As I stood on the waterfront in Marquette, Mich., last August, with two massive ore docks looming above the steel-gray waters of Lake Superior, I felt like I was standing between the city’s past and future.
To get to the harbor, I had to weave in and out of groups of hard-core mountain bikers, in town for the annual Ore to Shore races. The cyclists filled the co-op, the Dead River Coffee Shop and the town’s two brewpubs. Here I was, in town merely to catch a boat — I was ultimately sailing to the Tall Ships Duluth festival — and it seemed like I’d been beaten to Marquette by, well, everybody.
Over local organic sausage at the Sweet Water Cafe (1-906-226-7009), my guide, Anna Dravland, explained that the Empire Mine, Marquette’s lifeblood for nearly 60 years, was closing — and yet she didn’t sound too upset. Why should she? Tourism is booming, and artists, academics and outdoorsy types are relocating to Marquette — home to Northern Michigan University — in search of a different pace. The following week, the Travel Channel would be in town. The whole place was buzzing with an energy one doesn’t expect to find in a sleepy Upper Peninsula mining port.
“Ready?” Dravland asked. I put down my maple latte and she handed me an umbrella. We hopped in her car and zoomed off toward the cherry red 1866 Marquette Harbor Lighthouse. The maritime museum it houses (mqtmaritimemuseum.com) boasts a Class 2 Fresnel lighthouse lens, reclaimed from the nearby Stannard Rock Lighthouse. I stared warily at a map of the hundreds of shipwrecks that litter Lake Superior, dating back 200 years to when two-masted schooners like the Coaster II — whose wooden masts cut a striking figure in the harbor — were the preferred form of transport across the lake.
“Everyone underestimates the power of the lake,” Dravland said on the empty lighthouse catwalk, stretching poetically away into the mist. “I tell people to be careful swimming around here, but they usually don’t listen.” We scampered inside the museum as the drizzle started slapping our faces, but I noticed she was right. Although the temperamental weather had scuttled our plans to bike or kayak around Presque Isle, it didn’t prevent some intrepid folks from diving into the lake at McCarty’s Cove near the lighthouse.
Nor did it dissuade an entire family from southern Michigan, ranging in age from 8 to 40, from flipping cannonballs off Black Rocks, a craggy collection of lava formations that juts 25 feet above the cove at Presque Isle Park (1-906-228-0460; mqtcty.org), the area’s signature natural attraction.
And it didn’t prevent us from hopping in the car again and heading to nearby Negaunee, where Dravland had called ahead to ensure that a plate of a dozen mini meat pies was waiting for us at the family shop Irontown Pasties (1-906-475-6828; irontownpasties.com). The Cornish pasty, the lunch-bucket item of choice for generations of miners, now comes in varieties including jalapeño and — yep — gluten-free. What is the world coming to? I was full by the time I’d eaten two of them, and resolved to curry favor with my shipmates by delivering some to them the next day.
Breweries and live music
We headed back downtown to check out a couple of breweries: Ore Dock Brewery (1-906-228-8888; ore-dock.com), a loft space full of reclaimed barn wood that hosts live music and events most nights, and the smaller Blackrocks Brewery (1-906-273-1333; blackrocksbrewery.com), best described as “cozy,” since there wasn’t a spare seat in the place, every stool crowded with boisterous locals or bearded, outdoorsy kayakers (actually, it was hard to tell the difference). At Blackrocks everybody knows your name — or they’re reading it off your personalized handmade mug, kept in storerooms behind the bar. Although IPA is king here and Blackrocks offers several, I got my kicks slugging down a Bum’s Beach Wheat Ale at Ore Dock. Afterward, I said goodbye to Dravland and headed off in search of live entertainment.
I didn’t have to go far. One of three restaurants in the Art Deco-era Landmark Inn, purchased and revamped in 2015 by Minneapolis-based Graves Hospitality, the busy Northland Pub (1-906-228-2580; thelandmarkinn.com) boasted Ore Dock’s 51K IPA on tap, Lake Superior-caught whitefish, and stained-glass behind the bar, while I listened to a violin duo from the university. Next, I wandered down the main drag to drink my cheapest beer of the night out of a Mason jar at Flanagan’s Bar (1-906-228-8865) while listening to a local band covering the Who.
Edge of civilization
It was time to head back to the hotel. As I braced my borrowed umbrella against the wind and drizzle, the brick downtown looked a bit spooky, especially when I passed the domed courthouse, seen in the 1959 Jimmy Stewart film “Anatomy of a Murder.” Although the bars were packed, at the end of hilly Washington Street, there didn’t seem to be anything between me and the lake. I felt like I was going to walk right off the edge of the world. In a way, I was — Marquette feels like one of the last stops for civilization in the Upper Midwest, and that’s exactly why it’s appealing.
To hedge my bets, though, the next day I picked up a Columbia windbreaker on sale for 50 percent off at Getz’s on Front Street (1-906-226-3561; getzs.com), an old-fashioned department store with a North Country twist. The last thing I did before setting sail was greet the crew of the Coaster II, one of whom was a deckhand fresh off another tall ship. Surprise — she came to Marquette looking for a change of pace. The Coaster crew would have been offering cruises past Stannard Rock that day if it weren’t for the wet weather.
The Coaster itself has put in appearances at previous Tall Ships events. Yes, Marquette even has a Tall Ships festival. Why would anyone leave?
Claire Shefchik is a freelance travel writer living in Stillwater. She blogs at PrincessofPirates.com.