Vacationing on the North Shore

A Minnesota transplant finds comfort in an annual trip to Grand Marais

grand marais
Grand Marais. Photo by Ackerman + Gruber.

If I ever got lost, my mother used to say, I only needed to look up. The mountains in central Oregon would orient me. When I spotted Bachelor, the Three Sisters, Jefferson, I knew where I was, where I belonged.

Fifteen years ago, when I moved to the Midwest, I missed the mountains. The empty blue bowl of the sky made me feel flattened and untethered. This wasn’t home. My forests were evergreen, not hardwood. My body of water was the Pacific, not the Great Lakes. I didn’t yet know to track the calendar’s passage by studying a cornfield.

I chased jobs across Illinois to Wisconsin to Iowa—and then we moved to Minnesota with hopes of digging in, putting down roots. It was the state that made me fall in love with the Midwest. The north shore of Superior had a lot to do with that. Here, every August, after the mosquitoes die out, we vacation in a rented cabin outside Grand Marais.

The smell of the North Shore—a delicious blend of lake and woods, minerally, almost aspirinic, dosed with pine resin—has become one of my favorites. We take in big, cool, purifying gulps of it, as if we were drinking water.

It’s a week of happy indulgence. We devour slices of blueberry pie at Betty’s and pints of IPA at Voyageur and a baker’s dozen cinnamon sugars at World’s Best Donuts (which lives up to its name). We pick up novels from Drury Lane and read until our eyelids droop and we fall asleep in our Adirondack chairs.

We hike the trail to Devil’s Kettle and marvel at the fork in the river, one side rushing toward Superior, the other dropping into a fathomless chasm. We wander the beaches, skipping and stacking stones, hunting for the green sparkly promise of Thomsonite. At Gooseberry Falls, the water curls over with a shushing boom and we stand in the spray of it and wade through the pools dotting its rocky skirt.

At Split Rock Lighthouse, we climb up the spiral staircase to the prismed lantern and imagine storms knocking boats around while we hum the ballad of the Edmond Fitzgerald. And then we follow the path to the shore far below, where we snap a photo, the four of us gathered on the rocks with the lighthouse perched on the cliff overhead. The same photo year after year, a chronicle of time’s passage, a little like penciling a child’s height onto the doorframe every birthday.

A comforting routine. In many ways that defines the spirit of the trip. It has become part of the rhythm of our life, a necessary compass that helps us feel reoriented and calmed before the busy fall.

And when night comes, we build fires and roast marshmallows and watch the embers swirling upward. Bats swoop and make kissing sounds. Loons call. Full dark we walk out to the lakeshore, and if the water is still, it reflects the sky, so that it appears the stars are sunken there like glowing agates.

I’ll ask the kids if they can find The Big Dipper—and then the North Star burning above it. “There it is,” I say and point. “That’s how you always know where you are.”