Day 5 – July 2, 2019, Tuesday –Thunder Bay, ON to Grand Portage, MN
Man, this trip feels a lot longer than it really has been. We awoke and crawled downstairs for breakfast. The real drama was the automatic pancake machine ran out of batter.
We packed up and headed out – today was a traveling day, with the goal of seeing a few waterfalls and making our way back to Murica. In other words, we had some time to kill. It’s only about 40-odd miles from Thunder Bay to across the border to MN, and so we had to fill the day up.
We picked up some Persians and headed to the Waterfront Park area so Z could get her monkey bar game on. Persians are a Thunder Bay delicacy, only found here – a cinnamon bun frosted with pink berry frosting, and available by the dozen – we purchased half a dozen from The Persian Man along with the largest coffees available, and ate them at the park. Won’t lie, they were actually very very good.
We then drove about 30 min out of Thunder Bay to a Provincial Park with a name we cannot pronounce, to see Kakabeka Falls. Per Sarah’s mom’s magazine, this was ranked the #1 waterfall to see. The falls were gorgeous and had a lovely wooden boardwalk and bridge over them.
Off we went, cutting over to highway 61 and heading back to the border. We wanted to stop at Pigeon Falls Provincial Park, and didn’t realize it literally is on the US-Canada border. We parked in the lot to go hiking, and could see the border crossing a few hundred feet away. We aimed to hike to the high falls of the Pigeon River, mysteriously ALSO ranked the #1 waterfall to see by the same guide (we have concerns about our guide at this point). Sarah was insistent it was “only a few km” away and after hiking far too many km, including in a large pipe under the highway, we did find the falls and they were beautiful as well. Even better, you could see a viewing platform across the river that was on the American side!
We hiked back, and at this point figured out that Canadian hiking maps for provincial parks do not clearly state exactly how many km each trail segment is, and that you should always guess it will be many more. Or have someone beside Sarah look at the map.
We crossed the border, and the US Border Patrol guy was way more suspicious than the Canadian guy on the way in. He was like, you came into Canada on Saturday in Sault Ste Marie? While staring at our passports. We frantically thought, did we?!? Matt owned up to transporting “a couple beers” (like 24 of them) and “some amethyst” (22 pounds of it, baby). He did not frisk us and we were allowed to cross. Zoe smuggled a small crushed yellow flower to bring to Grandma Barb. Soon there will be invasive buttercups everywhere.
We visited the Grand Portage National Monument to get our NP Passports stamped and checked out the center/museum. This historical site was gorgeous, and would highly recommend it for anyone interested in Native American history – it was very well put together and incredibly busy.
We then drove to our next hotel – the Grand Portage Casino. This is a casino located just into MN from the border, and on a reservation. We have absolutely no cell phone service and minimal wifi. We are in no man’s land. We rolled in, taking in the cigarette smoke, sound of slot machines, and people slumped over in the lobby drinking beer. We’re home. We loaded all our stuff into the room, and took off for the pool. We were soon followed by 5 preteen/teen kids (think they were locals), who happily followed us in after we used our key card to get into the pool. They were pretty respectful and at least they weren’t glued to video games or doing drugs, right? We made our way upstairs after. Meanwhile, Grandma Barb thought we were still in the pool area and couldn’t figure out how to get in. The teens happily let her in. What goes around, comes around, right?
The kids were psyched to see Grandma Barb, who made the generous offer to watch them in the room while Matt and Sarah could grab a bite to eat at the restaurant. Grandma turned around and the door was slamming shut and Sarah and Matt were already gone. Thanks, Grandma! The restaurant was actually quite good – we had sandwiches/soup/salad/beer/onion rings, and enjoyed looking at the eclectic collection of people eating. About 70% clearly were gamblers, some wearing a player’s club card around their neck on a lanyard and averaging an age of 80. 30% looked to be using this as a jumping off point to Isle Royale or other areas for hiking or backpacking. Others were looking around the room, probably thinking the same thing: who in here will be perched on the top of a partially submerged sinking ferry tomorrow panicking with me? (At least that is what Sarah was thinking.)
After a delicious supper, we rescued Mom/Grandma from upstairs. Sarah lured Matt and the children down to the arcade and gave them money, then took off with her mom to the casino. After blowing through $5 each on slots (Grandma was disappointed that there was no blackjack available on Tuesdays, she checked ahead of time), they despondently met up with Matt and the kids outside near the lake. After some ice cream that Matt procured from the only store in town, it was time for everyone to rest up. We have another National Park to hit up tomorrow!
Beers drank: Voyauger’s IPA and Brunette
Day 6 – July 3, 2019, Wednesday – Grand Portage, MN to Windigo, MI to Superior, WI (whew!)
This was the day we were most excited about – a visit to Isle Royale National Park! Picture Lake Superior (which is clearly shaped like the head of a wolf – we have had some intense debates about this on this trip) and the “eye” is the island of Isle Royale. It is the closest National Park to Wisconsin (not counting national lakeshores, etc). You can only get to it by boat or sea plane, and it is the least visited National Park in the lower 48 states.
We checked out of our motel and drove a couple miles to the boat dock. We were taking the 65 foot Sea Hunter III. Us and Grandma/mom lined up on the dock with the other folks, some of whom we recognized from the hotel dining room the night before. Several families with kids/babies, a few hikers with packs, and an interesting mix – probably about 35-40 people at the most. The captain’s daughter read off the names of groups of people (reservations were made 1-2 months ago) and people boarded – she really butchered Matt’s last name lol (it’s phonetic, come on!).
You could sit inside or on a couple benches in back or along the sides. The lake was like glass. It was chilly outside, but beautiful! Just amazing. We motored over 1 ½ hours to the island, which is actually a grouping of islands, with Isle Royale being the largest at over 45 miles in length. Upon entering the waters around the island, we could see a sunken ship wreck (not the Sea Hunter II (everyone had the same thought) – instead a boat called the Americana) – there are almost a dozen around the island that you can scuba dive to.
We got out at Windigo, on the west side of the island. Whenever we see the brown sign for a National Park with the little symbol, we are so happy! You can take a ferry from Copper Harbor or Houghton, MI as well and end up at Rock Harbor, on the east side of the island. That is the party side – they have a lodge, marina, cottages, etc. We are on the side of nothing (the way we like it!). There is a tiny store and visitor center, and otherwise, just trails and forest. (And weirdly, FLUSH bathrooms).
On our side of the island, we disembarked and a park ranger gave us a talk, and told us we had almost 4 hours to explore the island. If you were not back at 1:45 pm, the boat was leaving without you. Making it challenging, cell service was zilch and during the boat ride, we went to Eastern Time Zone. Everyone’s phones, despite the lack of cell service, kept bouncing between Central and Eastern time zones, making it hard to know exactly what time it really was. Plus the ferry runs on central time. Everyone was just staring at their smart phones, confused (pro tip: wear an old fashioned wrist watch next time).
Immediately after the ranger talk, the crowd swarmed and went to the visitor’s center, everyone clutching their National Park passports. You like national parks enough to go to a remote corner of Minnesota, take a 1.5 hour one-way boat ride to get to one? Yeah, you have an NP passport and you are bringing it to get stamped, goddammit. You are our people. All about the stamps.
We grabbed some sandwiches and chips and ate quickly (because our children have the metabolism and energy levels of hummingbirds). We set off on an overlook trail, and saw evidence of moose (scat and tracks). The hiking was technical, but beautiful – lots of wild flowers. The weather was just perfect. Our hike took about 2 hours, and we got back in time for a ranger talk, and ended up hanging out in the visitor center and enjoying the scenery.
We got back on the boat (the names were called in a different order this time) – and motored away from the island, the rangers waving at the boat as we pulled away. We cannot stress how amazing this place was – almost no people, the ability to do back country hiking without getting eaten by grizzly bears (or black bears, but we don’t get scared by those), beautiful terrain, you can kayak in the safe harbor. It was amazing and we want to go back. Also, there is an island in one of the lakes here – so you could go and stand on the largest island, in the largest lake, on the largest island, in the largest freshwater lake in the world. (We stole that off an overlook sign off the highway in MN, hope it’s accurate).
We powered back in our boat and the shady parking lot emptied out. We headed down highway 61 MN toward Superior, drifting through the tiny towns that line Lake Superior. We wish we could say we had any motivation, but we had been to Grand Marais and everything south in the past (some multiple times), thus we were unimpressed. Also, there was a million tourists driving around. Grand Marais, previously a cute seasonal town with a protected harbor and cute restaurants, was a disaster of millennials and upper middle class old white people from the cities (brewery looked pretty sweet though). We did stop for our Circle Tour stamp and then next door at a DQ there (sue us, everything else was jam packed and we were exhausted).
We continued on, taking a picture of the Two Harbors visitor center which was closed (circle tour stamp location!) and making a stop at Brighton Beach just north of Duluth – this is our rock throwing beach and we always go here when we visit up north. It was hot enough that there were people swimming there (obviously tourists, locals would know there are better “beaches”). But it was gorgeous out!
We made it home to Sarah’s mom’s house and collapsed. What a wonderful day!
Beer dranks: Spruce IPA, Blacklist Brewery, Duluth, MN
Day 7 – July 4, 2019, Thursday – Fourth of July in Superior, WI
This would be known as the day of rain. Ironic that in all our travels, we cannot remember every having a day of rain? Well, we got it. After a peaceful night of sleep, we awoke and got ready with donuts and breakfast – it was parade time! The parade went right down the main downtown street, about 2 blocks from Sarah’s mom’s house. Matt dropped off some chairs there an hour before, and by the time we got there, the streets were lined with people. We were impressed!
The kids meanwhile had been talking about “candy day” – the parade – for days by this time. We had prepared them and told them that there might not be candy, there might be lots of little kids there, etc. Oh how wrong we were.
As the first police cars ushered in the start of the parade along with the jets that did a flyover (which was actually awesome), the downpour started. The deluge. The thunder and lightning (only a little). About 1/3 of the spectators split, but no worries, the Durst family had brought rain coats and umbrellas. We were getting our damn candy. All the rain did was clear out some little kids that had been near us. As the poor poor marching band marched by with the cheerleaders in white tshirts (an unfortunate choice) and melting make up, the kids readied their bags. Then the candy came. So much that the kids couldn’t grab it all and sometimes the next float ran it over. Even us adults were grabbing it. The people in the parade were dumping out buckets of the stuff because of the rain and not being as many people. It was FANTASTIC! Some people near us turned their umbrella upside down and were scooping up and storing candy in it. Our people.
We staggered home and spread the candy out on cookie sheets to dry – the worst were tootsie rolls as the paper melted when wet to the candy, so Sarah “took care” of those. The rain had of course stopped immediately as soon as the parade did, and the sun came out! So off we went to Wisconsin Point – this is world’s largest freshwater bay mouth sand bar and is just south of Superior. Also known as place where HS and college kids have bonfires and party at night. It is very undeveloped and has sandy beaches with some rocks. We like to agate hunt and the kids play in the sand and throw rocks in. It was beautiful with only about 5-10 other people on the 3 mile long beach. (Can you tell we like remote areas??)
We motored back into town and Sarah’s brother and kids came over and we ordered an insane amount of delicious Sammy’s pizza (our favorite local treat). Then we shot off fireworks in the street in front of the house, while we waited for the real city fireworks. Keep in mind, all day there had been actual loud high fireworks continuously. (Noah: “it is like we are at war!”). So even though our freaking neighbors are shooting off Roman candles, the cops of course show up to make sure we only have wuss fireworks. For unclear reasons when Sarah saw the cop car, she dashed in the house and hit the floor. Zoe and B followed. In our defense, Sarah’s brother told the cops that the mayor (who lives across the street) was shooting off bigger ones (well, someone was, could have been him).
We rested up after our brush with the law, then drove over to watch the city fireworks – these are set off in the bay from a barge. As we drove on over, there are multiple sets of quite good fireworks being set off – as we passed the local Chinese restaurant, a dozen of their kitchen staff were sitting in the parking lot openly shooting off fireworks some 30 feet in the air. Yet we get frisked by the cops? Seriously.
Fireworks were really great – we could see some of Duluth’s as well. There was a low cloud of firework smoke hanging over the town, and as we drove home, it was so loud. Multiple sets of very high and loud fireworks were going off in all directions, with some sirens for background noise. Yeah baby, Happy Fourth of July!
Beer drank: Mesabi Red, Lake Superior Brewing Company, Duluth, MN