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Circling Lake Superior

A trip along its gorgeous shores provides everything a tourist's heart could desire.

Point Iroquois Light near Sault Ste. Marie.

© Beth Gauper

The 1871 Point Iroquois Light lies between Whitefish Point and Sault Ste. Marie.

Of all the Great Lakes, Superior is the drama queen.

It's unpredictable and petulant, throwing tantrums that threaten to swallow any boat that ventures onto its waters. In 1975, it famously swallowed a boat that itself was called Queen of the Lakes.

Superior loves irony. The first recorded wreck, in 1816, was called the Invincible.

Everything about this lake is big and muscular. Volcanoes formed its shores, and hardened lava holds up dozens of waterfalls, except where giant dunes rise like shifting mountains.

It's fed by more than 200 rivers, which give it enough volume to cover all of North and South America with a foot of water. Its surface area is equal to Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont and New Hampshire combined.

The Atlantic Ocean often is called the big pond. But Superior never is called anything so domestic — except teakettle, which always is paired with "tempest.''

We adore this Great Lake. We can hardly stay away from it. It's beautiful, of course. And as our lifestyles become more sedentary, the lives of the first people on Superior — the explorers, the voyageurs, the lighthouse keepers and sailors — look that much more colorful and romantic.

Every year, thousands of people give the lake a big hug, following 1,300 miles of shoreline on the Circle Tour of Lake Superior.

Many stop to tour every lighthouse and see every waterfall (see Planning a Circle Tour and, for a nine-day itinerary, Lake Superior's greatest hits).

Others paddle out to islands and hike atop cliffs. Some photograph oversized mascots and figures and learn their stories — Winnie-the-Pooh in White River, the goose in Wawa, Father Baraga in L'Anse, Terry Fox in Thunder Bay.

Nearly everyone stops at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Whitefish Point. Everyone should stop at Historic Fort William in Thunder Bay, a Disneyland of the fur trade.

But the Circle Tour also is for wanderers, for people who want to run beach pebbles through their fingers and swim in secluded coves and stop at kitschy roadside gift shops.

There's no wrong way to drive it, except too fast.

Heading east

boats sail under lift bridge in Houghton, Mich.

© Beth Gauper

The Portage Lake Lift Bridge connects Houghton and Hancock on the Keweenaw Peninsula.

The first time, I drove the Circle Tour clockwise in late June, celebrating Canada Day in Sault Ste. Marie and the Fourth of July on Madeline Island.

The next time, my husband and I drove it counterclockwise in late July, starting in Superior, Wis., and making our first stop Bayfield, so we could see Big Top Chautauqua's musical revue "Keeper of the Light.''

The nearby Apostle Islands have the nation's greatest concentration of National Park Service lighthouses, and no one is more revered than a lighthouse keeper. But the tent revue is based on keepers' journals, so the story isn't so romantic.

"We work all night, or the ships sail blind,'' sings Peter Ivory, first assistant keeper at Outer Island in 1876. "There's enough darkness in a man, but my God, out here it stands up in your bones and rolls your soul.''

At the foot of Chequamegon Bay, we came to Ashland, where two local artists have spent a decade painting beautiful murals of Ashland's citizens — lighthouse keepers, lumberjacks, veterans. We looked for new murals and found one of smiling waitresses, on the side of the Great Lakes Insurance Building.

It's easy to get waylaid in downtown Ashland — there's a great bakery, chocolatier, coffeehouse and food co-op that sells craft beers by the bottle — but we kept going.

On the Gogebic Range

Crossing into Michigan, we saw our first pasty shop and stopped in Bessemer to buy cannoli at La Panetteria.

We'd been to gorgeous Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park and hoped to go again soon, so instead we pushed on through Ottawa National Forest until we saw Houghton's double-decked vertical lift bridge, which makes Duluth's bridge look like a Tinker Toy.

The only bridge over the 22-mile shipping canal that cuts the Keweenaw Peninsula in two, it's the widest and heaviest of its kind in the world. Today, its lower deck is used for snowmobiles, and rainbow-colored sailboats have replaced freighters filled with copper ore.

Copper brought people to the Keweenaw, and when the mines closed, many people left.

Calumet was a company town — a plaque outside Washington School reads "From Minors to Miners'' — but its chunky red-sandstone storefronts were built for posterity. The 1899 opera house still is a showcase for the arts, and we noticed a new cafe and brewpub on the quiet streets.

We rejoined Lake Superior at Eagle River, where a sudden nor'easter claimed state geologist Douglass Houghton not long after his surveys jump-started the copper boom.

A narrow road took us past windswept beaches and through cedar forest to Copper Harbor, where we caught the sunset cruise to the 1869 Copper Harbor Lighthouse, where land access is blocked by a private owner.

Copper Harbor is the end of U.S. 41 and the jumping-off spot for Isle Royale National Park, and in July, tourists fill its cafes and gift shops. But few venture to the quiet eastern side of the peninsula, where narrow beaches line the road.

We pulled over and spent several hours on Oliver Bay, splashing over the shelves of smooth sandstone that lay under the water, in layers that looked just like cinnamon-vanilla swirl cake and were nearly as crumbly when poked with a toe.

The view of Copper Harbor from Brockway Mountain Drive.

© Beth Gauper

At the end of the Keweenaw's Brockway Mountain Drive, there's a panoramic view of Copper Harbor.

Then we discovered ripe blueberries clinging to bushes covering the roadsides — and a young bear that also had discovered the blueberries and was too busy gobbling them to pay much attention to us.

A stay in a lighthouse

The Keweenaw is one of the few places in the north woods so remote developers leave it alone. Reluctantly, we drove on to Marquette, then northwest on a road that dead-ends at Big Bay Point Lighthouse, now a bed-and-breakfast.

There, we met lighthouse fans Steve and Judi Holland of Kalamazoo, Mich., traveling with Judi's parents, Harold and Betty Raterink of Coopersville, Mich. They'd just visited Crisp Point Light, a 1904 tower far off the beaten path and deep in forest west of Whitefish Point.

"The first time, I got scared away, but then I came back,'' Steve Holland said. "Crisp is one of my favorite places. And Au Sable, I've gotta go back and see that.''

They were doing the Circle Tour clockwise, heading for the lighthouses of Wisconsin and Minnesota, and we joked that we'd wave when our paths crossed again.

"We'll be in the red minivan; you can't miss us,'' Holland said.

We headed east to Marquette, where we took a spin around Marquette's Presque Isle Park, possibly the prettiest on the lake, and saw the newly gentrified harbor front, where art installations and walking paths have replaced piles of coal.

Grand Island lighthouse near Munising.

© Beth Gauper

The 1868 Grand Island East Channel Light, which tour boats pass on their way to Pictured Rocks, is a rare wooden lighthouse.

In Munising, we took the glass-bottom boat shipwreck tour, passing the weathered Grand Island Harbor Light on our way to peer through the hull of the boat at splintered beams, toppled smokestacks, even a cast-iron commode.

A lucky snafu

Munising is the headquarters of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, and we'd planned to kayak along its colorful cliffs. But the outfitters said they had no record of my reservation and couldn't take us, which turned out to be a lucky thing.

Instead, we hiked the trail atop the cliffs, which was spectacular, with a postcard panorama around every corner and one steep sand slide where we ran down for a cool dip.

We were worn out at the end of the 10-mile hike, but still we slogged through miles of remote forest to the steep Log Slide of the Grand Sable Dunes, from which we could just spot the 1874 Au Sable Point Light down the coast.

The next day we devoted to boats — big ones. At Whitefish Point, shipping lanes converge, visibility is poor and northwesters reach full fury, building up over 200 miles of open water. Hundreds of wrecks lie near the point, earning it the title "graveyard of the Great Lakes.''

The most famous wreck is the Edmund Fitzgerald, whose bell occupies an exalted spot in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. At the museum, we watched a short movie about shipwrecks whose opening and closing music was — what else? — "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.''

"I've only met Gordon Lightfoot once, but if I see him again, I'm going to strangle him,'' the elderly clerk told us, only half-joking.

Agawa Rock on Lake Superior.

© Beth Gauper

In Lake Superior Provincial Park, ancient pictographs are painted on Agawa Rock.

On our way to Sault Ste. Marie, the halfway mark for people who start in Duluth, we stopped to climb the 1871 Point Iroquois Light. At the Soo Locks, we just missed the Mandarin, a Greek ship flagged in Cyprus.

We weren't willing to wait for the Roger Blough, one of the rare ore boats with style, so we pushed into Ontario and made it to Lake Superior Provincial Park just as the rays of the setting sun were hitting Agawa Rock.

Long ago, Ojibwe lake travelers used a sheer cliff as a canvas for red ocher pictographs. There are paintings of canoes, serpents, a horse and a curious horned lynx with a spiked back and tail, believed to be Misshepezhieu, the water spirit.

Some think the images depict a legendary battle, but they could simply be messages one traveler leaves to assist those who follow.

Climbing carefully, trying to avoid a sheer drop into the lake, we met Ojibwe-Pottawatomi artist Ken Tabobondung of Parry Sound, Ont., who had stopped to smoke a pipe in tribute.

"I like to think about when the ancestors came here, when it was natural,'' he said.

Superior's east coast

The scenery through which we traveled next— pine-studded islands, jagged red cliffs glittering with quartz, wild inland lakes and distant mountains — was jaw-dropping, and my husband spotted a moose along the road.

"This is crazy beautiful, and we're zipping right through it,'' he said. "This is better than the view from any lighthouse tower.''

But we were headed for the first really good meal of the trip, at Kinniwabi Pines in Wawa. Over plates of strawberry chicken and duck with black-currant sauce, we met Linda and Bruce Schlueter of Ramsey, Minn., who were doing the Circle Tour on a motorcycle and camping.

"These provincial parks are way incredible, much nicer than Minnesota state parks, and I love the Minnesota state parks,'' Linda Schlueter said. "You're going to be in heaven on Earth with what's coming up.''

Wawa wasn't connected to the rest of the world until 1960, when the last section of the Trans-Canada Highway was laid there.

It's famous for its giant Canada goose — Wawa is Ojibwe for "wild goose — and for Young's General Store, which sells pickles from a barrel and has a covered front porch with a stuffed moose and flush toilets in outhouses marked "Ma'' and "Pa.''

But Wawa also has a lovely, fiord-lake lake, and we bought sandwiches and strawberry milk and had a picnic on its beach.

A chance meeting

Fog descended as we drove into Marathon, and it was drizzling when we got to Terrace Bay. Still, we made a detour to see Aguasabon Falls.

Bert Saasto is lighthouse keeper on Battle Island.

© Beth Gauper

On Battle Island near Rossport, former lighthouse keeper Bert Saasto sits on concrete cradles that once held fuel tanks, before waves carried them off during a storm.

The four other people, in a red minivan, looked familiar. It was the Hollands and Raterinks, whom we'd last seen at Big Bay Lighthouse. From lighthouses, they said, they'd segued into waterfalls — Kakabeka near Thunder Bay, Rainbow near Rossport, then 100-foot Aguasabon Falls.

They told us they'd bought baked goods from the monks at the Jampot near Eagle River, toured the Calumet Theatre and Glensheen in Duluth and spotted three bears in two separate places.

That day, they'd seen Ouimet and Eagle canyons and had a picnic on Nipigon Bay.

And they couldn't wait to see more.

"This is a beautiful, beautiful drive,'' Holland said reverently.

Judi Holland told us not to miss Rainbow Falls, but it was nearly 6 p.m. when we pulled up to the park office.

"Are you going to see any other provincial park today?'' the young ranger asked us. "No? Well, it's an $8 fee, but I don't see the point, so I'll let you in free.''

The falls were running fast and furious, but so were the mosquitoes, so we ran for Rossport. The next day was beautiful, and we went kayaking with a guide from Superior Outfitters, who didn't make us take a safety course first: Canadians are more easygoing than Americans or, more likely, less litigious.

The Rossport Islands are a safer, closer-in version of the Apostles, ideal for beginning and intermediate kayakers. I'd paddled the inner islands with owner Dave Tamblyn on the first trip and vowed to come back.

The giant Canada goose in Wawa.

© Beth Gauper

The world's largest Canada goose lives in Wawa, which means wild goose in Ojibwe.

This time, we paddled all the way to Battle Island, where the retired lighthouse keeper spends his summers.

Not only did he tell us stories, but he surprised our young guide by inviting us to climb into the 1911 red-and-white tower, from which we had a panoramic view from the catwalk.

Tasty Thunder Bay 

We straggled into Thunder Bay that evening. It's a great place to eat; we stopped at the Maltese Grocery's deli, in the Italian neighborhood, and had the famous pancakes at the Hoito, in the Finnish neighborhood.

And of course we visited Historic Fort William, a reconstructed North West Co. fur post where living-history interpreters re-create 1815, often in dramatic vignettes that involve the conflicts that often arose.

In fact, we stayed until it closed, only then driving over to see famed Kakabeka Falls.

Then it was back over the border. We stopped to see the new visitors center at Grand Portage National Monument, a re-creation of the British-owned North West post that had to be moved to Fort William in 1803.

But then we were on familiar ground (see North Shore stories) and already thinking about the places we'd had to skip or rush through.

It's hard to see everything on a Circle Tour; once is not enough. But as it turns out, twice isn't enough, either.


Last updated on June 12, 2017