Circumnavigating the Keweenaw Peninsula
Copper Harbor was the site of Fort Wilkins, a 19th-century U.S. Army garrison complete with mounted cannon and cavalry. It seems that the government was concerned that the early copper miners might need protection from disgruntled Indians, who'd belatedly recognized that they'd sold the entire Upper Peninsula for less than what the Dutch paid for Manhattan. It turned out that the miners really only needed protection from other drunken, claim-poaching miners, and the fort was abandoned in 1867. Both the fort and the lighthouse at the harbor's entrance have been faithfully restored and are maintained by the state of Michigan.
We left Copper Harbor with a following northwest wind as well as a three-knot current that sweeps eastward along the north shore of the peninsula. Under jib alone, we raced along at 10 knots over the ground, but at the tip of the Keweenaw, we encountered contrary seas and standing waves as the current eddied and the wind backed to the west.
Here we sailed over the final resting place of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Mesquite, a buoy tender that went aground one December night in 1989 while removing aids to navigation prior to the winter freeze. Efforts to free the vessel were unsuccessful, and the following spring, Mesquite was towed off shore and sunk, the only U.S. Coast Guard vessel ever lost on the Great Lakes. The site is marked on shore by a large stand of dead evergreens, their gray, withered trunks standing in silent testimony to the ill-fated ship. Locals claim that the trees died on the day Mesquite was scuttled.
The west winds forced us to tack up into Bete Grise Bay, a long bight on the peninsula's east shore that's protected by cliff-strewn hills; lake freighters still hide in Bete Grise (pronounced BAY de GREE) from Superior's westerly gales. A canal connects the lake to nearby Lac LaBelle, which once had its own copper mine but now sports just a few summer cottages. There we found the only anchorage on this southwest shore and encountered the only other sailboat of the trip. On our last day, the west winds held for us to sail on a single languid beat for 40 miles back to the waterway entrance.
Salmon-orange light suffused the sky as we again anchored Catamount in the tiny nook where we'd started our journey 10 days earlier. The Pick Axe Blonde Ale came out of the fridge, and pasties went into the oven. Our circle was complete. We'd circumnavigated the peninsula, but more important, we'd gotten our arms around its soul. My sister was right: The Keweenaw is a special place.
When not exploring the wilds of Michigan's Upper Peninsula and other Great Lakes destinations, Fred and Jennifer Bagley live in Mendon, Vermont.