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Lake Superior's Wild North Shore

Shoreline of Lake Superior near Cascade River

WILDERNESS. A much-used word, almost a cliché, yet in truth most of the populace have never seen it. At least not alone. More than likely we've visited our national parks, monuments, and recreational areas along with hundreds of others. We've driven bumper-to-bumper behind RV's and buses loaded with tourists, all sporting their point-and-shoot cameras. Some of us have even been asked to take that snapshot of the couple locked arm-in-arm in front of Sitting Bull's grave.

I'm not saying the Grand Canyon is any less grand when viewed with a hundred other people, but there are some things in life that you need to experience alone. So when I want wilderness, true wilderness, I go to the northeast tip of Minnesota, one of the last areas in the country where the tourism-machine is still running on low.

Here, Lake Superior crashes into rocky shores, and wolves run through the thick forests opposite the water. A hundred miles from the city of Duluth, the world begins to change. Homes, cabins, and deluxe resorts slowly fade as woods and water overpower the land. On one side of the highway are the waterfalls, tumbling fast and furious, broiling their way through a labyrinth of gorges before emptying into Lake Superior. And it is this mighty body of water, the inland sea, that commands the view from the other side of the highway. Seemingly as vast as the ocean, the blue-green water rises up in a high mist with all the wildness of an untamed stallion.

Of course one must deal with a hundred miles of North Shore tourism first, but even this can be pleasant when one knows they're just passing through. Ships waiting outside Duluth harbor

We begin with Duluth, a city that a Pfeifer-Hamilton publisher once called, "a wilderness heart in an urban environment." With its high hills above the water, this port city is reminiscent of San Francisco. And if you're into ships, or even moderately curious about them, Canal Park is the place to stop. The harbor is located here, and huge ore boats hauling grain and taconite come and go daily. There are also ships from around the world, some of them quite grand, that parade themselves through the breakwater. Visitors may stand along the pier and watch. Most of the voyagers are friendly and there's a lot of waving back and forth.Gull at Canal Park in Duluth

Canal Park is also famous for its ship museum, where guests can see what passenger cabins were like years ago, or get a sense of guiding a ship through the water, with an authentic steering wheel on the observation deck upstairs. Yes, there are plenty of "tourist traps" at Canal Park, but this aside, I find a distinct flavor here - a taste of the ocean coast and one of my favorite things - hundreds of sea gulls that circle the pier. Flying, swooping, in all directions, the gulls' cries are one of the most unbridled sounds I've ever known. And these birds can play a pretty mean game of catch. Just toss up half your sandwich and watch how fast a gull can snatch it between his feet.

At the edge of Duluth's city limits is a picnic area along Superior's shore. Less crowded in the fall, it's a good place to view ships coming or going from the harbor.Ship heading towards Duluth harbor

From here, we take Highway 61 north, where the first town we come across is Two Harbors. Once a remote port on Lake Superior, the city now hums with the sounds of the tourist-machine. Quaint little shops collide with a monstrosity of glaring signs from SuperAmerica, Comfort Inn, and Burger King - who bulldozed acres of old-growth pine to sell their "whoppers." If you're not into the tourist trappings, you can still view ships from the old harbor in the downtown area.

Thirty miles from Two Harbors is the first of seven state parks along the North Shore. Here, at Gooseberry, water tumbles over five waterfalls before flowing into Lake Superior, and most of it can be seen from the highway. With its close proximity to Duluth, 100,000 people a month visit the park. One can only imagine what the campgrounds are like in the summer, but nevertheless, Gooseberry is a beautiful place worth visiting. To really enjoy the park, it's best to get on the hiking trails that take you away from the falls and the multitudes that jump out of their cars to snap a quick picture.Gooseberry Falls

Between Gooseberry and the town of Silver Bay, you'll travel through what was once one of the highest hills on the North Shore and is now a lighted tunnel. Oh, they made it pretty-looking enough, but I would have rather driven past the "mountain" than through its core. For some reason, the state of Minnesota has decided to make a large section of the scenic highway into four lanes. A better way to usher through more tourists, I suppose, most of whom will never leave their cars and bring nothing along with them but car pollution.

One of the most popular Lake Superior scenes is also located along this stretch - Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. In what is surely the most photographed area on the lake, the lighthouse looms high above the craggy cliffs, where below, water rises and falls against the jagged shore. Camping isn't allowed here, but there is an interesting tour of the lighthouse and a history of the grounds surrounding it.

Traveling now beyond Split Rock, we come to Beaver Bay and Silver Bay, respectively, where the taconite factories are in full view. Indeed, to get through Silver Bay one must drive directly under a taconite "shute." The taconite industry is not what it use to be, but you only need to drive slowly through these small towns to get a feel for what once was.

Only a few miles out of Silver Bay is the North Shore's third state park, Tettegouche. Just sixty-six miles from Duluth, the "wildness" of the North Shore begins to raise its head - albeit slowly. Here, as with most of the North Shore parks, the area is divided into two totally different places - the falls and rivers and woods of the park itself and Lake Superior. The highest hills in the state of Minnesota can be found along the North Shore, and from these hills come the rivers that rush madly through deeply carved gorges before emptying into Lake Superior.High Falls at sunrise

At Tettegouche, the Baptism River falls sixty feet into cold-water trout pools. The higher and lower falls can be viewed from a short trail found in the campgrounds. A longer trail leads to a stupendous view of Lake Superior. The campground itself is a couple miles back from the park entrance and the highway and is one of the nicest on the North Shore. Our first visit was late in the fall and there was no one else in the campground. One of the first things I noticed was a huge live-trap for bears near the garbage dumpsters. And if this isn't enough to get you in the "wilderness mood," try sitting around a fire in the utter blackness of a North Shore forest.

The next morning, under a canopy of golden aspens, we took the trail beyond the falls toward Superior, "the big lake they call Kichi Gummi." Crossing a swing bridge over the Baptism River, we walked in and out of the woods along the water until we reached the Park Headquarters parking lot. From here we took the trail out to Shovel Point.Above High Falls at sunrise

The North Shore of Lake Superior is a random alternation of rocky cliffs, pebble beaches, and bold headlands. The landscape owes it character to the erosion of bedrock by running water and glaciers. Glacial action over the last two million years was mainly erosive, resulting in thin soils, scoured lake basins and numerous rock outcroppings. The North Shore drainage pattern is one of short, steep rivers with many waterfalls and deeply-eroded gorges.

Some present-day features, however, are the result of much older geologic processes. About 1.1 billion years ago, North America began to spread apart along a rift that extended from what is now Lake Superior all the way to Kansas. Dense basaltic lava from beneath what is now Lake Superior caused the flows to tilt 10 to 20 degrees to the southeast. Spectacular examples of these lava flows are Palisade Head, one mile southwest of Tettegouche, and Shovel Point.View towards Shovel Point

The walk to Shovel Point at Tettegouche is fairly easy, as most of the path has been well-traveled. There are several picnic tables along the way, with the ever-immense Lake Superior as your backdrop.

The Point itself sticks out like a huge thumb over the water. It's a Lilliputian world filled with tundra lichens and bonsai-trees. There are literally two different weather systems on the Point. One on the southeast portion, and the other on the northwest. On the south side, things seem quiet and benign - a small world hidden from the rest. This is place of soft moss and deer tracks. But as we travel on, things become more barren. Soon we get a view straight down the steep cliffs to the blue-green water below. Here, rocks the size of Volkswagens tell stories of a violent past.Lichen on Shovel Point

At the very end of Shovel point we have reached the northwest portion. A lovely gazebo hangs out over the water, but it's the force of the wind that dominates everything here. This is a wild place with pounding waves, sheer cliffs, and wind gusts that tear your breath away. It's cold, no matter what time of year you visit, but one can't help but admire the power of nature and the exhilaration it never fails to provide.

Approximately twenty miles from Tetteguche, or eighty-one miles from Duluth, is Temperance River State Park and the Cross River Wayside. A region famous for its bare rock cliffs along the water, here the North Shore raises its wild head a bit further.

One of the most fascinating features in the park is the narrow river gorge with its many waterfalls. The rapidly falling river cut deep potholes in the soft lava of the river bed. Over thousands of years these potholes were dug deeper and wider, eventually connecting and creating the deep narrow gorge of today. This is a truly bewitching world of cauldrons and cascades and furious water. The Ojibwe called it "kawimbash" or "Deep Hollow Water." One might ask then, how did it ever come by such a moderate name? It was Thomas Clark who, years later, called the stream the Temperance River because unlike other North Shore streams, this river had no bar at its mouth.

In 1843, Father Baraga, a missionary priest, crossed Lake Superior from the Wisconsin shore and landed safely at the mouth of the Cross River (also located in the park) despite a terrible storm. In gratitude, Father Baraga erected a cross at the river, hence the name Cross River. From then on the Ojibwe called the Cross River the "Tchibaiatigo zibi" or "Wood of the Soul." A sign along the highway points the way to the area.

Some dry potholes can be found in the park adjacent to the Temperance River. They were formed under the river and then left dry when the river moved to a different course or became smaller. There is great hiking among these potholes and cascades of the tumultuous Temperance gorge. It ranks nearly number one with our family. Like a roller-coaster ride, there are chills and thrills around every corner. Our teenagers prefer this type of hiking to any other...right along the swirling water, where they can clamber over the large smooth stones and stand a few moments to contemplate.

There is something about late afternoon along the North Shore in autumn, when the last rays of the sun saturate the aspens with gold, and one can stand alone and listen to the water, watch it mist above the rocks, and almost hear the first cry of the wolves that live here. You take a deep breath and inhale woods and water and ancient stone and know you must get moving , yet you pause just a few seconds longer, needing this sense of something deep and wild and stirring that only this moment can give you.

On the opposite side of the park is the campground. Here is the best of both worlds....the rushing Temperance River and the hugeness of Lake Superior. Sitting around the campfire at night, one can listen to the thundering water of the river while watching the lights of stupendous ore boats as they pass by on Superior.

Campfires have always been a hit with our kids. This is no surprise. One needs only to walk through a campground to see how mankind is still mesmerized by fire. For a lot of people, it is the only time they are sitting and staring at something that isn't on a screen.

One of our kids' favorite activities is to take a long stick, heat it in the fire, and then proceed to make circles of red in the dark. Sometimes the darkness swallows the kids, and the only sign we have that they're still out there is the sudden whirl of red light. When the light finally fades, the kids reappear, only to heat their sticks again and dance around the flames with their swirling branches. I am amazed at how quickly we can become primitive when all we have is a fire in the night. Falls in the Cascade River

On one particular trip, I remember walking to the shower house, and as I looked around at all the fires from my fellow "neighbors," I was struck at how similar this must be to an Indian encampment of old. There we were, grouped around the river, our fires blazing, our food sizzling. Someone was singing, and there was soft laughter. Dogs barked in the distance. There was peace here, a calmness, and though I did not know my neighbor, I had some inner sense that he would help me should I need him.

About 20 miles down the highway is Cascade River State Park. While the Temperance River broils and twists its way to Lake Superior, at Cascade River we have the beauty of falling water. One after another, the cascades plunge deeply or fall gently into the river. Here again we find a diversity of things to do. There are hiking trails that loop the falls, then connect to others that take you up into the Sawtooth Mountains. And if it's water you want, on the other side of the park there are two miles of rugged Lake Superior shore. Cedar growing out of the rocks

One of the more curious things at the park is the incredible tenacity of the trees. Seeming to be part rock themselves, cedar trees grow right out of the iron-hard ground, causing an immediate contrast of green and stone. Located around the falls, they can be seen hanging precariously above the water or growing from what looks like stone roots along the trails.

After spending a day along the river and cascades, we took time to climb Lookout Mountain. The mountain is part of the Sawtooth Chain and rises six hundred feet above Lake Superior. But first one has to get there.

Taking a southwest trail off the Cascade River, we walk through a labyrinth of aspen and popples until reaching Cascade Creek. Here the beauty of the woods in autumn, and in particular, the forest floor, makes us pause for a rest. In what looks like hundreds of tiny trees, green shoots reach for the sun amid a heap of fallen leaves.Green shoots and Fall leaves

The kids are ahead of us, moving swiftly now across the small bridge in their quest to get to the top of Lookout Mountain. Richard and I bring up the rear at a lesser pace, conserving our energies for whatever lies ahead. As we cross the bridge, I notice the water is low. Cascade Creek is just a muddy stream today.

The trek up is not as strenuous as I had thought. The trail moves along like a caterpillar, up a little, down a little, until we reach the top much sooner than I had expected. The kids are already seated on a large rock that juts out over a six-hundred-foot drop off. I walk out carefully to join them.

From here one can see the hills of the Sawtooth Chain for miles. In the fall that means thousands of acres of yellow-leafed aspens. To the east is Lake Superior. It's so vast that its blue water looks like the sky. In fact, at times it hard to tell where the water ends and the sky begins. We sit a while longer until we hear the distant rumble of the Cascade River. Studying the rise and fall of the land, the kids finally pin-point where they believe the river is flowing.

Richard is back now from taking pictures of the area, and we walk away from the overlook and find a picnic table sitting in front of a small wooden shelter. Lunch is brought out from the pack our son is carrying. We rest, we eat, we stare into the multitudes of popples. Then Richard finds a pit toilet that curiously enough locks from the outside. (To prevent wild critters from carrying off the t.p.?) As he goes inside, the kids slide the bolt across the lock and declare it, "the Toilet of Doom."

After lunch, our daughter decides it's time we go the beach. This is her favorite part of the trip or any trip to Lake Superior....hiking along the rugged shoreline. Clambering across the boulders for the first time is a little awkward until you find your "footing." Then one becomes almost addicted to continuing on just to see what lies ahead. Maybe you will find that wonderful pine jutting out over the cliffs or that perfect rock. But the real draw is Superior. And its unbelievable size. Our daughter was born in the sign of the goat, and one can readily understand this as we watch her navigate those craggy slabs. Our son is no slouch on the rocks, either, but prefers getting as close to the waves as possible, then leaping back before he gets his shoes wet. He has varying degrees of success, for just like tag, what fun would there be if you never got "caught?" Richard enjoys a more leisurely pace. His is one of the seeker, looking for discoveries to put on film. I sit high on a rock and watch them all. My gaze travels back and forth from my family to the water. Superior haunts and mesmerizes me. It has since I was a child. This huge, inland sea is dangerous and captivating. Its waters are always restless as though seeking something it can never have. Even on a clear day. Lake Superior shoreline at Grand Marais

Nine miles from Cascade River State Park is the town of Grand Marais. I think of Grand Marais as the cut-off between the common tourist and the true wilderness. Seated on the water, the town of Grand Marais reminds one of a quaint village on the coast of Maine. Superior's waves lap at its feet, and here one can find "Up North" books, art work and apparel in nearly every store along the boardwalk. But don't expect to find many bargains. This "mecca" is geared for the well-off. And so is its lodging.

The Canadian border is only thirty miles away, and the terrain greatly changes from Grand Marais to the port of entry. It is here that we finally leave the average tourist behind. It is here that Superior raises its wild head and runs free. This is the place of wild rivers and wolves and road signs warning of moose crossing. This is the real thing.

The closer one gets to Canada the more dense the woods becomes. Towns are few and far between with populations of one hundred or less. There are no malls here. You'll be lucky to find a gas pump.

Fourteen miles from Grand Marias is Judge Magney State Park. Here the vast waters of Lake Superior open wide, moderating the area climate. Summers are generally cool; winters are usually mild with abundant snowfall. The scenic Brule River races through the park, forming whitewater rapids and waterfalls on its way to Lake Superior. Along the lower stretches of the river, within two miles of Lake Superior, are a series of spectacular waterfalls, namely the famous Devil's Kettle. Above the Devil's Kettle a jutting rock mass divides the river into two sections. The eastern section drops about fifty feet to a pool below, while the western portion plunges into a huge pothole, and according to local legend, disappears forever.Brule River pothole

A neighbor told me that years ago, area teenagers dropped a Volkswagen into the hole and it was never seen again. Of course we were intrigued. Standing above the vortex ,we looked hard for chrome, tires, anything that might suggest that this was so.

The campground at Judge Magney is tucked away among stands of large white spruce. The river is only a stone's throw away, and with it, nearly ten miles of hiking trails can be found. One might catch a glimpse of a moose, deer or black bear. Red fox, coyote, timber wolves and otters inhabit the undeveloped areas of the park.

The woods are dense here. They go on for endless miles and disappear over the Canadian border. As we sit around the campfire, the darkness is like no where else. The sense of wilderness one feels at these moments is difficult to put into words. It's as though you are slightly on edge, anticipating something, anything, at any moment. It's stimulating, this quickening of the heart. And civilization seems light years away. Waves of Lake Superior breaking against the cliffs

Leaving Judge Magney and heading north on Highway 61, we begin the last stretch of North Shore before the border. Three hundred miles from the Twin Cities - some 30 miles from Judge Magney State Park, is Grand Portage (port of entry) and Grand Portage State Park. It's these last thirty-odd miles that are the true wilderness of the North Shore. From here to the border there is nothing but tremendous forests, the Sawtooth Mountains, and Lake Superior. And Superior itself has taken on a new look. Vaster now, she has islands to lure the eye. Victoria. Spar. And the largest of them all...Isle Royale.

As one drives along, it is hard to take it all in. The eye moves over every hill and marvels at its size. And then, just around the next bend, the trees move, and we get another look at the lake....Superior indeed, to all the earth around it. And then there are those wilderness islands. One can easily imagine the early voyageurs, eight to a canoe, paddling rapidly to reach their shore.

And if your imagination is bad, you can visit Grand Portage National Monument, which has a reconstruction of a fur trading post that existed from 1778 until 1803. Inside, the folks are dressed like the 1700's, and there are hourly tours, slide shows and working displays as well. Most impressive are the canoes. The sheer length of the vessels, along with the incredible amount of supplies that were carried - and portaged - has to be seen to be believed. Another feature at the post is a three-hour boat trip across the wild waters of Lake Superior to Isle Royale National Park.

Grand Portage State Park is run by the Ojibwe. This is their land, their country, and who but they could know it better? Here, one can find a short and pleasant boardwalk to Minnesota's highest waterfall, the 120-foot High Falls on the Pigeon River. Also worth checking out is the visitor's center, where information can be obtained about the area. There are lots of great books to buy here too that will take one back to the North Shore long after the trip is over. Lake Superior shoreline in Winter

This is the end of the line for Minnesota’s portion of the Shore. But Superior continues on into Canada, its vastness opening like a window into eternity. It is beautiful here during any season, but it is in autumn and winter particularly that Superior’s “wildness” cries loudest. Edward Abbey sums it up best in his book Desert Solitaire: “They have left me alone here in the wilderness, at the center of things, where all that is significant takes place.”

Going home is always hard. I turn my head and look out the back window to see the lake for the last time before we climb the hill and rejoin the smoky swamps we call civilization. Superior will be here for my next visit, but I always wonder will it be the same?

Will I ?

If you enjoyed this article, check out the other photos and stories listed under Minnesota's State Parks above.

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Copyright ©1998 Judi Schiller, Richard Schiller

February 17, 1998