The skies were leaden and forbidding as Lake Superior slid into view and we descended into Duluth. The wind mauled our hair as we stood alongside the harbor canal, waving to the crew of the Sea Pearl II as it pushed toward Malta with a load of grain.
Driving up the shore, we listened to taped stories of shipwrecks: The sidewheeler Lotta Bernard, pummeled into pieces off Gooseberry Falls on Oct. 29, 1874.
The steamer Edenborn, hurled into the mouth of Split Rock River and broken in two on Nov. 28, 1905. The Lafayette, pulverized against a cliff near Encampment Island on the same day.
An autumn Saturday dawns, sunny and mild. Its a perfect day for hiking but where?
This time of year, you could walk down the street and see something nice.
But if you're looking for the kind of hike that makes you marvel at nature and feel glad to be alive, you'll probably have to look a little farther afield.
It took me nearly 20 years of hiking on the North Shore to tackle Eagle Mountain.
Its the highest point in Minnesota, but its not exactly on the shore; its 14 miles inland, as the crow flies. I was used to tramping along the rocky river gorges whose horehound-tinted waters rivers boil furiously down to Lake Superior; I was used to drama.
But the 3½-mile hike up 2,301-foot Eagle Mountain was just as dramatic. The path, a root-choked corridor through cedars and spruce, soon enters the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
When the last glacier melted out of Wisconsin, it left a gift to future generations.
It wasn't much at first boulders, heaps of gravel, water, chunks of ice trapped under rubble.
But over time, the ice seeped away and created kettle lakes for fishermen. The raging meltwater stripped away softer rock, leaving walls of volcanic rock for climbers and scenic river gorges for canoeists.
In nature, bogs are the coral reefs of the north woods.
They're wet, spongy and seething with life that's often too small to see unless you look closely. Lean over the boardwalk, and you'll get a better view of sparkly goldthread or the lacy needles of baby tamarack.
But looks can be deceiving in a bog. Flowers that seem delicate are relentless predators, attracting flies to patterned red leaves that resemble engorged arteries, then drowning and digesting them.
In the woods, the first ticks appear along with warmer weather, usually by late April.
Regular ticks are bad enough, scuttling into hidden niches on the human body and gorging themselves on blood. But their ick factor pales next to the danger posed by black-legged ticks, which can transmit Lyme disease.
Black-legged ticks, also known as deer ticks, need to be attached to the skin for 24 to 36 hours to transmit the disease. Even then, its easily treatable if caught promptly.
What's so great about hiking in spring? That's easy there's so much to see.
Move your feet in any direction and you'll run across wildflowers, waterfalls and, best of all, sweeping views that last only until the trees leaf out.
Head out before summer makes its brash appearance, with walls of greenery and fleets of bugs.
Like many places, Starved Rock State Park has a name whose origin is lost in the mists of time.
Supposedly, the Potawatomi and Ottawa trapped a band of Illini on a 125-foot butte along the Illinois River. However, anyone whos actually climbed up Starved Rock and millions of tourists have can see that no one could defend it long enough to starve.
Its like Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, says Kathy Higdon of the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center across the river. Its a legend, like the Lovers Leaps we've got all over the place.
On the northwest corner of Lake Superior, a 1,000-foot-high sleeping giant stretches across the horizon.
Its mesmerized onlookers for millennia. In 2007, Canadian Broadcasting Corp. listeners voted it No. 1 of Seven Wonders of Canada, far outpolling Niagara Falls.
From Hillcrest Park in Thunder Bay, it looks exactly like a cigar-store Indian, with a square jaw and arms folded over a powerful chest.
A few steps into the forest, and it hit.
The tang of cedar bark and pine needles, moistened by droplets of mist from waterfalls. The loamy richness of earth carpeted by ferns.
It was that north-woods perfume all Minnesotans instantly recognize, a powerful eau de outdoors that gladdened my heart and also made it sink with the realization that I'd stayed in the city far, far too long.
In Wisconsin, a bunch of rocks sets hearts aflutter.
They enchant geologists, of course, but also scuba divers, rock climbers and botanists. The rest of us, too hikers, birders, campers, Boy Scouts.
We all go to give Devil's Lake its due.
When you're a tourist, you don't always want to get "off the beaten path.''
We visited Portland for the first time one Labor Day, and all we knew is that it's an outdoorsy town. So we were looking for a nice hike in Forest Park, one of the nation's largest municipal forests with 80 miles of hiking trails.
Wow! Except we only needed four or five of those miles. Surely, we thought, there's a "best hike'' that all the locals know about. Nope our guidebook, maps and the local hikers forum were useless.
To many people, it's still a revelation that Duluth is one of the best places to hike, not just in Minnesota but in the nation.
It's a city of 86,000, after all. But this hillside town, once called the San Francisco of the North, has spectacular terrain for trails, along glacial beach terraces high above Lake Superior and on creeks that tumble down rocky ravines.
Many hikers blow through Duluth on their way to sections of the Superior Hiking Trail farther up the North Shore. But the 43 miles that cross Duluth provide the most concentrated scenery on the entire trail, lake views and waterfalls included.
The expedition began on a beautiful fall morning. I got in the car, drove a few miles over the Wisconsin border and followed country roads to a gate, where a gravel lane led to a farmhouse.
I parked, walked up an oak-lined path and, just like that, was atop the highest point in Illinois.
Charles Mound, at 1,235 feet above sea level, was a nice place to be. Near the U.S. Geological Survey benchmark, its thoughtful owners had placed two lawn chairs, facing a golden, hazy countryside dotted with silos.
Even if it werent official, Timms Hill would be the high point of any Wisconsin hiking trip.
Timms Hill, a big pile of rock and gravel deposited by the last glacier, is Wisconsins highest point at 1,952 feet above sea level. I went hiking there expecting, well, a big pile with a nice view.
Which it was. It also turned out to be in the middle of an intriguing pocket of forest, settled by Swedes, Finns and Germans stubborn enough to handle the rocks sprinkled over the hills like salt on a pretzel.
To a novice, Minnesota's Superior Hiking Trail presents a bewilderment of possibilities.
There are 310 miles of trail between Jay Cooke State Park near Duluth and the Canadian border. Some are in the city, some deep in forest. Many stretches include spectacular views of Lake Superior, but others (gasp!) are a little boring.
People come from all over the nation to hike this beloved trail, and some take three or four weeks and do the whole thing. But there are many ways to hike the trail.
In Minnesota canoe country, hikers get serious bragging rights by backpacking the Border Route Trail.
This 65-mile trail roughly parallels the Ontario border, mostly through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The volunteers who maintain it can't use mechanized tools there, and signs aren't allowed.
Navigation isn't easy, and hikers frequently have to dodge blown-down trees.
Along Michigan's Pictured Rocks, there's no such thing as a bad view.
White sandstone cliffs line nearly 40 miles of national lakeshore, the nation's first when it was created in 1966. Named for the colorful swishes and whorls painted by mineral-laden water oozing through cracks, Pictured Rocks draws tourists from around the world.
This part of Michigan is inconveniently distant for tourists from big cities; Detroit is closer to Charleston, W.V., than Munising.
When it rains on Isle Royale, you just have to soak it up.
Moisture comes with the territory in Lake Superior's northern reaches. No one comes here for the weather, despite early advertising that called it a "Summertime 'Bermuda' Paradise."
Bermuda it's not. But paradise? It depends on how you look at it.
Going hiking on the Superior Hiking Trail? You'll want to pack sturdy boots, thick socks, water bottles, maps and rain gear.
Oh, and don't forget the bikes.
There's a bicycle trail on the North Shore, a nice flat one. It's the paved Gitchi-Gami State Trail, with a 14-mile stretch that links Gooseberry Falls to Split Rock State Park and Beaver Bay and a 10½-mile stretch that links Schroeder to Temperance River State Park, Tofte and Lutsen.
In April, birds return to the woods.
They're easy to hear, but not to see. Unlike spring wildflowers, birds don't stay put.
A flash of yellow likely is a warbler, but which kind chestnut-sided, Blackburnian, magnolia, Wilson's? And those tweets, twitters and trills who's making them?
The first two weeks of summer 2011 were deadly in the north woods.
Near Marquette, a 62-year-old Michigan man died after his ATV became stuck in the mud, though his wife repeatedly sought help on the county road just a mile away.
In the Apostle Islands, a 19-year-old Minnesota man, paddling with friends, died after his kayak capsized. In the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a 23-year-old Wisconsin man died after he left his family's campsite to fish.
When it comes to hiking, we all like to be on top.
There's nothing like a great view, especially in fall. Climbing until we're eye level with birds and caressed by breezes, watching the land roll away into the horizon, we feel as if we're on top of the world.
Even military officers and scientists turn into poets when faced with a beautiful view, such as those at Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in the Upper Peninsula.
If youve ever walked in Wisconsin, chances are youve walked on the edge of a glacier.
The ice is gone, but not the rubble it pushed across the landscape, or the rock its melting waters carved. As the last glacier retreated, it left a path that geologists can follow as easily as yellow lines on a highway.
That path now is the 1,100-mile Ice Age National Scenic Trail, with 620 miles marked, usually by yellow rectangles tacked to trees. Its easy to follow in the forest, but many of the most spectacular spots are right along highways.
If ever there was a game for our times, it's geocaching.
Why worry about the lost billions on Wall Street when there's treasure everywhere, under fallen logs, in the crooks of trees, on the girders of bridges? Why think about the future when you can be out in the woods channeling Long John Silver, Indiana Jones and the Hardy Boys?
Anyone who enjoyed childhood will like this modern-day party game, enabled by a Tom Swiftian gadget that flashes numbers beamed out of the sky.
Out in the forest, solitude can be overrated.
Occasionally, we all need silence. But you may have more fun if you play follow the leader.
When I go on a hike, especially if I don't know the area well, I like to tag along with naturalists. Thanks to them, I've learned all kinds of interesting things.