Dive Into Summer
Sure, you could spend your vacation revisiting the same tourist traps en route to the same lakeside resort you’ve visited every year since elementary school. But the House on the Rock will probably survive without your $20. So maybe this year you could do something different—push your boundaries a little. Leave the tried-and-true behind and explore the Apostle Islands, the Cuyuna mine pits, Voyageurs National Park, or any of the other extraordinary destinations described here. Go hiking, biking, kayaking, or scuba-diving . You don’t have to be an Eagle Scout or triathlete. All that’s required is a sense of adventure.
Luxury on the Lake
Floating through Voyageurs National Park on a houseboat
By Rachel Hutton
I’VE PADDLED THE BOUNDARY WATERS in a canoe and the Indian Ocean in a kayak. I’ve water-skied Lake Pepin, floated the Apple River, and sailed the Mekong. I’ve traversed Minnehaha Creek on a raft cobbled together from lawn furniture, and shot rapids on a 20-foot log, bobbing like a sodden buckaroo.
Why, then, am I so intimidated by the ultimate in water-borne comfort, a trip though Voyageurs National Park on a houseboat? Slap some pontoons on a hotel suite, shove off on an enormous lake near the Canadian border, and…then what? Will I capsize the cushy cabana? Will hungry campers storm the ship and pillage our stash of boxed wine and baguettes?
We launch from the dock at Ebel’s Voyageur Houseboats, quizzing returning couples as they come down the gangplank. The wives tell how they spent their days fishing, spotting wildlife, eating well, and motoring around Kettle Falls. The men cooked: steaks, tagine, French toast (gentlemen, this is how you get your girl to spend a night in the wilderness). There may even have been skinny-dipping. “What happens on the lake stays on the lake,” a husband interjects. “Anything they say is exaggerated—except for the cooking.”
A new boat arrives and men with three-day-old beards unload bait, booze, tackle boxes, and those turf-covered ramps for playing “cornhole.” They had fished, kayaked, and water-skied. They played cards when the weather was lousy. “You have everything you need,” says a guy in a Packers T-shirt. He turns on his cell phone, signaling his return to civilization.
We board our 60-foot Boatel, which looks like a small apartment with a captain’s wheel in the living room (including the pull-out couch, the boat sleeps six). The stern reminds me of a train car, with bunk beds on one side and the “head” (nautical-speak for toilet) on the other. A spiral staircase leads to the upper deck, where there’s a hot tub and, yes, a water slide.
Joe Ebel takes the captain’s seat and motors us into Sullivan Bay. The boat rides as smoothly as my grandmother’s Lincoln, though it corners like an elephant. Houseboats are Joe’s heritage: His father built them, two of his siblings are in the business, and he and his wife, Katy, have been in it since the ’70s. “There’s one thing you need to know about a houseboat,” he says, as he cedes control to me. “The slower, the better—in the rental business, anyway.”
I feel surprisingly comfortable behind the wheel, but all I really do is hold ’er steady. We flatten other boats’ wakes as if we’re a glacier. At 5 mph, I could walk faster than I’m driving—and I like it that way.
Voyageurs is unique in that nearly all of its shoreline is accessible only by watercraft. Joe parks the boat (a tricky maneuver, but easy enough to learn with some instruction) on a tiny island and offhandedly mentions the time a curious bear lumbered up a boat’s gangplank in the middle of the night. “They honked the horn to scare it,” he says as he hops in a small boat and waves goodbye. What had he said about the radio’s emergency channel?
My friends and I spend the rest of the afternoon tooling around on a fishing boat we have towed along, trying to keep our bearings among the islands. Driving a houseboat in Voyageurs is as serene as canoeing in the Boundary Waters—we haven’t seen a soul—but with an added bonus: no packs to portage. As we cook up a batch of pasta, we remark how easily water boils on the kitchen stove, how simple it is to wash up in a sink, how we didn’t have to bring our own dishes. After dinner, we step off our Westin-on-the-water and find ourselves alone in the woods. We build a campfire, make s’mores, and decide on one more adventure before we tuck into bed. It’s too late in the season for swimming, but we dare each other to slip down the water slide. It’s the Everest of the trip; we do it because it is there.
No one hears our splashes or screams. If we were rustic campers, the cold water could be life-threatening; instead, we scamper up the houseboat’s stairs, teeth chattering, and plunge into the hot tub. It’s bathing meets bling in the middle of the wilderness: Where’s the Champagne? Where’s Fred Smoot?
Actually, we prefer the solitude. There are few things in life better than midnight on a silent lake, looking across the water, shadows of shore barely visible on the horizon, stars overhead—except taking it all in from a hot tub.
If You Go
In Minnesota, houseboat season runs May through October. Rates range from $200 to $1,600/day, depending on boat size, with discounts in the spring and fall months and for week-long rental. Many operators require a three-day minimum.
VOYAGEURS NATIONAL PARK
Ebel’s Voyageur Houseboats
Orr, 218-374-3571, www.ebels.com
International Falls, 218-286-5221,
Hiawatha Beach Resort
LAKE PEPIN/MISSISSIPPI RIVER
Great River Houseboats
Palisade Head, Minnesota’s most prominent precipice, is the only rock-climbing area in the state routinely described as “ominous.” A true sea cliff, it crests 200 feet above Lake Superior’s deep dark blue. Waves pound the boulders below its towering face. Sequestered in Tettegouche State Park, north of Silver Bay, it features dozens of climbing routes, some low-intermediate in grade, but many advanced and expert. Nicknamed the Phantom or Superior Crack, it starts on a ramp of rock in Palisade’s Amphitheater area, where high walls surround to form a horseshoe of vertical stone. At its dizzying crux, the region’s most revered route tapers to a single fist-size crack.
If You Go
Palisade Head offers some of the most challenging climbs in the state—and some of the best views. To learn more, visit www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/tettegouche or call 218-226-6365.
Four Other Great Rock-Climbing Areas
Taylor’s Falls: More than 50 established climbing routes on the basalt stone along the St. Croix River in Interstate State Park
Blue Mounds: A unique Sioux quartzite cliff that rises 100 feet above the prairie of southwestern Minnesota
Shovel Point: This 150-foot precipice, in Tettegouche State Park, is Minnesota’s second-highest sea cliff, after Palisade Head
Red Wing: Bolted sport-climbing routes traverse the 100-foot cliff atop Barn Bluff in Red Wing
Kayaking in the Apostle Islands
By Erin Peterson
THERE ARE TWO TYPES of people in this world: those who enjoy spending time in nature, and those who enjoy nature as it is represented in motivational posters and Ansel Adams engagement calendars. I have always fit into the latter category.
I don’t mind the idea of outdoorsiness. Indeed, I own all manner of clothing suggesting that nature and I are good buddies: sweat-wicking T-shirts, socks made from high-tech fabrics, and jackets with pockets roomy enough to stow GPS gadgets and tent stakes. But the truth is, given a box of matches in the middle of a forest, I’d sooner point out grammatical errors on the package than start a fire.
Though I lack outdoor cred, I am easily swayed by pretty pictures and good marketing (hello: iPod, iMac, and iPhone). After surfing through the photos and descriptions on Living Adventure’s website, I sign up for a weekend of kayaking and camping with the outdoor-adventure-programming company located in Red Cliff, Wisconsin, just outside of Bayfield. Beauty and inspiration are promised, and I am a sucker for such things. I cannot recite my credit card number fast enough.
Of course, I could have prepared for the weekend by testing a kayak on Lake Calhoun. Instead, I buy trail mix. It seems authentic, outdoorsy. It seems like something I could throw to distract a grizzly bear before it tries to shovel me into its mouth.
I arrive in Red Cliff early Saturday morning, where I meet my guide for the weekend, Danielle, and eight fellow kayakers. We change into wetsuits before heading into Lake Superior’s frigid waters. The gear is comforting. I imagine it’s similar to what Superman feels like when he comes striding out of the phone booth in his cape and tights: invincible and slightly ridiculous. We spend the morning at the edge of Lake Superior, learning kayaking techniques that all basically fall into the category of “how not to die.” When we finally push off, the lake is calm and the sun glints off the water. We fall into formation; our brightly colored kayaks make us look like a school of tropical fish.
It is three miles to our campsite on Sand Island, one of the dozen or so Apostle Islands. It’s a distance we can cover in about an hour, but we take time to explore. The water is deep and clear; sandstone bluffs tower overhead. Over thousands of years, the water has carved small caverns in the rock, and many of these sea caves are just large enough for a patient kayaker to paddle through.
Eventually we paddle back to our campsite and unload the gear we’ve stowed in our kayaks: tents and clothing, containers of food and cooking supplies. Unloading our gear is much easier than packing it at the launch site, where each item became a piece in a three-dimensional game of Tetris.
I am about ready to dig into my trail mix, but Danielle says she’s making us an appetizer before dinner, so I grudgingly set aside the bag. She then announces that we will need to put any food we brought into a bear box—a food-storage locker at the site that will keep the bears from sniffing us out. I am reluctant to part with what I regard as my only protection from grizzlies.
While Danielle prepares our snack, I leave the campsite with others to follow a trail through the woods. The only sounds are birds chirping and our footsteps. I’m someone who rarely leaves my apartment without headphones in my ear, but I can see the appeal of this silence: no traffic, no Muzak, no chatter.
When I return, Danielle has prepared the appetizer. I’m not sure what I was expecting—freeze-dried ice cream, maybe?—but she has started up a fire, freshly roasting some cloves of garlic to go with the crusty bread and Brie she’s set on the picnic tables. Dinner, she announces, will include whitefish with almonds, rice, and a salad with tomatoes and peppers. There is berry pie for dessert. Though we have no running water or electricity, the food is better than most of the restaurants I’ve been to recently.
As we sip hot chocolate and clean our plates, Danielle regales us with an epic tale involving a hungry bear, exasperated park rangers, and a gun. Like all good camping stories, it is funny and scary and poignant. By the time she finishes, it is growing dark. Danielle finishes cleaning up, and we crawl into our tents and say goodnight.
It is impossible not to wake up at the light of dawn, and before long, we’ve eaten breakfast, packed our gear, and headed back into the water. The weather is warm and we’re in good spirits. We paddle alongside the island, taking a break to visit a historic lighthouse and to eat lunch. By mid-afternoon, we decide to head back to shore. My paddle slices through the water, and I turn to take one more look at the islands.
As I drive home Sunday evening, with sore arms and sand still stuck to my ankles, I wonder if I’ve reached some sort of milestone. I may not be ready to buy out REI and Patagonia, but I will no longer limit my travel options to big cities and hotels with minibars. I dig out the trail mix from my bag. I look at it for a moment, then remember the crusty bread and roasted garlic. Maybe I’ll eventually acquire a taste for trail mix. Just not yet.
If You Go
Many canoe outfitters rent and sell kayaks. Also: Wearing a wetsuit is highly recommended for venturing into cooler waters.
715-779-9503 or 866-779-9503,
Trek & Trail,
NAMEKAGON RIVER, WISCONSIN
Big Brook Paddlesports,
Jack’s Canoe Rental,
Bear Track Outfitting Co.,
Superior Coastal Sports,
Piragis Northwoods Company,
River Point Outfitting Company,
One of five major sets of rapids on the Kettle River near Hinckley, Hell’s Gate sits pinched between towering sandstone walls, with swirling currents, eddies, and sloshing backwater. The stretch features some of the best whitewater in the state, with drops, tight chutes, rolling rapids and big waves that attract paddlers from all over the region.
If You Go
The Minnesota Canoe Association (www.canoe-kayak.org) runs trips down the Kettle River each year.
Five Other Great Whitewater Spots
St. Louis River: Some of the most exciting whitewater in the state is found on the St. Louis, near Duluth. Rapids range from class II to IV. Superior Whitewater Rafting, Carlton, 218-384-4637, www.minnesotawhitewater.com
Vermilion River: Flaring north from Lake Vermilion to Crane Lake, the river features class I to class V rapids. LaCroix Outfitters in Buyck, 888-600-2842, www.lacroixoutfitters.com
Snake River: A beginner’s whitewater river, with class I and II rapids. Put in near Pine City. Wild River Outfitters, Grantsburg, Wisconsin, 715-463-2254, www.wildriverpaddling.com
Minnehaha Creek: Stretches of class I and II whitewater are found in Edina and Minneapolis during high water. Sea Wolfe Kayak Instruction, St. Louis Park, www.seawolfekayak.com
St. Croix River: There are short but dramatic stretch of rapids just below the dam in Taylors Falls, usually class II and III. Taylors Falls Recreation, 800-447-4958 or 651-465-6315, www.wildmountain.com
The Life Aquatic
Diving deep and surfacing in the mine pits near Brainerd
By Joel Hoekstra
IT’S SUNNY and nearly 80 degrees, and I’m clad head-to-toe in black: hood, gloves, booties, a long-sleeved wetsuit—all made of thick neoprene and perfumed with the sweat of former users. The outfit puckers and pinches in all the wrong places. The mask I’m wearing bites into my cheeks when I inhale through my nose. I have no peripheral vision. Standing at the edge of a green lake, I look less like the Creature from the Black Lagoon than a potbellied cat burglar sporting blinders.
The lake is long, narrow, and oddly shaped. It is, in fact, man-made: a reservoir in a former iron mine, one of more than two-dozen that lie between Brainerd and Crosby in central Minnesota. Opened in 1904 and worked for nearly 80 years, the Cuyuna Range produced 106 million tons of manganese ore that were eventually alchemized into railroad ties, navy vessels, and skyscraper girders. Abandoned a quarter-century ago, the pits filled with rain and groundwater. Today, they attract swimmers, skinny-dippers, and—did I mention the flippers?—scuba divers.
“How deep is it?” I ask my instructor, Todd Matthies. A 40-something fellow with a reddish mustache and the build of Neptune, Todd grew up in Brainerd and owns the Minnesota School of Diving with his father, who started the business in 1959. He has been swimming in the pits since childhood, and has gone on dives in Micronesia, the Dutch Antilles, Mexico, and Honduras. He takes a drag from his cigarette before answering my question. “Some of the pits go 500 feet down,” he says.
Lots of Minnesotans get certified in scuba in area lakes or pools, then head off to look for starfish and manatees in some distant locale where umbrella drinks are served in coconuts. But I have no immediate plans to visit Cozumel or Guam. Sheer novelty spurred my call to Todd: None of my friends had “been there, done that.”
Todd and I wade into the water and slip below. I’m excited—but apprehensive. I’m also deeply skeptical of any sport that requires you to supply your own air. Still, knowing I’m in the depths of an abandoned mine does offer some comfort: I’m not risking an encounter with, say, a flesh-eating abalone or the sort of marine life that inspired Peter Benchley novels.
One of the basic skills first-time divers must master is neutral buoyancy—staying in one spot underwater. Water is denser than human flesh, so to sink below the surface, weights are necessary (see: Woolf, Virginia). To balance the extra pounds and avoid hitting bottom, the diver pumps compressed air from the tank on his back into the bladders of an inflatable vest. Too much air, and you rocket to the surface. Too little, and you’re the Titanic. Like a student driver riding both the brake and the gas, I manage to overfill and underinflate the bladders of the vest repeatedly in quick succession. A serpentine of bubbles trails behind me.
Todd and I descend to a platform 21-feet below the water’s surface and work our way through a battery of tests intended to prove my competence with compass skills, rescue techniques, and emergency-surfacing protocols. Then the fun begins: We tour the pit. We see snails and clam shells. We float through the branches of submerged trees. Moving deeper, we pass through the thermocline—a shimmering line that separates the sun-warmed surface water from the arctic bath below.
The pits are full of curiosities, from building foundations to mining equipment, from sunken boats to stolen cars. The water is clear, but there are constant reminders of human impact: not just old mining equipment, but also broken glass, plastic bottles, a splintered lawn chair. We’ve not only messed up the remotest corners of the earth—litter on K2, mercury in the oceans—we’ve also managed to reintroduce pollution into places we’ve already defaced and dug into. Sorry, Charlie, indeed. But then a baby bluegill races past—just inches from my nose. Nature, despite the scars and bruises, remains astonishingly capable of reasserting itself.
As I flounder, bob, and weave, Todd glides along. He extends a finger to point at the shadow of a nearby Northern pike, and I’m struck by how much he resembles—however briefly—the figure of God unfurling a hand to Adam in that famous painting by Michelangelo. A force, yet a feather. I will remember this weeks later, when I come across a quote from Jacques-Ives Cousteau, the father of modern scuba: “Buoyed by water, [a diver] can fly in any direction—up, down, sideways—by merely flipping his hand. Under water, man becomes an archangel.”
Todd signals that it’s time to surface. Before ascending, I collect a few plastic cups, intending to throw them away. My footprint on the environment is undeniable. Humans are not feather-light. But the least I can do while living in a world that I share with bluegills and birches and flesh-eating abalones is to open my eyes to the bits of paradise that haven’t yet been crushed. I can step carefully. I’ll never be an angel—in water or out. But I can strive for neutral buoyancy.
If You Go
Scuba enthusiasts have long made the most of Minnesota’s lakes, slipping below the surface to look for muskies, Native American artifacts, lost jewelry, and more. Scuba shops that offer training and local trips abound. For a list of dive shops in Minnesota, visit www.mnscuba.com.
CUYUNA MINE PITS, CROSBY-IRONTON
Minnesota School of Diving
ISLE ROYAL, LAKE SUPERIOR
Scuba Dive and Travel
SQUARE LAKE, STILLWATER
Minneapolis and Eagan,
The 300 miles of trail that snake through the rolling wilderness in and around the Chequamegon National Forest in northern Wisconsin make up one of the Midwest’s premier fat-tire venues. These range from relatively easy (and gorgeous) undulating paths to precipitous leg-killers, and there are plenty of options for trailhead parking near Cable, Delta, Drummond, Hayward, Namekagon, and Seeley.
IF YOU GO
Visit the Chequamegon Area Mountain Bike Association’s website, www.cambatrails.org. Riverbrook Bike & Ski (715-634-5600, www.riverbrookbike.com), in Hayward and Spooner, rents and sells equipment.
Five more great mountain-biking locales
Eagan: Lebanon Hills Regional Park has some of the best riding in the state, including an expert loop with bridges, ramps, drops, and jumps. www.co.dakota.mn.us/LeisureRecreation/Parks, 952-891-7000
Minneapolis: A 4.36-mile off-road loop winds through Theodore Wirth, Minneapolis’s largest park. www.minneapolisparks.org,
Afton: Ride the eight hilly miles of Afton Alps, above the St. Croix River. www.aftonalps.com, 651-436-5245
Bloomington: Sandy trails line the Minnesota River in Bloomington Park at the terminus of Lyndale Avenue. www.morcmtb.org
St. Paul: Overlooking the Mississippi River, Battle Creek Regional Park has bluff-climb trails that ascend hundreds of feet. www.stpaul.gov/depts/parks, 651-266-8500
The Ice Age Trail
The Ice Age National Scenic Trail may be the world’s largest—or at least longest—tutorial on the power of global climate change. This humble hiking path, which meanders near the St. Croix River at Interstate Park in Wisconsin, tracks the scarred land and geographic abnormalities left by great glacial sheets of ice. A mishmash of moraines, tussled stone, talus, deep valleys, lakes, rushing rivers, ridgelines, and bedrock is evident along the trail, which will be 1,200 miles long when completed, connecting hundreds of trailheads within Wisconsin.
IF YOU GO
Trailheads abound in Interstate Park along the 1,200-mile route; download maps at www.nps.gov/iatr, or call 608-441-5610.
Other Great Day Hikes
Louisville Swamp: Oak savannas, prairie, and floodplain forests fill this 2,600-acre preserve near Shakopee. www.fws.gov/midwest/MinnesotaValley/louisville.html; or 952-492-6400
Carlton Peak: This dramatic, 1,526-foot peak in Temperance River State Park stands high above Lake Superior.
Jay Cooke: Rushing rapids introduce the trail system at this state park, which centers on the gorge of the St. Louis River near Duluth. www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/jay_cooke or 218-384-4610
Kekekabic Trail: This remote 38-mile route heads west from the Gunflint Trail deep into the woods toward Ely. www.kek.org
Cannon Valley Trail: This paved but pretty-wild trail unfurls under the bluffs of the Cannon River near Red Wing. www.cannonvalleytrail.com, 507-263-0508