Two-tracks Revisited

Backcountry roads are synonymous with Upper Peninsula life.
Two-Tracks illustration
Illustration by Glenn Wolff

Not long ago on this page, I wondered how many miles of two-tracks crisscross Michigan’s backcountry — surely thousands, I mused. Several kind readers wrote with more specific numbers. One said there were enough to reach around the globe along the 45th circle of latitude. Another claimed enough to reach the moon. A rather embittered correspondent from Lansing bewailed two-tracks in general and said he planned to introduce a bill into Congress to have all 17,654 miles paved over and made “useful.”

American writer Thomas McGuane once said if the trout disappear, we must smash the state. I’d add two-tracks to that call to arms.

When I was a kid, one of my favorite things to do was search for backwoods lakes and creeks with my father in his war-surplus Jeep. In those days, we had to drive only a mile or two from our home near Traverse City to reach the first of them and then we could find our way across whole counties. In winter, we followed those same trails on snowmobiles, sometimes traveling 30 miles to eat burgers and fries in Honor, then returning home before midnight.

I had big plans for my father’s Jeep. The day I graduated from high school, I would load it with gear and drive north to the Hudson Bay country, where I would spend my life fishing and hunting. That grand ambition still lingered when I was in my 30s and met a kindred spirit in John Voelker, former Michigan Supreme Court Justice and author of “Trout Madness,” “Anatomy of a Murder” and other books that are among the finest ever written about our state.

Voelker, who was in his 80s then, ushered me into his Jeep Cherokee and led me on a long tour through the backcountry northeast of Ishpeming, ending up at his fishing camp. Along the way, he spoke brilliantly about fishing, literature, wild mushrooms, ruffed grouse and other subjects close to my heart. He told me he had remained in the U.P. in part because it was rarely necessary to travel on pavement there. When we encountered an unavoidable few miles of paved highway, he solved the problem by driving along the shoulder at 20 miles per hour until he could dart into a two-track and breathe easily again.

Not long ago, my wife and I spent a day exploring backroads in the national forest south of Munising with our friends, Steve and Lori Tracey. I rode with Steve in his truck, while Gail and Lori led the way in our Ford Escape.

It had rained, and every low spot on every two-track was flooded with puddles. At a puddle the size of a small pond, Steve and I stopped and watched uneasily as Gail eased the Escape into the water. It rose above the hubcaps, then to the fenders, and still, Gail eased forward. Then, when it was clear that she was through the deepest spot, she accelerated until the car pushed a bow wave big enough to surf on and burst out of the puddle onto dry land. Instantly, she and Lori raised their arms and howled in triumph. Wild Yooper women!

Reflections columnist Jerry Dennis is the author of such award-winning books as “The Living Great Lakes,” “The Bird in the Waterfall,” and “A Walk in the Animal Kingdom.” Visit him at

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