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Forget What You've Heard about the Upper Peninsula--Even from Me.
Heat and crowds are good for you.
Life is quiet here on the island and at the moment it’s very near perfect. Mornings and evenings are cool and when the sun does beat down, a step into our always abundant shade is all it takes. Ten degrees cooler. At least.
With the heatwaves in the news, I’m up here thinking how awful it must be to live in those places where shade gives no respite from heat and sweat, and even the act of breathing takes some effort. Where trees and brush and grass have given up and have withered and died, where heat combusts and fires start and flame out of control, filling even our space, hundreds of miles away, with particles and soot, messing with our air quality and the clarity of our skies.
I hear warnings that if this heat cycle doesn’t move on, if it’s really a part of global warming, we here in upper Michigan may find ourselves hosts to thousands if not millions of people who will eventually figure out that all they have to do is pack up and cross the Mighty Mac to get some blessed relief.
We’re not just talking about vacationers. The news is reporting as if it’s fact that many, many, many of them will want to make it permanent.
So let me tell you about where I live, this place where they might want to come: The Upper Peninsula has about 30 percent of the total land mass of the State of Michigan but the population of the U.P. is only about 300,000 people, which is about 3 percent of Michigan's population. We’re almost entirely covered with forest—84 percent. That leaves—let me see—16 percent of our land that’s currently habitable.
Our biggest ‘city’, Marquette, has a population of 21,000. The next biggest, Escanaba, has 12,000 people. (My island, Drummond, 20 miles long and 10 miles wide, has a year-round population of around 1100, which swells to some 3000 when the summer cottagers arrive.)
As you might imagine, we’re not ready for that kind of mass migration. Our infrastructure is just above primitive when it comes to handling crowds. Except for a 50-mile stretch of I-75, from the bridge to I-75’s terminus at Sault Ste. Marie, there are no other freeways in the UP. If you’re heading anywhere else, you’re on a surface road.
Our electrical grid fails regularly, due to antiquated lines or wind-blown trees falling across them and taking them down. (The wind doth blow here, especially off the big lakes.)
The internet is still DSL in some places, but I can tell you, because my internet has been sucky for days now, that even broadband isn’t all that broad. A few places like Marquette, a college town, have fiber optics, but the remote places lucky enough to have internet at all are often serviced by small companies hundreds of miles away. Here on the island we don’t dare complain too much over those regular, infernal failures, since we’re probably a bigger bother than we’re worth. They could just ditch us. (There is Starlink but it’s expensive. I can’t justify the cost yet.)
Phone service is iffy, too. We used to have to drive a mile up the road at the top of a hill to be able to use our phones but it’s improved some now. Now I usually (emphasis on usually) just have to make sure I’m near my dining room window, even with wi-fi calling. (“Can you hear me? Oh. Wait. Hang on. Is that better? Can you hear me now?”)
Most of us who live here do it by choice. We’re no strangers to inconvenience and we’ve learned to live with it. Because, okay, it’s beautiful here.
From my house the nearest McDonald’s is a ferry ride to the mainland and then a 50-mile drive west and then south a bit. Big box stores like Walmart or Kohl’s (We have a Kohl’s!) are 60 miles to the north. There is no Lowe’s or Home Depot. They’re 100 miles away and across the bridge, in Petoskey. (They used to deliver but someone said recently they don’t anymore.)
In the summer the ferry lines are long and the ferries “run wild” or off-schedule from morning until evening. Best to have something to do while you wait—a book or your phone or something you can listen to on the radio. Unless you’re lucky and can just scoot aboard, it’ll be a while.
It isn’t just island living that’s inconvenient. There are vast regions across the UP that are many miles from even a gas station. If you’re thinking, ‘It’s Michigan, how bad could it be?’, come on up and see for yourself.
Just don’t get so seduced by the beauty you’re going to want to live here. And invite your friends. And tell them to invite their friends. And then start tearing down our woods because you don’t like so many trees. And then gripe because there are no malls. Or freeways. Or telephone service. And then think the way to fix it so you’re comfortable is to build malls and freeways and all that crap.
There’s a reason the Upper Peninsula is nearly empty of people. We like it like this.
As the United States goes, we’re way up there, a squeak above the 46th parallel. We’re not the highest in latitude in the US, but it makes a difference that we’re nearly surrounded by the largest of the Greats. Lakes Michigan, Huron, and Superior touch us. We’re cooler, yes, but because of the lake effects, in winter we get more snow, more ice, more howling winds.
Which is why I wimp out and leave for the winter. I love the first snows and usually try to stick around for at least one of them, and then I’m outta here, heading across the bridge southward to see where the warmer winds will take me.
But then I can’t wait to get back when the snow melts—which sometimes doesn’t happen until mid-May. And then summer comes again, and people in the sweltering lowers start getting ideas about how nice it would be to live up here.
So I’m counting on you to tell them otherwise. Now that you know how bad it is.
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