The Landscape of the Lake Superior Region
A humid evening, warm, allowing comfort in shorts and a tee shirt. I’m in a birch forest; I can barely make out the white trunks of the skinny trees that surround my van. I’m resting my weary bones on my rocker in the back of the van. All the windows are open with cool breezes gently flowing through. The slider door is open, letting in the darkening dusk. I’m sipping a cold peppermint tea, deeply satisfying. Nick Spitzer’s American Routes plays softly over my small battery powered radio. I also hear the occasional call of a Swainson's thrush, one of my favorite birdsongs. The far away rumble of the Temperance River completes the ambiance with a steady rushing sound. It marks the end of the day for me. As I relax, I think back to my day, and why I love the north shore.
The north shore of Lake Superior is a rugged landscape of pine and birch forests, meandering rivers with cascading waterfalls, high rock bluffs, glacier carved lakes and dominated by the crystal clear waters of the big lake itself. I have lived by Lake Superior my whole life. I grew up in Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula and moved to Duluth after graduating from college. Since then, I’ve spent most of my free time exploring the north shore region of Lake Superior, and discovering it’s secrets.
The lakeshore of the north shore is very beautiful. It’s full of basaltic boulders and ledges, rocks and stones of a million shapes and sizes. It has miles of beaches of finely grained pebbles, to shoreline strewn with pumpkin size boulders to huge rock monoliths-like Palisade Head, rising 200 feet out of the water in a huge hump of stone.
Lake Superior is comfortable to swim in for about 2 and a half months each year. From the last week in June to the first week in September you’ll find the warmest temperatures. I’ve gone in as early as the last week in April (I fell in while bouldering) and the latest I’ve been “swimming” has been the second week in September. The lake, excepting mid-summer, is frigid. It will knock the breath right out of you. It’s PAINFUL. Agony spiking through the limbs, gasping for breath, and making an eerie high pitch yowl that only dogs can hear are typical symptoms of immersion. The cure is a hot sauna, or short of that, a hot car that’s been baking in the sun for a couple of hours. If you are fortunate enough to have a sauna to steam in before and after a swim in the lake, you will feel a cleanliness that is truly next to godliness.
The lake isn’t the only place to swim. I love wading up the myriad of root beer colored rivers that meander there way from their headwaters down through the Sawtooth Mountains to the big lake. My favorite is the Devil Track river just north of Grand Marais. It’s not an easy river to access, as you have to inch your way down a steep, slippery canyon wall. It’s the type of canyon where there’s one way in and one way out. The sides of the canyon rise well up over 100 feet are made up of a reddish, sharp rhyolite that flakes off easy, and impossible to climb. It’s an enjoyable hike, I usually wear sandals and shorts as there are many river crossings to make. The river winds up through the gorge, like a snake doubling back on itself similar to the canyons of Utah. It’s the most interesting river canyon in northern Minnesota. The river walk leads to a beautiful waterfall with a large pool to swim in at it’s base. It’s also the end of the hike, as the cliff the falls cascade over are 30 feet high and slippery with moss. I love swimming here. It’s deep, and the roar of the falls drowns out all other noise. Floating around on my back in this pool, looking up at the blue skies with puffy cumulous clouds bordered by high canyon walls is one of my favorite ways to relax. An idyllic vacuum.
Autumn is a very special time along the north shore. The changing of the seasons is always a welcome time of year for me. It’s a good reminder that the world is in a constant state of change, and that hanging on to anything is a fool’s folly. I love early October. The days are perfect temperature for outdoor activity. The whole forest looks ablaze with fire. Each forest road is a corridor with walls of trees that mix bright orange, red, yellow leaves setting your retina’s burning with the radiant scenery. It’s great to be alive and breathing the cold air, smelling the earthy, musty scent of fallen leaves dried grass and dirt. It’s one of life’s simple pleasures, really. The north shore’s fall colors don’t last very long. Usually there is a one week window for the peak of the colors. Then a good storm will move in, blowing the leaves down and pummeling them flat with heavy rains. It’s the earth’s way of cleaning up the forest, and telling you it’s time for winter.
I’ve described a very small portion of the north shore’s charms. I could go on for another ten pages stumping for the region I call home. It’s a wonderful backyard to play in, on one of the world’s great lakes. I often take it for granted, though. I see folks on vacation coming to visit the area, and I wonder “why?“ Why would you vacation here, when there are so many other more exotic places to go? I find my answer when I’m sitting in my rocker in the back of my van. All the windows are open, with cool breezes softly flowing through…