Stubbornly extending from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula into vast Lake Superior, the Keweenaw Peninsula is a largely undiscovered boating destination. It’s an isolated land of seemingly impenetrable woods, toothy reefs, the notorious gales of November and what the native people respectfully called “tall water,” yet the locals call it “God’s country.” They may be right.

With summer comes the opportunity to explore wildly beautiful Precambrian coastlines, peaceful harbors, agate beaches and verdant landscapes adorned with waterfalls. Clear blue water stretches unbroken to the horizon. Then the Keweenaw does indeed become heaven on Earth.

This is also Copper Country.

From 5000 to 1200 B.C., the peninsula’s inhabitants mined 1.5 million pounds of pure copper and traded with other tribes. Lake Superior copper has been found at prehistoric sites throughout the Americas. Then, shortly after the Ojibwe people ceded their remaining U.P. lands in 1842, Michigan State Geologist Douglass Houghton launched an Industrial Age copper rush when he documented those ancient mining pits. By the time the Soo Locks opened in 1855, the Keweenaw was booming.

From 1845 to 1865, three-fourths of U.S. copper came from the Keweenaw. Mining towns flourished; Calumet, north of Hancock, had electricity before Detroit. When copper prices plunged in the early 20th century, however, the mines became too expensive to operate. The last closed in 1968.

The twin cities of Houghton and Hancock are an ideal base for exploring the Keweenaw. They lie on opposite sides of the Portage Lake Canal, which bisects the peninsula, and are linked by the impressive Portage Lift Bridge. As you cruise inland from Keweenaw Bay to the east or from Lake Superior to the west, the cities rise up on either side, with homes and businesses scattered along steeply slanting streets.

At the bridge’s northeastern foot is the Houghton County Marina. From here, both downtown districts are within walking distance. Most of their structures, especially on Houghton’s Sheldon Avenue and Hancock’s Quincy Street, date to the mines’ heyday.

Hancock, to the north, was founded in 1859 by the Quincy Mining Company and was home to foundries, factories and the Quincy Mine. With the mine long silent, the city has forged ahead. Waterfront developments include new townhomes and a Ramada Inn with restaurant, lounge and outdoor seating.

Houghton, to the south, was a bustling shipping port and cultural center until the mines closed. It, too, has seen an economic revitalization. Tourism, new business development and Michigan Technological University have all played important roles.

Houghton has the cosmopolitan feel of a university town. Throngs of visitors and residents fill the paved waterfront trail and the city parks that frequently host art fairs and music festivals. Dining options range from cozy pubs to fine dining. The Ambassador serves mouth-watering pizza in an Old World atmosphere. Tech students mingle over microbrews at the Library, and Sheldon’s is the hot spot for a Cornish pasty, a historic miner’s meal of meat, potatoes, rutabagas, onions and carrots folded into a steaming pocket of buttery dough.

The must-see villages of Eagle Harbor and Copper Harbor are a short cruise to the north. The former features a postcard-pretty 19th century lighthouse, fascinating museum and venerable life-saving station. Copper Harbor, Michigan’s northernmost settlement, is located near Fort Wilkins State Historic Park, where visitors can tour the restored 1844 fort complex. Both communities have marinas, fuel docks, dining and shopping.

Don’t miss the many shops selling homemade foods, as this is a chance to stock up on classics such as thimbleberry jam and chow chow, a pickled and often spicy concoction incorporating various garden vegetables. And take the time to chat with the locals, whose hospitality, strong regional identity and frontier spirit are almost legendary.

For further adventures, travel the Keweenaw Water Trail by canoe or kayak, dive the Keweenaw Underwater Preserve’s eight buoyed shipwrecks, embark on a guided sportfishing trip, go mountain-biking or simply take a hike “in the bush” for a true wilderness experience.

Brach Schnabel, a longtime Great Lakes captain and then-harbormaster of the Houghton County Marina, once commented that the Keweenaw must be the Great Lakes’ best-kept secret.

“Most people don’t know anything about this place,” he said.

For now.

For more information, visit the Keweenaw Chamber of Commerce at www.keweenaw.org, the Keweenaw Convention & Visitors Bureau at www.keweenaw.info and Pasty Central – “Fresh from the U.P.” – at www.pasty.com.

Photo courtesy of the Keweenaw Chamber of Commerce.