Finding Heaven and Home on the North Shore

I left Minnesota at 17 and promised I would never, ever live there again. The winters are too cold (-4C/24F as a high should not be a thing). The land is too flat. Everyone thinks Fargo is a part of your state. Tornadoes.

But, oh, Minnesota summers.

Now, that’s another thing altogether. The air is clean and buzzes with cicadas. Oaks and maples and willows rustle in soft breezes and the 10,000 lakes come alive with laughter from beach-goers and bird songs. Fireflies create magic shows at dusk — little bursts of light as you walk through the woods. Thunderstorms rattle your windows and bones and you snuggle in tighter to watch the lightening and wait out the pounding rain.

mn-best-and-worst
Good and bad things about living in Minnesota.

A few weeks ago, my friend and I were looking for a quick ocean getaway location. But with a heat wave hitting everywhere along the East Coast, a radical idea popped into my head and out my mouth: “What if we went to the North Shore?”

The North Shore of what exactly, you ask?

A little slice of heaven on earth, in fact.

Specifically, this slice is along Lake Superior in Minnesota. (Ok, so technically, it’s only heaven on earth for a few months of the year unless you are a polar bear.)

The coastline of Lake Superior, Minnesota
Look! So beautiful! For at least three months every year!

The North Shore stretches from Duluth, Minnesota, through the border with Canada, and arches all the way to Sault Ste. Marie in Ontario. The greatest of the Great Lakes, Lake Superior is the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area and third largest in volume. It is so big that almost half of Florida would fit inside its shores.

Actually, I am pretty sure it would be okay to lose Florida, so consider that a suggestion.

Technical map of states that could fit into Lake Superior.
Technical map of states that could fit into Lake Superior.

I’ve been back to Minnesota off and on over the years to visit family, but I hadn’t been back to take just relax and explore, so that’s what my friend and I decided to do.

From Minneapolis, we rented a car, skirted Lake Wobegon and a few Paul Bunyan and Babe statues, and arrived three hours later at a recommendation from my sister: New Scenic Café.

Just north of Duluth and across the street from the lake (“It’s big, but I can still see the other side,” my friend said, not yet impressed), New Scenic Café should be a required stop if you are in the area. Armed with a Duluth Bent Paddle beer, we started with honey-glazed figs, followed with an heirloom tomato and truffle oil sandwich and finished with a passionfruit panna cotta.

This was not the Minnesota fare I remembered.

mn-traditional-food
This is the Minnesota fare I remembered.

From there, we hugged the road that hugged the lake, and drove a bit farther to our home for a few days, a wood cabin right on the shore. To celebrate our arrival, we popped open a bottle of wine and parked in lounge chairs beneath a big oak along the water. For breakfast, the lodge offered us wild rice and cranberry pancakes and trout lightly fried with wild rice batter. Oh, and a hot plate of homemade cinnamon rolls for good measure.

Full and happy, my friend was at this point sufficiently impressed with the lake’s size. “Maybe we should swim,” he suggested.

“Maybe you should swim,” I suggested.

Instead, we hiked at Tettegouche State Park and stood in awe at the shoreline and waterfalls. More wild rice dishes for late lunch, local beer, and a bedtime of 6 p.m. Oh, yea, we were partying hard.

High Falls at Tettegouche State Park
50-foot High Falls at Tettegouche State Park is a few miles of easy hiking into the park.

The next day, we biked to Split Rock Lighthouse, which was built after 29 ships were destroyed or damaged in one violent November storm on the lake. Lake Superior has long treated ships like they were silly toys trespassing on her domain — since 1816, 240 ships have been destroyed or damaged in just one area of Lake Superior (affectionately known as the Graveyard of the Great Lakes). Even in recent history, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank in 1975 on the lake during a fierce November storm of hurricane-force winds and waves 35 feet high, swallowing the crew of 29.

mn-lighthouse-split-rock
Split Rock Lighthouse on the North Shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota.

On our way back, we found a secret little rocky beach and napped in a hammock, determined to stay up until at least a non-senior citizen hour tonight. For dinner, we switched it up with a Minnesota-style pizza (very flat and not crisp) and local beer and a game of speed cornhole, which I totally won, which makes sense, since being good at cornhole is a requirement if you live in the Midwest at any point in your life.

Our last day, we commandeered a free canoe from the lodge and paddled out on the lake. I was completely calm and chill about the fact that I could see clearly 35 feet down in the water, a brown film covering the rocky bottom. It didn’t bother me at all that if I fell into the water I would be freezing in its average depths of 483 feet and most assuredly immediately gobbled up by a giant fish, who could see me easily through this clear water and was obviously trailing our canoe already just waiting for that to happen.

Nope, I was totally cool and collected.

Canoeing Lake Superior
I believe that is the tip of a lake shark along the rocks in the middle of the photo. It’s a real thing. Just ask any Minnesotan.

We (okay, fine, mostly my friend) paddled until we found a little river coming out from the mainland, and turned in, sure we were going to hit Gooseberry Falls, the most visited state park in Minnesota. Yellow flowers reflected in the still river, a murky brick red after the clear lake.

After a few turns, the sound of the waterfall louder and louder, we hit water too shallow to continue, so beached and walked up.

Gooseberry Falls MN
The official story is that we paddled over the Gooseberry Falls.

Returning back home to the city where I live now was harder than I expected, with its traffic and rush and what-do-you-do and who-do-you-knows.

“What if I just live on the North Shore?” I asked my friend.

“You’d starve in winter,” he said.

“But I’d totally have a greenhouse,” I said.

“Well, then maybe you’d be okay. But awfully cold.”

Now I’m beginning to wonder: Is it possible that that little Minnesota star has just been in hibernation inside me all these years? Flannel shirts and ice skating and snow angels and summers with fireflies and thunderstorms—I feel a longing tight in my chest. Maybe these do still feel like home, even after all the amazing places I’ve lived and traveled in the last 15 years.

Maybe they’ve always been home, even when I’ve sworn they weren’t.

It’s as if someone with a lutefisk is gently slapping my cheek, in a Minnesota-nice kind of way: Never say never. You betcha you’ll come back.

sunrise
Sunrise on the North Shore of Lake Superior, Minnesota.

3 thoughts on “Finding Heaven and Home on the North Shore

  1. Ah, the North Shore in summer! So many times we dined at New Scenic Cafe and ate wild rice in everything. I still daydream about a summer home there, and it will always be one of my favorite spots in the whole world. One of my best memories ever is of the summer night we lay on the shore in Two Harbors and watched a meteor shower overhead. The only other place I’ve seen stars that fabulous is in the Hill Country, which is one of the things that drew me here. I’ve often thought that each of us has a deep, even spiritual, connection to the place where we truly belong, even if, sometimes, we haven’t found it yet. (Or maybe I think that way because I never had roots anywhere as an Army brat, and so I’ve never felt like I was ‘home.’) Either way, coming ‘home’ is a marvelous experience, no matter how long it takes, or where it takes you along the way. Wonderful post, Pentraveler!
    Now I have to go make some wild rice for Indian porridge for breakfast tomorrow – a recipe I discovered on the North Shore.

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  2. Any place that goes below 0 is unliveable in my opinion! But that’s because I come from a city where the coldest daytime temp is like 15 celcius. Lol

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