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From loppets to luges

History center exhibit features local outdoor recreation

Cary Bjork, a trustee with the Marquette Regional History Center, talks about a section of the new exhibit, “The Great Outdoors: The History of Recreation in Marquette County,” with visitors Susan Cardoni of Marquette and her granddaughters, Isabella Conrad, 11, and Sophia Conrad, 7. The exhibit runs through Jan. 23. (Journal photo by Christie Mastric)

MARQUETTE — Perhaps few regions in Michigan, and perhaps the United States, are as defined by the outdoors as the Upper Peninsula.

And with the rugged U.P. outdoors comes a diversity of outdoor recreation and the people who take part in it.

To display this heritage, the Marquette Regional History Center on Wednesday held an opening reception for its exhibit, “The Great Outdoors: The History of Recreation in Marquette County.”

Here visitors can learn about the Red Earth Loppet, a precursor to the Noquemanon Ski Marathon; read about Guts Frisbee, sort of a cross between Frisbee and dodgeball; and see a close-up photo by local birder Scot Stewart of a rare-for-the-area northern hawk owl seen between October 2019 and February by Marquette’s old compost site.

Dr. Jacqueline Medina, a professor in Northern Michigan University’s Outdoor Recreation Leadership and Management Program, spoke about the the importance of outdoor recreation as a historical topic.

Ski boots and crampons are one of many pieces of equipment that can be seen at the exhibit. (Journal photo by Christie Mastric)

Medina has a personal knowledge of U.P. recreation, having moved from the cornfields of Illinois to the terrain of Marquette.

“When I came up here, the outdoor recreation wilderness of this area was like the dream I’d had as a child,” Medina said. “I looked at Lake Superior and I fell in love. It was so beautiful.”

She has a lofty idea of recreation anyway.

“Recreation is the re-creation and the renewal of our mind, body and spirit through leisure activities we participated in as well as the experiences that we have as a result of those activities,” Medina said. “So, outdoor recreation are those recreational activities that occur in natural settings or with a natural setting, such as hiking, biking, paddling.”

Marquette County has plenty of those, nurtured through area pioneers with whom Medina recently conducted interviews.

Those oral histories, she stressed, are important.

“Outdoor recreation involves both human dimensions, and it involves the natural resource dimension,” Medina said.

Two area recreation notables who contributed to the exhibit were Scott Drum, a professor of exercise science at NMU, and Phil Watts, an NMU retiree who has earned the nickname “The Godfather of Climbing Research.” Drum made a podcast on trail running and the “four peaks” of Sugarloaf Mountain, Top of the World, Bareback Mountain and Hogback Mountain, while Watts created a short slideshow on the history of climbing in the central Upper Peninsula.

“I’m a story collector — love to hear people’s stories,” Medina said, “and that’s what I got to do on this exhibit.”

Tales included skating on an iced-over tennis court at Marquette’s Williams Park and swimming in the Chocolay River when temperatures were in the 80s.

Access to recreation was a common thread in these stories, she said.

“The Fit Strip was one of the first ski trails in Marquette, and I remember vividly taking some pretty big tumbles on that Fit Strip back in the ’80s,” Medina said.

Technological developments also have played a part in Marquette County recreation.

Stewart, also an accomplished bird photographer, shared his knowledge with her on such advancements.

Medina related this part of her interview with Stewart thusly: “The accessibility, knowing where things are through the internet/cell phone and that sort, of thing, has helped. It used to be you’d go out and see something, and even if you went out for several days, you might be the only one that ever saw the creature there.

“But with things today, as I say, within an hour, you could have a half-dozen people standing alongside you.”

Plenty of sports equipment is shown at the exhibit, including an ice screw, old snowshoes, a kayak and bicycle clamps, which kept pant legs next to the rider’s legs instead of tangled in a moving bike part circa 1900 — long before bell bottoms were in fashion.

History, of course, plays a crucial part in the exhibit, with write-ups focusing on such pastimes as luge, sled dog racing and paddling.

There are lots of photos too.

An action photograph of a downhill skier captivated one young visitor.

“Look at that pic,” exclaimed one little girl who was visiting from the Chicago area.

Others are more vintage in nature. For example, one photo shows a large group of snowshoers traveling from Ishpeming to Marquette in 1939, which had been an annual undertaking for years.

Visitors likely won’t embark in a journey like that, but Medina believes the exhibit has an educational quality.

“It can allow us to appreciate our past, understand our community’s growth and development, and navigate the future of outdoor recreation in Marquette,” Medina said.

The exhibit at the MRHC, located at 145 W. Spring St., runs through Jan. 23. For more information on the center, visit marquettehistory.org.

Christie Mastric can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal.net

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