Thursday, August 18, 2016

The North Shore and More

We're in Duluth! We're supposed to be Ely, Minnesota and when we left off we were in Siren, Wisconsin, so let's go back.

Family vacation smiles!

We closed out our last full day at Silver Lake in full Siren-style. Shopping at Peggy's Fashion Rack, which is between Hardware Hanks, the post office, and the Main Street Cafe, and so adorably small town you'd think you were on a movie set. Lunch at the Cheese Factory - a whole huge factory FULL OF CHEESE, and also some meats and other delicacies, but mostly wonderful wonderful cheese. I enjoy a store that celebrates one of the great loves of my life. And then, later that afternoon, after we watched James swim around the lake for the third time, I decided I should swim across it, for old time's sake and also because sometimes mom can do hard, athletic-y things. I wore my bikini and borrowed James's cap and goggles and then I deeply regretted my announcement as soon as my pontoon boat escort pushed off from the dock and it was time for me to jump in.

Zomg so cold. But then it felt amazing. Like coming home.

A Swim Across Again from Lag Liv on Vimeo.

I've attempted to swim in pools a few times since quitting my competitive career 15 years ago and it usually feels pretty disappointing. I think I can't help but compare my distances and splits against what I used to be able to do and how I used to feel, but in the lake- in open water- something I never trained, I can just swim. And swimming always feel like home. I got to the other side and decided to swim back. That lap felt amazing too. Soon I'd swim about mile, out of nowhere, and it felt better than I feel after two margaritas. Silver Lake is made of magic.

And, even better, about partway through my first lap I heard Claire exclaim to James, in a voice full of surprised awe, "Daddy! Mommy is a good swimmer too!". Damn right. And then I played with the kids in the water, because sometimes mommies can do that too.

Even later that day, during a dinner of "chicken on the boat" in which we eat a bucket of chicken and throw the bones overboard- yet another sacred Silver Lake tradition, I got a call from the second cousins we were supposed to be traveling to see the next morning. Mr. Cousin had become very sick on their boundary waters canoe expedition and they were now at the ER instead of home and getting ready to have guests. Obviously we felt terrible for him- turns out he has a staph infection in his bionic knee (knee replacement a few years ago; this is infection #2 and that is a scary and dangerous thing), and now we needed a Plan B for part 2 of our Little House in the Big Woods Vacation of 2016. We turned to a map (like an actual paper map my grandpa pulled out) and decided we should go to Duluth and the North Shore. We hadn't done that, so why not? A very brief google search was full of pretty pictures, my grandparents highly recommended it and many nearby state parks, and I found a hotel on the water with a room for us - done!

Stop 1; waterfalls are here

We left yesterday, stopping first at Pattison State Park for some hiking and waterfalls. My grandpa said that's where they all went to party in college, so we said hello to it for him, with more kids and less partying.

I LOVE a good wooden state park sign

Next up was a really great local park in Superior so the kids could run and James could sit in the car and make a bunch of swim-school related calls. Out of office messages don't exist when you own your own business, at least not if you're as dedicated and conscientious about it as James is.

We drove through the University of Wisconsin- Superior campus, so I could see where my grandparents met and started dating. Without that little school, and both grandparents' determination to get a college degree after growing up in tiny towns in Wisconsin and Michigan, I wouldn't exist. I paid homage as we passed by.


After crossing a giant bridge, we were in Minnesota! Duluth is a very historic-feeling, very charming city on the shores of Lake Superior with fabulous views, parks, and some of the best meals we've had on a vacation. We're staying at the Inn on Lake Superior and I highly recommend it for a family. It's not brand new, but the rooms are very large, the breakfast is excellent, and there's free s'mores every night, plus a pool, waterfront access, and bikes and games you can check out. The back of the hotel is right on the lakefront, so obviously we immediately found some rocks to climb on and got this leg of the vacation party started.

After we got that out of our system, we walked along Canal Park Road to the Maritime Visitor Center and Museum. With free admission and great exhibits (and views!), I again highly recommend. You can walk out to the lighthouse, watch giant barges come into the harbor, and see the aerial bridge go up and down while you walk. We enjoyed the whole peninsula very much.

And you can climb on old priceless salvaged things!

Dinner was Vitta Pizzeria which was CRAZY good (the Yelp app's "nearby" button is my best friend on vacations; I can't go anywhere without reading reviews and it's never steered me wrong) and then we watched the sunset behind the hotel on our walk back.

Cora is super into holding hands right now

This morning we got ready for a day of North Shore adventuring. I didn't have any real plans except to head north up the shore and find things to explore along the way. 40 miles up MN-61 we found ourselves at Gooseberry Falls State Park and it was AWESOME. Short hikes to three different sets of falls, it's the Niagra of the Midwest and it was right up our alley.

Soon we realized we could climb underneath the waterfalls, so shoes and socks were quickly removed and we climbed up/on everything.

Everyone here is barefoot and a little damp

I quickly regretted not packing extra clothes for everyone. Cora's tutu was soaked, but she took its removal in good cheer- as long as she can climb and hike BY HERSELF, she can handle all other disappointments life sends her way. Like cold water temperatures and gravity.

We climbed around a LOT and deeply enjoyed this beautiful and FREE state park. Minnesotans, you are very lucky.

After Gooseberry we needed food, so yelp led us to an Inn with restaurant on the lake with solid food, less than mediocre service, and spectacular views. Then we pressed on northward and turned off for the next State Park with those alluring wood carved signs -- Split Rock Lighthouse! And wowza, it was awesome.

The park itself is free, but you can't do or see a whole lot without paying the admission fee for the lighthouse visitor center and tour. The center is very well done and the 20-minute tour was wonderful. The lightouse was built in 1909, opened in 1910 and decommissioned in 1969. We learned how it was built (all supplies, people, etc. had to come in by boat because there were no roads), how it worked (lighthouse signatures, how the lens was built, how everything ran before electricity- amazing technology for the time), and how day to day life worked for the keepers and staff. Really, really neat. And then you got to go in the lighthouse, pump room, and one of the keeper's residences!

I am not a huge history buff- I prefer the now and the fake paranormal and/or dystopian romantic future, but it was really wonderful and moving to see all the original aspects of the lighthouse and residences. The kids also loved it and I can't recommend it more highly for anyone of any age who finds themselves anywhere near Two Harbors, Minnesota.

After your tour you can also walk down 177ish steps to get to the Lake Superior beachfront for an amazing lighthouse view. And of course, more crawling on rocks and putting your feet in freezing water. Cora did all the steps down and all the steps back up and though it took a while, she also slept for the whole ride back to Duluth.

Once there the kids announced that they wanted to swim in Lake Superior. I was pretty sure they wouldn't actually do it, so I just wore my hiking clothes out behind the hotel, while everyone else optimistically changed into swim suits. We didn't bring towels or cover ups or anything really anything except a camera and an extra diaper; we generally prefer to pack light and be underprepared. Also behind our hotel is a ruined, half-sunken building from the 1919. Originally a sand and gravel hopper, it was abandoned when the Duluth building boom ended in the early 20's and the storms and extremes of Lake Superior rendered it structurally unsound. Dubbed "The Cribs," per google, we'd seen people swimming out to and jumping off it the day before and the Lag Liv family felt it needed to be part of that.

And so we were. James and the kids went first- I couldn't believe when Landon just walked out into the water and then Claire followed. They were determined to have this adventure and who were we to stop them? James soon followed and I remained on shore with Cora, suddenly, shockingly wishing I'd put on my suit too.

They swam out to the building and then disappeared for a good 15 minutes inside it. Just as I was getting genuinely concerned and wondering what I could do with Cora if I had to swim out there to find them, James popped up on the top and Claire's face appeared in a window. Landon jumped first, Claire second, and then James off the top.

Through rapid hand signals I insisted they swim back to me where I shocked everyone, including myself, by whipping off my shirt and jumping in the water with my running shorts and sports bra. Fuck it, I was doing it too and holy SHIT it was cold. During the Cora hand off James explained that it's actually pretty complicated to get inside and up to the top, something about follow the second rope, not the first, swim underwater through a window and don't hit your head? Whatever, the water was freezing and I needed to start swimming. The big kids decided to go with me and off we went.

Once you stopped feeling anything in your body, the water felt pretty good.

Upon arrival at the ruin I could see why it took James and the kids 15 minutes to emerge. The building is listing heavily to one side and the only way to get to the middle where you can climb up is to swim underwater through a submerged hole that leads to interior gravel chute. Unfortunately, you can't see through cement, and the first time I tried to get through, I overestimated the size of the exit space and swam too far, so when I tried to come up for air, I hit my head on solid cement instead. I went back down, under, and through to get back where I started for a breath and did it again, this time popping up in the right spot and discovered the hole was only about as wide as my shoulders- I have no idea how James made it through or how he got the kids to do it, but I was glad I'd already told them to stay on the edge and not jump this time.

Now on the inside, I climbed through several interior windows to get to a chute that had a rope someone had rigged up to the wall and then rappelled up the slanted side. Once at the top, I walked along the tops of the walls back to the front of the building to jump off. It was awesome and a total highlight of my day.

creative swimsuiting

I swam around, collected the kids, and we swam back. Cora INSISTED on swimming, so we let her splash around, no longer surprised at her general toughness (seriously that water was so damn cold), and then we headed into the hotel pool because we were wet and towel-less and a hot tub sounded really important. Dinner was Fitger's Brewhouse with an Apricot Wheat beer I CANNOT recommend more highly, whether you've been swimming in Lake Superior or not. The food was also amazing.

Tomorrow we head to the airport after lunch. The kids want to swim in the lake again and James wants to drag me back into another antique store. I'd rather jump in a frigid lake, so we'll just see where the day takes us. But, in short, you should all go to Duluth. It's a really fun town and we're really glad to be here, even if not at all glad about the reason why.



    Not travel related but I saw this fierce salad link and thought of you :-) I know how important lunch is to you:-).

    1. Yes! I love that you've dubbed the salads to be fierce and also that you know how much that means to be at lunchtime.

  2. Two Harbors plus Ely was my honeymoon. Glad ya'll enjoyed it too.

  3. Awesome to see you show your kids that mom's a champion athlete too!

  4. Have you seen this fully optimized road trip map to every national park?

  5. Lake Superior is my favorite lake - spent a lot of time in the UP growing up.

    This is such a true statement about the water "Once you stopped feeling anything in your body, the water felt pretty good."

  6. Love the Duluth/Two Harbors area! We live in St. Paul and don't take advantage of it nearly enough.

  7. This post brings back so many memories! I grew up about 3 hours south of Duluth. It's been forever since I've been!

  8. As a native Minnesotan, I have such fond childhood memories of all of those North Shore places (and was also frighteningly happy to be swimming in that cold Lake Superior water!). So glad y'all got to experience it. Will be saying a prayer for your cousin.