Leah and I are winding down our Great Lakes circumnavigation 200 miles south of Lake Erie, where a hundred or more local and distant celebrants have gathered in Ligonier, PA to party with Tiff and Jim on their 25th wedding anniversary.
Appropriately, it was Ligonier and the surrounding Laurel Highlands where Leah and I broke our Airstream cherry. It was the cusp of winter/spring; it was the day after Leah’s 60ish birthday; and it was my first day of retirement.
We dug ourselves out of a major New Jersey snowstorm, and loaded up the Airstream and the F-150 with a year’s worth of gear and courage. Our maiden voyage left us white-knuckled as we precariously cruised the backroads to find Tiff and Jim’s country house in darkness. That was 29 months ago.
Today, we are seasoned road warriors who have grown in confidence, and somehow avoid repeating our original mistakes. Instead, we make new mistakes, which keeps us on our toes.
Circling back to Ligonier after three months of Great Lakes coastal roads has also given me time to reflect on the places I traveled, the things I’ve seen, and the moments I captured.
What follows is a snapshot retrospective along our route:
This is only the beginning for us. Stay tuned for more travel follies…
Leah and I were looking forward to touring Hitsville, USA after determining that a visit to Detroit was an essential part of our Great Lakes adventure.
Once we arrived at Motown Studios, I sensed a different kind of energy around me. Almost immediately, I found parking for the F-150 just beyond the funeral parlor’s yellow lines, and saw it as an omen of sorts for something good.
The scene around the house pulsed with enthusiasm and excitement. The crowd was as mixed as a casting call for Felinni’s Amarcord, yet everyone shared a common connection to the music, which made for instant bonding.
A like-minded gentleman of similar age joined me as I read the commemorative plaque, and I turned to him.
“Do you realize that we are the generation of those spider things?” I joked.
“Tell me about it!” he shrugged. “I got memories fitting that thingagmajig into the record hole just so I could stack my 45’s on the record player.”
“Amen!” I replied.
We shook hand and moved on.
Fans from across the country and around the world made the pilgrimage to celebrate the soundtrack to America’s social, political, and cultural consciousness.
Leah took a trip to the box office, while I attempted a portrait of Hitsville Chapel, all the while dodging families posing for selfies on the steps.
Leah returned without tickets. To our disappointment, the 5pm tour was sold out…weeks ago. It never occurred to us to secure tickets beforehand.
“Let’s go inside,” I suggested. “We’ve come this far. Maybe there’s something to see, or something we can do to fix this fiasco.”
The front door opened to an overflowing gift shop doing brisk business, but we weren’t there to buy souvenirs (at least not right away). We were there to relive our childhoods.
I walked around the backside of the shop, where I found the exit to the exhibition.
So close, yet so far…to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 173 miles east of us…
to catch up on nifty artifacts.
“I think I can get us in,” Leah announced.
“Really!?” I mused. “And how are you gonnna manage that?”
“I think I can convince the guard to feel sorry for us, and he’ll let us in,” she boasted.
“Just like that!?” I laughed.
“You’ll see,” she insisted.
I think the security guard of 25 years has probably heard every sob story imaginable, except for Leah’s. To be expected, Leah’s story had little impact on his decision, but he must have been moved somewhat.
He withdrew a tattered writing pad from his shirt pocket. “Y’know, over the years, I collected the addresses of some Motown legends, and I don’t really show it aroun’, but I’m gonna make an exception in your case, ’cause you came all this way for nothin’.”
“And all these addresses are in Detroit?” I asked.
“Yup!” declared security.
Wanting clarification, “and they’re real?”
“Yup, but do me a favor and keep it on the QT, OK? I don’t want the neighbors hassled and all,” he advised.
Cool! While we had lost the grand prize, it seemed, at the very least, that we were leaving with parting gifts. With addresses in hand, Leah and I decided to regroup and return the following day to play “private investigator.”
When plotting addresses on GPS, it became clear to us that many of the homes were within a ten-mile range of each other, so off we went on our real estate scavanger hunt of once-lived-in homes of America’s greatest rhythm and blues, and soul singers.
We started our tour at Florence Ballard’s home in Detroit’s largest historic district, Russell Woods. Florence was a founding member of the Supremes, who passed in 1976.
In her early years, Diana Ross lived with her family on the top floor of this duplex, just north of Arden Park.
It turns out, it was only five miles away from Berry Gordy, Jr.’s home, until he sold it to Mavin Gaye in the ’70’s…
and moved to a 10,500 sq ft Italianate mansion in Detroit’s Boston-Edison historic district with 10 bedrooms, 7 baths, a 4,000 sq ft pool house, and a 5-car carriage house.
Nearby, Gladys Knight lived in a 4 bedroom, 3.5 bath Tudor in Detroit’s Martin Park neighborhood.
Around the corner, lived Temptation’s co-founder and lead singer, Eddie Kendricks in a 4 bedroom, 2 bath 2,300 sq ft house.
And only a couple of miles away in the Bagley neighborhood lived Stevie Wonder in a 3 bedroom, 2.5 bath gabled house.
By now, I was fading from driving through Detroit traffic; and I was losing interest in photographing the rest of the listings. Additionally, I considered that crawling to a stop in front of someone’s house, double-parking, and positioning a camera through the window probably looked suspicious and creepy to any onlookers.
The following afternoon, the day of our departure, a home in Detroit’s Chandler Park section exploded–14 miles east of our recent real estate sweep.
One firefighter was injured in the blast. The Fire Marshall determined that a gas leak was to blame, but arson investigators are on the scene.
“Y’think this was an omen, too?” Leah mused.
“Nah! Just a coincidence!” I answered.
(Or maybe the beginning of another impossibly flaky, half-baked conspiracy theory!)
Long before kitsch and water parks ruled the region, visitors from around the world traveled to the Dells to marvel at the iconic sandstone formations carved by a glacier that plowed through Wisconsin approximately 15,000 years ago–leaving behind a 5-mile gorge struck from rock that’s older than anything on earth.
Word of this discovery spread quickly, attracting Leroy Gates, a lumber rafter with a notion that promotion would bring tourism to the river he loved, and earn him a buck or two to boot. In 1856, Gates offered the first guided boat tours of the Dells of Wisconsin, and made sure everyone knew it.
Supposedly, Gates and his associate guides would sit under umbrellas sipping lemonade, while the guests would paddle their boats up river to destined attractions…
until steamboats took over in 1873.
Fortunately, landscape photographer H.H. Bennett was there to capture it all–taking souvenir photos of the tourists, and landing a place in history as “the man who made the Wisconsin Dells famous.”
Today, Dells Boat Tours continues the tradition on the river…
with a fleet of 17 vessels that carry half a million passengers year after year.
Captain Bob piloted our riverboat north through the Upper Dells,
while First Mate Abby called out the names of rock sculptures famously characterized by H. H. Bennett:
After manuevering through the Devil’s Elbow…
Captain Bob turned into a slot canyon discovered–and affectionately named Witches Gulch by Bennett. Apparently, the name was intended to be sinister and provocative. His strategy was reinforced by similar names inside the canyon, such as:
Eventually, Bennett built a tie-up dock, threaded a boardwalk through the canyon walls, and created a photography concession at the terminus. We were about to see why, as Captain Bob eased toward the mooring.
Abby tied up the riverboat,
and we walked the boards,
for a closer look at the beauty of ancient splittered sandstone turned emerald,
and the waves of light and darkness.
Next, we cruised across the Wisconsin River to the western shoreline to visit the Dells’ most precious formation,
made famous by H.H. Bennett’s photograph of his 17-year old son, Ashley leaping onto the column from a neighboring cliff in 1886.
We gathered under the rock for an equally impressive demonstration by a trained German Shepherd from Juneau County…
that jumped the 5-foot gap without hesitation.
We completed the trail back to the boat, passing other impressive formations along the way…
until it was time to reboard the Marquette and return to the tour operator’s dock. As we cruised back under sunny skies, boat traffic on the river had blossomed.
Locals were enjoying the river to beat the heat,
which was way better than any water park would ever be.
Many in the tourism industry descibe Door County as the mid-western equivalent of Cape Cod, and they make a valid point. If Cape Cod is the crooked finger beckoning the Atlantic Ocean, then Door County is Wisconsin’s thumb poking the western side of Lake Michigan. Both peninsulas offer a laid-back vibe, with historic beachtown pearls bordering sandy, rocky beaches.
We began our tour by exploring our home base in Kewaunee, a southern border town below the county line.
We knew nothing about the clock, so it took us by surprise. At noon, it chimed over and over again, then played a “bell” rendition of Amazing Grace.
A short walk to the waterfront brought us to the Ludington. Retired in 1998, the tug saw action during the D-Day invasion at Normandy by pushing barges of ammunition across the English Channel, and later as a construction tow for the Army Corps of Engineers.
Like most newcomers, we got our coastal orientation by walking out to Pierhead Light,
but following the path was like a twisted game of minefield hopscotch.
Ellis Street was closed to traffic for a smallish classic car show that appealed to locals, auto enthusiasts from Green Bay, and bloggers…
with plenty of space for antique tractors and snowmobiles in the parking lot.
Further up the coast sits Algoma, a town with a Crescent Beach Boardwalk that parallels an arc of sand and polished stones, and the Algoma Pierhead light that welcomes hundreds of roosting gulls at any time.
With so much ground to cover and little time to spare, we detoured along the coastal county roads to Sturgeon Bay, a town with a rich ship-building legacy and a lust for shopping. While not my favorite activity, we parked the F-150 and strolled the sidewalks, passing through galleries and home furnishing boutiques.
Local artists brought their imagination and decorating prowess to town, converting plain Adirondack-style chairs (or created a chair/bench of their own) for the inaugural CHAIRies, a public art project on display at most downtown corners, and a nod to the bountiful cherry groves scattered throughout the peninsula.
Continuing north, Jennifer (GPS) directed us to Cave Point County Park, the only county park within a state park (White Dunes State Natural Area).
Diving into Cave Point’s roiling water is a well-known proving ground and badge of courage for daring teenagers…
who are fortunate to clear the cliffs or avoid the crashing waves.
Riding north on WI-57, we cut through the middle of Door County’s thumbnail, and headed for Northport, known for ferry service to Washington Island at the tip of the peninsula. and the gateway to Death’s Door, a legendary passageway with a washing- machine turbulence that has shipwrecked many 19th century schooners.
We rushed along WI-42 from Northport down Green Bay’s sidelines, needing to reach the Airstream end zone after a long day of driving, but deliberately slowing around a bendy stretch of road nearby.
Then we were dodging and weaving our way through a variety of pedestian-rich towns at 10 mph, absorbing the downtown charm of Ellison Bay, Sister Bay, Ephraim, and Fish Creek from the front seat of our truck.
We vowed that we would return the following day for a glorious sunset dinner, as we settled on leftover pizza and samosas under a cloudy sky.
While staying in Bayfield, Leah and I learned of Ashland’s Mural Walk. While only a half-hour from our camp site, we were so preoccupied with three full days of hiking, biking, and kayaking around the Apostle Islands, that time became a factor.
When asking around about the murals’ merits, someone local described the trip as “interesting”, so we decided to make an informed opinion for ourselves. Since Ashland was on our way from Bayfield to Munising, we boarded the Airstream, checked out of Apostle Island Area Campground, and followed GPS to Ashland Mural Walk. An actual POI pinged when I asked Jennifer (our GPS coach) for the route.
We had completed a previous mural walk inPalatka, Florida, also a county seat, and found it odd that their murals were in better shape than the town. We wondered if this was also the case in Ashland.
Ashland’s history dates to 1500, when the Ojibwe stayed on Chequamegon Point. A century later, they were followed by French fur trappers, European traders, and Jesuit missionaries. By mid-1800’s, Ashland’s first settlement was established, and the town prospered as a major quarry and port with rail service to Chicago.
Thanks to mural artists Kelly Meredith and Susan Prentice Martinsen, Ashland’s murals are a pleasant recapitulation of their proud history and their community spirit.
The murals have been beautifying downtown for twenty years. But Ashland wasn’t content to rest on its murals. Since 2017, decorative mosaic containers have been popping up on Main Street, turning trash to treasure.
There are 18 murals located around an 8-block radius of Main Street’s business district.
Leah and I gave ourselves an hour to see as many as we could (we found 12), but a 4-hour drive to Musining still loomed large, so six were left undiscovered.
For additional information on mural titles, descriptions, and locations, or to see what we missed, aMural Walklink is provided.
Seemingly, Duluthians have only two seasons: winter and summer. During the 2018- 2019 weather calendar, city residents shoveled snow from October 10 to May 9, breaking a record dating back to 1884. Temperatures were moderate for the remaining months of the year.
But when the last snow melted, the Northlanders traded their shovels and skis for bicycles and hiking shoes–eager to take advantage of the wealth of recreational resources in the vicinity. Leah and I sampled some of the more popular options during our recent visit.
The 70-mile Hinkley-Duluth segment of the Munger State Trail offers hiking, biking, in-line skating and snowmobiling on a fully paved road, cut through a forested ridge that follows a busy railway.
Leah and I cycled a scenic 8-mile stretch from Buffalo Valley Camping (our temporary home) to the Carlton terminus,
where the trail parallels Forbay Lake…
until it crosses a nearby St. Louis River dam release.
Lunch at Magnolia Cafe in Carlton gave us the energy we needed to pedal back to camp. Kudos on the cold-brewed coffee and gluten-free chocolate chip cookies.
With our energy restored, we drove to Duluth in search of craft beer. Despite a population center under 90,000, Duluth has earned a reputation as Minnesota’s capital of craft beer, boasting more than a dozen production facilities in the area that are eagerly taking advantage of Lake Superior’s pristine waters.
Fitger’s Brewhouse is the oldest and perhaps the most famous active brewery,
dating back to 1881…
with over 100 original recipes…
still brewed at its present location along the Lakewalk.
For views of the city, nothing beats Enger Tower, the highest point in Duluth,
and no better place to see where the city opens up to the sea,
while revealing its industrial underbelly.
The following day, we were looking for a short but moderate morning hike. All internet indicators pointed to Ely’s Peak, a popular trail reached by following the abandoned Duluth, Winnipeg, and Pacific (DWP) railroad corridor to the entrance of a 1911 railroad tunnel.
The trail was named after Rev. Edmund Ely of Massachusetts,
whose mission was converting the Fond Du Lac Native Americans during the mid-1800s.
From the tunnel to the top and back is 1.8 miles. The loop takes hikers on a 300 ft. ascent offering far-reaching views of the Fond du Lac Reservation and beyond.
We spent the afternoon touring Glensheen, a 20,000 sq ft. Beaux-Arts-styled mansion surrounded by a 12-acre estate…
built beside Lake Superior between 1905 and 1908 by Clarence Johnston, Sr…
for Chester Adgate Congdon and family.
The 39-room historic mansion is reknown for its design and craftmanship of the day…
and that almost nothing from William French’s orginal interior design has changed in 110 years–down to the furniture placement…
and the accessories that adorn the house.
But the most unusual part of the tour was what Nick, our docent would not share with the group when asked about the murders of Elisabeth Congdon and her private nurse, Velma Pietila.
Instead, we were referred to a brochure card with a disclaimer and few details.
It was a brutal crime that was sensationalized by the media, and still remains unsolved.
Leah and I concluded our day sitting in stadium chairs by the Glensheen boathouse pier, noshing on local food truck fare while listening to Charlie Parr, a local folk singer performing an evening of Minnesota moonshine music to kick off the 5th season of Concerts on the Pier.
It was the perfect way to end the day:
enjoying the sunshine and the breeze coming off the lake;
meeting and appreciating new people around us;
watching a mish-mash of vessels manuevering through an ad hoc harbor;
and being interviewed by Ryan Juntti, for WDIO’s 6:00 PM News.
Although it’s been two years since Leah and I visited Mt. Rushmore, what could be more American than re-posting this visit on Independence Day?
There’s no better way to celebrate the 4th of July, than a trip to Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial. Sure, the crowds were large; that was to be expected. But once the cars were garaged, the pedestrian traffic was easy to negotiate. And with everyone looking up at the mountain, the Presidents’ faces and intentions were never obstructed.
It was also a time to celebrate family. There were plenty of kids riding in strollers, hanging from moms in carriers, or balancing on dads’ shoulders. Generations of families–many of them immigrants–had gathered to pay homage to the principles of freedom that make our country a beacon for the oppressed and downtrodden.
Seniors were being escorted through the Avenue of Flags by their grandchildren. Extended families organized group pictures at the Grand View Terrace, unified by their love of democracy and their reunion T-shirts.
All expressed awe at Gutzon Borglum’s grand vision and remarkable achievement–the transformation of a mountain into a national symbol visited by approximately 3 million people every year.
The 14-year process of carving the rock began with dimensionalizing the Presidents’ portraits through Plaster of Paris masks, on view at the sculptor’s studio-turned-museum.
Additional exhibits detail the construction of the memorial, and the tools used by workers, like the original Rand & Waring compressor, which powered the jackhammers for all the finishing work.
A little known fact is that Mt. Rushmore was once intended to be a tribute to the “Five Faces of Freedom,” but funding ran short when the Congressional appropriation approached $1 million during the Great Depression. Hence, the unfinished carving of the Great Ape to the right of Lincoln serves as a reminder that we are never far from our true ancestors.¹
No less ambitious, and equally as impressive, the Crazy Horse Memorial is a work-in-progress located 16 miles away in the heart of the Black Hills–considered sacred land by the Lakota people.
Conceived by Korczak Ziolkowski in early 1940s,
the memorial, when completed will stand 563 ft. by 641 ft. across, and is expected to be the largest sculpture in the world. Already, the completed head of Crazy Horse measures 60 feet tall…
…twice the size of any of the presidents at Mt. Rushmore. While the first blast was conducted on the mountain in 1947, the current prospects for the memorial are to complete the outstretched arm during the next twelve years. There is no completion date available for the finished carving, which has been financed entirely by private funding since its inception.
Mt. Rushmore was created by a Danish American. Crazy Horse was created by a Polish American. And visitors to both destinations manifest the melting pot that has brought us all together as Americans. It’s our diversity that makes us strong, our ambition and determination that makes us great, and our compassion and sacrifice that make us whole.
These are the values reflected from the faces we’ve immortalized in stone. Yet, we would honor them more by living according to these principles.
Happy Birthday, America!
¹ Just kidding, but the photograph is real and has not been retouched.
After one month of travelling along Lake Ontario, Lake Huron, and Lake Superior in Canada, we crossed the border into Grand Portage, Minnesota to continue our Great Lakes circumnavigation through the States. We made Duluth our first stop.
Our reservations, made months ago, took us to Jay Cooke State Park–about 10 miles south of Duluth– where we planned to camp five nights through July 4th, but not without sacrifices.
RV enthuthiasts would agree that a level pull-through site with electric, water, and sewer is the norm for comfortability. But a site that also offers cable TV service with highspeed internet is the Holy Grail. Sadly, Jay Cooke was offering us a back-in site with 30 amp service only…for three nights. The other two nights, we were assigned to a primitive site inside the park with no amenities. This was the best Jay Cooke State Park could offer, considering the popularity of the park and high demand for the holiday week.
Originally, we called around to other area campgrounds and RV parks hoping for better accomodations, but found no availability anywhere else. By default, we accepted our fate and placement at Jay Cooke, and considered ourselves fortunate to find any place at all to park our Airstream during Independence Day festivities.
We crossed the border into Central Time, and surrendered an extra hour of daylight in exchange for arriving at the park office during operating hours, and giving Leah one last chance to modify our reservation.
Not a chance; the park was completely booked! We were directed to site 38 for three nights, and redirected to site 66 for the balance of our time.
After 40 minutes of queueing to fill our tank with fresh water, we eventually found site 38 down a very narrow access road lined with crowded spruce trees. No matter how many times I tried, and I tried, I couldn’t swing 28 feet of Airstream plus bicycles into a shallow site without sacrificing my truck to the evergreens. Simple physics wouldn’t allow it.
Leah sought a refund, while I investigated last-hope possibilities, nearby.
As if by magic, I called Darren at Buffalo Valley RV Camping, only a few miles away, who minutes ago received news of a cancellation. And just like that, we had a new address…with electricity AND water.
The following day, Leah and I strolled along the first two miles of Duluth’s 7.5 mile Lakewalk, stretching from Canal Park through Leif Erikson Park to Lester Park.
Starting out at Canal Park, I was drawn to Duluth’s iconic Aerial Lift Bridge that guards the entrance to Superior Bay,
supported by two sentry lighthouses that jet out to meet Lake Superior.
Originally conceived as America’s first transporter bridge in 1905, passengers and freight were ferried across in a large gondola.
In 1930, the bridge was reimagined with a vertical lift,
and continues to operate much the same way to date.
The warm air prompted scores of beachcombers to scramble across the rocks in search of beach glass,
while a few brave souls channeled their inner polar bear by swimming out to “the cribs” in frigid water.
We followed the Lakewalk to Fitgers with a few notable detours along the way.
Free samples were irresistable at Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, and star-gazing at Duluth Trading Company…
From a distance, Mt McKay is imposing, rising 1200 ft over Lake Superior and making it the largest of the Nor’Wester mountains. It gets its name from William Mackay, a Scottish fur trader from the mid-1800s, who lived for a time in the Fort William vicinity.
However, the Fort William First Nation, descendents of the Chippewa tribe, call the mountain Anemki Wajiw (ah-NIM-ih-key waw-JOO), meaning Thunder Mountain,
and consider it sacred land.
Mt McKay is a prominent landmark of the Fort Williams First Nation reserve, and offers sweeping views of Thunder Bay…
from its boardwalk overlook on the eastern plateau…
Leah and I drove up Mission Road to a toll house, where a First Nation member collected $5.00. She advised us to hike the western trail to the flat cap for more commanding views, and encouraged us to return in 3 days to witness a powwow of the Lake Superior chapters. She also offered a menu and invited us to visit her lunch counter in town.
The trail was narrow, steep and challenging with shards of shale scattered over rocky formations. We took our time.
After a weary climb of 40 minutes, we welcomed the cooler air around us as we crossed onto a plate of volcanic rock formed over 1,100 million years ago.
The bright sun promised a crisp and dazzling vista,
but it also seemed to energize the horse flies that soon regarded me as bait.
That’s when I knew it was time to retreat to the bottom of the hill, oh-so-gingerly over long drops onto loose shale.
Once we landed at the trail head, I had decided (after checking with Leah) that we should attend the powwow on Satuday.
On the day of the powwow, we looked for news on the internet. and it was everywhere. The council was expecting over 5,000 attendees over two days with plenty of drumming and dancing. Food tents and crafts stalls would round out the affair. The rules were simple: No Alcohol. No Drugs. No hiking. Have a Safe Time.
We drove to Fort Williams First Nation ice arena, where we met a yellow school bus that shuttled us the rest of the way. Only three days ago, the area was empty and quiet, but today, it looked like a parking lot next to a fairground with fringe tents and trailer camping.
Participants were gathering inside the spirit circle and adjusting their costumes, while spectators were filling the grandstands, and the royalty was assembling in anticipation of the welcoming ceremony.
It was a colorful and festive affair. A steady drum beat managed by eight drummers, accompanied a caterwauling chant of guttural highs and lows and occasional shrieks.
After a prolonged opening procession and invocation, Chiefs and Elders presented flags,
and then it was time to drum and sing and dance again. Grass dancers followed Elders…
who were followed by family members…
who also danced several times around the pavillion with their children…
showing off their feathers,
their elaborate ceremonial costumes…
and their elaborate moves…
After a couple of hours, Leah and I returned to the boardwalk for a stroll to the memorial,
where we discovered a trail to the right that hugged the cliff around the plateau. We hiked further along, scouting for poison ivy as we walked, and came to a clearing where three girls in training bras were sneaking cigarettes around a slab of concrete.
It was an amusing irony and signaled our time to return to the ice arena. The school bus that brought us circled the field–collecting passengers–and momentarily paused at a graphic display of Ojibwe insight and life lessons:
A high probability of intermittent rain had been forecasted throughout the day, which gave us very few options. Although we were snug in our pull-through campsite overlooking the northern boundary of Lake Superior from Neys Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada, we were looking forward to exploring the stark coastal beauty of an area once known from 1941 to 1946 as Neys Camp 100–an internment facility for German POWs and Japanese Canadians.
Prevailing wind from the west had whipped up whitecaps across the water, and threatening skies promised to restrict our outdoor time, but we were determined to make the most of current conditions: buggy, chilly, yet dry.
A short walk to the Visitor’s Centre for sight-seeing suggestions proved useless since the door was locked–maybe from campground inactivity, I surmised. There was, however, an interesting park bench design overlooking the lake by Sean Randell.
With 144 sites covering 4 areas, Leah and I spotted less than a dozen occupied sites. Many of the seasonal campers left their trailer set-ups behind for greater comforts nearby. With electricity only provided at less than half the sites, we had the showers practically to ourselves.
We were determined to get a hike in, so we selected the 1 km Dune Trail loop for its brevity (in case of sudden rain), and our fascination with sand dunes by the lake. We followed each other single file through a skinny path snaking through a plantation of red pines and a forest floor of lichens, mosses, and herbs. But we never found the dunes–only rolling mounds of sand over soil. We began the hike with an interpretive trail guide corresponding to 7 markers, but mosquitoes quickly put an end to that. We found ourselves marching through the forest just to complete the loop. The roundtrip walk to the trailhead proved to be longer than the entire trail.
With a faint drizzle falling, we planned a 35-mile drive to Terrace Bay, following TransCanada Highway 17 west around the top of Lake Superior, but the truck refused to start. Earlier in the week, I was stuck in a parking lot under similar circumstances, but Leah located a Samaritan willing to give me a battery boost. Today, however, was a different mater. After shlepping a spare battery around America for tens of thousands of miles, I finally got a chance to use it.
The battery installation set us back half an hour. And then the sky opened up the moment I dropped the hood and climbed inside the cab. It was an auspicious moment in my life!
We finally arrived at Terrace Bay (pop. 1100) and descended an elaborate boardwalk to a high viewing platform that distanced us from Aquasabon Fall’s 100-ft. drop,
and the granite gorge that carries the spill water to Lake Superior.
Back at the boardwalk entrance, I stood alongside a millennial male. We were studying an oversized graphic together about the geological properties and commercial significance of the Falls.
My neighbor had a cat perched on his shoulder wearing a harness with a leash. Suddenly, a light rain began to fall, spooking the cat. It leapt to the ground, surprising the host. He had control for a moment, but it squirmed out of his arms, and wriggled free of its harness. He dove for the hind legs, but the cat was too fast. It bolted 50 yards to the trees, and disappeared in the brush with his girlfriend chasing after it and screaming its name. We briefly watched in amusement, wondering if the cat would reconnect with its owners, but we had our doubts.
While in town, we filled the truck with $130 Canadian of gas, and searched for a lunch spot, but ended up at a Chinese Canadian restaurant in a strip mall just to use the internet. I had fried chicken balls (no joke), and Leah ordered dry-rubbed spare ribs. The food was as disappointing as a dead car battery and tasteless as a lost cat in the woods.
A stubby white lighthouse planted in front of the strip mall parking lot offered a view of Lake Superior. To Leah’s amazement, I passed on a picture of the tower and a view from the bridge.
The ride back to Neys was rainswept and uninteresting except for a cow moose that galloped across TransCanada Highway 17, followed closely by two calves. They hurdled the guard rail and instantly disappeared into the forest. Maybe they’ll discover the cat.
“But this one’s on the water, and not the desert,” I tease.
“I know that, smart ass, and it’s also harder to get to, so you need to be careful!” Leah lectures.
“Like I said, how hard can it be?” I reiterate.
We park the truck only minutes from our campsite at Agawa Bay, and enter the trailhead where we are met with a screaming red sign:
“Like I said…” drops Leah.
I deflect the dig. “Check it out.” I direct Leah’s attention to a different sign to our right–a red diamond hammered to a tree with a white arrow and 400 km on it.
“That’s where the trail begins. And according to that sign, we’ve already walked 20% of the trail!”
It’s true the trail is rugged and a scramble. The descent runs through a narrow chasm, over sharp boulders and bulging roots. But it’s only treacherous if wearing flip flops, which a student rangerette at the visitor’s center admits can be a problem with some hikers.
Halfway to our destination, a gash in the cliff exposes a 10 ft granite chunk mysteriously wedged between darkness and daylight.
In 15 minutes we arrive at a clearing of flat rock where the sky opens up to the water. A colorful cliff 15 stories high looms above us, grabbing my attention.
Leah is content holding onto a pipe rail that separates the adventurous from the cautious.
“Are you coming?” I ask.
“Down there? Not a chance!” Leah answers instinctively.
A short drop onto a wet ledge of granite sloping into Lake Superior takes added time, but planting my feet with measured steps is the best method for staying safe.
Knotted ropes threaded through embedded pipes are there to assist the daredevils who spill into 50° F water.
Once I get my footing, I can sidle across the ledge for a better look at the cliff face.
Venturing further out on the ledge, I meet Mishipeshu, the Great Lynx, who was empowered by the ancient Ojibways to control Lake Superior.
There are dozens of sacred drawings set in stone, dating back to the 17th century, but most are faded and nearly unrecognizable from eons of sun, water, ice and wind. Their message remains unknown, but experts reason that the pictographs depict historical events, and could signify manitous from shamanistic ceremonies.
I carefully manuever onto terra firma,
and we hike back to the parking lot.
“That was amazing, down there,” I exclaim.
“It was alright,” notes Leah.
“But you never got to see the pictographs,” I mention.
“That’s OK. You did all the hard work for me. I’ll just have a look at your photographs,” she laughs.
Of course, the Great Lakes are great; they constitute the world’s largest above-ground freshwater system in the world, containing about 18 percent of the world’s supply.
However, beyond its scale (larger than all the Eastern seaboard states combined), what about all the other awesome attractions that border its shorelines? Are they equally as great, or big, or best, or exclusive?
Let’s take a look:
Given the many possibilities for food around the Great Lakes, the area’s largest hamburger rests atop Burger King in Niagara Falls, ON.
And the largest hotdog can be found in Mackinaw City at Wienerlicious.
Both can be purchased with the world’s largest nickel…
the brainchild of Dr. Ted Szilva,
and on display at Sudbury’s Dynamic Earth.
Only one mile away, Inco’s superstack–the tallest chimney in the western hemisphere–rises 1250 feet atop Vale Inco’s Copper Cliff processing facility–the largest nickel smelting operation in the world.
Nowhere as tall, Castle Rock (commonly referred to as Pontiac’s Lookout) is a natural 200-foot limestone sea chimney…
overlooking Lake Huron and Interstate 75,
and considered the oldest lookout in St. Ignace, Michigan…until the Mackinac Bridge was built in 1957.
Spanning the Straits of Mackinac, and connecting the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan, the Mackinac Bridge is hailed as the longest suspension bridge in the western hemisphere.
Although less of an engineering feat, the upside-down house, built in Niagara Falls, measures up to 1200 square feet of topsy-turvy, making it Canada’s most unusual landmark.
Nearby, at Niagara on the Lake, locals can tee up at Niagara Golf Club, the oldest existing golf course (albeit, nine holes) in North America.
In Midland, Ontario, a grain elevator looms over a Georgian Bay harbor, featuring North America’s largest historic outdoor mural created by Fred Lenz.
History also abounds at Colonial Michilimackinac–
a reconstructed 18th century frontier fortress originally garrisoned by the French during 1715, and later controlled by the British.
After 60 years of excavation, valuable relics from fort living continue to be unearthed, making it the longest ongoing archeological dig in North America.
One of the many buildings discovered and recreated inside the fort belonged to Ezekiel Solomon, a fur trader who has been celebrated as Michigan’s first Jewish settler.
And then there’s Niagara Falls, a natural wonder that needs little hyperbole.
While not the highest, or the widest falls, its combined falls (Horseshoe Falls, American Falls, and Bridal Veil Falls) qualify Niagara Falls as the most powerful, forming the highest flow rate of any waterfall in North America.
While this “Great” list may not represent the best of all gilded attractions in the Great Lakes area to date, it’s the only list I’m likely to compile
It’s been two weeks since crossing over into Canada, and it’s been mostly cloudy and wet so far. I don’t know if this is a cause and effect circumstance, but locals are approaching me with snorkels and flippers.
The weather has put a damper on our outdoor time while extending our Airstream time. The mosquitoes have been hungry and swarming around the clock, turning mosquito swatting into a cabin past-time.
Nevertheless, it hasn’t been completely bleak and dismal. We had agreeable weather during a brief stay at Six Mile Lake Provincial Park, where we visited Georgian Bay National Park on an unusually clear day, and took a 15-minute ride on a Daytripper ferry…
to explore the network of trails on Beausoleil Island, guiding us to Honeymoon Bay,
and a keyhole to the many island cottages that dot Chimney Bay.
The weather also cooperated during a recent visit to Discovery Harbour, once a British naval and military base in Penetanguishene commissioned to secure back door access to Upper Canada after the War of 1812.
Of the two warships safeguarding the King’s Wharf at the time,
the H.M.S Tecumseth has been replicated to stand guard once again,
Yet the schooner has been deemed unseaworthy by authorities, and is destined to be a floating exhibit, much like the original.
Because the Rush-Bagot agreement between Britain and the United States restricted the number of active warships on the Great Lakes, the H.M.S. Tecomseth was decommissioned in 1817, and kept in a state of readiness until it eventually rotted and was reportedly scuttled in 1828.
However, its 1815 hull was raised from Penetanguishene Bay in 1953, and placed in a climate-controlled museum inaugurated in 2014.
As day turned to twilight, the clouds began to thicken,
providing a curtain call that few campers had seen in weeks.
Moving our location to Manitoulin Island did little to change a now-familiar weather pattern. We pondered whether sandbagging the Airstream might become necessary, but that thought slipped our minds soon after being preoccupied with scratching our mosquito bites.
Working around the rain was challenging. Under cloudy skies, we hiked the trail leading to Bridal Veil Falls’ 35-foot drop near the town of Kagawong.
And despite the threat of rain, we continued on, climbing the cliffs of M’Chigeeng on the Cup and Saucer Trail,
for splendid views of the North Channel.
But our luck ran out as we drove to Ten Mile Point for a stormy lookout of Georgian Bay…
and found similar blustery conditions at Providence Bay, on the edge of Lake Huron,
before returning to the sanctuary of our Airstream.
The following day, our four-hour travel time to Sault Ste. Marie was compromised by a tire mishap (see Blowout!). And then it rained…a lot!
By now, mosquito bashing had turned into a bloodsport. There were a few brief intermissions that allowed us to explore Sault Ste Marie’s famed boardwalk, which carried us past a whimsical sculpture in Roberta Bondar Park,
on our way along St. Mary’s River…
to Sault Ste. Marie Canal–transitioning between Lake Huron…
and Lake Superior…
before continuing across to Whitefish Island, where the convergence of Lake Huron and Lake Superior forms St. Mary’s rapids.
And then a ride through downtown Queen St. produced a completely different climate,
where traces of snow formed around a movie set,
looking much like fire foam…
to create a wintery look…
for a Hallmark Christmas production adapted from Kevin Major’s The House of Wooden Santas.
The weather always sets the tone for the trip. At the moment, rain amounts are up 30% over past years, and lake levels continue to rise above one meter.
This is a time for the birds…
the mosquitoes, and black flies.
And while there’s little we can do to control or avoid the weather, at least we are now prepared.
Leah and I are back on the road again, touring in our Airstream and excited to explore and record our impressions.
Before mothballing the trailer in North Carolina for the past 11 months, we had traveled 44,000 miles, crossing 33 states, 4 Canadian Provinces, and 2 Mexican States in one-year’s time (see Epilogue).
Unfortunately, there were glaring omissions in our route that never took us through the Rust-Belt, so for our second act, we are circumnavigating the Great Lakes–visiting 8 States and 1 Province.
Our summer journey begins with a visit to historic Jim Thorpe, PA in the Pocono Mountains– a famed destination for winter sports and whitewater rafting.
With water levels high, and water running fast, it was shoring up to be a high-water adventure.
Class II and III rapids would be the perfect way to jump-start this trip. However, I scratched the raft ride after learning that only family floats were running the Lehigh River, with the earliest dam release scheduled for the following weekend.
Nevertheless, Leah and I were content to take a leisurely, 26-mile cycling tour down the Lehigh Gorge Trail, where we followed an abandoned railroad grade-turned-trail, offering river view…
canal lock relics…
and several hillside trickles…
culminating in captivating waterfalls by the Rockport Access, with fast water cascading 50 feet over flat rock and flora at Buttermilk Falls;
and Luke’s Falls, featuring 50-foot water flowing over mossy ledges;
and occasional Lehigh spillovers on the side of the trail.
While in the White Haven neighborhood, we ventured to the Park Office at Lehigh Gorge State Park for information on hiking the fabled Glen Onoko Falls Trail, but were informed that effective May 1, the Game Commission had closed the trail indefinitely until all safety issues have been addressed.
Apparently, the risky behavior of many irresponsible and inexperienced hikers ended with far too many serious consequences, necessitating aggressive action. It was disappointing being unable to experience the Niagara of Pennsylvania, on a hike dubbed by Outdoor Magazine as “one of the 10 best waterfall hikes in the Northeast.”
Instead, the rangers diverted us to Hickory Run State Park, where we walked upstream along the Shades of Death Trail…
to Stametz Dam, culminating in a 25-foot splash.
While not a disappointing hike, it was anti-climatic and not what we came for, requiring some forward thinking.
When we eventually crossed into Canada at Niagara Falls, we were ready for sweeping views of gushing water…and we were not disappointed!
As a basis of comparison, we observed the falls from multiple vantage points…
varying focal lengths…
and different dayparts.
And we both came to the same conclusion: that Victoria Falls was more spectacular than all other waterfalls combined.
Now I fear that seeing the Holy Grail of waterfalls has tainted my impression of all other falls to come, and that’s okay for now.
Eventually, I will come around, and perhaps by that time the Glen Onoko Falls Trail will welcome us back in earnest.
“Prepare to get soaked,” warned Reason, our guide and driver for the day. In anticipation of the “rain”, Reason handed out rain parkas to each of us.
Leah rocked hers!
“These will come in handy. You’ll see. The rain will come from all directions,” he said.
We were in for a soaker. According to a park poster, May is considered one of the heaviest high water months.
All the rushing water will be amazing to see, if we can actually see it at all through the spray and mist, which can rise over 400 meters…
and be seen from a distance of 50 kilometers. Reason explained that the best viewing along the eastern rim was from numbers 1 through 8 on the path.
“From 8 to 15, you will get drenched. But if the water gets too much for you, there is a detour between 8 and 9, where you can walk inland and dry off.
“What about Niagra Falls? Isn’t that the largest?” asked one of the Canadians traveling with us.
“Sorry. Not even close. Victoria Falls is double the size of Niagra Falls. While it’s not the highest falls–that stat belongs to Angel Falls in Venezuela, dropping 985 meters; and it’s not the widest falls–that record belongs to Iguazu Falls, measuring 2700 meters across, and defining the borders of Brazil, Argentina and Parguay,” Reason clarified, “it’s the volume of falling water, and a combination of everything else that makes it number one…but you will see for yourself. The path is one mile from end to end, and you guys have two hours to experience it, so let’s get wet!”
Those panchos looked fine for keeping clothes dry, but my biggest concern was keeping my photo gear dry, so I opted out, and wore my own rain jacket, which was roomy enough to protect my camera from moisture…or so I thought.
From Points 1 through 5 on the walk, the wetness factor–on a scale from 1 to 10–was manageable at 3 for damp. Having a chamois helped to eliminate the mist from the lens hood and camera body between shots, so my shots were still sharp.
But things got dicey after Point 5. By now, water was dripping from the lens filter, and focusing became nearly impossible with water constantly blowing across my frame. That’s when I switched gears and opted for a more visceral interpretation of the falls, leaning towards a painterly impression.
The falls was a dynamic spectacle, that soon became a photographic nightmare. Weather conditions had pinned the needle on the wetness scale, guaranteeing that nothing about me was dry any longer: the plastic shopping bag protecting my camera had filled with water; the monsoon had penetrated my waterproof rain jacket, soaking my clothes from within; and my chamois was useless.
That’s when I turned to my Samsung Galaxy S8, almost too slippery to hold, and captured a few panoramas…
The rain had abated by the time I reached the Victoria Falls Bridge at the end of the trail.
The bridge spans the Second Gorge and connects Zimbabwe to Zambia.
Built in 1903, it was originally conceived as a railway bridge by Cecil Rhodes, an English industrialist, who left his name and colonized imprint on a country (Rhodesia, until 1979) rich in natural resources, and easily exploited for the benefit of the British Commonwealth.
The afternoon was reserved for a sunset river cruise on the Zambezi.
Cruising gently down the river, we drank, we ate, we partied. The captain rounded a bend in the river…
and behold, the omnipresent falls spray was there to greet us.
With the day losing light, the night lillies have unfolded…
and the hippos have gathered…
with all the celebrants aboard our neighboring vessels…
Our African safari vacation to South Africa and Botswana came with an elective, 2-day excursion to Victoria Falls. Traveling half-way around the planet and being this close to one of the seven natural wonders of the world, it seemed foolish to pass on the offer–the same thinking held by the other 10 in our party.
After a brief bus ride from Kasane (our last stop in Botswana)…
to the border of Zimbabwe (where we acquired our $50 visa stamp),
we continued the 1-hr drive to Victoria Falls, where we checked into The Kingdom Hotel.
The rest of the day belonged to us–to shop, to rest, to sightsee.
Some of us considered a helicoptor ride over Victoria Falls, but also had to reconcile whether a 22-minute flyover was worth the $250 expense.
“It’s a lot of money,” Leah addressed.
“It is, but I’m all for it. When else will we ever get the chance to do this in our lifetime…unless we’re coming back here, because I would come back here in a heartbeat,” I asserted.
“We’re in,” stated Linda and Heather from Colorado.
“I guess I’ll do it too,” commited Nathan.
Five of us took the heli-tour, while others walked to Zambia to view the falls from the other side. Although $250 for the loop seemed overpriced, I was eager to see the falls by air, regardless of the price. Afterall, when would I ever see it again?
After our briefing at the Boisair Heliport, we boarded our helicopter, and we were aloft,
doing a couple of figure eights over the falls,
a circle around the Bakota Gorge,
and a turn up the Zambezi River…
before returning to the helipad.
“How was it, Leah? Do you regret spending the money now?” I asked.
“Worth every penny!” she exclaimed.
The vastness and grandeur of the falls is best appreciated by clicking on the video!