Minnesota, part 1

We went on vacation to Minnesota, and returned on Saturday, hence the lack of recent journal updates. Time to rectify the situation…

I’d visited the Gopher State before, but this was the first time I’d been north of Minneapolis. The plan was to head into the northern part of the state, where the woods are thick and the wildlife is plentiful. We weren’t planning to rough it in a tent—there are some limits—but hopefully we’d get to walk in the woods and along the lakeshores.

After a few days in Minneapolis, we headed for Duluth, on the southwest shore of Lake Superior (aka Gitche Gumee). Through lucky timing, Prairie Home Companion was on MPR as we were driving. We don’t listen to it at home much, but somehow it seemed like the perfect accompaniment to the journey.

Duluth is fairly small, and since peak vacation season hadn’t started yet, it was pretty empty too. The local economy has hit the skids now that there’s not as much call to ship iron ore across the lake, and it’s obviously dependent on tourism. We toured the S.S. William A. Irvin, once the flagship ore-carrying boat of the US Steel fleet. We also had to visit the Great Lakes Aquarium, of course, because it has an excellent river otter exhibit…

At the risk of stating the obvious, Lake Superior is big. You could just about fit England into it. It was the first time I’d seen a lake that stretched out beyond the horizon, had tides and waves, and was big enough to lose a 400m long cargo ship in. It was weird—the lake looked like the ocean, except it wasn’t salty and didn’t have seaweed. (Conversely, Sara’s first experience of the ocean was that it was weird, because it looked like a lake, but it was salty and full of seaweed.)

Sitting on the rocks by the lake late one afternoon, we watched the cold mists rolling in onto the land. To my delight, there was a pair of loons fishing just off shore. In spite of numerous visits to Minnesota, I’d not actually managed to see the official state bird before.

Since Minnesota has 10,000 lakes and plenty of swampy ground, the other state bird is the mosquito. I’d done some research before travelling, and discovered that the best safe mosquito repellant is a solution of around 10-35% DEET in a slow-release polymer of some kind. We’d visited REI Minneapolis and picked some up, along with a can of Permethrin for clothing. So, while we saw a lot of really huge mosquitos, we managed to come away without a single bite…

After Duluth, we drove up the north shore of Lake Superior to Split Rock Lighthouse. What can I say? It’s a lighthouse. It has a big rotating fresnel lens, state of the art for its day. It has a foghorn building with two big horns sticking out the front.

Then came the journey I’d been waiting for. We drove up to Ely. If you look at a map, you’ll see that it’s about as far northeast as you can go by road. It’s really rather like “Northern Exposure”—log cabins, lakes, tall trees, and the occasional passing moose. We passed a female moose on the way into town; she just stared at us and carried on munching.

Why did I want to go there? Because Ely is home to the International Wolf Center. Minnesota’s the only state in the USA where wolves aren’t actually endangered, and at the Wolf Center you can get a close look at three great plains wolves and two arctic wolves. The great plains wolves are the kind native to Minnesota; surprisingly, timberwolves aren’t found there. (Someone screwed up when naming the sports team.)

The wolves were really beautiful, and very fluffy—although they were beginning to shed their winter fur. I didn’t get to pet them, but I did get to feel some winter wolf fur (from one that had died of natural causes). It was amazingly soft and silky: guard hairs 4-5cm long, with black bands two thirds of the way up to give the coat its color, and warm white underfur. If you had to sleep outdoors in Minnesota in January, you’d need it.

We ate at a restaurant called the Chocolate Moose. You can see it on the right as you look west on Central and Sheridan. The food was excellent—all made from scratch. I felt I had to try something authentically Minnesotan, so I ate walleye coated with wild rice and pan-fried, on a wild rice pilaf.

Next: The Iron Range…