Way up on Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula, the food is almost as good as the incredible annual display.
How far would you drive for a jar of jam? For the people that crowd into The Jampot, a small shop under tall trees in the wilds of Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula, the answer, apparently, is as long as it takes.
Illinois, Ontario, Minnesota, Wisconsin, even further—not just hours away, but in some cases, an entire day—each season, up until those final days before fall gives into winter, which up here is very soon, they come.
For the wild thimbleberry jam, the fruit butters, the fruit cake that's practically swimming in bourbon, for clunky, delicious pastries like giant blondie bars laced with peanut butter and jelly, for muffins.
They exchange smiles and hellos with the men of relatively few words working behind the counter, Byzantine Catholic monks who live just up the road, right along Lake Superior, and when you catch your first glimpse of the rugged, far northern coastline after all those many hours of traveling, chances are you'll wish you could move in, or at least next door.
If it feels like many of the people waiting in line at The Jampot are making a pilgrimage of sorts, that's because many of them are. Not just for jam, but for the region itself. That's not surprising, really—surrounded by Lake Superior and close to nowhere most people will have heard of, the Keweenaw Peninsula may be hard to reach, but once it gets its hooks in you, it is a difficult place to forget. Particularly during the fall.
An ancient lava flow that reached almost halfway across what is now the lake to what is now Canada, the Keweenaw's wild, largely undeveloped coastline, thick, dark forests and short but rather magical hiking trails are a playground for the relatively small; group of adventurers that manage to make the journey in the short gap between summer and winter; it is at once one of the Midwest's most special places, and yet very little like the rest of the Midwest. Home to a thriving economy during a 19th century copper boom, today the peninsula lies almost fallow, many of its towns quiet, a few of them eerily empty.
Today, summer tourism is the big deal, luring up sweat-soaked flatlanders who thrill to the 9-mile scenic highway that follows the ridge of Brockway Mountain up to more than 700 feet above sea level; the road was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps back in the 1930s and has been a highlight ever since. Many relics from the peninsula's mining heyday are preserved within the sprawling Keweenaw National Historical Park, well organized and operated by the National Park Service. When weather permits, there's watersports galore; then, during the winter, there's skiing, snowmobiling.
In the fall, you hang out. Or you hike. The hiking is terrific—the walk up to Bare Bluff, which you can access via the remote Grinnell Nature Sanctuary, is one of the most dramatic in the region, through the forest and up to the cliffs that soar above the shoreline, riotous with colored leaves. A walk underneath the canopy of the region's last virgin white pine forests at Estivant Pines has a similar impact as any interaction with those more famous tall trees in California. Rainy, windy days along the trail at Hunters Point, far at the peninsula's northern tip, are a dead ringer for those winter coastal walks in the Northwest.
These days, the food's getting pretty good too, which is surprising for a population of just a few thousand people. Even after a couple of years of modest growth, however, there's still a comforting predictability to eating well in the Keweenaw, after your first couple of visits. Mornings, you tear yourself from the cabin or wherever in the woods you are staying and trundle down to Calumet, the old copper town that's half empty, perhaps more, but just as handsome as ever. Here, near the ornate Calumet Theater, one of many relics from the town's early 20th century heyday, Café Rosetta is a homey, transplanted bit of big city café life, or at least big town life, at least five hours from the nearest big anything.
For lunch, you keep it simple—head down to the town of Hancock for a tasty sandwich at the crunchy Keweenaw Co-op market, or maybe you spend a little more and go to Peterson's, a fish market up on the hill across from the abandoned Quincy Mine, for freshly caught, parmesan-crusted whitefish, whitefish salad, whitefish tacos—anything whitefish, really—or just a steaming portion of smoked fish chowder, amped up with the addition of a jalapeno pepper emulsion.
If you end up that way later in the day, Copper Harbor's Brickside Brewery has some nicely drinkable beers, or you can save yourself for dinner—make reservations—and go to The Fitzgerald, the lakefront dining room at the Eagle River Inn, easily the area's best place to stay at this time of year. The restaurant is anything but ordinary; the longtime Keweenaw institution—just call it The Fitz—was reimagined a while back by a couple of ambitious, well-traveled local kids that have turned it into a destination for barbecue, pecan-crusted walleye, and one of the most impressive selections of beer and whiskey anywhere for miles.
And then, this being the middle of nowhere, you probably go to bed, preferably upstairs in one of the inn's simple, Scandinavian-inspired rooms, where you can fall asleep to the sound of Superior's waves crashing on the beach below, and dream about doing it all over again, next year.