Posted by: kerryl29 | October 26, 2020

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula: Trip Planning Considerations

Planning for the trip to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan was a bit more of a tortured exercise than has ordinarily been the case with my photo excursions, almost entirely because of SARS-CoV2.  In short, this is the first time I’ve made a photo trip during a pandemic.

The Back Story

Some time in the early part of September, I received an email from my friend Jason Templin.  Jason and I first met in April of 2006, at the Pigeon River confluence in the Greenbrier area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  After a brief discussion we discovered that we both frequented the same landscape photography forum on a nature photography website and we ended up photographing together for part of that day in Cades Cove.  Though we’ve kept in touch since then, we hadn’t photographed at the same time in the same place since that April day in the Smokies.  This was not due to a lack of trying.  We had planned a photo excursion to southern Utah in the fall of 2016 but I had to quash those plans a few months in advance due to some pressing family matters.  When I made a two-week trip to western Colorado in the fall of 2017, Jason–who resides in Colorado Springs–planned to join me for part of that time, but was unable to get away.

Au Train Falls, Alger County, Michigan

The email I received in September included some questions about the Upper Peninsula because Jason was planning to make it up there–or to northern Wisconsin, the specifics remained undefined at that point–during fall color season and was hoping I could provide some information about peak color timing and a few locations that he knew I was familiar with.  I hadn’t planned to go anywhere this fall, due to the pandemic; in fact, a long-planned return trip to Alaska in late August/early September had been cancelled months earlier.  But Jason’s inquiry made me think:  was it possible to safely take a photo trip at this time?  I hadn’t used my camera–literally not once–since I returned from Big Bend National Park in Texas, just a couple of weeks before the impact of the virus began to be felt in the United States, and the truth is that the idea of photographing again was incredibly enticing.  But was a trip a realistic option?  I was pretty doubtful.

Golden Forest, Chapel Basin, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

But I gave it some thought.  Flying was out of the question, but I wouldn’t need (or even want) to fly up to the UP; I’ve been there five times before and have always made the drive from the Chicago area.  But was it safe to stay in a motel?  And was it possible to stay safe during the days while up there?

Ontonagon River Intimate, Bond Falls State Scenic Site, Michigan

Coronavirus Considerations

When I started thinking seriously about making the trip, I slowly concluded that it wasn’t an entirely crazy notion.  After all, the idea was to go up there and be outside as much as possible and to avoid other people as much as possible.  I realized that it would not only be theoretically doable, it would be likely that–with proper precautions–I would make less contact with others on a photo trip to the UP than I would in a normal week in the Chicago area.  Maybe this could happen.

Council Lake Meadow, Hiawatha National Forest, Michigan

I spoke to someone at the motel that I stayed at when I made my last trip to the Upper Peninsula, in October, 2013 to see how they were handling things given the COVID situation.  I was told that it was possible to secure a completely contact-free check-in/check out procedure.  And, even more importantly, they told me that members of the housekeeping staff were not permitted to enter rooms while guests were in residence on the property.  In short, no one would go into my room, other than myself, while I was staying there.  Given that this is an old motel-style property, there are no common areas to navigate to get to one’s room–you enter from and exit to the parking lot directly.

Chapel Creek, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

I started putting the entire procedure through my head.  If I brought my own supplies–as is my wont–it might be possible to go up there and literally never come into direct contact with anyone.  Gas could be purchased right at the pump using a credit card (followed by a thorough hand sanitizing).  This might actually work!

Council Lake at Dawn, Hiawatha National Forest, Michigan

(Jason camped in the Hiawatha National Forest during the trip, which was, in some ways, almost certainly even safer than staying in a motel/hotel.  But that meant subjecting oneself to some pretty rough potential conditions.  Having been up to the UP at this time of the year five times previously, I know what kind of weather (rain, cold, wind…even snow, on occasions) can be experienced.  For someone (i.e. me) who doesn’t like to camp to begin with, I had no interest in taking that on.)

Laughing Whitefish River Black & White, Laughing Whitefish Falls State Scenic Site, Michigan

In practice, my theory of how things could work is pretty much how they played out.  I did stay for one night at a motel in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, due to a slight itinerary change, but was able to go in and out without contact as well.  I never so much as entered a place of business on the entire trip, other than to pick something up from the motel office in the UP.  When I did that, I found myself alone with a clerk, separated by a huge plexiglass installation.  I was in the office for less than two minutes and never made direct contact with anyone.  When Jason and I were in the same vehicle, which was the case most of the days we were there, we both wore masks and vented the vehicle by cracking the windows.  When in the field, we were rarely near others for any length of time and essentially completely avoided close contact with anyone, as I’ll detail in future posts.

Color Riot, White Birch Forest, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

In short, it is/was possible to make a trip like this one and, with some care, utterly eliminate potentially high risk behavior.  Some planning, effort, awareness and common sense are all required, but it can be done.  The key is resisting the inevitable tendency to lower one’s guard.

Autumn Aerial, Northern Highland American Legion State Forest, Wisconsin

Trip Challenges Other than the Virus

We were thrown some curves when carrying out this trip.  When I more or less invited myself to join Jason, it largely centered the itinerary once and for all on the Upper Peninsula, specifically many of the areas that I know well through my experience up there over the years.  While we discussed specific potential locations to visit at some length, deference was given to that experience, because I felt pretty confident that I would know which locations would work best depending on conditions on the ground at any given point in time.  I told Jason that, historically, the first full week of October is when peak color visits the Hiawatha National Forest, which was to be the primary location we planned to visit, though I made sure to mention that it’s impossible to know a month in advance when peak will take place; there are simply too many variables that can mess with timing, and I gave him copious details of my previous trips, some of which ran into these very timing issues.  I also mentioned that, if there was something that caused an early turn in the forest, we would have a built-in Plan B:  the areas around the Lake Superior shore always turn later than the Hiawatha, so if color was past peak in the forest, we should still see excellent color closer to the water.  With all of this in mind, Jason planned to drive from Colorado Springs to the Upper Midwest over the first weekend of October, arriving in the UP on Oct. 4 or 5.  I made plans to head up to Munising from the Chicago area on the 3rd, with the thought that I could scout the area that weekend, see where the color was and we could hit the ground running when he made it up there.

Miners Beach Sunset, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

In mid-September, we got wind of an impending hard freeze in much of the Upper Peninsula.  Word is that inland temperatures dropped into the mid-20s (F) for consecutive nights around September 14-15.  That is extremely early for a hard freeze of that sort up there, and, inevitably, it kick started the change in foliage color much sooner than is the norm.  Jason was following image posts on Instagram and we were starting to see consequential color change in some spots a full 10 days before the end of September.  For the record, I have never seen meaningful color change in the UP that early in the 18 years since I first went up there.  There was really nothing we could do other than continue to monitor the situation and hope for the best.

Splash of Red, White Birch Forest, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

The week prior to arrival saw the forecast for some rain on several days–nothing too heavy–and some wind, including a day with 20-30 MPH breezes.  This, I feared, could bring down leaves that had already turned.  Again, there wasn’t much for us to do, though Jason pushed his potential arrival up by a couple of days–it was as much flexibility as he had–and I scrambled to do something similar.  I couldn’t head all the way up to the UP any earlier than Oct. 3, but I could go most of the way up there, and decided to make it as far as northern Wisconsin on Oct. 2 and poke around there for part of one day.  The conditions would give me some insight as to what we might expect in the Hiawatha.  I made a quick reservation in Rhinelander, after talking to someone at a hotel there to make sure my COVID concerns were addressed.

Birch Alcove, Northern Highland American Legion State Forest, Wisconsin

Very early on the morning of Oct. 2, I started the drive to northern Wisconsin, arriving there late in the AM on a chilly, threatening day.  I had been watching the color, from the moment the sun came up, and as I drove through central Wisconsin I started to see significant change when I reached Wausau.  Conditions appeared similar when I got to Rhinelander, about an hour further north, and I spent the remaining daylight hours meandering around the Northern Highland American Legion State Forest in Vilas County.  (I’ll detail that experience in a future post.)

Color Amid Pines, Ottawa National Forest, Michigan

Jason met me in Rhinelander on the morning of Oct. 3 after a marathon drive from Colorado and we drove to the UP that morning, slowly working our way north and then east across the Upper Peninsula toward Munising, stopping to photograph at a number of spots along the way.  It was dark long before we got to Munising that evening and so we couldn’t scout the Hiawatha until the following morning.

Red & Yellow, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

As I feared, the Hiawatha was mostly–not entirely–past peak, as we discovered on the morning of October 4, but many other areas we had access to were not and, as things played out, we ended up experiencing excellent color for most of the week, largely by relying on the aforementioned Plan B.

Beach Stones, Au Sable Point, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

The early turn wasn’t our only challenge.  While we were treated to a marvelous overcast/no wind day on our Oct. 3 drive in, much of the rest of our time in the UP–which extended until Oct. 9 for Jason and Oct. 10 for me–was accompanied by wind,–frequently of truly obnoxious speeds (pushing 25 MPH).  That was a challenge, but I was able to mitigate it a bit for us based on my familiarity with certain locations that were sheltered, depending on wind direction.  We also had a little bit more sunshine than I think either one of us would have preferred, but we did get at least some cloud cover for part of every day and, I think, we ended up managing to hit just about every spot on our short wish list.  (The extended wish list saw some material on the cutting room floor, unfortunately, given our limited time and the extreme distances involved in reaching many of these spots.)

Sunset, Twelvemile Beach, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

The specifics will all be fleshed out in the day-by-day chronology and I’ll touch on some more thematic subjects, as is my habit , in the form of an occasional interruption post, as the chronicling of this trip unfolds.


Responses

  1. Beautiful photos! I was just up there about a week before you were and missed the color. However, I got out out on Lake Minocqua to photograph a few boathouses. The year before, I did get up to the UP and photographed Bond Falls. You can see a lot of my “Northwoods” photos on my blog at http://www.greatriversimaging.com. However, they are intermingled with a few other photos.

    • Thanks!

      The color situation in the UP this year was…interesting, as I’ll detail in future posts.

      I’ll take a look at your blog.

  2. We made last-minute trips to the Adirondacks and to Cuyahoga Valley NP in October, and found that foliage peaked a bit earlier than expected in both places. We ended up cutting both trips short because so many leaves were down. Nice color in many places, though, especially when we first arrived.

    Our lodging experiences were similar to yours… the motels in Lake Placid and Long Lake had rooms opening directly to outdoors and well-honed safety practices. The hotel in Twinsburg, OH was more awkward with mandatory routing through lobby and in elevator, but guests/staff were good about masking. Masses of people on trails in Adirondacks, especially on weekends — mostly very good about masks. Ohio trails not quite as crowded (except at waterfalls) but few masks used outdoors. Overall, our experience with lodging safety was excellent, and reassuring for a planned spring 2021 trip. Lovely photos, BTW.

    • Thanks, Steve. And thanks for describing your own travel experience this fall. It’s very useful to hear about what people are doing in various locales. As I go through the chronological posts I’ll add some COVID-related comments as they pertain to the various places visited.

  3. While all the photos in this post are lovely, the one from Ontonagon River with the red leaves over the water took my breath away. Simply amazing! So glad you made the trip and that it was worth the effort.

    • Thanks! There’s a bit of a back story to the image you mentioned, which I’ll discuss in some detail–because there’s a bit of a moral to the story–when I blog about that day (the second day of the trip and the first in the UP).

      • I was hoping this particular photo would be the subject of a more in depth “behind the image.” It truly is one of my all time favorites.

  4. Lovely photos. We find it easy to social distance while traveling even at rest stops. We are house hunting around NYC. Haven’t stayed anywhere overnight yet.

    • Thanks!

      I think–as long as you’re driving and not having to deal with airports and the travel to/from them–it’s possible to be safe, as long as some careful planning is part of the equation. Overnight stays were, quite honestly, my biggest concern, for a variety of reasons, but even there, between inquiry and advance planning, that stumbling block can be overcome as well.

  5. Beautiful pictures of Northern Michigan!

    • Thanks very much!

  6. Love the “Ontonagon River Intimate” composition!

    • Thanks very much!

  7. […] I mentioned in the previous post, and highlighted in the UP introduction entry prior to that, I spent part of a day before hitting […]

  8. […] look at a scene that drew some commentary when I first posted an image from the Bond Falls area a couple of blog entries ago.  At the bottom of the waterfall, I had noticed an intimate scene where a straggling cascade, […]


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