Fording the Missippi River

We had beautiful weather in Minnesota yesterday – sunny and warm but not too hot. We figured that is all we needed to ford The Great River. First, we walked two miles to get to a good crossing point. Then, we had to avoid the rushing torrent of toddlers.  It took great focus, strength and determination to keep from getting our feet wet as we crossed The Missippi River at the headwaters just as it leaves Lake Itasca.

Alan made the journey first.


Following closely in his footsteps, I then crossed the Great River with only a pause to chat with a 2-year old in my path.


The Great Missippi River was a beautiful stream with a pebbly bottom – no mud, no dams, no barges but there was a boardwalk so you could enjoy it.


We spent the rest of the day recovering  walking the rest of the hilly bike trail and ended up with just a little shy of 12 miles for the day. I’m feeling those hills today. Everyone on the bike trail were super friendly! Minnesota has definitely been a great place to visit.

We did stop at Preachers Grove to see the stand of old growth pine.


If they had been cut down, this is how they would have been hauled – The Logging Sled:


We leave Itasca State Park today for Pipestone National Monument. We’ve got to travel 250 miles today so time to get on the road!

A Walk to Canada

Since we had the extra time in International Falls, we decided to walk to Canada. It was only about 2 miles from our little campground and there was a Mr. Sub on the other side for lunch. We just walked across the bridge and through customs. They were all set up to handle pedestrians.  

See the little stake in the rock – that’s the border. 


There was a nice river walk on the Canadian side and we climbed a rickety old watch tower to check out the view. The stairs were steep, narrow and open so it was a little freaky! The view was nice, though. 


Supposedly, they only stopped moving logs down this river by tugboat in the 70’s. I suspect the view wasn’t great then and you definitely wouldn’t have any real fishing with a tournament.

We arrived at Itasca State Park yesterday. It is really nice – friendly people, clean campsites and a lot of kids just having a good time. We took a little walk on the bike path down to Peace Pipe Overlook.

It wasn’t even crazy buggy so we walked back part of the way on one of the trails along the lake.

Next up: Our journey that started in St. Louis and took us up The Great River Road from Missouri, through Illinois, Iowa, a little of Wisconsin (I think), and mostly Minnesota comes to an end at the Headwaters of the Missippi River.

Voyageurs National Park

You really need a boat to enjoy this Park! You also really need a camera with a big lense to get any good photos! 

We took the NPS boat tour to Kettle Falls and were rewarded with a lot of eagles and a few loons. It was a nice trip in a comfortable boat with a Park Ranger to help you understand what you were seeing. Unfortunately, my photos don’t do it justice at all. This was the first time in a long time that I wished I had brought our real camera (and I found out later that Alan did pack it and it was sitting in the truck. Bummer.)

Can you find the eagle?

How about the loon chick?

Our destination for lunch was the Kettle Falls Hotel.

It was in very bad shape when the Park Service took it over from the original owners. They fixed the foundations but reconstructed the bar with it’s very sloped floors for historic authenticity.

There was one very hardworking waitress working the whole place! We got served fine but by the time we left this porch was crammed with people waiting to eat. There isn’t any other place to go if you are tired of fishing. They will fry up your own fresh caught Walleye. I’m thinking I should of had fish instead of a club sandwich to get the best experience.

We did see a few of the other homes and resorts that were in the Park before it was a National Park. Here is an old ice house the owners built from lumber that had sunk in their bay. This whole area was heavily timbered in the past. There was so many logs coming through the area that they dammed Kettle Falls to allow for easier passage. The dam is still in place today. The Kettle Falls Hotel was originally constructed to house the workers who were building the dam.

On the way back to the Kabetogama Visitor Center, we saw one more eagle’s nest. This one was interesting because we had seen photos of a climber in the tree grabbing a baby eagle for banding! The Park Service estimates that there are about 50 active nests in Voyageurs National Park. This is an amazing recovery for an endangered species.

Next stop: We have no idea! We’ve already spent a lot of time in North and South Dakota so we are thinking that we will stay here a few more days to get through the weekend and then head South. First to Itasca State Park to see the headwaters of the Missippi River and then turn towards Badlands National Park. We drove through there already but it might be nice to stay and explore a little while.

We couldn’t leave International Falls, MN without a picture of the big Smokey Bear with his cubs.

ANOTHER DAY IN VOYAGEURS

Once we started planning our next stop, it worked out that we would stick around here through the weekend. We want to finish our tour of the Mississippi River with a visit to Itasca State Park and see the headwaters. They were booked through the weekend so despite the hassle of having to move campsites, we are going to stay in International Falls until Sunday. That meant we had another day to go hike around Voyageurs, check out the other two visitor centers and maybe find some blueberries.

The Kabetogama Lake Overlook Trail at the Ash River Visitor Center was excellent. Beautiful views of the lake and plenty of blueberries.

We also took the short hike out to Sullivan Bay. It was early evening and the boats were all heading in for the night. Beautiful view from a rock outcropping.

Last stop was Beaver Pond. We should have made this our first since it had the best blueberries (but no beavers.)

Our first hike had been at The Rainy Lake Visitor Center – the Oberholtzer Trail. There were a few raspberries but the views weren’t nearly as nice as our later excursions. We watched a pair of loons for a while hoping to hear them call to each other but they were too busy diving for dinner.

We went to dinner at Almost Lindy’s Swill and Grill for a second night. The pierogi pizza was excellent. We passed this guy on the way:


Next stop: Itasca State Park

Soudan Mine

We detoured on our way to Voyageurs National Park to see the Soudan Underground Mine. The campground at the adjacent Vermillion Lake State Park wasn’t open yet so we camped at the nearby Bear Head Lake State Park. We learned that it isn’t always a great idea to go without hookups – the sites are not necessarily designed to get a 25′ trailer backed in. No damage but it was a tight squeeze. 

This is a very deep iron mine that was considered the Cadillac of mines when it was operating. The area was mined as early as 1884 in an open pit. The operation was totally underground by 1892. It closed in 1962 and was donated to the state by US Steel.

I will admit that the ride down the shaft was a little freaky. You are going down at a slight angle for a half-mile, traveling at around 10 mph (which seemed very fast in a rickety car.) They are still using the original machinery to winch you up and down.


Once at the bottom, we rode close to a mile to get to the last area that was actively mined. We’ve toured a lot of mines but I think this was the first one where they break the iron loose from overhead (called the back) and then push it though a hole in the floor before shoveling it up and hauling it back to the same shaft we used.

The ore gets hauled to the Crusher House and then dumped into rail cars that takes it to the loading docks (like the ones we have seen in Duluth and Two Harbors) on Lake Superior and into a freight hauler like the William A. Irvin. 

There had been a physics lab operated by the University of Minnesota constructed at the bottom of the mine for research but it is no longer in use. There aren’t any stairs in an iron mine but we did find these in the Crusher House. 

Next stop: Voyageurs National Park

Grand Portage National Monument

We had an extra day in Grand Portage, MN. I planned on sewing for most of the day but before that we made the short drive to Grand Portage National Monument. This is a reproduction of one of the largest and busiest Forts during the fur trade. We saw a lot of similar Forts when we were in Canada but still enjoyed this visit. The “living history” was excellent and the movie was by far one of the best we’ve experienced at a National Park or National Monument.

The birch bark canoe was key to the fur trade – sturdy but lightweight so you could carry it where there was no navigable water. 

One of the obstacles included the Pigeon River Falls. One of the interpreters suggested we visit the falls and we did the next morning (despite that it meant driving in the wrong direction for six miles but it really shouldn’t matter considering we’ve already driven more than 3,000 miles and not gotten very far across the country!)

The volunteers and rangers at the National Monument were all very enthusiastic and knowledgeable.

This National Monument is jointly operated with the local tribe, the Ojibwa, and is on the Reservation. It all works well since the Fort and fur trade were very important to the Ojibwa people for a long time until the Fort operations were moved north after the border between the US and Britain was set at the Pigeon River.

We continued South along the Lake Superior shoreline and made a brief stop at Grand Marais. It was a lovely little village where we planned on lunch at the Subway but it turns out that it was closed on Sunday! Yes, closed! We had to eat lunch in the trailer of the Subway parking lot. 

Next stop: Soudan Mine

Isle Royale National Park

I had pretty much given up on the possibility that we would get to Isle Royale National Park. It is one of the 59 National Parks that just didn’t seem accessible for us.  It is a long boat ride from Michigan and we couldn’t get the trailer out there to stay overnight! Well, it turns out it is very doable from Minnesota. We had less than a 2 hour boat ride each way and got to spend about 4 hours on the Island. 

You can’t see much of the Island in that amount of time but we did opt to take a 6-1/2 mile round trip hike on Minong Ridge that left us on the trail all alone. (There are a few other shorter hikes and most of the day visitors chose those.) We got to a beautiful vista where you could see Pie Island and Canada in the distance. 

Our wildlife viewing was limited to a lot of moose prints and the work of some very ambitious beavers.

On the boat ride out to the Island we stopped at a very old cedar tree that the Ojibwa consider sacred – The Witch Tree.

The coolest part of the boat ride was definitely the SS Americana – a steamship that sunk in the early part of the century.  We were just floating on the water and the next thing you know it appears out of nowhere!

On the way back to Minnesota, we went by the Rock of Ages Lighthouse. It is still in operation today.

It has been brought up to date with modern equipment and no longer uses the original Fresnel Lense so that is now at the Windigo Visitor Center. The Lighthouse had been manned year round but now it runs on solar doesn’t need a Keeper. 

We had remarkably good weather for the day but this was how it looked on the back of the boat going home.

No stairs to wrap up with today – instead a highly stylized and edited photo of the Lighthouse and a cool bridge. It would have been nice to have a few more wooden “bridges” with all the mud we sloshed through on Isle Royale but I’m not complaining. 


Next up: Grand Portage National Monument

Gooseberry Falls and Split Rock Lighthouse

These are both iconic stops along the Northshore Scenic Byway and the number of tourists out in the rain and wind to see them told you this even if you hadn’t read it in a travel brochure.

Before we hit the road to cover the remaining 120 miles to Grand Portage, we made a stop at the Railroad Museum in Two Harbors. It was a nice stop with a lot of historic items about the community. We didn’t stick around to watch the two hours of movies, though!

First stop on the Scenic Byway was a Scenic Overlook just behind where they built a tunnel in the 90’s because the road was a little too treacherous and difficult to maintain. The view was magnificent even in the wind and rain.

The weather wasn’t getting any better but we stopped at Gooseberry Falls anyway. It was just a short walk to see the first three falls and the interesting bridge that spans the river. We headed to Upper Falls first.

You could walk up the path a little further and cross over the water on the bridge or under it. This just meant that I had photos of the falls from different vantage points and couldn’t decide which I liked better so you get to experience both.

From below you could turn around and see the bridge. 

The next two falls were also beautiful.

We got to enjoy them with a hundred of our closest friends. It is actually amazing that I got any pictures without other people in them.


Next stop was the Split Rock Lighthouse (INSERT WIKILINK). We took a short guided tour and it was excellent. (Shout out to Brandi!) 


They let you climb the tower to see the Fresnel Lense in action.


All the machinery from 1914 was still functioning and beautifully crafted. 


This stop was also crowded despite the brutal weather but we were rewarded for walking down to the beach where very few others ventured to go. This is supposedly the most photographed lighthouse in the world and you can see why. (I took a lot of pictures and couldn’t decide which I liked best.) The Lighthouse Keepers have been encouraging visitors to stop since the 1930’s when the Scenic Byway was completed.


We also got to see a little wildlife along the way back to the top.

If the weather had been nicer, we probably would have stopped at the other State Parks and done some hiking but instead we only made one more stop at a picnic area for a quick break. By now, it was really storming and the Lake had ocean waves.

 

Since I’ve disclosed my stair obsession, I might as well just keep sharing the photos. (The stairs down were actually better made out of rock but it was too cold to go back for a photo. )

We kept driving (with one quilt shop stop) figuring we would spend our extra day in Grand Portage going to Thunder Bay, Canada but after we got here it turns out we probably didn’t need an extra day because Grand Portage ONLY has the casino. We will make a quick stop at Grand Portage National Monument but it looks like I may have gotten an unscheduled sew day.

Next Up: Isle Royale National Park

Driving the North Shore of Lake Superior

We got on the road for the 157 miles between Duluth and Grand Portage and managed to drive 39 miles on Tuesday!

First, we stopped at Enger Tower before we even left Duluth. It was one of the few attractions we hadn’t already visited. There was a beautiful 360 degree view from the top.

I have a strange obsession with stairs.

We made a few more stops along the shoreline to enjoy the scenery.

Alan couldn’t resist stopping for the big chicken. I found out later he had taken this picture while I was in the gift shop. The owner says they got the chicken off a flatbed truck traveling through town 25+ years ago. Apparently, the truck was delivering a dinosaur and a bear up the road and just had this chicken to sell. Really.

There was a Subway in Two Harbors and we already had a “long” day so we stopped for lunch and decided to stay and camp at Burlington Bay. We didn’t want to overdo it or anything and we had spent an hour in the truck!

Once we got in camp, we headed out for a walk to the lighthouse on Agate Bay. Iron ore has been the foundation of this town since 1884 and there was a humongous ore loading dock. You can just see a large white pickup truck sitting on the top of the middle dock. 

The lighthouse on Agate Bay was still operating but we were able to walk up (and down) the stairs. Do you want to stay here? They turned the lighthouse keepers house into a Bread and Breakfast.

We also visited the 3M (Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company) museum which was founded here in Two Harbors. It was a small place but learning all about the 3M innovations was really interesting. We still have the rail depot to visit tomorrow before we hit the road.

Next up: More driving up the North Coast of Lake Superior

Duluth

We weren’t really planning on coming to Duluth but it has turned out to be a great city to visit. We got in early and headed out for dinner – a Wild Rice Burger and a Poutine Burger at Fitger’s. Both were terrific! I started eating the Wild Rice Burger before remembering to take a picture but it really just looked like a regular beef burger (and tasted like one.) We couldn’t decide whether the regular fries or the sweet potatoe fries were better.

 

The next day was beautiful and we headed out for a walk on the Lakewalk. This may just yet be our favorite waterside walk of all time – clean and scenic with plenty of restrooms and interesting places to stop.  


Some of the walk was right along I35 but they did a great job keeping you from realizing it.


We toured the US Steel Company flagship from the 60’s and 70’s – the S.S. William A. Irvin. We’ve been on other ships but this was our first bulk freight carrier and it was fitted with beautiful rooms for dignitaries.  


We got stopped for a while by the Minnesota Slip Bridge. You could walk around the little harbor (or slip) but it was more fun to watch the bridge go up and down so the boats could pass.


We also walked over the Aerial Lift Bridge which was very cool to watch, too.


We walked out to the lighthouse on the other side, just because but were disappointed to find NO interpretive signs.


The view from the other side of the Aerial Lift Bridge:

It was a hot, long day but I’m not sure we even burned off half of the calories from our dinner the night before!

Next up:  More Duluth

Savannah Portage

As I write this, we are in Duluth, MN. We weren’t planning on coming this way but were having difficulties with the itinerary – mostly internet difficulties. As in, there was none.

We were camping at a lovely, remote campground in Savannah Portage State Park. I really hate to support any stereotype about Minnesota but this place was buggy – really buggy! Alan got swarmed in seconds as we stopped to put water in the trailer. I got totally bitten up just getting to the trailer door.

We weren’t going to let that stop us from enjoying some hiking in the woods and we had our mosquito nets, yes, real mosquito nets. Don’t leave your Airstream without them. We picked these up at Ax-Man Surplus Store. Alan wants to move to the Twin Cities just to be able to shop at this place!


The hike was quiet but very hot (and you guessed it, buggy!) It was pretty boggy and swampy so you really couldn’t expect much else. I at least came home without more bites due to a liberal coating of the strongest bug spray available and all exposed skin except my hands covered. You needed both since the mosquitos would bite through your clothes. The real bummer about the bugs is that we didn’t bother to venture out again and we missed the Continental Divide Trail and the Savannah Portage (an important route for Native Americans and early explorers to get from Lake Superior to The Mississippi River more than 200 years ago.)

There were several lakes in the Park that were gorgeous. Lake Shumway in the photo below was right behind the campground and turned out to be less buggy than expected. We took a drive across the Park to Loon Lake for a bit of swimming and that was fantastic – no bugs, clear water, fresh breeze, and a sandy bottom. You couldn’t ask for a better spot.


So, back to the story … this campground had no cell service except at Loon Lake. We were trying to plan our trip to Voyageurs National Park sitting in the truck but it was going slow. I was using an actual paper map and realized that we really weren’t far from Isle Royale National Park. The Park is technically in Michigan so we hadn’t been considering getting to see it but it is actually closer to Minnesota. New plan:  head to Duluth, drive up the coast of Lake Superior, visit Isle Royale then turn west towards Voyageurs National Park.

The new plan has worked out great so far! Duluth has been beautiful and we have our boat tours and most camping booked for both Isle Royale National Park and Voyageurs National Park. That is pretty much the only way to see both of the these Parks. Isle Royale is an island in the middle of Lake Superior and Voyageurs is mostly water. Not our typical kind of destination but they are supposedly both beautiful and I would hate to miss two of the 59 National Parks when we are this close.

Next up: Duluth