The North Shore and More

Trip Start Aug 21, 2009
Trip End Aug 22, 2009

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Sugar Beach Resort, Tofte Minnesota

Flag of United States  , Minnesota
Saturday, August 22, 2009

"Did you feed the cats?" I ask Julie as we approach the lake for which town of White Bear Lake is named, about 20 miles from home. It's Friday morning, and we're on the way to our cabin near Finlayson, MN for a three day weekend.

“No, I thought you did.”

“Well, I heard you doing something with the food, so I thought you fed them.”

Luckily, we have someone coming in the next day to look after the cats, and a quick call and the promise of a hamburger convinces her to come in an extra day. We won't have to drive back, like we did on our very first trip to the cabin in December, 2006 where I forgot the keys and only realized it halfway there.

When we arrive at the cabin a couple of hours later, we are greeted by a doe and her fawn, still young enough to have spots, sauntering up the driveway. Julie stops the car, and the doe turns to look at us, clearly uncertain about what to do. She peers through the windshield, twitches her ears, takes a step away, then stops. More ear twitching, and a quick scratch, hind leg to ear, and then she decides we are not-a-good-thing. She trots up the driveway to the nearest deer trail, her baby right behind. Within seconds they are hidden in the alder hell.

As always, we start our visit with a tour of the trees we’ve planted over the last couple of years. All seem to be thriving, or at least surviving, except for some that Valinda (our friend and third co-owner of the cabin) got by mail order. Trees by mail order just doesn’t seem right to me, somehow. Of the dozen tiny pines she got last year, all died except one, and it looks like we’ll have about the same success rate with this year’s lot. Some of the other trees she ordered are doing better, however. 

Next, Julie gets to work ripping thistle from the ground. I don’t like getting pricked by their thorny leaves, but Julie hates thistle with a passion. She’s trying to pull up every single thistle plant on the property, which will take, I estimate, about 107 years. My nemesis is the reed canary grass. It’s totally invasive, gradually turning the soil into mats of roots so that nothing else can grow. We have a lot of it already, and it’s spreading into the native grasses. Thistle competes with the reed canary grass on our “back 40” (more like three acres), so I think it should be left alone there. To humor me, Julie limits the thistle eradication program in that part of the property to the areas near our paths, but I can tell she really wants to kill them all.

Soon I’m ready for an adventure, so I suggest we kayak. I go in first and head upstream to the lake. Between the river and the lake is a concrete barrier which we call the dam. Today the river is very high, so there’s only a few inches difference between it and the lake. Usually we portage the kayaks if we want to go on the lake, but I decide I’m going to try to go over the dam. Paddling as hard as I can, I charge the oncoming current and then I’m up and over with a grinding thump. Well, sort of. I discover I’m stuck on top of the dam. I paddle and poke and wiggle and do everything I can think of to get loose, and nothing is working. I fear I’m going to have to wait for Julie to rescue me, but that’s just too humiliating to contemplate, so I use the paddle like a pole and push with all my strength until I pop free.

Wow. It feels great to have done something so risqué, ignoring all the worst case scenarios that tried to scare me out of the attempt and just doing it. I’m proud and I want to show off to Julie. I turn the kayak around to wait for her, but she doesn’t show. I wait some more, and she still doesn’t appear. I consider taking my adventure to the next level and kayaking out into the lake proper, but that seems a little too much. So I point the prow at the dam, and slide back into the river. Julie, it turns out, is just around the next bend.

“Where have you been?” she demands.

“I went over the dam both ways!” I announce.

“Well, I was looking for you the way you usually go, downstream.” I can tell she’s annoyed. “It’s totally choked with water lilies. You can’t go anywhere. So I turned around and came up here. Wait, you went over it both ways?”

“Yeah, the water’s really high, come on, try it.”

Julie paddles up to the dam and looks it over. She’s not sure she can make it. I can tell she really wants to do it because she has a competitive streak, but for a change she’s the one being cautious. So I demonstrate, making sure I get even more momentum going over so I’m not as stuck as the first time. Now Julie has to do it, and she does. With more panache, of course.

Then we kayak around the lake. We see a bunch of fisher folk: loons, an osprey, a bald eagle, a kingfisher, and an old guy and his granddaughter fishing off a pontoon boat. We get about halfway down one side of the lake and then cross it to come back. The water on this side of the lake is much choppier and waves are actually splashing into the kayak. It’s exciting, but a small choppy lake is nothing compared to kayaking the San Juan Straits in 14 knots of wind and I have no worries. (1) But I am pretty worn out afterwards and go to bed early.

The next day we plan on going to Minnesota’s “North Shore,” which is the north shore of Lake Superior (I’m only telling you that because I had no idea what it meant when I first moved here). It’s one of Julie’s favorite places. I’ve brought my bicycle and really want to ride some trails up there. I find info on the Gitchi Gami trail (not to be confused with the Gitche Gumee trail), a paved, non-motorized trail that sounds perfect except that it isn’t done yet. Ultimately, it will be over 80 miles long, but right now it’s several disconnected segments of just a few miles each. I want to ride the longest segment, nine miles or so between Split Rock River and Beaver Bay, but Julie wants to show me the Temperance River. The trail segment there is only three miles long, which is like nothing, but Julie assures me that the river is amazing, so I cave. The things we do for love and all that.

It takes about three hours to get to the trailhead, and I think that driving six hours in one day does not sound like a lot of fun. “Maybe we could find someplace to stay up there….” I suggest. Julie thinks about it for a quarter of a second and agrees. It's summer and there might not be anything available, but we pack our toothbrushes, just in case.

On the way, there’s a point where you can take the expressway from Duluth to Two Harbors, or you can take the scenic route. Julie pulls onto the scenic route before I can protest. Aargh. It’s bad enough to have to drive three hours, but then to add another ten minutes to the ride? It seems unbearable. Then, a huge RV pulls in front of us and we go even slower. It doesn’t bother Julie, though. She’s thrilled to be on the North Shore. I’ve only been there once before, in the winter. (2) Looking at it now, in the summer, it strikes me that the trees are all pretty small, reminiscent of the taiga we saw in Manitoba. (3)

As we approach our destination, a wayside rest in Schroeder, we start paying attention to the various hotels along the way. They all have No Vacancy signs. That doesn't bode well for the overnight option. 

We almost miss the rest stop, but after two wrong turns we successfully park. The Gitchi Gami trail website (4) had said the trail started here, but we see no evidence of it. In fact, between the rest stop and the direction of the trail is a raging river crashing down red brown boulders to Lake Superior. The only way across is the highway.

A gentleman at the Schroeder Historical Society tells us how to get to the trail, which is just a couple of “blocks” east of the river. I think his use of the term “blocks” is odd since Schroeder, as far as I can tell, consists of the Historical Society, a post office, and a sandwich shop, all lined up on one side of highway 61. Come to think of it, it seems too small to have a Historical Society. But we don’t argue the point, we just saddle up, cross the river on the sidewalk (I don’t know about you, but I don’t like biking on highways), and find the trail a little ways on.

We bike about a mile when we come to a footbridge over another raging river. I stop in amazement. The water is crushed between the walls of a gorge forced to run faster and faster down to Lake Superior, roaring in protest, slamming into rocks and spitting foam. The water is red, as if tinged with blood. Then it disappears, swirling, down a hole in the rocks. I’m mesmerized.

“That’s the Temperance River,” says Julie. I can see why she loves it so much.

There’s more biking to be done, and we start off again. There are some long hills on the trail, and I’m huffing and puffing happily. Love those endorphins! Then the trail crosses the highway and just disappears. There's a road, but no trail. No sign. Nothing. But right there in front of us is the Sugar Beach Resort, and they just happen to have a vacancy. Figuring we have nothing to lose, we go into the office. The resort consists of cabins, all owned by different people and managed by the “resort.” I'm expecting it to cost $150 or so. The available cabin is $66/night. Yes, $66/night on the North Shore. It’s a no brainer. We take it. (We later discover this is by far the cheapest one they have. The next cheapest are $99/night). The manager calls it the “Christmas Tree” and when we get there we can see why. It’s painted tomato red and pine green and is very small. But it is spotlessly clean, with wood paneling and a little kitchen. It’s perfect.

We ride back to the car and decide to get some lunch at the Schroeder Baking Company. I order a cheese sandwich for $5.50, and Julie gets a Caesar Salad Wrap for $5.95. My sandwich consists of a single thin slice of cheddar cheese, topped with lettuce, tomato, and way too much mustard, and dwarfed by the supposedly sourdough hoagie roll which has a mealy consistency. I throw away 90% of the sandwich. Julie’s wrap is nothing but lettuce and tomato slathered with Caesar dressing. “For that much money, they should have chicken in here!” she laments. At least the cookie is good, I think, but Julie says hers is only mediocre.

Still hungry, we drive to our new digs and drop off the bikes. Then we drive the two miles to Temperance State Park for some hiking.

This is nothing like Banning State Park (5), which was very quiet. There are tons of people here, and many of them are wearing bathing suits and carrying towels. This surprises me since the river looks dangerous. It is dangerous, having claimed the lives of seven people in the last fourteen years, three of whom were trying to rescue children under their care who’d been caught by the current and swept away. In fact, one guy died just last month while swimming. They didn’t find his body for eighteen hours. (Yuk. Don't even try to picture it).

Given this, imagine my surprise when we see teenaged boys jumping twenty, thirty feet from the cliffs into the pool formed by the river as it comes out of that hole I mentioned earlier. The pool itself is relatively quiet, but within a short distance, the current picks up again and the water throws itself over another cliff (last year a teen got caught in that current and her camp counselor dove in to rescue her, but the river claimed both of them). A couple of young men see the teens jumping and, well, they have to do it too! I thought I was brave for running my kayak over a six inch bump. Though this jumping thing isn’t really bravery. More like testosterone poisoning. Ten years ago a teen died doing the same thing.

So, how do I describe this river? The sheer volume of water. The noise. The terrible beauty of it. Well, I can’t. But I took some pictures. Those might help a little bit. Except for all the people, it reminded me of images I’ve seen of Alaska. Did I mention that there were a lot of people?

Julie and I walk for maybe three hours total. Some of that isn’t walking, it’s Julie waiting while I take shots of the water from different angles. The trail starts going uphill, until you can’t even see the river anymore except as a bright glint through the trees. At one point we take an unauthorized side trail down the steep hill back to the water. There are people down there. A lot of them. So we head back up and walk the main trail some more. We see another side trail down and take that. People are there, too, though not as many. Julie finds a path, clearly rarely used, along the water’s edge and we walk that for awhile. We see no one on this trail, though there is a family on some rocks across the river. Eventually the path becomes so faint we decide to turn around and head back. We don’t want another adventure like we had in Banning. This is far more remote and dangerous. 

For dinner, we drive into Lutsen and eat at the Lutsen Resort Village. There is a wedding reception going on, and what I remember most about it is one teenager with extremely unfortunate hair. The front is short, and the back has been piled up to look like cat ears. It is flat in the back, as if her head were square. Her posture radiates defiant embarrassment. I don't have the guts to ask to take her picture. The food is okay, but not spectacular, but the Riesling is very nice.

The Christmas tree cabin is still warm, but a chill is creeping into the air. We brought toothbrushes, but not pajamas or a change of clothes. Between not wanting to further soil our underwear, which has to do a second day of duty, and not wanting to wear our filthy socks and sweaty tee shirts for one more moment, we have little choice but to sleep nude. When we wake in the morning the cabin is freezing cold. It has a heater, but I practically catch pneumonia turning it on.

While Julie sleeps on, I head to the Coho Café for coffee, about a mile down Highway 61. This café is associated with the Bluefin Bay resort. We’d looked at its restaurant the night before and it felt too snooty for my tastes. Unfortunately, even the café has an air of superiority about it and I decide to just get my coffee to go. It isn’t even very good. I drink it in Tofte Park, looking out over the vastness of Lake Superior.

Since it is Sunday and we have to drive all the way home to Minneapolis, we don’t spend any more time lollygagging about. We notice on the drive back how many birch trees are dead and dying. Their tops have snapped off so cleanly that it looks like someone's been at them with a saw. Some are bent over as if their wood has been replaced by rubber. It is a weird and ominous sight. (6) We stop at Gooseberry Falls, another pretty and popular park, even more popular than Temperance River, but we don't stay long because I’m anxious to get home. Not because the park isn’t beautiful, or fun, or exciting, but I’ve had enough adventure for one weekend and I’m ready to curl up in my own (warm) bed with the cats and a good book.

So, until the next adventure....

(1) See my TravelPod blog about our trip to Seattle and the Olympic Peninsula.
(2) See
(3) See my TravelPod blog about our trip to Churchill, Manitoba to see the Polar Bears.
(4) The Gitchi Gami trail website:
(5) See my TravelPod blog about being lost in Banning State Park
(6) Why the birches are dying:
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starlagurl on

Great writing
I was transfixed, definitely some of the best prose on TravelPod that I've seen lately. Thanks for sharing it with us.

Louise Brown
TravelPod Community Manager

P.S. You guys sound like the cutest couple ever!

J on

The reason so many trees looked snapped off and are dying is because of an epic and devastating ice storm on the North Shore in March 2009. Damage was so severe, FEMA gave money for assistance in clearing downed trees.

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