Michigan’s Upper Peninsula dishes up many opportunities for frolicking in frosty weather “” with your motorhome.
By Lazelle Jones
A hardy bunch, the folks who live and play on the Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan continue to enjoy the great outdoors even when temperatures dip below zero. And, interestingly, there are those among this group who still use their motorhomes under these challenging conditions.
Before you attempt this in your recreation vehicle, however, you need to determine whether your motorhome can safely be used in such weather. Winterizing it for use under such circumstances may not be possible. Also, keep in mind that if you visit the UP in winter, snowfall here and along the shoreline of Lake Superior can reach 300 inches each season (yes, in one year). When driving any type of vehicle, let alone a motorhome, this kind of weather is nothing to trifle with.
This past February, I went north to the UP to meet and talk with some of these winter activity enthusiasts. Plus, I discovered some of the things there are to do and enjoy when winter envelops the northern woods “” and it is interesting!
A 500-Mile Snowmobile Race
The International 500 snowmobile race, called the I-500, takes place on a one-mile oval track in the international border city of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, where Lake Superior empties into the St. Marie River on its way to Lake Huron. The race usually takes place in early February.
This is the place where some RV enthusiasts simply won’t take no for an answer, as they bring their motorhomes out and use them anyway. When you look at the coaches lined up around the track and surrounded by knee-deep snow, it simply contradicts all that we RVers are accustomed to seeing. Furthermore, just like in the early years of FMCA, some fans use old converted school buses as their RVs of choice. The motorhomes are equipped to provide their occupants a warm habitat, a place to prepare food, and a home base as they enjoy the festivities.
In the center of the track is the team and driver compound, where several competitors park their motorhomes. One of the most colorful snowmobile racing clans is the Bosek family. They invited me inside, and I talked with Mrs. Bosek (everyone at the track calls her Mom Bosek), the mother of longtime snowmobile competitor John Bosek.
The Boseks live day and night in their motorhome at the track. To stay warm and toasty, they use a high-Btu auxiliary heater. Even with the temperatures outside hovering at minus 10 degrees, it was toasty and comfortable inside their coach; in fact, it was T-shirt weather. They don’t use the holding tanks on their motorhome, because they have no way of keeping them winterized in such frigid temperatures. However, the organizers of the race have facilities set up in the compound to accommodate the teams who stay there.
The people who compete in the snowmobile racing circuit are a rugged breed. They have to endure the hardships associated with the race, which can take anywhere between 7 and 14 hours to complete. Several competitors drive the entire race by themselves, with caution flags and pit stops providing the only rest periods. Actually, they count on the race being temporarily stopped several times because of whiteout conditions.
Lake Superior is a gigantic snow generator. As arctic air travels south and hits the warmer air above the lake, it simply cannot hold the moisture. It dumps it on the shoreline in the form of snow. Following a whiteout, the snowplows must first clear the track before the race can continue. The snowmobiles actually race on a prepared surface of approximately 18 inches of ice. Two weeks before the I-500 begins, the track is prepared using millions of gallons of water to create a frozen layer.
Time trials begin a couple of days before the race; times set the field for the start of the race. During the 2007 event John Bosek qualified with the fastest lap and started on the pole. He is such an enthusiastic guy that immediately following his record qualifying lap he celebrated by climbing to the top of a pole for a photo op. However, during the almost-10-hour race that followed (because of red flag whiteout conditions), two fellows who shared the driving, Chad Gueco and Bill Wilkes from Alaska, persevered and took the checkered flag.
The I-500 is set up in a manner similar to NASCAR racing. In addition to qualifying rounds, it uses red, yellow, black, green, and checkered flags. At pit stops the machines are refueled and the drivers have time to grab a hot beverage. The carbide blades on the front skis that provide steering control for the snowmobile are changed frequently. Occasionally, the “track” “” the metal-stud-covered conveyor-type belt that propels the snowmobile forward “” has to be changed. This also can be accomplished during a pit stop.
Between 30 and 40 drivers start the race, and most of them finish. At the first race in 1969, speeds down the back straightaway would reach 75 mph. Today, down that same straightaway, speeds can hit 120 mph. Amazing!
Other Chilly Pursuits
The Michigan shore of Lake Superior, from Sault Ste. Marie west past Marquette, is laced with hundreds, if not thousands, of miles of well-groomed snowmobile trails that beg to be enjoyed. Families from all over the Midwest come to the UP for the express purpose of doing exactly that. Many bring their own machines, but one cottage industry that comes alive every winter is the snowmobile rental business. It’s huge.
Another diversion is ice fishing. People such as Harold Bailey of Blue Heron Fishing Charters in Sault Ste. Marie take entire families (from the total novice to the dyed-in-the-wool ice fisherman) out to catch their limit. Harold’s equipment is very specialized, so anglers not only get to the fish quickly, but they remain safe and comfortable while out on the ice. The price of an outing includes a portable shanty, a propane heater, all of the necessary fishing equipment, and a motorized power auger that drills the holes through the ice. For more information, call (906) 635-5134 or visit www.blueheronfishingcharters.com.
Your chances are good to catch whitefish below the ice, as well as perch, pike, and walleye. Michigan native and former President Gerald Ford loved whitefish and regularly had it flown out to Palm Springs, California, to enjoy when he was living there during retirement. But if you don’t want to go ice fishing, just enjoy a feast with whitefish as the entrée at Antlers Restaurant on East Portage Avenue in Sault Ste. Marie. It’s a combination restaurant and gift shop, with excellent food and ample parking for motorhomes big and small. Call (906) 632-3571 or go to www.antlersgiftshop.com for more information.
Just north of the town of Newberry (an hour drive west of Sault Ste. Marie on State Route 28) is Nature’s Kennel. Ed and Tasha Stielstra offer an experience found in only a few places in North America, and then only during the winter “” dog sledding.
The Stielstras have 150 sled dogs they use to provide visitors a variety of experiences. Options include embarking on a short ride on a dog sled and taking a kennel tour, or driving your own dog team on the 10-mile mini loop at the facility. For a real back-to-nature treat, Nature’s Kennel guides will take you out to spend the night in a comfortable camp equipped with heated tents and bunks for sleeping. You arrive at camp by driving your own five-dog team. The Stielstras have competed in the Iditarod race in Alaska and have ample experience. Visit their Web site, www.natureskennel.com; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; or call (906) 748-0513 for more information.
Another natural adventure awaits south of Sault Ste. Marie (45 minutes) in the town of Cedarville, on the shores of Lake Huron. Woods & Water Ecotours is run by ecologist Jessie Hadley and sea kayak instructor Jim Patrick III. They take beginners and seasoned enthusiasts out on cross-country skis or snowshoes. The two demonstrate how the wilderness can be enjoyed to its fullest without harm to the environment, and they operate nature outings year-round. Call (906) 484-4157 or see www.woodswaterecotours.com for details.
Indoor entertainment is available at Sault Ste. Marie’s Kewadin Casino, with restaurants and a theater that hosts Las Vegas-style shows. The folks at Kewadin really know how to host RV enthusiasts. Plenty of RV parking is available, and inside the ambience is classy and nicely done. Their buffet is excellent (I can provide personal testimony to that) and the shops are first-rate. At the end of any day, this is a good way to wind down. Call (800) 539-2346 for more information, or visit www.kewadin.com.
Winter is a thrill in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, with or without your motorhome. Either way, you’ll find plenty to do.
Sault Ste. Marie Convention and Visitors Bureau
536 Ashmun St.
Sault Ste. Marie, MI 49783
One Cool Snowmobile Race
The 40th International 500 will take place Saturday, February 2, 2008. Qualifying time trials commence on Tuesday, January 29, and continue through Thursday, January 31. On Friday, February 1, children race in their own “Mini Z” snowmobile competition.
In addition to watching the time trials and race, fans can check out merchandise and gifts; enjoy a variety of food and beverages; and see a vintage snowmobile show called “Memories at the Mile.” Admission includes the entire week’s events.
Check out www.i-500.com for more information, or call (906) 635-1500.
Using Your Motorhome In Cold Weather
Operating a motorhome in freezing temperatures certainly can be demanding on its engine and systems, not to mention on you. Here are some suggestions for enjoying yourself in the white stuff while other RVers head south or put their motorhomes in mothballs until spring.
- Does your motorhome manufacturer make a statement relating to cold-weather operation? In years past, certain Canadian-made units especially were advertised as worthy to handle cold weather. Most mainstream RVs are considered fair-weather machines.
- Occasionally, as with any new RV, the horizontally mounted LP-gas tank could inadvertently be contaminated with water. I’m told that LP tanks (when made) are pressure-tested with water. One cannot know in advance whether any given LP tank had, in fact, received a 100 percent purge of this testing water. The system may perform perfectly when it’s warmer, but when the ambient temperature drops down to the low 20s or colder, ice may form in the external pipe between the LP tank’s liquid outlet connection and the LP pressure regulator inlet connection fitting. If so, any water may freeze, creating a total blockage to flow. Without gas flowing from the LP pressure regulator, no appliances will operate “” including the furnace. To eliminate this possibility, have a knowledgeable and properly equipped professional LP provider inject a quantity of methanol into the new unit’s first LP-gas fill. (Verifying the integrity of the LP system could help ensure the generator’s ability to operate AC-powered inline coolant heaters needed to help start the engine; however, unless the engine uses LP gas also, there probably won’t be a liquid line tap in the system.)
- If your coach is powered by a diesel engine, you’ll need to use its block heater and possibly warm the engine oil with a 120-volt-AC external magnetic crankcase heater.
- Having good-quality thermal windows is a valuable asset in any travel, and a must for extreme weather travel at both ends of the thermometer.
- We do not even consider using the fresh-water facilities of our motorhome as we travel in cold weather. However, many newer coaches are equipped with heaters for the holding tanks, so you may be able to use your fresh water.
- Keep tire chains and a big hydraulic jack on hand in the event of a severe snowfall. However, if conditions are such that you need chains, perhaps you should remain in camp until the roads are cleared.
- If you’re going to be staying in a campground and using its fresh water supply, you’ll need an AC-powered heating strip to keep the fresh water line from freezing solid. (Believe me; you do not want to try packing a 25-foot solid hose that will not bend!) Just in case your water line does freeze, if you have heated holding tanks, keep your fresh water tank filled.
- As a backup only, you also may wish to pack along an electric space heater, which can be operated off the generator or shore power.
- Don’t forget to check the basement storage areas for freezable liquids and remove them or bring them inside.
- If you leave the coach unattended for any length of time, be sure to leave the furnace on low to keep inside items from freezing, and to keep moisture from collecting in unwanted locations (closets, electronics, etc.). You also may want to keep the furnace on low while traveling just to keep the entire interior of the coach above freezing, not just the forward section.
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to cold weather traveling in a motorhome, so talk with your fellow campers while you’re doing it. If they are experienced, they’ll have additional tips and suggestions for you.
“”Ray Hobbs, F10175