(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2005)
The UP. Michigan's Upper Peninsula. That chunk of the state above "the mitten." Its location -- far north, in the midst of three Great Lakes -- makes it the snowiest inhabited place east of the Rockies. The people are called Yoopers, and some not only deal with the inordinate amount of snow, they revel in it. Go ahead and call them crazy, but they'd use a different word. Lucky.
Each year, by most definitions, the UP gets positively pummeled with snow. Here in its far northwestern region, typical winters unload between 10 and 20 feet, from the first slushy October inches to the final March dumping. Above-average winters can bring double that. Think of it this way: There are places here that have never seen fewer than 130 inches of snow -- a record-setting amount in most states; enough to bury a home past its gutters.
It only stands to reason that people here know snow. They invent words like pank (definition: to pat down snow, as on a trail or campsite). When they shovel the roof after every hundred inches or so, they know not to dump it in front of the picture window (it'd block the view). Avid gardeners learn to regularly snowblow their yard so that, come April, they can work freshly turned beds as the sun erodes nearby snowbanks, still several feet high.
Meteorologist John Dee envied these people. He first set his sights on the UP in 1991 while planning a snowmobile trip from his Chicago home. Recalling its reputation for lake-effect snow, he eyed the area on a map, and he saw it. The UP's finger of land pointing into Lake Superior. The Keweenaw Peninsula. That place, he thought, must just get hammered. He visited that winter, and each one after, until he moved there in 1999.
John's soft voice grows louder, his calm hands gesture excitedly, when he explains why. "All meteorologists have their passion. Probably for most it's severe thunderstorms, tornadoes, stuff like that. I'm fascinated by it, but when I see a good snowstorm getting ready to wrap up, that's what really gets my heart racing," he says.
Now, from the heart of his meteorological dream, John runs a freelance forecasting service. Maps and computers crowd his home office, which features a digital camera trained on an outdoor snow station. Every five minutes, the camera transmits a live shot to John's snow forecasting Web site, johndee.com, where he also chronicles his UP life, including long winter walks and snowmobile rides. The site is his gift to people like his former self: south of the UP and dreaming about snow.
There is a downside, he admits, to living in a snow-lover's paradise. "Every spring, I get a little depressed," he says with a laugh. "Even though I know it's coming, I'm like, 'Awww. Does it all have to go so soon?'"
Little Girl's Point
Ice and snow cover the 129 steep, wooden steps. Peg Sandin is small and well-insulated in a down jacket that stops just above her knees. Her face peeks through a fur-trimmed hood. She carefully negotiates the descent, mittened hands braced against the wooden rail counteracting the unreliable relationship between boots and ice. When she gets to the spot where the stairs have drifted apart, creating a gap over a foot wide, she jumps, then continues, as usual, to her purpose: today's view of Lake Superior.
Peg spent 30 years painting watercolors of Superior, finding ways beyond sailboats and lighthouses to depict its beauty, before it occurred to her to do so in winter. "You always think of the lake as big and blue," she says. "I went down in winter, and it was a whole different view, a whole different palette of colors."
That was in January 2003 and the beginning of a yearlong wintertime ritual. A few times a week, 45 minutes before sunset, Peg bundled up and tackled those backyard steps. She'd snap pictures, rather than haul painting gear into the cold, then spend as much quality time with the lake as she could tolerate (not always long on days when the windchill knocked temperatures down to minus 60). Back in the warmth of her home studio, Peg studied the photos and painted, sometimes with moody blues and greens, other times with sweet pinks and yellows. Her series, "My Ice World," debuted last February.
Winter views are now integrated into her study of the lake. They are her favorite for their diversity. She describes, with wonder, rising steam, frozen land-like water, and gleaming piles of broken ice. From shore, she admires today's view of dark water dappled with snow-topped bergs. "It's my life's goal to paint my feelings about the lake," she says. "And I have endless inspiration." From within the furry frame of her hood, Peg's smile is, like her muse, big and strong.
Admire the UP
The Pine Tree Gallery, on US-2 in Ironwood. Since 1975, features craftmakers and artists, such as Peg Sandin, from the upper Great Lakes region. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday. (906-932-5120)
Black River Crossing Bed and Breakfast, outside Bessemer. Spacious, new, luxurious log home in the woods, features Peg Sandin's artwork. (www.blackrivercrossing.com)
Fitzgerald's Restaurant, Eagle River, Keweenaw Peninsula. The only UP restaurant right on Lake Superior. Fine dining featuring seafood, wild game, steaks, pasta, and chicken. Reservations recommended for winter gourmet tasting dinner, date to be determined. (www.eagleriverinn.com/2/eagle/fitz.html)
Normally, a home has a wall of windows to bring the outside in. For Frida Waara, it's the opposite. It lures her out. On snowy, starry nights as cold as 30 below, she'll easily bypass a cozy seat in front of her fireplace for a campfire and tent along the frigid Lake Superior shoreline behind her house. "Everything gets better when you're outside," she insists. "Especially in winter."
You can read her beliefs by looking at her. A strong, broad back gives away a lifetime of bending over gripped ski poles -- sometimes she'll downhill in the morning, only to cross-country in the afternoon. Her tousled hair and ruddy complexion indicate an extended relationship with winter winds -- she was even part of the first all-female expedition to the North Pole in 2001. Her eyes light as she points out an absence of jewelry. "Just good gear," she says, and then comes her characteristic bold, easy laugh. It, you could say, points to an openness that allows Frida to try darn near anything. Especially outdoors. Especially during winter.
She first saw the UP during her favorite season on a trip up from lower Michigan. "I said, 'Oh my God, I've never seen so much snow in all my life.' I couldn't imagine living anywhere else," she says.
So she went to Northern Michigan University in Marquette. There she met her husband, Ron, an avid downhill skier and snowmobiler, in a snowball fight. Their first date was on Marquette Mountain. Their kids, Eryka and Ian, traded diapers for skis. Forget Disneyland. During summer vacations, the family has always, always gone in search of snow.
Once, years ago, Eryka complained that her mother acted as if skiing were more important than school. Frida replied that it, in fact, was. "Listen," she told her daughter. "Some of the most precious places in the world, you have to ski to see."
If you're really lucky, though, a fine version of one might also be right in your backyard, constantly calling your name.
Try a UP Adventure
Frida's Ski Spots
Downhill Marquette Mountain. (www.marquettemountain.com)
Cross Country Blueberry Ridge Trails. (www.noquetrails.org)
Three overnight styles
Cushy The Landmark Inn, downtown Marquette. Restored historic hotel. (www.thelandmarkinn.com)
Rugged Harlow Lake Cabins. Outdoor vault toilets, hand pump, wood stove, no electricity. (www.michigan.gov/dnr)
Roughing it McCormick Tract Wilderness Area. Tent camping only. Free. Self-register at trailhead. (www.fs.fed.us/r9/ottawa/recreation/rogs/index.html)
Down Wind Sports,
downtown Marquette. (www.downwindsports.com)
Northern Michigan University Outdoor Recreation in Marquette. (www.nmu.edu/recreation/orcp.html)
Blackjack Ski Resort, Bessemer
When Bjorn "Bing" Bang raises his ski poles in the air, taps them together three times, and announces, "Ted! You got an A-plus in climbing!" it's likely because Ted, sidestepping up the short, barely graded practice slope, just got a measly one-tap for his attempt at the wedge (a.k.a. the snowplow). Bing knows when to strategically throw into a lesson things like straight-faced one-liners, simple pearls of wisdom, and triple-tap confidence boosters. The ability to deliver what individual students need is a skill developed during over 30 years teaching generations of families on the area's three big hills.
"I like skiing. I like teaching. And so winter is my favorite season," he states in his efficient, matter-of-fact manner. The word "like" is an understatement. With Bing, it seems, everything eventually connects to skiing.
Take the accent. Bing's from Norway. During his childhood winters, he'd haul long, heavy wooden skis up the hillside, past the treeline, and race friends straight to the bottom. (Literally. No turning allowed.) Bing left his home country for a chef's position in Chicago in the late 1950s. Soon thereafter, he accepted an offer to cook at a Midwest ski hill's restaurant. He ended up a ski instructor instead.
The yodel often spontaneously dropped into classes? It suggests his time as a lounge singer, for bands including "Bing Bang and the Norwegian Wood." He even cut a record in Nashville. Decades ago, he took a regular gig on a UP hill. He ended up running the ski school, too. He's married -- met Susie when they worked together on a local hill. They have one daughter -- Jaime was on skis as soon as she could walk.
Bing's the first one on Blackjack's slopes every single day, including the one each week on which he is not scheduled to teach. Even then, if requested, he gladly will. Ask why he'd hang around work on his only free day, and his response is characteristic. "There's nothing else to do anyway, so might as well ski, right?" As if no sensible person could possibly suggest anything better to do every single snowy winter morning.
Ski the UP
Blackjack Ski Resort, Bessemer. Where Bing teaches. Lodging nearby. (www.skiblackjack.com)
Big Powderhorn Mountain, Bessemer. Diverse onsite lodging. (www.bigpowderhorn.net)
Indianhead Mountain Resort, Wakefield. Onsite lodging. (www.indianheadmtn.com)
Big Snow Country Hill Hopper Pass, for above three hills, within 6 miles of each other. Purchase of adult 2-day pass includes free pass for children 12 and under. Buy online or at resort. (www.bigsnow.com)
Every region has its symbols. In the UP, saunas and pasties rise to the top. Holdovers from European settlers' daily lives, it's not surprising each is still around. They're warm and hearty elements that dovetail perfectly with the UP's other irrepressible icon: snow.
All are such a part of Eric Frimodig's daily life that he could be the UP's poster boy. Take the pasty (pronounced PASS-tee). Eric owns a restaurant, Toni's Country Kitchen, known for this durable pastry filled with meat and vegetables, eaten by UP immigrants who worked in the area's copper and iron mines. They're a stick-to-your-bones sort of food. Toni's pumps out up to 1,000 in a day.
The word sauna is pronounced SOW-na here, just as it was by the Scandinavians, such as Eric's grandparents, who brought the bathing practice from their climactically similar homelands. Saunas have always been part of Eric's life -- his first was during one of the regular twice-weekly sessions at Grandma's when he was a toddler. The wintertime sauna snowbank jump is, Eric says, just what's done. "After you've thrown four or five buckets [on the rocks], just got the place almost burning, when you hit the snow, it really doesn't feel cold for a while," he says. Eric has a sauna at home and one at camp (Yooper-speak for cabin). When he snowshoes into the latter to shovel off the roof, he might stoke the sauna, ladle water over the smooth lake rocks, and breathe in the heavy cedar steam. Then maybe he'll throw open the door, releasing a cloud of steam into the cold winter air, and plunge into the nearest snowbank. Inside, a pasty wrapped in tinfoil might be waiting on the Franklin stove. For Eric, these two icons are not only remnants of the past. They're part of UP life, right here and now.
Experience UP Tradition
Take a sauna Harbor Hideaway Motel & Finnish Sauna House, US 41, Copper Harbor. Authentic Finnish sauna. Clean and comfortable. Rooms and campsites also available. (www.copperharborhideaway.com)
Try a pasty Toni's Country Kitchen, 79 3rd St., Laurium. Eric Frimodig's restaurant, known over the Keweenaw for pasties, a hearty regional pastry filled with meat and vegetables. Winter hours: 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. (906-337-0611)
Originally published in Midwest Living, Jan/Feb 2005.