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Wildlife Abounds

Agave, Century Plant, and Big Bluestem - where the desert meets the prairie

Although this wasn’t a safari, and it wasn’t the best time of year for “botanizing,” my innate interests in plants and wildlife made for some memorable experiences.  I looked at plants every day, and learned many new ones as I traveled to new regions and climates.  It was hard to narrow the list down to just a few, but I did my best, and the list wound up reflecting the iconic species that I encountered, rather than the delicate wildflowers I might have seen in the springtime.  The same is somewhat true of wildlife, though I did not have memorable encounters daily.  In fact, I saw relatively few animals  – but what I saw stuck with me.  I had to decide between the wildlife-viewing events that occurred, and those animals that I got to see for the first time, or that intrigued me without learning in-depth about them.  Here’s the result:

Top 10 Flora and Fauna

10. Rabbitbrush and Pelicans

What do low-growing shrubs and fish-netting birds have in common?  Rabbitbrush was ubiquitous in the North Dakota badlands… but also in the Guadalupe Mountains of West Texas!  Pelicans, with their large windspan, were one of the few species aloft during my windy day of birdwatching in the North Dakota plains… and two months later I saw them be buffeted by the breeze on the Texas coast.  Their presence tied together two of the primary destinations of my trip – the most northerly and most southerly.  Rabbitbrush and White Pelicans helped me to realize that our country has similarities not only by latitude, but by longitude as well.  Sure, the climate is similar across the far south, from LA to Houston, and across the far north from Montana to Maine.  But geological commonalities, along with rainfall patterns, create “The Great Plains,” “The Rockies,” and “The Pacific (or Atlantic) Coast” – comparable across temperature climes.  Some of our most iconic species show this quite clearly!

9. Antelope in MT

Since the mountained West was not on my destination list, but simply conveniently between stops, I had forgotten all about its wildlife.  I was therefore surprised to see antelopes on the plains of eastern Montana.  Watching them run when I rolled down my car window to take a photo, I was reminded of Cpt. Merriweather Lewis’s description of attempting to sneak up on them in nearly the same location.  They are quick, with a striking appearance, and for a couple days they were frequent appearances in the meadows along the road – but only in Montana, and then they were gone again.

8. Agave

It was tough to decide which of the desert species was my “favorite,” because they have some amazing adaptations and unique forms.  I settled on the agave species because they were so varied, but were consistently present throughout the deserts in my travels.   I watched bats veer around them at Carlsbad Caverns, swung from their limbs at Joshua Tree, and saw them growing in the prairie in the Guadalupe Mountains.

7. Fungi

Well, fungi are technically neither plants nor animals, but in a kingdom of their own.  Until I write a “top ten fungi” list, though, they should be honored to be included here.  I saw some awesome fungi on my trip, primarily in the colder and wetter climates – northern Minnesota, the west side of the Rockies in Idaho, and the Cascades in Oregon.  Very cool, and an inspiration to learn more about the mushrooms around me!

6.  Armadillos and Roadrunners and Alligators

Okay, maybe it is cheating to include these all together – but this item is a tribute to all of those animals that I’d never seen before in the wild, and got to see pretty much by accident on this trip.  I saw one armadillo, a couple roadrunners, and a whole lot of alligators… all pretty interesting to watch go about their business.

5. Prairie Grasses

I could pass this ranking off as another case of a suite of plants tying together diverse locations… but that wouldn’t be telling the whole story.  I made sure to spend a full day playing in the prairies along the Upper Mississippi as I started my journey, because I knew that I would enjoy that adventure, if nothing else for the next few months.  When I got to western North Dakota, I was pleased to find those same grasses growing among the petrified wood, rainbow-colored cliffs, and cottonwood-lined chalky rivers – it made me feel comfortably “at home” after a few cold and dreary days on the plains.  When I hit the Guadalupe Mountains, I thought that I was still in the desert, and was astonished to see those grasses at my feet as I made my way up the trail – believe it or not, I nearly jumped for joy!  Sure, I liked these plants a lot before leaving home, but going away helped me to see that they could hold their own among all of the other awesome species out there!

4. Oak Trees

Oak trees are pretty awesome, and I’m not the first to think so.  Nearly every culture that has survived where oaks thrive has adopted them as a symbol.  They are revered as a food source, for their longevity, for their beauty, and for being a definitive species in their ecosystems.  “The mighty oak” grows in some places, but in others, like the high desert, oaks are nothing more than shrubs.  This very diversity is amazing, and I enjoyed all the oaks I saw, from the mighty Burr Oak to the Live Oaks of California, to the tiny Gray Oaks in the mountains.  But maybe the best one was when I found the Chinquapin Oak in the mountains of West Texas – I squealed with excitement at the time, and I still like re-telling the story today!

3. Large Ungulates: Roosevelt Elk, California and Moose, Isle Royale

I won’t re-tell the stories of these encounters, because I’ve already devoted full posts in my blog to them (click links above if you missed them).  However, these chance encounters with very large (and frustrated) male animals will definitely stick in my memory for a long time to come.  Definitely not the kind of adventure I could have had sitting on my couch!

Roosevelt Elk among the Redwoods

2. Redwoods

A lot of other items made it onto this list by surprising me – either by their presence or by their significance.  I knew the Coast Redwoods were there in northern California, and I knew that they would be impressive.  They were.  ‘Nuff said!

1. Waterfowl at Brazos Bend

I was going to put this item a little lower on the list, until the experience I had earlier this evening.  I realized that, had I not swung into Brazos Bend State Park, had I not taken the hike that I did, I would not be where I am today – in every sense of the phrase.  For the first time in my life, I was captivated by birds, and wanted to keep watching them and learning about them.  It convinced me that a career in natural resources was worth struggling for, and if I hadn’t made that decision, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t be in the position I am now.  Even if I were, though, I wouldn’t have opted to spend my evening watching returning migrants splash into the flowages and sedge meadows of northwest Wisconsin, if I hadn’t found out how cool they would be.  More about that adventure coming soon!

Back on the Prairie

Day 17

September 15, 2010

Mile 1234 – 1390

Fosston, MN to Arvilla, ND

I woke up this morning in Fosston, MN.  At first glance, there’s not much to the place: there are a rusty tank and helicopter memorializing veterans on the east end of town, and three gas stations along the half-mile “main drag.”  There’s even a stoplight, along with a couple businesses named after it (Stoplight Video, Stoplight Corner Store).  This indicates that there may be more to the town than meets the eye.  Fosston (population 1575) is a Minnesota Star City.  It is also an All-America City (1996), a member of the White House Millennium Council (“Honor the Past – Imagine the Future”), a winner of the “First in MN Beautiful Award” and “First in MN Community Improvement.”  It is the recipient of some kind of recognition for Progressive Agricultural and Industrial Development (the seal portrays a horse, winged with poison ivy… no wait, maybe it’s a soybean plant superimposed on a cow).  I’m sure that at least some of this is due to the foresight they had in town planning when they decided to devote the grassy area around their town shop to a fee-based campground.

I can’t really complain about the kids in the yard down the block having a bonfire ‘til the wee hours, about the grain elevator’s fans running through the night, or about the train whistling its way through town at 7 am.  For a tent, it’s only five bucks a night.  The smell of diesel and Fast Orange in the bathroom even made me a feel a little bit at home.  There aren’t a whole lot of other options nearby, actually: somewhere around Lake Itasca I started noticing more pastures, fewer trees.  Placid cows made me forget to look for moose around every corner.  When I pulled up my tent stakes in the morning, they were black with dirt.  With soil.  A couple weeks of sand and stone thinly blanketing the bedrock beneath made me feel like I was in another world.  Now, I’m back on the prairie.  I crossed the tension zone again, and I think I’m finally on the Great Plains.

If I hadn’t picked up on any of those clues, and I hadn’t noticed that Fosston’s motto was “Where the prairie meets the pines,” I could hardly have helped being tipped off by the name of the next town I came to: Fertile.  The scenery between Fosston and Fertile was nearly solidly ag fields – and those almost completely soybean, many already harvested, tilled, and replanted with winter wheat.  Past Fertile, to the north and west, I found a lot of unplowed land, much of it owned or eased by the state, federal agencies, or the Nature Conservancy.  It’s all some mixture of prairie and wetland (miniscule changes in elevation and soil causing the variation).  I spent some time hiking around in the Glacial Ridge Preserve area, a cooperative program among the several agencies.

The Nature Conservancy owns and manages Agassiz Dunes, with help from the Minnesota DNR’s Scientific and Natural Areas.  I hoped to see the star of that region in my hike – the Greater Prairie Chicken, but no dice.  What I did see, after several days’ reprieve, was lots and lots of poison ivy.  Also the last of the summer’s dry prairie blooms: heath aster, bottle gentian, gray goldenrod.  I have to wonder if everything has gone dormant because I’ve been off in the boreal forest so long, or if its due to my northern latitude – I know it’s been consistently at least ten degrees warmer in Madison than up where I am.  At any rate, I didn’t realize it at the time, but the sand blows at Agassiz may have been my last exposure to topography for many, many miles.

After chatting with the TNC crew at the Glacial Ridge Office between Fertile and Crookston, I went off to check out some of the area’s other nice features, including calcareous fen, marsh, wet mesic prairie, and mesic prairie along a former railroad grade.  I had to get used to the directions they gave, though: “ridge” means “area in wetland where ground is a couple feet higher and brush can grow.”  I also found myself wishing that I were better at bird identification, because this is a very popular birding area.  I was able to identify a rough-legged hawk and white-throated sparrow today, although I’m sure a lot of way cooler species got away without me spying them.

After spending much of my day on the prairies, I headed west and north, through Crookston and East Grand Forks, across the Red River of the North, to… North Dakota!  Yes, folks, I made it.  What I have to report is: Grand Forks, ND is nothing to write home about.  And that is being charitable.  If you can’t say something nice…   So I headed west a few more miles and came to Emerado, where I stopped for supper and a beer.  There is an Air Force Base north of “town,” which I did not check out.  I put it in quotes like that, because it is nothing but a looped road of trailer homes, with a bar/café and Dairy Queen at one end.  I immediately impressed the bartender as being a “hard drinker,” when I sat down and ordered a Grain Belt.  I assured her that I was from Wisconsin and could handle it.  I won her favor even further when I downed an entire 10” frozen pizza all by myself.  On my way out an hour or so later, when she and her friends urged me to come in again, I told them I was headed west, across the state.  I explained my mission to check out North Dakota.

“Oh,” they assured me, “North Dakota’s really not that bad.  It’s flat here, but it’s not that bad.”

“You poor SOB, you came in through Grand Forks – you should have come from the other direction!”

“Out in the western part of the state it gets nicer, more like badlands.”

And my personal favorite: “I come from Minnesota, where at least we have trees!  We may not have rolling hills, either, but at least there were trees…”

This last led me to learn my first new term for this state: shelter belt.  Tune in next time to find out what exactly it means…

Isle Royale – Farewell

Day 14

September 12, 2010

Mile 795 – 845

Isle Royale National Park, MI to Grand Marais, MN

I finally got myself out of bed early this morning, in order to take one last short hike over to nearby Lake Mason, in hopes of seeing wildlife or at least getting a few more moments of solitude.  The hike was shorter than I’d thought, and there was no wildlife, but it did make a nice, peaceful place to sit and enjoy the morning.  Technically, I had seen the sun rise from my shelter (and a beautiful view it was), but I got to see it actually come up, sitting on a rock next to Lake Mason, blinded by the light glinting off of wet branches.  The dew and fog never quite got around to burning off back in that lake (probably because it was

On the dock at Chippewa Harbor, waiting for the boat

actually leftover rain, not really dew), before I had to head back down and get myself packed up.

My tent had mostly dried in the night, and I made myself some breakfast and a Nalgene of tea while loading my pack for the last time.  Waiting on the dock with the guys from Detroit, I reflected on how different my trip was from what theirs would be.  For all of my concerns of being ill-equipped for the trek, I was far better off than they were.  Moreover, my journey had been a solo one, with minimal human contact.  I can’t say that it would be better or worse to be hanging out with my buddies the whole time – just different.  A different interaction with myself, and with the world around me.

Before long, the Voyageur II came along to pick us up, and I got my last view of Chippewa Harbor as we pulled out into the Lake.  The sun had started heating up the day by that time, causing the

Voyageur II arriving in Chippewa Harbor

winds and waves to pick up a little, and by the time we got to Malone Bay, the calmer harbor waters were welcome.  The Detroit guys had been impressed by the distance we had traveled in about an hour – and a bit nervous about having to walk that whole distance back again!  I felt a little bit satisfied with myself for having already hiked that – and more, and was looking forward to impressing myself with the distance we had yet to travel to Windigo.

By the time we got to that next harbor, a little under two hours later, it felt as if two days had elapsed – the boat pitched and rolled with the high waves, water crashing against the decks and leaking in around the window frames.  The mate referred to the lake as a “roller coaster” that day – I might have called it a bucking bronco – but I guess it depended on whether we were headed directly into the waves or were hitting them on the side.  Neither way was particularly fun, though the former provided a little more predictability.  Focusing all of my mental and physical energies on not getting nauseous, listening to the clanging of deck doors and hearing the slapping and washing of water along the length of the boat, I found myself dredging up repressed memories of my journey across the Pacific.  Truly, I thought that I didn’t remember anything of that day and a half of seasickness, half asleep and half puking, but vivid mental pictures of the Navarino’s storm-tossed cabin and deck came back to me!  Perhaps if I had had the coves and ridges of Isle Royale to fix my gaze on then, I could have avoided it after all!  As it was, I was very relieved to make it to the calm waters of the bay around Windigo.  It was really beautiful, threading through the many smaller islands that surround that harbor, and I found myself thinking it would be fun to paddle on a calmer day (there are a few boat-access campsites out on those islands, too).  After loading up the rest of the boat with passengers and their cargo, we headed back another wave-tossed two hours to the mainland, and I was happier to reach Grand Portage than I ever thought I would be!  Kudos to the captain and crew for getting us there as quickly and smoothly as possible – I know they weren’t enjoying it any more than we were.

Lake Superior on a windy, windy day. If you look closely, you can see the island's coastline on the horizon (I hiked all you can see, and more)

After seeing nothing but water streaming down steamed-up windows for all of that time, it was a bit surreal to step out into a warm and sunny, if breezy, day.  It made for a nice drive back down 61 to Grand Marais.  I treated myself to a good dinner (and an overpriced, but delicious, beer), and realized for the first time that I was ravenous – and exhausted!  I hadn’t planned on being so tired after a day of doing nothing but sitting on a boat… but I also hadn’t planned on using all my strength to stay in my seat!  I headed out of town and decided to stay at the first campground I came to, at Cascade River State Park, a few miles south of Grand Marais.  I could still hear the waves of Lake Superior (along with cars passing on the highway, and folks laughing around campfires), but a couple cushy pillows in my tent made all the difference, and I fell quickly asleep…

Isle Royale – North Shore

Days 10-11

September 8-9, 2010

Isle Royale National Park

After letting things dry out a bit on Wednesday morning, I again set off on the Greenstone Trail, bound for Hatchet Lake.  The trail vegetation was much the same, but I had a couple good views of the island and the distance.  From Ishpeming Point and the trail down to Malone Bay, I could see down the island towards Superior, and vaguely make out Minnesota’s shoreline to the southwest.  When the trees opened up for a view to the north, I could see the larger islands off of Isle Royale’s coast, and bits of Canada in the distance.

The wildlife of the day was birds, though I am no expert and couldn’t identify most of them.  A couple different kinds of woodpeckers, loons, gulls, and mergansers on the lakes, and some more common (but still unknown to me) species all over.  Hatchet Lake was lovely, and there was only one other person at the campground – I decided to spend another night there, and just day-hike down to the coast, to give my feet and back a rest.

Todd Harbor

Thursday, then, was spent in Todd Harbor, which was also relatively unpopulated.  The sun was finally coming out, and sitting directly in its rays, I could even make believe that it was warm – with my long underwear on!  Nevertheless, I didn’t want to miss my chance for a dip in Lake Superior, and needed to rinse off some of the dirt and sweat of the previous days.  Brrr!   It was a very quick dip, but after some PB & J, I even sunned on the dock for a few minutes while drying off.

I walked a little way past Todd Harbor towards McCargoe Cove, to the east.  The trail was very lovely, with thick cushions of  club

Trail to McCargoe Cove

mosses, spruce and white cedars mixed with birch and aspen, and lichen on rocks and tree trunks.  I wish I could have gone farther, but it was supposed to be my rest day… and I still had to get the four miles or so back to camp.

That night, after dinner, I took a short walk along a little path that paralleled Hatchet Lake.  The other man at the campground had hung out down by the lake the evening before, hoping to see a moose, and had been rewarded – he told me that he saw one slipping into the water from a distance, down towards the end of the lake.  So I walked that way, then paused in the dusk to see what I could see, through the trees. A merganser got nervous with me standing there and flew around the lake a few times, but that didn’t seem to disturb anything else.  Every once in a while, I heard a branch snap, somewhere in the dark woods on the other side of the lake.  I guess moose are big enough that they don’t need to worry about being quiet!  My patience paid off, and  a few minutes later a dark splotch appeared among the vegetation leading down to the lake on the far shore.  The dark splotch moved slowly, with a great rustling, down ot the lake, and once the dark moose joined the dark water, I could see no more.  It was too far away and too dark to really make out, and I only know it was a moose because it couldn’t have been anything else, but there you have it… moose number two.

Isle Royale – intro

Isle Royale National Park is a 210-square-mile island in northwestern Lake Superior, closest to Minnesota and Ontario, with Wisconsin a runner-up, but politically it lands in Michigan, somehow.  That would have no effect, really, on my experience, except for the fact that it is therefore also in the Eastern time zone, despite the fact that it is physically located in the central – so I had to quickly acclimate to the sun rising and setting an hour later.

Coming up on Isle Royale from Grand Portage, MN

The big stories on the island (or ISRO, its acronym) are the moose and wolves, which separately came over from the mainland during the 20th century (the moose swam; the wolves walked on an ice bridge).  It is the wolf population with the longest continuously ongoing study, and close tabs are inevitably kept on the moose population as well.  That said, it is pretty rare for anyone to see a wolf out there (as the ranger said in our orientation, there are 19 wolves on 210 acres, so…), and I didn’t set any records in that category during my stay.  I did see a couple moose, though…  but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Isle Royale is also a federally-designated Wilderness Area, so most of the park is accessible only by foot or non-motorized watercraft (the outer harbors and their adjacent campsites welcome motorboats, yachts, etc.).  Although it is one of the least-visited of the national parks (due to difficult access – several hours on a ferry), the volume of people hiking through the backcountry can be pretty heavy, so they have established campgrounds throughout the park for overnight stays.  Those sites have tent pads, pit toilets, and in some cases fire rings and wooden shelters.  My route took me along the central Greenstone Ridge Trail, with visits to various sites on the ridge, next to inland lakes, and at outer harbors.  The views, vegetation, and wildlife (not to mention human interaction) varied as I crossed over half the length of the island in the course of a week. There is a great map of the park: here.  This… [drumroll please] … is my story:

Day 8

September 6, 2010

Isle Royale N.P.

My trip started on Labor Day with a two-hour ferry ride from Grand Portage aboard the Voyageur II.  It was a somewhat bumpy, but overall pleasant ride, and we passengers chatted among ourselves about our upcoming plans for touring the island.  One woman was doing a 9-day solo paddle/portage through the inland lakes.  Another was simply taking a two-day ferry trip around the island to view the lighthouses.  My plan, to backpack a chunk of the island in a week, seemed about average.

Upon arrival in Windigo, we all got an orientation to the principles of Leave No Trace, then went and got our backcountry permits, and were set free to explore the island.  I headed along the Greenstone Ridge Trail, which first led uphill through a pretty boreal forest, and quickly leveled out on the ridge.  After a couple miles of that, the ridge became nothing but monotonous maple woods – with the very occasional birch tree, white cedar, or grapevine to break things up.  I passed over a dozen people on the ridge before I stopped counting, all heading back out towards Windigo at the end of their trips.

My first night was to be spent at Island Mine campground, up on the ridge in the middle of all those maples (I had been warned of the less-than stellar scenery and limited water supply before heading out).  The wind from the days before had not abated, and if anything I could expect it to get stronger, as storthere, near the ridge, and picked my site accordingly.  A couple advantages of

Maple Woods on the Greenstone Ridge Trail

the location, however, were that campfires were allowed (prohibited throughout most of the island), and that no one else had elected to spend the night there.  So I was all alone with my fire, drinking tea and thinking about the day, when I heard a low grunting noise, accompanied by some thudding.

Minutes before, I had written in my journal that, although boring, the site at least offered peace of mind… after all, what would a moose want with an area with no water or undergrowth?  I didn’t need to worry about any animals bothering me in the night – I’d only seen one squirrel and a couple birds since my arrival a few hours earlier.  But that clumping and snorting made me perk up my ears, and as it was repeated, the sounds also grew closer.  Big sticks were breaking as it walked, and the island really doesn’t have a wide variety of animals… it wasn’t a human, squirrel, fox, or wolf.  Must be a moose!

I stood up and made some noise, to let him know I was there (my fire was burning low and it was almost completely dark).  He stopped, thought for a bit, and then continued slowly around my campsite, passing within 50 yards of my tent.  At one point, I got a great look at his silhouette, despite the deep dusk.  It was pretty exciting, but ruined my peace of mind for the evening!  If any moose experts out there can solve the mystery of what he was doing in the area, I’d love to know…

Grand Portage

Day 7

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Mile 766 -795

Grand Portage, MN

I spent the day in and around Grand Portage, seeing the sights and attempting to relax before heading out into the wilds of Isle Royale.  Although the sun shone warmly, the wind was pretty intense, and everyone was walking around in sweatshirts.   A small reservation town nearly on the Canadian border, distinguished primarily by its casino, Grand Portage was in some ways a welcome break from the tourism of the “North Shore,” though I wouldn’t have minded if there had been a cell tower there!

I should say that the casino was the primary attraction, according to radio, billboard, and brochure advertisement.  In fact, Grand Portage is the western gateway to Isle Royale National Park, is itself the home of Grand Portage National Monument, and has some amazing scenery all around.  Needless to say, I didn’t spend the day playing poker.

My first stop, after logistics had been taken care of, was Grand Portage National Monument.  The site consists of an indoor museum and gallery, as well as an outdoor recreation of the fort (along with period interpreters) that existed at the site.  The name “grand portage” comes from the name of the 9-mile overland route that voyageurs (and the Indians before them) traveled to get from the harbor on Lake Superior to the Pigeon River, above its impassable series of waterfalls.  From there, it was possible to travel on streams and lakes deep into the north lands to seek beaver for the fur trade.  Present-day Grand Portage was used both by the English North West Company as an administrative site, and as a small Ojibwe/Chippewa settlement; Europeans and Indians got along well here.

While 9 miles is a long way to portage your gear, especially over the basalt cliffs of the North Shore, and the thought of traveling another thousand miles north into Canada for the winter is a little daunting, this wasn’t the most impressive aspect of the site for me.  I am familiar with the wilderness trials of voyageurs and the revelry of their rendezvous from southern Wisconsin history (most notable at Villa Louis State Historic Site in Prairie du Chien, WI).  But the guys up here were really hard core!  There were two groups of voyageurs up here, in addition to the white-collar company men, who rendezvous’ed every summer to trade goods, and good times.  The first, as I’m mentioned, were the ones who delved into the frozen wilderness and trapped or traded for beaver pelts all winter, hauling them back out in the spring.  The second group, though, spent the winter comfortably in Montreal, where the North West Company had its headquarters.  Then, when warmer weather came and the ice melted, they took out their 36-foot canoes, loaded them down with goods, and set out westward, through the Great Lakes, finally paddling across the entire length of Lake Superior, before landing there on the North Shore!  They dropped off the goods needed by the company and the voyageurs, loaded up the furs, and after only a short break, headed back eastward, hoping to get there before the weather got too cold.  Not an easy task…  Sure makes the route to Prairie du Chien (through Green Bay on Lake Michigan and the rivers that lead to the Mississippi) look pretty easy!

Looking out from shore, I could see Isle Royale looming twenty-some miles away, and on that windy, rough day I couldn’t imagine anyone paddling even that  distance!  So I headed up the road towards Canada to check out where the inland-bound voyageurs had been headed.  Right on the Minnesota/Ontario border is Grand Portage State Park, which currently has minimal facilities but is apparently about to open a visitor’s center.  There is a paved half-mile trail to the view of the “High Falls of the Pigeon River.”  They are indeed high – at 120 feet, the highest in Minnesota.  Also impressive and beautiful, as waterfalls are wont to be.  Farther up the Pigeon River, there is another series of short waterfalls (the “Middle Falls,” which leads me to believe that there are some more even farther along…).  Although the point of the day was to relax, I took the 3.5-mile hike up (and down, and up again) to them.  They were nice, and it was cool to see the river calm above them.  The hike was pretty, too, and offered some great views.  It also offered me the chance to stand on the border: right next to one of the cascades of the Middle Falls was a brass survey marker drilled into the basalt.  And I didn’t even need my passport…

The rest of the day and evening was spent trying to relax and get organized (both physically and mentally) for my upcoming week of backpacking on Isle Royale.  I chilled out at the campground (Grand Portage has a municipal campground at the marina, which seemed disappointingly RV-oriented and barren when I’d arrived the night before, but actually had some nice tent sites perched next to Lake Superior), cleaned out my car, and got everything packed up…

Highway 61 Revisited

Days 5-6, September 3-4, 2010

Miles 575 – 730

Duluth to Grand Marais, MN

Sorry, folks – couldn’t avoid the cheesy title!  And I don’t need any lectures about Dylan’s formative years actually being spent in Hibbing, not Duluth – I didn’t erect the signs, kids!  But it’s true that I am revisiting this route along the North Shore of Lake Superior… I was here in 1996, on my pre-frosh orientation trip, when we went rock climbing at Tetteguche State Park.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though.  After a lovely lunch at Fitger’s Brewhouse, I headed north on 61, amid heavy wind and driving drizzle.  Not really that big of an inspiration to get out and enjoy the sites on the lakefront, I must say.  I grabbed a campsite when I found a park that wasn’t full (it’s Labor Day weekend, after all), between Illgen and Finland, on Hwy 1.  Ekbeck campground in Finland State Forest is small and cozy, with minimal facilities – and it’s right on the bank of the Baptism River.  After setting up my tent in drizzle, I went for a short hike to Illgen

Illgen Falls

Falls, and along the shore of the Baptism a little ways.  The Falls were

Me on the Baptism River, above Illgen Falls

pretty, though I would have to say the river itself is even prettier.  I’ll let photos do the talking for me, though, and you can decide.

Baptism River, below Illgen Falls

The next morning finally dawned sunny, and I took a short hike up the Superior Hiking Trail, from the town of Finland to Egge Lake.  I needed another excuse to practice with my fully-loaded backpack before I head out to Isle Royale on Monday, and it turned out to be a lovely choice.  While the like itself, and the forest leading up to it, were great on this fall-like day, the most exciting part for me was along the edge of the trail.  I think one of the coolest aspects of the northern forests is all the lichen and club mosses, so my eye was already on the ground when strange and colorful mushrooms began appearing!  Unfortunately, I may have lost my camera (long story), so I can’t share them all with you right now.  Hopefully that will soon be remedied, and I can arrange an awesome fungus display one of these days.

The Superior Hiking Trail itself is 277 miles and leads through some really beautiful terrain, with ample dayhiking or backpacking opportunities.  It would provide a pretty great vacation destination in itself, as was apparent from all of the Labor Day traffic along the roads and trails.  I met a hiker at the start of my day who was in the process of mapping the trail and posting it on the Backpacker website, so if you’re interested in trip planning, check that out – and check back regularly, as it is clearly a work in progress.

After that I drove out of Finland, winding in and out of the Superior National Forest and along some beautiful small lakes.  I saw a trumpeter swan, whose primary distinction was being my first interesting “wildlife” of the trip (unless you count those deer…).  The scenery was gorgeous, and I was almost disappointed to get back out onto 61 and head north towards Grand Marais with all the weekend traffic.  After a quick re-supply in town, I grabbed a mini pizza from Sven and Ole’s (of course) and am now heading up the road towards Grand Portage…

It’ll be a while before you hear from me again, but I’m hoping to have some great tales to tell when that day comes!