6 July 2016
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is a complex landscape, where environmental, social and economic factors converge, creating a sense of surrealism. Surrounded on three sides by Great Lakes Huron, Michigan and Superior. It feels like an island in a vast ocean, rather than a finger of land protruding into freshwater lakes. Towering sand dunes, long stretches of white-sand beaches and crystal-clear waters rival some of the finer Caribbean destinations, and on the sunny day I was there, the shores were crawling with happy beach goers.
Because of the crowds, I was surprised to find numerous boarded-up roadside motels and other small businesses, as I drove across the peninsula. One would think that with such a beautiful vacation paradise, right on the doorstep of Michigan, Wisconsin and Ontario, that tourism-related businesses would be pulsing with economic vitality. I speculate about two possible causes: 1) tourists are notoriously fickle, with improved air routes to more exotic locations, they have simply taken their tourism dollars elsewhere, and/or 2) the economic downturn in the surrounding areas due to losses of manufacturing jobs (see: http://killingmother.blogspot.com/2016/07/michigan-flint-and-rust_4.html) has resulted in people in the area no longer having the funds for any kind of vacation, even one close by. Perhaps somebody who lives in the area can weigh in on this.
In either case, one of the great ironies of tourism is that in most cases, tourism development actual despoils the thing that attracts tourism in the first place. As the 1970’s pop band the Eagles once noted, “call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye.” The Upper Peninsula’s apparent tourism recession has inadvertently saved the character and natural beauty of the place. While one wishes that sufficient economic opportunity exists for an area’s residents, one also hopes that such opportunity will take place without threatening the ecological treasures that coexist there. Few examples of this fragile balance exist in the world.
In the Upper Peninsula, as soon as one ventures a short distance from the beach in any direction, nature takes over. Mixed forest types extend out in every direction, interrupted only by expansive wetlands and small pockets of human populations in tiny towns. The Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore encompasses more than twenty linear miles of uninterrupted shorefront, with spectacular cliffs, pebble beaches, sandy shorelines with backdrops of temperate rain forest (maybe it just seemed like rain forest on the day I was there).
The Seney National Wildlife Refuge is a vast wetland area resplendent with trumpeter swans, Canada geese, loons, belted kingfishers and myriad other waterfowl. The wildflowers within the refuge are also spectacular.
The small businesses that do exist along the roadsides are worth visiting. Intimate diners with friendly proprietors, gas stations with now-archaic gas pumps and country stores, stocked with basic supplies are about all you will find here. But the dollars you spend will go straight into a a real person's pocket, rather than padding a corporation's share price. There are no Walmarts, McDonalds, etc. to be found, and that’s a good thing.