September saw us covering lots of states and one Canadian province as we started our long-planned Lake Superior Circle Tour. We met up with Dave and Mary at the Bad River Casino in Odonah, Wisconsin, just east of Ashland, Wisconsin. The casino provides free RV parking with water and electric hookups and a dump station nearby – free is good. We caught up on our lives since we last saw them earlier in the year, starting with happy hour at our rigs then moving over to the casino restaurant for pizza. We even donated some money to the one-armed bandits but it wasn’t our lucky day.
Some facts about Lake Superior: At 350 miles long, 160 miles wide and up to 1,300 feet deep, this largest of the Great Lakes can easily contain the other Great Lakes, plus three additional lakes the size of Lake Erie. When it freezes completely, which it has done only twice, there is enough room for everyone on earth to spread out a 12’ x 12’ picnic blanket, although it might be a tad cool for a picnic.
The Great Lakes were formed from two major events: a series of volcanoes in North America over a billion years ago and long periods of glaciers which ended about 10,000 years ago. The lakes are commercial highways for the US and Canada, stretching more than 2,000 miles. Shipments of iron ore, grain and coal ply the waters more economically and in some cases, more feasibly than land-based transport. The lakes provide recreational opportunities – boating, sailing, picnicking, swimming, hiking, fishing, sightseeing, as well as providing water for drinking, bathing, industrial and agricultural uses. The Great Lakes contain over half of the world’s fresh water – that boggles the mind.
Our first excursion was Madeline Island, the largest of the twenty-two Apostle Islands and a short ferry ride from Bayfield to LaPointe, the one and only town on the island. Our original plans were to take our bikes and pedal around the island but the weather turned drizzly and cool – a good choice to leave the bikes behind.
The Madeline Island Historical Museum was our first stop, where we learned about Native American life on the island, as well as the fur trade, 19th century fishing, logging, and local maritime lore. We enjoyed a picnic lunch at Joni’s Beach, still marveling at this huge expanse of water that looks like an ocean – we kept waiting for the tides to go in and out. Big Bay State Park looks like a quiet place to stay – some sites have electrical hookups.
Back in Bayfield, we stopped at the Apostle Island National Lakeshore Visitor Center where we learned more about these islands formed eons ago by ice, wind and waves. Sandstone cliffs, sea caves, windows and arches, sea stacks and beaches – quite a variety of landscapes to be seen on the islands, whether by ferry, boat tours or kayak.
On to Duluth, and what was our favorite stop and well worth a return trip in the future. Waterfront RV parking is available at the Lakehead Boat Basin, just a few minutes’ from town across the famous aerial lift bridge. Some of the sites offer full hookups but the sites with the best view are water and electric only – we had front-row seating watching the maritime traffic in and out of the harbor.
Duluth and area attractions:
Aerial Lift Bridge: Per the Duluth Public Library - “The Aerial Lift Bridge, one of the most popular tourist attractions in Minnesota, was constructed in 1904-1905 as the Aerial Ferry Bridge. Before that time, Park Point was only accessible by ferry boats and, during the winter months, a temporary suspension bridge. The original Aerial Ferry Bridge consisted of much of today's structure but, instead of the lift span, a suspended car, or gondola, ferried people and vehicles on a one-minute trip across the canal. The gondola could carry the equivalent of a loaded street car, two loaded wagons with teams, and 350 people. The gondola made twelve trips per hour between 5:00 a.m. and midnight and two trips per hour from midnight until morning. The lift span was added in 1929-1930 to handle increased traffic. At that time, the bridge operators moved from running the gondola to working in the control house in the center of the span. The bridge first lifted for a vessel on March 29, 1930. The Aerial Bridge lifts an average of 5,500 times a year, and over forty times a day during the summer months. It is owned and operated by the City of Duluth.”
If we didn’t do anything else in Duluth, we could have been entertained all day just from watching the ships and the Lift Bridge. The Duluth Shipping News is a great font of information with daily updates of what ships are going in and out and the ships’ history – fascinating. It was neat knowing what to look for and approximately when. Among the many ships we saw were the Arthur Anderson (767 feet long and the ship which was the last vessel to have contact with the Edmund Fitzgerald), the James R. Barker (1,004 feet long and considered a super-carrier), and the Lee A. Tregurtha (originally built as an ocean tanker and ultimately stretched over 300 feet from its original 500’+ length, converting it into a bulk freighter.)
Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad: This volunteer-run train runs weekends only from June through October, traveling a part of the original 1870s’ track connecting Duluth to St. Paul along the St. Louis River. Back then, it would take 16-1/2 hrs at a speed of 10 mph to cover the distance between the two cities. Our scenic ride today covered 12 miles round trip, done at a leisurely pace to enjoy the views of the river. The train was powered by a 1946 switch engine locomotive and we sat in coaches built in 1912 – not only learning history but sitting surrounded by it.
Vista Fleet Sightseeing Boat Tour: We enjoyed an informative and scenic tour of the harbor on the Vista Star. We went under the Lift Bridge for a short jaunt on Lake Superior, then back into the harbor, getting narrative on the different ships we saw, their cargoes, and the various loading docks.
S. S. William A. Irvin Ore Boat Museum: This flagship of the U.S. Steel’s Great Lakes Fleet sits proudly dry docked now. The guided tour takes you through the engine room, cargo holds, galleys, and the luxurious accommodations for guests of its parent company.
Lake Superior Marine Museum: Located on Canal Park at the Lift Bridge, this is Duluth’s most popular attraction, and it’s free! We toured the exhibits of local maritime history, saw cutouts of huge ship engines, and listened to announcements when ships were passing through the canal.
Willard Munger Trail: This multi-use trail runs between Duluth and Hinckley. We packed up our bikes and pedaled four miles up a gradual climb up to the top of Spirit Mountain, then back down again- a good workout.
S. S. Meteor Museum: Located in nearby Superior, Wisconsin, this dry-docked ship is the last of the whaleback ships, made specifically to haul the maximum amount of cargo (oil, grain, ore, etc…) at the minimum amount of depth. The rounded hull reminds you of a whale, thus its name. The guided tour took us up and down stairs and in and out of several areas, including the engine room, the pilot house, and the cargo hold.
Lake Superior Railroad Museum: What a neat train museum. Part of Duluth’s historic Union Depot was converted to a museum so the trains and cars are sitting on tracks but most of the exhibits are under cover. We wandered in and out of the cars, checked out the dining car with its displays of china and table settings; the specially-made logging cars that made loading logs easier; two different types of snow plows – one with a large blade and the other a large snowblower (the snowblower preferred when handling deeper snow); and the various engines – steam, diesel and electric. While we were there, the North Shore Scenic Railroad, a steam-engine, chugged away on one of its scenic excursions.
Two Harbors Light Station Museum and the tugboat, The Edna G: A short ride from Duluth is the town of Two Harbors. The Lake County Historical Society manages several properties here, including the Light Station Museum, the depot museum, the assistant lighthouse keeper’s home, and the tugboat.
First lit in 1892, the light and the fog signal continued to help ships navigate this part of Lake Superior until it was fully automated in 1981, eliminating the need for a resident lighthouse keeper. That part of the building is now a bed and breakfast – what a neat place to stay.
The Edna G was built in 1896 and one of the most powerful tugs at the time. For most of her life, she operated out of Twin Harbors, except for a two year stretch during WWI when she was requisitioned to move barges and troop ships on the east coast. After serving the port for over eighty-four years, she was retired in 1981 and is now on the National Historic Register.
We spent a mere five days in Duluth but managed to see a lot during that time. We headed next up towards Grand Marais, Minnesota, with a stop en route to visit the Split Rock Lighthouse. An advance phone call confirmed there was adequate room to park our two motor homes.
This was another light station built to aid the ore ships in navigating this part of Lake Superior, especially during storms. The fog signal helped warn ships that high rocky cliffs were nearby. Completed in 1910, it became one of the most visited lighthouses in the nation by 1939. By 1969, when ships used their radar to warn them of nearby cliffs, the lighthouse became obsolete. It has now been restored to what it was like in the 1920s.
The visitor center has an informative movie on the lighthouse, as well as exhibits throughout. We took a guided tour of the grounds, learning more history, then we were on our own to tour the lighthouse, the keeper’s home, the oil house (built like a pillbox to withstand the dangers of fire and explosion), heard a replica of the fog signal that used to make horses skittish five miles away, and checked out the site of the former derrick, used to lift building materials up the 100-foot cliff face from boats moored below.
Next stop on the Circle Tour – Grand Marais (Minnesota, not Michigan). After getting set up at the municipal campground there, we headed out to see the gorge and falls at Temperance River State Park. We also stopped at Cascade State Park for more falls, a gorge and cascades. What a beautiful day for hikes on the established trails at both state parks!
That same day, we also visited the North Shore Commercial Fishing Museum in Tofte. It may be small but it was packed with information about the local fishing industry.
We then continued on to Grand Portage, almost on the Minnesota/Ontario border, where we stayed overnight at the Grand Portage Casino. We would have stayed longer had there been any cell phone or internet coverage but we were in a really dead zone there and with family members needing to get in touch with us, none of us were comfortable with staying there any longer. We did enjoy the prime rib dinner featured at the casino.
Grand Portage National Monument was just a mile away. We lucked out and got a personalized tour from one of the interpreters there. Among the many things we learned that day was that the Northern Fur Trading Company was the largest fur trading company in the world in the late 1700s.
Sixty birch bark canoes would arrive from Montreal (loaded with goods from Europe), offload to 120 smaller canoes, head for Grand Portage, then return east loaded with furs. Each canoe held 15-16 crew members plus 4.5 tons of goods – a remarkable carrying capacity for such a small craft. However, the canoe was only good for one round trip.
The birch bark canoes were and still are better made than any other type of materials. This area was considered the canoe building capital because of the abundance of three woods necessary (birch for exterior, spruce for the ties, white cedar for the frame.) The seams were caulked with a watertight mixture of spruce pitch, bear grease and ground charcoal. We spent quite a bit of time in the workshop where these canoes are built primarily for museums and other parks.
Before leaving the US, we fueled up at the casino’s gas station, and then headed to Ontario. This was the easiest border crossing we’ve had in our years of traveling full time. After a quick stop at the welcome center for brochures, we continued our journey, stopping at the Walmart in Thunder Bay. Lucille was on a mission – Quaker muffin mixes, only found in Canada for some odd reason. Ontario friends Harry and Marie introduced us to these tasty muffins years ago and have kept us supplied when they head south to the US. We quickly found some and restocked our cupboards.
Our first overnight stop was at Stillwater Park, in Nipigon, the crossroads of Canada, where highways 11 and 17 meet. When Mary originally suggested doing the Circle Tour, she felt if we went after Labor Day, there would be less tourists and more available RV sites. We suspect others felt the same way as we continued to run into travelers and busy RV parks. At Stillwater, the 30 amp sites were all booked but they had several 15 amps sites available in a different section. With 15 amps, you have to be frugal with your electric usage – lights and computers are okay but definitely no microwave or air conditioner. With our luck, this was also the hottest day so far, in the low 90s – having a/c would have been nice but we settled for being parked in the shade, awnings out and a small fan to circulate the air.
The two of us goofed off the few days we were here while Dave and Mary set out to explore Sleeping Giant Park. On our way up from Thunder Bay, we spotted the ‘giant’ off in the distance. Dave and Mary returned with stories and pictures of the beauty they saw, but also of the two flat tires they experienced on the rough gravel roads. A local tire shop was able to fix one of the flats but one was irreparable – Canadian Tire to the rescue.
On Mary’s bucket list was staying at least one night at a provincial park on the Lake Superior shoreline. We checked that item off her list when we stayed at Neys Provincial Park. After scouting out the available sites, we picked two side-by-side with awesome views of the lake and the surrounding scenery. It was so peaceful and scenic there, we extended our stay by several nights.
Neys Camp 100: “During World War II, 35,046 Prisoners of war and Japanese-Canadians were held in 26 main camps in Canada. The north shore of Lake Superior was the site of three such camps: Neys, Angler, and Red Rock. Neys Camp 100 interned mostly German POWs, and some Japanese-Canadians between 1941-1946. The prisoners were forced to log in the Pic River and Little Pic River valleys.
German POWs were divided into categories: the ‘greys’ who were largely ordinary soldiers, and the ‘blacks’ who were considered die-hard Nazis, high risk for violence or escape. Neys Camp 100 was one of Canada's nine camps which interred ‘black’ prisoners. Hence the camp was enclosed by three barbed-wire fences and guard towers.
At the end of World War II, Neys was turned into a processing camp for POWs in the Northwestern Ontario region. It was then turned into a minimum-security work camp for civilian prisoners from the Thunder Bay area, and finally dismantled in the 1950s.”
Nothing remains of Neys Camp 100 but you can read all about it at the park’s Visitor Center, as well as view exhibits on the wildlife there and life on the rugged shore of Lake Superior.
Two ghost towns are nearby – Jackfish and Coldwell. We set off in search of Jackfish one day but were not successful. Mary drove their 4x4 Jeep as long as she could on the rugged trail but it got too rough for even that. We walked a bit but realized we still had a long ways to go, so we gave up on finding it.
Coldwell was a fishing and railway community until the late 1960s. We saw remnants of old mining equipment and some foundations but not much else.
The Neys’ park ranger suggested we hike up the nearby mountain to see the Million-Dollar Gazebo, built on park property by individual funding, and well worth the hike to see the view of Pic Island. He wasn’t sure how far it was other than it took him about thirty minutes one way. After well over an hour and hiking uphill almost 2.5 miles and no gazebo to be found, we abandoned our search. We should have factored in that he was a young and very fit ranger so his 30 minutes was probably closer to our 90 minutes. We found out afterwards we still had a mile to go to our destination. At least it was a pleasant hike, although we kept our eyes peeled for black bear and moose, both of which had left ‘signs’ they were in the area.
During two of our nights’ at Neys, we were treated to some awesome lake storms with five foot and more waves – the power of nature right out our front windshield.
Next stop was the Wawa RV Park, in Wawa, of course. En route, we stopped in White River, where the legend of Winnie the Pooh started. For those of you unfamiliar with how Winnie got his start, here is the Reader’s Digest condensed version. A Canadian Army veterinarian purchased the young bear cub from a trapper when the vet stopped at the local railway station in White River. Named Winnie after his home town of Winnipeg, the cub became the mascot of the vet’s regiment, accompanying them overseas. When he received orders to report to the front line in France, he left Winnie in the care of the London Zoo. Winnie was quite the personable bear, becoming the zoo’s feature attraction. Christopher Milne, son of author A.A. Milne, was particularly captivated by Winnie. Inspired by this, the author wrote the series “Winnie-the-Pooh”. Walt Disney Company purchased the copyrights to the stories in the 1960s and the rest is history.
Our stay in Wawa was only for one night, going out to dinner at a local restaurant to use up all our Canadian dollars. We crossed the border back into the US the next day at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan – again, an easy crossing.
Aune Osborn Campground, a city park with many waterfront sites, was our base for the next several days. While in Sault Ste. Marie, we visited the Tower of History and watched an ore ship being locked through the Soo Locks. The Tower of History rises 210 feet, with a breathtaking view of the city and the Soo Locks. Had we had more time, we would have spent more time in Sault Ste. Marie but there were still lots of places to visit as part of the Circle Tour.
Back on the road early so we could get to Soo Junction and the Toonerville Trolley train depot in time for our 10:30 a.m. excursion. We were booked to take the 6.5 hour train and riverboat tour to Tahquamenon Falls. The first leg of the journey is a 5.5 mile train ride until we arrived at Hunters Mill, then boarded a riverboat for the twenty-one mile cruise down the Tahquamenon River to upper Tahquamenon Falls. The boat docked at the head of half mile of rapids above the falls. We then walked a 3600’ wooded nature trail to view the falls, then began the return boat/train trips. On the boat ride up and back to the falls, we snagged front row seating on the open deck – a little brisk but well worth bundling up for the views. The boat’s captain provided an informative narration about the area, plants, trees, and birds we spotted. Refreshments and rest rooms are available on the boat – it was a fun way to spend an afternoon. We had hoped to spot some black bear while on the train ride but did manage to see a couple of bald eagles and several sandhill cranes.
After an overnight stop at the KOA in nearby Newberry, we then headed up to Grand Marais, (Michigan not Minnesota), staying at Woodland Park, a municipal park. We found the municipal parks in the Upper Peninsula to be reasonably priced, nicely maintained, with spectacular waterfront sites.
While in the Grand Marais area, we visited the Seney National Wildlife Refuge. The Marshland Wildlife Drive is seven miles of leisurely driving looking for wildlife. We spotted trumpeter swans, Canada geese, juvenile eagles, mink, otter, pied-billed grebe, osprey and wood ducks.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore: This area covers thirteen miles of Lake Superior shoreline with the one end of the terrain vastly different from the other. Within the nearly 12,000 acres are sand dunes, cliffs, light stations, waterfalls, beaches, visitor centers, lakes and much more. This is a recreational paradise with camping, hiking, walking, boating, canoeing, sea kayaking and winter activities.
An easy walk of a little over a mile and a half brings you to the Au Sable Light Station, with at least two different stops to view the remnants of shipwrecks at the shoreline. The light station was already closed for the season but we can imagine the views from the top would be spectacular.
One of our stops along the scenic drive through Pictured Rocks was the dune nicknamed the Log (or Devil’s) Slide where loggers would send logs down to the shoreline to be loaded onto boats. One of the lumberjack stories is that a captain on his boat at the bottom of the slide was killed when one of the sliding logs ricocheted out of the chute, killing the captain immediately.
Grand Marais provided easy access to the dunes section of Pictured Rocks while Munising was closer to the cliffs. So we could explore this different area of Pictured Rocks, we moved to another municipal park, the City of Munising Tourist Park, snagging two prime waterfront/view sites.
We highly recommend the Glass Bottom Shipwreck Tour where you can view underwater shipwrecks without getting wet. This two-hour tour covered about ten miles and featured three different shipwrecks: the Bermuda, a 150-foot wooden canal schooner, and the most intact of the shipwrecks, located twenty feet below; the Herman Hettler, at a depth of twenty-five feet, featuring timbers, rudder, anchor, chains, valves and other items; and the Scow Schooner, a 150’ schooner with no available history.
While in Munising, we bought some pasties (pronounced pass-tees) at Muldoon’s – we ended up splitting one because their pasties are huge. Cornish miners brought the pasty to the UP in the early 1850s, with history of this food item going back as far as the 1300s. This is a hearty, hot, handheld one-dish meal for miners who had no time to come above ground for lunch. They have meat either beef or chicken), potatoes, carrots and turnips in them. We’ve even had a pizza pasty – pretty good and very convenient. Before we left the UP, we stocked up on pasties, this time in Escanaba from Dobber’s, which has a large supply of frozen pasties ready to be reheated.
Munising was the last stop of our Lake Superior Circle Tour. If we were to do it over again, we would concentrate more on the US side – so much more to see than we had time for – Copper Harbor, the Keweenaw Peninsula and other small but history-filled towns on Lake Superior. We’ll just have to return in the future.
On to Dave and Mary’s front yard for a few days of decompression time before saying so long to them – we’ll see them again, first in Huntsville as they head south and then in Brunswick, Georgia.
It’s always fun to try new things – we gained new experiences in the apple industry during the week we stayed at friend Linda’s in Bloomingdale, Michigan. Linda and her husband Eugene were our neighbors at Sabal Palms RV Park in Palmdale this year. The four of us hit it off immediately and when we saw that our route from the UP to Indiana would take us near their home, we made plans to stop for a visit. We were welcome to stay as long as we wanted to in their yard but we offered to ‘pay’ for our keep by helping with the apple orchard. Sadly, Eugene passed away suddenly early August but Linda was still looking forward to our visit, so on we came. We quickly got set up in her front yard, got a tour of the apple shed, the orchard and her home.
During our week’s stay there, we learned more about apples than we thought possible, and we now appreciate all the work that is involved to bring that shiny red, green or yellow apple to market. The orchard had originally been planted by her father many years ago. About eight years ago, Eugene and Linda decided to revitalize the orchard and become apple farmers – their second career. They have successfully built up their business with a lot of repeat customers. While we were there, Larry got pretty good at picking apples. He looked spiffy wearing his apple pickin’ bag. Lucille’s time was spent helping to sort, polish, and sell apples. Red delicious, golden delicious, Jonathan, and Cortlands were being picked that week. Every one of the apples sold were hand-polished – lots of work but they sure look pretty when they shine.
We lucked out – this was the first week she’d have cider for sale. Her cider is pretty special and made out of a combination of specific proportions of three different apple varieties. The two of us made the cider run to Grandpa’s Cider Mill in Coloma that week, loading up the truck with twelve bushels of apples, buying another six at the cider mill, then watching as the apples were processed into 65 gallons of cider. While we waited, we just had to have some freshly baked donuts – the apple cider and pumpkin were out of this world. We also sampled some different-flavored cider from the cider bar. What a fun outing that was!
Saturday is market day in nearby Otsego so we helped load the truck the night before. Linda's son Tim and a friend managed the market that day while her other son Gary continued to help pick apples. Both Tim and Gary love to pick apples and were concerned by the time they would get home from their respective jobs, there would be no apples to pick – not a problem – those trees kept producing.
As busy as Linda was with the apple shed, she still found time to make several batches of jams and jellies to sell in the apple shed. She’s also a great cook – we certainly ate well that week.
As much fun as we were having, it was time to leave – we had a warranty appointment to keep at Newmar in Nappanee, Indiana. We had never visited that part of Michigan before and want to return in the future – what beautiful country.
Coming up: Nappanee, Indiana; a whirlwind visit to Connecticut and Massachusetts; Huntsville, Alabama; then on to Brunswick, Georgia through the end of the year.