By Gustave Axelson
Photography by Tom Thulen
Highway 61 was the only tourism artery up the Minnesota coast of Lake Superior in 1957, when the state Legislature officially designated Temperance River, Cascade River, and Judge C.R. Magney state parks.
In the 21st century, I've got options. Today three nonmotorized trails run parallel to the North Shore Scenic Drive Byway.
A few short strokes of my pen, playing connect the dots with parks and trails on a road map, and my plans were laid for a summer weekend triple-header: Visit all three of these jewels in Minnesota's necklace of North Shore parks -- by pedal, bipedally, and by paddle -- and do it all in three days.
My 4-year-old son will be in high school by the time the last mile of Gitchi-Gami State Trail is paved. According to planners at the Department of Natural Resources, each section of trail takes several years to plan and build. So far, about 21 miles of the proposed 86-mile recreational route from Two Harbors to Grand Marais are paved and ready for bikers, including a three-mile stretch through Temperance River State Park.
It's midmorning, but the summer sun is already high overhead when I meet Jeff Lynch, owner of Sawtooth Outfitters, in his parking lot in Tofte for an escorted bike ride south to Schroeder and back. As we saddle up and pedal onto the coal-black asphalt lane, Lynch tells me the trail is already driving tremendous tourist interest -- only four years after it opened.
"Five years ago, my summer business was solely people renting canoes for the Boundary Waters," he says. "But lots of people are renting bikes from us today, and we're seeing more new bikers as each new trail segment opens."
Coasting through a birch grove, I can easily see the allure of this trail. I've driven by these birches on Highway 61 more times than I can count, but it's a far richer experience to be biking among these trees. A vigorous headwind off Lake Superior induces me to pedal harder, and 15 minutes later we reach the turnaround point at a state highway wayside in Schroeder.
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Father Baraga's Cross. Cars zip by at 60 miles per hour as we delicately nudge our bikes along a dirt footpath from the wayside parking lot to a granite cross. The monument marks the spot where legend says Father Frederic Baraga, a Catholic missionary priest to the Lake Superior Ojibwe, came ashore amid a violent storm in the summer of 1846.
In his book Kitchi-Gami, German ethnologist Johann Georg Kohl writes that Father Baraga was staying on the Apostle Islands when he heard that a disease epidemic had struck one of his missions on the Minnesota shore. He immediately commandeered a birch-bark canoe and a voyageur named Dubois to take him to Minnesota.
Dubois was dubious about this voyage, as the weather looked fierce and no one had ever attempted a 70-mile direct crossing from the Apostles to Minnesota before. But Father Baraga persisted. Kohl described the scene as the two travelers approached the North Shore:
Long rows of dark rocks on either side, and at their base a white stripe, the dashing surf of the terribly excited waves. There was no opening in them, no haven, no salvation.
'Paddle on, dear Dubois -- straight on. We must get through, and a way will offer itself' . . .
[Dubois] shrugged his shoulder, made his last prayers, and paddled straight on.
By paddling straight on, Baraga and Dubois landed in the tranquil mouth of a river. In thanksgiving, they erected a wooden cross.
On this blustery day, with dashing surf below, we stand in the shadow of a granite monument that honors the naming of the Cross River.
Atop the Peak. On our return trip, Lynch and I pause in the state park and gaze up at Carlton Peak. Then we pedal to an intersection with a gravel park road, turn left, and begin our ascent.
Most folks drive up Carlton Peak Road to get to the lookout. Bikers looking for a challenge can climb 700 feet to the top. The first stretch angles up moderately, and the pedaling isn't too difficult. Then Lynch cuts left, off the gravel road and onto a mountain bike trail, and the pitch gets steeper -- the rocks bigger.
Lynch, an expert mountain biker and veteran of the Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival races, glides quickly up, around a bend, and out of sight. My front tire hits a momentum-killing mini-boulder, and I'm forced to walk a bit. I alternate the rest of the way, grinding out the climb on pedals when I can and hoofing the rest, until I reach the payoff -- a supreme view.
"When I come up here on the Fourth of July, I can see seven fireworks shows from all over the Arrowhead country," Lynch says.
We can see Oberg and Britton peaks from this seemingly stratospheric vantage, where the sky appears truer blue than it did 20 minutes ago. White caps are raging on Lake Superior. The gusts put wind in my lungs for the brisk ride back down. Just five minutes later, I'm back on the Gitchi-Gami trail by Highway 61, pedaling into the Temperance River State Park campsite for the night.
On day two I shoulder a backpack at a spur trail head for the Superior Hiking Trail in Cascade River State Park. Today's goal: Hike the trail on another classic North Shore climb, 600 feet to the Lookout Mountain campsite.
About halfway up the trail, before any real elevation occurs, there's a sign that reads "96 steps" beside a wooden staircase that descends to the Cascade River. I set down my backpack and fish out my rod and reel for a quick detour. Down by the river, the roots of cedar trees slither across the trail like snakes. The light dims beneath the tree canopy; the air turns cool and wet. Below cascading falls, I spy a deep pool of dark, foamy water like root beer. I fasten on a size #0 Mepps spinner and cast for brook trout, but the only tug is the steady pull of water moving fast downstream.
On the backcast of my last try for a brookie, I nearly hook an observer, a large man in sneakers who has sidled up behind me. He wears a broad hat and a broader smile. "Whatcha' fishin' for?" he asks.
He's from St. Louis, on a day hike of the Superior trail. "We don't have anything like this at home," he remarks of the splendor he's seen on his hike through this gorge. He's one of several out-of-staters I'll encounter today -- folks from Chicago, Denver, and Texas.
Every year more than 50,000 people hike the Superior Hiking Trail, which was built in the early 1980s by the Minnesota Conservation Corps and is maintained today by volunteers of the Superior Hiking Trail Association. Named one of the 10 best trails in the nation by Backpacker magazine, it runs from Two Harbors to the Border Route Trail near Canada. And it's getting even longer.
A new 22-mile section from Jay Cooke State Park to Duluth recently opened, and by 2010 it will be connected to the rest of the trail at Two Harbors -- extending the trail's continuous length to more than 300 miles.
Up to the Lookout. The top of Lookout Mountain lies at mile point 134.1 of the Superior Hiking Trail, and it serves up another spectacular North Shore view, as promised by assistant park manager Ty Gangelhoff. The park has five backpacking campsites, but Gangelhoff insisted I camp here.
"It's my favorite place in the park," he said. "You can't see any human signs from up there. No roads or towers or buildings. It's just lake and forest."
Sure enough, I've got a prime seat on a rock outcrop for watching a full moon rise out of Lake Superior. I sleep in a three-sided shelter on a wooden bunk, which along with the privy and the picnic table are amenities found only at state park campsites on the Superior Hiking Trail. State park backpack sites are also the only sites on the trail that can be reserved.
In the morning I'm relaxed and in good spirits -- the hike out will be all downhill. Over a bowl of oatmeal and second pot of coffee, I ponder the doings of several red-breasted nuthatches in a nearby balsam fir. The upright cones atop the tree look to be sugar-glazed with whitish pitch. Periodically, nuthatches land on the cones, pick off flakes of glaze, then fly off. The sight makes me hungry for a cinnamon roll.
After my trip, I learn from DNR ecologist Chel Anderson that red-breasted nuthatches harvest balsam pitch to coat the interior walls of their nests in tree cavities, possibly as an insect deterrent. Because these nuthatches were gathering balsam flakes in summer, later than their May breeding season, she speculates that the birds may have had second broods.
That's good. The world needs more red-breasted nuthatches, more entertainers for idle backpackers with a morning to spare.
It's midmorning and Lake Superior's waves are just coming to life when Peter Hark and Matt Kania pull into the Kadunce River wayside with sea kayaks atop their cars. Hark is a DNR Trails and Waterways field manager and Kania is a member of the Lake Superior Water Trail Association. Today they'll guide me on my first sea kayaking outing.
We shove off shore in our kayaks and paddle furiously into rolling waves, only resting a few fitful moments after we're past the breakers. I had expected sea kayaking to be much like canoeing, but it's about as similar as hiking is to biking. Instead of sitting atop the water, as in a canoe, I feel like I'm directly on the water, like a floating leaf, able to feel the slightest ripples across the lake. Each time Lake Superior heaves and sighs, the horizon rises and drops.
After two miles of paddling, I'm less mindful of the swells and I'm on the lookout for birds. A common loon dives near the bow of my kayak. As we paddle by a promontory named Ashford Point, I spot a designated campsite for kayakers. That's really what this water trail consists of: a string of 34 campsites and 78 rest areas for kayakers from Duluth to Pigeon Point -- along the entirety of Minnesota's shore with Lake Superior. Similar water trails are being developed along the Superior shores of Ontario, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Someday an established kayaking trail circuit could extend around all 2,900 miles of Superior shoreline.
Our plans for today are much more modest: We paddle two more miles up to a lichen- and guano-painted berg of basalt called Marr Island, sending colonies of gulls and cormorants into the sky. Then we paddle another mile toward Magney State Park. Kania pulls up beside me for the final stretch.
"You know, this water trail is nothing new. It's probably the oldest trail around here," he remarks. "People were paddling and moving goods along this route for several centuries before they built Highway 61."
As we approach the park, the waves rise into rollers again. There's no need to paddle now, just stay balanced and surf into the mouth of the Brule River. We land our kayaks, I thank Hark and Kania for the outing, and I walk upriver.
Backcountry Brule Trout. A finely manicured trail, with a pebbled surface and a wooden staircase, leads to the park's two main attractions along the Brule River: the Upper Falls and the Devil's Kettle -- both dramatic points of violently rushing rapids. And both, on this day, are packed with tourists on the rapids' ledges. There's no elbow room for me to squeeze in and cast for trout, so I continue upstream.
The trail immediately turns rougher north of the Devil's Kettle. I walk on rocks and tree roots for two miles to a spot where the trail turns east to become the northern leg of the Superior Hiking Trail. There I head west, off the trail and into the bush, down a steep slope of fallen trees to the river, and into the park's prime attraction for those who enjoy exploring backcountry.
"The northern two-thirds of Magney park is completely undeveloped," says park manager Tom Ludwig. "If you've got the skills to do some bushwhacking, it's an extremely quiet and remote experience."
On this droughty summer day, the water's low on the upper Brule, just a trickling stream. I leap from boulder to boulder in the dry streambed, searching for a pool to cast my spinner into, until I happen on a swirling eddy. Casting at the base of falls, I let the current carry the lure downstream, keeping the rod tip high and the line tight. I can't see my spinner, but I feel a tug, then an electric jolt shoots up my fishing rod.
I catch eight finely speckled brook trout in that pool, keeping just one for the frying pan back at camp. Returning along the trail, I pick a few thimbleberries -- blaring like tiny red sirens against the green leafy cover of the forest floor -- for garnish. Rising over a ridge with a view of Lake Superior, I sit down for a rest, catch a breeze, and smile.
Of all the trails along the North Shore, I had to venture off-trail to fetch my trout supper.
Managing editor Gustave Axelson says a highlight of his three-day blitz up North Shore parks and trails was chatting with a Minnesota Conservation Volunteer reader atop Carlton Peak.