Hidden Cities: Road Trip


- by Sean McSteen -


To me, nothing presents more possibilities and outlets for adventure than the North Shore along Lake Superior. There is something so deeply meditative about driving up Highway 61 with the beautiful and vast body of water stretching infinitely into the horizon on your right, and the intimidating, yet inviting lush forest of your left. The north holds stories, myths and secrets so deeply rooted within the fabric of the land that the only way to find them is through exploration.

We began our journey up Minnesota’s eastern coast with a brief stop in Duluth at Northern Waters Smokehaus. Every time I visit, I convince myself to try out a different sandwich than my usual choice. And every time, I throw that idea to the wind upon arrival and go with the tried and true Cajun Finn; a delicious sandwich with cajun smoked salmon, roasted red peppers, pepperoncini peppers, lettuce and a green onion cream cheese. All in all, a perfect meal before a long drive north.

The first two nights, we camped at Tettegouche State Park, just north of Silver Bay. Reserving a cart-in campsite rather than a drive-in, we were far more isolated within the woods and were also looking out directly onto Lake Superior. After a tasty dinner by the fire and a little bit of Far North Rye we had bought as a special treat for the trip, we hit the hay with excited anticipation for coming day.

Waking early, we tidied the camp and were on our way to Ely to explore the town and meet new people. Having skipped breakfast at the camp, we stopped in Finland at the restaurant called Our Place for a greasy breakfast sandwich and black coffee; a perfect early morning pick-me-up. Driving to Ely, and really anywhere in Northern Minnesota for that matter, is so incredibly beautiful. With rocky areas, wetlands and thick forests along the road, it’s fun to ponder the many intermingling circles of life—living and dying just out of sight—in a land that is, for the most part, untouched by humans. And though we did not see any wildlife other than deer, mice and squirrels on this particular trip, we did get to learn about and see one creature native to Minnesota. The wolf. Ely, Minnesota is home to the International Wolf Center, a facility designed with the purpose of educating people about the lives and behaviors of wolves. At the center, there are four resident/ambassador wolves that live in a large enclosure attached to the main building that also houses a small wolf museum filled with information ranging from different culture’s myths and legends of the wolf to a wolf’s behaviors and lifespan. The International Wolf Center also recently received two very rare newborn Arctic Wolf pups from a facility in Canada to raise at the IWC, furthering its education of wolves during every step of their lives.

The International Wolf Center was our only set-in-stone plan that day; so the rest of the time we had to spontaneously walk the streets of Ely. We went to the Ely farmer’s market, which is held in Whiteside Park every Tuesday evening, and then went to a local restaurant, Insula. Sitting at the bar of the beautifully designed restaurant, we enjoyed a late-afternoon snack of seared scallops and french fries with béarnaise (probably the best béarnaise I’ve ever had) and talked with the bartender, Brett Ross, about the town, the community and the beautiful land that surrounds Ely. He, like many others we talked to that day, cited the strong community and the incredible wilderness to be his favorite aspects of life in Ely.

Yet, as close-knit and inclusive as the community in Ely is, there are very real issues and undertakings having to do with this wilderness that have split so much of the larger Northern Minnesota community. The argument of whether or not to renew two preference rights leases currently held by Twin Metals and its parent company, Antofagasta, is a divisive one. While the two portions of land within the Superior National Forest are currently untouched, plans and proposals are in the works to develop the plots into copper-nickel mines. And up north, there is a veiled juxtaposition between the mining community who have worked the depths of the land for generations and those who choose to live so far north for the exact opposite reason; to be as close to the clean, untouched wilderness as possible. Both sides appreciate the land for different reasons, but are all part of the larger community of their town; making this polarizing issue especially hard as the proponents and opponents of the issue are neighbors, or employers, or even family.

We had a chance to witness the difficulty and differences that are currently running deep through the Ely community and beyond at an official listening session that the U.S. Forest Service held in the Ely middle school auditorium. There, supporters of both sides were given an opportunity to voice their concerns and insights on the lease renewal to a panel of Forest Service officials. Standing at the back of the auditorium, it was clear just how deeply split the town is. With jeers and boos from both sides scattered intermittently through the evening, it was evident that neither side will come to an agreement and whichever way the decision goes, a portion of the community will be left frustrated and angry.

After a full day in Ely, we headed back to our campsite at Tettegouche, and the next morning, we woke early to get straight on the road headed further north. We had a big day ahead of us and needed to cover a lot of ground as we were headed past Grand Marais and on the Gunflint Trail on our way to Gunflint Trail Lodge. Similar to that of our route to Ely, the Gunflint Trail was possibly even more beautiful and diverse when it came to the nature surrounding us. Each curve in the road held something new around the bend and to both my disappointment and relief, we did not come face-to-face with either a moose or a bear.

Instead, we eventually arrived at the Gunflint Trail Lodge to take part in their Towering Pines Canopy Tour, a zip line tour consisting of eight different lines stretched through the trees with its largest line spanning 800 feet. Before going up to the platforms to begin our tour, our guides, Jake and Katlin, took us through all the safety instructions and taught us how to take off and break on a small zip line a few feet off the ground. When we were all set and trained, we took a short drive through the woods to our first platform and with nervous anticipation, we began our adventure above the trees. As soon as we stepped off the first platform and let the combination of our weight and gravity pull us down the line, all past worries and doubts dropped away. It felt as close to flying as we could achieve without jumping out a plane with wing suits on. Having the different stations on which we switched from line to line gave us some time to ask questions about the area and talk to Jake and Katlin about what makes the north—and their job—special to them. Similar to many we talked with in that area, Jake and Katlin talked about the awesome combination of genuine and friendly people within the wild setting of Northern Minnesota. It is the wilderness and sense of adventure that is the common denominator that runs deep within every person living and working in Northern Minnesota; a commonality to build off of and create deep and meaningful friendships and experiences.

We left the Towering Pines Canopy Tour feeling exhilarated and thankful to have experienced something completely new and exciting. We were staying at Temperance River State Park that evening, so we needed to make it back to set up camp before dark. But, that didn’t keep us from making stops along the way to explore Grand Marais’s businesses and eat a delicious lunch at the Angry Trout. With one more night of camping, we arrived at Temperance River and set up camp before heading back out to explore a bit more of the river itself and grab a quick cocktail and bite to eat at the Bluefin Bay Grille, which has one of the most picturesque and serene patios along the North Shore that we have found. That, and their scallop appetizer remains unbeaten in my opinion with creamy polenta, grilled pork belly, large sea scallops and a balsamic reduction.

Returning to our campsite, we were invited over to the neighboring campsite for a drink around the fire where we talked late into the night with three wonderful people whom we had never met before. The friendliness of strangers up north is something I have found and enjoyed over many years of exploring the area, and it really was a perfect way to round out our adventure. Meeting friendly people and sharing a moment in time with them is one of the most enjoyable experiences while traveling in Minnesota. The Minnesota wilderness presents a blank canvas for connecting with people from all different backgrounds and walks of life. Most, if not every, person is there to appreciate the world around them at its most wild core, and there is a beauty and happiness that comes from sharing that appreciation with strangers along the way. You hear their stories and you share your own, and with that comes a peaceful growth from hearing new and different perspectives on the world around us.

Driving back to Minneapolis the next morning, we were filled with appreciation for what we had seen and done; who we had met along the way; and the world that we get to call home. There was a sadness in having to leave, but also a reassuring calm that we would be back time and time again with full hearts and adventurous spirits.