Seeing the Upper Peninsula Overland style--one unbeaten trail at a time

When you think of tourism, what comes to mind first?

Is it the thought of going to a place you’ve never been, seeing sights you’ve never witnessed before and visiting places you may never see again? Perhaps it's a city that you think of? Or maybe a bed and breakfast out in the country?

But what if the term ecotourism was used--what comes to mind then? Trees? Lakes? Animals?

How about places that few people have ever been, like the deep woods of the Keweenaw Peninsula where most vehicles can’t even traverse the terrain? How about snowmobiling across the entire peninsula? Or traveling to towns rarely visited by those passersby who aren’t already aware of their location?

That’s the ecotourism starting to gain momentum in Michigan and, especially, in the Upper Peninsula.

"There is an entire demographic that people and businesses aren't even aware exists," says Tom Dolaskie IV, one of the co-founders of U.P. Overland and owner of 9zero6 in Munising. "They aren't interested in the off-roading, mudding hick. They don’t understand that there is an entirely different demographic that has nothing to do with mudding and off-roading. These are more upscale people who are part of an adventure culture."

To some, the idea of a bunch of four-wheel-drive vehicles traveling through the back roads of the Upper Peninsula brings about visions of giant mudding tires and a cooler full of Milwaukee’s Best strapped in the truck bed. But Dolaskie says that’s an image he and fellow Overland co-founder Kristian Saile--along with other overland enthusiasts--are trying to dispel when it comes to their passion.

We're not talking souped-up 4x4 trucks that have 33-inch tires mounted to them and a "deer-slayer" grill guard welded onto the front end. The adventure culture Dolaskie speaks of--the overland culture--are more likely to be Land Rover people, or those who drive a Toyota Land Cruiser Arkana. Heck, maybe they are folks who drive a custom-built, $250,000 Earth Roamer, complete with solar panels and every eco-friendly aspect an adventure culture fan could want, like Vince and Bettie Farace of Minneapolis, who were part of this year's tour.

It's hard to say where ecotourism really all began. Maybe it was the cross-country skiers or the ATV enthusiasts. Perhaps it was the Department of Natural Resources, stocking lakes with fish and managing deer herd numbers so that outdoor enthusiasts would visit, buy licenses and spend money.

Maybe it wasn't.

One thing is for certain, an annual trip that has gained in popularity, the U.P. Overland tour, can trace its roots back to 2008 when silent-sports enthusiast Saile decided to lead a pack of 23 vehicles on a backwoods tour of the Upper Peninsula. The reason was simple--environmentalists were screaming that the U.P. needed to be protected from mines and other industries while pro-miners and the like were rallying against them. Saile wanted to show people, first hand, what there was to protect in the area known by many as God's Country.

On that trip, Dolaskie rode along. Soon, he and Saile were fast friends and U.P. Overland was born, as was their annual off-the-roads-and-through-the-trees tour of the Upper Peninsula.

And, my goodness, how it has grown.

Three years after the inaugural trip, U.P. Overland has more than 1,600 followers on Facebook and more than 200,000 monthly hits on their website. The duo now has to cap their annual trip at around 40 vehicles, despite interest from many more. In 2011, they made the annual trip in early August. They had just over 40 off-road rigs carrying around 90 people that traveled the back-roads and trails of the Upper Peninsula--a true take-the-road-less-traveled undertaking.

The sights they witnessed and the places they visited are almost impossible to describe. It's hard to put into words exactly how the Milky Way looks in the darkness of the Keweenaw Peninsula, looking down on the world with shimmering oranges and greens--colors you can never pick up even in the ambient light of a small town. It's only in the wilderness that such things can be seen.

"It's beautiful out there," Dolaskie says. "You really can't imagine it."

Ecotourism, says Dolaskie, is for everyone--and he means it. This year’s trip had senior citizens, families--even a few dogs.

"The number one piece of advice I can give to anyone considering it is to just go out and do it," Dolaskie says. "People tend to over think these things to the nth degree. Don't do that. Sign up for a trip and go. It’s that first trip that the rest of your adventure lifestyle will derive from. You'll say 'next time I’m going to bring this' or 'next time I’m going to do that.' But there can’t be a next time if you never go out and do it."

Enjoying the wilderness and nature means you have to leave it pristine so others can enjoy it, too. Overland groups and ecotourists don’t go out looking to rut around in the mud, or even leave a trace of their travels behind when possible. These are the people who truly respect the world as they travel through it. Tread lightly--it's a self-imposed rule that Dolaskie and Saile live by, and expect others to do the same.

"It's just part of the adventure culture mindset," says Dolaskie. "They utilize nature for their own entertainment. This is their culture. Every single one of the people who went on this year's trip not only picked up everything they brought in, but they picked up even more. Their campsites were cleaner when they left than when they got there."

Sam Eggleston is the managing editor of U.P. Second Wave and a full-time freelance writer. He loves the outdoors in the Upper Peninsula and can often be found with a fishing pole in hand, especially on a frozen lake. He can be reached via email.