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The remote, simple little village of Grand Marais enjoys one of the Upper Peninsula's finest sites. It's located on the only natural harbor of refuge along the 90 miles of beautiful but treacherous Lake Superior shoreline between Munising and Whitefish Point. Driving down the M-77 hill, motorists see the little town, the harbor, and the big lake beyond. It's a memorable sight.
|The half-moon beach of this almost folkoric village is just one of its charms. The Lake Superior isolation, low-key ambiance, convivial bar, and nearby attractions also keep visitors coming back.|
Grand Marais makes for an intimate, out-of-the way base from which to explore unspoiled forests, dunes, Lake Superior shoreline, streams, and inland lakes. There's very little light pollution here, or in most of the U.P. places, so the Milky Way is easy to see. Because Grand Marais' beach and Woodland Park campground face north across the big lake, it's easy to see the Northern Lights when they are out, even when shimmering low on the horizon.
Up until now Grand Marais has been pretty much an end-of-the-road place, which was part of its charm. The only year-round blacktop road to it is M-77, which goes 25 miles due south to Seney and M-28. An unpaved road goes east along the lakeshore to Deer Park and Newberry.
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H-58, finally paved, twists and turns westward through Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore to Munising. The road layout was supervised by the National Park Service and built with federal funds. It's a beautiful, memorable drive through the forest. (It's not on the water.) Summer and fall visitors will likely love it. H-58 is a seasonal road, open only six months a year. Snowmobilers can use it, too.
Grand Marais will be busier because of the paved road—not always welcome by locals. However, the H-58 drive to Munising still takes just under an hour. The most efficient way to get to Munising remains driving south to Seney, then west on M-28 to Munising. It takes about an hour, too. It remains a bad idea to use one end of the Pictured Rocks area as a base while making frequent forays to the other end—or you'll spend unpleasant hours each day in the car. (A well planned day trip or two is another matter.)
The Grand Marais harbor here offered such good protection to 17th-century French explorers that they gave it the name "marais" (pronounced "muh-RAY"), meaning a sheltered inlet or harbor of refuge. The town grew up on one end of the harbor, a short ways from the Lake Superior beach and the later pier and Coast Guard station. That's one of its assets: warm-water swimming in town, and an easy walk to Lake Superior. (In 1902 this walkable pattern was reinforced when a lumbering family and a local couple gave the township Woodland Park, right in town. It's a wooded picnic and camping area above one of the area's beloved agate beaches.)
Grand Marais has depended on its harbor, for fishing and now for recreational boating. It's the only harbor of refuge between Munising and Grand Whitefish Point—the Shipwreck Coast. During World War II maintenance was suspended on the breakwall protecting the harbor—and it was never resumed. Sand washed in—an estimated 6,000 semi trucks a year. An island and point were been washed away and the harbor threatened. Two dredgings a year were required to keep it open. Then, in October 2011, it was announced that $7 million in funding had been allotted to rebuild the breakwall, mostly from the state, and $2 million federal. Rejoicing broke out near and far.
Could the funding breakthrough have had anything to do with the massive PR project of local people to draw attention to the harbor. They threw themselves into Reader's Digest's "We Hear You, America" contest, billed as a "grassroots effort in response to towns facing economic hardship." Basically the contest bestowed good publicity and modest sums of money on the winners. Grand Marais' effort to win votes was never-ending. Citizens approached campers, motel guests, friends of friends, snowmobilers at the gas station. And in the end, in April, 2011, the winner was…Grand Marais, Michigan! The photo spread in the May Reader's Digest showed some 200 people, half the voting population of Burt Township.
Grand Marais went through successive booms: first as a port for the lucrative early 19th-century beaver pelt trade; then lumber, which was depleted by 1910; followed by commercial fishing, which declined more gradually, and tourism.
When timber, long the backbone of Grand Marais' economy, had been cut, the Alger & Smith lumber company pulled up the railroad tracks that were the town's only overland connection to the rest of the world. The population dropped from around 4,000 to under 300 in a few months. Families who stayed here eked out a subsistence living into the modern era.
Since then, the local economy has been sustained by a combination of tourism, hunting, fishing, retirees, summer cottages, and more recently, snowmobiling and more second homes, increasingly upscale, especially along Lake Superior. It is becoming a rather upscale place, but still laid back. Varied fishing has been a year-round magnet: Lake Superior's whitefish and menominee in spring and fall, ice fishing in winter, varied species in Sable Lake and the Blind Sucker River; the Fox River's famous trout not far away.
Grand Marais is an unusual mix of local residents and summer people. Some transplants vacationed here as kids, sometimes visiting grandparents, and are drawn back in later life. There are people whose roots go way back, trout fishermen, old hippies, hunters in fall, many military retirees, artists, and writers. Celebrated novelist and poet Jim Harrison no longer makes his part-time residence here. He and his wife moved to Montana to be with their daughter. Pithy, thought-provoking poet-storyteller Bob VanderMolen has a fishing getaway to unwind from his strenuous Grand Rapids job. The debut novel of Ellen Airgood, co-owner of the West Bay Diner, came out in June, 2011. Amazon's book tips section promoted South of Superior enthusiastically: haunting, heartfelt, about friendships and simple things in a small town.
Lately Grand Marais second-homeowners include rather affluent working people, often professionals from the Traverse City area and elsewhere in northern Michigan, who like the north the way it used to be, without the upscale patina of northwest Michigan. Some of them are quite happy with having a funky 1950s ranch in town—or building a dream cabin in the woods. But Grand Marais presents challenges in terms of maintaining a community off the beaten path. Enrollment at Burt Township's K-12 township school district dropped to 44 pupils in 2011, due to costly real estate and lack of jobs. ("Our finances are great, and it's one-on-one instruction, but we have very low enrollment," says a school employee dryly. See grandmaraisschools.org for details about this odd, excellent little school district.)
Since Grand Marais has become more affluent, it's now easier to shop without a two-hour round trip, thanks to the SUPERIOR SHORES MARKET (906-494-2470) on Lake Street. It offers fresh produce, well chosen groceries, beers, and wines, and a separate meat market. Also, two savvy retired farmers started SUPERIOR HARDWARE (906-494-2351) at 14271 North Lake. It's devoted to the principle that a small hardware store might not be able to carry everything, but they could "stock everything necessary to make [or fix] anything." It carries camping gear, rental equipment, even regional books.
The village fills up in summer in July and August. Special events, fostered by an active chamber of commerce, include July 4 with parade and fireworks), the Father's Day weekend seaplane Splash-In at the harbor with evening fish boil (Saturday brings balloon target contests and more); the Grand Marais Fly-In at the airport (second Saturday in July, since 1974) with plane rides over the dunes and Lake Superior; with Great Lakes Sea Kayak Symposium in mid-July; August's Music and Art Festival; the Labor Day Triathalon; and much more.
The chamber of commerce web site offers an
exceptional range of history and news, along with vacation info and a schedule of local events with links.