Taking the family canoeing on Lake Superior to check out the Apostle Islands Sea Caves. Camping 10 feet from the biggest lake in the world. Following friends to hidden waterfalls in the Wisconsin woods. Soaking up four days of hot sun. It was the full deal.
That’s how I would sum up our 4th of July mini vacation in Wisconsin, yet another one of our 2017 Upper Midwest family camping trips. I’m running out of superlatives. We have been on a roll since May, and every trip has been so satisfying. I’ve now slept in a tent 15 out of the last 72 nights, in such diverse places as the Superior Hiking Trail, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, Grand Marais (twice), Bear Head Lake State Park, and now the South Shore of Lake Superior. We’ve really made it happen this spring, and this felt like a sort of grand finale.
The Fourth of July weekend was our big chance to get out of town and do something unusual. Both Inna and I had four whole days off. It felt like forever compared to our usual 2-day weekend trips. We had four nights of camping instead of two, giving us time to really relax, soak up the atmosphere, and do new things. And instead of going some place far away with lots of driving, we made the wise decision to go check out our own backyard, just 1 hour away from home, in the totally different world of Herbster, Wisconsin. So close to Duluth, yet so completely different.
To begin with, the campground was a dream. We stayed all four nights at the same site in the municipal campground of tiny Herbster. This campground had it all, including beautiful tent-only campsites on a grassy bank right on the shore of Lake Superior. Moreover, it was a short walk to extremely well-working amenities such as an outdoor dish-washing station with hot water, beautiful bathroom, and hot showers. All of these were maintained daily by excellent campground hosts. Finally, our site had a big wooden bench for four people overlooking the fire pit and the lake. For just $17 per night.
It was especially impressive to me that this campground doesn’t take reservations, and all the best sites by the Lake are for tents only. We made a mad dash from Duluth out to the campground after work on Friday, and voila, one of the best sites was still available. We made it! My kind of camping – using good planning to research this campground ahead of time, and having good fortune to get one of the last remaining sites.
Having the beach right below the site meant we got to listen to the sound of the waves lapping the shore as we fell asleep each night. A beautiful sound. Then on our first full day we took our new car and went exploring. Even took some back country roads, just to see what we’d find. Why not? We were on vacation. Having the new car was a real treat. It performed its role beautifully.
Our main destinations on Saturday were Cornucopia and Iron River. Cornucopia, like Herbster, has this incredibly relaxed, slow, otherworldly feel to it. Life just seemed to stand still there.
There were two key stores in Cornucopia that we kept coming back to – Ehler’s General Store, and Halvorson’s Fish Market. These two places had all the food supplies we needed for four days. The fresh lake trout and whitefish from Halvorson’s, caught the same morning in Lake Superior, as well as smoked lake trout and whitefish, were on our menu every day of the trip.
Our Saturday drive took us inland to Iron River, past some beautiful farms.
We happened to drive by the Iron River National Fish Hatchery, which we stopped at for a look. It was enormous! The biggest fish hatchery I’ve ever seen by far. It was a monumental structure. It made me question how long the US government will keep funding trout stocking…
Iron River brought a surprise too. A farmer and his wife came up to us at a handicraft market and said that they had heard of us from friends in Duluth. A few days later, we went to visit them at their amazing farm just a mile up the road from our campground. It was truly spontaneous, just the kind of thing that happens only on vacation, when routines don’t rule the day. Jack and Robyn were friendly, inviting, and full of local knowledge. The girls were thrilled to see all their animals, including ducks, chickens, dogs and horses.
Keeping the good times rolling, our friends Cindy, Jeff and May also stayed at the campground with us for two nights. We had a great time together, including going on a six hour canoeing expedition on Sunday, paddling through Bark Bay Slough to the beach on Bark Bay – one of the sandiest, warmest beaches on Lake Superior. The girls swam for what seemed like 4 hours straight. It was an idyllic beach, and I never thought anything like it existed on Lake Superior. The rocky North Shore of Lake Superior is totally different.
Cindy and Jeff also took us on a hike to the hidden gem of Lost Creek Falls outside Cornucopia on Monday. The hike was very nice, and we took some great pictures by the falls. This was definitely a place we never would have found on our own, and we felt lucky to have some local guides.
But the real big event of the trip, at least for me, came on Monday night. We had already been packing it in, seeing the sites, bicycling, canoeing, swimming, hiking, and shopping for three days. Still, there was one more adventure I wanted for us. This was one that many people told me shouldn’t be done, or couldn’t be done. But my instinct told me we could do it, and I chose to follow my gut. We launched our canoe on Lake Superior to paddle to the Sea Caves of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.
We were told it couldn’t be done because Lake Superior is just too rough, too dangerous, too risky. But I know that there are times when the lake is calm enough to canoe it. We just needed the right conditions. I didn’t force it. I let the day take its course. We waited until sunset, then pounced on our chance. We left Myers Beach at 8:15, and had the whole lake to ourselves. It was a fairy tale. The last of many this weekend.
We had been to the Sea Caves once before, in wintertime, to see the ice formations there. That time we walked over the frozen lake to get there. But canoeing to them was also magical, especially since we were the only ones there.
Finally, having explored the caves, we made the easy paddle back to shore. The whole round-trip had not even a hint of danger. We had done what some people said was impossible – exploring the “Big Lake” by canoe.
And it was much easier to explore the caves on a 70 degree July evening than it was in February..
Our 4th of July vacation was the real deal. We got to explore a very cool part of our local world, and we did it in style, with a new car, with new and old friends, and lots of sun and sand. The way summer was meant to be.