Friday, October 15, 2010

Fall on Minnesota’s North Shore

We were in canoe country which is the phrase borrowed from the travel brochures helping us with our recent visit to northern Minnesota.

Like fall leaves spinning as they catch the breeze the brochures provided color commentary for our sightseeing.

We started with Lake Superior, its cold deep waters rolling onto rocky shores. North Shore rivers tumbled and cascaded within sight of the road. State parks with camping and trails came up one after the other all the way to the Canadian border.

Minnesota doesn’t have an actual mountain range. There are compensations we will insist.

North Shore Drive, the 150-mile section of Highway 61 which follows the lakeshore from the inland seaport of Duluth, is one of the reasons many of us don’t miss the peaks. We have our own peak experiences on the North Shore.

Family vacations are popular up this way. Parents bring their children to recreate the experience of their own youthful good times. The North Shore has something for everyone. Busy as it can be there is a range of accommodations for all who make the trip.

If you time it just right in the fall you arrive in the Arrowhead, this northeasterly corner of the state, when maples flame across the ridges. Aspen and birch are equally showy, their forests even more prevalent. Their leaves ripple and turn like mirrored light.

Boughs shimmer as they sway in the currents of air. The gold leaves are bright as the sun against the blue sky. “Did you ever see such color?” you ask.

The correct answer is “Of course we have.” But every year nature rearranges its color patterns like a marketer who is a genius at increasing sales. We’re wowed anew.

Turning oaks add their burnished colors to the medleys of reds, yellows, oranges and umbers in areas where hardwoods predominate.

Elsewhere the hardwoods meet the dark green of pine and spruce. A patchwork quilt made up of blocks of brilliance and restraint warms the land.

The Indians and next the explorers and voyageurs – employees of the fur trading companies – comprise the early story of Minnesota. They noted the seasonal changes as they paddled their canoes.

Known by the French word for traveler, voyageurs were hardy and self-reliant. They were energetic and lively. They sang as they paddled their birchbark canoes, chants you can believe still echo in the lake mists of fall mornings.

Typically French or of French-Canadian descent, voyageurs retain a mystique not only because of their songs. Amazing physical stamina and their colorful garb, consisting of red wool cap, bright jacket and fringed sash, contribute to the robust and high-spirited profile they leave with us.

The voyageurs call to mind the strong early French influence on Minnesota. The state’s motto is in French as if calling attention to the fact.

“L’Etoile du Nord” – Star of the North – was adopted as the motto in 1861. It can suggest our geography – situated, as we are, in the northernmost tier of states.

I think it also honors the bravery and endurance of the first peoples, and the seekers and settlers after that, who found in the clear nighttime skies the peaceful expression of home.

The voyageurs traveled the network of rivers, lakes and streams far inland. When days grew crisp, and frosty mornings became the norm, the waterways began the turnover to ice.

Freezing temperatures lay down the first thin coat which became deep ice as the cold came on.

Lake Superior, large as it is, iced up too. Voyageurs who wintered in fur country prepared for the long season ahead.

Entering into the wilderness they embraced it. They adopted aspects of the Indian culture. They moved into it to make it their own. Above all, they kept active in the winter months building up inventories of furs to bring to Lake Superior for the summer trade.

The Heritage Center at Grand Portage National Monument is an ideal place to assimilate the fur trade saga. It’s a captivating story and has international ramifications. Al and I came away much enlightened by the informational panels, art and displays.

In 1763, in the aftermath of the French and Indian War, France ceded to England its land claims east of the Mississippi. England, the successful opponent, secured footage in the fur-rich North American interior.

English soldiers were positioned at Grand Portage during the Revolutionary War. The red coats were stationed there to protect the interests of the British run fur companies.

Grand Portage was the only spot in Minnesota with English soldiers while the thirteen American colonies, presenting a ragged, primarily united front, waged their calculated, spunky and also desperate bid for independence,

In 1784 the newly formed North West Company, determined to dominate the fur trade, established a fur depot at Grand Portage.

Grand Portage was the largest trading depot in the heart of North America during this time. The depot had a layout of sixteen wooden buildings within a palisade.

The palisade, constructed from cedar logs, was put up for protection of the wares rather than as defense against the Indians with whom friendly ties were maintained.

The great hall and kitchen are among buildings that have been reconstructed. They’re open on reduced seasonal hours. We didn’t want to wait for the next scheduled tour. With a map as guide we walked the grounds which extend to the lake.

The lookout tower gives great views of beautiful, sheltered Grand Portage Bay. A lake of a thousand moods Lake Superior was behaving impeccably this morning. It was a sheet of glass, its surface hardly ruffled in the day’s calm start.

We strolled the long façade of the Great Hall. The open porch faces east and was basking, if wood can bask, in the morning light. It was warm in the sun on the porch. I slowed to let the good warmth sink in.

The mess hall, bunk beds and a private room that might have been a clerk’s office or bedroom were sections of the great hall that could be seen through the six windows that face the lake.

Missing the tour leader’s input we imagined for ourselves the activity that filled the big gathering hall.

Key as social headquarters, the great hall functioned for practicality as indicated by the room at the far end. The keeping of the ledgers, the dispensing of payments and the arrangements for supplies were core elements of the fur trading enterprise carried out here.

July was the time set for the Rendezvous. Voyageurs from the north woods departed for Lake Superior with their wealth of fur pelts.

Beaver was king. Beaver hats were the rage. The world market was insatiable. The western lands appeared to have an unlimited supply of beavers. The voyageurs canoed and portaged the beaver skins with care. It was not unlike transporting gold.

From the opposite direction, from Montreal, voyageurs paddled the thousand-mile route with supplies and trade goods in exchange for the furs.

The Rendezvous was a combination of business and celebration. The Objibwe had their village outside the walls and joined in the feasting.

Of interest, as you visit now, is Three Sisters Garden which shows the Indian style of planting. Corn, beans and squash are planted together to support and balance each other.

The garden uses carefully selected seeds original to Indian plantings. Some vegetables are endangered species because of the heirloom quality of the seeds.

The Rendezvous marked the end of one season and the start of another. At its conclusion the Montreal- based agents returned across the lake, their big canoes laden with animal skins. Voyageurs who lived in the woods headed west.

The Grand Portage was their way out as it was the trail in. For the voyageurs the portage, used by Indians for hundreds of years prior to European exploration, was their gateway to Canada’s fur country and portal for Lake Superior.

The portage around the Pigeon River, which today forms the border with Canada, allowed the voyageurs to avoid a series of impassible waterfalls and rapids.

The High Falls, also known as Pigeon Falls, is the highest waterfall in the state. At 120 feet it was among the serious obstacles to canoes on the lower Pigeon River.

This stretch was particularly forbidding when voyageurs were in transit with the furs. The furs, made up into ninety pound bales, had to be carried the entire length of the nine mile portage.

Grand Portage became a new favorite spot for us. So did Grand Marais. We got better acquainted with it this time.

Grand Marais (the word means marsh) is trailhead for the Gunflint Trail. But for me the charm in Grand Marais is its maritime and artsy flavor.

The only trail I looked for led to shopping and coffee houses. I find these commodities not at all out of place in this outdoors paradise. From the bustle on the streets and in the shops many visitors agree.

Gooseberry Falls is another don’t-miss attraction remembered from past vacations. Within Gooseberry State park are five waterfalls. Their combined drop is over one hundred feet.

Short walks from the visitor center bring you to the brink of the cascades in either direction. The hardest decision is which path to pursue first.

Next was Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. Split Rock Lighthouse is celebrating its 100th birthday this year.

During the summer we no doubt heard about Split Rock’s centennial year. The fact hadn’t stayed with us, making the blue birthday posters at the visitor center a pleasant surprise.

Minnesota celebrates the anniversary year with reason. Split Rock Lighthouse is synonymous with the North Shore. The vintage Coast Guard tower is a Minnesota icon. It symbolizes the rugged appeal of this curve of land north of Duluth.

Split Rock Lighthouse, along with Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, heads the short list of places and stories that persist as central to the Minnesota story. Through them we know and can explain ourselves.

Along with the Mayo Clinic, Duluth lift bridge, Metrodome, Iron Range and the wind turbines of the Buffalo Ridge, these landmarks, heroes and legends champion all things Minnesotan including heritage, humor and way of life.

The interpretive film at Split Rock was, as expected, nicely done. It gave a good overview. The theater was full. A bus group from the Twin Cities, giving total approval to the excellent weather on their color trip, accounted for some of the capacity attendance.

It was windy on the cliff. Fortunately the temperatures were warm, a pleasure here where the lake-cooled weather can be considerably chillier than other parts of the state.

The brute force of lake gales seems to seek out this exposed spot. Winter storms make the lighthouse lonesome country once the snow begins to fall. This is why the lighthouse station was a seasonal job (isolation plus icing of the lake kept boats off the lake until spring).

A narrow interior staircase takes you to the top of the tower. You’re up close with the 370,000 candlepower light.

The lighthouse light was vital in this area of the lake that had magnetic interference. Made in France, the light was hoisted in pieces up the cliff from the lake on a tram and reassembled.

The lighthouse, no longer needed for lake navigation, closed in 1969. It remains a useful locator point for boats on the lake. We were told the light would be ceremonially lit the next evening at sunset. The hour of sunset reminded us of how early it is dark now that it is fall.

My attention was for the views of the lake, the cove below and, landward, the three houses side by side below the lighthouse. The dignified two-story residences, which went up during construction of the lighthouse, were built for the keeper and his staff.

As we toured the keeper’s house, modern for its time, with flush toilet in the upstairs bathroom, and the front entrance painted a cheerful yellow to dispel the gloom of frequent foggy weather, it felt as though we had received the keeper’s personal invitation to come in.

The faithful keepers of the lighthouse, and the families who came to spend the summers with them, are recorded well by the physical evidence of their seasons on this rocky cliff.

I remarked to Al it’s good to travel. When you shift scenes you see and do things of memorable quality.

Standing in the keeper’s kitchen, where many a pie was whisked from the oven, or to pause in a second-floor bedroom looking through sheer curtains to the restless lake, is to pay respect to those who served here. They braved isolation for the duties stalwartly undertaken.

The flowers on the lighthouse grounds were a domestic touch the keeper and his family must have delighted in.

The plantings evened out for them the encroachment of the forest. In bloom outside the row of doors, and still untouched by frost, the flowers reminded us of the desire to create home wherever one is.

The places you see, and the folks you visit with away from home settings, are examples of local color. As such, they’re no different than the colored foliage many of us go to find.

Al and I started out to see the color of the countryside – and we did. As it happens, the turning leaves are the wallpaper to the real color.

The real color is in the stories of the traveled road. The stories can be considered all our stories as we learn from them one stop at a time.

Ro Giencke - 2010

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