The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called ‘Gitchi Gumee’
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy.
–Gordon Lightfoot from “The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald”
After a week in the north woods, I gazed with unusual interest into the skies above Lake Superior. A couple of military aircraft from the Great Lakes Naval Air Station were on a training mission, maneuvering in the misty morning sky over the inland sea. Normally, such an intrusion would be an unwanted distraction at best, but after not seeing a single aircraft for a week, it was a not unpleasant novelty. As I realized this, I chuckled at this reaction from someone who lives beneath the very active flight paths of an international airport. Amazing really, how a few days among the red and white pines forests of Minnesota can alter your perspective, and cleanse your perceptions.
The last few days of a recent camping / fishing trip across the northern Plains, we found ourselves encamped along the shores of Lake Superior in Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. The park, named for Minnesota’s iconic lighthouse there, offers a few hike-in, paddle-in and cart-in campsites. We chose the latter, a less common opportunity, and hauled our tents and gear to our designated site with a large fiberglass “goat cart” along the hilly, rocky trail some five hundred meters from the access area. Because of the up and down aspect of the trail, it was explained that the cart was equipped with hand brakes, similar to those on a bicycle. The sagacity of this precaution became evident just a few yards along the trail, as the first dip occurred. With the cart under control, it was a short but pleasant hike to our site, serenaded by the pounding of the surf, and vistas of the lake along the trail.
The site itself was the finest spot I’ve ever camped, up a rocky side trail and surrounded by house size boulders that offered ample protection from the winds off Superior. Although the wildlife encountered was primarily the extremely social ground squirrels, and the chirping Least chipmunks, the sturdy bear box on site was a nice touch. Upon return to the site late one afternoon, we immediately realized two things. First, we had left the bear box door open after lunch, and second, there wasn’t a single raccoon in the vicinity. That epiphany occurred simultaneously to the discovery of the open door: the contents were untouched and intact, ergo no raccoons nearby.
The small terrace above the site clearing was perfect ground to pitch our tents on, overlooking the fire ring, table, goat cart, bear box and the comings and goings of the silent ground squirrels and the chirping, whistling, chipmunks. Superior was not visible from the tent site, but was audible to be sure. The huge boulders surrounding us seemed to ring with the dash, splash and crash of the nearby surf, and afforded a relatively accessible elevated perspective of the lakeshore environs. As is the tradition in many backcountry campsites, the previous occupants had left some non perishables in the bear box, and we opted to pay that forward with some additions of our own at trip’s end.
I had spent time around the other Great Lakes, primarily Michigan and Ontario, And while those two water bodies are certainly impressive, and beyond our normal perception of what a lake is, Superior is in a class by itself. In discussing the vastness of Superior with one of the park rangers, it came up that Superior could hold all the water of Lakes Michigan, Huron and Ontario, and almost three Lake Eires.Or put another way, Superior holds enough water to cover an area equal to the lower forty-eight states,to a depth of a foot or so. Nearly 32,000 square miles of surface area, and holding roughly ten percent of the freshwater on our planet on any given day. More a sea than lake in scope, appearance, and sound. Even during the calmest stretches, the waves roll in, gently at times but as a maelstrom during a storm.The waves are said to break some thirty feet up on the cliffs here in really bad weather. In any case, the omnipresent sounds of the waves along the lakeshore had both a type of strangeness but also a familiarity about them.
I say strange, because as someone who has lived much his life along the Atlantic coastal plain, it was quite different hearing waves crash as you were surrounded by forest and boulders, much as it is is some parts of the New England coast or our Pacific coast, but knowing it was a lake raising the pleasant cacophony. And familiar, because I think we hear waves the same, no matter where the surf line may be. The waves pounding on the rocky shore that I fell to sleep with along Lake Superior became the sounds of the Atlantic lulling me to sleep on a Jersey barrier island as a child. But on the strange side of the ledger, there was not a hint of brine obviously, and I think it took me a couple of days until I stopped unconsciously trying to sniff that out. Although the invigorating charge of negative ions was the same as any surf I’ve seen, Superior wore it’s own unique perfume, as does the Atlantic and the Pacific. Blindfolded, a person familiar with all three, could identify each by it’s fragrance alone.
If you look at a map of Lake Superior, you see that the lake is not only huge but of an interesting configuration. Split Rock State Park sits along the shore north of Duluth, and directly across the lake from Wisconsin. Although this arm of the lake is comparatively narrow, the feeling even here of of gazing out to sea.Terns wheel overhead, huge freighters and ore ships cleave the waves offshore, and wrecked hulls of some mark the watery graves of mariners, as in the song excerpt that began this essay. And when I hiked along the Gitchi-Gumee Trail from the campsite to an area called Pebble Beach to do some fishing, it was surf fishing. Not that different from some rocky ocean shores I’d fished in the past, like La Jolla in California, or the rocks along Marginal Way in Ogunquit, Maine. It was like fishing in an ocean, except my quarry was northern pike, smallmouth bass and walleye, not bluefish or surfperch. Offshore sport fishing craft that would have been right at home on most ocean fishing grounds, were trolling with down riggers and cannonball rigs for salmon and lake trout. But there was no tang of salt as I inhaled the refreshing essence wafting across the stony beach. How bizarre, both that I kept expecting it, and that it never manifested itself.
Some of the earliest and most comprehensive writing about Lake Superior came from the pen of Louis Agassiz and J. Elliot Cabot. Their remarkable volume, entitled Lake Superior: its physical character, vegetation, and animals, compared with those of other and similar regions, was first published in 1850. Although the expeditions that produced the work focused mostly on the more northerly parts of the lake, much of what the book contains, especially the cataloging of flora and fauna, is of a more general scope. Among the fauna that they encountered were a wide variety of fish species, some acquired via methods not altogether unfamiliar to 21st century anglers. In describing their fishing for lake trout for example, Agassiz records the following. “The bait is a piece of pork(rind), or better, a trout’s stomach, drawn over the the hook and tied at the shank. A simple plate of brass, with a couple of hooks….is allowed to trail a dozen fathoms astern of the canoe, and kept in constant motion by jerking the line.” By Aggassiz’s own admission their success varied, some days catching five or six fish, some days none. That too would seem familiar enough to those plying Superior’s waters today.
Much of Lake Superior is not wilderness any longer, and in fact, little was even in the 19th century. But today, as it was then, it can still be wild, both in its enormity, personality, and presence. And all any lover of nature can ask for is to have gained enough sight in their outdoor pursuits to see this. And when you do, you get both the forest and the trees, each seen clearly by the shore of the inland sea.