I grew up in the beautiful Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan. But like locals pretty much everywhere, I never really saw all the sights the area offers–until last week. My family and I finally took the time to tour the whole UP from one end to the other, and it was magnificent.
Thanks to low virus case rates, the UP has been granted greater freedoms than the draconian impositions from our loathsome governor that continue to strangle the rest of our state.
And people are taking advantage of that, big time. But I didn’t realize how very much so until near the end of our trip.
Having never been the tourist up there before, I didn’t know how crowded things should be. Sault Ste. Marie, through whose locks the big freighters enter and exit Lake Superior on its east end, was busy, but we got rained out there so it was hard to tell how busy. Even after the rain went away, the same could be said for Tahquamenon Falls and the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum: busy, but compared to what?
The fact that the tour boats at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore were completely booked in advance on a Monday should have been a clue. But since we preferred kayaking, the folks packed tight on those boats as they went by us just didn’t register completely. We were too busy paddling and seeing the breathtaking sights.
Maybe the nearly-full parking lot at Lake of the Clouds in the Porcupine Mountains should have tipped me off. Or the crazy crowd queueing up to ride to the top of this hemisphere’s only ski flying hill, Copper Peak, in my hometown of Ironwood all the way on the west end of the peninsula. Or the full hotel parking lot in that tiny UP town in the middle of the week.
Maybe the long drive-through lines at every single fast-food restaurant along the way should’ve sent the message. But with so few of them offering eat-in service, judging that was tough.
Or the packed full-service restaurants in Marquette. But it was move-in week at Northern Michigan University, so students AND their parents needed to eat.
It wasn’t until I ran into a business owner I know in Ironwood, as we finished up our breakfast and got ready to leave town for our trip home, that I learned just what’s happening up there. “The tourist traffic is crazy,” he said. “Our business is 30% higher than what’s normal this time of year.”
The report came out later that day that Pictured Rocks had set new attendance records that week.
When we got to the Kitch-iti-kipi giant spring on our last day traveling and had to give it a pass because it was an hour wait just to get aboard the raft that takes you out to see it, the record-breaking tourist hordes were already old news.
So lo and behold: we weren’t the only ones to head to the North Woods and the great outdoors to escape the utter lunacy that the coronavirus has brought to our “civilized” places. And to that I say a hearty, “Thank God.” It seems there’s still a good bit of sense out there. If that brings some long-overdue tourist dollars to places that really need it, all the better. And if it gets more urban folks off screens and moving around and getting back to nature, even better still.
And who knows? Maybe those changes won’t be temporary. My hometown friend also shared this: “Houses in Ironwood are selling sight unseen now. It’s unbelievable.” (This in a market where, for the last couple decades, if you had a place to sell it often made more sense just to tear it down.) He added, “De-urbanization is happening, for real.”
Who knows, maybe our ludicrous over-reaction to the pandemic will wind up a net benefit. Could my old shrinking hometown see a virus-driven turnaround? A man can hope…