Wednesday we left Gooseberry Falls SP and headed south to our last stop, the town of Two Harbors. We were staying in a city campground right on the Lake. When we arrived we were informed that they had shut off the water (for the season) about an hour prior to our arrival. We hadn’t bothered to fill up at Gooseberry because we knew we had full hook ups at Two Harbors. Given no advice as to where we might locate a water hydrant, we decided to wander around town awhile. Fortunately, a kind woman in the tourist information office adjacent to the campground had water and let us fill up our 5 gallon jugs, not only once but as many times as we needed. Sometimes, things work out.
It also happened that we ended up selecting a site next to another Airstream. There are only 4 campers in the facility now, and we happened to like the advantages of this particular location.
Two Harbors is considered by many to be the gateway to the North Shore. Named for its two harbors, Agate Bay and Burlington Bay, the town originated in 1883 as a shipping point for the Vermilion and Mesabi Range iron mines. Two Harbors’ success was founded on ore shipping, fishing, and the transport of lumber by raft and by rail on and around Lake Superior. The city is the actual starting point for the North Shore Drive. It also remains one of the major shipping centers on Superior. The shipping news in the Duluth Tribune will tell you what freighters are anchored at the docks, what cargo they are taking on, and where they will take it. There is also a web site you can use to get the same information, as well as their times of arrival and departure.
Two Harbors has managed to adapt and reuse many of its historic properties. Well-maintained, much of the town’s historic infrastructure is still in use and busy providing attractive options for its visitors. The city is both a harbor town and a railroad town. Both sides of its personality are clearly evident here in the historic buildings and continuing industry usage. There is a beautiful Carnegie Library. We’ve run into so many on our travels, we’re wondering how many he funded.
With a backdrop of birches, a statue of a French voyageur overlooks the harbor to commemorate what the DNR did for the town.
We expected something more touristy, like Grand Marais, but it is really a working town. We toured the town and what shops there were, bought a few mementos, and then headed down to the light house and ore loading docks.
The light house was built in the late 1890s, thus making it a decade older than the Split Rock Light House. Now it is privately owned and used as a bed and breakfast. Not having the dramatic setting of the Split Rock Lighthouse, it nonetheless made a charming scene. Melinda searched out its most favorable angle and ended up down at the water’s edge over an expanse of lakeshore rocks.
On our first morning we went down to the dock and were in time to see a giant ore boat, the Philip R Clarke, back out, swing the bow around and leave the harbor. It was a tremendous sight to witness. The ore boats must have some sort of bow thrusters since they don’t need a tug boat to maneuver in and out. After pulling into dock, they load 800 rail cars filled with taconite pellets in about 6 hours. Then they head right back out, on their way. It’s a quick turn-around. Melinda took off down the long breakwater to get her shot. The breakwater light stands guard at the entrance to Agate Harbor. Once past the harbor, the boat makes another turn to the north to enter the shipping lanes. With atmospheric conditions nearly perfect, we saw it pass directly through the rays of the early morning sun.
After a great breakfast at the Vanilla Bean Cafe we headed out and drove the original first 20 miles of the North Shore Drive. Years after its construction, with traffic congestion on this section of roadway becoming an increasing problem, a 4-lane highway was built to parallel the old highway, which is nearer the lakeshore. We took the four-lane highway when departing Duluth, so this original section was the only part of the North Shore Drive that we hadn’t traveled. With a clear sky and a warming sun to temper the brisk breeze, we enjoyed taking in the last remnants of the fall color, stopping from time to time at some scenic point or interesting site.
Melinda was intent on finding and photographing one of the original cottages or fishing shacks used by the original Norwegian families that lived here. The community of Knife River, located just a few miles south of Two Harbors, was settled in the 1880s and thrived on the fishing industry. From 1898 to 1919, a logging operation was also active here and the town boomed. Today, you’d barely know you were driving through the place. Whether she discovered an “original” or not, we managed to find a deserted cottage that did look like it had seen better days. Thinking that she had finally found what she was searching for, we were able to continue on with our drive. Only a few fishermen continue the tradition of catching and peddling fish from this rural community. Nevertheless, it is still one of the North Shore’s most active sport fishing areas. The Knife River Marina is home to several dozen Lake Superior pleasure vessels and charter fishing operations. Many boats work full time out of the marina to take customers about one mile from shore to try their luck at hooking a large lake trout, Coho or Chinook salmon, as well as viewing the dramatic shoreline from the water. The Lake deepens to more than 500 feet within a mile of shore, so it is no more than 15 minutes before people can begin fishing in earnest. Today we didn’t see much evidence of boating activity. In fact, more than half of the resident marina boats seemed to be in dry dock, undoubtedly for the season
We couldn’t let our last full day on the North Shore slip by without one last hike. Not surprisingly, Melinda had one lined up. Both the Superior and Knife River Hiking Trails have mutual trailheads where the river intersects with the North Shore road. We followed a well-trod trail along the banks of the river, known to be a good trout stream under better conditions. Now the river was less than a stream, with merely a ribbon of water threading through boulders and rocks. Our trail led through the forest that lined one side. Across the way, a string of small fishing cabins looked like they had seen better days. The trail ended at a small waterfall that didn’t seem to hold much appeal for the photographer. Actually the birch-lined path was more to her liking. Coming back into town, the rocky coastline still held appeal for Melinda. The afternoon was slipping away and conditions had remained clear. We wanted to hold on to the day for as long as possible. She headed down to the water’s edge and did her thing, while I enjoyed the scenery in the little harbor side park opposite the ore docks.
Back at the campground the wind had died down and we were able to have one last campfire. The wood we purchased up here was birch, which burns with a bright flame, but quickly dies down. We went through our two bundles rather quickly. And so ended our last evening. The view we had from our site was truly the epitome of our Lake Superior trip. It was all water and lake and rocks. Not all our days had been as perfect as this one, but certainly the majority were. The few clouds that floated above the water this evening gave us one of the better Superior sunsets. As we were departing a few moments before sunrise the next morning, Chris happened to look off to the side as he was driving away and saw a huge ore ship passing by. Having just left the docks, it was set off by one of the most spectacular sunrises we have seen on our entire trip. We had to stop and grab a few pictures. And Melinda wants you to know that these were the true and actual colors we saw. It was a moment to savor. And then, we were on our way south. We stopped after 500 miles of driving at Starved Rock State Park in Illinois just north of Bloomington. It is a huge park, known to be the most popular in the state, built along the banks of the Illinois River. We stopped at the lodge on the way in and were surprised to find a huge log structure reminiscent of the great lodges out west. It was just like one of them, including the huge stone fireplace. Oddly enough, the campground was down the road and separated from the rest of the park. We didn’t understand that at all. We bought a couple more bundles of firewood and enjoyed a longer fire—this wood was oak!
Saturday we finished the drive to Terre Haute, arriving shortly after noon, 25 days and 2,896 miles later. We were happy to find that the fall colors seem to just be peaking here at home. We have to say that we thoroughly explored the North Shore of Lake Superior, saw lots of fall color and even experienced the first bite of winter (24 degrees upon departure). Now we’re looking forward to our fall camping in Indiana and North Carolina.
From the ‘Land of Ten Thousand Lakes’,
Chris and Melinda