It was a warm, sunny fall day in the heart of Minnesota. The woods were aglow with color, and there were many ways to wallow in it on trails for hiking, paved paths for biking, lakes for boating.
But something was missing. Where were all the people?
Apparently, they were on the North Shore, fighting for space amid crowds that arrive as reliably as spawning salmon.
On Duluth's Hawk Ridge, a bird in the hand is worth at least two in the sky.
They're impressive when spotted overhead. But up close, it's easier to get to know a bird say, the northern goshawk, a fierce predator whose image once adorned the helmet of Attila the Hun.
As she held a young goshawk by the legs, naturalist Willow Maser struggled to make herself heard above its high-pitched screeches.
On the first Sunday in August, hundreds of people clog the only street of the Restaurant Capital of the World.
Tiny Dorset claimed that title because its restaurants outnumber its houses. Still, the eateries in this lakes-country oasis will be hard-pressed to make enough quesadillas and snowball sundaes for everyone who wants one at Taste of Dorset.
During the festival, the town raffles off its mayor job (maybe that's where Rod Blagojevich got the idea). One year, I spent $1 and voted for myself, but a kindergartner from Chicago won. Hmmm.
To hear resort owners in the north woods tell it, Brainerd is the Times Square of Minnesota.
"It's crazy down there," they say, shaking their heads. "It's a zoo. We don't want to be like Brainerd."
In Wisconsin, people talk the same way about Door County. Those places are busy, all right. They're busy because plenty of people like that kind of atmosphere the restaurants, the golf, the shopping, the fancy condo resorts.
In autumn, crowds of leaf-peepers mob Minnesotas North Shore, looking for fabulous fall color.
The last week of September is peak for inland maple forests and in the forests farthest north. The first weekend of October should be peak farther south, and the forests of Duluth stay golden through the second weekend of October.
Here's where to look for the finest fall color by foot or by car.
In one 19-mile stretch of Minnesota's North Shore, Nature presents a one-two-three punch of incomparable beauty.
Just half an hour north of Duluth, Gooseberry Falls State Park presents an eye-popping spectacle of waterfalls, lumpy beds of ancient lava and twisted cedar clinging to rock outcroppings.
Six miles farther, Split Rock Lighthouse sits picturesquely on its cliff, a tourist attraction since 1924, when people could get to it on the newly completed Minnesota 61.
In summer, its not as hard as youd think to take a fun trip that doesn't cost much.
Many of the great travel experiences in Minnesota cant be bought, anyway hiking amid old-growth white pines, paddling through bluff country, listening to loons in the Boundary Waters.
Hikers can find a bunk just off the Superior Hiking Trail near Grand Marais for $29, and a family of six can learn to camp and play in a state park for $60 total. For $85-$90 a person, meals included, they can canoe and walk a ropes course at a lodge outside Lanesboro.
Once, a wind-whipped sand spit was not the most desirable address in Duluth.
Today, people lust after a beach cottage on Park Point, just beyond the Aerial Lift Bridge. But the Ojibwe preferred the calmer estuary of the St. Louis River, which flows into Lake Superior at what today is Duluth-Superior Harbor.
The French explorer Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut, for whom the city was named, didnt waste much time on the lakefront when he arrived in 1679.
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.
The first times I went up to Minnesotas North Shore, I did the same thing everyone else does: See Gooseberry Falls. Take pictures of Split Rock Lighthouse. Hike Oberg Mountain.
Thats North Shore 101.
Like most tourists, I rushed right through Two Harbors, completely missing its lighthouse and ore docks. I spent a lot of time watching boats on Duluths Canal Park but didnt make it up to Skyline Parkway.
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.
Not far west of the Twin Cities, the Mississippi River town of Monticello is known for two things.
Passersby on I-94 can't fail to notice the nuclear-power reactor that marks the town. In winter, it's the power plant that attracts a flock of trumpeter swans, which think the plant's warm discharge waters are a little spa just for them.
Of course, the flock of swans draws a flock of swan-watchers. One January, my husband and I were among them, standing along the shore of the river and marveling at the raucous crowd of hundreds of birds, jostling for food and attention.
In the middle of Minnesota's Wild River State Park, a skis length from 35 miles of groomed trails and a 10-minute trek from the St. Croix River, sits a cozy little house surrounded by forest.
For one winter night, the two-bedroom, carpeted house, a private residence built not long before the park was established in 1978, belonged to me and my children.
We arrived at dusk, and my children swarmed over it as only children can do, giving a running commentary: "Boy, this is a nice cabin, said my son Peter. "Wow, a nice shower. Isnt this great? And oh, look he peered out the window at a big thermometer "you can tell the temperature.
In Minnesotas state parks, the goodies go way beyond hiking trails, picnic sites and fishing piers.
Minnesota parks house their visitors, too, not only in campgrounds but in suites and cabins and lodges and even a few split-level homes. Of course, they're very popular.
But the most popular place of all is the Illgen Falls Cabin in Tettegouche State Park, especially in summer.
Every week, a few dozen people join an exclusive club high above Minnesota's North Shore.
To get there, they lug all their food and gear 1¾ miles up and down a steep hill. They draw their own water and make their own fires. They clean and then lug their garbage over the same hill.
And they consider themselves lucky.
In Bear Head Lake State Park near Ely, there are three places to spend the night: a tent, one of five rustic camper cabins and a modern split-level.
On a subzero day in winter, one is better than the others.
Minnesota's state parks are sprinkled with guesthouses and cabins that can be rented. Some are marvelously atmospheric, such as the log cabins built in Itasca for the tourist trade.
In Minnesota's early days, creating a park was no picnic.
As the public admired the towering pines around Lake Itasca, loggers dreamed of the miles of board feet they could produce.
"No measure was ever more unreasonably harassed and opposed," wrote park founder Jacob Brower. But in 1891, the Legislature gave the people their first state park by one vote.
If you don't have a cabin of your own, Minnesota has one you can borrow.
Some really are cabins, but others are houses, complete with two-car garages, like the one at Bear Head Lake State Park, previously occupied by the park manager.
Some were private houses that have been renovated, like the Illgen Falls Cabin in Tettegouche State Park.
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.
At the top of Minnesota, there's a spectacular national park half water and all scenery.
Not only is it beautiful, but it's also the only national park Minnesota has, which you'd think would impress most people. But not, apparently, some of the locals.
My husband and I found that out two minutes after we'd arrived on Rainy Lake and were chatting with the friendly young woman checking us into our B&B.
In Minnesota, its devilishly hard to find the lake resort thats right for you.
Everyone wants the best resort. But asking the state tourism folks to tell you which one is best is like asking a baker to pick out his best pastry: Theyre all, of course, the best.
You cant ask your friends. They can tell you only which resort they go to, and that one may be too luxurious/too rustic or not kid-friendly/too family-oriented for you.
Along Minnesota's northern border with Canada, more than 200,000 people a year find an increasingly rare commodity absolute wilderness.
The million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is barely changed since voyageurs used its chain of lakes and rivers to push deep into the continent's interior.
Today, the foot trails over which they carried canoes and 180-pound packs are used by vacationers, who wind their way from lake to lake in search of the perfect combination of woods, water and solitude.
They would have preferred gold. But the iron made them rich, too.
In 1865, reports of gold brought a rush of prospectors to the shores of Lake Vermilion. What they found, instead, was red earth.
Those who didn't go home disappointed stayed to develop one of the world's richest deposits of iron ore into an industry that would give rise to dozens of towns, help the nation win two world wars and create a distinctive piece of Minnesota's cultural fabric.
For Minnesota bicyclists, there are two seasons: winter and trail construction.
That's a good thing, because bicycle tourists crave more trails, and towns crave more bicycle tourists.
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.
If you dont know much about Minnesotas North Shore, trip-planning can be confusing.
For one thing, its really the west shore of Lake Superior. People in Ontario dont get confused because they live on the real north shore. Chicagoans do because they call their northern suburbs the North Shore.
This pointy corner of Minnesota also is called the Arrowhead Region. Some people call its roads by their names Sawbill and Caribou and some by their numbers County Road 2 and County Road 4.
In the 1920s, when the first resorts appeared along this remote, 57-mile highway that dead-ends near the Canadian border, guests had to have a certain sense of adventure.
The Gunflint Trail first was blazed by the Ojibwe, then used by fur traders, trappers and loggers. It was still a zigzagging roller-coaster through the woods when vacationers began to come.
The first visitors in spring often had to patch the single phone line, which moose tended to snag and drag. Gasoline lanterns in their cabins often became plugged, and bears sometimes made appearances near cabins.
Thirty years ago, dining on the North Shore was pleasant, if a little utilitarian. A meal often came with a view, but most of the menus had the same fish, steak, chops and burgers you could get anywhere.
Things have changed. One Memorial Day weekend, my husband and I ate at three of my favorite places and two newer ones, one of which definitely was worth a detour. A three-star culinary weekend on the North Shore who knew?
On old Highway 61 between Duluth and Two Harbors, the cheery New Scenic Cafe is a fixture of fine dining. I had my usual, the pistachio-crusted goat-cheese salad, with a starter of sashimi tuna tacos.
A hundred years ago, Grand Marais was a wind-buffeted outpost at the tip of the North Shore, stomping grounds of trappers, loggers and fishermen.
The dirt road connecting the village to Duluth often was impassable, and winter provisions had to be brought in by steamer before Lake Superior iced over.
But amid the hardship, there was always art.
Up north, all of the snow that brought you great skiing just keeps on giving when spring arrives.
That's when it turns into waterfalls, roaring down river gorges and misting awed onlookers.
One of the easiest places to see lots of big waterfalls is along Minnesota's North Shore, where dozens of rivers roar down into Lake Superior. Where there's water, there's a waterfall.
While people in cities to the south are looking for crocuses, folks on northeast Minnesota's Gunflint Trail are enjoying some of the best skiing of the year.
It's not that the Gunflint is so much colder. It's that there's so much snow it keeps itself refrigerated, like glaciers.
"We have a really good base,'' says Heather Telchow of Golden Eagle Lodge. "Even after these warm days, the snow is like brand new. I grew up in Faribault, and I'm used to it disappearing in a few days. But we don't lose snow like that up here. We keep it forever.''
When you live in the frozen north, you may as well embrace winter.
My idea of fun is to cross-country ski, but for that, Mother Nature needs to bring snow. But alpine skiing, which I also like, requires only some big snow guns.
After one wimpy winter, I bought alpine skis. They cost a lot, but I can actually use them, unlike my Nordic skis, all winter long.
Ever since there's been a Minnesota, people have wanted to see its abundant waters.
The first curious tourists came up the Mississippi in the 1820s with the first steamboats, to see St. Anthony Falls and nearby tepees and to dine on buffalo, elk and sturgeon.
By the 1850s, city folk in the East already were pining for the unspoiled wilderness; one of them, Israel Garrard, was on a hunting trip from his home near Cincinnati when he saw a point on Lake Pepin, a widening in the Mississippi, and settled there.
Ever since it was settled, Park Rapids has been a crossroads for tourists.
The trains that hauled out white pine at the turn of the century brought in summer guests, who were met at the depot by resort owners and taken to the lakes in wagons.
When highways were built, Park Rapids became the gateway to Itasca State Park, 20 miles to the north. After the rail line was abandoned, it became the western trailhead of the Heartland State Trail, one of the nation's first paved bicycle trails.
In summer and fall, hikers by the thousands take to the hiking trails on Minnesota's North Shore.
In winter? Not so many. But those who strap on snowshoes to climb river gorges and follow the blue blazes of the Superior Hiking Trail are rewarded by stark beauty.
The brittle winter sun throws everything into high relief: Black lenticel pores seem to pop out on trunks of birch that are a brilliant white against the blue sky.
At the Gunflint Lodge, every new luxury burnishes the legend of the rough-hewn outdoorswoman who made them possible.
Justine Kerfoot was a 22-year-old college student when the stock market crashed in 1929. Her family lost their Illinois home and lake cottage, so she gave up medical school and moved to the family fish camp at the edge of the Boundary Waters.
"We were green people who came in from the outside and didn't know anything about anything,'' she said in a 1997 interview. "I just bulled it through.''
In the north woods, irruptions of owls make birders ecstatic.
When food is scarce in far-north forests, owls fly south to look for it, many along the shores of Lake Superior.
I don't have the patience to watch birds. But when they come right to me . . . who can resist?
During three days at Giants Ridge one January, I kept wondering: Where are all the people?
The sun was shining, the snow was ideal, and most schoolchildren still were on winter break. The handsome Lodge at Giants Ridge was giving discounts on its already low midweek rates, and kids could ski free.
All that, and no lift lines.
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.
Most people know Two Harbors only by its spine, Minnesota 61, where a long gantlet of gas stations and fast-food joints tries to reel in tourists speeding up the North Shore.
Yes, Two Harbors is the last place to get a Big Mac before Canada. But there are better reasons to stop there.
Most tourists never see the massive ore docks, just a stones throw from a picturesque breakwall, boat launch and walking trail. Or the North Shores last working lighthouse, a 1892 brick beacon that glows flame-red in the afternoon sun.
In Ely, one picture is worth a thousand tourists.
Who could ignore the call of its photogenic expanses of sky-blue water and rocky islands amid spruce forest? Who isn't drawn to a shimmering image of the northern lights, or of a moose and calf browsing in a patch of wild calla lilies?
To see Ely is to want to be there, enveloped by tranquility.
When it's not cold or snowy enough in Duluth, the natives start to grumble.
This Minnesota port on Lake Superior loves winter, though it's not for weaklings.
The breezes that earned it the nickname "Air-Conditioned City'' will chill your bones in winter, and if you don't keep moving, you'll wind up as stiff as the bronze sculptures along the lake.
In 1890, Duluth was a treasure chest waiting to be opened.
It sat at the foot of Lake Superior, connected to the steel mills and cities of the East by water. White-pine forests lay to the south and west, and rich veins of iron ore to the north.
It couldnt fail to make money for the men who came to tap its riches, and it didnt.
In northern Minnesota, the logging town of Grand Rapids has produced many legends: prize lumberjacks, such as Gunnysack Pete and Tamarack Joe, but also an adorable little girl who became famous for her ruby slippers.
Loggers came first, and that era is re-created on the edge of town, on the wooded grounds of Forest History Center. On a summer day there, it may feel 80 degrees and sunny, but really it's a freezing day in December 1900.
Miss Minnie the "cookee,'' or cook's assistant, is showing us around the logging camp under the baleful glare of her boss, Miss Rebecca. We walk by a giant rut cutter, used to make grooves in the ice roads for the logging sleighs.
In 1896, a St. Paul man named J.A. Berkey came to Minnesota's Leech Lake, threw out his line and reeled in a whole new industry.
"He set up white tents for some men from Kansas City, who fished their guts out and said, 'Were going back and telling everyone, said Renee Geving, director of the Cass County Museum.
The hook was set. Over the years, Leech Lakes reputation as a fishing hole grew as big as its muskies, which can be huge.
As soon as we turned off the highway into Nisswa, my childrens heads began to swivel.
"Souvenirs . . . Gift Shop . . . Moccasins, read my daughter Madeleine. "And look Candy Store.
"This is a cute town, said my son Peter, noticing the covered sidewalks. "Its like a cowboy town.
Theres only one place in the Midwest where potholes are a tourist attraction instead of a nuisance.
Standing at the bottom of the 35-foot-deep Bake Oven, touching walls as smooth as vinyl, its easy to imagine the scene 10,000 years ago, when sheets of water from a melting glacier roared past Taylors Falls, into what now is the St. Croix River Valley.
They came with such fury that whirlpools laced with sand and gravel drilled cylindrical holes into solid rock potholes, the worlds deepest.
It's winter in Monticello, and the livin' is easy.
For trumpeter swans, the largest water bird in North America, the Mississippi River town is a virtual Club Med, thanks to balmy waters from the nuclear power-generating plant upstream and a daily all-you-can-eat spread of dried corn.
The first swans showed up in the winter of 1986, as the late Sheila Lawrence was feeding the ducks and geese in the yard of her riverside home. They appreciated her hospitality, and every year more came, first by the dozens, then by the hundreds.
Ten thousand years ago, the melting of Minnesotas last glacier transformed a placid beach into a rugged coast.
Its a 150-mile stretch of wild beauty, lined by piles of jagged black basalt, cobblestone beaches and the mouths of dozens of rivers, tumbling down from the old beaches of Glacial Lake Duluth.
Seven state parks follow their winding gorges, marked by rapids and waterfalls, and the Superior Hiking Trail crosses them on its way from Duluth to the Canadian border.
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.
For some people, Interstate 35 may as well be a pneumatic tube linking the Twin Cities to Duluth and the North Shore.
But those willing to stop and get off the beaten track are rewarded.
In four state parks, skiers, snowshoers and snowmobilers glide along miles of trails on the St. Croix, Kettle and St. Louis rivers, once plied by lumberjacks and quarrymen.
In Minnesota, a weekend at an environmental learning center is the best bargain you'll find anywhere.
There's more to do than at any luxury resort: yoga, high-ropes courses, climbing walls, ski trails, nature hikes, canoeing, skiing and snowshoeing on wooded campuses that include lakes and trails.
At Laurentian on the Iron Range, you can mush your own dog team. Near Lanesboro, Eagle Bluff is renowned for gourmet food and wine.
In Bemidji, three faces tell much of the town's story.
Chief Bemidji stands facing the lake the Ojibwe called Bemidgegumaug, or "river flowing crosswise. His real name was Shaynowishkung, and he fed the white people who settled on the lake's shores in 1888.
Their settlement became the first town on the Mississippi, which starts 35 miles away in Itasca State Park, winds north to Bemidji, flows through its lake and heads east before finally turning south.
The Iron Range never has been for anyone who didnt want to sweat.
Ever since iron ore was discovered on the shores of Lake Vermilion, this strip of Minnesota has drawn people who wanted to work.
One of the worlds richest deposits of iron ore lay under the forest, and waves of Finns, Slovenes, Italians, Swedes, Croatians, Poles, Germans and Serbs came to shovel it out.
On lazy summer days, Walker is a classic northwoods Minnesota town.
I've been going to a lake resort near there with my family for years. We ride our bikes into town on the Heartland State Trail, eat ice cream at the Village Square and buy muskmelons and corn on the cob from the stand near the gas station.
The pace is slow, serene unless a Crazy Day Sale falls on a cloudy day, in which case the resorts empty and shoppers crowd into the town of 1,100 like sheep to salt.
Long before reality shows turned survival into a stunt, there was John Beargrease.
With no fanfare and no road, the Ojibwe man delivered the weekly mail between Two Harbors and Grand Marais until 1899, using a dog team in winter. Using only four dogs to pull packs of up to 700 pounds, Beargrease could make the round-trip in a few days.
His stamina spawned a legend. Now mushers from around the nation come to trace his path, racing each other from Duluth to the Gunflint Trail in the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon.
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.
There's one spot along the North Shore at which everyone has to stop.
Its five falls tumble over lumpy floes of ancient lava, filling the air with mist and tumult.
Intriguing crannies, created by jagged walls of rock and twisted cedars, turn adults into compulsive shutterbugs and bring out the Indiana Jones in children, who clamber from one precipice to another.
In winter, the famous Brainerd Lakes freeze over, ice houses replace pontoon boats and skiers and snowmobilers ply the forests.
That makes it a good time to find a deal. We got one and didn't feel too deprived by the lack of snow.
We hiked under bright-blue skies in a frosted forest, crossing bogs and watching for wildlife. And because we had time, we finally discovered something we'd bypassed dozens of times.
On Minnesota's North Shore, winter opens new avenues for explorers.
Miles of hiking trails already follow the gorges of rivers that flow into Lake Superior. But why hike the trails when you can hike on the river itself?
A frozen river takes you straight into the scenery the slot canyons of the Onion, the steep red cliffs of the Devil Track, the waterfalls of the Baptism.
One March, I went up to Duluth but woke up in Siberia.
Twenty inches of snow had fallen overnight. A savage 70 mph wind was howling around the glass-walled lobby of the Willard Munger Inn. Swirling snow had turned the air white.
But then my niece and I noticed cars crawling along Grand Avenue. Then more cars. So we bundled up, got in our car and, to our surprise, made it all the way across town to Lester Park.
There are many good reasons to go off trail, and the chance to see moose definitely is one of them.
When we were at Bear Head Lake near Ely one January, we hiked first along a
lakeside ski trail that was so packed we didn't need snowshoes.
But then the ranger mentioned she'd seen moose tracks in fresh snow near the park entrance, and we decided to go moose-tracking. Strapping on our snowshoes, we plunged from the road into deep woods.
Around Ely, beauty is stripped down to essentials.
There's little but water, stone, spruce and sky in the northern Minnesota wilderness, what conservationist Sigurd Olson called "the naked grandeur." Still, it enthralls visitors from all over the world.
In winter, snow, ice and silence settle over the forests and lakes, and stars plaster the inky night sky. For many, Ely's pull is even stronger then.
When snow is sparse on Minnesota's North Shore and even when it isn't skiers head for the hills.
Over the Sawtooth Mountains and deep into Superior National Forest, the Flathorn-Gegoka trails gather up the snow, arrange it prettily atop boughs and wait for cross-country skiers to come ooh and aah.
The perpetually snow-flocked pines never fail to amaze people who come to stay and ski at the National Forest Lodge.
On Minnesota's North Shore, its a happy day when snow is as abundant as scenery.
Despite its miles of cross-country ski trails, the western shore of Lake Superior gets only modest amounts of lake-effect snow, because the storms that blow in from the east tend to dump it inland, where the land mass is colder.
So if you want to ski, the trick is to head for the hills, ignoring the thinner snow along the highway.
In a blizzard, nothing is better than holing up with an expert cook, a bottomless cookie jar, a steam room, a big hot tub and one of the best ski-trail groomers in the Midwest.
One January, the stars aligned in the heavens and I found myself in the best possible place to be during a blizzard: Maplelag.
This ski resort in northwest Minnesota is renowned for many things all-you-can-eat meals, personable owners, hundreds of stained-glass windows and signs from defunct train depots but its most famous for its ability to conjure a bit of snow into world-class ski tracks when the rest of Minnesota is bare.
In winter, only the most dedicated pilgrims make the trip to Itasca, Minnesota's most revered state park.
Yet the park is beautiful without its forest canopy. It's easy to see its bones, the lumpy quilt of knobs and kettles laid down by retreating glaciers.
It's easy to see the 300-year-old pines that escaped loggers. And it's easier to listen to the sassy chatter of a squirrel, the prehistoric croak of a crow, the rat-a-tat of a woodpecker.
In November 1905, the people of Minnesota saw Lake Superior at its most malevolent.
As dozens of ships left Duluth-Superior Harbor in the calm after a violent storm, an even worse storm hit, with blinding snow and winds of more than 60 mph.
The 4,840-ton steel steamer Mataafa turned back and, just as it was about to slip into the harbor entry, was lifted by a giant wave, upended and smashed into first one concrete pierhead, then the other.
Out in the countryside, fall is a good time to go hunting.
There's so much to scout out autumn colors, new trails, interesting shops. Lots of people head for the river valleys, to orchards on the St. Croix and towns along the Mississippi.
But one October, two girlfriends and I headed north instead. And in an overlooked part of the state, between Brainerd and Mille Lacs, we found a rich vein of fun.
Once, Bemidji was one of the roughest towns in Minnesota. Now, it's one of the coolest.
This is the north-woods logging town that produced the original Paul Bunyan and Babe in 1937, and even today, these figures on Lake Bemidji are rarely without a cluster of tourists at their feet.
Look beyond this iconic but corny duo, as the visitors bureau fervently hopes you do, and you'll find everything else a tourist heart could desire a gorgeous state park, a paved bicycle trail, a professional playhouse, fine restaurants and shops.
In the Upper Midwest, there's nothing better than a week at the lake.
But summer or vacation, anyway doesn't last long. And while there's nothing better than a week, a few days can be almost as good.
My favorite escape is to Ruttger's Birchmont Lodge on Lake Bemidji. Like many of its guests, I first went after dropping off my son at the nearby Concordia Language Villages.
Do you love to see gorgeous photos of your favorite landscapes, especially when you're sitting in an office cubicle?
Facebook makes it easy to see when giant waves are crashing along shorelines, when northern lights appear in the winter sky and when full moons frame lighthouses. Online galleries and blogs offer photography tips as well as images.
One place especially blessed with photographers who share their work is Minnesota's dramatic North Shore of Lake Superior, where world-class scenery stretches from Duluth to the Canadian border.
In summer and fall, festive Canal Park draws the crowds. But when cold winds blow in winter, a brewery suddenly looks much better.
Started in 1882 as Fink's Lake Superior Brewery, Fitger's was a mainstay in Duluth, surviving Prohibition but not industry consolidation. It closed in 1972 and almost was razed, but the sprawling building on the lake reopened in 1984 as a hotel, restaurant and shopping complex.
Now, the complex also boasts a day spa, a nightclub, a brewery, a coffeehouse and shops everything anyone could want for a little getaway, all under one roof.
The corner of Third Avenue and U.S. 2 in Grand Rapids doesnt exactly look like the edge of the wilderness.
The Blandin Co. paper mill is across the highway, its smokestacks sending plumes of white smoke into the air. Trucks rumble past, en route to North Dakota or Duluth.
But this corner is the beginning of the Edge of the Wilderness drive, Minnesotas first National Scenic Byway.
When people have been beating a path to your door for more than 130 years, youre probably doing something right.
Swedish immigrants C.A.A. and Anna Nelson were accidental hosts in 1886, when they began putting up travelers in their new home at the mouth of the Poplar River, chosen because it was C.A.A.s favorite fishing spot.
More people came, and their Lutzen House became Lutsen Resort. Their children and grandchildren added a gabled lodge, ski hill, pool and townhomes. Then came log cabins, luxury condos, a golf course, a gourmet chef and a spa.
It's as wide as seven axhandles and a plug of tobacco, and as smooth as a flapjack griddle.
It unfurls over a landscape dotted with lakes created, according to north-woods legend, by the tracks of a giant lumberjack and his faithful blue ox.
It's the Paul Bunyan State Trail, and it links Minnesota's main Bunyan shrines.
Cruising along western Minnesotas Central Lakes Trail, its tempting to keep a scorecard.
Egret, five. Blue herons, seven. Beavers, three. Turtles, two. Loons, three. Pelicans, 20. Giant concrete coots, one.
Lots of warblers, hurtling over the trail like guided missiles, and warbler-sized dragonflies. Chipmunks racing the bike across blacktop. Patches of wild rose, and fountain grasses waving their pink heads in the breeze.
To a bicyclist setting out on the Lake Wobegon Trail, there are few signs that this is a storied landscape.
Theres a lake surrounded by cattails and frequented by fishermen and canoeists. Theres another lake across the road, where teen-agers flirt and toddlers play in the sand.
Down the trail, a clump of showy lady slippers pops out of the weeds. A great blue heron rises from a slough with languid flaps. A painted turtle scrapes at the dirt next to the trail, making a nest for its eggs.
Half a century ago, a Minnesota logger who lived in a forest full of hungry bears decided that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
By the time he died at age 86, Vince Shute had fed generations of black bears, become best friends with a bear named Brownie and inspired bear-lovers all over the world.
Shute wasn't a sophisticated man, but he had a heart.
Once, passenger trains crisscrossed the state, and lighthouses guided sailors on the Great Lakes.
Trains and lighthouses are beloved relics now, symbols of a simpler past. In the digital age, they seem antique, like Grandpa's buggy or Grandma's butter churn.
But don't relegate them to history's dustbin just yet.
Big Mille Lacs is up north, but it isn't a wilderness lake. It's more like a big pond, its vast surfaces dotted with powerboats, its depths thoroughly probed.
A highway rings its 100 miles of shore, the better for boat access. Its air is laced with the perfume of gasoline, minnows and frying oil; the lake wouldn't be known as the Walleye Factory if it weren't.
But fishermen arrived only
recently. Woodland tribes were the first to thrive on its shores.
In the north woods, it's easy to fall in love with sled dogs.
They're exuberant and adorable but also focused, intense and explosive sort of like kindergartners crossed with Olympic athletes.
For huskies, life is simple: They live to run. Anyone who has watched the start of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon has witnessed the drive of a husky, a four-legged Ferrari that snaps into warp speed at the rustle of a harness.
Exploring the Minnesota landscape on a scenic byway, you'd expect to see some singular features.
But Waters of the Dancing Sky Scenic Byway turns up a whole new face.
This is a burly part of the state, a scratchy-wool, buffalo-plaid kind of place that might seem Bunyanesque in nature but actually was the stomping grounds of a real-life legend, the shorter but tougher voyageur.
When its 30 below in the north woods, that's nothing like a cold day in Siberia.
Its more like a cold day in Mongolia.
Temperatures were dangerously low over New Year's when we drove with friends to the Gunflint Trail, but we knew a wood fire would be waiting for us in a round, canvas-sided hut called a yurt, or ger in Mongolia.
Thanks to a four-lane stretch of Minnesota 61, tourists can zoom up to Two Harbors from Duluth in 15 minutes flat.
The question is, why would anyone want to?
There's much more to see along this 19-mile stretch of old 61, a part of the North Shore that has changed little in the last few decades. It's not the fanciest part, but it may be the most genuine.
The origins of Paul Bunyan are lost in the wood smoke of long-ago logging camps.
The mighty lumberjack most likely was born in the camps of Maine or Nova Scotia. Nevertheless, northern Minnesota towns have taken the legend and run with it.
Akeley calls itself Paul Bunyans birthplace, and its got a good claim it was the headquarters of the Red River Lumber Co., where, in 1914, a publicist named William Laughead is said to have written the first Paul Bunyan story in a company brochure.
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.
It took plenty of sisu to settle Embarrass.
It's the consistently coldest spot in the Lower 48; arctic blasts blow up against the Laurentian Divide and pool over the township, which set a record of 64 below in 1996.
The soil is poor, allowing farmers to do little more than grow potatoes and raise a few cows.
Everyone loves a teddy bear, especially one called Ted.
He's likely the world's largest black bear, at 850 pounds, but he doesn't throw his weight around.
When a fellow bear doesn't want to play, he merely whines, "like a foghorn,'' says curator Donna Phelan. And when he wants to make friends, which is all the time, he makes a "wonderful amiable sound, an umph-umph-umph.''
It was an early January day in western Minnesota. A biting wind was blowing off the prairie, and the mercury was sinking faster than the Titanic.
But it didnt matter. I was at Maplelag, where the world is my iceberg . . . um, oyster.
At Maplelag, no matter how inhospitable the outside world is, the lodges stained-glass windows turn the wan rays of winter into gleaming golds and apricots. The steam billowing from the giant hot tub creates a dome of warmth amid the tundra. Bottomless cookie jars and baskets of hot fry bread keep guests fat and happy.
On the northeast tip of Minnesota is a coastline of uncommon beauty, lined by sheer basalt cliffs, cobblestone beaches and the mouths of dozens of rivers rushing into Lake Superior through narrow, winding gorges.
This is where Minnesotans go to breathe.
Since 1924, when the first highway opened, the North Shore has been a refuge for city folk tired of congestion, for farmers tired of flat fields, for blue-collar workers tired of the grind.
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 was the warmest in a century and 20 degrees higher than normal for mid-summer.
By rights, the northern Minnesota hamlet of Dorset shouldnt even exist.
Its on the road to nowhere, a mile and a half off the highway that links Park Rapids to Walker. Its not on a lake. It has virtually no houses.
It does, however, have a knack for hyperbole. In the 1920s, it tried "land of clover, the big white potato and the dairy cow.
On a September day in 1894, Hinckley, Minn., was hell on earth.
As a logging and rail center midway between St. Paul and Duluth, the town had grown quickly. But during the summer of 1894, less than 2 inches of rain fell.
Small fires smoldered in the countryside, many started when hot cinders from trains landed in tinder-dry slashings the crowns, stumps and branches left behind by logging crews.
It had become a summer tradition: Drive my daughter up north to her German camp at Concordia Language Villages, look enviously around the fabulous campus and whine that adults should get to come, too.
Someone was listening. One day, a flier arrived at my house, announcing the first French and German adult weeks. As it turns out, others had whined, too.
"We've got these millions and millions of dollars' worth of facilities, and we want to use them,'' said Larry Saukko, dean of the Finnish and academic-year German programs.
During the heady days of the Roaring Twenties, a group of Duluth businessmen conceived a plan.
They would buy 3,300 acres of land along Lake Superior and on both sides of the Arrowhead River, encompassing beach, waterfalls and rocky gorges. Theyd buy another 8,000 acres inland, where caribou still roamed and lakes were thick with fish and fowl.
Theyd build a clubhouse, with tennis courts and golf course and swimming pool. And theyd name the whole thing for Naniboujou, the powerful but benevolent Ojibwe spirit who claimed this northern wilderness as his own.
As adults, we sometimes forget how great it is to be a kid.
People give you toys to play with. They show you new games and explain things in interesting ways. They feed you freshly baked cookies and s'mores.
Kids take it for granted. But I didn't one January, when I got to stay at Deep Portage Learning Center, in the woods north of Brainerd.
Only tough guys lasted for long around Lake Superior, and Father Frederic Baraga was one of them.
The Slovenian priest arrived in 1831 and spent a long and frenetic life canoeing and snowshoeing between Ojibwe settlements in Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan; Grand Portage on the northeastern tip of Minnesota; and La Pointe on Wisconsin's Madeline Island.
One day in 1846, Father Baraga, learning of a possible epidemic among the Ojibwe in Grand Portage, set out from Madeline Island in a small boat with an Ojibwe guide.
One winter, I went to summer camp.
It was the German-language immersion village in Bemidji, Minn., to which my daughter went for eight years. She always returned starry-eyed and eager to go back: "I wish I could go there year-round,'' she'd say, sighing.
Id always wondered what kind of pixie dust the Concordia Language Villages counselors sprinkled on children. Then Concordia started offering family weekends in winter, and I got to find out.