Keweenaw Peninsula

Keweenaw Unlocks for the Season

Ride Right and Adventure North

By Jesse Wiederhold
Visit Keweenaw Public Relations/Events Coordinator

The Portage Lake Lift Bridge connects the city of Houghton to the northern half of the Keweenaw Peninsula. It brings two lanes in and two lanes out of its sister city Hancock over the Portage Canal flowing with water from Lake Superior. Manufactured in 1959, it’s the world’s heaviest and widest double-deck lift bridge. In the summer, it raises and lowers to accommodate passing ships like the Isle Royale’s Ranger III vessel. Each winter, the bridge lowers, connecting two pathways above and below with its two tiers.

Cars and other vehicles continue to pass on its upper deck while the bottom becomes a dedicated snowmobile crossing. The bridge’s remarkable architecture welcomes you home to the Keweenaw where you can ride for hundreds of miles and explore Michigan’s northernmost terrain. With long trails, rugged scenery and the nine-mile Brockway Mountain Drive to climb, it’s the perfect destination for snowmobiles.

Keweenaw Peninsula

Historically, the bridge kept copper running across the canal in trains and cars. It was built as a double deck lift to accommodate ships that want to pass while keeping up with train and automobile traffic. Mining was the backbone of the Keweenaw’s economy. Which can be seen from your snowmobile along the routes you travel. Pass by old copper mining towns and structures, exploring the signage and history around them. From Quincy to Painesdale, each mine had different timelines and different practices and those residents lived through harsh winters.

It feels like a secret discovering the frozen path under the bridge but it’s just one of many sights you’ll see north of the canal. With so much lake effect snow, you’re almost guaranteed to have fresh powder when you visit to ride. Snowmobile season in Michigan officially begins Dec. 1, but the snow road over the canal is weather dependent. Once the season is underway, you can ride as far as the icy shores of High Rock Bay at the top of the Keweenaw.

“It’s not normally until mid-December,” said Ryan LaPorte, Keweenaw Trails Service (KTS) president. “It’s dependent upon the ice cover on the Great Lakes. That’s controlled by the U.S. Coast Guard as a navigable waterway.”

Keweenaw Peninsula

Once the canal and Great Lakes are declared unnavigable, the bottom deck of the bridge can be snowed over for winter. LaPorte says laying down the snow road takes coordination between KTS, the cities of Houghton and Hancock, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR), MDOT and the Coast Guard. After that, KTS maintains routes from Toivola to High Rock Bay and grooms more than 30,000 miles a year. It’s a thrilling feeling going over the bridge on your sled, take it slow and enjoy the view. If you’re afraid of heights – maybe don’t look down!

“We haul snow in from parking lots, lay down a weed barrier type material to hold the snow on the bridge,” said LaPorte. “Then, haul all that snow in to put on three, three-and-a-half feet all the way across that structure so snowmobiles can safely cross and protect that bridge surface.”

LaPorte quickly joined and became president of the Keweenaw Snowmobile Club in 2021 after moving up from Kalamazoo. He’s always had a passion for the Keweenaw and has ridden sleds for 15+ years. He says the Calumet groomer barn will house three PistenBully 400s and two New Holland T7-210s once it’s complete.

Keweenaw Peninsula

It’s been a multi-year process requiring dedication from volunteers and donors. KTS is able to work with Michigan legislators like Representative Greg Markkanen and the DNR to identify and secure funding opportunities as well. Visit Keweenaw contributed around $25,000 toward the project as well. The progress made in Calumet will result in a more efficient and supportive environment for snowmobile grooming operations.

The reopening of Snowmobile Trail 3 between Hancock and Dollar Bay was commemorated with a ribbon cutting on Nov. 30 by the DNR to mark its long-awaited completion. LaPorte believes this trail will extend the local season and give visitors more to do around Lake Linden and Dreamland.

“Trail 3 is going to be critical to all the businesses and our trail system in general,” said LaPorte. “Having that loop back can extend the season for us. That part of the trail is a little more shaded. It tends to hold snow a bit better than the hill coming up through Hancock there along US-41. It can help extend our season and peoples’ access to the Keweenaw. Even through the spring break up into the melt. That’ll open some doors and extended business periods right up until the end of the grooming season for everybody.”

Some locations are best traveled by snowmobile. You can drive US-41 to Copper Harbor but taking the route by trail will immerse you in some of the most remote, wintery corridors in the Midwest. Drop in the Dreamland Bar off Trail 3 near Lake Linden or the Gay Bar in Gay for a bite to eat as you check out Trail 3 this winter. KTS invites visitors to share with businesses what brought them to the Keweenaw to ride.

Keweenaw Peninsula

Keweenaw Peninsula

“We want to support our businesses in the region on our map that are members of the club and help support us,” said LaPorte. “Ride and visit those businesses. Let them know you’re there because of the club and the work they do. That goes a long way in us being able to renew those memberships and advertising, so they know it’s beneficial.”

The club has a lot to look forward to this winter and into next season. The Freda Trail (Trail 121 & 120) is still closed from flood damage, but the DNR continues to work on engineering plans. LaPorte is hopeful KTS can assist that project in gaining momentum. KTS is holding a Ride Keweenaw event on Feb. 24. Riders from Michigan and out of state are invited to come up for a day of snowmobile fun. Attendees will start at the Calumet groomer facility near Swedetown at 9 a.m. and plan to go north to Eagle Harbor and Copper Harbor.

Embark on an unforgettable snowmobiling journey through the Keweenaw, where each twist and turn unveils the rich history of old copper mine towns. You’ll find charming shops and delightful restaurants along the way. Trail 3’s reopening marks one more reason to make the trip. Don’t miss a moment – become a proud member of the club online and stay connected on the club’s Facebook page. For all your other Keweenaw questions or for planning your next winter getaway, head to www.visitkeweenaw.com. You’ll find out why the Keweenaw’s trails are destined to be your favorite and why you’ll fall in love with Michigan’s northernmost winter wonderland. Always ride responsibly and within your limits.

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