I once interviewed famous climber Pete Takeda about his experience in this town of 2,784 on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, which every winter hosts a unique gathering of Midwestern climbers at the Michigan Ice Fest. He was impressed with the ice climbing and moved by the locals' enthusiasm for the sport.
He also commented on the nightlife scene. "I liked the fact that all the locals smoked and ate lots of red meat and deep fried everything," he said.His impressions seemed to sum up the Munising experience. Real people with North Woods ethic and a town immersed in a great wilderness setting.
He forgot one thing, however: piles and piles of snow.
Last winter, the sleepy Lake Superior town recorded 276 inches of snowfall--that's 23 feet. Because of its proximity to the big water, Munising is ravaged with lake-effect snow. It averages about 215 inches of the white stuff each winter.
On the quiet side streets, residents have to shovel out their mailboxes to retrieve letters. The sidewalks are enclosed alleys and resemble tight sheet-rocked hallways. The pavement has an always-present shine of compacted snow.
Surrounding the town, the dense pine woods of the Hiawatha National Forest dominate the terrain. Bluffs roll toward the lakeshore. Tight river canyons cut scars through the hills. Icy water races to the lake.
East of town, the silent winter forests push up against the dramatic Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Towering, multi-colored sandstone cliffs glint in the sunlight. Huge icicles drape from the precipitous heights. Lake Superior lays out in an icy abyss, stretching from the shoreline to a blurred horizon.
The boundless lake, wild forests and white mantle of fresh snow give the town a feeling of vitality and freedom. There is also a sense of purity that can only be found in a North Woods wintertime setting.
The locals add to the experience, smiling, offering conversation and simply persevering through the long winters. They embrace winter recreation, and party and laugh into the cold nights.
The Michigan Ice Fest attracts hundreds of ice climbers from Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Detroit, Chicago and beyond. Last year's event pulled in more than 350 participants and other visitors.
The festival focuses around the stunning climbs of Pictured Rocks. The largest icefalls are more than 200 feet high.
To ascent, climbers use specialized boots, ice axes and crampons (boot-spikes), plus ropes and other climbing gear.
In addition to the many Midwesterners, a handful of world-famous climbers came to the event last year. They gave slideshow presentations and taught introductory and advanced ice climbing classes. Free gear demonstrations were also included in the four-day event.
The festival is one of the Midwest's most popular climbing events.
The Lake Superior region has four ice climbing festivals each year, but the Michigan Ice Fest continually brings in the largest crowds and biggest sponsorships.
First-time climbers and people just wanting a look at the sport are welcome. The gear demonstrations let interested people try out the sport for free with the latest equipment.
Experienced climbers benefit from advanced classes and the advice of the visiting experts. Also, the area's immense icefalls present challenges to climbers of all levels.
At the end of his stay, Pete Takeda had climbed those 200-foot frozen waterfalls, helped introduce beginners to the sport and had given a slideshow to a crowd of 250 people. He also had his share of Munising's rich cuisine. Despite the daily ice climbing adventures, by the end he'd gained three pounds--not bad for a four-day weekend.
IF YOU GO
Munising is about 375 miles from Chicago. Take Interstate Highway 94 north to Interstate Highway 43 North at Milwaukee. In Green Bay, take U.S. Highway 41 North to Michigan Highway 35.
At Escanaba take U.S. Highway 2 north to U.S. 41, then turn right onto Michigan Highway 67 at Trenary. Turn right at Michigan Highway 94 and then left at Michigan Highway 28. Total drive time is about 7 1/2 hours.
Munising is a classic Upper Peninsula village on Lake Superior's southeast shore. The town's harbor is partially protected from Superior's beating waves by Grand Island, a large island just a couple hundreds yards offshore.
Munising has roots in the lumber, paper, mining and fishing industries.
Today, the recreation and tourism industries also play an important role in the local economy. Wintertime brings hordes of snowmobilers. Cross-country skiers, snowshoers and ice climbers also visit the town for its gorgeous wilderness and unique terrain.
We stayed at the Homestead Bed & Breakfast (317 Prospect St.; 906-387-2542). It is a cozy, nicely decorated North Woods mansion a couple blocks from downtown. Host Barbara Carberry won't let you leave hungry in the morning.
The Super 8 motel (906-387-2466) is right off Michigan Highway 28 in town. It is frequented by snowmobilers for its easy access to trails.
Sydney's (906-387-9948) is a good family-style restaurant. There is also a bar popular with ice climbers and snowmobilers.
Snowmobiling is the favorite wintertime activity in Munising. Around the town are more than 300 miles of groomed trails. Ice climbing is also popular on the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (see below). Contact the event organizers at Down Wind Sports (906-226-7112; www.downwindsports.com) for further information.
The thick woods and deep wilderness of Hiawatha National Forest surround Munising. Spanning two large sections of the Upper Peninsula, the 879,000-acre park has shoreline on Superior as well as Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. Cross-country skiing, hiking and snowmobiling are popular wintertime activities. (For information, call 906-786-4062; www.fs.fed.us/r9/hiawatha.)
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is a 73,000-acre park just east of town. Hugging the lakeshore for more than 40 miles, the dramatic park features towering sandstone cliffs, beaches, sand dunes, waterfalls and inland lakes and streams. Great hiking and exploring can be had year-round.
Winter is a unique time to visit Pictured Rocks. Snow piles deep in the woods, and skis or snowshoes are a necessity for travel. Some years, Lake Superior freezes and hikers can journey on the ice to view the amazing shoreline. When we visited, Superior had not frozen and aquamarine waves lapped at the snowy shore. (See www.nps.gov/piro/ for further information.)
The Pictured Rocks Ranger Station (906-387-2607) is open year-round 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Information on the forest and on the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is available at the station.
Alger County Chamber of Commerce, www.munising.org. A private Web site on area activities and travel information is at www.munising.com.
-- S.R.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun