Day 5: On which I go from the thunder of waterfalls to the thunder of the sky on the Gunflint Trail
August 5, 2014
After a long soak in the spa, we stopped at the Cross River to take photos and walk down the steps on the eastern side. This was the first time I’d seen the Cross River in daylight — last year we’d stopped here twice at dusk. I’d realize later that it wasn’t only the sunlight that made it look different — this year the water was running at a fraction of last year’s volume. On the previous trip, the flood of water rushing under the road had seemed terrifying; now it was a serene scenic spot.
In the dark, Cross River had seemed a little desolate, but on this day we made quick visits to the Schroeder Baking Company and the Cross River Heritage Center, both within walking distance across and down the highway a bit.
Our next stop was Temperance River State Park, another first in daylight. On this quintessential summer day, teenagers were jumping feet first into the water, while the rest of us took the more-or-less easy walk to the gorge. Temperance River is gorgeous, although in the sunshine the waterfall visible from the first part of the trail shed some of its twilight wildness and mystery.
We spent most of a more relaxing day here, not in a hurry to get to the next stop. After walking part of the trail and taking many photos from many strategic vantage points along the gorge and of the abundant wildflowers, we set off in search of dinner, which wasn’t hard to find at Bluefin Grille at Bluefin Bay — although once we got there, it took a long time to navigate to the restaurant from the hotel parking lot.
Bluefin Bay is on the Superior shore, and our view overlooked a lone kayak, pulled up onto the beach. Within a half hour or so, however it was joined by more than a half dozen. It looked like a class led by a woman who got her kayak situated, then helped most of the rest get theirs up onto the now more crowded beach.
The hour was early — around 5 p.m. — the restaurant sparsely populated, and our server chatty, so we grilled her for her local knowledge. She said Highway 61 was being widened to put in much-needed culverts, which I had noticed in the daylight hours. It sounded like the folks with homes along the highway were in favor of the project, but the construction-related traffic jams were terrible, especially around Grand Marais. You could be stopped at a red light for a half hour. She mentioned one area where you can bypass the work by taking a side road that’s marked as though there may be no outlet or no reason to go down it. “Just ignore that,” she said.
She was very familiar with the Gunflint Trail and, given the time of day we were to drive down it, she told us we were likely to see moose and to be very careful to avoid hitting one. As we left Bluefin, I became certain we were going to run into a moose, or a moose was going to run into us, which set my stress hormones into action well ahead of time.
The traffic wasn’t horrendous, and I remember only making a stop at the Cut Face Creek rest area, which had a clear view of serene Superior in the early evening light.
After all that, the drive down the Gunflint Trail was uneventful, without a moose in sight. The closest we came was a sign, noted in memory, indicating a trail to a “Moose Viewing Area.” We would have liked to have seen one or a few moose — at a safe distance from the road, of course. Although cars with more confident drivers (probably local) zoomed past on occasion, it was clear we were headed away from town.
We overshot the turnoff onto Clearwater Road, which meant driving a mile or two extra to find a place to turn the car around. Clearwater Road is a gravelly, twisty road off the Trail, and it was well after 8 p.m. and getting dark when we arrived at Clearwater Historic Lodge.
As we were unloading everything for a two-day stay (no quick task), I noticed it getting unusually dark. Big drops started to fall. We found all or most of the guests migrating from the common area to the back porch to watch a powerful thunderstorm accompanied by a downpour that seemed to get heavier by the minute. Soon the cooling temperature and the blowing rain drove most of the spectators back indoors, where they’d been chatting, reading, and playing games earlier. It was like life before the Internet distracted us from face-to-face interactions. Soon most dispersed to their rooms, while the storm continued to rage over the lake and environs until about 11 p.m. or so. The perfectly timed storm (because we’d gotten everything out of the car before it hit full force) was an amazing welcome to the Gunflint Trail and Clearwater Historic Lodge.