At a first glance, you’d think you were in a small fishing village along the East Coast. White and grey seagulls hover close as fishing boats chug into port. Vessels of all types moored in Harbor. Waves from Lake Superior lapping or crashing—depending on the minute—onto shore. These are only some of the characteristics that make Grand Marais, MI, unique. It’s situated on the easternmost edge of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, so if it’s natural beauty you’re seeking, this is your spot.
Grand Marais was at its most populous in the late 1800s, when logging took a foothold. Lumber mills were built, saloons were staggered out of and the town was bustling. Once the landscape was depleted with the precious trees, logging operations ceased and people moved away. The town went from thousands to maybe a few hundred in the span of weeks. Times were slow until the declaration of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in the 1960s. Now, Grand Marais has slowly found itself as an increasingly popular tourist destination.
To see Grand Marais as you’re driving through it is quick. They say, “blink and you’ll miss it.” Sometimes that’s an exaggeration but in Grand Marais it’s not much of one. It’s probably 11 blinks from the start of town to the finish. Plus, you won’t want to miss it. This isn’t the kind of town one passes through, this is a town where one stops. A Grand Marais history guide, sold at local shops, explain history and information that correspond to numbered posts visible throughout the town. Some structures burned down, some were moved and surprisingly, many are in the same locations they’ve always been.
Traveling into the town, no matter what direction it’s entered from, is to pass small streets and many historical houses. The downtown pops into view and is the center of commerce, of course, with restaurants, hotels and a number of shops. If you’re standing in town and can’t see the magnificent harbor, it usually only takes a couple steps in any direction before it’s visible.
Whenever I’m in a place like this, I like to walk with my camera to get a better feel for the town. As I was walking, time slowed, an occasional person or people would stroll past and campers would stop for supplies at the gas station. There were fishing boats, old and new, in many yards. Some of the older boats looked like they’d been used to haul in many a fish and were now relegated to their retirement—or possibly a future fixer-upper project.
There were many pastimes here: walking the beaches; sitting and listening to small-town and harbor sounds; and exploring the history were only some of the favorites. A week felt like a perfect amount of time to see it all and learn about what Grand Marais was all about. Kayaking the harbor on a calm morning presented us with an incredible number of underwater sightings like old logs, sunken structures and pilings. Kayak excursion finished, we made it back to our launching beach and saw an old, pristine El Camino.
There’s an understanding in Grand Marais. It requires some traveling to arrive there but when, if, you exchange glances with passersby or chat with a local resident, there’s an unspoken connection of what brought people to this place in the past and in the present—it’s simply beautiful.
Tech Notes: All photos, with the exception of the El Camino, were made with a Mamiya 7 film camera. The El Camino was captured with an iPhone 7.