Weekend in Minnesota along Lake Superior


Friday, August 23, 2002:


After my first week of work at Microsoft I took off from Fargo at 4:30pm. I hit the Interstate Highway less than 1/2 mile away from the office campus. Then I pretty much set the cruise control to 70 mph and spent the next 4 hours straight going East across Minnesota...


Now that I had just relocated last weekend to Fargo-Moorhead I am new to the area. From looking at the Minnesota state map I figured there is plenty of interesting things to see East of the state line: Minnesota - land of 10.000 lakes (license plate slogan) - offers a variety of attractions in the northern part. Mostly lakes, one of them is the origin of the mighty Mississippi river, and above all the Lake Superior, the western-most of the Great Lakes.


Lake Superior has a very scenic shoreline at its North Shore all the way up to Canada; this shore drive is my real destination for the upcoming weekend.


My goal for the day was Duluth, the harbour town at the western most tip of Lake Superior. I made it to Duluth just after sunset. The sky was still bright and slowly transitioning from yellow to light-blue to dark-blue to black. Following some instinct I found the harbour area (Canal Park) right away and parked the car: I had covered 253 miles nonstop in almost exactly 253 minutes!

The harbour has a nice boardwalk with several signs indicating some of the 150 year history of this harbour. Lake Superior has the largest surface of all fresh water bodies on this planet. There is enough water in this lake to cover all of the North and South American continents with 1 foot of water! The Lake offers many superlatives, with 200 rivers flowing in it and all sorts of shore, mostly wild with forest, some of it sandy beaches, some rugged cliffs etc. The bottom of one of the plates on the boardwalk states: "It is quite possibly the most beautiful lake in the world."

When I got here, there were plenty of people lined up along the canal leading to the inner sheltered harbour area. There are three large bridges connecting Duluth on the Minnesota and Superior on the Wisconsin side. One of them is the Aerial Lift bridge built in 1905. It is a huge steel bridge across this canal, which has a unique mechanism to lift the entire 393 ft wide structure up to 135 ft above the water to let big ships pass underneath. Most people actually waited to see a big 600+ ft container ship pass under the bridge. Or did they wait to see the spectacular full moon rise out of the water to the East over Wisconsin into the crystal-clear night sky? Or was it the fireworks they displayed at 9:00pm a few miles to the South? Or was it just the beautiful scenic view from the canal light-house back to the city of Duluth perched up against the hills to the North-East of the Lake harbour? Probably it was a combination of all the above - and I considered myself lucky to have arrived just in time for all this!


I decided to check into one of the restaurants with my Laptop to write these lines while the memory was still fresh. (And later there would probably not be enough time anyway...) It was past midnight when I finished my diary and the late mexican dinner with huge icecream - uff...


I decided to just park in Duluth up top on the Skyline Parkway and call it a day. This spot offers a wonderful view of the harbour town - reminds me of Vancouver, except it's much smaller here. I did not bring a sleeping bag, but since it was so late and warm outside I could easily sleep a couple of hours with open windows.


Saturday, August 24:


I first drove up to a scenic lookout tower on top of the hills north of Duluth. This is dedicated in honor of Norwegian Bert Enger, who lived and contributed to this community in the early 19th century. There are many Scandinavian buildings here - the cultural heritage is quite evident here. The morning sun painted the Lake and Duluth in a beautiful yellow light. I hit the road again heading north up the shoreline... There are plenty of State Parks up the north shore of Lake Superior. Mostly little river creeks or State Forests, nothing too exciting, but still worth a drive.


My first lenghty stop was at Gooseberry Falls State Park. A little stream cascades down over several waterfalls - it looks really nice. They have a fancy visitor center and sidewalks, but all in all quite nice. The signs educate about the history of how this shoreline was developed to tourism in the early part of the 19th century. Prior to tourism, this area was mostly reached by boat over the Lake. I walk some trails for about one hour, see one snake, wonder when the first of the local tourists will plunge into the water as they climb all over the rocks and then head on up the northshore drive.










The next stop is Split-Rock Lighthouse Historic Monument. This lighthouse perches up on a 60 ft near vertical rock cliff. It offers exciting views of the shoreline. There are plenty of historic documents relating to desastrous storms and the many ship-wrecks they caused. Today, many of these offer fine wreck-diving. The fresh water of Lake Superior is very clear, but on average only about 40 Fahrenheit (4 Celsius). So you need a good wetsuite to handle that cold under water! Another point of interest is the technology used for the light and the immensly loud fog-horn!


It is a loooong drive all the way up to the Canadian border at Grand Portage near Thunder Bay. From Grand Portage there is a ferry connection over to Isle Royale, a long strechted island about 20 miles off shore. It belongs to Michigan and is a National Park. Unfortunately you have to be at the dock in the morning at 8:00am to catch the ferry for a daytrip. Overnight trips are also available. This will have to wait for another time...

Occasionally there is an Indian reservation like down in the Everglades in Florida. Whereever there is one of them, you can almost bet there is also a casino, as the gambling is illegal in most states, but allowed in Indian reservations! Quite a stark contrast to the otherwise pristine and wild nature all around.


Spontaneously I figure I have a cup of coffee in Canada. Upon entry however, there is quite a long wait, since they are processing vehicles at a speed of about 1 every 5 minutes. So I run out of patience and turn around in between the US and Canadian border posts. Consequently, I have to reenter the US! They give me a bit of a run-around, as my story doesn't sound quite plausible to them. Florida license plate, North Dakota rental car, says is working in Fargo, coming from Canada? No, from Duluth, just turned around... - they probably think, what is he up to? I am afraid they will search my trunk, as I have the brandnew PC from Microsoft with me - wouldn't sound too plausible either... But when they see my passport and greencard, they let me pass ...

On the return trip I stop at the Lutsen Ski Mountains! Yes, there are some 200m hills with several ski slopes cut out of the forest and a couple of skilifts. They even have a summer alpine slide ("Rodelbahn") and a ski-resort at the bottom. Hard to imagine, but people come here in spring like we go to the French alps for 1 week of skiing! The top of the mountain offers the best view of the Lake and the forest back country.


Down at the skiresort, I check out a restaurant and they have such a beautiful deck out towards the west, I just decide to have dinner a bit early and right there on the sunny patio outside. What a marvellous view and mood! I think by myself, what the best dinners out on decks with vistas like this have been?


I don't immediately remember locations more beautiful than this. But then, there were the Virgin Islands with Tannaz in 2000, there was Fes in Morocco with Frank in 1999, there was the harbour dinner in Seattle with family in 1998, there were some evenings in the Pinzgau in Austria in the ealry 90s, and even longer ago there were some nice lunch stops at ski resorts in Austria and France in the 80s I thought you just have to remind yourself of the many beautiful things you were lucky enough to experience in the past.


As much as I would have liked to stay a bit longer, I want to finish the return drive to Duluth with daylight, so I have to get going. The return trip is uneventful, the smooth jazz of Nelson Rangell's album "always" (I bought the CD since I couldn't bring any CDs or my stereo last weekend) paints the quiet lake waters with the evening sun into a very peaceful setting - what a wonderful day it has been with perfect clear skies and everything worked out perfect!


I return to Duluth and talk to the owner of a wilderness shop about the price of sea-going kayaks (very expensive - about $2000 - $3000). I figure I will need one of these to explore the many lakes of Minnesota via the water.

Then I return to the same pattern as yesterday and check into a restaurant / bar with my Laptop to write down the events of the day and transfer the pictures from my Kodak camera to the PC. Let's get ready for tomorrow!


Sunday, August 25:

Like the day before, I went up to the Enger scenic lookout tower: Today the weather is even better than yesterday - absolutely clear and almost no wind, temperatures will be around 80 F. With new batteries in the camera I take a couple of pictures of Duluth in the crisp morning light.


After a quick refill of the car's and my own tank I head over to the Wisconsin side and the south shore. My goal for today are the Apostle Island National Shoreline - a protected wilderness area, similar in status to a National Park. Much of this area is owned by Indian tribes with French sounding names.


The drive is through rolling hills and farms with lots of open space. My first stop is at a nice little restauarant, the kind of old town "we-cook-like-mom" breakfast place with friendly people and huge breakfasts. I have two fresh, larger than my plate pancakes with strawberries and coffee, all for $3.50


Carrying on I finally reach Bayfield, the touristic center for the Apostle Islands. There is a visitor center here and plenty of tourist information. In the back of my mind I recall a cover story of the Outside magazine several months ago featuring the Apostle Islands as a Kayak wilderness paradise. Consequently, I check out the facilities to rent a Kayak.


Unfortunately, I am turned away by the first two big places I go to, because they require you to do a safety class with them prior to renting their kayaks. They say conditions on Lake Superior are unpredictable and due to the rather cold water, it can be dangerous when winds whip up big waves in a hurry. I am here at 10:00am, but they are either out on a day trip or just about finished with their morning safety class out on the water. They just offer to come back the next day or weekend! Here I am, on this perfect day, and there are all these kayaks waiting to be rented and put out to the waters around those beautiful islands, but no can do - What a pity!


Just before I turn to investigate for a 3-hour ferry sightseeing trip, I check out one more small adventure outfitter (www.glaciervalley.com ) next to a campground. I walk in and meet with the adventure business owner Ken; apparently he is on his day off and is just there chatting to the campground manager! No rentals today! I explain my story to him and that I do have some experience with Kayaks from the Atlantic in Florida and the Pacific on Vancouver Island. After a quick discussion he changes his mind along the lines: What is a Kayak expert to do on a perfect day like this: Well, he goes kayaking!

So he agrees to do a guided tour with me as the only client to his favorite island. What a change of fortune: From a near miss just momemts ago I am now facing a tour in one of the most scenic areas around, ona day with perfect conditions, in a custom-built wooden kayak ("the best you will ever paddle in"), with an expert guide just for myself going to his favorite spot, Sand Island, featuring sea caves, white sand beaches and a beautiful light house on top.


It takes a bit of practice to get used to the small, but nimble and agile boat. For the next 4 hours or so we confine ourselves to the narrow bodies of these two wooden kayaks. Ken says that his boat has been featured in the Kayaking magazine for its special design and qualities. I learn quite a bit about the Greenland paddles and some advanced techniques and safety equipment. We set out across a 3 1/2 mile stretch of open water to reach the island in about 1 hour. There we arrive to some sandstone cliffs. Erosion has created a series of overhangs and sea caves here, which can be safely explored today for the lack of any waves. It's magnificent, a true highlight of any Kayaker's career! I take some pictures and follow Ken through some very shallow, dark enclosures. Amazing, where you can go with these small boats!


We carry on forward halfway around the island and pass a beautiful light-house. From the beach I hike back a short trail to the light-house, which has been built in 1881 to support the shipping industry some 120 years ago. It's operation has been automated around 1950, but it has been very well conserved and is shown to tourists, who arrive here on larger boats and walking across the island. After a few scenic photos from the top of the light-house I head back to the beach. It's about 1 mile long, we are the only people here, and the sand is almost white and very fine - except for the different trees (no palms here!) and the fresh water it could just as well be on a lonely beach anywhere in the Carribean.

On the way back we once again float by the caves and have a good time. The sun is beating down, it's warm but with a gentle, cool breeze and crystal clear waters all around. This has got to be one of the finest days of kayaking, even Ken is excited. The only little problem I have is that the boat is a bit too small for me, so I cram my feet in there and almost cramp from having to stretch the legs in so tight. When we finally get back around
4:00pm, I take a swim in the wetsuite provided by Ken against the cold waters (my guess on water temperature: mid 50's). Opening the eyes under waters reveals some of the splendor of this lake, crystal-clear and no salty burn in the eyes...


Even though this is a great area and the afternoon sun paints a glorious mood onto the shores, I have to go: 300 miles and 5 hours of driving lay ahead of me to get back to Fargo tonight. I just head West going back to Duluth and then crossing Minnesota back all the way I came on Friday evening. Watching the setting sun in front of me and listening to my CDs in the car I am thinking about the marvellous experience I just had kayaking the Apostle Islands. What a perfect day it was!


When I finally get back after 10:00pm my trip odometer in the car shows a bit over 1.000 miles for the weekend. Falling in my bed I am still feeling the gentle rocking movement of the kayak around the sea caves of Sand Island...