Vibrant blue-green water lapped at my kayak, bobbing beside towering sandstone cliffs. Seagulls squawked overhead. The water that sprayed from my paddle was ice-cold, a reminder that I was paddling the largest and coldest of the Great Lakes.
As I toured Michigan’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on Lake Superior, I could hardly believe that this dramatic landscape was part of the same lake I’ve spent my life visiting on Minnesota’s North Shore. My memories of granite outcrops and pebble beaches didn’t match the Caribbean hues and multi-coloured cliffs of Michigan’s south shore.
This fresh view is why I wanted to complete the Lake Superior Circle Tour, a 1,300-mile route around the world’s largest freshwater lake. As a Minnesotan, I had mistakenly believed I knew the lake and all it had to offer. But after a weeklong road trip around it totalling 1,700 miles with sightseeing, I realised how wrong I was.
Minnesota claims only part of the big lake’s western end. Go past that and the terrain varies through Ontario, Michigan and Wisconsin, from the rugged high hills and sandy beaches in Canada to the sandstone caves and rock formations in Michigan. The only constant: the frigid temperature of the lake’s waters. Awe-inspiring scenery is likely why the Circle Tour is becoming more popular. The Duluth-based Lake Superior Magazine, which prints a travel guide, runs a ‘circle tour club’ for those who complete the journey, at 2,500 people and counting. Its editor, Konnie LeMay, has seen an uptick in interest.
“It’s a very accessible vacation and it kind of harks back to those family road trips and there’s some nostalgia about that,” she said. “Lake Superior has a magnetic, mystic draw.”
Motorists, motorcyclists and bicyclists have done the trek since the 1960s, when it became possible to drive around the entire lake. But everyone from sail-boaters to snowmobilers and hikers do the loop, too. By the 1990s, the magazine started publishing a tour map. While the magazine’s guidebook recommends taking two weeks to do the drive, it’s possible to do it in one week. My deadline-driven parents and I set out on our weeklong trip in June, beating the peak crowds in July and August. While it meant layering up for cooler weather, we eluded pesky black flies.
After living in Duluth and spending years visiting Minnesota’s shoreline, we zipped by Gooseberry Falls and Split Rock Lighthouse. Soon, we were in new territory across the Canadian border.
In earshot of the second highest waterfall in Ontario, we pitched tents at Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park and drove to Ouimet (pronounced we-met) Canyon. A half-mile path led to platforms over the rim of the sheer cliffs that drop 300 feet to a rocky, stark canyon floor. Already, we were amazed by a new side of Superior.
“It’s hard to believe this is the same water in Duluth,” my dad said as we passed the town of Rossport, Ontario, after gawking at two black bears tromping through roadside fields.
We skirted the shore, past islands and steep hills. At Kama Bay, the northernmost point of the lake, we snapped photos in a quick unceremonious stop. That was the downside to our one-week trek, there was little room in the schedule for long breaks or spontaneous sightseeing. We had to keep moving.
Far from major cities and reliable cell service, we dashed by small lake towns, surprised not to see clusters of restaurants and souvenir shops like those that dot the lake’s southern shore in places like Grand Marais, Minn, or Bayfield, Wis.
Instead, there were boarded up hotels and shuttered truck stops in Wawa, a 3,000-resident town in Ontario that once bustled with logging and mining, even gold. When the mines closed and the paper mill shut down, other businesses fell, a resident told us.
The town now may be best known for two massive roadside goose sculptures. Like other cities, Wawa’s tourism seemed to rely on its natural sights, hiking trails, beaches and waterfalls. After a night at Rock Island Lodge, a cosy B&B on a craggy peninsula, we gazed at the Scenic High Falls on the Magpie River, the 125-foot-wide waterfalls spilling over in wispy streaks like a man-made resort fountain.
At Lake Superior Provincial Park, we walked a sandy beach at a horseshoe-shaped bay with 650-foot-tall forested cliffs and crystal-clear water. It felt like we were a world away from our familiar lake. Superior has more than just postcard-perfect views, though. It’s also full of fascinating history and culture.
We stopped at Agawa Rock, where the Ojibwe people, who have called Gi chi Gamiing, Great Lake, home for centuries, left sacred messages. On a cliff wall, they painted canoes, fish, serpents and mythical creatures like Misshepezhieu, a horned animal that is said to be the spirit of the water. With signs warning of the dangerous climb, we made our way across the ledge, holding onto ropes fastened to the rocks. We were awed by the red-orange pictographs, which are 150 to 400 years old and visible only from a ledge that drops abruptly into aqua waters. Back in the car, the road wound its way high above the lake, past yellow warning signs for moose and dense forests of spruce, aspen and birch trees. “This rivals any road through Colorado,” my mom said. “It’s wilderness right up to your car.”
After crossing into the US, we cheated on Superior with a day trip to Lake Huron, stepping back in time on Mackinac Island. During our detour to the famous island, its 19th-century main street lined with fudge shops and horse-drawn wagons, we pedalled the 8 miles around it by bike and learned about British and American soldiers who had lived at the fort.
After paddling the caves of Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands, I had high hopes for Pictured Rocks and it blew me away. We maneuverer our kayaks under arches and into caves surrounded by translucent blue-green water. Impressive sandstone cliffs streaked with minerals seeping from groundwater, turquoise from copper, red and orange from iron and brown and black from manganese, were works of art. Like magic, fog creeping on the lake dissipated as a waterfall dropped off the cliff into the lake in the distance.
Then it was back to paradise, Mich, where we camped at Tahquamenon, Falls State Park under a canopy of towering red pines. The second largest state park in Michigan is becoming a popular spot in the Upper Peninsula.
Its root beer-coloured river, caused by the tannic acid from the cedar and hemlock trees, led to the Upper Falls, a 50-foot-tall, 200-foot-wide waterfall, one of the largest east of the Mississippi River. Four miles downstream, mist from the smaller Lower Falls hit our faces as visitors took selfies. With a packed day of sightseeing over, I looked for a spot to refuel: a brewpub. The Tahquamenon Falls Brewery and Pub is the country’s only brewery in a state park, our server told us. We ordered pasties and pints of beers as clouds rolled in and the temperature fell into the 50s in Paradise.
Strong winds slammed against us the next day as we stood in the gallery deck atop the Whitefish Point Light Station, the oldest operating light on the lake.
“We wouldn’t even consider this windy,” a staff member at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum told us.– Star Tribune/TNS
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