MISSION: To visit every state and territory in the U.S. For my mission a visit is greater than a stop over; I wish to explore the natural and cultural environments of these areas. Each of these locations has a story to tell, and I want to find it.

As of February 2018 I have visited all 50 states (and Puerto Rico and 2 island in the US Virgin Islands) at least once.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Lakes, Lake and More Lakes (and the Mississippi River)

I learned a really interesting fact about Minnesota while visiting Itasca State Park - the 10,000 lakes cover 5600 square miles, which means that there is 1 square mile of water for every 15 square miles of land. Indeed, water was everywhere in Minnesota, especially the northern 2/3rds of the state. Every day in the state incorporated water in one way or another - the Great Lake, smaller lakes, rivers, waterfalls, and even rain... it was a wet trip.

My days were so packed, I don't know how I could have seen anymore. I went into this trip planning to visit Voyageurs, the national park that shares boundary waters with Canada. I had hopes of driving up the Lake Superior coast line to learn what Grand Portage National Monument was all about. I had taken note of the headwaters on the Mississippi. And I knew I had to make one trip to southern Minnesota to visit Pipestone. What wasn't planned for was when I made constant detours to see things that were recommended or that I heard about on the way. Because while I was planning, I definitely did not hear about a few of these state parks, the bear sanctuary or Betty's Pies.

While planning my Minnesota trip, I had a few people tell me to skip the southern region. But in reading about Pipestone, I knew that it would be worth the 3 hour drive from Minneapolis. It is a place of spiritual importance to the Native Americans, specifically the Plains Indians. It is a place of peace, tranquility and of geologic importance. Taken directly from the name, the monument preserves the quarry lands of ceremonial pipestone (under layers and layers of quartzite). What I didn't realize was that this park also preserves the last 1% of tall grass prairie! And as you take the hike around a portion of the prairie and along the quartzite wall, you get a small sense of the serenity of the area. Winnewissa Falls roars and native elders faces are found in the stone walls (the Oracle and Old Stone Face). The falls stream down and into Winnewissa pond; song birds of brilliant colors fly around. If my cell phone had service, I would have been on my ornithology app, looking up all kinds of finches, because they were there in blue, greens, yellows, reds - colors reserved for tropical birds. Although I am not a birder by any stretch of the imagination, I was super excited to see some mud nests of the swallow (and the birds flying in and out). I understand that they are considered pests in residential communities of the area, but that it's just not a common site in DC!

My post North Dakota leg of my trip began with a visit to Itasca State Park. The park is beautiful - Itasca Lake is stunning. I wished I could have spent more time there then the 3 1/2 hours I did. I just wanted to walk in these woods along the water. I wanted to listen to the woodpeckers a bit longer (they always make me smile). I wanted to hear more cries from the loon. AND, I also wanted to swim in the Mississippi River. It was soooooooo clean. Frolicking in the waters flashed me back to growing up on the Musconetcong River and swimming in a small area near our home. I grew up with cold fresh water at my finger tips and I just wanted to dive in, cold be damned. It was amazing. Having seen the Mississippi River as it travels through many states, its Headwaters make it almost unrecognizable. It is so clean you can drink it (literally, there is a sign). You can wade in it and see your feet. You can just enjoy it as small fish swim past your toes and birds dip down for a drink. And as I walked across the river (just to say I did), I marveled that this tiny stream was the same body of water that that winds its way into New Orleans and into the Gulf of Mexico (that is to say that tiny stream plus 15,000 miles of waterway over 100 tributaries, traveling through 10 states, and draining from 31 states and 2 providences in Canada)!

I saw more than birds in Minnesota (and zoo animals), but birds tend to be prevalent where there is water. So I saw plenty of geese, cormorants, heron, ducks and even a few swans. By far the coolest water fowl siting I had was in Voyageurs National Park with the white pelican. Not only did it give me one of my favorite pictures of the entire trip, but it was my marker for my favorite day of the entire trip. I was lucky enough to have a guide to take me out on the water. Out of Arrowhead Lodge, Larry became by Voyageurs interpreter. He let me join a family from Iowa (thanks Patty!), on a tour of the key park sites off Lake Kabetogama. Boating around over 50 nautical miles, Larry kept Patty and I entertained with fun facts about the area and stories of living there in the frigid winters. We started out at Hoist Bay, where we visited what looked like a smaller version of camp but was in fact a summer get away for Midwestern families that would pack up and move to the lake for the summer. The story of the ice house truly drove home how ingenious families where that worked the area all year. I am way too modern of a person to picture life where you cut ice from the deeply frozen lake and store it for a year to keep your perishables from decaying. Larry then taught us about lake levels - the area's prime industries are logging and tourism. And in the past, the lake was used to transport logs to town... so, lake levels were controlled by 2 damns at Kettle Falls; today those damns are used to control water levels as the resorts and lakeside town does not flood. Kettle Falls also has an historic lodge rich with "fun" history of bootlegging, mob ties and as a bordello. And all of that makes sense when you think about the money in logging, the men that would have gone up to clearcut the forests and what they would have been looking for after hours... Just like any other remote mining town. The last stop on the lake tour was at Ellsworth Rock Garden - an amazing site that just makes you scratch your head and ask "why?". Here, in the middle of nowhere, Mr Ellsworth spent his days creating a sizable rock garden with cascading flowers... the rock formations were like looking at clouds. What do you see there? And on our way back to the lodge, Larry took us past a bald eagle nest so large, I swear I could live in it... well, except for the fact that I don't think the eagles would take kindly to visitors as they barely tolerated us floating past them. I have never been given the evil eye by a bird before, but I think I can check that off my list now.

When we finally docked again, we have spent about 6 hours on the water. Can't complain about that. It was a beautiful day. I had a small tour of this gorgeous water park, one that I did not think was possible as it was "preseason." And I met some great people. Larry sent me on my way towards Pelican Lake and a bear sanctuary and with an itinerary for the next few days. (I need to write him to tell him I saw all his recommendations)! I stopped in the town of Orr and walked around their Marsh Walk hoping for a glimpse of some marshy predatory plants... pitcher plants, sundews - they are creepy but also cool to photograph (and cool examples of plant mutations). Alas, no carnivorous plants, but I did get to see a few more woodpeckers, feed a few mosquitoes and take a few pictures that look like they belong in the Swamp Thing. And after wasting enough time, I headed to the bear area (it opened late). I am still not positive how I feel about this facility... yes, it is cool to see black bears up close, while being safe on platforms. And ye, I got to see babies climb trees while their mom fed. But that was the problem, this whole place existed because someone fed the bears pancakes regularly for years. The nonprofit came into existence because they can't stop after this guy's death. So now, they have better feeding practices than sourdough pancakes and they use the opportunity for study and research. Fun to see if I shut off my ecology brain for a while.

After bidding Patty and her family adieu (yes, I saw them at the bear facility too), I hit the road for Duluth. And it was then that I had the wildlife moment I had been missing forever - I saw my first wolf!!!! It happened in less then 5 seconds. It saw me, looked at me, turned its back and trotted away... but holy crap, my first wolf. In all my years in Alaska, I never saw one. In my week in Yellowstone, never saw one (heard them). In all my trips to Wyoming, nothing... yet here in Minnesota, I get one. And I didn't even have to visit Isle Royale for it to happen.

With 2 days in Duluth, I had time to explore. And I did A LOT! It was the end of my trip and there was still so much to see on the coast. I immediately took off running my first day, and I needed to run because that Lake Superior weather effect kicked in and the temperature dropped at least 40 degrees and the Scooby-doo fog rolled in. Brrrr! I headed to the Art Museum on the University of Minnesota campus. Was greeted by Cyrano de Bergerac and wandered the museum looking at great pottery and landscapes by Gilbert Munger (if you don't know him, look him up). They had a whole collection of them - at least 15 were out... they are almost as good as being there... but I had "there" to visit. So it was up the coastal highway for me.

I stopped by Gooseberry Falls. Partly to keep warm, partly to see the falls, and partly because I love to - I hiked the falls loop to see the three tiers, the splash zones and the washout areas. The falls are beautiful and this state park is easily accessible for anyone that wants to see a 3 tiered cascading waterfall. The highway bridge adds an arch at the top of it... just stunning. Hopping in and out of my car, I get out again at Split Rock Lighthouse. Built on a Cliffside over 100 feet above the water, the lighthouse marks the spot of tragedy -the Gales of November - boats crashed on the notoriously rocky Superior shoreline. And because Lake Superior is a beast (the largest, deepest, coldest Great Lake), this lighthouse also included a Fog House, where a horn would constantly blow during that "Scooby-doo" fog that were experienced that very day. The fog was so thick that it didn't make sense for me to hike down to the shore for the "view" up BUT it did mean I could continue north.

I was on a mission to get to Grand Portage but all these state parks were calling to me. The coast line was riddled with them. I took mental notes of places I wanted to stop, if I could, on the way back, and pushed through. Made it to the park only to discover that the main attraction there, the fur trading city, did not open until that weekend. Well, I was there, and I was going to learn what I could... The park movie and museum (and my trip to Voyageurs) taught me more about the fur trade then I ever learned in school. [There was this fantastic interactive exhibit that let your negotiate with a company man - was relieved to see my skills are still solid, I got a fair trade and fed my family - go me!!!] This park preserved the great trading town where Indians, company representatives, interpreters, and voyageurs would gather. Merriment was had, furs and goods were exchanged and it was all ruined by the boundary line battle in DC... once the line was redrawn, companies moved north a few miles to Canada and Grand Portage was history. I hiked a steep trail up the cliff to get a grand view of Grand Portage bay and the town... and with that you can see why this spot was chosen for so long. The bay provides protection from the rougher waters of the Lake and those views... wow.

Views continued when I drove the Canadian border to see the most beautiful waterfall outside of Niagara. Grand Portage State Park's High Falls is stunning. One waterfall, broken into 3 sections, like a braid... each section is different and pretty - together, I still swoon at the thought. After an easy hike, you get to stand in the mists, get soaked and just take it in. I don't know why this place does not get the notoriety of Gooseberry - it should. With the right combination of sun, mist, and wind, a huge rainbow forms over the river. Wow, just wow.

There was no way that I could top High Falls... and I didn't but I tried. On the way back to Duluth, I stopped by Cascade Falls State Park for another quick hike to see a punchbowl waterfall and for a beautiful view of the lake shore. By the time I made it to Schroeder, I was spent, so thank goodness the waterfall (a very rocky cascade) was literally on the side of the road.

This left me one full day in Duluth - good thing my hotel was near so much of what I wanted to see. I could see the Lift Bridge from my room, but up close was so much better. Quite honestly, the bridge is not that attractive until you see it "do its thing." The port of Duluth is extremely active and as boats come into the port, Lift Bridge literally lifts its road straight up. I was able to see it a few times from various angles as I meandered around Canal Park enjoying the fountains, the sculptures and the lighthouses. I walked over the bridge to visit city beach and dip my feet into Lake Superior (why, I don't know), and back again to hoof it to the Rose Garden (filled with tulips) and Leif Erikson Park. From there, I wandered the Great Lakes Aquarium, where I fed the trout, and got a lesson in the natural history of the area. Kudos to the facility for teaching visitors about their local surroundings - there is plenty to learn about the Great Lakes region and not everything can be about Nemo and Dory!

I finished by day with 2 foodies institutions - before I left the lake area, I stopped by Betty's Pies in Two Harbors because I was told that I "had to try one before I left." So I did- a Great Lakes Pie, full of berries - yum! Since I was up there, I quickly sopped by another lighthouse for one last bit of touristy goodness and was off to the big city in the pouring rain. After that drive back to Minneapolis, my New Kids concert Buddy took me out for a Juicy Lucy at 5*8 Club, because I "had to have one before I left." Apparently they have been on just about every foodie television show and contest found on the travel and food channels. Good burgers!

Minnesota is beautiful. After visiting, I can say I wish I would have visited sooner. I can't change that, but I can say I will be back. Those waters are calling! I will just have to pack the bug spray, hats, candles, eat tons of garlic before I visit and anything else that may work because I think I donated at least 2 pints of blood to those suckers. I feel better knowing I killed at least a million with my car as I drove around though - that rental car was gross and encrusted with bug corpses. Does that even things out?

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