A Superior Road Trip
By Barbara Morrow
(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: MAY/JUNE 2007)
JUST AS THE SUN begins to light the sky, I sneak out of Naniboujou Lodge, a Depression-era hunting lodge-turned-inn along Lake Superior in northeastern Minnesota. Before another day of driving beside the world’s largest freshwater lake and its rocky shore, I want an up-close look.
I head down the broad lawn dotted with Adirondack chairs and start walking on a beach of lake-smoothed stones, empty as far as I can see. Superior looks like molten silver in the half light, calm and almost flat, joining a gray sky in an almost imperceptible line in the distance. As I begin to feel like I’m all alone, maybe the only one who has ventured this far, I almost trip on a carefully arranged pile of stones, then another. Previous visitors have stacked these little sculptures. This place seems to demand some sort of creative offering, so I pile up my own.
"People come here to be nurtured a bit and just to relax and sit by the lake. We all need that, there’s so much noise and action in our lives, " says Nancy Ramey, owner of the lodge nine miles north of Grand Marais in the state's northeastern corner.
"She’s right: That’s why we're here. In fact, those sorts of moments are what friend and colleague Joan Luckett and I are after on the legendary Circle Tour. This 1,200-plus-mile trek has been called one of the world’s ultimate road trips. But we want to make the journey for what we’ll find along the way, not for the thrill of logging miles. The drive has to be a way to get to Great Lakes scenery, interesting people, lighthouses, cool towns, local food, inns and other experiences that, for us, make a trip memorable.
This journey promises all of that on a grand scale. The route is long but fairly simple and will return us to where we start, giving us the joy of the unknown without serious map reading. Our goal is to travel clockwise from Duluth along the Minnesota, Ontario, Michigan and Wisconsin shores in five days, about all the time we can afford away from our jobs and families.
Barbara's trip, Day Two
By Day Two, our stops and the Superior views already have made the drive worthwhile: the walk along the shore in Duluth and lunch at famous Grandma’s restaurant; Gooseberry Falls, where we watch kids splash just steps from Minnesota’s State-61; Grand Marais, with its shops, galleries and cafes around a Lake Superior harbor. Naniboujou, which has a dining room decorated by a 1920s artist in striking Cree-inspired designs, proved as magical as we hoped. (OK, our room’s No. 2 bed (the kind in the wall that flips up suddenly in old cartoons) is a little scary, I admit.) Day Five finds us wondering how we can fit this epic journey into one fairly short story.
The route winds through a panorama, between hills covered in tall pines and aspens and vast, blue Superior. Whenever we see a promising roadside overlook, we stop and follow trails to sights that are surprisingly easy walks from the road. Ontario's Kakabeka Falls, a roaring torrent plunging 130 feet, seems too spectacular to be just a few steps from a parking lot. So does an overlook above Lake of the Clouds, a mirror-bright swath reflecting sky and woods in Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (UP). The UP’s Tahquamenon Falls and Ontario’s Ouimet (WE-met) Canyon require longer walks, but nothing that would justify all we’re eating.
By the time we reach Ouimet, we’re ready to stretch our legs, whether or not this place we’d barely heard of is worth the detour. I stop to read a sign to figure out if we have far to go, and Joan forges ahead. I hear her gasp, not a good sound when you’re surrounded by Canadian wilderness.
Then I see why. The shaded path ends abruptly at a wooden platform hanging over a gorge. According to the sign dizzyingly close to the rail, the canyon is 30 stories deep, more than a mile long and almost 500 feet wide. Ontario natives Sherri Smith and her son Andrew, 15, are just as awed. We ask them whether this place is well-known in Canada. Surely, it must be. But Sherri says, "No one knows about it. We just happened past. "
Shadows lengthen across the rocks, and we realize we’d better get moving. The price of all our irresistible stops becomes clear at about this point of each day. But long hours driving do offer time to talk, more in a day than we usually have time for in weeks. The rambling dialogue covers books (finding time for them), ideas (you need some down time like this to have some) and our families ("Your daughter won’t be a senior already! " I protest, stalling a discussion of college visits).
But after a sudden downpour and a stretch of Canada-17 that’s been reduced nearly to dirt by construction, we can’t get to our last stop, tiny Rossport near Superior’s northern tip, fast enough. At the landmark Rossport Inn, we gratefully eat lake trout and pie, looking out on an azure bay studded with green islands. Our cabin is simple but has pretty quilts on good beds, and we sleep deeply despite trains thundering past.
Barbara's trip, Day Three And Beyond
On Day Three, Sault Ste. Marie’s s Ojibway Hotel beckons like an oasis of modern comfort. Ah, our cell phones work! The hotel restaurant overlooks the harbor and the Soo Locks, which let building-size freighters pass between lakes Superior and Huron. It may be our last chance for fresh lake fish, and we’re having trouble deciding between walleye and whitefish, but splitting them is so awkward. Wouldn’t it be great if the kitchen would do it for us? Somehow Joan explains this to our smiling college-student waiter so it sounds like the most natural thing ever.
It’s almost 9 p.m., but twilight is just settling in, and the neighboring shops are all open. We start looking for souvenirs; the kitschier, the better. I talk Joan into a hat with a bicycle horn on top, but she’s not sure it's funny enough. (She can’t see herself in it, obviously.) Pretty soon we’re examining up-north accessories as if we had a cool cabin that needed furnishing. "Green pine-tree place mats, napkins AND matching glasses? " I ask. "Way too matchy, matchy, " Joan decrees with a dismissive wave. A clerk hovers like she’s spotted crazy shoplifters. "Do you blame her? " Joan giggles as we slink out.
The next night, we gratefully sink into Victorian richness at Sand Hills Lighthouse Inn on the UP’s Keweenaw Peninsula and even climb the 100 steps, including a final skinny ladder, to the top. Innkeeper Bill Frabotta eagerly tells what he knows about the 1917 lighthouse, the Great Lakes’ largest and newest, as if we were the first guests to ask.
History comes in these sorts of satisfying, easy bites throughout this trip. At Fort William, a re-created fur trading post near Thunder Bay, Ontario, interpreters play their parts so zealously, we have to remind ourselves that reenactors cast as a canoe maker, a trader with the Scottish brogue, and a wealthy wife of a schooner captain bragging about her house really are students from local colleges. The displays at the UP’s Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum get us talking about the Edmund Fitzgerald, which went down in 1975, as if the wreck happened yesterday.
More memorable moments come at local cafes and all sorts of shops. We relish fat, crescent-shape "pasties" (signature UP meat pies) at Muldoon's in Munising and Randall Bakery in Wakefield. Our backseat pile of treasures grows with every stop, earrings from an Ontario amethyst mine; a Naniboujou cookbook; pottery from Tim Alexander’s studio.
Down a rutted gravel lane near Rossport, an intended quick stop at Tim’s turns into an hour-long tour and talk about his life way up north beside Lake Superior. Tim seems to savor the visit as much as we do. He says, "Most people who travel this far really want to experience the place. " For us, that’s the point of going full circle.
Barbara and Joan's Itinerary
DAY 1...4 STOPS 116 miles Duluth, MN—Walked along the harbor and watched Aerial Lift Bridge rise. Gooseberry Falls State Park, MN—Wished we had time to join kids splashing in the falls. Grand Marais, MN—Could have spent a day in shops and galleries. Naniboujou Lodge—Had dinner and settled into a room with a Lake Superior view.
DAY 2...4 STOPS 140 MILES Thunder Bay, ONT—Explored Fort William Historical Park, a re-created fur trading post. Detoured to massive Kakabeka Falls. Amethyst Mine Panorama, ONT—Sifted through rocks rich in semiprecious stones. Ouimet Canyon, ONT—Awed by this detour. Rossport, ONT—Reached the Rossport Inn at last!
DAY 3...6 STOPS 338 MILES Rossport, ONT—Lingered at potter Tim Alexander's studio. Terrace Bay, ONT— Town beach felt like a discovery. Traveled the edge of Pukaskwa National Park, past crystal lakes. Wawa, ONT—Had to see the goose statue and Young’s General Store. Marveled at Silver Falls and Old Woman Bay. Sault Ste. Marie, MI—Checked into Ojibway Hotel beside the Soo Locks and busy harbor.
DAY 4...9 STOPS 358 MILES State-123 detour—Left the official Circle Tour route to see Iroquois Point Lighthouse, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum and giant Tahquamenon Falls. Munising, MI—Chowed down on pasties and backtracked east to two of spectacular Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore’s s most accessible spots, Miners Castle and Miners Beach. Marquette, MI—Made a quick stop in the vibrant historic downtown of the UP’S biggest city, which has huge iron-ore docks still looming over the harbor. Can’t resist Da Yooper’s Tourist Trap to the west and its kitschy collections. Ahmeek, MI—Arrived at Sand Hills Lighthouse Inn in time for dessert and to watch an orange sun sink into the lake.
DAY 5...3 STOPS 230 MILES Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, MI—Amazed by Lake of the Clouds overlook and drove through tunnels of trees in Michigan’s largest state park. Wakefield, MI—Ate our favorite pasties at Randall Bakery; no gravy needed and great with chocolate milk. Duluth, MN—Tooled back to our starting point via Superior, WI, past a freighter-filled harbor.
Drive hard. Play hard.
By Trevor Meers
BACK WHEN THE OJIBWA TRIBE lived at Lake Superior’s mercy, they envisioned the lake’s spirit as a creature named Misshepezhieu. He looked like the unholy offspring of a lizard and a lynx and, when perturbed, stirred up storms with swipes of his spiked tail. But when I come nose-to-nose with an in-the-flesh version of Superior’s wild soul one Tuesday afternoon, he looks more like a scraggly caribou with velvety antlers and an interest in the bagel I"m having for lunch.
The caribou stands dripping on a shoreline deep in Ontario’s Slate Islands, staring at three fishermen half-napping in the sun. Ten feet away, he turns his head sideways, sizing us up with bulging eyes designed to spot any predator in stalking range. But he ultimately seems no more worried about humans than a city-park pigeon, oblivious to the adrenaline-fueled twitching in my knee caused by the most exotic wild beast I’ve ever been this close to.
Even if he’s not a mellower Misshepezhieu, he’s the Lake Superior I came looking for.
I wanted to do more than circle the lake at a polite distance during the Circle Tour, as if a 1,200-mile velvet rope separated the water from its halo of asphalt. I wanted to feel my kayak rise on a swell as the lake breathed. To fill a frying pan with a fish I pulled from the lake’s cold depths. To measure each footstep on trails skittering along sheer rock faces.
Chasing the same vision is my dad, Gary, a professor of education with a taste for all things outdoors. We’re catching up on this trip, since, like most men, we tend to have meaningful conversations only while staring across dashboards or campfires. Plus, I knew he’d find closing a loop around Superior as tantalizing a mission as I did. And in goal-oriented vacationing, unity is everything.
We’re seeing plenty of each other. Not only because of the 200-plus miles we cover each day, but because we’re living in a self-contained marvel known as the Tucson. Camping was a must on this tour designed to feel the thumps of Superior’s s heartbeat. But in anticipation of sore muscles and late-night campsite arrivals, we rented an 8-foot pop-up trailer. It offers two beds, a small kitchen and a weight that burdens our truck no more than a mouse hitching a ride on the bumper. Its compact size lets us regularly tuck into the best spots beside the tent campers.
Trevor's trip, continued
We launch the trip by prepping at Duluth’s s Lake Superior Marine Museum and the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center 70 miles east in Ashland, Wisconsin. Fleets of tiny ships and schools of fiberglass fish fill us in on the lake’s backstory. A three-dimensional map reveals that in comparison to Superior’s dark holes (plunging to 1,332 feet in one spot), Lake Erie looks like a spilled drink. Dad and I take turns snarling like sailors behind a ship’s wheel in Duluth, snapping photos while kids roll their eyes and wait for us to finish.
In the Duluth parking lot, I punch the truck’s trip odometer to zero, dial up Gordon Lightfoot on the iPod and watch the Tucson hop energetically over a speed bump as we pull out for Wisconsin. Five days later, we’ll pass Duluth driving the opposite direction with 1,281.7 miles on the odometer, a plastic Canada goose stuck to the dash and a vague trout scent in the cab, the pickup transformed into a rolling Circle Tour trophy case.
Within the trip’s first 200 miles, however, things get a little rocky when my partner grumbles that embracing the world’s largest lake is hard when you can.t even see it through the dense forests. Along some shady stretch of State-28 in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Dad grouchily compares the lake to Bigfoot, saying, "We’re getting just enough glimpses to convince us it really exists. "
Our campsites renew his faith. Before leaving home, I found the Tucson a lakeside berth at nearly every stop. So we spend most evenings just feet from Superior’s glassy water as it changes color in sunset’s alchemy. At Rainbow Falls Provincial Park, we share a glacier-scarred boulder with a couple dining in a setting finer than the priciest restaurant’s, all for a camping fee of 27 loonies (Canadian dollars) and the effort of carrying lawn chairs.
An hour later, I’m listening to a loon’s unmistakable call drift across the water. Waves are slapping the rocks, and I hear Dad tapping away on his trip journal in the mixed glows of firelight and a notebook computer plugged into one of the Tucson’s outlets. Such downtime is a luxury on days that sometimes feel like one continual mad rush from outfitter’s offices to all-day adventures to several hours of evening driving. But trading relaxation for intimate meetings with Superior still seems like a bargain at each day.s end.
Trevor's Trip, Continued
Our first feel of the lake’s cold, clear water comes at Michigan"s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore near Munising. Our daylong kayaking tour will run along sandstone cliffs that rise nearly 200 feet overhead, often with seductive curves stained by minerals, producing something like Navajo rugs interpreted in rock. Carl Hansen of Northern Waters Adventures gives a quick lesson on the beach as we sit in the boats, churning sand with paddles to practice turns and backstrokes. Dad says he feels like a sea turtle burying eggs. Despite Dad’s joking, I see he’s a little tense on the brink of his first-ever kayaking trip. Thanks to all the tales of Superior’s big waves, deep water and appetite for ships, the lake has gotten inside his head.
As we slide our kayaks into the lake, Carl says, "Everyone you see today, whether they’re on the beach or on a tour boat, will wish they were in your boat. " And when we paddle to Miners Castle, we gaze up 100 feet at tourists standing near the stone turret like we’re celebrities watching paparazzi. We paddle close together as Carl explains that the legendary Father Marquette stood on the tower and preached to Ojibwa floating in canoes. It’s no surprise when Carl says he used to be a teacher. "I still teach every day. It’s just not the chalkboard dust kind, " he says.
I (a salty veteran of one prior kayaking trip) keep an eye on Dad. But after he pulls off a few smooth turns of his long yellow boat, I notice his shoulders relaxing and his head tilting back to gaze up at the high cliffs.
A few days later, along another cliff in Lake Superior Provincial Park, we see the Ojibwa version of Misshepezhieu. We pick our way along a trail squeezed so tightly between cliff and water that rangers leave ropes hanging from the rocks, giving anyone who washes off a way back up. Here we find the ancient Agawa Rock pictographs, red figures including a canoe-borne war party and the lake spirit. When Misshepezhieu"s tail starts swishing, I wouldn’t want to get caught standing on this spot exposed to the lake's fury.
It’s our next-to-last day when the lake’s spirit shows itself in the Slate Islands. Our guide is Doug Caldwell, a retired electrician who drinks straight from the lake, met his wife while he was playing hockey and worries over the Slates like they"re his children. Doug is telling us about caribou when we hear splashing. He says, "Here comes one. " I’m lucky enough to have my camera ready.
When I look now at the photo of Dad and the caribou locking gazes, I realize that we couldn’t really hope to know a 31,700-square-mile lake after just five days. But I think we at least know what it’s all about. And that’s something worth going full circle for.
DAY 1...4 STOPS 395 MILES Duluth, MN—Boned up on Great Lakes history at a museum and watched freighters pass under Aerial Lift Bridge. Peeked inside cavernous hull of old freighter William A. Irvin. Ashland, WI—Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center Got in touch with lake’s critter side with nature-heavy exhibits and trail in coastal wetland. Porcupine Mountains State Park, MI—Hiked to Summit Peak for a view of forest, lake and Apostle Islands hazy on the horizon. Munising, MI —Tourist Park Grabbed travel-magazine-worthy campsite (just look to the left) by the water of South Bay.
DAY 2...3 STOPS 270 MILES Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, MI—Kayaking all day in clear water felt like flying over lake’s rocky floor. Saulte Ste. Marie, MI/ONT—Grabbed dinner at Antlers, home of great burgers, wacky taxidermy and views of passing freighters. Breezed through customs in five minutes. Lake Superior Prov. Park, ONT—Oh, Canada! Spectacular sunset drive led to campsite near cobblestone beach. Pop-up trailer great for quick midnight setup.
DAY 3...3 STOPS 242 MILES Lake Superior Prov. Park, ONT—Walked rocky Agawa Bay beach, then followed cliffside trail to ancient pictographs. The life preserver hanging by the trail is a joke, right? Wawa, ONT—Took part in obligatory photo ops with world’s largest Canada goose and stuffed moose at Young’s General Store. Rainbow Falls Prov. Park, ONT—Another amazing lakeside campsite; gulls and chipmunks got a little too friendly as we ate around campfire.
DAY 4...2 STOPS 208 MILES Terrace Bay, ONT—Spent day fishing for lake trout and meeting local caribou in Slate Islands. Took bonus tour of local ATMs after learning that Doug the Fishing Guide only takes cash. Kakabeka Falls Prov. Park, ONT—Realized that our pop-up trailer really needs Chinese lanterns to compete in RV campsite culture.
DAY 5...5 STOPS 166 MILES Kakabeka Falls Prov. Park, ONT—Walked along system of decks that provide great views of falls. Wondered how thunderous these falls were before humans managed the flow. U.S. Customs, MN—When the agent asked if we’re carrying any fish out of Canada, we proudly said, "Yes! " Grand Portage National Monument, MN—Talked with reenactors at old fur-trading post and watched a craftsman building a canoe. Cascade River State Park, MN—Hiked along the river on part of famous Superior Hiking Trail. Split Rock Lighthouse, MN—Got inspired by story of keeper Frank Covell, who once turned the broken light all night by hand.
Travel Michigan (888/784-7328; www.michigan.org).
Upper Peninsula Travel and Recreation Association (800/562-7134; www.uptravel.com).
For Sault Ste. Marie information: 800/647-2858; www.saultstemarie.com.
Antlers If you can take your eyes off all the taxidermy inside this burgers-and-steaks Sault Ste. Marie landmark, look outside for passing freighters (906/632-3571; www.antlersgiftshop.com).
Da Yoopers Kitsch doesn’t get more silly or irresistible than this collection of souvenirs in Ishpeming (800/628-9978; www.dayoopers.com).
Dogpatch In Munising, steak and lake fish star at this down-home eatery (906/387-9948; www.visitmunising.com/dogpatch_restaurant/index.html).
Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum Detour from the Michigan section of the Circle Tour onto State-123 to this museum near Paradise, which includes shipwreck accounts and artifacts, restored keeper’s quarters and onetime U.S. Coast Guard quarters renovated as an inn. Open May 1—October 31 and by appointment. Admission charged (800/635-1742; www.shipwreckmuseum.com).
Michigan state parks Daily entry fee: $8. Information and campsite reservations: Michigan Department of Natural Resources (800/447-2757; www.michigan.gov/dnr).
Tahquamenon Falls (906/492-3415).
Porcupine Mountains Wilderness (906/885-5275).
Munising Tourist Park In Munising, camp on Lake Superior’s shore for $15—$25. (906/387-3145; www.munisingtouristpark.com).
Northern Waters Adventures Carl Hansen leads kayak trips, including one-day tours along Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. From $115 for adults (906/387-2323; www.northernwaters.com).
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore Trails lace more than 40 miles of cliffs, dramatic rock formations and dunes east of Munising along Lake Superior.
Campsites available (906/387-3700; www.nps.gov/piro).
Pictured Rocks and shipwreck tours On boats departing from Munising, cruise past cliffs and waterfalls or gaze at wrecks through glass-bottom hulls (906/387-4477; www.shipwrecktours.com).
Point Iroquois Light Station Detour to Brimley and this picturesque white station and tower, managed by Hiawatha National Forest (906/635-5311; www.fs.fed.us/r9/forests/hiawatha/recreation/).
Ramada Plaza Ojibway Hotel. This renovated hotel stands beside the harbor in Sault Ste. Marie. From $139 (906/632-4100; www.waterviewhotels.com).
Randall Bakery Try the pasties and pick up cookies for dessert (906/224-5401). Sand Hills Lighthouse Inn Some rooms have lake views, fireplaces and whirlpool tubs. From $135 (906/337-1744; www.sandhillslight houseinn.com).
Soo Locks Boat Tours Sightseeing cruises "lock through" and explore Sault Ste.
Marie's busy international harbor (800/432-6301; www.soolocks.com).
Explore Minnesota Tourism (888/868-7476; www.exploreminnesota.com).
For Duluth information: Visit Duluth (800/438-5884; www.visitduluth.com).
Grandma’s Saloon & Grill Memorabilia covers the walls and ceiling of this Duluth institution (218/727-4192; www.grandmasrestaurants.com).
Grand Portage National Monument Watch canoe building at this re-created fur-trading post near the Canadian border in Grand Portage. Admission charged (218/387-2788; www.nps.gov/grpo).
Lake Superior Maritime Visitors Center In Duluth, displays focus on navigational history (218/720-5260; www.lsmma.com).
Naniboujou Lodge Some rooms have fireplaces and lake views at this lodge near Grand Marais. From $70 (218/387-2688; www.naniboujou.com).
Minnesota Parks Daily entry fee: $7 (888/646-6367; www.dnr.state.mn.us/parks).
Cascade River (218/387-3053).
Split Rock (218/226-6377). Split Rock Lighthouse Visitors can tour the cliff-top lighthouse and keepers’ quarters, restored to their 1920s appearance. Open May 15—October 15. Admission charged (218/226-6372; www.mnhs.org/places/sites/srl/).
Ontario Tourism Marketing Partnership (800/668-2746; www.ontariotravel.net).
For Thunder Bay information: 800/667-8386; www.visitthunderbay.com. Prices are in Canadian dollars (at press time, each Canadian dollar was worth about 85 cents in American currency).
Passport requirements For the smoothest crossing from Canada into the United States, carry a passport or birth certificate. Beginning January 1, 2008, people entering the States may be required to present passports. For more information, contact the U.S. State Department (877/487-2778; www.travel.state.gov).
Caribou Charters Near Terrace Bay, a one-day, four-person fishing charter with Doug Caldwell is $300 (807/825-3719).
Amethyst Mine Panorama Tour North America’s largest amethyst mine, 35 miles northeast of Thunder Bay. Admission charged (807/622-6908; www.amethyst mine.com).
Fort William Historical Park In Thunder Bay, more than 40 replica buildings on 25 acres. Admission charged (807/577-8461; www.fwhp.ca).
Ontario parks Campsites from $22.25 (800/668-2746; www.ontarioparks.com).
Kakabeka Falls (807/473-9231).
Lake Superior (705/856-2284).
Ouimet Canyon (807/977-2526).
Rainbow Falls (807/824-2298).
Rossport Inn Rooms and cabins are basic, but comfortable. From $85 (877/824-4032; www.rossportinn.on.ca).
Island Pottery You’ll find Tim Alexander in his Rossport studio daily mid-May—October (807/824-2409). Young’s General Store This store in Wawa is packed with souvenirs and fishing gear (705/856-2626; www.youngsgeneralstore.com).
Wisconsin Department of Tourism (800/432-8747; www.travelwisconsin.com).
Bayfield Detour to this charming town and the famous Apostle Islands National Lakeshore nearby (800/447-4094; www.bayfield.org).
Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center In Ashland, this museum teaches about the lakes’ human and natural history (715/685-9983; www.northerngreatlakescenter.org).