Of all the traveling we’ve done on this 4,000-mile Verizon Great Lakes Roadtreking Shoreline Tour, Lake Superior’s North Shore in Wisconsin and Minnesota has provided the most diverse scenery to date.
Up there, as we rounded the US-side of the lake and started heading north to Canada, especially north of Duluth, we were overwhelmed by the sheer size of the Big Lake the Ojibwe call Gitchegume.
It is so big it has tides.
That was the first thing we learned as we moved from the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness Area at the far western end of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula into Wisconsin and Minnesota.
At the Northern Great Lakes Visitors Center near Ashland, WI, a huge floor-mounted model of the big lake greets visitors just inside the lobby and National Park Service employees answer questions and provide orientation to the detailed displays about the Lake Superior Region.
That’s where we learned about Superior’s tidal fluctuations – changes in water level caused by the gravitational forces of the sun and moon. To be sure, the changes are measured in inches, but the movement, sometimes aided by winds and snow melt and known as a seiche (pronounced “say-she”) is yet another Superior fact that helps us appreciate the big lake.
The Ashland area is the gateway to yet another National Lakeshore on Lake Superior – the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, where 21 islands and 12 miles of mainland make for dazzling displays of windswept beaches and cliffs, much like the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore a few hundred miles east in Munising, MI.
Ashland itself caught our eye. Beautiful murals depicting the city’s martitime history and it’s once boomtown days adorn the sides of many of the downtown buildings, The murals are huge, some two stories high, others covering almost an entire block. They are a tourist attraction in themselves.
Wisconsin soon gave way to Duluth, MN, the port city where so many of the big iron ore and grain carrying freighters we have been seeing during our Great Lakes tour pick up their loads.
But our first destination on the tour of Superior’s North Shore was Spirit Mountain, a ski area just outside of Duluth where we dropped in with a group of amateur radio operators to observe the old technology that led to today’s cell phone technology. Our Roadtreking Buddy Dave Miller, who we met last year while covering a dog sled race in the area, took us up to the area. We ended up spending the night there in our Roadtrek Etrek RV, boondocking in the parking lot.
It was Field Day, an annual weekend event in which ham radio operators set up antennas and emergency-powered radio transmitter to practice their communication skills with Morse Code and single sideband voice transmission for community service deployment during times of emergency.
“This is the technology that makes today’s smartphones possible,” said Dennis Anderson, one of the Minnesota radio volunteers. Several of the hams were using their smartphones right next to their radios, checking weather apps and checking in with social media.
From Duluth, we headed north along the Superior shoreline. The lake is so cold that dense fog often forms as the warm air collides with the chilly temps off the lake. We'd be driving in perfect, 70-degree weather, only to turn a corner and come closer to the coastline and have the blue sky obliterated by thick fog that dropped the temperature almost 20 degrees. We'd round another bend and the fog would lift and it would be sunny and warm again.
The North Shore is a stunning place of sandstone cliffs, rushing streams and cascading waterfalls. We hiked back to several and could have easily spend several days in the area.
In the town of Grand Marais, 110 miles north of Duluth and not too far from the Canadian border, we found the North House Folk School where thousand of students from across the country come each year to learn how to do things long forgotten by most people, skills such as blacksmithing, basket weaving and wood carving.
“In this low touch, high tech world, we teach high touch, low tech,” said Greg Wright, the executive director. “There’s a joy to working with your hands.”
We watched a group of guys finish up a beautiful wooden canoe. Several days before, it was a pile of sticks. We met a couple from Northern Michigan who were building a yurt, to be used as a guest room for friends who visited them in the log cabin they have in the woods, a log cabin they learned how to build at the North House Folk School a few years ago. And in the kitchen, we watched as a group of women were cooking with local plants and fruits.
We fell in love with Grand Marais, MN, especially the local restaurants.
A place called The Angry Trout Cafe is a must try if you’re in the area. It’s a very unimposing place, located right on the water in a low slung, multi-roomed ramshackle building that was cobbled together out of an old commercial fishing shanty. But the food, especially the salmon, was the best we’ve every had. The menu is based on the bounty of Lake Superior and the surrounding region – locally-grown produce, hand-harvested wild rice, and of course, their specialty, fresh Lake Superior fish.
For lunch the next day, a couple blocks up the main drag, another restaurant, the Crooked Spoon Cafe, also blew us away.
The World’s Best Donuts is a tiny little bakery in Grand Marais that has people lined up and out the door every morning. Run by a fifth-generation donut making family, the donuts really may be the world's best. I've never had anything like them.
And down towards Twin Harbor, Betty’s Pies makes a raspberry-rhubarb pie to die for.
For camping, there are several excellent Minnesota State Parks between Duluth and Grand Marais. Gooseberry Falls State Park and Tettegauche State Park were two of our favorites and are right near the lake and various streams and waterfalls. Split Rock Lighthouse State Park has a gorgeous lighthouse. In town, the Grand Marais city campground is huge, with 300 sites located on the harbor and lakeshore and within walking distance to town.
There's s saying about Minnesota that applies to the people born and raised in Minnesota, folks who are friendly, welcoming, courteous, reserved, and mild-mannered. “Minnesota nice,” is what they are. You can even buy T-shirts up there with that slogan.
The state itself, though, especially that North Shore is…. well… Superior.
Seriously fellow Roadtrekers, you owe it to yourselves to spend some time up there. Late summer or early fall would be the times I'd suggest. We sure won't need much convincing to return.