It's no secret there's buried treasure right here in Minnesota.
It's in every gravel pit, along every railroad track, on every beach. All you have to do is look to find a Lake Superior agate, Minnesota's official state gemstone.
And every July, agates also can be found spread over Moose Lake's main street 400 pounds of them, some even polished, hidden along with 2,000 quarters in 4 tons of rock.
Big, bad Lake Superior.
Its big as in vast, with a surface area equal to Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont and New Hampshire combined.
Its bad as in lethal, able to swallow ore boats or pulverize them against the hard volcanic rock that lines its shore. And its treacherous like an enraged bull, its crushing waves can turn on a dime.
Its funny that some people in the Upper Midwest spend their summer vacations on the beaches of Cancun or Cape Cod, because the best beaches in the world are in their own back yard.
Lake Michigan is Americas freshwater Riviera, a nearly unending strand of sand that looks like Florida without the high-rise condos. Its clean, blue and pleasantly cool, with water temperatures in the 60s, and in most places it looks just like the ocean.
Add in candy-striped lighthouses and even more ice-cream stands, and youve got the makings of a great beach holiday a cheap one, too, if you're on a budget.
Most people don't think of Duluth as a beach town.
It's a little chilly, for one thing. But the port city has six miles of sandy beach along the largest freshwater sandbar in the world.
Just over the Aerial Lift Bridge, Park Point is where Duluthians play. They hike and run on a two-mile trail through forest and dunes. They paddle canoes and kayaks. They hang out on the beach, watching waves in winter and braving them in summer.
Around here, you don't need oceans for a beach vacation.
We have thousands of lakes, plus inland seas on shoreline that often is called the Fourth Coast. Lake Michigan's shores are a veritable Riviera, and even rocky Superior has some noteworthy stretches of sand.
You could throw a dart at the map and come up with a good beach. Or you could take a cue from names of state parks Point Beach and Harrington Beach in Wisconsin, McCarthy Beach in Minnesota, Orchard Beach in Michigan.
To some people, nothing is a finer destination than the dusty gravel pits around Moose Lake in northern Minnesota.
A billion years ago, when fresh lava was cooling around what is today Lake Superior, dissolved minerals flowed into gas bubbles that had formed on top layers.
Other minerals coated the first layers, some red from iron or white from calcium, and over time heat and pressure squeezed them into stone.
One Great Lake east of Superior, theres another North Shore.
It doesnt have any craggy points or sheer palisades, and there are no agates waiting to be found. It has no waterfalls, and not a scrap of basalt; in fact, theres nothing volcanic about it.
But this north shore, on the leeward side of Lake Michigan, has something Minnesota's beautiful North Shore on Lake Superior doesnt have: Sand, lots and lots of sand.
Feel like going for a bike ride, but it's just too hot? Pick a trail with a beach. Anyone who pedals more than a few miles during the dog days deserves a nice, cool dog paddle afterward.
Thats what we got one muggy Saturday on the Lake Wobegon Trail in central Minnesota. From Avon, we rode westward between so many bouquets of purple prairie clover the trail looked landscaped.
This gentle farmland, dotted with lakes, inspired Garrison Keillors fictional Lake Wobegon.
Remember all those summers when you looked longingly at Lake Superior, wishing you could swim in it for more than a minute without going numb? The summer of 2012 wasn't one of them.
Non-stop, beastly hot temperatures mellowed the waters of the big lake, turning it into the world's largest swimming pool.
Water-surface temperatures pushed 75 degrees on the notoriously cold stretch between Duluth and Grand Marais. That's the warmest in a century and 20 degrees higher than normal for mid-summer.
The best time to look for agates is on a sunny day, early in the morning or late in the day, when the rays of the sun are slanting across the rocks.
"Agates reflect the light a lot more than other rocks,'' says John Woerheide of Lutsen, Minn., who uses agates in the jewelry he makes. Woerheide suggests walking into the sun and stooping low.
It's fun to look on North Shore beaches, but they're picked over, so he looks after a heavy rain or storm, when new rocks wash up.