Superior’s Northern Waters
When we arrived at Superior’s north shore, it was 10:30 at night and pitch black. I squinted and stared out the window to the east, but could not see a thing.
“You sure there’s a lake out there?” I asked my friend, who was driving at the time.
“Oh yeah,” he answered. “As far as you can see in that direction. Hopefully it’s clear tomorrow so you can see how impressive it is.”
Sleep eluded me that night. I love seeing new places, and especially shorelines, so I could hardly wait until morning. My first cup of coffee wasn’t even empty before I headed down to the shoreline. In just a few minutes, a vast body of water stretched out before my eyes. Gentle waves washed up and down on the cobblestone shore. It sure looked like an ocean. But there was no salt in the air, no evidence of tides and there were no shells or seaweed strewn on the sand and gravel.
It was not an ocean, but it sure was big. I was standing on the north shore of Lake Superior. The Native Americans in the area called the lake “Gitchee Gumee.” Sailors called it “the Shipeater.” It was early French explorers who gave it the name “le lac superieur,” which means upper lake, referring to its position compared to Lake Huron. At 383 miles long and 160 miles wide, Lake Superior is the largest freshwater lake in the world. It contains 10 percent of all the fresh water on earth, and has over 1300 miles of shoreline.
And yet, as I sat on its shores that day in late May watching the reflections of blue sky on its calm waters, it seemed like a much smaller body of water. But the lake is not always like that. The locals told me that if I came during a good storm, I’d be able to see 30-foot ocean-sized swells!
Although I never saw waves as big as that during my short stay, I did witness several examples of Lake Superior’s varying temperaments, from calm, sunny, warm and happy to misty, cool, dark and mysterious. I soon discovered that in all its humors, Lake Superior has an awe-inspiring beauty that holds you spellbound and makes it hard to leave its shore. It beckons and entices you to stay, to delve a little deeper into its soul each time you visit.
My search into Lake Superior’s soul began at the Grand Marais Library, searching for books about the lake’s history. From boom to bust, from feast to famine and from the calm to the ferocious, Lake Superior’s past — like its moods — encompasses it all.
Forming the southern edge of the Canadian Shield, the area is a vast country of rocks scraped clean by retreating glaciers. The rivers and creeks there flow hard and fast, tumbling into the lake with fury and abandon. Waterfalls, whitewater and deep gorges are common in the area.
Several Native American tribes inhabited and thrived in the area prior to the European immigration, including the Algonquin tribes to the north and the Dakota tribes to the southwest. The Ojibway tribe was the group that the first white explorers found there in the middle of the 17th century. In 1660, two Frenchmen were the first Europeans to reach the north shore, followed closely by Jesuit missionaries — both helped put Lake Superior on the map.
In the early 1700s, the north shore became the focal point of the fur trade on Lake Superior — and in much of North America. The fur trade flourished for almost 100 years, and it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that other white men arrived in the area. As the fur trade died out, prospectors arrived looking for gold and iron ore (the latter of which was found in abundance).
Loggers followed closely behind. This was the birthplace of the burly lumberjack legend Paul Bunyan. The loggers were so efficient in their work that in less than 50 years the landscape was denuded of trees. By the first World War, the logging industry was all but gone from the area.
My fascination with the soul of the lake — and the fact that, as told to me by a friend who lives in the area, “The bugs aren’t as bad on the shore,” — guided our decision to set up right along the shore, about 10 miles north of Grand Marais. We set up camp at a dispersed campsite next to the shoreline and settled in.
The next morning, the lake was shrouded in mist and the waves slapped and gurgled lazily against the rocky shoreline near our tent. Silence permeated the mist, and the calm waters contributed to the restful atmosphere. This was a mood of the lake that I liked — full of peace and tranquility.
PLENTY TO DO ON Superior’s Northern Waters
From our campsite on the lake, there was a vast array of places we could visit. There were several creeks and waterfalls with trails alongside them along Highway 61 from Grand Marais to the Canadian border. One day, we hiked along Kadunce Creek for a while and saw beautiful yellow marsh marigolds blooming along the creek bank. Farther up the trail, the creek tumbled through a deep, narrow gorge where there was a beautiful waterfall and some large pools.
The Brule River, which runs through Judge C.R. Magney State Park, was another scenic spot along the north shore. From the main parking area, we crossed a bridge over the river that afforded a dramatic view of the rushing water below. We hiked a mile farther up the trail to where the river crashes through the Devil’s Kettle. There, the river drops 50 feet into a hole in the bedrock canyon, frothing and roaring the whole way. It was a striking contrast to the calm and quiet forests we hiked through to get there.
We got caught up on the area’s history — especially the fur trade — at the Grand Portage National Monument. Just this side of Canada, its buildings and surrounding stockade are striking replicas of the trade depot operated by Simon McTavish and his North West Company from 1784 to 1803. During the summer, park personnel don period costume and re-enact the duties of those living there so many years ago. While visiting, we spoke with a cook who was making dinner over an open fire in the hearth of the kitchen house. Two men wore buckskins in the warehouse, tarring the birch-bark canoes hanging there and telling of incredible loads and trips that the Voyageurs embarked on regularly.
In the great hall, there were fancy dining tables, crackling fire in the cozy, warm fireplace, and stacks of seasoned pelts. Travelers long ago would stay here either before or after the long portage on the rough water of the Pigeon River.
For 20 years, this had been the largest fur-trade depot in the heart of the continent, and the great hall bustled with activity. It’s amazing to consider that 100 years before Lewis and Clark began their historic voyage across the continent, this place was alive with the hustle and bustle of European trade.
One of my favorite hikes of the entire trip began a short way down the road from the monument. Located on the Grand Portage Indian Reservation, the Mount Josephine trailhead was 0.8 miles north of the monument parking lot on County Road 17. Climbing more than 800 feet in just under 1 mile, the trail zigzags once and weaves its way across a ridge, over a saddle and eventually to a rocky summit. From the top, you are offered a glorious panorama of Lake Superior, Pigeon Point, Isle Royale and the Susie Islands. I was again struck by the immensity of Lake Superior, and the longing to linger and stare at the sparkling blue waters returned.
Another great trail in the area is the Superior Hiking Trail. Traversing through 220 miles of dense forest, river bottom and shoreline, the trail links seven state parks along the north shore from Two Harbors to the Canadian border (Split Rock Lighthouse, Tettegouche, Crosby Manitou, Temperance River, Cascade River, Judge C.R. Magney and Grand Portage). There were a lot of places to access the trail that made for a great day hike. Since we weren’t there for any hard-core hiking/backpacking, we just hiked a couple of short portions of the trail — one along the shores of Lake Superior and one along Woods Creek, just off of County Road 14. We found some beautiful flowers along the Woods Creek portion of the trail, including nodding trilliums, bunchberries and starflowers. The Grand Marais Visitor Center has a great map of local hiking trails.
By now, I was beginning to get to know the soul of Lake Superior a bit. I had spent time on its shore, walked through the nearby forests, seen and heard several creeks and waterfalls whose waters tumbled into the lake, and spent a day or two with its past. Everything I had seen spoke of calm and gentleness — I had not yet seen its tempestuous side. A visit to the Split Rock Lighthouse changed that.
Located about 20 miles northeast of Two Harbors, the Split Rock Lighthouse was built as a result of a terrible storm in 1905. The waves were huge and relentless and raged against the rocky shores. Ships were bashed and beaten against those shores, and nearly 30 of the ships were damaged or sunk. To help prevent further catastrophes, the lighthouse was built atop a 130-foot cliff to help guide ships safely along the shore. The tour of the lighthouse, light keeper’s dwelling and fog-signal building was fascinating — especially the part about the life of a light keeper and the history of shipping on Lake Superior.
Before leaving the area, there was one last thing I had to do. I had visited the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) as a teenager, and since I was so close to the place again, I longed to paddle there once more. My friend and a couple of his buddies had arranged to take me with them into the BWCAW to do some fishing and sightseeing. The next morning, we headed up the Gunflint Trail from Grand Marais to a date with the BWCAW and a shiny, aluminum canoe.
“That there’s a timber wolf,” Ken said as he pointed over the dash and down the road ahead of us. It was a long way off, but I could definitely make out that it was a large, dog-like animal with long legs. It dashed across the road, giving us but a glance.
“Wow! Do you see lots of them around here?” My voice gave away my astonishment. Where I am from — out West — they are a novelty.
“Oh yeah,” he answered. “There’s a lot of them around here. I usually see them a couple or three times every year. See a lot of moose, too,” he continued.
Soon we arrived at West Bearskin Lake,
unloaded our canoes and headed out into the calm water. The blue skies sparkled in the water around us as we quietly paddled across the lake. A loon swam alongside us at one point, giving us a good look at his red eyes and black and white plumage.
At Rose Lake, our destination, the views were spectacular. The hills and bluffs around the shores of the lake glowed with the green emerald of new growth on the birch, aspen and maple trees.
We paddled across the calm water to the far side of the lake. After all, we had come here to fish, and on the far end of the lake, Ken had claimed, “You don’t catch a lot of fish, but every one you do catch is a dandy.” Thirty minutes after we began to fish, he landed an 8-pound lake trout. We all believed his “fish story” then.
The fishing began to slow, so we took a lunch break after a while and noticed that dark, gray clouds were beginning to gather overhead. We tried to fish again, but soon afterward, a lightning bolt struck a hillside on the north side of the lake and scared the living bejeebers out of us. Safely on the bank again, we waited until the threat of lightning was gone, then raced for the portage at the far end of the lake. At one point, I felt like we were in a two-man canoe race in the Olympics, digging and pulling on my paddle for all I was worth.
Soon the air and the lake’s surface both calmed down and a light rain began to fall. The water turned to silver and the raindrops seemed to dance across the water as they hit the surface, giving the place a magical quality. Our fears of lightning quickly faded, and our paddling eased to an effortless glide across the last two lakes.
Despite some wet clothing on the trip back to the trailhead, I had thoroughly enjoyed my return to the BWCAW after so many years.
Back in Grand Marais, we wandered down to the harbor just before sunset. The last light of evening glowed against the harbor light, shrouded in mist and surrounded by the calm, quiet waters of Lake Superior. I was leaving the lake in the same way I had found it — calm and quiet water in a peaceful mood.
We began to reminisce about our stay on the north shore of Lake Superior. I had found a peaceful place, and a place of extremes — from tranquility to booming thunder, from reflections to whitecaps. Early visitors to the area must have seen the same thing, using impressive adjectives to name and describe landmarks in the area. Names such as Grand Marais, Grand Portage, the Great Lakes and Lake Superior lend a sense of majesty to the locations. Perhaps there was a little exaggeration by these early pioneers. Or perhaps they knew the area better than we think. From what we saw, I would be hard-pressed to disagree with those first visitors.