Boat watching in Duluth
In this Lake Superior port town, tourists hang on the latest shipping news.
© Torsten Muller
Tourists watch as the 730-foot Middletown, first launched as a U.S. Navy tanker in 1942, arrives for a load of iron ore.
When the ore boats start arriving in Duluth, the tourists soon follow.
Fifty years ago, ships were part of the industrial landscape on Canal Park, and no one thought they were all that romantic.
But things have changed. Today, these hulking big boats are to Duluth what killer whales are to Sea World. Because, boy, do they make people come running.
The first time I went boat-watching in Duluth, I hit the jackpot. As I drove up to Canal Park at 4:40 p.m. one day in June, the bells began to ring, and the Aerial Lift Bridge began to rise.
A few minutes later, the Adam Cornelius from Ohio pushed through the canal, making its dark waters heave like a fat man on a waterbed.At the dot of 5, the rust-colored hull of the Kinsman Enterprise approached, and at 5:30, the Federal Vibeke out of Oslo, Norway, departed, followed closely by a dozen yachts and sailboats.
After that, I was hooked.
Duluth doesn't have the levels of boat traffic it once had, though it's by far the largest port on the Great Lakes. But the boats that do come are much bigger, and watching them is addictive.
I'm standing next to the Marine Museum on a warm day in late August as the bell on the 1930 Aerial Lift Bridge starts to
clang, raising an expectant tingle along my spine.
From the parking lots of hotels, people start running toward the canal as the bridge's steel deck rises. Cars zoom up and families jump out.
The 1,000-foot Water J. McCarthy is approaching, on its way to pick up 600 rail cars of coal from Montana. Raptly, we all watch as its broad bow eases into the narrow canal and looms above us. Scanning the decks, I return waves from the crew, only a few yards away.
"Geez, that baby is huge,'' mutters a man next to me, as it passes.
A cluster of German tourists are talking among themselves; listening hard, I hear mostly numbers —siebenhundertsiebzehn, dreihundertvierzehn— big
numbers that describe the girth of this workhorse, one of 13 thousand-footers on the Great Lakes.
© Torsten Muller
The Middletown leaves Duluth. In World II, she survived a hit by a Japanese bomber, and in 1986, a methane-gas explosion while carrying coal. She's now called the American Victory.
As it slides into the harbor, the captain leans on the horn for a series of throaty bellows that, guides explain grandly, is the traditional salute to the bridge tender — though, when pressed, they admit it's really for the tourists.
They are legion; the logbook in the Marine Museum is filled with names of the regulars, people who view the boats' comings and goings with the attentiveness usually reserved for the running of the horses, except these are called Cornelius and Barker and Tregurtha.
I never tire of watching these boats arrive, whether they're the sleek corporate lakers or scruffier salties like the Antalina and Lok Prakash, ships from Cyprus and India that, this day, are anchored out in the lake, saving docking fees while they wait their turns to load up on grain.
I felt the same way about the Greyhound buses that lumbered off Interstate 80 and into my Iowa hometown. I'd strain to see what the fuzzy white letters on their brow said — New York, or San Francisco — then watch wistfully as they drove on, leaving me stranded deep within the continent.
But for catching a whiff of far-off places, Duluth beats that hands down. It sits at the end of the 2,342-mile passage from
the Atlantic Ocean, sailed by ships from Norway and Poland and Malta on their way to fetch the grains of the Midwest.
They pass Montreal, and Niagara Falls, and the Soo Locks — and finally they see this little city sprawling down a hillside, at the tip of the farthest finger of Lake Superior.
Even here, sailors were not safe from the lake with the hair-trigger temper; one of the most famous Lake Superior wrecks was
the Mataafa, pushed against Duluth's pier by a giant wave in November 1905.
It's not a cakewalk even today; also in the museum, a miniature of the Edmund Fitzgerald lies broken in the sand on the floor of a glass case.
And among the models of schooners and freighters, there's one of the 1907 Chester A. Congdon, named for the Duluth millionaire whose mansion now is a tourist attraction. In 1918, the ship picked up a load of wheat in Thunder Bay, then ran aground near Isle Royale, becoming Lake Superior's first million-dollar shipwreck.
Misfortune hasn't hurt Duluth one bit; to tourists, feeding the gulls and eating ice cream on a warm summer day, it makes the city irresistibly romantic.
© Torsten Muller
A freighter steams into Duluth harbor late in the season.
Still, Duluth was slow to realize what a natural asset it had lying at its feet. It wasn't until 1986 that it began to clear
away the warehouses and debris along the lakefront.
In 1992, the first new hotel opened, and in 1994, the first three miles of the Lakewalk was finished.
Today, horse-drawn carriages and in-line skaters sail by warehouses that now contain galleries, shops, restaurants and
As the path curves northward, it passes the renovated 1857 Fitger's brewery, now housing an inn, shops, a nightclub and restaurants. Farther on, there are rose gardens and parks.
On a summer day, Duluth is the place to be. Yet its workaday past dogs it, and some people still ask, "What's in Duluth?''
I could say shopping or scenery, and sometimes I do. But what I mostly say is boats, because that's what draws me like a magnet.
"There's a hard core of people who are just entranced with shipping,'' says Kenneth Newhams, who publishes the Duluth Shipping News, a tip sheet for the faithful. "Those boats are immense. It's something you can't turn away from if you see it.''
Trip Tips: Boat watching in Duluth
© Beth Gauper
A kayaking class practices off Park Point as an ore boat approaches Duluth.
The free Lake Superior Marine Museum gives daily programs and pier history walks in
It's also fun to watch ore boats arriving at the Superior Entry, at the tip of Wisconsin Point. For more, see Dunes of Duluth.
Harbor cruises: From the Duluth dock, across the slip bridge from Canal Park, the Vista Fleet gives 1½-hour narrated cruises from early May through October. Many other cruises are offered from the Barker's Island dock in Superior.
Planning a visit: For sightseeing, festivals, hotels and restaurants, see Duluth 101.
Boat nerds may want to splurge on a corner suite at the South Pier Inn, which have views of the harbor as well as the canal.
Duluth with children: For more on the attractions of Canal Park and the lakefront, see Duluth rocks!
Walking and hiking: One of Duluth's best hikes is the four-mile round-trip on the Park Point Trail, which starts from the airport and ends at the Superior Entry.
For more, see Dunes of Duluth.
Planning a trip: For more, see our Duluth stories.
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