by Chris Larsen
Minnesota's North Shore stretches roughly 150 miles from Duluth to Grand Portage. Along the Highway 61 drive, you will see magnificent views of the world's largest inland lake, evidence of an immense mining operation, and dozens, maybe hundreds, of little shops selling everything from Lake Superior Agate to miniature versions of Native American birch bark canoes.
Duluth was a French voyageur who trapped and traded for a living during the late 1600s. Many of the town names along the North Shore Highway are Scandinavian in origin, no doubt a tribute to the first fisherman to settle in the area. Tofte & Lutsen are lakeside hamlets with a tradition of embracing their fishing heritage. Yes, this is an outdoorsman's paradise. But the North Shore is no amusement park for weekend warriors. This is rugged country and as Gordon Lightfoot states in his infamous ballad, The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald, “the waves turn minutes to hours”. The big lake has a year round average temperature of 40 degrees. It is clear, cold, and has no patience for those who don't respect her power.
Violent waves constantly crash the shoreline, assaulting the rough volcanic rock that formed the area millions of years ago. In contrast to the grey rock and ice blue waters, thousands of acres of forest dot the landscape with a palette of greens. In autumn, the green explodes into a decadent combination of orange, yellow, and hyper red. The forest's birch, aspen, and maple trees never transform in unison. This leaves leaf forecasters befuddled and visitors in constant search of "peak" colors. It's like looking for a perfect snowflake. What you see in front of you may be beautiful, but just around the corner or over the next hill could be red & gold leaf nirvana.
Billions of leaves all in an ever changing dance of colors is truly a sight to behold. But the year round beauty of North Shore waterfalls is unmatched. Highway 61 hugs the Lake Superior shoreline as passing drivers witness the final moments of water living as a stream before it becomes engulfed in the vastness of Lake Superior. Wild rivers flow from mountain valleys until they reach the great lake. At this meeting place, salmon and trout begin their ritual up the rivers to spawn. For trout, it's a trip many will make again. For salmon, it's a one time journey. Some will perish in the rivers they spawn in. Others will escape back into Lake Superior before succumbing to inevitable death. For anglers and observers, it is an opportunity to witness both the beginning of a life cycle and the harshness of mortality.
Some visitors never travel much further than a few hundred yards off the highway on the North Shore's vast system of hiking trails. You could walk for weeks without seeing the same thing twice. Those willing to venture off Highway 61 and into the mountains are rewarded with even more. Lake Superior breezes don't protect this area from early autumn frost. The aforementioned colors arrive early to these parts. Streams tend to meander through valleys instead of crashing over ancient lava formations. Brook trout inhabit the waters up here. Their lake dwelling counterparts are unable to encroach upon the brookie's territory due to those spectacular waterfalls. Forest swamps are home to whitetail deer and mammoth moose. Most inland lakes share the big lake's water quality characteristics. Limits on shoreline development protect these gin clear waters and the fishing is nothing short of spectacular.
Black bears and grey wolves also inhabit this wilderness at the foot of the Gunflint Trail. But the flush of a ruffed grouse is more likely to startle you. The understated bird of the Northwoods is just off it's population peak. With fewer hunters pursuing them in this area compared to Wisconsin and Michigan, Minnesota's North Shore may be the place to satisfy your passion for grouse.
Visitors to the area often bring their rods & guns. But for most, it's just a camera and an appreciation for the wildest lands in the Upper Midwest. You can travel to the Rockies or Canada and find yourself further from civilization. However, Minnesota's North Shore is a tank of gas away from nearly every city or town in Wisconsin and Minnesota. It's less than a day's travel from just about anywhere in the Midwest. As Ferris Bueller famously said, "I highly recommend it."