Going the Distance on Lake Superior

Late October was never a time I thought would be conducive to paddling on Lake Superior. Come to find out, life is full of surprises, and the lake too can be unpredictable in opportunistic ways, not just threatening ones. Fall isn’t all just storms and high seas. It can be a time of peace and calm, despite my associations with the contrary when it comes to the world’s biggest lake. Since it’s been my recurring dream since moving to Duluth to do the impossible and “harness” the Big Lake by canoe, I proposed embracing the lake’s welcoming demeanor this past Thursday afternoon with family and friends. We took a beautiful 3-hour paddle from Park Point on the south shore across the lake to Glensheen Mansion on the north shore. A trip that didn’t end until after dark, and which will go down in my memory as a symbol of how far we’ve come at adapting to our lake habitat.

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Paddling past the Lift Bridge and shipping canal in the dark – a surreal feeling.

Earlier this summer we got out on Lake Superior in our canoe to explore the Sea Caves of Cornucopia, WI. That trip also left an indelible impression on me of the lake giving us a huge gift – an hour of calm waters crowned by the smoothest orange sunset imaginable for us to paddle out to the caves in our canoe. The naysayers were  proven wrong – a family could easily paddle to the caves without capsizing or being thrown against the rocks by massive surf.

The pattern continued last week. I brought the girls to our friend Jim’s house on the beach, and we launched at 4:00 p.m. onto the endless expanse of blue. Our little boat, propelled by just two small pieces of wood, would go on to make Lake Superior seem like the friendliest body of water on earth.

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The traditional “heading out” shot, facing the north shore of Lake Superior and downtown.

I hadn’t planned a specific route for this paddle, other than to just pass the shipping canal and reach the north shore. But once we understood what was possible for two good paddlers in an excellent canoe on this day, we decided to head far up the coast. We paddled 33 blocks up the shore, hovering a few hundred feet off the coast for the most part, but occasionally zig-zagging in closer to try new depths for fishing. The fishing was unproductive, but as I always say on these kinds of trips, the fish really aren’t important when you’re expanding your perception of what life has to offer.

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Nothing biting, and so what.

The endless water in front of us was just telling us to relax, to embrace infinity, to let go of all cares. We only saw one more boat on the water the whole afternoon. The whole huge lake was ours.

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Infinity.

We got to the old pier at Glensheen by 5:00 p.m., incredibly only a one-hour paddle. We relaxed in the sun on the pier with all the tourists, and who knows what they were thinking when they saw us pull onto shore at this tourist trap in a canoe. They had all paid $15 a piece to get on the mansion grounds, while we had taken the mansion like pirates – by sea.

At a certain moment we realized we were losing sunlight fast, and decided it was time to head back to Park Point. The ensuing paddle was wrapped in violet, pink, and orange skies. It was at this time of dusk that we completely lost any sense of connection to the everyday pressures of life, and disappeared into a timeless, watery universe.

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Quite a long paddle back home.

I let Jim take the stern for the trip back, while I focused on fishing in the bow. It was an unusual feeling to be in the bow of our canoe. It might have been the first time I’ve ever sat in the bow of the canoe that has taken our family so many places. It just added to the relaxation, as I let Jim paddle us for the first half of the trip back.

Finally, the sun went behind the ridge overlooking Duluth. The sky went from pink to black in just 15 minutes – not one of those long Minnesota sunsets we got used to over the course of the summer.

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Duluth’s October skyline – 6:45 p.m.

I joined Jim in paddling us home once the sun went down, and it was a final surreal ending to a beautiful day. The lighthouses on the shipping canal flashed at us, the city lights all came on, and the Lift Bridge took on a golden hue against the dark sky. Sure enough, just as we were approaching the canal, the Lift Bridge warning sirens came on, announcing a “ship” coming through the canal. There was a sudden moment of worry, as we were just about to pass in front of the canal, where a 700-ft tanker could be coming through… But our worry was short lived, as we saw a little commercial fishing boat pass under the bridge. It was funny to us that the bridge was raised 80 feet up in the air for just a 20 foot-tall trawler to pass under. Our laughter reverberated through the night on a lonely and enchanting Lake Superior.

 

Working Up North

I write about my adventures and experiences in the outdoors when the inspiration hits me, but in fact I could be writing about a new trail, campsite or lake every week, or even day. My way of life dictates exploring new places in my free time.

This weekend was no more thrilling or adventurous than any other weekend over the last three months. But this one is worth writing about to me. There was something significant about it. And it wasn’t because I caught a lot of fish, or discovered a new part of the Boundary Waters, because I didn’t do either of these things. It was more about finding a new place inside me. A new awakening. Like the dawn of a new period in my Minnesota trajectory. Maybe it could be called the “construction era.” This part of me that is taking a greater interest in “projects,” in learning to build, in learning construction. Not a great interest, but not a small one either. It is the place inside me of a very green “outdoor builder,” but one willing to learn more.

Thanks to two friends who also happen to be from Massachusetts, I got to spend this weekend on Greenwood Lake, working on a cabin. The main job was to put up insulation and then side it with plywood. This is not the way I typically spend my weekend, but this new period in my life actually started earlier than this. It’s been going on for a while now. Ever since I became a homeowner in March of this year. Since then I’ve been adding “projects” to my work experience, slowly but steadily. I haven’t done any of them all by myself. I’ve gotten help in every way from all kinds of friends. But the list is becoming significant. It now includes:

1. building rafters to hold the canoe under the deck.
2. building a garden box
3. refinishing our canoe
4. staining our deck and porch
5. building a roof rack for the canoe

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Very proud of this piece of work.

All of these have been outdoor projects. And all of them have contributed to our outdoors lifestyle.

This particular weekend was the perfect next step. Basically, I watched two guys build a cabin. I observed how they did their work. I pitched in too. But the key thing I learned, besides how much work it is to build a cabin, was that this “project” gives the immense satisfaction of becoming part of your surroundings. All weekend long all the talk was about “the cabin.” But that meant more than just the building itself. It meant being a part of the place, the lake, the woods, and the surrounding nature. We felt it while we were working. All our work was done outside, in the wind, in the sun, under the clouds, under the starry sky. I spent all of 20 minutes the whole weekend inside the cabin. Yet I could see all weekend how the cabin was more than a building. It was a symbol of taming a little piece of nature, but also respecting nature and loving it too.

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The work site, just above a secluded bay of Greenwood Lake.

Furthermore, the weekend was definitely about camaraderie. We spent our time together in a way that intertwined work and play at the same time. It was about using saws, and drills, and generators, and brush trimmers. Tools everywhere. Construction scraps everywhere. But there was a flow to it as well. A harmony. It was all about working in the outdoors to become more a part the place you respect and admire so much.

And of course I took time to explore Greenwood Lake by canoe. As usual, there was a lot to be found. Like the life-sized statue of an Ojibwe on the shore of the lake. Next to it was a wooden plaque saying “Wissa Kode Zipi,” with the English “Half Burnt Wood River” under it.

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Statue and “Wissa Kode Zipi” plaque.

 

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Panoramic shot of the Ojibwe at the head of the lake.

The canoeing was surprisingly easy for such a big lake, but the fishing was unproductive. It made no difference to me. I was learning something new, and it wasn’t about fishing. It was about the “builder’s” lifestyle up north. Be self-sufficient. Make things happen. Become a part of the land.

The weekend also included two nights of sleeping outside in my tent, one of the best ways to enjoy the fall weather for me. Temps were in the 30s at night – perfect outdoor sleeping weather.

And finally, on the way home, I spotted two moose out the truck window, and we stopped to go take a look. A bull moose and a cow moose. Taking their time, eating the young forest foliage.

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Watching two moose below us.

It was a beautiful end to a very good weekend.