We left for the North Shore of Minnesota early Thursday morning and made it as far as Osseo, Wisconsin (just south of Eau Claire) where we camped in the nicest RV park we have ever experienced. Everything was new. Wide sites—wooded or open manicured lawns, complete hook ups, new cabins and every conceivable amenity. It was more like a country club with its swimming pool, tennis court, beach volley ball court, playground and clubhouse with fancy tiled bathrooms.
The following day we crossed over the St. Louis River into Duluth and slightly south to our campsite at the Spirit Lake Marina and RV Park. This would be a new experience as the campsites are located between the boat docks that jut out into the water. Just behind us large yachts are moored into the dock. Across to the other dock we have a view of large sailing boats. Since both boats and RVs require the same hookups, I guess it makes sense. Plus we have a good view of the St. Louis River, the largest U.S. tributary to flow into Lake Superior.
French trappers came to Duluth in the late 1600s and the Northwest Trading Company established a trading post in 1792. However there wasn’t a permanent settlement until 1852. Iron ore was discovered in 1865 and around the same time all of the lumber around Lake Superior became a big deal. Now Duluth and adjacent Superior, Wisconsin across the river are some of the largest freshwater ports in the world.
After dropping the camper, we headed downtown to Canal Park, Duluth’s most popular visitor destination. It comprises wharf warehouses and coast guard buildings that are converted into restaurants, shops, offices and lodgings. There is a long spit of land, Minnesota Point, more than 7 miles long, that extends into Lake Superior from Canal Park. In 1871 a canal was dug through this thin sandbar to create an easy access for the big freighters coming into Duluth Harbor. That left everyone who lived out on Minnesota Point stranded. They got back and forth from town on barges and boats. In 1905 a huge aerial tram was built. It carried everyone across on a huge platform, a pagoda actually, that was suspended from a bridge-like structure. In 1929 it was changed into an aerial lift bridge which is what is still in use today.
The Aerial Lift Bridge dominates the skyline and is the major landmark of Duluth. The 386-foot span lifts vertically to a height of 138 feet to allow the giant ships to pass into the harbor. Having only a 15-foot clearance off the water’s surface, it only needs to rise as high as is necessary. Of course, when it does lift, the traffic is halted on both sides, and this does occur several times each day. Some of the ships passing through are 1,000 feet long. Bystanders have terrific upclose views. Two lighthouses flank the entrance that leads under the bridge into the harbor.
There is a Maritime Museum on one side of the bridge which documents shipping on the Great Lakes, and the innumerable ship wrecks in the area and throughout the Great Lakes. They have automated facilities that can load a huge freighter with 60,000 tons of ore or grain in 5-6 hours. A television screen lets you know when the biggest ships are expected to arrive or depart the port.
It takes a typical shipping vessel 7 days to travel from this port to the Atlantic Ocean. The ships travel the lake from about mid-March when the ice breaks to December or January, when the lake’s surface begins to freeze. Locals call these ships “lakers” and “salties.” Lakers sail only on the Great Lakes, they ride low in the water and are larger and more common the salties, which ride higher and have cranes on their decks. Salties often carry cargo, while Lakers mostly transport bulk commodities.
The calmest waters occur in June and July, and the roughest waters are in October and November. The highest recorded wave was 31 feet. Lake Superior is known for its fog and has an average of 52 days of heavy fog each year. There have been 350 shipwrecks recorded on the Lake and more than 1,000 lives have been lost. The most recent was the Edmund Fitzgerald freighter that went down on November 10, 1975. Old timers say that Superior doesn’t give up her dead. It is true that if you go down on Superior, chances are your body will not be found. The Ojibway call the lake Gichigami, meaning “big water.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the name as “Gitche Gumee” In The Song of Hiawatha. The first French explorers approaching the great inland sea during the 17th century referred to it as le lac superieur. The English, upon taking control of the region from the French in the 1760s, simply called it Superior.
We had lunch in Grandma’s Saloon, a local fixture adjacent to the museum, and then explored some shops in the reconditioned warehouses. Chris was particularly interested in the inventory carried at Duluth Packing Company.
Saturday we explored the area. Duluth is right on the water and stretches up the surrounding hillsides. Picture San Francisco on a smaller scale. At the top of the 600-foot ridge line is the Skyline Drive which stretches about 30 miles above Duluth and gives great views of the Lake and ports. At its northern terminus there are a series of creeks and streams cascading down the escarpment to flow into the Lake. We stretched our legs hiking up a stream to a series of arched stone bridges. There is a 7-mile Lakewalk which hugs the shoreline from Canal Park northward and we gave it a try. Along the way we had a good view of the Duluth skyline.
Near its end is a Rose Garden, where more than 3,000 rose bushes and flowering arrangements are maintained.
It must be a popular wedding stop as we ran into 3 different wedding parties within a very short distance. It’s been sunny and cool and the trees are just starting to change color. But the evenings have turned rather cold as temperatures dip into the high 30s overnight. The locals said that just last week the weather was hot (in the 80s) and very dry.
Sunday morning was another beautiful day. Melinda decided to rise before sunrise and head to the harbor. She had hopes to photograph a sunrise shot of one of the lighthouses as well as capture the well-lit Aerial Bridge as dawn was breaking. It was an invigorating experience standing at water’s edge in 30-degree temps with a stiff breeze coming off the water.
After breakfast we decided to tour a Duluth historical landmark, Glensheen. Built in 1905-8, it was the home of Chester and Clara Congdon, one of the city’s wealthiest families back at the turn of the last century. A lawyer by profession, he made his fortune when his land holdings were found to be rich in copper, and then he made subsequently great investments. The Jacobean Revival mansion contains 27,000 square feet and cost more than $800,000 to build and furnish at the time. Fortunately, nearly all the furnishings are original to the house which made the tour all the more enriching. The woodwork and wood carvings found on the wall panels, doors and stairway balusters were amazing and gave the interior quite the old-world charm. Although the house was magnificent and opulent, it also had a very livable atmosphere. It appeared to be a comfortable family home, as mansions go. The Congdons had seven children living there, which helped to fill up the 11 bedrooms and 13 baths.
Chris got in his first bike ride of the trip. Duluth has an extensive rails-to-trails paved pathway heading south from town. The 70-mile long Willard Munger State Trail cuts through a very scenic part of the countryside, but unfortunately the most picturesque section going through Jay Cooke State Park has been closed for reconstruction. It seems that the Duluth area was inundated with heavy rainfall back in June which brought on torrential cascades of water as rivers and streams overflowed their banks. The state park was virtually washed away . . . from the visitor’s center to its landmark suspension bridge when a nearby reservoir broke through its banks and flooded everything in its path. Chris was able to detour around and bike an artery of the Munger Trail.
Monday we leave Duluth and begin our North Shore Drive. Our plan is to head directly to the Canadian border and the town of Grand Portage, a 146-mile drive. From there, we will turn around and begin a leisurely three weeks coming back down to Duluth, hopefully following the fall foliage transition. Several state parks are located along the shoreline, with small villages interspersed between them. It is a remote area with the big lake on one side, and the northwoods and Superior National Forest behind. The Boundary Waters lies just inland from there.
We look forward to the changing season and being here in a totally new environment. Our Airstream seems in prime condition, and offers a brightly illuminated and comfortably warm home when the early darkness begins to fall and the clear sunny days turn suddenly chill, chasing us inside.
From the start of a new Northwoods adventure,
Chris and Melinda