One Superior Drive

By Jerry V. Haines
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 7, 2003

In many ways Lake Superior doesn't seem like Minnesota. It's not only the absence of Guernseys and grain elevators on its shore; there is a different "feel" -- of New England, perhaps, or Finnish fishing villages.

Lakes are hardly a novelty in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, of course, but this is the big one they call Gitche Gumee. Other Minnesota lakes are like members of the family -- easy to get to know, rarely threatening. But Lake Superior -- so wide you can't see across it, sailed by freighters flying unfamiliar flags, big enough to have tides -- might as well be an ocean.

Like every school kid in Minnesota, I had heard about Superior all my life: its prehistory, its role in the early European conquest of the continent, its function as broad commercial boulevard to the American heartland.

But it had been hard to picture then as I gazed out the schoolhouse window over fields of oats toward, well, more oats. A family excursion to Superior was out of the question; we were tied to the farm by inconsiderate cows that demanded milking twice a day. But this summer, during a trip back home, it occurred to me: I'm a lawyer now. I don't have any cows.

And school wasn't over.

So I made my own field trip. I drove up from Minneapolis to the western tip of the lake and was rewarded with a horizon-pushing lake panorama as I topped the hill just outside of Duluth. Later, great squadrons of seagulls circled the Burger King by my hotel, laughing and swearing in a bird dialect that one usually doesn't associate with the Midwest.

The next morning I aimed my rental car northeast along Minnesota's coast. From Duluth it's virtually a straight shot 151 miles up Highway 61 to Grand Portage and the Canadian border. All along the trip I had Lake Superior out my right window.

At first that was enough -- seeing Wisconsin slowly recede on the other side as the lake widened. But soon it started to remind me of watching TV. I wanted to embrace the lake, get my arms around it, let its magnificence fill my pores.

I developed a routine: 1) Pull over at a scenic overlook and get out of the car. 2) Pause reverently, appreciating the divine attention to detail that put this surging water precisely under this soaring cliff covered with just the right number of somber conifers. 3) Try from several angles to frame a photograph capturing the purity of the scene. 4) Cap lens, mutter and return, frustrated, to the car.

At pretty Gooseberry Falls State Park, guides explained why the shore is so diabolically beautiful. At the end of the last Ice Age, melting glaciers filled the deep gouge they had carved and removed a huge weight from the shore. The shore sprang up -- if "sprang" is an appropriate verb for a process that so far has taken 10,000 years -- to create high cliffs.

The local streams, such as the Gooseberry River, still seek the lake, however, and cut through the rising rock in places, creating dramatic multiple waterfalls. I joined the Friday afternoon crowd of scout troops and families exploring the park. Typical of Minnesota hospitality, someone had thoughtfully placed wood planking along many of the trails for the wheelchair users among us, as we followed the river across super-ancient lava flows, past clusters of falls, toward its rendezvous with the lake.

I got out of the car at Two Harbors, a busy port during the heyday of Minnesota iron mining. For a commercial harbor and old railroad town, Two Harbors is surprisingly more inspirational than industrial. I hiked for a bit around Lighthouse Point, opposite the quiet ore-loading terminal, enjoying the lake view and thinking how nice it would be to have a boat, a fishing pole and a bucket of bait. The lighthouse still operates, but it now also serves as a small B&B. (Lighthouses on a lake -- doesn't seem right, somehow.)

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