Cruiser’s Notebook: Copper Harbor
By Cyndi Perkins
Copper Harbor isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
Case in point: the middle-aged male purchasing cheap gas and road munchies
at the Pines, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community Reservation convenience
superstore on US-41 in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Downbound from the tip of
the Keweenaw Peninsula, Mister Tourist told the cashier that his family was
“disappointed” with Copper Harbor.
“There wasn’t as much to do as we thought. We thought it would be more like
Mackinac Island.” The cashier nodded in feigned sympathy, but rolled her
eyes as soon as he wasn’t looking. Locals and faithfully returning visitors
are very grateful that Copper Harbor is not like Mackinac Island, or
Disneyland - or anywhere else on the planet, for that matter.
This little town on Lake Superior boasts a proud frontier spirit, an
imposing natural landscape and a genuine spirit of hospitality. While you’ll
find all the t-shirts and postcards your heart desires - and even fudge - in
this northernmost community at the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula, the best
souvenir is the memories that you will carry away after your visit.
|Josh and Chris Tappan check out the vista atop Brockway Mountain.
The panoramic view of Lake Superior and the rolling forests up north on
the Keweenaw Peninsula is spectacular year ’round. In winter the
unplowed Mountain Drive is a ski and snowmobile challenge.
The roughly 45-mile drive up to the harbor from Houghton-Hancock via the
shoreline highway along Lake Superior or the equally scenic interior route
is splendid. However, boaters truly have the edge when it comes to fully
enjoying the charms of Copper Harbor. There’s plenty to do and see, and
doing nothing at all is highly encouraged. Copper Harbor offers fascinating
shopping, dining, hiking, biking, kayaking, beach-combing and fishing, all
in “a quiet full of noise,” as Copper Harbor’s beloved resident naturalist,
the late Jim Rooks, described it.
One of the most beneficial aspects of boating at this latitude is a 16-hour
day mid-summer. And as the sun finally goes down, Copper Harbor’s daily
sunset display rivals that of Key West, minus the jugglers, cross-dressers
and fire-eaters. Even during peak tourist season, from the Fourth of July
until the fall colors flame to mid-October prime, you won’t find the crowds
or the prices oppressive.
Captain Scott and I love Copper Harbor. It’s just that simple. Chip Ahoy
anchors there as many times as possible each summer. Sometimes we depart
Houghton-Hancock from the Keweenaw Waterway’s south entry, working our way
up past Rabbit Island, Big Traverse Bay, Bete Grise, Keystone Bay and ’round
the infamous Keweenaw Point.
Departure from the north entry of Portage Shipping Canal is the shortest
route. That route was our choice one particularly hot, sunny mid-August
Saturday morning. We backed Chip Ahoy from her slip at Houghton County
Marina at 9 a.m., passing under Portage Lake Lift Bridge in short order
thanks to a quick raise from the courteous bridge tender. The canal presents
no challenges to navigation beyond paying attention to its well-marked route
out to the big lake. When entering or exiting the canal, it is important to
give shoaling off the north entry light a wide berth, so we do not adjust
for the turn east until we are more than a mile out. Generally we stay about
a mile offshore throughout the roughly 37 nautical-mile journey, as many of
the deceptively inviting bays shallow quickly and are strewn with uncharted
rocks and shoals.
|The new Isle Royale Queen, Copper Harbor’s venerable and revered
ferry service to Isle Royale National Park, was moored on Houghton City
Waterfront Park’s “Bonanza” dock before beginning service. The Kilpela
family has a proud tradition of reliable seamanship navigating
Superior’s temperamental waters.
Brisk northwest winds and sprightly 1-3 footers greeted us on the big lake.
Scott trimmed the main and adjusted the headsail to achieve a four mph
trolling speed and dropped a line off the stern. The presence of Native
American fishing boats is always a reliable trout/whitefish indicator. We
hoped to hook supper. His heavy-duty vintage fishing rods, garage sale
bargains, have yielded many trout and northern pike dinners. We haven’t been
as lucky with salmon. We hook them just fine, but for some reason they
always find a way to escape during the landing process.
|Portage Lake Shipping Canal’s North Entry Light and foghorn is a
beautiful place to visit by land or sea and a welcome beacon to
travelers looking for safe refuge off the big lake.
Sail-trolling toward Copper Harbor, the first landmark is McLain State Park,
an approximately 443-acre facility with two miles of beautiful Lake Superior
sand beach and excellent camping and day-use facilities. The public park is
book-ended by a pretty stretch of cottages and homes perched atop
sand-and-rock conglomerate cliffs overlooking a long strip of peaceful
beach. Stairs of iron, timber or stone of every description and age lead
down to the water. Campfires twinkle along the shore on hot summer nights
when laughter carries over a quiet lake. The upper entry horn provides a
lonely yet welcoming song quite often, as Lake Superior is notorious for her
dense fogs. Several years ago a north entry property owner mounted a
campaign to get the foghorn deactivated, claiming it was an outdated
nuisance. Vocal opponents quickly drowned the noise complaint, rallying to
the defense of this distinctive and germane maritime signal.
Cell phone reception is spotty to nil in the shadow of Copper Harbor’s
Brockway Mountain, but signal is strong on the lake. Our friends Denise and
Greg Maronen called us from “Freighter Way,” their recently purchased Lake
Superior dream cottage. They were watching us through a telescope on their
ridgetop deck. Gosh, I was glad we weren’t doing anything embarrassing!
Scott promptly whipped out our binoculars so we could look at them looking
|Jordan, Joshua, Chris and Bill Tappan of Northwoods, New Hampshire
visit the Copper Harbor overlook on Brockway Mountain Drive. Black bears
like to get into the garbage can here, so don’t leave trash and keep a
sharp lookout for the bruins, who are basically harmless if you keep
Have I mentioned before that we are easily amused?
While I put together a sandwich lunch, we followed a few conversations on
the marine radio. No shame in being nosy. Sometimes it’s very helpful to
tune into what everyone else out on the lake is doing. On this day we heard
from a captain named Rebecca stationed on the lakes freighter Burns Harbor.
She was chatting with the captain of the Ranger III, Isle Royale National
Park’s ferry to the island. Based out of the National Park Service offices
and docks on the Houghton waterfront, the Ranger III can be a good source of
info for current lake conditions, including waves and fog, as it reports its
position during transits to and from the remote Superior archipelago. Ditto
the Copper Harbor-based Isle Royale Queen ferry to Isle Royale.
And speaking of great sources, I dashed down below to consult our copy of
“Know Your Ships.” The Burns Harbor is a 1,000-footer built in 1980 for the
Bethlehem Steel Corp. fleet. “Know Your Ships” is a fun and inexpensive way
for boaters to find out more about the vessels plying the Great Lakes and
St. Lawrence Seaway. Copies may be purchased in nautical outlets and
bookstores and there is also a website at
Just as we were finishing our chips and pickles, Scott’s rod zinged with a
strike on his silver-and-blue spoon. He landed a plump trout. After a photo
session we released the fish, as we prefer the leaner pink specimens. The
last time we grilled fat trout fillets off the stern-mounted BBQ it left an
unappetizing grease slick behind the boat. Although it eventually dissipated
and was truly biodegradable, I doubt our neighbors in the anchorage
appreciated it. Zero discharge, please!
|Our Copper Harbor “stalker duck” just couldn’t get enough of Chip
The Keweenaw Peninsula’s north shore as depicted on the charts may appear
more inviting than it actually is, at least in terms of safe harbors. Only
Eagle Harbor, approximately 12 nautical miles west of Copper Harbor, and
Copper Harbor itself, offer true refuge with marked entrances and docking
facilities. Other bays should not be entered without local knowledge and
never in running seas. Eagle Harbor is a victim of Michigan’s state
cutbacks; the municipal dock and fueling facility is no longer staffed. It
is a long jaunt from the dock to the charming and historic town of Eagle
Harbor. However, if boaters need to make an emergency pit stop, local
boaters may be able to help with fuel or other needs. And on the bright
side, your stay on the dock is free.
As we sailed past Eagle Harbor, the temperature dropped 10-15 degrees in
increasing NW winds. It is nearly always colder on this side of the Keweenaw
Peninsula. Locals like to remind anyone who complains that the wind and
chill keeps the bugs away. Given some of the noseeums, ankle biters and
mosquitoes that inhabit this neck of the woods, that’s no small
consideration. Even here, though, you’ll want hatch screens and bug goop
handy in case of attack.
Buffeted by the sporty wind, Chip Ahoy clipped along at 6 mph, then 7, too
fast for trolling. Scott reeled in his line and I settled back in the
cockpit to enjoy the ride and the scenery, monitoring the tiller pilot. The
golden domes of a palatial shoreline monastery gleamed from the shoreline
forest. The impressive structure is home to the Eastern Orthodox monks of
the Society of St. John. Father Basil and company also operate the Jampot, a
roadside gourmet emporium between Eagle River and Eagle Harbor featuring
delectable jams, jellies and muffins. Unfortunately it is not accessible by
boat but well worth visiting if you can arrange a ride.
|Scott lands a fat trout off Eagle River, one of many we’ve caught
while “sail trolling” in the area.
Some of the most dramatic scenery on the lake unfolded as we made our way
past Hunter’s Point to the entrance. The cheerful clanging of the
red-and-white striped bell buoy welcomed Chip Ahoy. Lining up with the range
marker ashore, we tracked a straight-line course bordered on either side by
evil shoals and rock outcroppings. In my pre-sailing days I used to think
that mariners altered course to go to the lighthouses. Copper Harbor’s
picturesque but highly unapproachable lighthouse complex is one of the more
dramatic illustrations of why that was a foolhardy notion.
I took the tiller as Scott went forward to drop cutter and mainsail.
Visibility was perfect. While the approach is straightforward, transiting
this hazardous area in fog can be an eerie, heart-thumping experience that
will cause you to feel an extra measure of love for your radar.
Even when you can’t see the entrance, soon enough you may smell it. When the
wind is right the hickory wood-fired grills of the Harbor Haus make bellies
growl with the promise of a mouth-watering meal. As we turned to starboard
to head up into the westernmost nook of the harbor, I had time to scan the
dining room to see if any of my food & beverage buddies were on duty. The
Harbor Haus is best known for its four-star cuisine, including genuine
German dishes, fresh Lake Superior fish and unique northwoods specialties
such as bison and venison. Another claim to fame is the high-kicking can-can
waiters and dirndl-clad waitresses perform for the Isle Royale Queen IV
ferry when she returns to Copper Harbor from Isle Royale National Park each
evening around 7:00 pm. It’s a showstopper for restaurant and ferryboat
patrons alike! You may tie up to the Harbor Haus dock, identified by the
American, German, Finnish, Swedish and Michigan flags proudly flying, to
dine at the restaurant or visit the tiny but welcoming lounge that is home
to Copper Harbor Yacht Club. However, due to submerged cribs, giant boulders
and shipwreck remains the dock is only accessible to smaller shallow-draft
vessels and should be approached with caution. On a nice day, it’s fun to
visit in your dinghy from the anchorage or municipal marina.
|Welcome to the Far North American-style. U.S. Highway 41 dead-ends
in Copper Harbor. A road sign notes that Copper Harbor is 1,990 miles
from Miami, Florida.
At 5:20 p.m. we dropped the hook in 13 feet near Porter Island and the
adjacent tip of the peninsula at Hunter’s Point. Together with a spiny chain
of rock outcroppings and stone islets, the point and the island provide a
snug barrier between the harbor and Lake Superior itself. Thanks to efforts
to preserve Hunter’s Point for public access and enjoyment, there’s a
walking trail that begins next to the marina and takes you all the way out
to the end. Agate picking on the Superior side is an addiction for many,
including Captain Scott. Inside the harbor, calmer waters are a boon to
kayakers of all levels. You can rent all the necessary equipment and take
lessons or excursions through Keweenaw Adventure Company located on main
street and near the ferry dock.
We weren’t anchored more than 10 minutes before a delegate from the harbor’s
prodigious bird population came calling. An overly friendly mallard duck
claimed possession of Chip Ahoy’s dinghy, apparently waiting for a handout
as Scott concocted a kielbasa sausage and fried potato skillet dinner. The
daffy duck stuck close throughout our visit. Not a problem as long as she
refrained from doing her business on our dinghy!
Copper Harbor’s municipal marina is close to the anchorage and as far as
we’re concerned is one of the better-kept secrets on the Great Lakes. The
under-visited marina underwent extensive renovations and dredging a few
years back, resulting in eight or more deep-draft slips, modern utility
hook-ups and a spacious new bathhouse adjacent to the delightful Lighthouse
Marina Gift Shop. Tours of Copper Harbor Lighthouse and keeper’s cottage,
accessible only by tour boat, begin at the marina. Tell Nick and crew we
said hello if you stop by this professional and pleasant state
|Chip Ahoy on the hook in Copper Harbor, minus a roller
furling. Our headstay blew on the Florida Intracoastal Waterway, sending
the roller furling extrusions rocketing around the deck and ripping the
headsail to shreds. We found an excellent hank-on headsail in St.
Augustine, Florida and it has performed well so far. Another rolling
furling is in our future, but for now Chip Ahoy’s sail profile is
Trailer sailors may wish to make use of the boat launch at the marina. With
improved depths even larger power yachts have used the launch to put in for
Isle Royale and other Superior destinations.
We actually prefer anchoring out here. There are a number of suitable dinghy
docks in town. Shallow-draft vessels can and often do tie up at the Sixth
Street Township Dock behind Duck Island near the ferry/charter dock.
Instructions for paying a modest fee are posted. There is a public garbage
receptacle, bear-proofed as is necessary throughout the harbor. These
critters are basically harmless gluttons as long as you don’t try to feed or
challenge them. Be aware that at the public dock there carries four feet of
water at best. The nearby ferry/charter dock is private.
After a restful, star-studded evening unmarred by city lights, we putted in
to town on Sunday morning. It is our habit to stroll in leisurely fashion,
plucking raspberries, thimbleberries or perhaps wild mint along the way to
visit some of our favorite friends, including Postmaster Clyde Wescoat.
Clyde and Scott have known each other since childhood; he occasionally calls
Scott “Simone,” his name from the high school French class. In addition to
postal duties, Clyde and his wife Loyd run some of the more interesting gift
shops in the harbor, including the tiny emporium that sits atop Brockway
Mountain. Brockway Mountain Drive is a must-do for visitors arriving by car,
featuring spectacular overviews of the lake, the town and Keweenaw’s superb
woodland scenery. In the winter Brockway Mountain Drive isn’t plowed,
allowing for access by snowmobile or cross-country skis.
Our rambles down and around main street also take us through Grant Township
Park, site of the annual Copper Harbor Art in the Park and other popular
community events including an old-fashioned Fourth of July celebration
complete with watermelon-seed spitting contests and sack races. Copper
Harbor’s one-room schoolhouse takes care of the educational needs of the
town’s elementary-aged residents. The older kids are transported to Calumet
High School. After a stop at the General Store to see what proprietors Jeff
and Kelly Coltas are up to, we decide a hot fudge sundae at the Country
Village gift shop complex was just what the sailor ordered.
Back at the boat, it was time to kick back. Captain Scott practiced a new
song on the guitar while I lounged in the sun-drenched cockpit with a good
book. In the late afternoon our friend Tom, another long-time area resident,
waved from the 10th Street Public Dock directly in front of our anchorage.
Scott buzzed over to pick him up and he stayed to share a grilled chicken
As we exited the harbor Monday morning our stalker duck followed us,
irrately quacking all the way. About two miles off the harbor she finally
gave up the chase.
|Copper Harbor Contacts
• Fred’s Charters offers fishing and diving excursions in the Keweenaw
Underwater Preserve as well as scenic excursions aboard the Equinox.
Call 906-289-4849 for more info.
• Lodging facilities ashore in Copper Harbor are pleasant and reasonably
priced, but be sure to book in advance during holidays. We highly
recommend the cabins at the Mariner North resort, which also has
hotel-style rooms and a lively bar and restaurant that is a favorite
with snowmobilers come winter. Call the Mariner at 906-289-4637 for
• Also located on main street, The Estivant Pines resort is another
rustic lodging option. Zik’s bar at the Pines is our favorite place to
tip a cold one. The diner offers classic breakfast, lunch and supper
selections, including giant cinnamon rolls and Sunday turkey dinner with
all the trimmings. Kids of all ages love the giant chair out front. Both
the Mariner and Zik’s have live entertainment on weekends and other
• For details on bike rentals/excursions, kayaking, hiking in the
Estivant Pines (said to be the oldest stand of virgin white pine east of
the Mississippi) or on the Hunter’s Point nature trail, check out Copper
Harbor’s website accessible via pasty.com
• Keweenaw Mountain Lodge, a WPA-era resort with a gorgeous northwoods
lodge, golf course and guest cabins, features fine dining during the
summer into mid-fall. The marina may be able to help arrange for a ride
to the Lodge if you’d like to dine or get in a round of golf.
• Fort Wilkins State Park, restored to show what life was like during
the days when the fort was a frontier outpost, features military
re-enactments and other special programs as well as offering camping and
nature activities in and around Lake Fanny Hooe.
• Copper Harbor Marina is a Michigan State Waterways commissioned
facility. Call 1-906-289-4698 for more info.
Author’s Update: Due to current low water levels on Lake Superior,
mariners should definitely check on water levels before attempting to
launch, dock or fuel at the marina. The approach and anchorage will still
have adequate water.
Cyndi Perkins is a freelance writer and full-time cruiser traveling with
husband Scott aboard their 32-foot DownEast sailboat Chip Ahoy. The couple
completed America’s Great Circle Loop — a nine-month, 6,000-mile journey —
on June 4, 2004. In August 2005 Chip Ahoy once again headed off Lake
Superior for an extended cruise south, returning to Lake Superior from their
second Loop in June 2006. Cyndi will be sharing top boating destinations
with readers in her regular “Cruiser’s Notebook” feature. Comments,
suggestions and questions (short text messages with no attachments) may be
directed to her at
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