Once every year or so, Sally and I pack up for the night and head to the South Shore of Lake Superior. I get enough of the cold and sterile North Shore, where fog creates the forests and the soil is thinner than a Perkins pancake.
We went for a concert at the Big Top Chautauqua (Los Lonely Boys), but we stayed for the blueberries.
Years ago, as we climbed the flanks of some Montana mountain, Sally quoted Garrison Keillor, "California is the girl you want to date; Minnesota is the woman you want to marry." So I married the Minnesota girl. Which is a roundabout way to talk about the South Shore versus the North Shore. Except sometimes I worry I "married" the wrong shore.
We picked berries at the appropriately named Blue Vista Farm. a few miles up the hill from Bayfield. The berries were insanely, pornographically plump. They were like a California actress with silicon implants.
I like to believe that the wild berries we pick on the North Shore make up in flavor what they lack in plumpness. You have to fight for North Shore berries. You beat back the bears and the bugs. You pick for hours and are delighted to have a quart of pea-sized morsels. Like the orange you tuck away in your Duluth pack for day four in the BWCA, the berries taste better because you worked so hard for them.
South Shore berries have a longer growing season, richer soil, and the loving attention of the farmers. But even the wild blueberries I've seen come out of the Iron River, WI area are bigger, happier than our North Shore fruits.
Plump and bland, or wizened and tasty? Easy picking or hardship conditions? Reward or challenge?
California or Minnesota?
South Shore or North?
For a moment this weekend, I was totally satisfied with the South.
News broke last week that Lake Superior has warmed up much faster this year than normal. But before you slather on the sunscreen for Superior, you might just do a little research. I was in the lake yesterday and it was cold...cold enough that I was the only one of the fifty people on the swimming beach actually swimming.
Lake Superior surface water temperatures change dramatically day to day depending on the heat of the day and, more importantly, the wind direction. A wind off the shore drives warmer surface water out and brings cold water up from the depths. Herring like that. Most people don't.
If you want to swim on the North Shore, wait for a sunny day with a breeze off the lake, like a southerly wind. Up in Little Marais, we seldom swam in June or July, but would have some great days in August down on "the rocks" with the waves crashing over us as we pinned ourselves to a ledge.
Here are my recommendations for decent North Shore swimming beachs, with links to their MPCA webpage:
Split Rock Lighthouse State Park Little Two Harbors beach. You need a state park vehicle permit for this one, but it's totally worth it. The water is clear but kept warm by the protection of the island and tombolo. Swim out far enough for a loon's view of the Lighthouse.
Burlington Bay beach. This is the eastern of the two harbors in Two Harbors. Very easy to reach right off Highway 61 and next to the campground.
Iona's Beach, at Twin Points. The MPCA page shows the boat launch area, but head through the pine forest to the other side of the point and enjoy the unique red shingle beach.
Swimming on the North Shore is an amazing experience. Floating above huge boulders in clear water, body-surfing the fresh water waves...it's the best. Just watch the wind and wait for a perfect day.
Ah, Agate Bay! Was ever a North Shore landmark more aptly named? The name makes me think of gravelly grit slithering under the foaming lip of a wave, bits of glassy agate shards glistening, maybe a herring gull rookery and the smell of wet lichen.
But the real, the only, North Shore Agate Bay is a thrill of another kind. Agate Bay is one of the two bays that make up...wait for it...Two Harbors. It's not exactly wavelets and lichen, more like the industrial link between the Iron Range and Lake Superior.
I had the opportunity to guide a few out-of-towners out on the breakwater that runs from the tip of Lighthouse Point out into Agate Bay. It's a one-of-a-kind North Shore experience, and not one to try on a stormy day. The sides drop off precipitously into deep,clear and cold Lake Superior, and there's only a cable railing.
The views are spectacular, both down the North Shore toward Knife River and into the harbor, where you get a rare view of ore boats at the docks.
My guests, from the Mott Foundation in Flint, Michigan, were impressed and only a little scared. One travels all the time for work, mostly to South America, and took the opportunity to leg it out on the flats. The other was more cautious, concerned about the drop-offs, wind and waves. Shortly after this outing, they informed the folks I'm working for that they'd get another two years of North Shore environmental funding. It must have been the walk across Agate Bay that convinced them.
To reach this unique North Shore spot, follow the signs off of Highway 61 in Two Harbors to the lighthouse. It's a turn toward the lake at the Dairy Queen. The route gets a little funky in downtown Two Harbors and through the Depot area.