders. There’s something to be said for preserving—and riding on—your roots.
The ride came to a close, and we loaded our bikes back on the Lady Agate and cracked open beers for the sunset cruise back to the house. I casted a few flies along the way, as the fishing in the UP is also renowned and I’d brought my fly rod as well, and while I didn’t catch anything, we did run into another member of the local bike scene. A new cruiser boat motored up to us, and Tony informed us it was his friends Jon and Jennifer Julien. It turns out bike-by-boat isn’t just a novelty here: Their boat is their home for the summer, and the two were commuting home from the Copper Harbor Trails Fest. Land of the Great Lakes, indeed.
As we chatted with the couple, we learned Jon grew up BMXing and was big in the Michigan 20-inch scene before getting into mountain biking over the past few years. John is also a longtime skateboarder, and after realizing most of the wood used in the industry comes from the UP and is shipped to China for manufacturing, he started his own skateboard deck factory in Houghton, called Quincy Woodwrights.
The company has since brought numerous jobs to the town and a boost to the local economy. Recently they auctioned off a few decks painted by local artists, with proceeds going toward a new public skate park. It wasn’t only for skateboarders, either. One of the decks was painted by Houghton resident and legendary BMXer Taj Mihelich, a personal hero of mine. Taj has also entered the mountain bike world, and we ended up running into him at 5th and Elm Coffee House, a local breakfast spot. The UP bike community is a small world, and everyone plays a part—even skateboarders.
Our last riding destination before heading to Copper Harbor was Calumet and the Swedetown trail system. The name “Swedetown” has some historical significance. Much of the UP was settled by the Swedish and other immigrating Scandinavians, and their traditions are very much alive. Possibly the most stereotypical—and most adhered to—is the sauna. Like the area’s culinary staple, your pronunciation of the word is key: It’s “sow-nah,” and to say it differently immediately marks you as an out-of-towner. Enunciation, or lack thereof, is a big deal in the UP.
As a big backcountry skier, I was excited to hear about how much snow the UP gets in the winters and all the runs that have been laid out as a result. But it’s not alpine skiing that has proven vital to the bike community. Cross-country skiing is another deeply ingrained Scandinavian tradition, and like many other areas on the Peninsula, the Swedetown trails largely follow the town’s cross-country ski network, stacking loops that allow for nearly unlimited options.
Upon arriving in Calumet, we met up with father/daughter combo Mark and Erin Norton. Mark was instrumental in building the area’s trails, and Erin works with our motorboat host Tony. Together they showed us around the interweaving network of smooth and swoopy XC trails, the winding curves full of playful rolls and roots to double up.
The sandy soil, while a bit of a speed suck, was surprisingly ideal for draining the rains that swept over Calumet before our arrival. The same precipitation that blankets the area in so much snow can also cause huge rainstorms during the summer, and the loose dirt makes for perfect traction whatever the conditions. It also made for a challenge as we pumped each roller for speed, pushing each other to gap from root to rocks and drift out corners on our way to a standard, post-ride sauna—sorry, “sow-na.”
Copper Harbor is a tiny community at the end of the UP’s Keweenaw Peninsula, formerly a busy harbor for the mines dotting the shores of Lake Superior. It’s a remote location, three hours from Marquette, and in autumn is surrounded by the brilliant reds, oranges and yellows of the changing hardwood forests.
As an IMBA Silver Level ride center, it’s also home to the crown jewel of the Midwest mountain bike scene and one of the few spots in the Midwest you can shuttle DH runs with hefty jumps and full-on technical sections. It’s not just gnar, however; after a few days of testing Copper Harbor’s reputation, we found the green- and blue-level trails to be as much fun as the blacks, and the mix of new- and old-style riding means there’s always something for everyone.
The town itself has an East Coast feel, with a quaint lighthouse, aging lakeshore boathouses and a weathered cemetery dating back to the mid-1800s. It’s a hard place to leave, but eventually we had to make the drive back to Marquette to catch our flights home.
The sting of the departure was lessened by our visit to a swimming hole called the Devil’s Washtub, a hidden cliff-jumping spot with a natural arch and a pebble cove that felt more Mexico than Midwest. We dried off in the sun, laying on the rocky beach before reluctantly loading back into the truck.
We had one more stop to make, however. We needed a final pasty before getting on the plane, and so we swung through a little bakery outside the city. I had spent the week training, but when the waitress asked what condiment I’d like to accompany my meat pie, my curiosity almost got the best of me and I nearly went with the gravy. Still, as I polished off the Yooper delicacy, I decided that—ketchup or gravy—the UP was worth the journey.