Once again, a recent trip took me to an American destination rather than a European one (what has gotten into me lately?) and introduced me to a surprisingly interesting part of the US.
Duluth, Minnesota lies so far north, compared to the rest of the US, that I, along with many Americans living on the coasts, assumed that it was a tiny town surrounded by miles and miles of empty land. The empty land part is mostly true; the mental image of Duluth as a tiny, frost-bitten frontier town is a myth, at least in the non-winter months (and compared to what I was expecting).
This city of 86,000 is a good three hour drive north from Minneapolis, in the northern half of the state. The largest American city on Lake Superior, it sits on the western tip of that lake and much of its economy is based around the shipping traffic on the lake, though tourism is also gaining ground after the demise of manufacturing in the area.
One surprise was the sky. Minnesota is flat enough, and its cities far enough apart that there isn’t much to block your view of the sky. Big Sky country usually refers to places like Montana or Wyoming. Minnesota should be on that list too. It didn’t hurt that the weather was gorgeous during my visit.
Approaching Duluth from the south, you crest a long ridge and are treated to a stunning and completely unexpected panoramic view of this part of Lake Superior. There’s even a strategically placed tourist information area so you can stop and gaze at the lake spread out below without crashing your car as you take in the scenery.
Continue driving north and you quickly descend to the lake and the city. The surrounding flats are filled with rail yards and tracks and the harbor includes mammoth metal docks for the huge barges that motor across the lake. These cargo ships carry grain, coal, a pelleted iron ore called taconite as well as other raw materials and commercial products. There’s nothing casual or part-time about Duluth’s water traffic. This is a busy commercial harbor and storage port, the largest on the Great Lakes, handling 40 million tons of cargo per year. That’s a lotta stuff! As a side note with a nod to the environment, here’s a chart showing the fuel efficiency and pollution costs of ships compared to trains and trucks.
To a first-time visitor, Lake Superior is a revelation. It’s one thing to view the Great Lakes from an airplane or on a map. You do get a hint of their staggering size that way, but only to the extent that you can see a shape and think, ‘Oh, I know which lake that is. Wow’. On the ground, the size of this largest of these five lakes, is impossible to take in, especially when you consider that only a small percentage of the lake is visible from Duluth. Barges chug east, seemingly headed for the dragons at edge of the world; there is no shore visible in that direction. I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn’t gazing at an ocean. Looking across to the barely visible shore in Duluth was impressive enough, but knowing there was nothing but water for hundreds of miles to the northeast was hard to grasp, though it made it much easier to understand why the lake has become a graveyard for so many ships. Even the statistics are staggering – 350 miles wide, 160 miles across (north to south). For those of us with New York sensibilities, compare this to Long Island Sound’s maximum dimensions of 21 by 113 miles. At times, though, I felt a bit sheepish to be so impressed by this section of the lake when it was only a small fraction of the entire thing.
For some additional perspective, Lake Superior covers more area (31,700 sq miles) than the English Channel (29,000 sq miles). The lake is (only) half the size of Lake Baikal, in Siberia and if all the water were drained from Superior, it would cover ALL of North America to a depth of six inches. Now that’s the sort of statistic to make your head spin!
The Canal Park section of Duluth is the place to go for casual eating, great art galleries and shops, as well as being only a few minutes’ walk to the quayside and the Duluth harbor lighthouses and a view of the massive lift bridge among other attractions. The rest of the city is cut off from the harbor by the highway and seemed to be a combination of city center businesses and residential areas. The ridge above connects the highway (and that tourist rest area) to leafier suburbs and a nature area called Hawk Ridge where, in good weather, all sorts of raptors can be seen. This was one of the places on the list to visit but, as it happened, that was the one day when the weather didn’t cooperate. The only bird in the air that day was a turkey vulture. Hell, I can see those guys back home! Oh well.
Another plus – Lake Superior is never out of sight for long, either from the coastal roads or other higher roads along the ridgeline. Maybe one day I’ll see a bigger expanse… from the Canadian side. You never know.
There’s more to come – a visit to Split Rock Lighthouse and Gooseberry Falls. Stay tuned.
Enjoy the slide show!