Hunts' Guide to The Upper Peninsula


Region 6:

Iron River, Iron Mountain & the Menominee Range

iron river  iron mountain   the menominee range

STRETCHED OUT along U.S. 2 just north of the Wisconsin border, the lake-studded region around Iron Mountain, Crystal Falls, and Iron River doesn't obviously showcase its charms to the hurried traveler. Except for Crystal Falls, the old iron-mining towns are plain, and the well-known attractions are few. You can visit the Iron Mountain Iron Mine, Michigan's only underground iron mine tour outside Norway near Iron Mountain. The Iron County Museum in Caspian near Iron River is a treasure, but off the beaten track. The area has two ski resorts, Ski Brule near Iron River and the Pine Mountain Resort in Iron Mountain, plus Norway Mountain (a ski hill with no lodging) in Norway. Less well known is some of the most challenging whitewater in the Middle West at Piers Gorge near Norway.
To serious outdoors-lovers the area is an alluring destination, much less developed than neighboring parts of Wisconsin. Real wilderness is just outside towns that seem quite urban because of their compact streetscapes and ethnic mix of immigrant iron miners. Dickinson and Iron counties have more wolves than anywhere else in the Upper Peninsula, and more good Italian restaurants, too. Along U.S. 2 in Iron County the miles of unfolding forests of maple mixed with pine are memorable, especially in fall color season. Beautiful vistas of nothing but trees accurately suggest that the highway and the old mining towns it connects are but a thin strip of development in what remains largely a wilderness.

One consequence is the exceptionally high number of auto-deer collisions in this part of the U.P. While just over 100,000 people live in Iron, Dickinson, Menominee and Delta counties, there were almost 3,000 such collisions in 2005 alone, and the trend is rising. The deer have become such a nuisance aroud Iron Mountain that the city has allowed hunters to shoot a limited number of deer in the middle of winter, well past the traditional hunting season.

The Brule, Paint, and Michigamme rivers join west of Iron Mountain to form the Menominee River. The Menominee River basin, the largest in the Upper Peninsula and northern Wisconsin, was the major engine of early economic development in these parts during the 1860s and 1870s. Its watershed then included prime white pine forests, and it conveniently drained into Lake Michigan's Green Bay, not that far from Chicago some 300 miles to the south. Water depth in tributaries wasn't enough to float logs, so competing logging companies banded together to create the Menominee River Boom Company to dam rivers and control flow for river drives. Pine logs could be floated down the Menominee to the booming twin lumber towns of Menominee, Michigan, and Marinette, Wisconsin, where lumber mills lined both sides of the river. Steamship connections to Chicago made it easy to ship northwoods lumber to build the rapidly developing west.

Timber cruisers - the men who scouted the forest for the best stands - were often the first to discover the iron deposits that created an intense burst of prosperity in the Menominee Range from 1885 into the 1920s. Lumbermen active in the area were among the earlier investors in iron-mining operations. By 1900, however, Menominee Range iron mine ownership was consolidated under the Pickands-Mather and Mark Hanna conglomerates. Both were headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio, which was the chief beneficiary of the wealth generated by mines here.

The Menominee Range's iron mines boomed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and started closing in the 1930s. By the late 1960s active mining was largely over. Today this forested area is managed for timber production.

Lots of brushy habitat makes the area famous for grouse, considered the king of game birds. When nationally prominent Michigan outdoors writer Tom Huggler and his friends get together for their annual fall grouse-hunting trip, they go north of Crystal Falls, even though, Huggler says, he's written about the area so much that it attracts a lot more hunters these days, even from the East Coast. (Tom authored the L.L. Bean Upland Bird Hunting Handbook as well as many articles in outdoors magazines.)

This forested and remote land is interspersed with some hunting camps and logging operations. Vast wooded tracts are open to the public as part of the Ottawa National Forest and Copper Country State Forest, or as commercial forest reserve land, privately owned by Mead, Ford, Wisconsin Electric Power, and others. There are few busy roads to carve up this land into small areas. Big undeveloped tracts benefit large mammals at the top of the food chain. The bear population is the highest it's been in decades - a tribute to good habitat management.

Iron County alone, which includes the towns of Crystal Falls and Iron River, has over 2,000 lakes and 900 miles of streams. Just to the southeast, Dickinson County, though smaller, has a large, remote area of lakes and streams north of sprawling Iron Mountain. Fishing and canoeing are big draws. Of 15 Upper Peninsula rivers profiled in Jerry Dennis's Canoeing Michigan Rivers: A Comprehensive Guide to 45 Rivers (see bibliography), three are in Iron County: the Brule, Paint, and Michigamme. Anglers come to Amasa, a once-thriving logging and mining town on the Paint River, for its flyfishing and hunting.

Most of these lakes and waterways are so clean and quiet that canoeists and kayakers commonly spot bald eagles, loons, and other fish-eating birds. With ideal habitat for fish-eating birds of prey, Iron County has more nesting pairs of bald eagles (200 pair in 1995) than any other county east of the Mississippi. Loons, especially sensitive to disturbances and chemical contamination, breed on many area lakes and visit others even in settled areas. To breed successfully, eagles and loons need clean water, a food supply of fish relatively free of pesticides, and few disturbances during the first twelve weeks of nesting.

Clear proof of the area's remote character is the success of the wolf. Wolves need to be left alone, and they need a good prey base. Wolves inhabit most of Iron County and the northern half of Dickinson County - a greater concentration than anywhere else except Isle Royale. They are occasionally even seen crossing U.S. 2 between Watersmeet and Iron River. "They're here in the U.P. all on their own, not introduced by wildlife specialists," points out wolf-lover Randy Gustafson, proprietor of Wilderness Adventures in Iron Mountain. "We must be doing something right."

Today's generation of wolves have grown up near human activity and are no longer necessarily shy and secretive. Wolves are here because of abundant deer, and because they are now tolerated by people and legally protected where once they were hunted for bounty. (A current court case leaves the status of wolves in limbo. They might by downlisted to "threatened" or labeled "endangered.') Thanks to better wildlife education, far more people now understand the importance of predators in culling deer populations and keeping deer well-nourished and healthy.

Deer are more plentiful in these inland counties because there's less snow than in similarly wild Upper Peninsula counties near Lake Superior. The southern parts of Iron and Dickinson have more deer, and thus more wolves, because of less snow and more agricultural land, good for foraging. Deer have trouble getting around in deep snow because of their small, sharp hooves. Here they can browse more widely for food.

Seeing wildlife takes knowledge, time, and patience. Just finding evidence of the secretive wolf is a challenge. Discovering the charm of the north woods isn't an experience to be gobbled down quickly. Canoes, hiking, and snowshoeing are the ideal means to experience nature here up-close. A good choice is back-country camping, away from busy campgrounds. Northwoods Wildlife: A Watcher's Guide to Habitats by Janine Benyus is an outstanding introduction to watching wildlife through understanding their preferred habitats, seasons, and hours of activity. The Ottawa Visitor Center in Watersmeet has an excellent nature bookshop. Wilderness Adventures in Iron Mountain has good outdoors books, too.

Waterfalls afford a short, dramatic nature adventure that most able-bodied visitors can enjoy. This area has some outstanding waterfalls. Horserace Rapids is in a powerfully craggy setting near Crystal Falls. Piers Gorge, with its four Menominee River falls, is in an awesome canyon surrounded by a beautiful pine forest near Norway. It's on private paper-company land, and it doesn't have intrusive development like railings, which promote safety but spoil the wild atmosphere. Piers Gorge is for hiking and waterfall connoisseurs, and it's not widely known.

Along with the area's wildlife and natural beauty is the idiosyncratic local culture of the western Upper Peninsula. First-time visitors are amazed at this area's rich ethnic mix. Here on the Menominee Range mining developed on an earlier base of logging and was done on a smaller scale but over a longer period of time than on the Gogebic Range around Ironwood at the U.P.'s western tip. Around Iron River and Iron Mountain, Finns, Italians, Cornish (builders of all those Methodist churches), Croats, and some Poles came to work in the mines. Germans, Swedes, and Norwegians first worked in lumber camps. The intermarried French-Canadians and Indians go back much earlier, to fur-trading days. The wide-ranging Iron County Museum in Caspian south of Iron River, a kind of U.P. version of Greenfield Village, covers most aspects of area history with exhibits and some 24 historic buildings moved to the site.

The Menominee Range has a different visual character than the more-visited Keweenaw and Marquette mining ranges, where large, paternalistic Eastern mining companies and investors developed the communities and left their grand architectural stamp. In comparison, the typical architecture along he Menominee Range is far less striking. The boom era in the early 20th century favored a plainer commercial style. And less money stayed here.

Iron Mountain's intensely Italian north end offers some excellent Italian food: a spicy porketta roast and homemade ravioli, gnocchi, and lasagna swimming in a delicious spicy red sauce. Iron River has some estimable Italian food, too. A heritage of cooking for lumber camps accounts for some outstanding homestyle cooking.

The urban view from the highway does not charm, except for Crystal Falls. Iron Mountain's commercial sprawl snakes along nearly 10 miles of U.S. 2. But don't let these first impressions make you give up on its interesting places! They're full of surprises. Like the natural areas, the towns require a little effort to find the nifty spots and reach out to talk to local people. The reward is a travel mix that plays off natural and wilderness experiences with unusual, somewhat gritty real-life environments not covered up by the artificial veneer so common to tourist areas.

Today many of the jobs in these parts are again related to timber in some way. International Paper (formerly Champion) is the region's biggest employer. It has a workforce of 583 in its Norway forest products division and its state-of-the-art paper mill in Quinnesec just east of Iron Mountain. There a 200-foot web produces 1 1/2 miles of paper every 2 minutes. It makes 314,000 tons of coated paper a year, used in magazines and catalogs.

Many more people work in small logging and pulp-cutting operations that supply big buyers of pulpwood and timber used for furniture, building, and veneer. Trucks loaded with 100-inch-long logs are a common sight on area highways. Yards stacked with logs are along many highways and rail sidings.

Khoury Furniture, founded by members of Iron Mountain's good-sized Lebanese community, makes unfinished solid wood assemble-it-yourself furniture at its 250-employee Iron Mountain plant. The factory outlet on U.S. 2 on the north end of town has been closed, but occasionally you can find discounted seconds at the factory. Most sales are through retail locations throughout the country.

The area's central location in the Western Upper Peninsula creates more jobs, especially in Iron Mountain. It has a Veterans Administration Hospital, the U.P. mail processing center, and a growing retailing sector.

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