Wednesday, February 10, 2016

A Superior Ocean

Hi Bill

Today I decided to write about my family’s first trip to Duluth and Lake Superior.

During the early summer of 1993, Pat and I threw Rayna and Zeb into our small car and headed for Duluth for the first time. After living on the South Dakota plains for about 10 years and 6 years in Cincinnati and Omaha, we desperately needed a sojourn at a large body of water. Lake Herman and Lake Poinsett were just not providing the water therapy we needed. We didn’t need to swim in an ocean of water to wash away the years of prairie life. We just needed to see an ocean of water and spend time with it.

Luckily someone told us there was an ocean-like lake called Superior up north in Minnesota. We crammed the kids and lots of essential (and unessential) vacation stuff into the car and headed in a northeasterly direction. We had never visited northern Minnesota before and it was an interesting 340-mile drive across the plains and eventually into the forested northern hills that spit us out near a visitor’s center at the top of a steep hill on the outskirts of Duluth. We were mesmerized by the magnificent view of a body of water that certainly had to be an ocean. We had heard and read about Lake Superior and knew it was the largest of the Great Lakes. However, nothing could have prepared us for the sudden and incredibly stunning view of Duluth spread along a steep ridge leading down to Lake Superior on that sunny afternoon. That “ocean of water” beckoned to us as we picked up some tourist brochures and maps and then pointed the car toward it.

Post Card of Duluth, MN

As we drove down the ridge into an industrial-looking city with lots of bridges and a water front area, it reminded Pat and me of our beloved Pittsburgh. However, Pittsburgh’s rivers and bridges did not equal the beauty of that monstrous inland ocean. Unfortunately, we needed to keep expenses down so we had made reservations at a Comfort Inn that was not on the lake. 

Rayna and Clark on the Lake Walk in Duluth, MN

After checking into the hotel we drove to Canal Park, a well-developed lakeside tourist area, and we did plenty of walking and sitting along the lake walk that afternoon and evening and on several succeeding days. We just hung around and sat on benches and enjoyed the sights and sounds of that powerful lake communicating with us and soothing our ocean-deprived lives on the plains. There were even seagulls to amuse us, especially Rayna and Zeb who also enjoyed climbing over the large rocks and running from the waves on the beaches.

Sea Gulls and a Shopping Area 

Of course the Canal Park area provided lots of interesting and entertaining tourist activities in addition to many nice hotels. There were many shops that provided local art, souvenirs, and other retail therapy experiences, including a Duluth Pack store were we bought some warm sweatshirts because we discovered that it is very cool in early spring in Northern Minnesota, especially during evenings. Obviously we were not educated travelers back then. Just jump in the car and drive! Canal Park also contained family/kid-friendly tourist areas along the channel into the harbor. We took Rayna and Zeb inside a huge freighter that was permanently docked in the harbor for tourists to enjoy. Also we all enjoyed a tourist boat ride around the harbor and out a ways into the lake.

Zeb, Rayna, Clark on the Channel Wall in Duluth

The Channel from the Lake to the Harbor
The most compelling experiences in Canal Park were when we joined crowds that gathered to greet behemoth cargo ships and other vessels that entered the channel leading from the lake into the harbor. We lined up with other visitors along the channel wall to greet those ships and wave at their crews as they made their way through the channel and under the famous lift bridge that raises a section of highway into the air (backing up automotive traffic on both sides of the channel) enabling the ships to creep under the bridge and into the harbor. Watching those ships arrive from locations all over the world is an experience we still enjoy when we visit to Duluth.

Pat and Clark at Lake Superior

We spent a couple of days in Duluth exploring the town that spreads from lakeside up a very steep ridge and then on the plateau above. We certainly noticed that downtown Duluth had seen better days, like many other industrial cities. However, Pat and I were quite accustomed to gritty industrial cities and we felt very comfortable there.

Of course, we spent most of our time in Duluth along the lake. There was a very nice lake walk that allowed us to walk along the shore from Canal Park north toward the downtown area of the city and then up the ridge a little to another engaging and intriguing lakeside area that included the Fitger’s Brewery complex, which had mostly been converted into a shopping/restaurant area. We also walked beyond Fitger’s through the rose garden and beyond. That fabulous view of that huge and beautiful lake was always beside us.

Clark, Pat, Zeb, Rayna about to board
the North Shore Railroad for a trip to
Two Harbors 
Our train at Two Harbors

There was lots to see and do in Duluth, but we decided to also see some of the north shore, i.e., the area along Lake Superior north of Duluth. Therefore, Pat took the kids (including me) for a ride on the North Shore Railroad that runs north from Duluth to Two Harbors. We had a wonderful time on the train and Two Harbors turned out to be a charming little lakeside town with lots of tourist attractions, and an industrial port area. We drove back to Two Harbors the next day and spent more time there. It was, and still is, an industrial, but charming, little lakeside city that caters to tourists. We all liked visiting the light house and walking out on the breakwaters (stone and concrete walls that extend from shore out into the lake) which probably protect the harbor and shore from serious damage during bad storms. However, I don’t really know what exactly they do, but they definitely define a harbor area and they provide paths and perches for tourists like us to walk on them way out into the lake. They also provide places to sit on out in the lake. We all loved walking, and sitting, on them while just communing with the lake and each other. Two Harbors is a nice little town full of friendly people and over the years it became one of our favorite vacation spots on the North Shore.

Rayna, Zeb and Pat on a breakwater near Two Harbors

Rayna, Zeb and Clark on a breakwater in Two Harbors

Post Card of Two Harbors 

Other attractions that we visited during that first trip to Duluth and the North Shore included Split Rock Light House and Gooseberry Falls State Park. Split Rock Light Station served as a guide to iron ore ships on western Lake Superior from 1910 to 1969, but now it is maintained as a historic site. It’s was fun to take the kids inside and climb to the top of the lighthouse to see a truly wonderful view and think about its history. Gooseberry Falls State Park provides a terrific wilderness experience with lots of wooded walking trails and an amazing falls.

Our photo of Split Rock Light House

That first visit to Duluth and the North Shore with Rayna and Zeb established our standard vacation spot for many years. In fact we like it very much and still visit it as often as I can force my tired and worn-out body to make the trip.

Rayna and Zeb below Split Rock Light House


Bill – I would love to take you to Lake Superior north of Duluth and just explore and enjoy the woods and lake. I think you would enjoy getting a break from the Philadelphia area.

Take care.

Sincerely Clark

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