Lake Superior

"Those who have never seen Superior get an inadequate idea by hearing it spoken of as a lake; Superior is a sea; It breeds storms and rain and fog like a sea. It is cold, masterful, and dreaded."

--- Rev. George Grant, 1872

Lake Superior...world's largest freshwater lake

It is the most awesome panorama in Minnesota. You have just spent three hours driving north out of the Twin Cities on Interstate 35.  You reach the crest of a hill when suddenly before you is a new world: water which meets the horizon, ocean ships in the middle of the continent, and lighthouses. Lake Superior's power comes through your eyes and into your soul.

Duluth and Lake Superior. Photo courtesy Visit Duluth, Sequest Photography

Lake Superior is the world's largest freshwater lake - a huge, rock-bound lake that in winter is capable of piling ice high against the shore, and producing ocean sized currents and waves. Waves as large as 31 feet have been recorded, and Lake Superior is the grave of more than 325 ships. Note: Lake Baikal in Russia also claims to be the world's largest freshwater lake.  They are both right!  Lake Superior has the largest surface area, while Baikal, an extremely deep lake, has more volume.

 Singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot memorialized one such disaster in "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald", which begins

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down

Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee

The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead

When the skies of November turn gloomy.

"Gitche Gummee" is the Ojibwe word for Lake Superior.

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Minnesota's North Shore

The sight and sounds of seagulls over relentless waves crashing against imposing cliffs and boulders.  There is a deep sense of antiquity here. And awe.  There are lighthouses and a sea as far as the horizon.  The aroma of vast pine forests.  White-tailed deer, bear and bald eagles are commonly seen.  Wolves commonly see you. New England-like fishing villages.  The steep-hilled, San Francisco-like ocean port of Duluth-Superior, with it's aquariums and shipping museums.   The huge ships arriving, carrying cargos and grizzled men from far away places; seafaring men with amazing stories rarely shared with the land-lubbers who gaze at them with a profound curiosity matched by the deep waters themselves.  

Aerial Bridge, Duluth and Lake Superior. Photo courtesy: Visit Duluth / Sequest Photography

Duluth is the gateway to another world.  Built on the wealth of earlier lumbering and iron ore mining, in more recent years it has reinvented itself for tourism.   By far the most interesting place is Canal Park where the huge ships arrive and depart.   They have to pass through the Aerial Lift Bridge (photo above).   Their loud fog horns bellow as the bridge rises.   There is a museum right there too, the Lake Superior Maritime Visitors Center  .   Not far away, you can tour the William A. Irvin ore boat.   It is HUGE!! Take a Vista Harbor Cruise.     Other attractions include the Great Lake Aquarium and Discovery Center, an Omnimax Theater, and the Lake Superior Zoo.  

With its steep hills, Duluth itself is fascinating.   For spectacular views take the Scenic Drive.  

As you head northeasterly along the shore you will soon begin to enjoy the sense of Lake Superior's beauty and majesty.   High cliffs and massive boulders catch the force of the waves.   Twenty-two streams deliver clean, forest and mountain waters, to the big lake.   There are many, many waterfalls, the greatest of which is  Gooseberry Falls .   It is easy to spend a day here hiking over the many miles of trails.  

Speaking of hiking, the  Superior Hiking Trail   is a 205-mile long footpath that follows the rocky ridgeline above Lake Superior in northeastern Minnesota. It begins just north of Two Harbors, and ends just before the Canadian border. The trail has 30 trailheads and 81 backcountry campsites making it ideal for both day hikes and backpacking.  

Two Harbors, Silver Bay, and Taconite Harbor are also important shipping ports along the way.  Other attractions along the North Shore include The Depot Museum in Two Harbors, the North Shore Commercial Fishing Museum in Tofte, and Split Rock Lighthouse near Silver Bay.  Few people live inland, for there are several state parks, expansive forests and government preserved land, such as the Lake Superior National Forest.  The “Arrowhead” area of Minnesota also contains the most pristine land south of Alaska, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Few roads go there. One, the Gunflint Trail, leads into the deep pine woods out of Grand Marais.  

Grand Marais is the most quaint and interesting sea-side village on the North Shore.  A winged peninsula extends out from the town center.  After passing a Coast Guard station on the peninsula's main body, following the left wing leads to Artist's Point.  To get to the Point, one must first pass through an enchanting miniature forest, filled with pines, mosses and thousands of brightly-colored, tiny shade-flowers, joyfully smiling at the short summer warmth.  Artist's Point is where painters, poets, philosophers, journalers, and dreamers go to refresh and rebirth the soul with a baptism in the immense water's mystery.  The right wing walls a harbor filled with fishing boats and yachts.  It hosts a light house at its outer extremity.

Artist's Point, Grand Marais, MN

 For kids, or kids-at-heart, the millions of wave-flattened stones along Grand Marais' shoreline are absolutely perfect for skipping, and such is the summertime activity of many there.  Moms, dads and kids trying for that impressive seven or eight skipper. If you study the stones carefully, you may likely find a colorful Lake Superior agate, the state stone.  

Some forty miles north of Grand Marais is Grand Portage National Monument.  It is an old fur trading fort, a transfer point for the Voyageurs, a hearty breed of men who carried heavy packs and canoes through the wilderness.  Near the fort, there are daily excursion boats to Isle Royale National Park .  Isle Royale is an island which is part of Michigan, even though it is far closer to the Minnesota shore.               .  

This brings you almost to the Canadian Border from which point one can continue on the 1300-mile Great Circle Route.    

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The Four Seasons in Northern Minnesota

Although summer is the busiest time along the North Shore, all seasons have unique offerings.  

Winter offers views of the huge ice formations along the shoreline. If your timing is right, and you have the right room with a view, you may be lucky enough to witness one of the fierce November storms which have sunk so many ships. But they come up quite unpredictably, which is why they are so dangerous for late season shipping. For recreation: skiing, both downhill and cross-country; snowmobiling; dogsled races; and winter wonderland photography. Oh, and don't forget ice fishing.

Spring brings the excitement of the end of the long freeze and the return of life to the ecosystem. Frozen streams become dancing springs. Flowers grow everywhere: through the tiniest cracks in boulders, in the shade, in the sun, in moss. Wildflowers. Migratory birds return. Bears leave their hibernations. Fish run and so does maple syrup. And Bullwinkle winks at the lady mooses, for isn't that what spring is largely about?

Summer brings the hordes of tourists, with RVs, camping supplies, canoes, boats and eager faces. It's hard to find a place to stay so be sure to reserve ahead. A canoe trip through the Boundary Waters is a memory of a lifetime. Hiking the trails of Isle Royale National Park is something too. Seagulls eat popcorn from children's hands in Duluth's Canal Park. The big lake seems more friendly. Bring a journal and write a poem at Artist's Point or Gooseberry Falls. Imagine life a hundred years ago at Split Rock Light House, or a million years ago on some remote stony cliff overlooking the lake. Summer is warm.  

Autumn is God's gift to us, given to soften the blow of the oncoming winter. The North Shore, in addition to its many pines, has many maple, oak, birch and other deciduous trees whose leaves are painted a pallet of bright colors in the fall. The North Shore is one of the most beautiful areas in Minnesota or anywhere in the autumn. The weather section of the Minneapolis Star Tribune usually follows the "color line" of the leaves as their change moves southward.

Along Duluth's Skyline Drive, a part referred to as "Hawk Ridge," bird watchers flock with binoculars to view the southward migration of hawks and eagles. The last of the great ships head out of ports in early November; the last of them breaking the new ice as they leave. May they arrive safely.

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 Lake Superior Geology

Lake Superior is located in a downward fold, or trough, of Precambrian rock. The basin resulted from a combination of geologic events. The gradual processes that formed the Lake Superior basin began during the Late Precambrian Period some 1150 million years ago when the earth's crust split apart, with great floods of molten rock spewing forth on the surface as lava flows or cooling off and hardening below. This activity continued for some 20 million years. As the flows congealed into new earth crust, the bedrock beneath gradually sank, tilting the overlying mass eastward. The depression continued to sink even after the volcanic period, developing into an impressive basin. Wind and water erosion over the next millions of years laid down a thick layer of mud, sand, and gravel until the basin was a broad low plain. About a million years ago, the great glaciers of the Ice Age began their slow work of carving the coast. Four successive waves of mile-thick ice gouged out the basin, exposing the intricate and varied volcanic formations of the basin rim while depositing the sediments hundreds of miles to the southeast. During glacial retreat, melt waters filled this basin far above present levels. The Lake Superior of that time (about 12,000 years ago) is called Glacial Lake Duluth by geologists. As outlets to the south and east opened, the lake level subsided. Eventually the lake reached its present surface elevation of 602 feet above sea level.  

Virtually all of the bedrock of the North Shore consists of Upper Precambrian volcanic rocks poured out from a giant rift about 1.1 billion years ago, as the continent started to tear itself apart. A few intrusive rocks exist, such as the massive jointed sill at Silver Cliff, and irregular intrusive bodies such as the diabase at Silver Bay and Beaver Bay. These diabase bodies host very large inclusions, such as the white one that Split Rock Light House is built upon.

Lake Superior Facts

Breadth:          160 miles / 257 km

Length:              350 miles / 563 km 

Average Depth:   483 ft. / 147 m.

Maximum depth:   1, 332 ft. / 406 m.  

Volume:   2,900 cubic miles / 12, 100 cubic km.  

Water surface area:   31,700 sq. miles / 82,100 sq. km.  

Drainage basin area:   49,300 sq. miles / 127,700 sq. km.  

Shoreline length (including islands):    2,726 miles / 4,385 km.  

Elevation:    600 ft / 183 m.  

Outlet:    St. Mary's River to Lake Huron  

Retention/Replacement time:    191 years  

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It has been far too long for me to have waited to tell you again how much we appreciated your guiding us on the two-day city tours of St. Paul and Minneapolis in October!

Barbara D., tour company owner, Odessa, TX
 
 
 
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