Letter from the Editor: We found strange sights and great stories on a trip to the UP

For the past few weeks, MLive has been sending scenic postcards from what looks like the perfect spring trip to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

We’ve shared shots of freighters moving through the Soo Locks, dramatic aerial photos of Pictured Rocks and Tahquamenon Falls and Kitch-iti-Kipi springs, incredible limestone cliffs over Lake Michigan, the beauty of Copper Harbor and even images from the pilot house of the SS Badger car ferry.

But this wasn’t the work of our Lovable Michigan team, which is known for traveling to Michigan’s most iconic destinations.

This was a jam-packed week of enterprise reporting from MLive’s Garret Ellison and Sheri McWhirter, two of the best environmental journalists in Michigan. While the UP has wonderful travel destinations, it also gives us fascinating stories about ecology, wildlife, sustainability and more.

“There’s just something about the UP that’s magical and mysterious – once you visit you want to go back again and again,” said McWhirter, who has lived in northern lower Michigan for most of her life and been a journalist there for 16 years. “The people are interesting; the sights are phenomenal. And there are plenty of stories to tell from the Upper Peninsula.”

We’ve also learned over the years that there’s a huge appetite among our readers – most of whom are “trolls” living in the Lower Peninsula – for stories originating north of the Mackinac Bridge. We’ve gone far north to cover wildfires and for the occasional issue story, as well as to find the best eats and drinks for Michigan’s Best.

But MLive has never dedicated so much time, energy and resources (we also felt along Grand Rapids Press photographer Cory Morse) to such a large slate of stories as we did on this trip. Some have published, such as stories on renovations and repairs to the Soo Locks that are costing billions and are decades in the making.

Other stories of import are still to come. One is about “stamp sands” – the waste rock from legacy copper mining on the Keweenaw Peninsula that is coating shorelines on both sides of the peninsula.

“It’s covering up beaches, it’s covering up offshore fish spawning habitats, and it’s like a slow-rolling environmental disaster,” Ellison said. “Hollywood needs to find this location and use it as an alien landscape in a movie. It’s something else.”

And McWhirter will be writing a piece on the UP farmers trying to manage predation from gray wolves, the federal protection status of which has been a source of political wrangling for years. Her piece of it will show a range of approaches to protecting livestock, from advocating for the right to kill the wolves to another more novel solution.

“We spoke with a farmer who solved his problem with wolf predation by bringing a couple of donkeys to his ranch … he hasn’t had a single loss since,” she said.

The story that has made the biggest splash so far is McWhirter’s piece about the world’s longest-paired loon couple splitting up after 25 years together. McWhirter had written about the power couple in the past, and when our reporting team visited the Seney wildlife refuge researchers asked them to share any photos from Morse that showed leg bands on the loons.

His images helped biologists determine a sad story: A new loon couple displaced the old couple, and the female of that couple had taken up with a new male while her ex swam alone on a nearby pond.

“You know, some stories just write themselves and you can’t help get caught up in the drama,” she said. “It’s a heartbreaker, but you know, also a delight.”

While many stories will publish in coming weeks, images from our team’s travels were shared daily on MLive’s social media channels. While it may have looked like an ideal 1,700-mile travelogue, it involved hitting multiple destinations over 12 hours per day, trying to locate cellphone and Wi-Fi signals and, invariably, struggling to find a hot meal at 8 pm in whatever town they landed in.

After all, the UP is still the UP – you may have to sacrifice some creature comfort for the natural beauty it serves up. In the end, our reporting trio worked hard to find places and stories that the average tourist would not.

They made the most of it.

“As journalists we get unique access, and each time you really try to capture as much of it as you can on video or photo or interviews in order to bring it to the reader,” Ellison said. “That’s the purpose of what we’re doing.”

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John Hiner is the vice president of content for MLive Media Group. If you have questions you’d like him to answer, or topics to explore, share your thoughts at editor@mlive.com.

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