Superior Circle Tour: Grand Marais to Grand Marais

Grand Marais mirrored on the south shore of Superior

Our first full day on the Circle Tour began Monday at Grand Marais MN, where Poldi’s dad was known and loved for his decades of reading to school children. This city is something of a “home town” for us.

On Saturday, we arrived at Grand Marais, MI. It struck us as a clone of GM, MN, with local businesses representing tourism, outfitters, artists, and breweries. There was even a similar breakwater, creating a calm bay where we saw seaplanes taxiing to their mooring.

Poldi, having done her deep research for this trip, had discovered that there was an Agate Museum in this town, a labor of love started by a town character Axel Niemi, and now carried on by his mentee/acolyte, “Agate Lady” Karen Brzys, who provided us detailed descriptions of the rocks in her collection and made a “cool rocks” presentation for us and the other kids in the museum at the time.

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Superior Circle Tour: Paths Silently Crossing

Driving along Ontario Route 61, we encounter a kayak-crested car towing a Vistabule

We learned that friends of ours, Diane Lund and Don Holzwarth, were vacationing along the North Shore and would be heading from Thunder Bay to Grand Marais at the same time that we were doing the opposite. We proposed to meet them somewhere in the middle for a picnic and/or hike, but alas, modern communications technology does not work in the wilderness. We sent a few electronic messages, and planned our picnic at Grand Portage for maximum likelihood of seeing each other in the visitor center parking lot, but it did not work out.

Nevertheless, we DID cross paths, on the Canadian highway segment to Thunder Bay. Or at least I think we did. While there are many cars and trucks bearing canoes and kayaks or trailering boats or campers, I suspect that the combination of carrying two Lake Superior-capable kayaks PLUS a Vistabule trailer was a signature belonging to our friends and only a very few other outdoor adventurers.

Traveling at a relative speed of 180 km/hr, there is not much time to scrutinize oncoming traffic, but I happened to notice such a vehicle while we were heading north on Ontario-61 near Neebing. Coincidentally, my GoPro camera was doing experimental recording and I managed to find a frame that captured the event!

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Superior Circle Tour: Waterfalls Internationale

Pigeon Falls, which I once confused with International Falls

As miserable as the weather was on our pre-trip ride to the start of the Circle Tour, it was simply spectacular on our first official full day on the road. The skies had cleared, and we left April early Monday morning, but not until after she insisted on fixing a hearty breakfast for us.

We stopped at the co-op in Grand Marais for sandwiches that we planned for a picnic at Grand Portage State Park, on the border with Canada. The ride was beautiful, the sun brilliant with the lake reflecting the sky’s unique crisp northern blue color. Our spirits resuscitated, we chattered on our helmet intercoms about the adventures ahead.

The first was to visit Pigeon Falls on the international border. Poldi had been there twenty years back, when it was just a rough trail through the woods to an overlook. Now there was a visitor center, picnic grounds, dog park, and the trails were paved, with guardrails even.

I did not recall ever being to Pigeon Falls, but as soon as it came within view, I recognized it. When I was ten, my family had taken a trip to northern Minnesota. I recall visiting a twin waterfall, which I understood to be “International Falls” because Canada was on the other side. I remember my blurry black and white photos from that trip that I had shot with my Brownie camera, but always thought they were taken at the city of International Falls MN. Now, five decades later, I know this is wrong; we were here at Grand Portage and the Pigeon River.

Like Niagara Falls, which also straddles the same international border, there is a “U.S. side” and a “Canadian side”. And sure enough, we could look across and see the overlooks on the other side of the river. And just like Niagara Falls, there is debate about which has the better view. We did not have time to explore the Canadian side, so we will have to remain silent on that topic. I know the U.S. side is spectacular; I’m guessing the Canadian side is as well.

The border crossing was only a quarter mile from the park. We headed to the customs check point, where we were the only vehicle. I was surprised, since the last time I had crossed into Canada was on my 50th birthday, and the traffic was backed up for miles. Of course that was in the years immediately following 9-11.

We were asked a few simple questions: “How long will you be in Canada”, “Do you have any alcohol or tobacco products?” “Do you know your license plate?” (I didn’t and had to move the bike to show it to him). The agent was a motorcyclist who had done the circle tour himself, so after showing him our passports, he wished us well and waved us on.

Our next destination was Kakabeka Falls, perhaps 50 kilometers into Canada, approaching Thunder Bay. After a few missed turns we arrived and found it to be yet another spectacular display where it seems like the edge of a lake has been removed, and all the water is gushing out of it. This time we were able to view it from both sides and we can clearly state that “the Canadian side is better”.

Kakabeka Falls

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Superior Circle Tour: Getting To The Start

Our Superior starting point in Duluth where we don our rain gear.

Our Superior Circle Tour schedule has been refined and finalized, with each day’s destination carefully selected. Poldi is a wonderful travel agent, arranging and reserving a safe harbor for each night along the tour.

Our first day however, involves actually getting to the shores of Lake Superior from our home in Minneapolis, about 150 miles away. And our first night will be with Poldi’s sister April at her lakeshore cabin, another 100 or more miles along the north shore near Grand Marais. This total would make a brutal first day on a motorcycle for us, as unconditioned as we are for the iron-butt competition. So we made an alternate plan.

It turns out that our Go-trailer/camper also accommodates drive-on cargo. It tilts down to allow a motorcycle, or any other such vehicle, to drive up onto the trailer bed where it can be strapped into place and hauled to wherever! Our wherever is April’s basecamp home in Duluth, where we can unload the bike, leave the trailer in the driveway, and make an official start on our Lake Superior Circle Tour.

It seemed straightforward, so allocating a full hour in the morning to load the bike on the trailer should be more than enough, right? But the perversity of inanimate objects prevailed. The Go-trailer balked at being loaded, its elevator winch failing and the tilt feature not tilting. The self-loading ramp failed to self-load: I could drive the bike partway up, but could not get the rear wheel onto the trailer bed. Carefully manipulating this powerful 500-pound machine, climbing the 30-degree incline was too much for my self-preservation instincts. After a half-dozen failed attempts and with smoke issuing from the clutch, we abandoned the effort.

Fortunately, we had a plan-B: drive the full distance from Minneapolis to Grand Marais.

Unfortunately, we had burned our morning on plan-A.

Fortunately, the rain that was forecast was for later in the day.

Unfortunately, the forecast was wrong.

Our delayed start resulted in traveling along the storm front as it progressed from Duluth along the North Shore. When it wasn’t raining, it was blowing. We were relieved to finally arrive at April’s cabin where she took us in, dried us off, warmed us up, and celebrated our arrival with a glass of wine and a nice dinner.

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