Autumn in Minnesota can be a magical time, especially if you happen to be Up North. Specifically, near Lake Superior, one of the most magical places in Minnesota. (To be fair, Wisconsin, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and the Canadian province of Ontario all share in the charmed coastline. Lake Superior is a damn big lake.)
I was lucky enough to have a magical day last Wednesday with a road trip to the Duluth area, accompanied by my friend Luann. For those of you who don’t know Duluth, it is a small city of about 86,000 nestled around the Port of Duluth-Superior, a seaport that averages 38 million tons of cargo every year according to duluthport.com. The seaport is 2,342 miles from the Atlantic ocean and is the farthest inland freshwater seaport in North America. You get to see a lot of big boats in Duluth.
While it’s fun watching the boats and watching the lift bridge go up to allow those boats to move in and out of the harbor, that isn’t the main attraction for me. I love the largest of the Great Lakes as an endlessly changing body of water. Lake Superior has the largest surface area of any freshwater lake in the world. It has moods. It can reflect sunlight so that you are nearly blinded or it can disappear into a stormy sky so well that the horizon is indistinguishable. When Luann and I arrived, the sun was shining, the water sparkled, the wind whipped our hair and nudged the water into nonstop waves.
The sound of Lake Superior is at once soothing and ominous. Its always-moving water is not something to be toyed with. It demands respect. It swallowed all 729 feet of the cargo ship SS Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975 and keeps it to this day. There are thousands of boats that have sunk in Lake Superior; the Fitzgerald is perhaps the best-known, especially after Gordon Lightfoot sang about it.
The lake was not ominous on my latest visit. I stayed out of the maritime museum next to the harbor; I was not there to be reminded of tragedies. I was there to take in the beauty of such an enormous natural resource. Luann and I walked out to the lighthouse and back, then drove on the road that goes over the lift bridge all the way to Park Point. We both remarked on how much we liked the sound of the water.
Park Point has a sand dune restoration project in progress and the wind never stops blowing. Sand is everywhere; Luann had to dump her shoes out after 10 minutes of walking. But that same wind made us feel alive and refreshed even if we did get a tiny bit sand-blasted. We looked out across the part of Lake Superior where the land disappears and all that is visible is water and sky. Who needs the ocean when there’s this?
After Park Point, we headed north of Duluth, took the scenic road along the lake, then stopped at the waterfront in Two Harbors. We admired the fall foliage, found another lighthouse, walked along the rocks. The lake sang to us in choppy, splashy notes. There weren’t many people around since it was a weekday and school was in session. It was perfect.
The day slid away from us with amazing speed. Before we knew it, it was after 4 p.m. and I had to stop heading further north. We returned to Duluth for an early dinner at Fitger’s Brewhouse. After dinner, as we pulled into a gas station near the Spirit Mountain ski area, I saw the thinnest of crescent moons on the western horizon, lit perfectly by the setting sun. Darkness descended quickly. But the brightness of a day spent with a good friend and a big lake lasted well into the night. Back in the Twin Cities, 150 miles south of Duluth, I can still hear those waves.