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One Superior Drive
A shrine to sandpaper. Seagulls and lighthouses. The best blueberry pie. A road trip along Lake Superior reveals the surprising side of Minnesota.

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.)

I checked out Two Harbors' shrine to sandpaper, officially the 3M Museum. Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing got its start here by making abrasives -- and a mistake. The founders had bought up lakeshore land that they believed held corundum, the second-hardest mineral on Earth. But it was low-grade stone, unsuitable for the industrial purposes they had in mind. Some quick thinking led to Plan B: making sandpaper from paper, glue and anything gritty.

Though subsequent plans C and D ultimately yielded Scotch Tape and Post-it Notes, the museum's heart belongs to sandpaper. There's a mosaic of it on the ceiling and more than you ever wanted to know about its development and applications in the exhibits of this little vest-pocket museum.

Back in the car, about four miles beyond Two Harbors, I made a squealing left turn as I spied the most crowded parking lot I would see on my trip. The attraction: Betty's Pies. I joined a line of enthusiasts waiting to get in. Judging from their size, many of them (okay -- us) really should not have been eating pie at all. But not only did I enjoy a big gooey wedge of blueberry pie at the counter, I also bought a chicken pasty to go. Pronounced "pass-tees" (to distinguish them from stripper wear), pasties are meat pies -- Great Lakes empanadas. Later it made for a hearty early-evening snack at yet another roadside pull-off.

If I could save only one mental image from the North Shore, it would be the Split Rock Lighthouse. Crowning the top of an isolated cliff, 168 feet above the water, its old kerosene-powered light once could be seen for 22 miles.

The light is dark now, but its tower still stands watch over the lake far below.

Inside, I climbed the circular staircase, up the white enamel brick walls that had to be scrubbed daily because of the accumulated kerosene soot. The stairs took me right up to the elaborate 252-piece lens that once focused the light. The 4.5-ton assembly, which pivots in a pool of mercury, still is spun by its original clockworks.

I was aided by reenactors, who explained the mechanical stuff and spoke of their hardships -- from a 1925 point of view. If you live here in 1925, everything has to come in to this remote post by boat from Detroit and be hauled up the cliff. (But the keeper's wife confesses that her life is made easier by some recent improvements, like running water and flush toilets.) In a pre-GPS age, lighthouse-keeping is vital work that saves lives, particularly in a region where the iron ore in the soil confuses boats' magnetic compasses.

Minnesota Historical Society guides recounted the lake's many shipwrecks, including that of the Edmund Fitzgerald, and others that didn't make it onto the Billboard Top 40. The lake was peaceful during my stay, but the exhibits in the old foghorn building remind us, like Gordon Lightfoot's song, of what can happen when hurricane-force winds and the witch of November come stealin'. (Every year on Nov. 10, the anniversary of the wreck, the light at Split Rock is lit briefly in memory of the Fitzgerald's crew and all the other sailors lost in the lake.)

I stopped for the night at my vacation base in little Tofte, a Scandinavian fishing village 83 miles above Duluth. My hotel, the AmericInn, was one of the few chain operations I saw north of Two Harbors, as most of the resorts, inns and eateries seemed to be locally owned. Unless, of course, Sven & Ole's Pizza is a chain.

I finished my North Shore 101 course with two "Grands": Marais and Portage, the big swamp and the big schlep (loosely translated from voyageur French).

I can't picture Grand Marais as a swamp, though; its little harbor affords lake views on three sides in a design that surely was funded by Kodak. Even on a tourist-intensive Saturday morning the harbor was peaceful, with the few sailboats anchored and buttoned up snugly like snoozing children in sleeping bags. The stillness was broken only by a signature four-second blast every 65 seconds from the foghorn at the harbor entrance -- and by the occasional "blup" in the water as a young couple skipped stones across the surface.

Maybe the harbor was so quiet because everyone was down at the boat auction. In the sunny yard of the North House Folk School, potential purchasers swarmed around the boats, kicking tires or keels or whatever someone contemplating a boat kicks, while others lined up to buy bowls of trout chowder. It was more about community than commerce, a fund-raising effort for the traditional craft school, which teaches everything from canoe building to mushroom hunting to hat felting. People brought their kids and dogs, and it was hard not to get caught up in the spirit. (If boats qualified as carry-on luggage, there would be one in my driveway right now.)

While the Folk School teaches in a Scandinavian tradition, the Sivertson Gallery (one of a half-dozen galleries in town) emphasizes contemporary Ojibwe culture. Paintings of the Woodland School borrow themes from beading and quillwork, with bright symbols illustrating the myths and visions of the tribal people. But my favorite paintings were wildlife portraits of moose calves. The artist emphasized their natural, spindly legginess, making it seem that each actually had more than four legs, like a Warner Bros. cartoon character in a chase sequence.

Near Sivertson's, which would be at home in any city's gallery district, there were a reminders, though, that this was not SoHo: The head of a toothy, oversize, fiberglass walleye jutted out from above the door of a bait and tackle shop. A sign in a window boasted, "We have leeches." An outdoor loudspeaker blasted novelty fishing songs of the "In Heaven There Is No Beer" genre, no doubt to the annoyance of the more sophisticated commercial neighbors. Grand Marais is not only for gallery crawlers; it is also for fishermen and other outdoorsy folk. It's also a jumping-off place for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and the southern terminus of the Gunflint Trail, whose 63 miles of two-lane blacktop provide access to dozens of hiking, biking, snowshoeing and cross-country ski trails.

The other "grand" -- Portage -- was called that because, of all of the stops between Montreal and the Canadian Pacific coast, it was here that voyageurs had to carry their canoes across land for the greatest distance (nine miles). They also might have called it Grand Monnaie ("Big Bucks"). Though you wouldn't guess it to look at the re-created stockade, in the late 1700s this little opening in the woods was the headquarters of one of the world's wealthiest business operations. At the North West Co.'s rendezvous point there each summer, Canadian trappers transferred tons of baled pelts to voyageurs, who would carry them back through the Great Lakes for worldwide sale. In an age when fashion meant fur, about 75 percent of the world's pelts came through Grand Portage.

National Park Service rangers in voyageur costumes -- which resemble Grandpa's nightshirt and winter underwear -- did their best to bring this history lesson to life. They let us pet the pelts and try on beaver hats. They played a game of street lacrosse, brewed potato soup in the primitive kitchen and demonstrated the fine points of canoe repair. And they described the rigorous life of a voyageur, typically a teenager from Montreal who could look forward to being an exhausted old man by age 30. Perhaps I had learned all this in school, but how excellent to hear it from a "voyageur" himself.

Then, my field trip over, it was time to go back to that other Minnesota, where barn swallows outnumber seagulls, and where no one needs lighthouses.

Jerry V. Haines last wrote for Travel about Lyndon B. Johnson's Texas.

Details: Lake Superior Shore

GETTING THERE: Northwest and Continental serve Duluth, the only airport on the Minnesota North Shore with regularly scheduled flights. Fall fares from Washington are in the high $300 range. Alternatively, Duluth is about a 150-mile drive (via I-35) from Minneapolis-St. Paul, where airfares are more likely to be less, from about $305.

WHERE TO STAY: Once the headquarters of a major hardware chain, Hawthorn Suites (Waterfront Plaza, 325 Lake Ave. S., Duluth, 800-527-1133, www.hawthorn.com) lets you watch harbor operations up close. Doubles from $95. On a smaller scale is the Lighthouse Bed and Breakfast (Lighthouse Point, Two Harbors, 888-832-5606, www.lighthousebb.org); doubles $125. About midway in the trip to Canada is the comfortable AmericInn (7231 Hwy. 61 W., Tofte, 800-634-3444, www.americinn.com); doubles from about $100. In Grand Marais, enjoy serene lake views at Best Western's Superior Inn and Suites (104 Hwy. 61 E., Grand Marais, 800-842-VIEW, www.bestwestern.com/superiorinn); doubles from $129 during summer and about $99 off-season.

WHERE TO EAT: Just outside Duluth, enjoy smoked fish (it's a local industry) at Emily's 1929 Eatery (218 Hwy. 61, Knife River); entrees $7-$15. (Note: Take the scenic highway, not the byway.) Just beyond Two Harbors, stop at Betty's Pies (1633 Hwy. 61) for pies (natch) and pasties. Sandwiches and full menu also available; entrees $13-$15. Why the Angry Trout (Highway 61, near North House Folk School, Grand Marais) is upset isn't clear, but a cup of trout chowder or a grilled herring sandwich will mellow your mood. Entrees $17-21. Also in Grand Marais, try World's Best Donuts (10 E. Wisconsin St.; closed in October), which are.

WHAT TO DO:

• In Duluth, tour the William A. Irvin, the flagship of U.S. Steel's Great Lakes Fleet that's tied up in the harbor. The $6.75 admission also gets you onto the adjacent tugboat, the Lake Superior. Closed November through April; not handicapped accessible. Info: 218-722-7876, www.williamairvin.com.

• The 3M Museum in Two Harbors (201 Waterfront Dr., 218-834-4898, www.lakecountyhistoricalsociety.org; $2.50) occupies the little building that once housed the company's first headquarters. Unless you're really passionate about sandpaper, you can see everything in 10 minutes.

• Gooseberry Falls State Park (off Highway 61 E., 13 miles above Two Harbors, 218-834-3855, www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/gooseberry_falls/index.html) has trails with wooden walkways and exhibits. No admission fee, but $7 for daily vehicle permit beyond visitors center.

• Split Rock Lighthouse (Highway 61, about 22 miles above Two Harbors, 218-226-6372, www.mnhs.org; $8). Access to grounds are May 15-Oct. 15 .

• Grand Portage National Monument (near the Canadian border on Highway 61, 218-387-2788, www.nps.gov/grpo; $3) is a look at the lives of the voyageurs and their Ojibwe neighbors, and the fur trade. Buildings are closed mid-October through late May, but the grounds remain open for cross-country skiing.

INFORMATION: For online sources on driving Minnesota's North Shore, check out LakeSuperiorDrive.com (www.lakesuperiordrive.com) or Roadlodging.com (www.milebymile.com; click on "Minnesota," then "State 61"). In Duluth: Duluth Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-438-5884, www.visitduluth.com. In Two Harbors: R.J. Houle Visitor Information Center, 800-554-2116, www.lakecnty.com/twoharbors. In the Grand Marais area: Grand Marais Information Center, 888-922-5000, www.grandmarais.com/center.html. For outdoor activities and outfitters as well as other general information: Minnesota Office of Tourism, 800-657-3700, www.exploreminnesota.com.

-- Jerry V. Haines

Autumn on the North Shore

Leaf color changes hit Minnesota's North Shore in two waves, according to Retta James-Gasser, a naturalist at Gooseberry Falls State Park. In mid-September to early October, the maples of the highlands above the lake change to orange and red; then, between late September and mid-October, the birch, aspen and tamarack trees closer to the water turn gold.

The timing and intensity of the changes are determined by the weather of the preceding weeks. Leaves and people seem to like the same kind of weather: Sunny, warm days combined with cool (but not freezing) nights produce the most striking colors. The two weeks immediately preceding the foliage season are critical. If things go well, the annual color display on the hills and shore will be spectacular.

At Gooseberry Falls, James-Gasser conducts fall walks, explaining why leaves change color and why the process is important to the environment -- but all of the state parks on the North Shore are good places to watch that process. (There's one about every 20 miles between Duluth and Grand Portage.) Check www.dnr.state.mn.us/fall_colors/index.html?region=ne for up-to-date info on how the peeping is going. A map showing suggested leaf tour routes in the Grand Marais area can be downloaded at www.grandmarais.com/fall.html.

Other natural events: In the fall, several species of salmon and trout fight their way upstream to their home waters for one last fling. Temperance River and Cascade River state parks are good spots to watch them battle the waterfalls, and they are thick in the French and Knife rivers as well. The North Shore also is one of the best locations in North America to observe migrating hawks in September and October. -- Jerry V. Haines

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