U.P. Chronicles

A fascination with life, culture, and history takes an author on adventures that “sometimes get a little spooky.”
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore’s Sable Falls near Grand Marais.

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is full of wilderness, wildlife, wonder — and good stories. That’s why writer, photographer, historian, and adventurer Mikel B. Classen started writing about the U.P. more than four decades ago, when he realized that little was being penned about the Wolverine State north of Grayling.

“The U.P. is an extraordinary place full of history and adventure, from pioneers and pirates to heroes and villains. It’s a place that has been largely ignored in literature and history. Over the years I’ve dug up many lost and unknown stories,” Classen shares.

“(The U.P. is) full of historic boom/bust towns due to mining and lumber. It was the Wild West before the Wild West moved west. It was lawless and ruthless; if the harsh environment didn’t kill you, your neighbor might.”

Classen’s unconventional path to a successful writing career began with hitchhiking to the U.P. after a factory job layoff in Lansing during the economic crisis in the 1980s. He landed in Marquette and, after a brief period of homelessness, he was able to utilize a government program that paid him minimum wage to attend Northern Michigan University, where he studied English, history, journalism, and photography.

Author Mikel B. Classen relishes memories like his Upper Peninsula excursions.

Around the same time, he started writing local feature stories for magazines and newspapers, then added photography to his professional skills when he realized it was easier to sell his articles with accompanying photos.

Since moving north, Classen has always lived along the storied and majestic Lake Superior coast. He currently lives in Sault Ste. Marie with his wife, Mary Underwood, who’s also a writer. Marquette and Grand Marais have also served as home bases for his writing and adventures.

“Water is everything here. The economy is based on water. Living in Sault Ste. Marie with the Soo Locks, the highway for ships, you see it every day,” he says. “When it comes to logging, rivers were everything. As a state, our livelihood is based on tourism and water recreation. Water is everything.”

His fascination with the life, culture, and history of Michigan’s north country has materialized into eight published books with more on the way, including a second volume of his bestselling book, “True Tales: The Forgotten History of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.”

His most recent works have been published by Modern History Press in Ann Arbor. While Classen mainly writes about the U.P., he recently published an adventure novel titled “The Alexandria Code, An Isabella Carter Adventure.”

“I’ve never written a book thinking how much it will sell. I usually approach a book with ‘I think this is pretty cool and I think someone else will, too,’ ” he explains. “Some stories are light, and some are pretty dark. But that’s history.”

Classen’s popular “Points North” guidebook was inspired by the column he wrote for the now-defunct magazine he published, Above the Bridge. “Each column featured a new place that wasn’t one of the big five destinations where everyone goes. For the book, I took three or four summers revisiting these places to make (sure all the information is) current. The book lists 40 destinations, from every corner of the U.P., that are among my favorites,” he says.

The prolific writer and adventurer often travels alone to desolate areas of the U.P. and admits, “It sometimes gets a little spooky.” One of his favorite more isolated places along Lake Superior is Grand Island, offshore from Munising. It’s part of the U.S. Forest Service’s Hiawatha National Forest.

“Grand Island is incredibly beautiful. It’s as breathtaking as Pictured Rocks. It’s a lesser-known island, so it’s a quieter experience that’s great for hiking and kayaking, and as one of the earliest settlements on Lake Superior, it has lots of history,” he explains.

“I’ve thrown up a tent (on the island) at a primitive campsite at Trout Bay — an area where ships would scoot in to escape bad weather. There’s a glass-bottom boat tour on Munising Bay that goes over shipwrecks. I highly recommend it. I’ve taken my kayak and paddled over the wrecks in more shallow water, then dropped a GoPro to really see it.”

Another one of Classen’s favorite outlying U.P. destinations is Old Victoria, a little-known copper mining ghost town along the picturesque Ontonagon River near Rockland. A group of restored log cabins shows visitors what life was like for copper miners and their families at the turn of the 20th century.

“The attraction of this area, for me, is the rough and rugged terrain and brutal weather. You can really feel the struggle and all that was done to survive in this harsh new land, working the copper mines of the Keweenaw Peninsula. It was an immense accomplishment,” he says.

In his decades-long pursuit of adventure, history, and good tales, Classen often uncovers some of the best untold, forgotten, and hidden stories when he stops by remote libraries and historical societies to conduct research. He also taps his collection of out-of-print history books dating back to the 1850s, when the U.P. was just starting to attract settlers.

Classen’s Upper Peninsula excursions include an encounter with a young bull moose translocated from Canada.

Some of his own experiences have become part of U.P. history, such as when he worked on the North Country National Scenic Trail in the mid-1980s. The trail extends between North Dakota and Vermont, and runs through both of Michigan’s peninsulas. According to Classen, the U.P. section “meanders through Michigan’s truest, most awe-inspiring wilderness.”

During this time, he witnessed and photographed the Michigan DNR’s incredible Michigan Moose Lift project, which successfully translocated 59 moose from Ontario, Canada, via helicopter and truck to an area west of Marquette, in an effort to restore the moose population. Of course, this exceptional experience is on Classen’s list for another future book.

“The extraordinary beauty of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula touches my soul every day,” he says. “Writing nonfiction is a blast. It has taken me to places to do things most people don’t get to do. When I look back, I know I not only had fun as a modern-day adventurer, but I accomplished something. It’s been an adventure.”


Mikel B. Classen

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