Two Harbors Light

Connecting our journey between National Parks (Apostle Islands and the upcoming Voyageurs) was a quick stop-over at the Two Harbors Lighthouse B&B in Minnesota.

The Two Harbors Light Station is the oldest operating lighthouse in the state of Minnesota, dating back to 1892. The B&B opened in 1999 to help fund the maintenance and upkeep of the buildings and grounds. They also run a small gift shop on the grounds to help funding as well.

In addition to the light tower, which has exhibits chronicling the history of the lighthouse, there are also exhibits in the Assistant Lightkeeper’s house, which has been restored to look as it would have in the late 1800’s, and in the Steamship Frontenac’s pilot house, which sits on the lawn, overlooking the lake. The Frontenac ran aground in 1979 on Pellet Island after encountering a sudden snow squall in Lake Superior, ending its career after 56 years in operation.

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We arrived shortly before 5pm and were greeted by our hostess, Rose. We were given a tour of the house, including our cozy room.

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Rose then gave us all the information we needed for our stay, and was on her way until morning. We explored the house a bit more on our own. In the main parlor New Kids on the Block crooned “Please Don’t Go Girl,” out of an old fashioned radio playing the American Top 40 from the late 1980’s. A mystery.

After settling in, we walked around the grounds for a bit, checking out the information in the lighthouse itself as well as the pilot house. The gift shop was closed, and it was getting late, so we headed down the road for dinner. By the end of our meal a lightning storm was starting in the distance. No rain or thunder yet, but large bolts of lightning. We decided it was time to head back.

Upon our return to the property 7 deer greeted us. They observed us as we passed, but otherwise paid us no mind. With the storm still raging on the horizon, we slipped down to the pilot house overlooking the lake. Though it never did rain, and we never heard a single boom of thunder, the storm put on quite the light show. We came back in and sat in the main parlor where we enjoyed cheese (from Benoit Cheese Company) and wine (from Trius Winery) before retiring for the evening.

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Breakfast the next morning was wonderful. It consisted of wild rice quiche (wild rice is apparently a local specialty), a frosted raspberry muffin, sausage, sugared grapes, and fruit salad (plus juice and coffee).

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Two other couples joined us. A couple we’d spoken to briefly the night before and another couple we were just meeting for the first time. The second couple (Stephanie and Ron, I think) were such fans of the B&B that they usually came each year on each of their birthdays, and sometimes on Valentine’s Day as well. High praise.

We all chatted over breakfast about our travels and Rose told some ghost tales about the B&B (there’s a journal in the living room where people have apparently written about various “incidents” – I opted not to read it).

At the end of the meal there were plenty of leftovers. Rose said we were welcome to take anything we wanted, and as we were heading to 3 days on a traveling houseboat, we opted to take her up on it. Loaded up with a bunch of muffins and some quiche, we checked out of the B&B to make our way to Voyageurs National Park. What a fun place to stay.


Wisconsin: Eats and Treats

We weren’t in Wisconsin very long. Less than 48 hours, but we managed to get in a few note-worthy treats anyway.

Hotel Chequamegon – Molly Cooper’s Restaurant

We headed to the Hotel Chequamegon in Ashland for lunch on our one full day in Wisconsin. We had read about it in our faithful travel companion, Road Trip, USA and decided to give it a whirl. Patio seating was a must, as the view was too beautiful to pass on.

Before we could order, the dark clouds on the horizon began to get darker and we decided that it was possible we wouldn’t make it through the meal without being rained on, so we moved inside. After a review of the menu we ordered up some deep fried cheese curds. A local specialty always requires a try.

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I wasn’t very impressed. It was mostly just batter with just a touch of the curd inside. The batter was good, but with how these things are raved about (even our waitress went on and on about them), I expected more.

For lunch, I ordered the soup and salad combo – tomato soup with grilled ham and cheese. Sriram had the Northern Chowder – essentially clam chowder with rice. Both of our meals were good, but nothing fantastic. I’d rate it probably not worth the stop.

Benoit Cheese

The best thing to happen at the Hotel Chequamegon was that as we were leaving a brochure for a cheese store happened to catch my eye. Since it was (sort of) on our way to our next location, we decided to make the detour. From the outside, the Benoit Cheese Shop doesn’t look like much. From the direction we came in, it didn’t seem to be near much else either. It was definitely an out of the way place that we never would have happened upon if not for the brochure.

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It was busy inside. There were 5 others in the small shop when we arrived. A couple was at the counter having a tasting and another group was waiting to make a purchase or two. Since we’d be waiting a bit, we decided to check out all the cheeses in the various cases. They had a very impressive collection of cheeses, as well as some other local products (honeys, candles, brick-a-brack, etc.). I loved this particular collection.

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We patiently waited and let a few people who had come in after us jump ahead of us since we’d be lingering and not just purchasing. It was worth the wait. When we finally had the chance to sample some of the cheeses, we were very impressed. Pam, who was super sweet and friendly, helped us out with the tasting. Not only did she offer some favorites, but asked about all of our preferences (another group did the tasting with us) in order to pull out other cheeses we might like.

There was really good variety. We started with a series of Goudas. As cheeses go, Gouda doesn’t necessarily top my list – still, they were quite tasty. We tried a few spicy varieties that were quite good. Sriram even tried the Ghost cheese. When I looked to him to see if I should give it a whirl, he merely shook his head. I passed. Our favorite ended up being a BellaVitano Raspberry. It was so delicious we purchased some before leaving. We also picked up some of their cheddar. It will definitely make for very nice snack over the next week. What a wonderful stop. And the best part? They have an online shop so I can order from home.

The Pickled Herring

Our final Wisconsin meal was at the Pickled Herring after our Apostle Islands Cruise. It was chosen predominantly because it was open and nearby when we docked. We were both rather hungry by then. We shared the “Appetizer Special” (Jalapeno Potato Bites served with Buffalo Cheese Sauce), which was quite tasty.

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Then I actually decided to go for it and get some fish – sort of. I ordered the Buffalo Fish Wrap (Fresh Bayfield Fish topped with Romaine Lettuce, Tomato and our Buffalo Relish – Crumbled Blue Cheese, Chopped Red Onion, Celery and Bacon) Wrapped in a Flour Tortilla with Buffalo Hot Sauce). I figured with all of that stuff in there, I’d barely be able to tell it was fish. That pretty much turned out to be true. It was quite good, with the “relish” bordering on outstanding.

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Sriram also ordered fish, and found his a little too fishy, but that’s apparently true of trout. So, not really the fault of the restaurant. Overall, it was a very good meal and the service was good. I’d definitely recommend a stop in.

Feel free to ask questions. And tell us about your great meals on the road.

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

Welcome to our one and only adventure in Wisconsin (although – definitely see the upcoming “Eats and Treats” for the info on our trip to the Benoit Cheese Company, which was a mini-adventure).

The draw in Wisconsin was definitely the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Lake Superior (it’s starting to seem like we have moved to the Lake). The Apostle Islands archipelago is made up of 21 islands, the first twenty having been declared a National Lakeshore by Congress in 1970 (the other would come in the 80’s). The varying islands played a big part in the early fur trade and through the years have had fishing, logging, and rock quarrying ventures.

We arrived in Bayfield, home to the Apostle Islands Visitor’s Center for information and to get our National Parks stamp and view the exhibits.

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You can visit many of the islands to hike or picnic, but one of the best ways to see the park is by boat. I wasn’t up for more kayaking, so we booked a Sunset Grand Tour with Apostle Island Cruises. With almost an hour before our boat tour, we walked around the small waterfront and happened upon the Bayfield Maritime Museum. The museum chronicled the evolution of boats and ships in the area, starting with the birch canoes used by the Indians to sail powered commercial fishing crafts and more.

As I’ve found with any historical look at the Great Lakes, it would not be complete without information about shipwrecks. The Bayfield Maritime Museum was no exception. As you can see, there were quite a few.

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At 5:15, we boarded the Superior Princess. The boat was not very crowded, so everyone had the option to be inside or out (and I think nearly everyone started outside and ended up inside, including us). The winds and the cool evening temperature quickly had us retreating inside, but the windows opened, so it was still good for photography.

As the tour made its way around the Islands, Captain Pat acted as both Captain and story-teller. The majority of the islands are seen from a distance. Trees and shoreline – very pretty, but after some of our previous adventures, not as overwhelming a view. For a while I was thinking that perhaps this would be the big dud of our trip. Still, some of the islands had interesting stories.

Manitou Island has been restored to a 1930’s fishing camp that used to operate there.

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Captain Pat told a story about a ranger who spent a full season on the island. No cable, no internet, just isolation and nature (I found myself singing, “No phones, no lights, no motor cars…” in my head). Another had once been trapped in the outhouse by a bear. She’d luckily had her radio with her, and had radioed another ranger who’d come over to the island and managed to scare the bear off. When the other ranger asked if there was anything else he could help with, she said, “Wait right there,” fetched her things, and left with him never to return. I can’t say that I blame her.

Another story was told about Skar the bear (though I don’t know if it’s simply a fanciful story to make a point). After tourists had taken it upon themselves to feed the bears, Skar began to get aggressive and was raiding camps. Many things were tried to correct the problem before he simply had to be removed from the island. He was brought to North Dakota and put into the wild there. When the rangers went back to the island the following season, Skar greeted them on the dock. Skar (now stuffed) still greets visitors at the island’s visitor center to serve as a reminder that feeding wildlife will often lead to the animal’s death.

Moving on to more islands, a watchful eye on the highest treetops revealed eagles on watch, which always leaves me wishing for a lens even bigger than the 200mm lens I borrowed from my sister for the trip.

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Things had gotten more interesting, but it was still not as impressive as some of our previous adventures. But then, they’d saved the best for last. It’s Devil’s Island where you finally get to see what all of the fuss is about. The shoreline is a wonderful burst of color and jagged rock. The natural sea caves are both beautiful and fascinating. It makes for dramatic scenery around the lighthouse.

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The trip back was uneventful and once back in town we grabbed a bite to eat before settling in for the night. A new state tomorrow. Wisconsin – we hardly knew ya. Perhaps someday we’ll get back and explore more of what the Apostle Islands have to offer.

Please feel free to leave comments or ask questions. We love getting feedback on the trip.

Carpe Diem

We are 6 weeks into this journey (though the blog is currently in week 3 somewhere), and our travels have been going really well. As we’ve traveled we have met so many wonderful people, and the trip always comes up in conversation. National Park enthusiasts always wonder what park we will head to next and which we have already passed through. Hikers and adventurers pass off wonderful tips for trails and sights. Restaurant recommendations have come in as quickly as “be sure not to miss…” advice. Many people want to know if we will hit every state on the journey (the answer being a resounding no, we are traveling way too slowly to even come close). Still others are simply amazed that we are traveling in such a small car.

But with so many of the people we encounter, one of the questions we are most frequently asked is, “What motivated you to do the trip now?”

There are many answers, of course. The timing was right – I wasn’t working, and Sriram is in a job flexible enough to let him take the time off. We could afford it. And it was something we’d already talked about doing sometime in the future – likely when we’d paid off our home.

So, why now? For us, the question was more, why wait?

Sixteen years ago today, at the age of 55, my father passed away. Complications of brain cancer proved too much and he was gone far too soon. We were extremely close and it was a devastating blow. I was 25.

He and my mother had always talked about traveling in retirement. There was talk of RV trips and maybe even a cross country trip (and I recall my dad having this sort of half-baked notion of retiring to a houseboat in the Florida Keys). To be honest, I didn’t pay much attention to their retirement plans. I only know that they never got the chance to see them through.

So, in answer to the question, well, this trip is a little bit of a “carpe diem” moment for us. We don’t know what the future holds. We only know that we can do this thing now, and hold the memories of it with us for a lifetime, however long that may be.

I know this trip is a luxury that not many can afford. But I also know that life, too, is a luxury. We get no guarantees. Too often we put off living for another day, another time. The reasons are usually good, and for my parents, raising five children left little time (or money) for travel. It was always something they’d do later. Later just didn’t come.

My advice to all would be, be careful what you put off to tomorrow – we only get so many. Live life now, in whatever way is most meaningful to you.

I’ve seen a quote, always listed as “author unknown” that states, “Do not regret growing older. It is a privilege denied to many.” It’s a good lesson, one that I hope to hold onto as I age. But I’ve been reminded so many times in the last few years of how fragile our hold on life can be, and if I’m not one of the privileged ones I hope to go knowing that I truly lived.

I’ve thought of my father often on this trip – when in “Little Finland”, whenever I’ve seen interesting birds or long trains (if I had a nickel for every time he told that story about that time in the Air Force…), and so many other small moments. In those moments I know that this is the right time.

I love you dad.

I miss you.

Michigan: Eats and Treats

Including our time on Isle Royale, we spent 8 days in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We had some fantastic food, some average food, and a few meals not worth talking about at all. I decided that I’d only include some of the best. So here are my favorite eats and treats from our extended stay in Michigan.

The Galley
St. Ignace

The Galley was recommended to us by the desk clerk at our hotel as the restaurant in town to go to. Since it was a special occasion (we’d arrived in St. Ignace on our anniversary), we figured we’d give it a try. The parking lot was pretty deserted when we arrived, but it was on the later side so we didn’t necessarily take that as a bad sign. Inside wasn’t much to look at either, but we were tired, hungry, and ready for whatever their menu offered.

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Sriram ordered the pasty, a local specialty, while I opted for the prime rib. I didn’t have much hope for it, but I was told it was the best in town. My salad arrived. It was a basic side salad – nothing special. I was hungry and was hoping the prime rib would at least be passable. When it arrived it looked good. And smelled good. It came with horseradish sauce, which I opted to get on the side (horseradish is a flavor I like, but it can easily overwhelm food).

My prime rib was, in a word…perfect. Easily the best prime rib I’ve ever had. And the horseradish sauce (which is made in-house by the chef) was sublime. It was mild enough to not be overwhelming, but flavorful enough to be great. I opted to mostly not use it on my steak, as I felt the steak did not require assistance. But I stirred it into my baked potato and found it delightful. I liked it so much I was sure to tell the waitress to send my regards to the chef.

A great meal to welcome us to Michigan.

Joann’s Fudge
Mackinac Island

A stroll around an island definitely begs for an ice cream cone, so shortly after arriving on Mackinac Island, we stopped into Joann’s Fudge shop. After checking out my choices, I went with something a little different than my usual ice-cream preferences. For some reason, the Mint Chocolate Chip was calling my name. I ordered one up in a waffle cone (a treat, as I usually go for a kiddie cup). It was delicious, and enough to share. Mint chocolate chip may become a new favorite.

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Mary’s Bistro
Mackinac Island

After exploring the area, and with time to spare before the ferry, we opted to get dinner on the Island, choosing Mary’s Bistro for it’s proximity to the ferry dock and it’s outdoor seating on the lake. The outdoor seating turned out to be full, so we were seated indoors, but still had a nice enough view. We started with the housemade kettle chips and blue cheese dip (which seems to be a thing in this area – I’ve seen it on a few different menus). The kettle chips were pretty basic – not much on their own. But the blue cheese dip was outstanding. If you’re a fan of blue cheese, this would quickly become a favorite.

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Between the afternoon ice cream and the chips, we weren’t too hungry. We ordered one additional small dish from the appetizer menu (a delicious italian “eggroll” that was like a mini-calzone roll). A nice finish to our island adventure.

Jose’s Cantina
St. Ignace

Best. Tacos. Ever. I could leave it at that, but I won’t.

We had driven past Jose’s Cantina on our way into town and finally decided to stop in.

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The decor inside was bright and cheerful, and as is the way in all Mexican restaurants, we were given a basket of tortilla chips and salsa upon being seated. They were good – the usual. Sriram had a nice margarita while I stuck with water.

I checked out the menu and, having noticed a sign out front congratulating head chef, Robert Gallo on being voted “Best Tacos in Northern Michigan and the U.P.” – and being #5 in the state (I might have to try the other 4 sometime), decided to see if they lived up to the fuss ordered the Mango Habanero Chicken Tacos. The waitress said (and I quote), “Are you sure?” I laughed and said I was pretty sure, and asked if there was some reason I shouldn’t be. She told me they were quite hot. I told her that we hear that a lot (and it’s hardly ever true) but asked her to bring me a side of sour cream, just in case. Sriram ordered the vegetarian sampler.

Our food arrived. My tacos came in crispy shells that were made from soft tortillas. I have to admit, I expected Tortega. What a pleasant surprise. Easily the best taco shells I’ve ever tasted. I dug right in. They had some heat, but not too much. I later told the waitress that I thought they were the perfect level of heat for me, but that Sriram would have definitely added hot sauce. She laughed. Sriram’s veggie platter was so big it mostly became lunch the next day.

Our waitress was a little flakey, but when it comes to the food, I could not recommend it highly enough. Do yourself a favor – if you ever make it, order the tacos!

Falling Rock Cafe & Bookstore

We stopped in the Falling Rock Cafe on our way to set up camp in Christmas. Falling Rock is a multi-purpose stop, serving sandwiches, salads, ice-cream and coffee. They also house an impressive array of new and used books, have free WiFi, and enough space to settle in for a bit if you’d like. After placing your order at the counter, you can find a seat at any number of charmingly mismatched tables to wait.

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I ordered up a sandwich and was disappointed to learn that they were out of the kale salad side that had caught my eye. They told me they’d have more later (or tomorrow), and that if I was so inclined, it was worth coming back for. I told them that I just might, and a couple days later, I did. It was. If you order it, be sure to get it with the goat cheese sprinkled on top.

The Ambassador


At the recommendation of our ferry seat-mates Alex and Ian, we stopped over to the Ambassador Restaurant on the evening of our return from Isle Royale. The decor was fun, with large murals of celebrating-gnomes covering the walls and big green lanterns dangling from the ceiling. With a couple of pool tables thrown in for fun, it was easy to see why it was popular with the college crowd, though there was a good mix of patrons there upon our visit.

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Opting for our usual fare of pizza and wings when in a pub-type environment, we ordered our favorite “make-your-own” pizza – cheese with red onions, garlic and jalapenos. It turned out to be pretty good. Definitely hit the spot.

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Suomi Home Bakery and Restaurant

While we were at the Finnish American Heritage Center, we had asked Jim for a recommendation for a Finnish restaurant. He said there weren’t really any good authentic options, but that the Suomi Restaurant came closest to at least having some Finnish influence. That was good enough for us, so we stopped in for breakfast. Sriram ordered the Pannukakku – a cross between a pancake and a custard.

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I opted for the Finnish French Toast. What makes it “Finnish” is the use of Nisu bread, a Finnish bread that is sweeter than other breads. I didn’t find it to be all that different than regular French toast, but enjoyed it very much.

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So, those were the best treats from Michigan. And since there were far more hits than misses, I’d say it was definitely a culinary success.

Welcome to Finland, Michigan

The night before our flight to Isle Royale we stayed in the small city of Hancock, Michigan. Upon driving into city we noticed a few things: The Finnish Mutual Insurance Company, street signs that were in English and Finnish, and Finnish flags, to name a few. When we checked into our hotel we got the usual speech. Don’t smoke in the room, breakfast goes until 9am, pool hours and sauna hours. Sauna? Our hotel has a sauna? That’s definitely a Finn-thing. There was clearly a heavy Finnish influence in the area. I was intrigued.

My dad was Finnish – well, half Finnish (the other half Irish, on his mom’s side). While my ancestry is mixed quite thoroughly (Irish, Finnish, English, Swedish, German and Italian, to be exact), that 25% Finnish has always been a bit of a curiosity to me, though I’ve never really taken the time to research it. Unfortunately, since we were departing the next day for Isle Royale, we did not have a chance to explore the area to discover anything about the connection. After our return, however, we spent a second night in town and decided that before leaving we would explore that connection.

Hancock has a rich Finnish history and is the home of Finlandia University. The University, which was founded in 1896 as Suomi College, also houses the Finnish American Heritage Center. That was our first stop.

Inside the main foyer hung a painting titled Christ in the Garden. Upon closer inspection we discovered it was an alter painting from the Finnish Congregational Church of Quincy, Massachusetts. I had no idea such a place existed, but the artist, Matti Karna, had spent time in New England.

We looked around a bit. There were a few exhibits in the lobby, but the building seemed quite empty. A sign pointing upstairs indicated offices for the Director of the Center; The Finnish American Reporter; and the Honorary Consul of Finland. That turned out to be all one person.

James Kurtti was in his office upstairs, and we had seemingly saved him from a long winded telephone call. He welcomed us in, and apologized for the “mess” (looked like an office to me), as he was taking advantage of a quiet, rainy day to do some organizing. We were interrupting. Still, he was happy to speak with us about the local history and Finnish culture and gave us quite a bit of his time, which was very much appreciated.

He provided a bit of history for the university, the area, and the center itself, plus the latest edition of the Finnish American Reporter. Additionally, he gave me information about organizations in Massachusetts that I can connect with when I return home if I’d like to explore some local Finnish culture.

When I mentioned wanting to visit Finland (and a trip from a few years ago that never quite materialized), he strongly recommended finding family members still in the country and connecting with them first before going. Knowing people in the country will allow for a much richer experience. He gave me some tips on how to accomplish that, noting in particular that if I can narrow down the village that my ancestors were from that the church would have really good records and be able to assist me. I do have some genealogy records from one of my dad’s cousins, so I may just do that.

As for how Hancock became Little Finland? Some say that the Finns were drawn to Michigan for the climate, which is much like Finland. But the reality is, they couldn’t have known that in advance. They came to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for the mines in the late 1800’s. Copper mining in the Upper Peninsula dates all the way back to the Native Americans. Hancock has a rich, and sometimes ugly history in the mines (some of which our cab driver had shared with us on the ride from Copper Harbor to Houghton Airport the night before).

As we left his office to go explore the exhibits, Sriram casually asked, “What’s with the coffin?” On a large conference table, under a banner from the University was what looked like a very old coffin. Jim replied, “You weren’t supposed to notice that.” He lifted the cover to reveal an intact skeleton. A fascinating story went with it, though the story is not mine to tell.

Downstairs we explored the exhibits which included paintings, photographs, a case of sports memorabilia for Tauno Nurmelo (whose athletic accomplishments rival those of Jim Thorpe), traditional costumes, and musical instruments, as well as a history of mining. Jim found us a bit later and brought me a pack of notecards with Finnish folk characters on them. Perhaps when I get home, I’ll finally read that book of Finnish folklore that a friend of mine gave me some time ago.

It was a very interesting visit. We were extremely glad we stopped in.

Quincy Mine

Deciding to keep with the theme, we headed to Quincy Mine, at the Keeweenaw National Historic Park just a ways up the road. Quincy Mine operated for 100 years between 1846 and 1945. We arrived just in time for one of the final tours of the day.

Our guided tour of the mine began with the above ground buildings and facilities, including a visit to the World’s Largest Steam Hoist. The hoist itself and the building that housed it (which included imported tile and an interior that made it a showroom) cost $360,000 to build and was only used for 11 years.

Our guide went on to explain the communication systems used. There were telephones from the hoist building into the mine, but language barriers quickly ruled that system ineffective and dangerous. Lights and bells were the primary communications within the mines.

The second part of our tour would take us into the mine – to level 7 of 92 (most of the levels are now under water). At 9,260 feet deep, the No. 2 shaft is nearly 2 miles deep. Inside the mine is dark and cold (the temperature in the mine remains at a near constant 42 degrees). Before heading down we borrowed miner’s jackets and donned hard hats. To enter the mine we were required to ride a tram that would bring us down a pretty steep incline to a side door, though nothing close to the incline that the miners would have experienced. Miners entered the mine at a 55 degree angle. A cart then brought us into the mine to explore the various elements of the mine and the conditions the miners worked under. Inside the mine is a variety of the equipment they used, and we were given a history of not only the work, the tools, and the methods, but also the conflicts that took place in the mine and between the miners and the company.

It was a truly interesting and unique place. If you’re ever in the area, I would recommend a tour.

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Miners Descending
Mabel Mustonen

Isle Royale – Part II

Our first full day on the island was slow-going. We slept a little later than we’d expected, but as we had nowhere in particular to be, it didn’t matter much. When we awoke, we headed down to the dock. Part of our package included a ½ day rental of a canoe, so we had decided on a day on the water, only to discover that all of the canoes and kayaks had already been rented (early bird gets the canoe as they say). We could come back later, but there was no guarantee that we would get anything.

We strolled around and considered the various hiking trails on the island. While deciding, I stopped into the Visitor’s Center to speak with the Ranger (Lucas again) and get a crash course on some of the vegetation I’d seen on the island the day before. I was most curious about the variety of shiny hard berries (in red, white and blue), as I’d never seen anything like them. I was told they were not edible (they didn’t look edible, so no worries).

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The white berries with the black dot were Baneberry (also known as Doll’s Eyes) and are quite toxic. The red berries also fell into that same category. The hard blue colored berries are a type of lily – the Bluebead Lily. I thought those were really interesting. The bead apparently forms after they flower.

As the morning drifted away, we decided that rather than test our luck waiting on a canoe return, we would hop on The Sandy and head over to nearby Raspberry Island for a spell. Despite the name, you won’t find many raspberries on the island, though it was once full of them (a shame really, as I do love raspberries). We did come across a great rock cliff where we sat to enjoy the view for a bit. Just as I was getting up to leave I noticed some wild blueberries. We snacked on a few before exploring the island further – they were so delicious. Far superior to any supermarket blueberry I have ever eaten.

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We didn’t see much in the way of wildlife on the Island (we were hoping for an elusive moose, but alas, despite signs of them, we did not see any actual moose). But there were lots of flowers and wonderful views on the island. The bog in particular had some really unique plants. This pretty flower, which likes to munch on insects, is called a Pitcher Plant.

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There was also a plant called a sunburst which was tricky to photograph. Here’s my best attempt.

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The plants weren’t the only things that were tricky to photograph. After many failed attempts (including while he sat on my leg for a spell), I finally got this guy to sit still long enough for me to get a shot.

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It was a very nice visit to one of Isle Royale’s other islands and you’d be hard-pressed to beat the scenery.

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Though we left with lots of daylight remaining, once back on Isle Royale we stuck to the trails in the Rock Harbor area, as we didn’t feel we had time for a major hike. I spent quite a bit of my time munching on thimbleberries as we went. Having only discovered them that day, and knowing my time with them were limited, my strategy amounted to if it is ripe, pick it. Wondering what a thimbleberry looks like? You’ll have to google one, as I was apparently too busy eating them to capture a good shot of one.

In the evening, we ended up back down on the sea plane dock with a few other people to watch the sunset. A private plane had come in. I couldn’t resist taking a few pictures of it. And of course, we also took pictures of the setting sun.

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With the sun down, the chilly night air had us making our way back to our cottage. It was a short trip, but we’ve very much enjoyed our time in the park.

Saying Goodbye to Isle Royale

The morning of our departure we headed for the seaplane dock for our 9am flight back to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula only to find out the plane was delayed 40 minutes. Seemed strange as the skies were clear and the weather was beautiful. Perhaps something was brewing on the mainland. But it was a lovely spot to wait, so we hung out on the dock taking photos and hoping for a last minute moose sighting.

Twenty minutes later we were informed that the plane wouldn’t be coming – mechanical problems needed to be addressed and the part would not be available until the next day. We headed up to the park office to find out what our options were. Our choices? Get on the afternoon ferry if they had room, or stay an extra night, hoping to get out on the plane the next day.

We opted for the ferry (this was a shorter three hour ferry) and then determined to make the best of our extended stay, we used our free ½ day rental to take a kayak out in Tobin Harbor. We’d been down at the harbor while waiting for the plane and it could not have been more flat, so I had no concerns about this kayaking trip. This picture of a nearby canoe shows just how flat the water was.

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We spent about an hour and a half out on the water and simply enjoyed the stillness and the peace and quiet. At one point, along the shoreline we could hear voices of hikers on the trail that seemed to be following us. We’d later connect with some of those voices in the guest house while talking to some friends we’d made earlier.

In the afternoon we made our way over to the ferry and after waiting until all of the scheduled passengers got on, made our way aboard. The seats had filled up quickly. I found a table with two empty seats and asked the two young men who were sitting there if the seats were free. They were, so we joined them.

Alex and Ian had been backpacking on the Island as a final trek before the start of their sophomore and junior years at Michigan Institute of Technology. They were really great guys and we enjoyed a lovely conversation on the crossing, discussing everything from travel, to business, to school and families. And they gave us a couple of restaurant recommendations for back in Houghton, which is always great.

Coming into the dock in Copper Harbor the captain blew the whistle and told us to watch out the window, as employees of the restaurants like to come out and wave the ship in. Staff at the Copper Harbor Inn will even come out and dance the cancan. I assumed he was joking, but they did indeed come out and dance.

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Overall, the experience of Isle Royale was great from start to finish. The staff were fantastic and extremely helpful. And Alex mentioned on the ferry ride that while it’s the least visited of all the National Parks, it is the most RE-visited. With such a lovely and unspoiled experience, I can certainly see why.

Please feel free to leave comments or ask questions. We love getting feedback on the trip.

Isle Royale National Park

Situated in the vastness of Lake Superior, Isle Royale National Park is one of America’s most isolated and untouched National Parks. Though the park is made up of many smaller islands, it’s namesake, Isle Royale is a 45 mile long, and 9 mile wide island accessible only by boat or sea plane. The park is visited annually by less people than visit the Grand Canyon (and some of the other popular parks) in a single day. The ferry ride is a long 5+ hour journey from where we were in Hancock, MI, so we opted for the 35 minute sea plane ride – an adventure in itself.

At the airport we met a couple who had been trying to get to the park for days. Fog had prevented the sea plane from landing. They twice had made the trip to the park and back, without touching down. They were hoping today would be their lucky day. As we were going on the same flight, we were hoping the same.

She’d mentioned a few times how small the plane was, and was asking about bags (you know the ones), which got me a little nervous. The last time she’d gone had apparently been pretty bumpy. She made some comment indicating once I saw the plane I’d probably be nervous. Flying always makes me a little nervous, but I assured her that the sea plane would not be the smallest plane I’d ever flown in (and it wasn’t), so the size wasn’t going to be a big shock.

We actually took off on land, but this is one of the better pictures I got of the plane (taken after landing).

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Our journey out was a smooth one, with the exception of a few bumps. I had the front seat, up next to the pilot, so I was able to take a bunch of pictures. The view was great, but it was sometimes difficult to get good pictures through the windows (which made me appreciate the terrifying, door-less helicopter from Hawaii a bit more). Here’s one of the coast as we left Michigan’s Upper Peninsula:

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I also took a few of the various systems in front of me. Here are my controls. I opted to leave them alone:

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Our pilot mentioned that it probably wasn’t a good day on the ferry and that we were lucky to be in the air. Later we would realize just how true his words were; by day’s end the ferry crossing was that of island legend. The ferry rode 5 foot swells the entire ride, and the heavy winds coming across caused the boat to roll left and right as well. More than half of the passengers were sick on the boat. A terrible crossing indeed.

After a short and pleasant flight, we set down in Tobin Harbor (coming in around a sailboat) and came to a stop at the dock. As we disembarked an Island employee offered to take our bags up to our room. We declined, as we didn’t have much with us. After the walk to the Rock Harbor office to check in we were regretting our decision as we then had to walk back up by the sea plane dock to our cottage to put our things away and get the lay of the land.

After a quick stop back down in Rock Harbor for some lunch we checked in at the Visitor’s Center for maps and ideas. The Park Ranger on duty (I believe his name was Lucas), was very friendly and super helpful. He gave us some information about the various hiking trails, and some recommendations for our short stay on the Island (we were leaving 2 days later, and would have only this afternoon and all day tomorrow to explore). With our maps in hand we headed out, deciding on the hike to Scoville Point – a 4.2 mile loop trail, with lots of options.

The park brochure has this to say about the hike:

“This trail winds its way between the forest and shoreline communities out to spectacular Scoville Point. The contrast between the intimacy and protection of the woods and the powerful influence of Lake Superior is dramatic, especially on a stormy day.”

We had a nice sunny, cool afternoon for our hike, and the brochure was definitely right about this hike. For the most part, with the exception of a hike into the Grand Canyon back in 2009, any hike I have been on has been through the forest with a view at the end. You hike to and from the view, enjoying it for whatever length of time you choose to stay. Walking through the woods and hiking are pleasurable experiences on their own, but the view is usually supposed to be the highlight. On the Scoville trail, the view winds in and out of the hike, each time more breathtaking than the last.

Here’s the first teasing view we encountered:

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It was a moderate hike, frequently dipping up and down, so not as labor intensive as simply climbing to a peak and then working your way back down. What was most remarkable about the trail was the complete lack of outside noise. We didn’t encounter many people on our hike (and when we did they were usually traveling in the opposite direction so you simply exchanged greetings and moved on). Beyond the occasional voice, there are no outside noises to intrude – no cars on highways off in the distance, just the occasional sea plane or boat passing by, and the simple sounds of nature. It truly was a magnificent hike. Here are just a few more of the many photos I took of the view:

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This was my favorite spot on the hike. We saw a family of ducks here on the return trip:

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And finally – out along Scoville Point:

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In addition to the spectacular views of Lake Superior, we also encountered lots of fun plants and berries. Here is a sampling:

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And though we didn’t see any of the moose or wolves that Isle Royale is known for, no hike would be complete without a furry friend or two:

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Once we returned to Rock Harbor we stopped back into the place we’d had lunch for ice-cream and drinks. Rather than sitting at a table, we opted to sit at the counter, where we encountered a fantastic waitress named Deborah. She was so sweet, and played the part of both waitress and doctor. When I noticed a bit of a rash forming on my arms, she asked if I’d purchased the insect repellent in the visitor’s center. She said she sometimes has a reaction to it. She advised Benadryl and a shower – good (and effective) advice.

With the long day behind us, we headed back to our cottage. The island offers an evening program 2 nights per week, and tonight was one of the programs (about the moose and wolf populations on the island), but we were too tired to attend. Our cottage had a kitchenette, and we’d purchased some supplies in the Island’s Trading Post upon arrival so after our hike (and our quick snack) we stayed in and cooked dinner. Chicken sausage and jambalaya rice. It was a good meal to finish off the day.

Stay tuned for more of our adventure on Isle Royale.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

The Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula contains more than 40 miles of lakeshore on Lake Superior, including 15 miles of sandstone cliffs, caves, and rock formations. But its 114 square miles also includes lush vegetation, nature trails, waterfalls, and hiking. With our Pictured Rocks water experience completed the day before (and really – that is definitely the best way to see it, though I might have been better off on the tour boat), we decided to see some of the sites on land.

We’d already stopped in at the main Visitor’s Center for some information before heading to camp, so with our list of NPS Day Hikes in hand, we headed out for the day. Our first stop was over at Munising Falls. At .25 miles, it hardly qualified as a hike, in fact signs to the Falls announced how far away you were in feet. It was a pretty walk on a paved path through some beautiful greenery. And the Falls, while not Niagara, were charming enough.

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Though it was still August, we were already seeing signs of Fall in the trees.

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Our next spot was the much longer hike at the Miners Falls Trail. At a whopping 1.2 miles it was far more taxing than our last “hike”. Even if the hike had actually been substantial it would have been completely worth it for the view. The overlook to Miners Castle is beautiful. A short walk brought you atop the “castle” but the view was definitely better from a distance.

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Since we still needed to break down camp before moving on, we skipped the actual waterfall but we did stop at one of those car overlooks on the way back. The view wasn’t all that interesting (I find that they almost never are), but this little guy sat and posed for a while.

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Before breaking down camp we visited the Bay Furnace Ruins situated within the campground. The furnace is all that remains of a settlement that was destroyed in an 1877 fire.

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Farewell Pictured Rocks. I hope to return someday.

Fear Factor

“Do one thing every day that scares you.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

Wise words from America’s former First Lady. And yet, I have much trouble with this advice. For starters, at my age, I feel I’m allowed the ability to simply say that I don’t want to do something (for any reason, including fear) and be ok with that. But, I do like to try new things – within reason. I’ll experiment with foods, and have gone to many new and different places in recent years. I don’t love flying, but recognize it as a necessary fear to conquer for the privilege of exploration. Yet…

To wise Mrs. Roosevelt’s point, this whole trip is a little bit of a “do something that scares you” kind of proposition for me. I’m very much a homebody, and the thought of this many weeks on the road is a bit terrifying to me. I like being close to my friends and family, and I like the comfort of home. Not my things, per se, but my space – that psychological cushion that comes with familiarity. Additionally, I’ve never been big on camping (and rumor has it we’ll be doing a lot of that), so when you add that in, the potential for anxiety was that much higher. But even accepting that, and choosing to do this thing anyway, I recognized that within the confines of the trip, there would be things that would scare me.

I faced one of them today – with mixed result. I kayaked on Lake Superior.

I had kayaked before. Once. You could call it “trip training.” Back in July, I went with my friend Courtney, in anticipation of this trip. Sriram likes to kayak, and has often mentioned wanting to go together. I found the whole prospect terrifying. I’m not a confident swimmer, and even though I’d be wearing a life jacket, my one experience with being dumped out of a raft while white water rafting left me pretty sure that panic would ensue if I got dumped again. He would never force me to go, or pressure me into it, but I wanted to be open to the experience, so on a random Saturday afternoon, Courtney and I went kayaking on the Sudbury River. It was nice. A little daunting at the start, but overall it was relaxing and fun. I was pleasantly surprised.

But kayaking a small river in Boston just isn’t the same as kayaking Superior. Lake Superior might as well be an ocean. It’s so big it has tidal variations. The waves can get pretty high and because there are so many tourist boats heading to Pictured Rocks (where we’d be heading, too) a significant wake was pretty much guaranteed. Still, I was willing to stop into a kayaking rental place and get some information before making any kind of decision.

So, we stopped into Uncle Ducky’s Outdoor Adventures

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Uncle Ducky’s is a family owned business that’s been operating guided adventure tours since 1988. We spoke to a really nice gentleman who gave us information about the tours offered. The tours are of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and vary anywhere from 2.5 hours to 8 hours on the water. I instantly ruled out everything but the 2.5 hour tour. If I was going to give this a shot, it was going to have to be a short trip. After further discussion I realized the 2.5 hour tour included getting to the beach, getting geared up, the safety speech, etc. The time on the water was closer to 1 hour, 40 minutes (which was about how long I’d gone with Court). Even more doable.

I explained about my severe hesitation and asked about the water conditions. I was told that the kayaks were very stable, that the tour won’t go out if the conditions were unsafe, and that the lake in the last few days was only at 1-3 foot waves in that area. That 3 was still pretty daunting to me. He also mentioned that all season only one girl had ever tipped, and that was because she had reached for something outside of the kayak. He was honest about the possible conditions though, which I appreciated. He also provided information about the training and experience level of the guides (all trained and have Wilderness First Aid or Wilderness First Responder Certifications). We thanked him for the info, took a brochure and told him we’d stop back if we wanted to go.

I was still very much on the fence. Strangely enough, one of the things that kept the door open just a bit more was the fun array of stickers they had available. As mentioned before, we’re collecting stickers along the road to decorate our Thule roof box with. They had some good ones, and a part of me really wanted to face this fear and earn one.

So the next day we went back to Uncle Ducky’s and asked about the conditions again. We spoke with the same great guy (I really wish I could remember his name), and he said that every trip out that day had been a great one, and that the lake was really calm. I decided to go for it, knowing that I could back out right up until the last second (and could even turn back if absolutely necessary).

We set out in a caravan down to the beach with the other kayakers and guides. There would be two groups for the 2.5 hour tour, and another group heading out for 4 hours. We were paired with 4 other sets of kayakers and a guide named Chris.

Into the kayak we went, and before long someone was pushing us off the beach out into the lake. We were one of the first kayaks out, which made things a little tricky right off the bat. We ended up a little further down than the rest of the group, which made it harder to stay with the guide, which was my ultimate goal. We managed to linger until the group caught up and then started the wonderfully picturesque ride.

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I was having a really good time. The ride was mostly peaceful, and the scenery was fantastic. We passed the lakeshore’s smallest waterfall (at a mere 4 feet), and some amazing cliffs. I snapped a bunch of photos of our travel companions and the beautiful scenery. We drifted in and out of some caves and got rained on a bit.

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Blur is due to water on the lens

Then two tour boats passed in quick succession on their way down the coast, and the “seas” swelled. When we got caught in the wake it felt so big (huge to my scared mind), that I ended up having a full blown panic attack. The fear was overwhelming and I found myself caught between my inability to effectively paddle, and my inability to not paddle at all. Paddling felt like control, even though I wasn’t doing it in any helpful or productive way. Deep breathing helped to calm me down. The wake passed within minutes, but it felt like an eternity. Once it passed, the fear passed, but the tension in my body lingered for the rest of the journey.

Still, I powered on and managed to enjoy the rest of the paddle. We played in some more caves, and even paddled under an arch.

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And, we even finally thought to hand our camera off to Chris for a while so he could get a few pictures of us.

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He also couldn’t resist a selfie.

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By the time we made it back to the beach I was definitely ready to be done, even though it was a mostly positive experience. I won’t say that I’ve conquered the fear. I won’t be hopping in a sea kayak anytime soon (read: ever). But I faced the fear, worked through it, and have a (mostly) great memory and some beautiful pictures.

And I got my Paddling Michigan bumper sticker. Because I truly felt like I earned it.

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Thanks Uncle Ducky’s for helping me face my fear!

Please feel free to leave comments or ask questions. We love getting feedback on the trip.