Part I – Minnesota
Autumn comes early to Lake Superior’s North Shore. Even on the last days of August a chill can be felt in the evening air. I love camping this time of year. Campgrounds are quiet since children have returned to school. Bugs are minimal. The opportunities to observe wildlife seem to increase as the days grow shorter. You can shoot lots of things—with your camera that is.
I am well suited to the northern climate being a sturdy lass of Welsh stock. I like cool temperatures. I prefer camping above the 42° N latitude because I like knowing what kind of dangerous things to be on the lookout for; things that can climb out of the water and get me. I prefer my spiders smaller than cupcakes and my snakes harmless. So deciding to make the Lake Superior circle tour around the greatest of the Great Lakes–the great lake Gordon Lightfoot calls “Gitche Gumee”–Lake Superior, was certainly not a difficult one when my husband Hans made the suggestion. He was in need of another hatpin to extol our many adventures, someplace we had not camped before.
For the past several years our travels have taken us to the mountains. We’ve explored the secrets of Yellowstone, admired the might of the Grand Tetons, camped the western side of Glacier National Park, followed the path of Lewis and Clark’s Core of Discovery Expedition, walked the spot where Custer and his Seventh Calvary met their end, played the slots in Deadwood, and made a U- turn in the parking lot of the work-in-progress monument to Crazy Horse, unashamedly, when we saw the admittance fee. Two trips we navigated through the Allegheny, Catskills, Adirondacks, Green and White mountains of the East. Our last two trips took us into the Canadian Rockies to be awed, then awed some more, by Banff and Jasper. At a campsite on the shores of Flathead Lake in northwestern Montana, I said to Hans—me being a Minnesota Land-of-Sky-Blue Waters kinda girl—“next trip, all I need is a lake, some trees and a campfire.” I’m telling you I got all three!
We made the tour starting at the southwestern edge of Lake Superior having departed from the Twin Cities around 9:00 a.m. We arrived in Duluth on the last Saturday in August at noon. On Interstate 35 N as you ascend the crest of the southern hill that surrounds Duluth, you notice the temperature begins to cool, the air smells of the north, fresher. Our first glimpse of Lake Superior–calm water—a lake looking deceptively well behaved. The surface quietly glistened like blue glass in the sun.
First stop, Bear Shoe Works. A little mom & pop shoe shop a quick drive over the bridge to Superior, Wisconsin. Located at 801 Tower Ave in a blue collar work zone close to the harbor, open Saturdays until 1:00 in the afternoon. Or as their website indicates “Stop in and check us out! If we’re here we’re open!” There’s a big stuffed black bear in the window. It emphasizes you want to be outfitted with something swift of foot if circumstances necessitate the need to run from any of that bear’s kin. The best pair of hiking boots I ever owned was a pair of Red Wing work boots. I literally wore them out. At my husband’s prodding, I Googled Red Wing Shoes as we were approaching Duluth which indicated Bear Shoe Works was an authorized Red Wing distributor. Bear Shoe Works has been serving the northland since 1912. The shop refurbishes shoes as well. The cobbler shared he receives boots needing repair by mail from as far away as Maine. The workshop was charming and I love contributing to the coffers of a small business whenever I can. Plus, my dream of a new pair of boots came true!
Sadly, we had to forgo what most Minnesotans driving north along the shore consider compulsory, a stop at Betty’s Pies to buy a slice of heaven. It being the last busy weekend of the summer, Barbie and Ken could not have found a spot to park their doll-sized convertible, the lot was so jammed full. Betty’s Pies is located at 1633 Hwy 61, in Two Harbors. From previous trips to Betty’s I can heartily recommend “The Great Lakes Pie.” Apple, blueberry, rhubarb, strawberry, and raspberry ingredients all indigenous to the Great Lakes region, is heaped with affection on top of a crust that is ultra tender.
As we headed north to Grand Marais, one of our party of two did not think it necessary to call and reserve a campsite at the Grand Marais Park and Marina. Come to find out “he” would be wrong! Grand Marais is a village sandwiched between Highway 61 and the western shores of Lake Superior. It’s about 50 miles south of where you run out of Minnesota at the Pigeon River Border Crossing into Canada. The town is chocked full of artisans, crafts, shops, and book stores. You’ll find restaurants with clever names such as “South of the Border Cafe” located at the one stoplight in Grand Marais. “We’re Open Before the Fish Bite!” You can catch a breakfast there as early as 5:00 a.m. There is plenty to do and see for those lucky enough to have reserved a campsite on Labor Day weekend.
If you are in need of any good gear to enhance your adventure, the people of Grand Marais have been exploring the Northwood’s with enthusiastic gusto for years and years! Generations of outfitters have helped to shape the industry. Lake Superior Trading Post a very large and lumbering log cabin store located at 10 S 1st Ave W on the harbor, has it all, whether you are camping, hiking, biking, fishing, canoeing, kayaking, etc, they got the gear.
At Grand Portage, known as the “Great Rendezvous Place” for voyagers, fur traders, and other vigorous souls, we snagged the last campsite at the Grand Portage RV Park and Marina. Minutes to Canada, it’s a simple park providing 29 full hook-up sites, campsites for tenting, restrooms, showers, and one of the coolest fish cleaning tables I have ever seen. The weather was overcast. Our fortunes brighten when I won a sizable jackpot at the Grand Portage Lodge and Casino located adjacent to our campsite. It paid for my boots, and then some. We liked the campground so much we rendezvoused for an additional night before leaving the U.S. for the next leg of the Lake Superior Circle Tour.