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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.