Welcome to a potpourri of book reviews, dreams, photography, poems, ruminations, and stories. Scroll down, explore, ponder, and share if you like.
August 4, 2014: Ely to Tofte
On which we meet a snarling bear and a mellow wolf, learn about the “Root Beer Lady,” see a rock that’s older than dust, and find new waterfalls
Our first stop in the morning was at Chocolate Moose (one of the few moose we spotted during the trip) for breakfast en plein air. Next, we were lured in by their neighbor, Piragis Outfitters, where we found cool stuff like bags and sporks. Who wouldn’t love a good Swedish-designed spork? I’m almost as dangerous at an outfitters as I am at a bookstore or office supply shop. If I camped or canoed or kayaked, I’d be destitute.
The next stop in Ely was the North American Bear Center, where we arrived in time to see the enrichment program at work and some of the relationships between the bears in play. I supplemented my Vince Shute photos with some of the center’s youngest bear treed by its largest, and of the largest bear snarling. She didn’t seem to be in a good mood on this beautiful August morning.
Toward the end of our visit, we ran into a woman who encouraged us to drive around Shagwa Lake, which is one of the many places I’d hang out at if I lived in Ely. Judging from the family we saw on its shores, it’s as good for wading and fishing as it is for photography.
J. stopped briefly at the Dorothy Molter Museum, a tribute to the “Root Beer Lady.” She’s said to be the last non-indigenous resident of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). Her homestead was dismantled in 1987, with two cabins restored in Ely. She made root beer and sold it to canoeists. I confess that at the time I didn’t find this as interesting as J. did, so I stayed in the car. I’m still haunted by all the stops made during last year’s trip, the long drives between destinations, and the resulting 1 or 2 a.m. arrivals. I have to get over that.
At the International Wolf Center, a lone wolf posed for photos, although I wasn’t quick enough to get a photo of him while he was moving.
Both the bear and the wolf centers offer a great experience, with lots of information for the interested adult and activities for children. While resting my feet at the Bear Center, I watched videos of Alaskan brown bears catching salmon and strutting off with their victims. I also posed with a late member of the elusive moose species and compared my size to the that of several North American bear species (at best, I’m the height of a juvenile or female black bear). At the Wolf Center, we walked through an exhibit of aurora borealis photos — the northern lights that in nearly three weeks of travel in 2013 and 2014 we were destined not to see even once.
After all this activity, we went to a café I’d found on Yelp!, the Front Porch, which is as comfortable as a café can get. It’s in a house with a lot of porch space in addition to roomy interiors. The food and coffee were good, and so was the cheesecake we bought for later. The Front Porch ranks high on my list of places I didn’t want to leave and that I wish were nearby. That’s even without having seen the live music offerings they have on some evenings.
After tearing ourselves away from the Front Porch, we began our hunt for the Ely pillow rock, which I’d spotted on a whimsical tourist map of Ely I’d picked up at Fortune Bay. From waymarking.com:
This historic 15’ rock outcrop is a wonderful example of Ely greenstone, a “rare ellipsoidal lava flow formed beneath primeval seas 2.7 billion years ago.” It is volcanic in origin and there are very few specimens like this in the world. It is easily accessible 24/7 and can be seen on the north side of Main Street in the northeast part of town.
Ellipsoidal lava is also known as “pillow laval” and is any lava characterized by pillow structure and presumed to have formed in a subaqueous environment.
When you have a chance to see a 2.7 billion-year-old lava rock in the Midwest, you can’t miss it. We almost did, however, because it was hard to find. A pair of cyclists tried to help, but I’m not sure they agreed on where to send us. After we drove around a while and ended up downtown again, one of my map apps finally gave me a clearer picture of where it should on Main Street, which, despite its name, proved to be a gravel road. When we finally got to what looked like the right spot, we didn’t see it at first because it was down the road a bit. This ancient piece of lava, formed when the area was underwater, is on the edge of a wooded area across from some typical houses. Most likely the residents who see it every day are over its charms, but I would find it amazing to pass such a relic of the past every day. I would feel more connected to the world that was than to the world that is.
During all this driving through Ely, we’d seen a custard place, Red Cabin Custard. It was a warm enough day for it, and stopping there gave J. a chance to get a Dorothy Molter root beer, while I had a PMS sundae (I recommend it whether you need it or not).
After packing up and checking out of Silver Rapids Lodge prematurely, we stopped at Kawishiwi Falls, which is a relatively easy short walk. The falls seem to be downstream from a dam, but that didn’t detract from their beauty in the early evening.
Leaving Ely behind, we set out at last on Highway 1, which was a long, lonely drive that seems to be used primarily by mining and logging vehicles. We saw very few cars, a few trucks, and no moose, although there may have been a white-tail or two. Even the towns seemed tiny and remote.
At least we reached Highway 61, the scenic road that runs along the western shore of Lake Superior. To our surprise, Highway 61 was under construction. Whether it was northern Illinois, southern Wisconsin, the Sauk City area, or now Highway 61, we couldn’t get away from construction. In this case, long stretches were gravel only, and some parts were down to one lane with long red lights to control traffic. Gone is my original memory of 61 as a misty, lightly traveled wonder (which it still is, in parts).
After bumping along for miles of torn-up, gravelly road, we arrived at the Americinn in Tofte, perhaps another sign of a growing tourist trade along the North Shore, to get ready for the next day.
August 3, 2014: Tower to Ash River Visitor Center to Orr Bog Walk to Ely
On which I discover the job I should have had and then am eaten alive at a bog
August 3 began as a leisurely day — a little time in the whirlpool, then quality time at Tim Horton’s, located within Fortune Bay. I’d never had the chance to go to a Tim Horton’s, although as a young Buffalo Sabres fan I knew his story. After sipping the famous coffee, stocking up on doughnuts and Timbits, and raiding the hotel gift shop (unusual for me), we set out for the Ash River Visitor Center, part of Voyageurs National Park. Along the way we stopped at a tiny, picturesque gas station and convenience store that was fun to browse, especially for some interesting maps.
Ash River Visitor Center, or Meadwood Lodge, turned out to be a beautiful log building constructed by Finnish carpenters, according to male half of the couple who runs the center. I envy them their jobs in a great location overlooking the water. If I could go back in time, that might be me. They were friendlier than I am, however. With a glance at our Nikons, he told us we should enter the Voyageurs photo contest that was soon ending. (Alas, we never got around to it.)
We took advantage of the center’s picnic table to eat some of our leftovers from Blue Spoon Café while enjoying the serenity of the intense greens, blues, and white of the trees, water, sky, and clouds. I know winters at Voyageurs are harsh and bitter cold, but this painfully brief summer moment made me wish I live nearby. Fortunately, I was reminded that I hadn’t died and ascended to the heavens by the painful bites of the omnipresent flies and mosquitoes.
We explored some of the short trails along the road from Ash River, running into a man whose children, led by one determined girl, were on a quest for berries. So far, he said, they hadn’t found the mother lode the ranger had told them about, and the girl pointedly showed me her nearly empty container.
With the perfect weather and the beautiful views, we stayed longer than planned and got back to Orr as the sun was heading toward the low end of the downward swing. Here we braved the mosquitoes along the Orr Bog Walk, which is a botanist’s dream. I took photo after photo of flower after flower while being eaten piece by piece by the ubiquitous mosquitoes. It was an easy, uncrowded walk, with lots of visual rewards along the way. I did miss getting a photo of a sapphire blue dragonfly, and the dull green guy that appeared afterward was no substitute.
This night’s stop was at a Silver Rapids Lodge, which, despite its great location, needs an overhaul of its 1950s trappings. It’s a little too retro.
August 2, 2014: Tower to Eveleth to Virginia to Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary to Tower
On which I experience the Iron Range, bears dining in a downpour, and a Lake Vermilion sunset
Having missed K&B the night before, we returned to Eveleth so J. could get his BBQ fix. We’d passed a place called Mine View in the Sky, which seemed to be uphill, so I assumed there might be a view. There was — of the junction of three former taconite mines. You know you’re in the Iron Range when you see signs like, “We support mining. Mining supports us.” I can only wonder what this area looked like 500 years ago, when mining wasn’t around to support anyone in the Iron Range.
After Mineview (and King of the Lode), we stopped at the Eveleth Harley dealer so J. could check out souvenirs for his Harley-loving brother, passing (but not stopping at) the U. S. Hockey Hall of Fame.
After the luxury and comfort of the Harley dealership (these seem to cater to affluent, middle-aged road warriors), we found the coffee shop in Virginia that I was looking for, the Shop Coffeehouse. Friendly folks, colorfully arty décor, comfortable seating, good WiFi. No TV, and I don’t remember intrusive music. I could go to a place like this within walking distance of the Flamingo. And I could have stayed here all day. Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary, however, beckoned.
As we headed toward Vince Shute, the previously pleasant but somewhat hazy day started to turn cloudy. We had arrived at the sanctuary, boarded a bus, taken a ride to the observation area with a student guide, and seen some of the bears chowing down when the rain came. The bears cared not one whit. J., who must have been a Boy Scout, produced the ponchos he’d mentioned earlier, although even with a poncho it’s hard to stay comfortable in that kind of downpour.
With the rain coming down, the mosquitoes that soon set me in their sights were a bonus. The bears, intent on din dins, didn’t mind them, either. As long as we were there, they remained focused on their food, although a couple of adults did indulge in some growling. The one exception was a comical pair of youngsters hanging out in a tree, who posed for me.
We didn’t stay as long as we might have, especially as the cameras were also getting drenched. Soon after we were dropped off at the parking lot, of course, the rain stopped.
We had noticed a bucket placed next to every tire of each vehicle parked in the observation area, so before we left Vince Shute, I had to ask — why? The visitor parking lot attendant told us that bears are attracted to tires and will chew and/or shred them. The buckets contain bear poop, which deters them. I”m surprised the bears haven’t figured out they’re being hoodwinked.
At this point, the sun returned in time to set in all its pink glory over a lake we stopped at on the way back to Fortune Bay and over Lake Vermilion, which earned its name on this serene if damp evening.
July 31, 2014: Chicago to Sauk City
On which preparations are made and the journey begun
The sequel to last summer’s Lake Superior trip began July 31, when J. helped me take Petunia to the Hyde Park Animal Hospital, followed by a quick dinner at Plein Air Café. Finally, we stowed all my stuff in the car and set out, with the goal of reaching Cedarberry Inn in Sauk City.
This isn’t as easy as you’d think. This summer, as last, the Jane Addams Expressway is under construction, which meant for J. driving at night at reduced speed through dozens of miles of construction barrels and barriers. Although I wasn’t driving, I could sense how stressful it was, with no end in sight. I don’t know how people commute through this nightmare every day. Of course, we’d be taking the same route back — something to look forward to! After reaching Wisconsin, we ran into pockets of construction. Even after leaving I90/94 for Sauk City, we faced construction. At least when we got to Minnesota, off the interstates, we thought, we’d face no more construction mazes.
Finally, we arrived at Cedarberry, where the next morning you bet I immersed myself in the warm jets of the whirlpool. So far I had not felt the sharp pangs caused by sitting confined in a car for long periods.
August 1, 2014: Prairie du Sac to Mill Bluff State Park to Amnicon Falls to Fortune Bay Resort & Casino in Tower, Minnesota
On which I discover sea stacks in Wisconsin
The reason for driving out of the way to Sauk City was to visit Blue Spoon Café in Prairie du Sac. Started by the Culver family of “Butter Burger” fame, Blue Spoon is nestled between one of Prairie du Sac’s main streets and the Wisconsin River. Sitting on the patio overlooking disused, abruptly ending train tracks and the river, I felt relaxed and peaceful in a way I’m not sure that I ever have. Only the need to press on and get to Tower, Minnesota, at a reasonable hour weighed on me.
J. noted some state parks along the way that he thought would make great stops, but I’m doomed to be the nay-saying killjoy. When we spotted a series of stone stacks along I90/94, however, I agreed this was worth investigating, however briefly. This proved to be Mill Bluff State Park, and the bluffs are what you might call sea stacks, formed underwater. Mill Bluff State Park is part of the Ice Age National Scientific Reserve in the Driftless Area.
Even though this park is in the driftless area, the area the glaciers missed, the geologic features are partially the result of the last (or Wisconsin) stage of glaciation. During this glacial advance, the Wisconsin River was plugged near Wisconsin Dells. The river spread out to form glacial Lake Wisconsin, covering most of what today are Adams, Juneau and other adjacent counties, including the Mill Bluff area. During this time, some of the mesa and buttes stood as islands in the glacial lake, while others were submerged. Wave action hastened erosion of the sides of the rock forms.
The unique flat-topped, cliff-sided rock structures are capped by layers of somewhat more resistant sandstone; and weathering tends to break the rock off in vertical fragments. There are remnants of the Dresbach Group, Upper Cambrian sandstone. The heights of the bluffs range from 80 feet to over 200 feet. The mesa and buttes are isolated “outliers” of the continuous limestone-capped escarpments south of the park.
We drove around a bit, talked to an elderly staffer, drove some more, then found the trail that lead to the top of Mill Bluff, up about 223 steps crafted by the CCC during the 1930s. We have a lot to thank the CCC for, 70-plus years later.
I wish I’d known more about the geology of the area as I stood on top of Mill Bluff, but even to the ignorant like me, the view is spectacular. It takes a little imagination to see the park without I90/94 dividing it.
After Mill Bluff State Park, we did have one scheduled stop — Amnicon Falls State Park, not far from Duluth. After a brief detour down a residential gravel road, we found the park we’d been to before at about the same time of day but two weeks later in the summer, with earlier nightfall. A staffer told J. about a photo contest and to look for Snake Pit Falls near the park’s namesake falls.
Amnicon Falls is indeed a photogenic spot, complete with rustic footbridge. The view of Snake Pit Falls in the growing gloom was a delightful bonus, although I’m resigned to never seeing this park in sunlight or even daylight.
The original plan had been to stop at K&B Café and BBQ in Eveleth, Minnesota, at the recommendation of J.’s co-worker. By the time we hit Eveleth, however, it was past closing time. We did stop at a rest area, where we learned about the Laurentian Divide. How did teachers make earth science sound so dull?
At last, perhaps around 11:30 or so, we arrived at Fortune Bay, a huge resort and casino complex on Lake Vermilion owned by the Bois Forte Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa. I was a little worse for the 223 steps at Mill Bluff State Park and welcomed the comparatively early night.
Until I get around to writing about this summer’s visit to Minnesota, here’s a compare and contrast of High Falls in Grand Portage, Minnesota, from one summer to the next — quite a difference in the volume of water.
And in miniature for fun:
Champaign to Anna to Giant City State Park to Heron Pond to Fern Clyffe State Park, then home
May 23, 2014, late evening: J. and I set out for a brief return to Shawnee National Forest and the Cache River. Other than visiting Heron Pond, I didn’t have a plan.
We made it to Champaign before stopping. I forgot that Champaign is a few miles east of I57, so we overshot it.
After breakfast at Le Peep, we were on the road again. We had to bypass some of last year’s distractions, like Amish Arcola and Rend Lake. We did leave the expressway for Mattoon and a quick stop at a place I hate to leave: Common Grounds. Closer to our destination, in Mount Vernon we detoured to a Toyota dealer and a car parts store to look at the malfunctioning lower glove compartment. We also took a break at the Post Oak rest area, which with its bridge and trees is scenic and soothing. I remembered it from last year.
This time we focused on the more civilized western part of Shawnee, with home base at the Davie School Inn. Built in 1910, this elementary school is now a distinctive and very comfortable bed and breakfast — if the sight of a student desk and other holdovers from the school don’t traumatize you with memories.
Our host described Anna, which we’d been to before, as “just like Mayberry” (that is, there’s no need to freak out if you leave your car unlocked for a few minutes — or more).
I’d been intrigued by the name and description of Giant City State Park. As it was already late afternoon, it was nearby, and our host recommended the park’s lodge for dinner, it seemed like a great place to use the daylight we had left. On the way, we stopped in Makanda at what in any other place would be called a strip mall, only this was a rustic building carved into a hillside, and its stores were mostly local art and other tourist shops, with an ice cream joint in the middle. I loved its charming hillside location and unpolished design. You realize how sterile urban and suburban big box and brand shopping is when you see something like this.
We inadvertently took a hilly, twisty back way into Giant City State Park. These aren’t words I usually associate with the flat, bland Illinois landscape, so it’s like being in another world.
Giant City State Park has numerous trails, and I tried to find the one that was popular and not too difficult. (There may be a correlation.) After wandering around a while, we came upon the Giant City Nature Trail head, past a picnic area overrun with happy, screaming children. According Illinois DNR:
By far the most popular trail at Giant City, this 1 mile trail is home to the famous “streets” of Giant City. You’ll walk on a mulched trail with wooden walkways at difficult spots. There are some strenuous uphill portions on this trail. Take this trail to view a diversity of plant habitats from creek bottomland to dry blufftop. This is also a promising trail for seeing the largest woodpecker in the United States, the pileated woodpecker.
This didn’t sound like something I couldn’t handle (although I wouldn’t be sure until the end). We were lucky because we weren’t swarmed by mosquitoes.
The “giants” of Giant City are huge rocks with “streets” between them, the natural antonym of a model scale urban canyon.
The giants are beautiful and impressive, and we would have stayed longer if we weren’t running out of daylight for photos and time to get to the lodge for dinner before it closed. After we passed the Giant City “streets,” I was even nervous that we wouldn’t be back to the trail head by dark — I wasn’t prepared with this convenient and easy-to-follow map.
I moved as quickly as I could over the more strenuous uphill portions and somewhat rougher terrain. Earlier we’d seen a woman who was in the final stages of pregnancy, and I’d marveled at first that she was going to attempt the trail, but then her family detoured back to the parking lot, so they saw only the sandstone bluffs.
When we got back to the trail head, I noticed the sign said Fat Man Squeeze was closed due to snake activity. I realized later we hadn’t inadvertently disrupted the snakes. Even if we had spotted Fat Man’s Squeeze (we weren’t sure), from the looks of the photos it would have been a miracle if I could have gotten even my arm through. For a lot of reasons (mainly the distance between us), the snakes will remain safe from me.
Like Starved Rock Lodge, Giant City Lodge was a CCC project and has a similar rustic, roughly timbered feel (although the construction style may be different — I’m no expert). It’s decorated with specimens of various taxa that have been treated by a taxidermist — deer, fish, ducks, etc. Food and drink were welcome after the long, tiring day, and so was the classroom with the Jacuzzi shower and bath at Davie School Inn.
After a big breakfast, we set out for the Barkhausen Cache River Wetlands Center to get better directions than I had for Heron Pond, although on the way we spotted a few signs pointing to the pond. I’m glad we stopped at the center not only because having directions helped us to find it (what you’re supposed to pass through, how far to go) but also because for a little while we could watch the barn swallows and hummingbirds forage.
I’m not sure where we went wrong last year (I think we just gave up), but although Heron Pond is a little out of the way, with the signs and the directions it’s not hard to find. The final approach, however, is down a narrow, single-lane gravel road whose shoulders have been cut away so there’s a good drop on either side with not much room for error. We were in luck; we had just started down it when a car came toward us, so we didn’t have far to back up to get to a point where we could let them pass. I wonder if the road is being made wider, but I can’t say.
The road is long enough to make you wonder if you somehow missed the pond but eventually you do come to a crude parking area, and the trail head is clearly marked. The trail itself is easy, and we stopped to take photos at several spots that didn’t make me think of what I was looking for, but were scenic on their own. The sign at the trail head was a good clue, as was the bridge we crossed soon after starting out — I’d seen it in a video of Heron Pond.
Although we didn’t see wildlife galore, we did occasionally see movement, which in one case gave away the location of a lovely leopard frog. I’m assuming he’s of the southern variety.
While the first part of the trail is more open and the water looks like a conventional creek (or “crick”), soon we started seeing swampy areas to the left, with denser vegetation. By this time, though, the fatigue from the up-and-down Giant City trail was hitting me hard. The experience helped me understand the descriptions given by people with disease-related fatigue. My legs felt like heavy dead weights that were getting harder and harder to move, even when walking on level, even surfaces. As at Lusk Creek Canyon the year before, I told J. I couldn’t go any farther if I were to be able to make it back to the car. Also as at Lusk Creek Canyon, when we hit a signpost (in this case a fork), he left me so he could see how far off the destination was. It turns out that Heron Pond wasn’t much farther, although that is relative when you’re fatigued and hurt all over. I plodded along until we finally reached the Heron Pond boardwalk, where adorable anoles were one sign that we weren’t in northern Illinois anymore.
As one woman passed us, she asked if we’d seen the cottonmouth (copperhead?) under a tree we’d passed. No! I’m disappointed we missed it — I’d been hoping to see a snake, although last year we’d been told they’re elusive.
Years ago, I’d read Marjorie Zapf’s Mystery of the Great Swamp, set in the Okefenokee of 50 to 60 years ago. n the hot, humid air that would be more typical of summer than spring in northern Illinois, Heron Pond looks like something you might find in Georgia — a tiny, northern, less wild Okefenokee. In the book, though, you see the world from Jeb’s eyes as he poles a canoe through trees covered with Spanish moss. When I read The Mystery of the Great Swamp as a child, all of it — the swamp, the canoe, the venomous snakes dangling from the trees, the birds, the dappled lighting and the deep shadows, the profound stillness and subtle sounds as the animals carried on with life — all of this was deliciously alien to my imaginative child-self. I was young enough to think I was Jeb, poling through the silent but not still Okefenokee, in search of answers to questions no adult understood or admitted. I didn’t love the ending because it wasn’t an ending for just Jeb or just me; it felt like an end to something bigger and critical to life itself — the unknown. Without mystery in life, what’s left?
Heron Pond isn’t large or remote enough to harbor the Great Swamp’s mystery — nor, of course, is the Great Swamp. It’s lovely, peaceful, and otherworldly, though, especially after the hours spent passing through central Illinois, if you can imagine the other tourists and, in my case, the pain and fatigue away.
Despite the humid heat and the sun, we stayed a while , then J. wanted to head toward the state champion cherrybark oak. So did I. By this time, my legs felt like they weighed one hundred pounds each, and every step was a painful effort — so painful that I broke into tears and became and even more miserable travel companion. At least I got a lovely photo of the champion cherrybark oak and for a moment I was Jeb — in a 52-year-old woman’s body, chronic condition and all.
Before we passed the Wetlands Center on the way back, we picked up a high-profile, slow-moving farm vehicle in front of us. As he headed toward a large turtle parked in the middle of the lane, I cringed, expecting to see the big guy flattened. The farm vehicle, however, passed over it, so high off the ground on its giant wheels that the turtle was in no danger as long as it stayed in the middle. After the vehicle passed, the turtle, which had been hunkered down, stood as high on its legs at it could and began to hightail it across the road. I’ve never seen such long legs on a turtle. Later my hair stylist pointed out what should have been obvious to me — the turtle was trying to keep its body as far from the hot pavement as it could. I hope it made it to a nice cool spot nearby. As for the vehicle, after a convenience store stop, where we had lost it, it found us again, but finally it pulled off the road at a farmhouse a mile or two away.
Further along the road what I could swear was an otter crossed in front of us. It had the low profile and short legs of an otter and walked very differently from the only beaver I’ve seen walking (in Kankakee River State Park).
The plan had been to squeeze in another activity as it was not much past 4, and there would be daylight for a while. I didn’t have much left, however. After a rest, we went to El Jalapeño in Anna for dinner. By this time, beautiful clouds had built up, and thunder rumbled in the air, but not much came of the threat except the opportunity to relax all the sore muscles and stiff joints.
Monday (Memorial Day) came, and it was already time to return — after another hearty breakfast, of course. Before we left the Jonesboro area, we stopped at Hidden Lake Bed and Breakfast and learned that they had indeed sold the property in two parcels — the main building as a private home, and the guest house as an inn — and that they were getting to move within a month or two. I’m glad I was able to enjoy the amazing breakfast room overlooking the array of bird feeders and a brief walk around the hidden lake last year.
Because time was short, we made only a quick visit to Fern Clyffe State Park, seeing a dead coyote along the way. At Fern Clyffe, the waterfall that had not been running on my previous visit in late May 2013 was not running. One of visitors, who lives nearby, helpfully informed us that after a good rain it had been running the past weekend. Curses.
The rest of the drive back was uneventful. We stopped in Roger Ebert’s university town, Champaign, for a second Memorial Day visit to Café Kopi, another comfortable place that’s hard to leave. By the time we pulled over at the Main Line Station rest area, storm clouds had developed around us, just like last year at the same place. This was the third beautiful trip that ended in rainy or stormy weather — almost as if the weather were trying to brace us for the return to work and reality, to bring us back from the mystery of the great swamp to the banality of everyday life.
July 18, 2013: Two Harbors to Gooseberry Falls State Park to Split Rock Lighthouse State Park to Beaver Bay (Lemon Wolf Café) to Tettegouche State Park to Cross River to Temperance River State Park to Grand Portage
Northern Rail Traincar Inn is made up of repurposed freight cars, with rail yard graffiti included. You know the cars have been on this track for a while because birds’ nests are balanced on some of the hardware. The inn’s office and common area continue the theme, located at the head of the cars in a depot-style building. Northern Rail Traincar Inn ranks second to Marcia’s Bed & Breakfast in Ottawa, Illinois, for most unconventional place I’ve stayed.
We visited the Two Harbors Lighthouse, where our view was hindered by the fog that hadn’t dissipated from the night before. I liked taking photos framed tightly by the lighthouse ports. It puts the world in an interesting focus.
On a couple of the evening drives we’d hit large objects that had jolted the car. Once we got out in the rain to find we’d run over a large truck tire shedding and moved it to spare anyone behind us the trouble. Since Two Harbors seemed to be a good-sized town, I suggested that we get the car’s underbelly examined. At first we went to a teeny garage in town, but they didn’t have a lift, and they referred us to a bigger place on the highway, Sonju. This may have been the largest dealership I’ve ever seen (because I haven’t seen many). I waited in a comfortable sitting area with TV and WiFi and enjoyed the respite. Although we lost time, they were quick to take a look. I’m glad they did, because some clips had been snapped off, leaving some wires dangling. You don’t need that when you’re hundreds of miles from home with many unfamiliar, remote areas in between.
Heading north, we stopped for an hour and a half or so at one of the most picturesque waterfalls I’ve seen — Gooseberry Falls State Park. The middle falls are set among conifers and the kind of dwarfed, twisted, gnarled trees I’d expect to near Monterey, California. The middle falls are easy to get to — there’s even an accessible version of the trail — and gentle enough that families waded into the water nearby. We stayed much longer than we should have, and again I didn’t want to leave. I took photo after photo, some normal, some miniaturized, some with Hipstamatic filters.
|From Minnesota North Shore, July 18, 2013|
The next planned stop was Split Rock Lighthouse, built after a shipwreck on nearby rocks. Split Rock is like Two Harbors’ richer, more glamorous cousin, and there’s a formal tour of the light and its buildings. A guide told us the best spot for the perfect photo of the lighthouse, but I was reaching the limits of my endurance.
The proprietress at Northern Rail Traincar Inn had recommended a restaurant to J., Lemon Wolf Café in Beaver Bay. We stopped there for a delightful dinner, from Minnesota wild rice soup (what else?) to entrée to homemade pie. Lemon Wolf Café is a great find, worth a visit if you’re in that part of Minnesota.
After Beaver Bay, we stopped briefly at Tettegouche State Park, where there was an amazing view in the late afternoon light, with fog remnants obscuring land and water here and there in the sunlight. I envied the life of the cheeky chipmunk who posed for photos in the parking area.
At one point we crossed a bridge where we noticed water rushing toward us on its way to Lake Superior. We backtracked to nearby wayside, as did others, and found ourselves on the bridge facing the engorged waters of the impressive Cross River, which seems to hurl itself at you but descends under the bridge. Even in the dimming light, this was another photo and video moment.
Further on, we stopped at Temperance River State Park, where a short walk downward brings you to river rapids and within sight of one of its waterfalls. It was hard to see and even harder to photograph this late in the day, and the ubiquitous mosquitoes were starting to make themselves felt. We met a ranger and one or two others there, but mostly it felt like we were alone in the dusk.
Except for fog and a little evening drizzle, so far the weather had been perfect, but between Temperance River State Park and Grand Portage, a deluge came — rains heavy enough to make it hard to see and drive. It was still pouring when at last we pulled into the parking lot of the Grand Portage Lodge & Casino, owned and operated by the Grand Portage Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa — a welcome sight after a very long day.
July 17, 2013: Rainy Lake Grand Tour
After another satisfying breakfast, we said goodbye to Sandy Point Lodge and caught the Rainy Lake Grand Tour boat, which goes to the Rainy Lake Visitor Center, with an educational stop at Little American Island. Here, our National Park Service ranger explained the workings of a gold mine from the 1890s. The real focus, however, was the surprising number of bald eagles that peered at us from the trees, as well as the occasional loon. We even spotted a little loon family. The captain obliged us by slowing and/or stopping when he or anyone else spotted wildlife of interest.
We were past the halfway point in the trip, and I was tired of all the driving I wasn’t doing. As with the trip to Kabetogama, this night meant another long journey. First, we went to Crane Lake, where we dined at Voyagaire Lodge and Houseboats. This is a serene setting, partly because the road we’d taken ends at Voyagaire. I loved the sense of nothing beyond this point, which made it feel remote and magical, even if it is neither.
After that drive of more than two hours, we had at least four more to go to get to our next way station in Two Harbors. The closer we got to Two Harbors, the foggier the darkness became. We traveled almost blindly, and in places where there were houses I thought every mailbox emerging suddenly out of the mist was a deer. I don’t know how long the drive was with rest stops, but we arrived at Northern Rail Traincar Inn well after midnight. Having learned from previous experience, I had had J. call ahead to make arrangements for the very late arrival. Whew.
July 16, 2013: Kettle Falls Cruise
Arrowhead Lodge and Resort was a CCC project and has a rustic look like Starved Rock Lodge. Our proprietress served us breakfast on a porch overlooking Lake Kabetogama, where a flock of pelicans was going about its own breakfast business. This was another place I could have stayed for hours.
We left in plenty of time for the 10 a.m. cruise to the Kettle Falls Hotel — but a few moments after parking, J. realized he’d left his camera at Arrowhead. We sped back at a frightening speed over roads not designed for it, to find out that he’d left it on a stool. We hurried back and made the boat with a minute or two to spare — just enough for a biology break, which was necessary because the boat to Kettle Falls doesn’t have accommodations.
On this cruise we were provided with binoculars and a park ranger to talk about the area’s natural history. It seems I spent some of the cruise scowling at J. for his speed record attempts and trying to get photos of the loons and bald eagles pointed out to us.
At Kettle Falls, J. toured the hotel’s upstairs, then we ate and walked the trail and learned more about the area’s history until it was time to head back.
We stopped at the Pine Ridge Gift Shop for a few restful moments, then headed for the original destination, Sandy Point Lodge.
After settling in and dining on a fabulous dinner in a great room with huge windows overlooking Lake Kabetogama, I wanted to sit by the lake and relax for a while. By that time, however, the perfect weather had turned. Black clouds rolled in, the wind picked up and whipped the dock flags noisily, and the lake darkened and tossed. As long as it wasn’t raining, we stood on the dock taking photos and video, watching as boats came in ahead of the squall line across the way. It looked terrifying, but was “signifying nothing.” As quickly as the storm came it blew off, leaving behind a pastel sunset. While these would become some of my favorite trip photos, the wind seemed to have blown in greater swarms of mosquitoes, and they were taken at the cost of many painful bites.
As this would be the one time we wouldn’t have to drive hundreds of miles to the next destination, it seemed a good idea to go inside, shower, catch up online, and call it an early night.
July 15, 2013: Apostle Islands National Lakeshore to Madeline Island to Amnicon Falls State Park to Kabetogama
The Bayfield Inn offers whirlpool suites. Is it necessary to say that as soon as I woke up from the long drive and late night, I inserted myself into warm, soothing jets for as long as I could, which wasn’t long enough?
Today’s objective was a cruise around the mysteriously named Apostle Islands. Our genial captain told us quite a bit about the unpredictability of Lake Superior weather, and it was soon clear that current conditions were conducive for a thick pea soup fog. After we had learned a great deal about the islands we could barely see through a few breaks in the fog, we headed back to shore with the option to get a refund or choose another day. Fortunately our plan had us staying in Bayfield Saturday before heading home, so we signed up for that morning’s tour.
With the afternoon in front of us, we lined up for the ferry to Madeline Island. Maneuvering the car around the narrow space by the pilot house made J. nervous, but the man guiding him said, “Trust me.” All, including the car, made it unscathed. Even better, the morning’s fog had cleared, and the sun had emerged. I looked happy enough!
On Madeline Island we ate outdoors at The Pub at The Inn on Madeline Island, which has a wonderful view of the lake and mainland. The only fly in the ointment were the flies, which weren’t repelled by the natural repellent J. had bought when exchanging the cruise tickets. Even so, you can’t beat a good bar lunch on the lake.
Afterward, we drove around, eventually heading out of town and checking out the houses and properties. I imagine, but don’t know, that most people leave the island for the winter — which was hard to picture on a sunny summer day.
We found ourselves at Big Bay State Park, where we fought off mosquitoes while gazing across the lake. A kayaking class floated by. On one of the Pictured Rocks cruises, someone had told us that sea kayaks are recommended for navigating Lake Superior and its unpredictable weather, and that it’s a very bad idea to go out alone. We’d seen a few brave souls on their own.
Our last stop on Madeline was at Grampa Tony’s, where so many teenagers were working that I started to look for Richie Cunningham.
Our next goal was Kabetogama for two days, but we detoured to Amnicon Falls State Park until it was too dark to take photos.
The never-ending road took us through Duluth, which, in the growing twilight, appeared surreal. As at Porcupine Mountains, there was something unearthly about the muted light.
On this long drive as on others, we were terrified of hitting deer. On one of these night drives, someone ahead of us flashed their lights. We found a mini-herd parked in the center of the road. They didn’t budge even as the car passed slowly within a couple of feet of them. They know who rules the night. After that incident we jokingly hoped for “deer buddies” ahead of us in remote areas who could warn us of deer on or near the road.
The rest of the night reminded me of entering Shawnee National Forest. In the dark, it felt like we were surrounded by forest and fields, with signs of habitation and commerce seemingly scarce. When I needed a bathroom break, it took some time to find a rough, almost deserted bar that was still open.
After an interminable time in the darkness (unbroken, alas, by the aurora borealis), we found the Sandy Point Lodge area, but with spotty to no cell phone coverage it was difficult to navigate. Finally we arrived, exhausted — but it was closer to 1 a.m. than midnight, there was no light, the door was locked, and no one answered the phone. We learned a valuable lesson — call ahead to make arrangements. Although coverage was weak, I was able to check Yelp and make a few calls. At last a sleepy-sounding woman answered and said we could stay at her place, Arrowhead Lodge and Resort. Delirious with joy that I wasn’t going to have to sleep in the car, I told her we’d be right over. “No hurry,” she said. “I have to get dressed.” We found Arrowhead and brought in as little as we could, following her up a narrow staircase. By then it was after 3 a.m. That was a long day, and then some.