Thursday, June 30, 2011

The best North Shore Fourth of July

Fourth of July in small-town America means parades and fireworks. If you're on the North Shore for the Fourth, head for Tofte for the best small-town celebration of all.

Sure, Two Harbors has fireworks and an ice cream social And Grand Marais will have fireworks and a parade. Even little Silver Bay and Grand Portage will have fireworks. But no one puts it all together like Tofte

Here's your schedule for a great North Shore Fourth of July at Tofte:

7:45 AM Tofte Trek registration 
Opens at Birch Grove for Tofte Trek 10K Wilderness Run (and hike)

9:30 AM Tofte Trek start
Run through the woods, get muddy, then jump in Lake Superior at the end. 

11:00-5:00 Festival of fish, fun
At the Tofte Town Hall: challenge the climbing wall, enjoy live local music, eat some fish burgers, and take on your family in a water balloon battle.

1:00 PM Petite parade 
This is a classic small-town parade. The route is short enough, sometimes they do it twice. Old cars, the classic fire truck, and lots of red, white and blue. Who knows what the Superior National Forest service will do this year? 

Dusk: Fireworks and fear
Head for Tofte Town Park for the best viewing. There's a lot of excitement every year, especially after the big explosion in 2009 when everything went off at once.  

Monday, June 27, 2011

A little bit about lupines

It's lupine season on the North Shore. The fields of blue flowers along Highway 61 rival the golds and yellows of fall for the best colors along the scenic drive. 

Many people I ask tell me that the lupines are their favorite North Shore flowers...even though the flowers aren't native. I guess that makes the lupine like a lot of us: outsiders who have tried to fit in and make the North Shore a little better for everyone.

As you enjoy these towers of flowers, here's a few fun facts to add to your enjoyment:
  • "Lupine", as any decent fan of Harry Potter knows, is related to the Latin word for wolf (get it, Professor Lupin...the kind-hearted werewolf?). It was once thought that lupines "wolfed" the nutrients out of the soil, hence the name.
  • The North Shore lupine are known scientifically as Lupinus polyphyllus. They are  native to the western US coastal mountains 
  • The best stands on Highway 61 are between Two Harbors and Gooseberry. They are often found along the roadside near older homesteads. There are also amazing fields of them between the Pigeon River and Thunder Bay.
  • Showing just how perfect they are for the North Shore, lupine do poorly in rich soil. Good thing we're mostly gravel, bedrock and clay up here!
Enjoy the display of's North Shore summer at its finest.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Lady's slippers and Larry Weber at Jay Cooke

Heavy rains this week have returned the North Shore rivers to flood stage. Rains also damaged the road construction underway near Split Rock Lighthouse, slowing the traffic there. This is the weekend to stay closer to Duluth and explore the seasonal wonders of Jay Cooke State Park.

Showy Lady's Slipper, from
Lady's slippers near and far
Wildflower fans come to Jay Cooke in early summer for the displays of lady's slippers. This week, there are yellow and showy lady's slippers blooming in the park, including some that are found right near the park office. Hike #1 from my book Hiking the North Shore, the 3.6 mile Silver Creek Trail, goes right past a huge stand of yellow lady's slipper. Stop at the brand-new park office for directions to the park's fabulous orchids.

The Swinging Bridge over a raging St. Louis River, 2008
The St. Louis River is running high after heavy rains, and should be thundering underneath the park's iconic Swinging Bridge by this weekend. But the river won't be the only noise there: park naturalist Kristine Hiller says that gray tree frogs are hanging out on the bridge stone pilings and calling.

Learn to fish, camp and birdwatch
Three interesting...and free...programs are on tap for this weekend in the park: on Friday, join the "I Can Fish" program from 1:00 to 3:00. On Sunday, there's "Camping 101" , also from 1:00 to 3:0.

Larry Weber
Early-risers, birdwatchers and nature lovers are in for a special treat. At 7:00 am Sunday morning, meet renown local naturalist Larry Weber at the campground bathhouse for a bird song walk. No binoculars needed, just listening. 

How to get there
The park is located in Carlton, MN. If you're coming from the Twin Cities, take exit 235 off Interstate 35 and head through the towns of Carlton and Thompson on Hwy 210 to the park. From Duluth, take exit 239 and follow the signs to Carlton and the park.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Near collision in Duluth Ship Canal

BBC Orinoco headed for the wall of the Duluth Ship Canal South Pier

BBC Orinoco after evasive maneuvers

The BBC Orinoco came uncomfortably close today to a collision with the South Pier Lighthouse. At the time, a thick fog was on the lake, and a strong current was running out of the Duluth Ship Canal. Even as the announcer from the Marine Museum was announcing the arrival of the boat, the boat itself could barely be seen in the fog.

As the ship's bow came out of the fog at 2:00pm, the ship was headed directly for the edge of the South Pier rather than for the middle of the Canal as most ships align. The ship turned in to the Canal and away from the lighthouse and pier head at the last moment, appearing to miss by a few yards. 
BBC Orinoco in Duluth Ship Canal after narrowly missing South Pier
 The BBC Orinoco had left Thunder Bay yesterday and will load beet pulp pellets in Duluth, according to Duluth Shipping News.

The current at the mouth of the Duluth Ship Canal has been noted and feared by Great Lakes navigators for over a century. When the Mataafa collided with the piers in 1905, partial blame was placed on the currents. Lighthouses stand at the end of both the South and North piers to help ensure safe passage into the piers.

Incidentally, it appears that the fog horn located in the South Pier lighthouse was not operating at the time.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A super solstice weekend in Grand Marais

Grand Marais is the place to be this weekend. Northern evenings are long and the nights are short. Duluth and Two Harbors will be packed with marathon runners, so head farther up the shore for a classic North Shore experience with elbow room 

This weekend is the 14th Annual Wooden Boat Show at North House Folk School. The show celebrates the romance and history of wooden boats. From noon on Friday to 3:00 pm on Sunday, a fleet of wooden kayaks, canoes, scows, and more will be on display at the Folk School campus. There's a Community of Crafters, a contra dance, and a Lake Superior Chowder Experience. Some of the coolest courses have already started, like "Handcrafting a Northwoods Paddle," but you can still learn the games of kubb, lacrosse, and deadfish polo. For more information, visit the North House website.
Fire Dragon, from

Also at North House this weekend is the Summer Solstice Pageant, with the Good Harbor Hill Players. Every solstice, both summer and winter, creative Grand Marais folks put on a great show mixing North Shore culture with current events and local inside jokes.

For the full weekend experience, grab a campsite at the Grand Marais municipal campground right next door to the North House campus. This campground is featured in my book Camping the North Shore as one of the area's best. As of this morning, they still have tent and RV sites open for the weekend. Call them at (800) 998-0959 or (218) 387-1712 to reserve your spot.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Insider's guide to Split Rock Lighthouse State Park

Split Rock Lighthouse, November 10, 2009
Split Rock Lighthouse is a towering beacon over Lake Superior and an icon for the state of Minnesota. For many people, the lighthouse is the North Shore. The state park that surrounds the lighthouse, however, is a hidden gem that only some visitors enter and only very few truly explore.

The view from Split Rock Lighthouse
If you stand with the crowds around the base of Split Rock Lighthouse, you can't help but notice and enjoy the view down the shore. One rugged cove leads to a steep rocky point, and then another and another, as far as you can see. That entire landscape is within the boundaries of Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, and you can hike, camp or even bike through the heart of it. 

This is my personal opinion, though I've heard from many people who feel the same way: the best place to camp on the North Shore if you want real quiet, real privacy and real adventure is the cart-in campground at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. Twenty campsites are scattered through the woods and along the shoreline. Each site comes with its own cart, which you can use to roll your camping equipment from the parking lot to your private campsite. 

Fourteen of the sites can be reserved in advance through the Minnesota DNR's reservation system. Virtually the entire summer of 2011 is already reserved. 

Insider's tip: Six sites are available first-come, first served. I've found that if you arrive before 10:00 am on a Tuesday or Wednesday, you should be able to get one of those sites; stop at the park office to get on a waiting list. 

Since sites can be reserved 365 days in advance, now is the time to reserve your top pick for the summer of 2012.

Hanging out on your own rocky beach, feeling the splash of cool waves, enjoying a private picnic by the lake shore...that's quintessential North Shore. And you can have it in Split Rock. There are at least eight separate beaches in the park, ranging from the broad, steep beach at Little Two Harbors next to the Picnic Area to the remote beach in Crazy Bay. 
Unnamed beach below Day Hill

Insider's tip: I just discovered a new beach this weekend, a small cobblestone beach with a great view of the lighthouse. Head out the back door of the Trail Center building in the park, and walk out across the main Little Two Harbors Trail. Follow a little unmarked trail that seems to lead to a cliff edge. This opens up to a great ledge rock shoreline full of splash pools. Head up the shore toward the lighthouse, which looms above. You'll find a gravel beach that's about 100 yards long and 10 yards wide. 

Split Rock Lighthouse State Park is at the midpoint of the longest stretch of completed trail of the Gitchi Gami State Trail. You can ride west about seven miles to Gooseberry Falls State Park or seven miles east to the quaint town of Beaver Bay. 
Iona's Beach
Insider's tip: This is not an easy bike trail. There are steep hills and sharp curves. You may have to leave your toddlers on training wheels at home. I recommend going west to Gooseberry State Park and planning to stop at Iona's Beach about halfway there. Iona's Beach is a state Scientific and Natural Area and was set aside to protect its unique red shingle beach. 

Next time you're on the Shore, take the time to explore this hidden gem of a state park. You'll be glad you stopped by.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Big, free day at Split Rock Lighthouse

Saturday, June 11, is the annual open house at all Minnesota State Parks. That means all one-day vehicle permits are free. Perfect! Now you can join me for a great guided hike Saturday at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park.

Most North Shore state parks have trails and landmarks that are open only to those with vehicle permits. This weekend, use this opportunity to explore these trails and landmarks for free.

At Gooseberry Falls State Park, the open house lets you visit the whole lakeshore area with its dramatic stone buildings and open, rocky Picnic Flow. At Tettegouche State Park, the free vehicle permit will let you easily access the High Falls of the Baptism River. At Cascade River State Park, Saturday's free permit gets you access to the lakeshore picnic area and a mile of ledgerock walking. 

See Split Rock's Lighthouse and take a guided hike
This Saturday's open house gets you free admission not only to the state parks but also to Split Rock Lighthouse itself. So make day of it in Split Rock!

Andrew Slade atop Day Hill, with lighthouse in background

I'll be guiding a pleasant hike during the open house. Meet me at the Split Rock Lighthouse State Park Trail Center at 10:00am Saturday. We're going on a 2.6-mile hike on the Little Two Harbors and Day Hill trails. We'll stop at secluded beaches and scamper to the top of Day Hill, where a mysterious stone fireplace frames dramatic lake views. The hike will take about two hours.

After the hike, come to the Lighthouse for a free tour. I'll be signing copies of my new book, Hiking the North Shore, at the museum store there from 1:00 to 3:00pm.  

Eats and treats after the trail
The North Shore's newest dining option just opened up...right at Split Rock Lighthouse! The folks from Splashing Rock Restaurant at Grand Superior Lodge have opened the Third Rock Deli, serving sandwiches, wraps and salads. 

Travel note: construction on Highway 61 is in full throttle now near Split Rock. Expect delays, either if you're driving through or just stopping at the park.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Four random facts about Bunchberry

The bunchberry are blooming along the North Shore. With their simple, bold flowers and symmetrical leaves, they are one of the most common and easiest to identify of all flowers.

Like many wildflowers, this one has lots of factoids concerning its name, its ecology and even its anatomy. You can impress your hiking companions with just one of these four random facts. By the time you get all four out, they'll think you're a genius.

Random fact #1: The name bunchberry refers to the tight "bunch" of orange-colored berries that ripen later in summer. 

Random fact #2: A common local name for the flower is "Canada dogwood." In fact, that's a literal translation of the scientific name Cornus canadensis

Random Fact #3: The beautiful white "petals" aren't actually petals. Instead, they are modified leaves that surround and draw attention to the actual flowers, which are very small and greenish yellow. Each one of those little flowers could ripen into one of the orange berries. 

Random Fact #4: The berries are popular with veeries and vireos. 

Any questions?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Hike Gooseberry, Eat Rustic

 Spring has sprung on the North Shore! The woods are filling with wildflowers, the hiking trails are dry after the spring mud season, and the crush of summer tourists has not yet begun. It's a great time to hit the North Shore state parks. Here's what to do this weekend on the Shore:

On Saturday, come to Gooseberry Falls State Park. (From the town of Two Harbors, follow State Highway 61 northeast approximately 13 miles to the park.) Starting from the Visitor Center, take the 2.0 mile Gitchi Gummi Trail through greening birch forests to the scenic overlook above the mouth of the Gooseberry River. Enjoy the new decks hanging over the lake with big views up and down the shore (pictured above). Pull out your snack and savor the sights.

After your short trek, hike back to the Visitor Center for my 12:00 noon program in the theater. I'll be talking about "Hiking the North Shore," with recommendations for more great day hikes along the shore. I'll be signing books in the park store from 1:00 to 3:00 in the afternoon.

When you're done at the park, stop at the Rustic Inn in Castle Danger for pie or a late lunch. I've had their North Shore Crumble a few times lately, but their chocolate (pictured) and custard pies are delicious, too. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

North Shore factoids right from the source

Our own North Shore is the center of the universe right now for large lake researchers from around the world. Duluth's harborfront convention center is full of tweedy science types from across the U.S. and Canada, plus China, Africa, Russia and more. It's the annual conference of the International Association for Great Lakes Research. 

What's in it for fans of the North Shore? Some fascinating tidbits, to be sure. I attend a press conference and checked out the conference yesterday as a member of the media (and the only blogger, I believe). 

Among the hundreds of presentations and posters, I'm finding a few digestible if depressing factoids:
  • A typical North Shore stream carries 28-42 grams of the toxicant mercury into Lake Superior every year, primarily during spring run-off. 
  • The peak of spring run-off on Lake Superior streams is coming 9-13 days earlier in the spring than it did 50 years ago. 
  • Lake herring (or cisco) is the dominant fish in Lake Superior by biomass. In other words, if you took all the fish in the lake out and weighed them, the heaviest pile would be the herring. 
  • Minnesota has 11,877 "Great Lakes jobs." Wisconsin has 173,969.
I'm going to review the abstracts and post a few more tidbits as I find them. Researchers are finding out a lot about Lake Superior, and it's great to hear it right from the source.