Upper Peninsula Stories and Tips

East of Grand Marais: Lowlanders in Trouble

After finally ending our experience at the West Bay Diner, we returned to the Grand Sable Visitor Center, which had closed early the day before. As we drove along, it quickly became apparent that another beautiful day was emerging, despite the early clouds and light mist that never quite turned into rain. Another Junior Ranger badge safely in hand, we drove to the edge of Grand Sable Lake, and wandered down the boat ramp. Birch trees, another ubiquitous northern Michigan resident, lined the approach to the lake, and my wife and enjoyed them while the kids briefly splashed around among the dunes.

Our days big destination was Tahquamenon Falls, Michigan’s first state park, with a waterfall exceeded only by Niagara in the eastern U.S. There’s no easy route from here to there, and we would eventually head south, east, and then back north to reach the falls. Instead of leaving the lakeshore initially, we decided to drive straight east along the county roads, which were marked as a mixture of paved and gravel. We reminded ourselves to get gas as we passed back through Grand Marais, which was the only settlement of any size (counting 350 as a town of size).

Alger County H58 curves along the bay’s southern shore, and then heads nearly straight east. The shoreline bumps north for a mile, leaving the road inland, but the beach eventually returns to within a quarter mile of the highway.

That’s using the word ‘highway’ loosely. We’d asked the ranger about the wisdom of driving east this way towards the hamlet of Deer Park, a place I’d looked at on maps for years but had never visited. She laughed a little, and said you could make it, but you couldn’t make it quickly. Two miles outside of town, we found out what she meant. The roadway instantly degenerated into a patchwork of asphalt patches, piled atop each other in years of careless attempts to replace the ravages of winter freezes. We suddenly realized we hadn’t gassed up in Grand Marais. Neither of us like backtracking, and a quick view of a sign announcing a general store 11 miles ahead contained the word ‘gas’, so we decided to forge onwards.

Thankfully, the county gave up any intention of paving the road after a few more miles, and it turned into a gravel and sand bed that was easier on everyone’s nerves. Before falling asleep, my daughters watched the onboard display steadily marching towards ‘0 miles to empty’. But the store was only 9 miles, and we easily had 20 more before the gas ran out. Plus, Deer Park was ahead, too.

We passed through forest, along small lakes, and veered around the edges of property. I thought of the exclusive Huron Mountain Club 100 miles to the east, and how they fought the placement of a state highway through their 10,000-acre tract. The logging companies owned all this land 100 years ago, and we were driving along one of their routes for bringing the pines from the eastern UP to the harbor at Grand Marais. Some maps, in fact, describe the route we were on as the ‘Grand Marais Truck Trail’.

When we reached the general store, it became apparent that the sign advertised LP Gas, not gasoline. That put a different spin on things. It was another eight miles to Deer Park, and traveling at 25 miles an hour wasn’t making the most of our remaining fuel. We were sneaking peeks of the shoreline here and there, and realizing that even this part of the coast was 100% owned. For a mile, a perfect white fence ran along the road’s northern edge, which looked as if it had been intended for New England and misplaced. It marked off a development, which was odd enough, and I learned later that area residents found the fence not just out of place, but offensive: UP sensibilities don’t include much room for those with a need to block off what they own. Gets in the way of snowmobiles, skis, and hunting, for starters.

We pulled into Deer Lake, which sits at the end of Muskallonge Lake. This is a big fishing spot, and like many just-barely-inland lakes in both peninsulas, must have been formed by dunes and sand that eventually closed in a small southern dent in the shoreline. (A similar fate would have overtaken Grand Marais’ harbor if not for the construction of barriers at the eastern edge of the sand spit.)

The Deer Park General Store sat just before the road abandoned the lake’s edge and turned due south. I gulped as I saw the complete absence of gas pumps, and the ‘6 miles to empty’ displayed on the console. There were a lot of people here—at least compared to where we’d been—but despite the campers in the state park, and those renting spots in the General Store’s RV complex, and those with cabins in the area, no one sold gas. They concentrated on much more important things, like bait.

I steeled myself to look like a fool, and walked into the store. A 20-year old woman was behind the counter, and I explained how we were nearly out of gas, and had been counting on filling up here in Deer Park. "No problem," she said. "There’s a station down in Pine Stump Junction, only eight miles away. They’re not open today, but they’ll be open Wednesday." I realized that she thought we were staying in the area. I figured they had to have some fuel of their own, and I swallowed hard and begged. I’ll have to ask the owner, she said, and she’d just left to take the dogs for a walk. But she’d be back soon: the oldest one was really arthritic and couldn’t get far.

I checked back in with my family, and waited around the store, feeling really foolish. On the walls were a collection of ads and flyers from the store’s history, including a few pictures from the 1940’s that showed gas pumps out front. Darn. Sixty years too late.

After 15 long minutes, the clerk heard the owner returning, and went out back to meet her. I could see her telling my story, and felt like a moronic lowlander. Driving back roads? Without gas? What kind of people did they raise on the other side of the bridge?

I retold my own tale to the woman in charge, and felt my face turning red. For good measure, I made sure to mention the three kids in the car. She let me wait a few seconds, and then told me to pull around to the back. From a rusty tank on a five foot frame, she gave us a couple unmetered gallons of fuel. My wife leaned out the window to say that we were up to 30 miles, enough to get us south to Newberry, the first place we were confident would hold gas stations that were open on Mondays. I started figuring out a way to pay for those precious gallons, but our benefactor waved me off. "Just do something nice for someone else," she said.

I thanked her profusely, and climbed into the car. We agreed that we could at least buy some things at the store, so I grabbed the girls and declared it open season on junk food. Fueled up in multiple ways, we left Superior for the last time and headed on to Tahquamenon.

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