The Rise and Fall of Lac La Belle, the Hidden Gem of Copper Country

Sunset over Lac La Belle after a long evening of paddling. The air is still, the water is glass.

Lac La Belle/ Bete Grise – Keweenaw County – Michigan

A Point North

By Mikel B. Classen

The Keweenaw Peninsula in Michigan is a rough and rugged place. It is full of ghost towns, abandoned mines, lighthouses, waterfalls, and remarkable beauty. The discovery of copper there, turned it into a thriving region that made millionaires and then paupers of the same men. Communities were carved out of the Lake Superior wilderness and then died as quickly as they rose. Like many places in Copper Country, Lac La Belle rose as a community during the days of the copper rush.

 

But, long before the copper rush, the mineral had been mined and sought after. For thousands of years the natives had mined the soft metal, pulling it from the ground with their bare hands and then pounding it into ornaments and weapons. This early “copper culture” mined millions of tons throughout the Keweenaw Peninsula and Isle Royale. Near Lac La Belle, one of the largest archaeological finds of “copper culture” artifacts was discovered. Like those that came later, the copper of the Keweenaw was a commodity for the natives that gave them wealth and stature.

Lac, La Belle Marina. It is a public access for Lac La Belle and Lake Superior for the area.

Lac La Belle was dubbed “beautiful lake” by the early French trappers and lies south east of Copper Harbor on the Keweenaw Bay side of the peninsula. It is as far north as one can go on the east side of the Keweenaw Peninsula. The name “beautiful lake” still fits. Lac La Belle was probably long ago a part of Lake Superior because it sits so close the Beta Grise bay shoreline.  It is overlooked by Mount Bohemia, one of the tallest of the Keweenaw mountains. Today the mountain supports a ski resort but over a century ago it supported much more.

A very grey Bete Grise bay on a very grey Lake Superior Day.

Bete Grise means “Grey Beast” and was supposedly given because of sightings of a strange unidentifiable grey creature that roamed the area. Another explanation for the name is that the Natives burned the blueberry bogs and the smoke hung over the lake and looked like a grey beast. My personal feelings are that it was given the name because on some days, Lake Superior can take on a dark grey look that can be frightening. I suspect that the “beast” is Lake Superior. Another legend of Bete Grise is that the sand at the beach here, “sings.” It is from a legend of a Native woman that lost her husband to Lake Superior and the noise from the sand is her calling to him. It is a kind of squeaking sound that the sand makes when you hit it hard with your hands or feet. I have noticed this phenomena along other parts of Lake Superior including Grand Sable Dunes and always thought it was pretty cool that you could make the sand squeak.

Lac La Belle is located on the east or “lee” side of the Keweenaw Peninsula. The west side, which includes Copper Harbor and Eagle Harbor, could see rough weather on a regular basis. It made it hard to ship copper from these ports due to Lake Superior’s unpredictability. Lac La Belle was connected to Lake Superior and Bete Grise bay by the Siby River, which no longer exists. A canal was dug and what used to be the river is now the Mendota Canal.  It was an ideal port for shipping the riches of the Keweenaw.

Loading copper in the Keweenaw. This gives some idea of the amount that was being removed from the Peninsula. Though this wasn’t taken in Lac La Belle, it IS from Copper Country and Illustrates what Lac La Belle looked like at the time.

As early as the 1860’s Lac La Belle was looked at as an alternative harbor by the Mendota Mining Company which was mining copper and silver a few miles to the north.  When it was dug, the lake became a hub of activity as a railroad was built connecting the area to mining throughout the Keweenaw. A smelting and stamp mill was built at the base of Mt. Bohemia and Lac La Belle soon filled with ships waiting to pick up loads of copper and lumber. Traffic was heavy enough that by 1870 a lighthouse had been established at the Canal mouth on Lake Superior marking the entrance to the harbor of refuge. The Mendota/ Bete Grise Lighthouse, it’s known by both names, still stands today. By the 1880s the region was thriving.

This is how the Mendota Lighthouse and and canal looked in its heyday. It still stands today with with a very different view.

Though mines were working in the surrounding hills, Lac La Belle was quietly being discovered for another reason. Fishing. The lake was teeming with perch, bass, pike, and walleye. Around the turn of the century, sportsmen became regular visitors to the area and as the mines played out and slowly died, Lac La Belle transformed. It became a place for sportsmen and tourists. Resorts grew up at the base of Mount Bohemia along the lake shore. It remains so today.

The tiny hidden community of Lac La Belle, is located in one of the most picturesque places in the Keweenaw peninsula. Nestled in the valleys of Mt. Bohemia and Mt. Houghton, the lake reaches towards Lake Superior. A channel allows the lake to flow out past the iconic Mendota Lighthouse located at Bete Grise harbor. Because there is no campground at Lac La Belle, few of the countless visitors to Copper Harbor venture down to this windswept point and see the eastern shore of the Keweenaw and of Lake Superior.

Outdoor Recreation Level: Expert. This pulled into the Gas pump at the Bear Belly Inn at Lac La Belle. I was impressed.

The small resorts surrounding the lake, some over a century old, are amazing places to stay. With private cabins and boat rentals, these places can provide a vacation that is comfortable and pleasant. I’ve found from experience, staying in these small resorts can be much less expensive than staying in a  motel and in some cases less than a campground. Their comforts, most of them are fully functional cabins with baths, showers and dinettes, are those of a small home.

This is the cabin I stayin while in Lac La Belle. It’s a great place to come back to after a long day.

Haven Falls runs through the heart of the small community and is surrounded by a small but beautiful park. This little stop should be a part of any trip to the Keweenaw Peninsula. If nothing else, a picnic next to a waterfall and a lake is something you don’t get everywhere.

Haven Falls has a nice little park surrounding it that is an ideal place for a picnic.

Many of the resorts rent kayaks and boats. Lac La Belle is an incredible place to paddle. With both Mt. Bohemia and Mt. Houghton overlooking the lake, it is a sight only found in the Keweenaw. Through the canal and past the Mendota Lighthouse into Lake Superior is a memorable paddle. (Caution: the convergence into Lake Superior can be treacherous.) When I paddled it, there was little breeze and a calm sunny day. It was idyllic. I found myself periodically just floating, taking it all in.

Paddling Lac La Belle with Mt. Bohemia in the background.

When I got back into shore, I went to the Bear Belly Inn, next to where I was staying and had a cheeseburger and a beer. While I was in the area, I ate here a lot. An excellent place to eat and relax, it also sports a store and has gas. You can rent a boat or kayak here.

This is the interior to the Bear Belly Inn. Great food and beer here, especially their egg rolls.

The old railroad grades of the mining days are now ATV trails that crisscross through the peninsula taking riders into the depths of the Keweenaw wilderness through ghost towns and old mining ruins.

Instead of mining, Mt. Bohemia now supports a ski hill, resort, and an excellent restaurant. There is also a public beach along the Lake Superior shoreline. A drive to the end of the road, there is only one, will take you to the canal and face to face with the Mendota lighthouse on the other side.

The Mendota / Bete Grise Lighthouse as it appears today. Nearly enshrouded by pines it is now private property.

Lac La Belle has always been a favorite place of mine in the Keweenaw. The drive on the eastern shore of the Keweenaw, known as the Gay/Lac La Belle Road, is rarely traveled and reveals some of the nicest Lake Superior scenery of any drive. This tiny hidden place in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is one of the overlooked gems of Lake Superior.

For more information on Lac La Belle and the opportunities it offers go here: https://www.keweenaw.info/keweenaw-peninsula/lac-la-belle/

The evening sunset colors the sky around Mt. Bohemia which watches over the lake below.

3 thoughts on “The Rise and Fall of Lac La Belle, the Hidden Gem of Copper Country

  1. Mt.Bohemia was ranked third best hill to ski in north america.That fact makes me believe it deserves more coverage.

  2. I’m the guy in the picture of the Polaris RZR outside of Bear Belly! It made my day to have this piece shared with me by the owner and driver of said vehicle, a dear friend, who was sent this by his cousin! What a true delight to see one of our many adventures in the Keweenaw encapsulated here in your work.

    • I saw you guys pull in with that rig, and i;m thinking, “Dudes,you’re crazy but you’re cool.” I was staying in the cabin right there. It’s great to hear you guys saw it. Absolutely awesome.

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