Yoopers and the U.P.

June 20, 2013

It seems fitting that I end this journey on the same note on which it started – wet. Here’s the difference: the rain I had no choice but to ride in today was the soggiest, heaviest slop of my 66 days on the road. I was forced once again to take a motel for the fourth time in six days. Today when I arrived in Marquette, Michigan, on the upper peninsula, every single item in every single pocket of every single bag on my bike was wet with the exception of those items stored in my hard-case saddlebags. I feel like I’m still drying out. The rain was so hard at times even cars were forced to slow down. As I look at the weather radar for the entire country, it appears I’m in the wettest part of the country other than Washington State. Tell me I’m not a magnet for rain on this trip and I’ll tell you ‘baloney.’

When I get home I’m going to put myself in an industrial-strength dryer and dry myself out. Maybe David Letterman will feature me on ‘Stupid Human Tricks.’

Water: Northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Great Lakes region are full of it. It’s not just falling from the sky. It seems like at nearly every bend of the road I’m passing a pond, lake, or river. As an open water swim enthusiast I want to pull over to the side of the road and swim. But I know better. It’s been an unusually wet and cold spring and early summer here on the upper peninsula – the U.P., as the locals call it. Just looking at the water makes me cold.

Many Lakes

Many Lakes

Before my final thousand miles or so east, I dropped south to the Wisconsin town of Hayward. It’s renowned for having very large Muskie in its lakes. The world record Muskie was caught here by Cal Johnson in 1947. It weighed over 67 pounds!  You can check out a picture and more of that story here. The following day I made for the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, Michigan, on the shores of Lake Superior. I heard it contains the largest stand of virgin timber east of the Mississippi and a healthy black bear and wolf population. I had to see it, so off I went on a short 112 mile trip to the Porkies, as it’s called here.

On my way there I stopped for lunch in Hurley, just south and west of the park. On my way out of an intriguing restaurant called Freddie’s, whose walls were filled with pictures of the town’s citizenry over the past hundred years, I met what could be three of the nicest folks I’ve met on my trip – Kayo, Marlene and Harlan from the Minneapolis/St. Paul area of Minnesota. They were on their way to a festival in Houghton, Michigan, called Finn Fest – an annual gathering of thousands to celebrate Finnish-American culture. It’s from them that I’d start to learn about the history of Finnish immigrants to this area. I had no idea before I met them. They saw my Vermont license plate and started to chat.

Kayo, Harlan and Marlene

I learned that Hurley and many parts of the upper peninsula were once thriving mining towns. Copper and iron ore was what they dug from the ground. Finnish immigrants supplied much of the labor. Marlene pointed to a row of second-story windows on the building across the street. “You know what used to sit in those windows?” she asked.

“I have no idea. What?” I replied


“How so?” I was thinking the copper mines and the many male laborers who used to live here was the reason, but I wanted to hear it from her.

“The mines. And many of the men were married. The women were happy to get rid of them. They were having one child after another. They wanted a little peace. Send their husbands off to the mines. Get a little peace in the house. The mob from Chicago also came here.”

I thought there was something about this town as I rode into it. I had never seen so many bars in my life in one stretch of small-town main street. Kayo, Harlan and Marlene told me their ancestors were Finnish. Harlan’s mother, Anna Stoehr, is still alive. She was born in 1900. The Gerontology Research Group lists her as the eighth oldest person in the United States. A super centenarian! Until recently, she was still living independently. I asked what she attributed her longevity to. Harlan said she doesn’t like answering that question. But he offered, “Bacon and eggs for breakfast every morning.” On a more serious note, he said, “She says it’s God’s graces.”

I had no idea the U.P. was where most of the Finnish immigrants settled. It was in 1865 that the first group of Finnish and Sami immigrants arrived on the shores of Hancock, Michigan, and began work in the copper mines. You can read a brief history of Finnish experience on the Upper Peninsula here. Finn Fest has been going on for decades now. Kayo, Harlan and Marlene convinced me my next stop after the Porcupine Mountain Wilderness had to be Finn Fest.

My next stop was just a few miles up the road in the town of Ironwood. I was riding down main street when I saw a beautiful theater façade I had to photograph. A man walked up to me while I was photographing and asked what I was doing. I told him. He said, “Follow me.” He had the keys to the theater. He opened it up and took me for a personal tour. It was a beautiful old building that had obviously been renovated and well cared-for. Listen to this short talk by Randy as we’re standing inside the theater.



Randy at Ironwood

I entered the “Porkies” after a quiet ride through a mostly flat, tree-lined road that led to the coast of Lake Superior.  What an impressive body of water!  Standing on its shores I felt I was looking out over the ocean.

Lake Superior

Its name is Kitchi-gami , or “Great Warrior” to the local Ojibwa people. The Great Lakes store the largest supply of fresh water on earth! Lake Superior alone contains an estimated 3 quadrillion gallons of water. Over 10,000 years ago the entire Lake Superior basin was covered in a blanket of glacial ice.

Riding slowly toward the entrance to the state park, I saw this black bear feeding in the woods. I’ve seen a handful of black bear and one grizzly bear that bounded across the road in front of me at Yellowstone, but I hadn’t had the chance to photograph any of them. This one I got, although it’s not a great shot. It was grubbing for something in the forest floor.

Black Bear in the Porkies

I set up camp on a hillside next to the lake. With plenty of time left in the day, I shed my motorcycle boots, pulled on my walking shoes and hit the trails around the park for the next several hours. Here are some pictures from that hike.

The Porkies

I mostly followed the Presque Isle River, the largest in the park. At one point, stairs led me down to the river…

To the Presque

… where I was treated to several waterfalls. Sign boards along the trail told me these spots are sacred to the Native Americans.

Along the Presque Isle R.

Up close at the falls.

Along the Presque Isle R.

Along the Presque Isle R.

Along the Presque Isle R.

Along the Presque Isle R.

Sunset from my campground overlooking Superior.

Sunset over Superior

Sunset over Superior

A short journey of just over 100 miles the following day brought me to the Hancock/Houghton area, and the location of Finn Fest. But before I arrived I stopped for gas in a small community called Ontonagon. It was here I met Jim Linna. Jim is a Finnish descendant of mixed blood. A mutt, like most Americans. Keep in mind, unless you’re 100% Native American, you have an immigrant story to tell. America’s story is the immigrant story. Why should it be any different today?  Jim chatted me up as I sat at the gas station sipping my first cup of coffee of the morning. He told me about his family’s story. He educated me about “Yoopers.” A Yooper is a common term for residents of the Upper Peninsula. It is derived from the initials U.P. Supposedly, it is not a derogatory term. Folks who live in the lower peninsula – south of the Mackinac Bridge, which separates upper and lower Michigan – are referred to as Trolls.

Yooper is also a dialect. You can hear it plainly when folks speak. It is influenced by the Finnish, French Canadian and Scandinavian settlers to the area. Some of the characteristics include saying “ya” instead of “yeah”; sometimes pronouncing a “w” like a “v”; ending a sentence with “eh”; pronouncing words “then” like “den” and “thigh” like “tie”. Here’s my personal take on another characteristic of a Yooper – these are among the friendliest folks I’ve met anywhere on my trip. Gee, it’s just downright uncommon how nice these folks are up here.

Somehow Jim and I got to talking about saunas. Lots of folks have them here. It’s the Scandinavian connection. Jim felt a need to show me one. While we were at it, he thought he should cook me some breakfast, too. So off we went. We toured a friend’s sauna and then sauntered down the road for some good home cookin’ at Jim’s house.

Listen to a story from Jim and some Finnish while perusing the next few pictures.


At the sauna.

At the sauna

Home cookin’ at Jim’s house.

Home cookin'

Home cookin'

Belly full of sausages, eggs and good stories from Jim, I hit the road for a short ride to Hancock/Houghton and Finn Fest. Unfortunately, the rains got the best of me there. And did it rain!  A few pictures from Finn Fest and beyond in my next post. Tomorrow I expect to cross the border into Canada with the hope of avoiding getting as wet as I did today. I’ll ride a coastal route across the northern border of Lake Huron. See my map here.

Jim has a greeting to share with you:


As they say in Finnish: hyvästit nyt – goodbye for now!


All content Copyrighted © Stephen Tavella

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