On the Wilderness Threshold ~ Isle Royale National Park

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Grand Portage RV Park

The final stop on our North Shore adventure was Grand Portage Lodge and Casino (and RV Park), seven miles south of the Canadian border.  This quiet little campground, carpeted in golden wildflowers, was our gateway to a wilderness archipelago, Isle Royale National Park.  The forecast was for cloudy skies and chance of rain when we headed out across Lake Superior for the 1.5 hour boat ride to the park.  Thankfully the waters were calm.

Isle Royale National Park, the largest island in the largest Great Lake and the least visited national park (only 17,000 annual visitors), comprises the island we visitors see and another 400 smaller islands, some submerged.  This wilderness archipelago covers just shy of 900 square miles, with only 200 miles of this being above ground, a full 80% of this park exists below the frigid waters of Lake Superior…pretty interesting. ;)

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There are two visitors centers on the island and for day-trippers like ourselves, versus backpackers or those with more sophisticated tastes who stay at the lodge, Windigo Visitor Center at the west end of the island is the drop-off point.  With only four hours on the island, we opted for a short hike to give us a feel for the backcountry.

As we walked along the rocky trail, through forests of maple, birch, and fir, on this cool cloudy day, listening to the frigid Minnesota_140725-6191waters of Lake Superior lap the shore, I visualized rounding the bend to find an imposing bull moose munching on a balsam fir.  The rangers believe there are about 1000 on the island and one was not too much to wish for, was it?  Unfortunately our paths did not cross, which was not surprising, given that we lived in Yellowstone National Park for two years and I never saw one in the park until we took a trip to the Grand Tetons.

In the bone-chilling winter of 1948-49 an ice bridge formed between Canada and Isle Royale and a small pack of Eastern timber wolves crossed over.  Today only nine exist on the island, the numbers down from an average of 20-25 due to disease and inbreeding.  Trophic cascade, a term we learned years ago in Yellowstone, is reflected here in the relationship between wolf and moose.  But with the wolf population at an all-time low, the moose population is much larger than is healthy for the island.  The result is devastation of the balsam firs, a tasty moose treat.  The conundrum for the park is whether to intercede and introduce another lineage of wolf to bring down the number of moose or not interfere with the rhythm of the island.  It will be interesting to see what unfolds.

The best way to see this wild island, imho, is backpacking.  With only 4 hours to visit, there is not much to be done besides explore the small visitor center, get your passport stamped and take in a short hike.

On our trip back the rains came and the fog rolled in, just as we approached a lone sentinel emerging through the mist.

Rock of Ages Lighthouse emerges through the mist.

Rock of Ages Lighthouse emerges through the mist.

Rock of Ages Lighthouse, one of the most remote on the continent, sitting two miles off the south end of Isle Royale, was built in 1908.  It would seem that even a sea-hardened sailor could be brought to his knees in despair over the assignment to care for this station, given the acute isolation.  Manned until 1977 and automated in 1985, the original 2nd-order Fresnel lens now sits in the Windigo Visitor Center.

One final sight I wanted to see before we left the North Shore was the High Falls on the Pigeon River, Minnesota’s highest waterfall at 120 feet.  Located in the Grand Portage State Park, one-half mile walk from the visitor center, she did not disappoint, but then few waterfalls ever do for me if there is water flowing over them. :)

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Grand Portage has a rich history dating back to the 1700’s in what was the beginning of the international fur trade.  For those interested in learning more about “The Great Carrying Place”, you can read about it here.  We did visit the Grand Portage National Monument and found the background most educational.

North Shore Rugged ~ A Taste of Minnesota

Known as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes, Minnesota’s name originates from the Dakota Sioux Indian word for “clear water” or “sky-tinted water”.  We came to tour the North Shore, to bask in the vastness of Lake Superior and hike some of the beautiful trails we had read about along this stretch of Minnesota.  In our woefully limited time we saw a few of her flowing rivers and lakes and found the name given by the natives well-suited.

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Lake Superior, sometimes smooth as glass, sometimes raging in a Nor’easter, has stunning rugged cliffs tumbling to pebble beaches laden with agates and driftwood and is the main attraction along Scenic Hwy. 61, which runs the length of the North Shore. With plans to hike and to check another national park off our list we found ourselves traversing this scenic roadway daily.  If you are not a hiker there is still so much to do here that you could arrive mid-summer and stay through the fall colors and never want for interesting activities.

The only downside to this stretch of road is the lack of big-rig friendly campgrounds. We settled for three days at Knife River Campground which had a handful of sites to accommodate us.  It was none too exciting but we spent little time there and Randy, who manages the park, provided wonderful tips for restaurants.   We found some of the best sugar-cured smoked trout and salmon at Russ Kendall’s Smokehouse, such melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness that we just had to go back a second time to take some on the road with us.

If hiking through dense forests of fir, cypress, and birch, along rushing river gorges sounds heavenly, this slice of Minnesota is for you.   Many of the hiking trails find you walking sections of the Superior Hiking Trail, 296 miles of ridgeline overlooking Lake Superior from Duluth to the Canadian border.

A few fun facts about Lake Superior:

  • biggest of the Great Lakes at 350 miles long by 160 miles wide
  • contains 10% of the world’s fresh water
  • average depth of 439 feet with its deepest at 1333 feet
  • average water temp of 42º F
  • largest recorded wave height of 31 feet
  • over 350 shipwrecks with more than 1000 lost

There are so many quaint little towns along this scenic drive, with great little restaurants, breathtaking views of Lake Superior, roaring waterfalls, cascading rivers, lovely lighthouses, so very much to delight your senses.  If you have only three days to visit the North Shore like us, stop into the Superior Hiking Trail Association store in the little town of Two Harbors for trail maps if you are looking to experience some off-road excitement.  The staff recommended the 5-mile Split Rock River Loop Trail and 7-mile Bean and Bear Lakes Loop Trail and we enjoyed both.

Split Rock River Loop Trail views:

Bean and Bear Lakes Loop Trail views:

The most visited spot on the North Shore is the Split Rock Lighthouse, majestically sitting on a 130-foot cliff at Lake Superior’s edge, near the town of Beaver Bay.  Put into service after 29 ships were damaged during the infamous storm of November 1905, this light station was in use until 1969.  What was once a beacon of safety for passing ships is now an icon for visitors to the North Shore.  Watch for the “Thousand Footers” (ore boats) coming into the harbor near Beaver Bay.  The crowds were so deep when we arrived at the Visitor’s Center that we opted to enjoy this beauty from the overlook on Hwy. 61 instead.

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Final destination for our Minnesota coastal tour is Grand Portage, gateway to Isle Royale National Park, six miles shy of the Canadian border.  Stay tuned for my next post on this roadless land of wild creatures and unspoiled forests.

A Well-Worn Passport

This well-worn passport is not the little 3 x 5 booklet used for international travel, but rather the “Passport to your National Parks”, what I call the ultimate adult sticker book. If you have ever watched a child, head bent over a new book filled with colorful stickers, mesmerized until the last little figure has found its rightful home, this is similar to what we feel when flipping through the National Parks Passport book.

I coveted this book, given our love of national parks, but not the small version.  No, I had to have the deluxe Explorer Edition, complete with space for cancellation stamps and stickers for national parks, monuments, memorials, battlefields, seashores, lakeshores, etc., etc.   What began as my fancy has become Terry’s infatuation, and as he slowly turns the pages, like a slow-moving kaleidoscope I watch the memories drift by.

Yellowstone National Park ~ WY/MT

Yellowstone National Park ~ WY/MT

Everglades National Park ~ FL

Everglades National Park ~ FL

Yosemite National Park ~ CA

Yosemite National Park ~ CA

If nature is not your thing, this book and the many sites listed within may not excite you. But if hiking a mountain trail on a crisp autumn day, walking through a golden meadow kissed by late afternoon summer sun, or standing on a bluff looking out over an azure sea finds you contemplating a higher being, you might enjoy the Passport book and the memories it can capture.

Flipping through the pages recollections of watching a sunset from atop a mountain, aglow with the sun’s fire, striking fall colors cascading down a mountain ravine, elk, bison, and bear grazing in the backcountry, the crash of a wave reverberating off a cliff face as it races to shore, all dance before me.

Nature is where the common thread that connects us all can be found.  It is the perfect place to just be, in the moment, eyes and flesh melting into earth and sky, where every cell of our being moves to Mother Nature’s rhythm.

When John Muir, one of the earliest advocates of the National Park Service, walked through the Sierras, he understood this better than most.  His support was the catalyst for the signing of the act creating the National Park Service in 1916.  Today there are 59 National Parks in the U.S. and over 100 nations now preserve over 1200 national parks for future generations to enjoy.

“The sun shines not on us but in us. The rivers flow not past, but through us. Thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing. The trees wave and the flowers bloom in our bodies as well as our souls, and every bird song, wind song, and tremendous storm song of the rocks in the heart of the mountains is our song, our very own, and sings our love.” ― John Muir

Although our passport was born of the desire to see all 59 of these parks, we have found many gems beyond the obvious – monuments, memorials, battlefields. They have taken us back through time, reintroduced us to our nation’s history.

Each time we visit another site and place another stamp in our treasured book I find myself contemplating who may have touched this same earth so long ago.  Were they too in awe of the beauty that lay before them…wild coastline, snow-capped mountains, rivers snaking through towering cliffs?  Hopefully generations to come will stand on these same grounds in wonderment, with a deep reverence for all these sacred places.

P.S.  If you have not had the opportunity to visit our national parks and would like to experience them through the eyes of a professional photographer, I urge you to visit Rick Braveheart’s blog here.  While on this journey referred to as his Earth Walk, he conveys the majestic of this place we call home and his images reflect the deep reverence he holds for lands set aside as national parks.

Wildflowers, Dunes, Turquoise Waters, and a Sleeping Bear…Shhh!

Long ago, in the land now known as Wisconsin, a mother bear and her two cubs were driven into Lake Michigan by a raging forest fire. After miles of swimming, the two cubs began to lag behind.  When mother bear reached shore she climbed onto a tall bluff to await her two babes but the weary cubs never appeared, having drowned in the lake. Mother bear fell asleep waiting for their safe arrival. Impressed by her faith and determination the Great Spirit created two islands, North and South Manitou, to honor the cubs, and the winds buried the sleeping bear under the dunes, where she waits to this day.    ~  Chippewa legend of the “sleeping bear”

Powerful earth-moving forces of ice, wind, and water, most occurring during the Ice Age, swept glaciers down from Canada, creating the diverse tapestry known today as Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. This 35-mile stretch of land along Lake Michigan, in the Leelanau Peninsula (the “little finger” in the Michigan mitten), is dotted with “perched dunes”, formed by glacial sands deposited on plateaus high above the shore.

Where shipping and commerce fueled this region in the 1800’s, today tourism has stepped in, and there is much to tantalize vacationers year-round, given the pleasant summer climate and 80” of snowfall each year. A dramatic National Lakeshore tops the list, but not to be overlooked are miles of sandy beaches to explore, wind-swept bluffs rising 450’ above Lake Michigan, lush forests to hike in the summer and cross-country ski in winter, crystalline inland lakes to canoe and kayak, miles and miles of paved trails to bike, picturesque lakeshore villages to enchant – the list goes on and on. It’s no wonder Good Morning America named Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore the “most beautiful place in America” in 2011.

Indigo Bluffs Motorcoach Resort and RV Park is where we chose to stay and although the RV Park was a bit crowded, it still had a peaceful feel to it. Those who travel in a Class A  can get a bit more pampering next door at the Motorcoach Resort.

With so much to offer in the area, our first stop was the Philip A Hart Visitor Center, where we grabbed some hiking maps, watched a short film, and peppered the rangers with questions about area activities.

Here are a few highlights of our week:

1/  Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail

A 10-mile bike trail (each way) that continues to grow, with plans to extend it another 17 miles.  This beautifully paved trail currently connects the village of Empire to the artsy town of Glen Arbor.  Parking is available off-road near the trailhead or you can leave your vehicle 2 miles away at the visitor center, which we did.  Stop to explore historic Glen Haven along the way and take the one-mile dune hike to Sleeping Bear Overlook, for some great views of Lake Michigan.  The Heritage Trail is groomed in the winter for those cross-country ski enthusiasts.

2/  Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive

Named after a local lumberman who helped to build this road, this 7.5 mile drive takes you through beech-maple forests and some spectacular lookouts, the most popular being Lake Michigan Overlook, where an observation tower sits 450′ above the lake level.  Many hopefuls come here to experience a special sunset or tackle the steep dunes.  We were among them but Mother Nature did not cooperate during our stay.

3/ Dune Climb/Dune Trail

I had to join the throngs and do the Dune Climb, a very steep climb through loose dune sand that will leave you a bit breathless, as will the run back down.  The Dune Trail can be taken from the crest of the Climb, the most strenuous hike in the park, 3.5 miles through loose, shifting dunes.

4/  Alligator Hill Trail

No alligators to be found here but 8 miles of beech-maple forests through rolling hills and views of Lake Michigan and the Manitou Islands make up for the lack of reptiles.

5/  Port Oneida Historic Farm Tour

Although NPS is in the process of preserving this area dotted with turn of the century farms, it still makes for a picturesque bike ride down lazy country roads, while you inhale the sweet fragrance of hay and wildflowers strewn across the meadows.

6/  Traverse City

This pristine city on the shore of Lake Michigan is the largest producer of tart cherries in the country and the annual Cherry Festival was in full-swing when we arrived.  We did manage to sneak in and score some grass-fed Michigan jerky (yum) and avoid the carnival scene.  Traverse City also offers four bike trails, kayak launches, several vineyards in the surrounding countryside, seasonal farm stands, and a wide assortment of brew pubs.  We stopped by the North Peak Brewing Company for a sampler…very tasty!

We find ourselves back in northern Michigan again almost three years since we began this roving lifestyle, having watched the fall colors change our last time through.  I had forgotten how striking the landscape – carpets of wildflowers, undulating sand dunes, crystalline turquoise waters, and air so fresh it is intoxicating.

 

From Full House to Empty Nest

We enjoyed picture-perfect weather during our recent visit to family in Indiana, just what was needed after the winter they endured.  They were the kind of days where you just wanted to sit on the porch with a cold drink in hand, enjoy quiet family time while listening to the birds warbling their greetings.  Adding to the enjoyment was my discovery of the family of barn swallows who had taken up residence near the porch roofline. I took delight in watching their antics, as a burgeoning full house soon looked to become an empty nest.  Unfortunately when dad selected the nest site, which he is prone to do, he forgot someone might be interested in capturing images of feedings and first flight so his choice lacked proper lighting, most likely his intent.  This did not deter me from snapping a few shots anyway. Four little babes, an average number for this brood, watch warily as they wait for mom or dad to return with a tasty snack.  Momma takes the greater responsibility for incubating the eggs, which averages 14-19 days, with another 18-23 days needed for the babes to fledge.   Both parents provide equal support for feeding and keeping the nest clean. As I watched four little wide-open mouths, momma swooped in.  Time for dinner! Hanging onto the nest mom fed her young, all the while keeping an eye on me.  I tried to stay as far away as my camera would allow.

And then there were two!  And these two were in no hurry to leave their little abode, now that they could spread their wings a bit.  Time and again as mom and dad swept past, no amount of prodding convinced them to leave this comfy little cup.  After several hours of standing on the ledge testing their new wings, they took to the air.

Empty little cup nest, most likely built by momma – mud pellets lined with grass and feathers.

We thought we had seen the last of them but near dusk all four babes reappeared in the nest.  After doing my homework I learned that the parents lead the fledglings back to the nest at night and continue feedings for a week after the maiden flight.

Whether you are part of a full house or an empty-nester, hope you are having a relaxing summer. :)