Welcome to a potpourri of book reviews, dreams, photography, poems, ruminations, and stories. Scroll down, explore, ponder, and share if you like.
One of my favorite photos from a July 2013 visit to the northern Midwest — the Rock of Ages light near Isle Royale National Park, taken from the boat that ferries visitors to the island.
Like other men, my dad participated in the ritual of mowing the lawn a couple of times a week. For a family living in a trailer, we had a fair amount of lawn to cover, later reduced by the installation of a shed in the middle of the side yard. Our extra lawn and garden came about when our landlord, Frank, allowed us the use of the portion of field next to our trailer, which was at the end of the row.
My dad, ever economy minded, cut his grass using a push reel mower propelled only by the engine of his body. Consisting of an axle and blades between two wheels attached to a handle, the push reel mower could be operated with little effort over grass that had not turned into tall grass prairie or hay, and that wasn’t too full of lumps or sticks and twigs. I’d not be surprised if he had picked up his mower at the same junkyard that was the source of my first bicycle.
Push reel mowers are so easy and safe to operate that even a child of a certain age and over can do it (8+?). At a certain point, preferring outdoor chores to indoor ones like washing dishes, I began to help with the task of mowing the lawn, or at least part of it. I doubt my dad was patient enough to let me finish every time because, as he often said, “We haven’t got all day!”
The push reel mower offers many advantages:
- It requires little storage space. Many models can even be hung on the wall in the garage or shed.
- It requires little maintenance. On rare occasions, my dad took ours to a friend to get the blades sharpened.
- To get started, simply take it off the wall, set on grass, adjust height if necessary, and push. There’s no filling up with gas, pulling cords, plugging in cords, or starting.
- According to what I’ve read, slicing grass with a push reel mower is better for your lawn’s health and leaves it looking better.
- As noted above, it’s safer around children (and pets). I won’t transform rocks into missiles, it’s unlikely to amputate limbs or kill anyone, and it can be stopped as quickly and easily as you can stop in your tracks.
- It’s quiet. You can mow your grass at any time without waking the neighbors or causing yourself hearing loss. The only sound you’ll hear from the mower is the satisfying snk snk snk of grass being cut and work being done. It’s so quiet that you probably won’t even disturb any cottontails that are looking on unless you get too close.
- With no fuel needed except your most recent meal, no exhaust fumes except your own (ahem), and no waste, it’s an environmentally friendly way to keep your grass trimmed to homeowners association standards. Don’t worry about collecting the clipped grass tops — they smell great and are good for the lawn. If you’re set on collecting clippings, you can get a bag for some models.
- You’ll get some much-needed exercise. The obesity epidemic is a result (in part) of not having enough work to do, forcing Americans to go to the gym. Why do fake work when you can enjoy the satisfaction of the real thing and see its results in real time?
As for disadvantages, unless your lawn is enormous, lumpy, weedy, or overgrown, or sports a variety of tough grass, or you have a heart or other medical condition that makes a miniature workout complete with sweat risky, I can’t think of any. Just be sure to wear sunblock, insect repellent, and a hat as you would for any outdoor activity.
In addition to following my dad or pushing the mower myself, creating those neat rows of cropped grass, I have another fond but bittersweet memory associated with our old mower. The friend who sharpened the blades had a son, Billy, who was about my age. We chased each other and rough housed with abandon. I always looked forward to any chance to see Billy.
We didn’t visit Billy and his dad often, but one day we set out with the mower in the back of the van. I may have been between 10 and 12 and was eager to see my playmate again. Alas, it was not to be. When we arrived, we learned that Billy was afflicted with a some childhood disease (measles, I think) and was quarantined in his bedroom. All Billy and I could do was wave sadly to each other, he from his window, I from the gravel road. The wooded area around the house was part of the attraction of visiting Billy. It felt like a magical place.
As it would turn out, I would see Billy only one more time, when he and his dad stopped by several years later. Although I knew we’d no longer be playmates in the same carefree way, I was still looking forward to their arrival. Sadly, in the intervening years, Billy (now Bill, I’m sure) had morphed into a shaggy, sullen, awkward, and dull teenager who didn’t seem to remember me. He ignored me for the duration. In my unformed and moralistic mind, he’d been transformed from the happy, wholesome hero of a Scholastic Books mystery into a future hoodlum if not serial killer. Or decadent rock star. I never saw him again, and now I can’t remember his last name to see what became of him or if he outgrew that nasty teenage phase. It may seem a small thing, but I felt disenchanted with growing up and the changes wrought by the process.
As my dad aged, he let his garden go and to my horror replaced the push reel mower with an electric model. It wasn’t as noisy as a gas mower, but it was too newfangled for my taste. I wasn’t allowed to use it as my dad was convinced I’d run over the cord — to me, the constant fighting with the long, inconvenient cord looked more difficult than pushing the old mower!
One summer after I’d graduated, my aunt (his youngest sister) from Washington, D.C., and I visited him at the same time, perhaps after one of his health events. He decided to mow the grass after supper one day. No, no, no, my aunt signaled to me with her eyes. “Diane, why don’t you mow the grass?” No, no, no. On the one side, my dad, still didn’t trust me not to run over the cord. On the other stubborn side, my aunt didn’t want him to do any work in his condition. For my part, I didn’t want to use the mower because I knew he didn’t want me to and I knew how he’d react if I did. My aunt assumed I was being my legendarily lazy self and glared at me. I wasn’t going to win, and my dad wasn’t going to be happy.
As my dad hovered and fretted, I got the mower out, plugged it in, started it, and got to work, mindful at all times of the cord and thinking how much easier it would have been to mow with the old push reel mower. As I walked back and forth, my dad followed, haranguing me and nearly working himself into another apoplexy. There were some things I couldn’t do right, and this was one of them. My feelings ranged from resentment (toward my aunt) to bemusement to amusement. After I finished and had put the darn thing away, she said quietly, “I’m so sorry.” And she meant it.
Remember, push reel mowers can be operated by even the most mechanically inept teenager or overgrown adult you happen to have around the house. In the popular spirit of DIY, use one today!
As a follower of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore on Facebook, I saw mention of Maple Sugar Time event on their timeline, along with a series of maple sugar-related questions leading up to it to generate interest. I persuaded J. to go on Sunday, March 8. Often such events are geared to children and families, but I enjoy them and usually learn a little something — for example, I didn’t know this is the only National Park System location that makes maple syrup. (I didn’t know any National Park System location makes maple syrup.)
I love maple syrup and maple sugar candy, which goes back to the early days of my existence — perhaps second grade. One of my few strong memories from that time is of a visit to a western New York farm that produced maple sugar. I don’t know how the idea for this particular field trip came about — perhaps the family had a child in my class or school — but at the time I didn’t get out much, so I was eager for the change-up to the routine and the adventure.
I seem to recall a magical, misty, dark day — the kind that seems to be twilight from sunrise to sunset. The taps in the trees, the steam rising in clouds from the vats, and at the end getting a teeny bag of maple sugar candy to take home. The strong, sweet taste of that candy hooked me for life.
The farm had draft horses, and we may have gone for a wagon ride. I’m not sure about that, or about my memory of the horses steaming in the chilly air, but that at that moment my lifelong love for horses began.
All of this was going through my mind on the way to Indiana Dunes. My directions were bad, so we ended up at Indiana Dunes State Park, where we were surprised to see the stream and beach transformed. There was little water in what was left of the stream, and we couldn’t see the lake or the Chicago skyline over the piles of snow-topped sand along the edge of the beach, almost like a breakwater. Signs warned visitors not to walk on the shelf ice, although some people ventured onto the stream’s ice to climb the piles. The sand was firmer than it is the rest of the year, making it much easier than usual to cross the beach.
At last we found our way to the Chellberg Farm, where Maple Sugar Time was being held. Friendly souls invited us into a tent for a 3 p.m. breakfast of pancakes, sausage, coffee, and, of course, maple syrup, all for $6. As if that weren’t enough of a bargain, they decided to close shop as we were eating, so they gave us leftover sausages.
Our next stop was the gift ship, where you can bet I bought maple syrup, maple sugar candy, and maple cream, all from Harris Sugar Bush in Indiana. It’s very bad for me, I know, but I get a taste of maple sugar when I can, which is rare. It brings back those memories.
As we walked from station to station, we picked up interesting facts and details about the maple sugaring process and industry — for example, Vermont produces 40 percent of our nation’s maple syrup, while New York is next with 18 percent. Pennsylvania (4 percent) is further down the list, but Illinois and Indiana don’t make the cut. A volunteer who was cooking sap in a pot over an open fire showed us that you can tell when the it’s done by dipping a metal ring into it — like soap in a bubble ring, the cooked syrup forms a film across the ring.
I heard a woman talking about cooking sap in her house, but the volunteer recommended cooking outdoors only although I didn’t hear why. Farther along, I saw why, and remembered my second-grade adventure. Steam rose thickly from vats, thickly enough to peel wallpaper. A steamed-over glass bottle was suspended over the vats so it would be warm enough to pour hot syrup into without cracking. The volunteer at this station also pointed out that the syrup is strained, but Indians used it unfiltered, which kept the nutrients intact.
On the way to the farmhouse we ran across a man who said we’d be rewarded there with a cookie — even if we didn’t have a child. (In keeping with the theme, they proved to be Dare maple creams.) First, though, there was a taste test between maple syrup and Mrs. Butterworth syrup. I declined, J. chose correctly, and a few of the other people clearly have faulty taste buds because they were wrong. The volunteer noted that real maple syrup is thinner than the fake stuff.
We detoured again to the state park and walked around the southwest end of the building, where the sky was starting to get pink behind the smokestacks. After looking at a map the other day, I realized what a narrow strip of heaven Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is — not unlike Letchworth State Park in New York and Starved Rock State Park in Illinois, both of which run along rivers.
In Chesterton, Octave Grill was closed, so we tried out Popolano’s, where we ended a great day on a delicious note — minus maple syrup.
12 August 2014: Chippewa Falls to Black River Falls to Prairie du Sac to Petunia to the end of the road
On which I don’t think of the Wizard of Oz
After breakfast at Avalon Hotel and Conference Center, we hit the road. J. had been wanting to stop in Black River Falls, which is named for a dam. After passing vintage train cars we arrived at Molly’s Rude Awakening, then located in a colorful garage, but they were in the midst of a move to a new location. We pulled into a parking space designated for hippies — more for a VW bus than a gray Toyota Corolla. Because of the transition, Molly’s was walk-up/drive-through only, but the ice cream was good.
Now all that was left was another detour to Prairie du Sac and Blue Spoon Café. We arrived at about 1:30 p.m. or so and dragged ourselves away maybe an hour or so later — it was so hard to leave. After a quick drive through town to look for a post office, it was really time to leave.
Thanks to construction at the Wisconsin-Illinois border, progress was very slow before and after the Turtle Creek rest area in South Beloit. It was so slow that we wondered if our new plan would be thwarted — to stop at the Hyde Park Animal Hospital to pick up Petunia a day earlier than planned. Just as it was looking highly unlikely, traffic opened up, and we made it to the hospital by 6:20 p.m. or so, nearly 12 (very) full days after starting out on this long, yet short northern adventure.
August 11, 2014: Baptism River Inn to Palisade Head to Northern Lights Roadhouse and Pub to Gooseberry Falls State Park to Duluth to Superior to Pattison State Park to Chippewa Falls
On which the rain continues, but lets up enough for a quick walk to Gooseberry Falls, and we see the sun set from Big Manitou Falls
Now the trip really was winding down under more gray skies with occasional rain. After taking some photos of the low but wild-looking Baptism River, we left Baptism River Inn and took a brief detour to Palisade Head, hoping for a slightly better view. Lemon Wolf Café isn’t open on Mondays, so we settled for Northern Lights Roadhouse and Pub, where we were seated on an enclosed porch overlooking the lake and the downpour for a relaxed, homely lunch.
Because of the rain, we thought about skipping Gooseberry Falls State Park, but I knew I’d have have regrets if we drove on by. We, along with many others, waited under the shelter of the visitor center porch as the rain came down, watching drenched visitor after drenched visitor return on the trail.
After a time the rain slowed and stopped, so we took off as fast as we could toward the falls. With the overcast sky, the lighting was poor and the colors washed out, but I continued to work on improving my waterfall photography techniques. We had been there for a while — maybe a half hour? — when we sensed the weather shifting again, so hightailed it back to the visitor center just as the clouds opened up again.
South of Gooseberry Falls State Park we came to the Silver Creek Cliff Tunnel, which was bored through the volcanic rock between 1991 and 1994. We stopped at the wayside to walk along the trail between the tunnel and the lakefront, but after a few feet the rain, which had slowed somewhat, picked up again, and I hurried back to the shelter of the car while J. opted to hang in and get drenched.
Further south, we passed through Two Harbors in search of a coffee shop, but if I remember right the one wanted to go to was closed. Further along we stopped at SuperOne to pick up containers for all our leftovers. At this point, it truly felt like the wilder parts of the Gunflint Trail and North Shore were well behind us — we were back in town.
Too, too soon we were in the city, Duluth, passing what appeared to be ritzy historic mansions, one of them a museum. We said goodbye to Highway 61, which merges into I-35 at 26th Avenue East. It was like a farewell to a beloved friend you may never see again.
It had become sunnier, and Duluth in full daylight is not nearly as eerie as it had been the first time I passed through in July 2013, at twilight on a misty night that made the city and hills appear as ephemeral as Brigadoon.
We pushed on to Superior, Wisconsin, and Red Mug Espresso, a half-underground coffee shop steeped in colorful art for sale and housed in a historic building. Their website cites one of Mike Royko’s favorite ideas:
Sociologist Ray Oldenburg talked about the importance of the “third place” — a community anchor, separate from home and work, where people feel welcome, socialize, and meet friends new and old.
(For Royko, his third place was a bar.)
“It’s a place to live your life,” the site adds. I would if only it were closer. As with so many places I’ve found on journeys both short and long, it was hard to leave this experience behind, but we still had plans for the remaining daylight.
One of these plans, a visit to Superior Entry Lighthouse, was thwarted by a combination of diminishing daylight time and the bumpy nature of Moccasin Mike Road, which isn’t that long. We couldn’t guess at what Wisconsin Point Road would be like on the narrow strip leading to the light, so we agreed to turn back on Moccasin Mike (I just wanted to say that name again) and head for our next out-of-the-way stop, Pattison State Park.
After driving down what seemed like endless country roads, we arrived at Pattison State Park, which is home to Wisconsin’s highest waterfall, Big Manitou Falls. You’d think it’d be easy to find a 165-foot-high waterfall, but it was surprisingly difficult — maybe because we were tired and easily confused by the directions some people we ran into gave us. The first spot we found seemed to be above the falls and didn’t offer a view. J. went one way while I went another. My way led to a platform on a cliff side overlooking the falls. To my left below, the falls roared. To my right, the sun was headed toward the horizon in a show of bright clouds and dark hills. The view on both sides helped make up for missing Superior Entry. Alas, we missed Little Manitou Falls, which are a few miles upstream.
With the sun setting, it was time to move on and get as far south in Wisconsin as we could. We made it — with effort — to Chippewa Falls, where we stopped at a chain hotel with no rooms. The very helpful desk attendant called two other chains — also no vacancies. She told me that’s not unusual for Chippewa Falls, which is a hotbed of business. The last place she called is, like the Bates Motel, somewhat off the major road. For that reason perhaps, they had available rooms. Avalon Hotel and Conference Center is a hybrid hotel-motel; many rooms have both inside rooms like a hotel and outside doors like a motel. Nervous guests can get a room with an inside door only. After a long day and the experience of last year, all that mattered to me was being able to crawl into a comfortable bed before the wee hours arrived and getting rested for the long day ahead.
August 10, 2014: Baptism River Inn to Lutsen to Cascade River State Park to Tettegouche State Park to Palisade Head to Lemon Wolf Café
On which the weather turns a little dreary
After breakfast courtesy of our hostess, we crossed the scary, narrow bridge toward the outside world and headed north to Cascade River State Park. On the way, we detoured at Lutsen, where Moondance Coffee House called. How can anyone go to a chain coffee shop when there are gems like Moondance in this world? (Okay, it’s a bit far for the average person.)
The cascades of the Cascade River are an easy, relatively short walk from the parking area (short if you don’t photograph every scrap of the fungus along the way). There are three cascades we could see. I watched some hardier people go up a trail that runs along the river, and we followed them partway. As with everywhere else in northern Minnesota, I’m sure we scratched only the surface of Cascade River State Park. This visit was a little bittersweet because this was the last time we’d visit one of the more northern parks on Highway 61.
By the time we arrived at the impressive Tettegouche State Park visitor center, the weather had turned cloudy and threatening. After spending some time shopping and relaxing at the visitor center, we decided to try to make it to Shovel Point, which is one of those “must see” places. By now, however, I was miserably fatigued and couldn’t get very far, the sky was dreary and uninteresting, and it was spitting enough rain every now and then to be a little uncomfortable without rain gear handy, so I didn’t get far and J. didn’t get much farther. We did get some okay photos, and we drove to Palisade Head for a panoramic if gray view of Lake Superior. I remembered Palisade Head from last year, to my surprise, because of the steep, twisty, narrow, partly one-lane drive up. It felt like returning to an old friend.
Our final stop before returning to Baptism River Inn was another old friend, Lemon Wolf Café in Beaver Bay. It seemed less crowded than last year, but the soup with wild rice was delicious, and so was everything else we ate — once again undoubtedly undoing any health benefits we would have gained from the day’s walking.
The sky was opaque with clouds, so now we were fairly certain we’d see no aurora borealis on this trip. I’d stand out in a downpour for that . . .
August 9, 2014: Grand Marais to Judge C. R. Magney State Park to Kadunce River to Baptism River Inn
On which I spend a goodly amount of time seeking the devil or at least his kettle
After some confusion about the length of stay at Shoreline Inn (J. thought it was two days), we relaxed on a deck overlooking the beach until the sun became too much, then set out for the next destination, with a brief detour to the Grand Marais Pharmacy — a traditional pharmacy housed in a log-style building.
Our destination was Judge C. R. Magney State Park, which we had missed last year and which I later discovered is home to a not-to-be-missed attraction — Devil’s Kettle. More than an attractive waterfall, Devil’s Kettle is where half of the Brule River, split by a rock formation, flows merrily on its obvious course to Lake Superior. On the other side of the rock, half of the Brule pours into the “kettle,” where it disappears forever, at least in the imagination. No one knows for sure where it reconnects with the Brule, if it does, or if it flows underground somehow to Superior. According to geologist John C. Green:
One [theory] is that, after dropping down the pothole, the river runs along a fault underground, or as a variant, that it enters an underground channel and comes out somewhere under Lake Superior. Both of these ideas have one valid aspect in common: they recognize that water must move downhill! But the main ofblem is creating a channel or conduit large enough to conduct the impressive flow of half the Brule River! Faulting commonly has the effect of crushing and fracturing the rock along the fault plane. This could certainly increase the permeability of the rock — its capacity to transmit water — but the connected open spaces needed to drain half the river would be essentially impossible, especially for such a distance. Furthermore, there is no geologic evidence for such a fault at the Devil’s Kettle. Large, continuous openings generally do not occur in rocks, except for caves in limestone terranes. The nearest limestone is probably in southeastern Minnesota, so that doesn’t help… Maybe the Devil’s Kettle bottoms out fortuitously in a great lava tube that conducts the water to the Lake… Unfortunately for this idea, they are not the right kind of volcanic rocks! Rhyolites, such as the great flow at this locality, never form lava tubes, which only develop in fluid basaltic lava. Even the basalts in this area may not be the “right kind”, being flood basalts that spread laterally as a sheet from fissures, not down the slopes of a volcano. No lava tubes have been found in the hundreds of basalt flows exposed along the North Shore. Furthermore, the nearest basalt is so far below the river bed, and even if it did contain an empty lava tube (very unlikely after its long history of deep burial) the tube would have to be both oriented in the right direction (south) and blocked above this site so that it isn’t already full of debris. And there are no reports of trees or other floating debris suddenly appearing at one spot offshore in Lake Superior. The mystery persists.
How could I miss such an opportunity? This was a longer walk, my energy levels were subsiding, but we had read that there were a few strategically placed benches along the way. And I was highly motivated to push myself. We found the parking area and the signs and launched ourselves down the trail, crossing the Brule. J. quickly became sidetracked by the multitude of mushrooms in the park, so I went ahead. This is a well-marked, well-traveled path, but Judge C. R. Magney is largely untamed, and most of it is inaccessible. As this was the day’s only planned activity, I felt less pressured to hurry. Along the way, I came upon an overlook with a bench and a view of some waterfalls. Also on the way we stopped at a place where you can walk out on to the rocks by the river — a wild spot.
Later J. caught up with me, and we found there are a lot of stairs down (which means a lot of stairs up on the return). Further along, after we’d gotten separated again, I came to another set of steps and fell up the first high one, which made me even weaker with laughing in front of a couple who was sitting there. Half was the humor of how silly I must have looked; the other half was relief I didn’t crack my kneecap.
I wasn’t sure I was going to make it but I did reach Devil’s Kettle — keeping the promise to myself to see it was well worth discomfort on the way. We spent some time at one overlook, then moved on to a slightly lower one, all the while taking photos. Like the other waterfalls we’d seen this year, Devil’s Kettle was running lighter than it sometimes does — I’ve found a video in which a torrent surges over the rhyolite rock obstruction, almost obscuring the split in the Brule. Wherever the kettle half of the water goes, it must be able to accommodate a prodigious volume.
On the way out of the park we disturbed a groundhog, who ran to a drain for cover — and found himself trapped. I took photos and videos as he looked around, trying to figure a way out, but we soon left him in peace.
We stopped at the spot where the Kadunce River flows into Lake Superior, which again was calm. It’s fascinating to think about all that water winding its way for several miles through the woods, only to disperse itself into the breadth and depth of an inland sea, from where it will touch who-knows-how-many people. I looked upstream, which looks like it would be a beautiful walk. I’ve read since that from this spot you can walk over six Kadunce waterfalls in about a mile or so when the water is running low. I wish I had known that sooner — I might have planned a morning or afternoon around it.
Our next stop was at the Dairy Queen in Grand Marais, where we undid any health benefits we’d gotten from walking over the slightly uneven terrain and the steps down and up at Judge C. R. Magney State Park.
We headed south on 61 with few specific plans for the next couple of days and with a sense that our vacation was quickly coming to an end. We found the area we were looking for easily enough, but pulled up at a house that didn’t look like our destination. No doubt used to bewildered tourists, a woman came out and told us how to get to Baptism River Inn — we’d missed the turnoff in the dark, which isn’t surprising. It’s reached over a low, narrow bridge with minimalist if any guardrails. We arrived a little before 10 p.m., to find that hosts and guests were tucked in for the night — good idea.
August 8, 2014: Grand Portage to Isle Royale National Park to Grand Portage National Monument to Grand Marais
On which I don’t see a moose but do see mergansers and find out that “moose is a myth”
We arrived bright and early for the boat trip to Isle Royale National Park and to our delight were called very early in the boarding process — we could get our choice of seats. The weather was warmer and sunnier than last year, so we didn’t notice the cold in the stern area. Being by now seasoned veterans of one previous trip, we knew where to look for the “witch tree,” the wreck of the America, and the Rock of Ages light (best photographed on the return trip, when the pilot navigates around the light slowly). The trip seemed shorter, maybe because we knew how long it would take and we weren’t shivering the whole way.
At Windigo, once again we spent time at the store and visitor center, but this time the flocks of butterflies around the shrubs near the dock were gone. I had been hoping to get some better photos of them this year. We met a guy who’d walked from the other end of the island, but it sounded like he hadn’t run into a moose on his week-long journey.
We headed for the campground, where we wandered around and checked out the primitive campsites (three-sided shelters with an opening of netting — very cozy). On the way, we passed some odd structures on slight hillside. According to the sign, they’re part of the park’s minimally invasive sewage system. I thought about the guy we’d just met and wondered if he was going to try out the short, expensive showers at Windigo’s nearby bathroom (several dollars for a few minutes).
J. found where a previous camper had left his mark, “Moose is a myth.” We didn’t see much wildlife, maybe because it was a few weeks later in the summer. I found only the remains of what may have been a rabbit, strangely unconsumed. On the way back, we passed mergansers sunning themselves on a rock.
At the dock, again we were called early in the boarding, so this time J. didn’t have to stand on the starboard side getting drenched with cold spray. We were in a good spot to get photos of the Rock of Ages light, which was perfectly illuminated in the afternoon sun.
After returning we had some time, so we went to the Grand Portage National Monument visitor center. The general area was mobbed as there was some kind of reenactment going on. The Monument overlooks Grand Portage Bay and Grand Portage Island, formerly known as Isle au Mouton and Pete’s Island. It’s a beautiful view in the late afternoon sun.
Our next stop was at Grand Marais and Shoreline Inn. Every herring gull along the North Shore seems to lurk among the buildings in Grand Marais, maybe because that’s where the tourists, and the tidbits that come with them, are. Perched along most of roof lines in sight, they cried and cried and cried during the evening, most likely settling down later so they could start up again in the morning.
Back near the Gunflint Trail, J. told me a co-worker had recommended the Gunflint Tavern, which was very busy. Halfway through dinner, though, I felt sick and woozy (unrelated to dinner), so left J. and walked back to Shoreline Inn, still guarded by gulls on the roof. The evening air helped, and the night view of the shore and the lake was lovely, a peaceful end to a full and filling day.
August 7, 2014: From Clearwater Lodge to Grand Marais and north to Grand Portage
On which I observe how full one can pack a canoe, find an out-of-the-way general store, photograph wildflowers, find a moose, eat at Naniboujou, and see Minnesota’s highest waterfalls
After breakfast I watched a couple pack a canoe and marveled at how much they managed to get into it. Clearly they were going a lot farther than the palisades. Finally they set out, with the female person in the back, although they didn’t get far. They must have decided to head back and switch places, but before they did that, the canoe started to spin. And spin. And spin. Just like an amusement park ride. Kevlar must be great for portages and for nausea. I wondered how experienced they were.
Reluctantly we left Clearwater Lodge with the idea of seeing a wildflower sanctuary J. had found on a list of attractions. Naturally, we had difficulty finding it, and were almost in Grand Marais before discovering we needed to backtrack, not to mention find facilities. A few miles off the Gunflint Trail, we discovered Devil Track General Store, with essentials scattered on half-bare shelves. I felt like I had stepped many years and many miles back in time, to a place like Mayberry after the interstate had bypassed it and it had been forgotten by the strange inhabitants of the stranger steel and glass towers that have creeped over more of the landscape of the modern world. Cue the Twilight Zone music.
We did find the Devil Track Wildflower Sanctuary, which is along the relatively short Devil Track River. The trail is grown over and close, and for some reason I opted not to go very far down it. Instead, I spent a good hour or so photographing flowers around the gravel parking area, where they grew abundantly. During this trip, I think I spent as much time photographing flowers as I did waterfalls, rivers, and lakes.
Next we set out for Grand Marais, where the marvelous Java Moose café awaited with good coffee, ice cream, WiFi, and a lovely view of Lake Superior. This is yet another place where I could have stayed forever, people and shore watching. Alas, after an hour or so, it was time to move on to our luncheon destination — Naniboujou Lodge and Restaurant, built in the 1920s as a club with a giant rock fireplace. There had been no room at the inn, so the plan was to have lunch there. At this time of day the dining room was sparsely populated, although a group did appear. Afterward, while J. perused the gift shop, I went behind the lodge and took photos of a particularly serene Lake Superior.
There had been room at Grand Portage Lodge and Casino, so that was our next destination. Last year, we’d driven there late at night in driving, blinding rain. Now it was a sunny late afternoon, perfect weather for a relaxing drive along a road that had seemed more terrifying a year earlier in the darkness and rain.
After checking in, we went to Grand Portage State Park, home to Minnesota’s highest waterfall (imaginatively named High Falls). The park belongs to the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and they lease it back for a nominal fee so all of us can enjoy this marvel. Last year High Falls had been such a torrent that even on the steps to the platform we were soaked by the spray and deafened by the roar. In comparison this evening’s High Falls was a mere trickle, with no spray and more of the underlying rock exposed. I noticed the lack of spray, but didn’t think much of it until I compared my 2013 and 2014 photos. Then I realized Cross River had also been running much more lightly this year than last, when it had been almost terrifyingly high as it rushed toward Highway 61.
After a couple of stops to admire Lake Superior, we returned to the Lodge and finally made it into the pool that we’d missed out on last year. Ahhh. Tomorrow was going to be an early morning.
August 6, 2014: Clearwater Lodge to Moose Viewing Platform to Bearskin Lodge to Laurentian Divide Overlook to Chik-Wauk Museum to Trail’s End Café to Gunflint Trail Lodge and back
On which I do not view moose at the moose viewing platform but do enjoy a serious ice cream cookie, lift the load of a voyageur, and reach the end of the trail
After a hearty breakfast prepared and served by the daughter of one of the original owners of Clearwater Lodge and deciding to delay a visit to Honeymoon Bluff until sunset (if time and my energy allowed), we backtracked toward Grand Marais to find the promised moose viewing platform. We couldn’t remember how close it was to the Grand Marais beginning of the trail, and, if I recall correctly, we stopped short of it and drove back and forth a few times without finding it again. Not only are Minnesota moose elusive, but so is the moose viewing platform. Finally, we spotted the sign we’d seen so clearly the night before.
The trail was easy, and the mosquitoes were strangely intermittent — they weren’t always more abundant in the shady parts, as I would have expected. On the way we saw many wildflowers and mushrooms. Northern Minnesota is a macro photographer’s fantasy — for as long as you can tolerate standing still among the biting insects.
At last we made it to the moose viewing platform, which we shared with a family. Based on previous visits and what they’d been told, they didn’t expect to see any moose, but like us they seemed to have that spirit of, “Keep trying just in case!” By this time, it was past 11 a.m., and any moose in the area had probably finished breakfast hours earlier before any of us had woken up — that is, if there are any moose in the area. In Ely, we’d read that the Minnesota moose population has been decimated due to a surge in winter ticks.
Of course, I needed a visit to the facilities — any facilities. There are no rest stops on the Gunflint Trail. We found Bearskin Lodge and Resort, lured in by the promise of ice cream sandwiches. We found a pleasant owner and great gift shop in addition to the facilities. The ice cream sandwiches proved to be generous slabs of ice cream tucked between two giant chocolate chip cookies. Eating them gave us an excuse to hang out on the deck overlooking Bearskin Lake and watch the hummingbirds. Undoubtedly, in just a few moments we negated any health benefits provided by the morning’s moose viewing walk.
After tearing ourselves away from this comfortable spot, we stopped at a Laurentian Divide overlook, where J. recognized someone he’d seen earlier in the trip. It’s a small world . . .
As we headed west, we noticed acre after acre of scorched forest, with thousands of spiky, blackened skeletons of trees seeming to reach for the blue heavens. I learned later that 75,000 acres and numerous structures burned during what is called the Ham Lake Fire, which started when a camper started a paper and trash fire on a windy day that quickly got out of control. Doesn’t anyone listen to Smokey the Bear? (Beyond the fire, the story is tragic, with the camper ultimately committing suicide.)
Close to the end of the trail is the Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center, which is focused on the history of the voyageurs. I managed to heft two voyageur packs using my back (after figuring out what was wrong about my first couple of attempts), but couldn’t have supported them for more than a nanosecond or carried them. Not surprisingly, many voyageurs lived short lives, and many are believed to have died from hernias. With the heavy loads, mosquitoes, long hours spent rowing and carrying everything over portages, and primitive conditions, this would not have been the life for me. It sounds more like hard labor punishment.
Behind the Chik-Wauk Museum I found a very short trail that lead to a little scenic overlook and a quick photo opportunity.
J. wanted to make sure he made it to the end of the Gunflint Trail, where we found Way of the Wilderness Canoe Outfitters and, more important, Trail’s End Café (by now we were both hungry). I expected to find the usual décor related to canoeing, kayaking, fishing, snowshoeing, etc. The last thing I expected to see was the array of Chicago sports memorabilia everywhere. We learned that the elderly owner (who returned with supplies before we left) had come here from Chicago decades earlier. He’d kept up with Chicago sports — there was as much or more memorabilia at Trail’s End as at a Chicago sports bar. For a moment, it felt like there was no escaping the city.
Having reached the end of the line, we backtracked and came upon a woman walking next to the road and looking into the trees. She said she’d spotted a baby black bear, but by the time we’d gotten situated there was nothing to see. We gave her a ride to the museum area. I never figured out where she was headed or how she was going to get there.
Eastward bound, once again I needed to use the facilities. This time, we stopped at Gunflint Lodge, which is a big, busy place at dinner and has wonderful views.
By this time, I was pretty sure I couldn’t handle the walk to Honeymoon Bluff, as much as I wanted to see it at sunset. J. proposed getting a canoe at Clearwater Lodge. I fought the idea for a long time, partly because it’s difficult and embarrassing for me to get into and out of a canoe, and partly because I can’t swim (and he’s not a strong swimmer). The more I thought about it, however, the sillier it seemed not to do the one thing that folks go to the Boundary Waters for, even if we did it in a very limited way (my idea was to go a hundred yards out at most). J. rented the canoe and got the permit (as though we were going that far!) after asking me which kind to rent — Kevlar or aluminum. “What’s the difference?” I don’t remember all he said, but I do recall that “Kevlar is more likely to spin.” I decided two novices in a canoe prone to spinning ≠ a good idea. Aluminum it was, and off we went.
I spent most of the time telling him it was time to turn around and go back (as I sat in the rocking canoe wondering how deep the lake was), while he ignored me and demonstrated his memory of how to maneuver the canoe, including how to reverse when I let him hit a snag. I think he wanted to go as far as the palisades across from Clearwater Lodge, but we had started after 7:30 p.m., so it was a little late in the day to go that far. As sunset drew closer, what made us agree to go back were the bites of the black flies, which felt like little razors extracting little bits of flesh in as painful a way as possible. Predictably, when we pulled up to the dock, I had to crawl/fall out in a predictably undignified manner. Yes, I would have made a fine voyageur, unable to lift, carry, swim, or withstand a few six-legged pests. At least I can row!
We sat on the back deck for a while, watching elusive shadows swoop unevenly back and forth, not making nearly enough of a dent in the resident mosquito population. Still, I cheered for their efforts.