Winter wonderland

Pictured is the Eben Ice Caves, located in the Rock River Wilderness area of the Hiawatha National Forest. The Eben Ice Caves are one of Michigan’s prime winter attractions. (Journal photo by Jaymie Depew)

MUNISING — “Michigan’s motto used to be ‘Winter Wonderland’ and now it’s ‘Pure Michigan.’ Alger County is both,” said Munising Mayor Rod DesJardins.

With miles of majestic Lake Superior shoreline, flowing rivers and streams, hundreds of inland lakes and a variety of trails to explore, it’s no wonder tourism in Alger County has noted a dramatic increase of visitors over the years.

While Alger County, the gateway to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and the Hiawatha National Forest, is home to less than 10,000 people, every year hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to the area during its seasonal peaks.

According to a National Park Service report, 723,179 people visited Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in 2015 and spent more than $30.6 million in communities near the park.

In 2016, 777,428 people visited the Pictured Rocks area, spending nearly $33.6 million in nearby communities, according to the NPS, an increase of about 9.8 percent from 2015.

The spending supported 474 jobs and had a cumulative benefit of about $34.3 million to the local economy, park officials said in a press release issued last year.

Although the tourism surge is most notable during the summer season, Alger County is also a popular destination for anyone looking to enjoy outdoor winter activities, such as cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, ice climbing, hiking, winter camping, ice fishing and snowshoeing.

Kathy Reynolds, executive director of the Alger County Chamber of Commerce, said it’s been an exciting season for tourism.

“This is probably the best winter Alger County has had in 10 years. We’ve had great snow this year,” she said.

Reynolds noted that although summer is the busiest time of the year for the area, it hasn’t always been that way.

“Winter used to be the king of tourism for a long time,” Reynolds said. “We advertise for all the seasons, but some people just don’t like snow. Winter is a different animal. If there isn’t any snow, businesses might not be open as long if they’re seasonal. In the summer they’re open no matter what; fall is pretty good now, too.”

Averaging between 100-200 inches of snowfall annually, many refer to Alger County as the “snowmobile capital of the Midwest.”

In the 1960s, Munising was the first city in Michigan to open its streets and alleys to the operation of snowmobiles. There are a few simple rules and regulations that govern snowmobile operation in town, which can be found on the city’s website.

Since some visitors aren’t fully accustomed to the area, Rod DesJardins advises snowmobilers to never trust the ice on Munising Bay because there’s always potential for pockets in the water. Also, he said, always be cautious, especially while snowmobiling.

“There seems to be a notion amongst many snowmobilers that when there’s 15 inches of fresh power that they’re protected and won’t get hurt,” he said. “A tree as big as 4 inches will stop a snowmobile, but the snowmobiler will keep going.”

After the new year, local restaurants, bars and hotels in Alger County start to get busy, said Joe DesJardins, co-owner of East Channel Brewing Company in Munising.

Winter events such as Michigan Ice Fest and the Trenary Outhouse Classic bring hundreds of visitors from all over the country and world to climb ice formations along the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and watch outhouses race down the main drag in Trenary.

“We see a lot of ice climbers on the weekends and just not for ice fest. I didn’t realize it was that big all winter long … and we see a good amount of cross country skiers, then of course hikers and snowshoers checking out the ice caves and stuff,” Joe DesJardins said.

According to a post on the ice festival’s website, climbers from at least 30 states and seven countries were represented this year, as participants traveled from far and wide to “enjoy the camaraderie of Midwest climbers and the chance to climb the fat ice formations.”

Pictured Rocks consists of around 73,000 acres along 42 miles of Lake Superior shoreline. Of that, 33,000 acres are publicly owned.

“We have such a wide variety of things to do and see … whether it’s going on a boat cruise, charter boat fishing, seeing waterfalls, the Eben ice caves, the northern lights, renting a cabin for a week, hunting, enjoying the beautiful beaches and shoreline … There’s something for almost everyone,” Reynolds said. “We’re very fortunate to live here and share it with people. Every day I hear people say we’re lucky to live here.”

For more information regarding the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, visit https://www.nps.gov/piro/index.htm.

For more information on Alger County, visit https://algercountychamber.com/

Jaymie Depew can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. Her email address is jdepew@miningjournal.net.

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