July 30th, 2020
What sets the North Shore apart from other outdoorsy Midwestern destinations, such as Michigan’s Upper Peninsula or South Dakota’s Black Hills, is that it’s profoundly appealing during all four seasons. Nearly a decade ago, my wife, Alicia, and I relished our first “vacation” together along these rocky shores during a crisp spring break from college life at Bemidji State University. Rediscovering the terrain near Duluth, Two Harbors, and Grand Marais brought us closer together. Years later, I asked Alicia to marry me on Split Rock Lighthouse State Park’s dreamy Pebble Beach, home to the ethereal Ellingson Island. (She said, “Yes,” despite semi-frigid wind gusts). We try to visit the Shore at least once, if not twice, a year, as it holds a special place in our hearts.
We typically stay in discounted hotels and motels to save money. After all, we spend much of our time amid nature’s embrace—not in the guest room itself. In mid-June, however, we embarked on a scenic journey from St. Paul to Lutsen’s Cascade Lodge, a much-needed breath of fresh air. I lodged at Cascade many years prior in the heart of winter, with temperatures dipping below zero. Suffice it to say, our group utilized the wood-burning stove to unthaw and the on-site Cascade Restaurant & Pub to “warm-up” with a stiff cocktail.
This time around, to our delight, the temperatures rested in the idyllic 60s much of the trip. And many adventures ensued—approximately 22 miles of hiking, in fact.
Luckily, our North Shore basecamp was Cascade Lodge’s Wildflower Cabin 10, a remarkably tranquil slice of the property along the banks of a babbling brook that starts its gradual descent from the mountains several miles to the north. Upon arrival, while unpacking and preparing dinner, Alicia eagerly read the guestbook, which is filled with heartfelt and often hilarious stories from prior guests. Every last detail ushers feelings of nostalgia, romance, and old-world charm. I’m happy to report that the cabin had steaming hot water, scenic views of the creek, and perhaps the softest bed I’ve ever slept on.
A raging fire followed our yummy dinner. We found a small amount of delight observing other couples come and go, oftentimes with smiling pooches, to and from the property’s Cascade River State Park trailhead. They appreciated our fire. We appreciated their adventurous spirit. And melodic tracks from Deerhunter, Big Thief, Sufjan Stevens, and Phoebe Bridgers echoed into the night’s sky from our oft-utilized Bluetooth speaker.
We utilized the cabin’s coffee machine the next morning as the sun subtly peaked above Lake Superior’s azure waters. Moments later, we were off. Saturday, “day two,” was all about exploration. We had a handful of tentatively planned destinations, many of which we had never visited before. Over the years, we’ve surveyed just about every park, trail, and backcountry lake. Some of our favorites include Oberg Mountain, Devil’s Kettle, the Wayswaugoing Bay Overlook (near Grand Portage), the aforementioned Ellingson Island, and Tettegouche State Park’s Baptism River, particularly when the water level is low.
But on this glorious mid-June morning and ensuing afternoon, we merely explored the landscape. First up was Kadunce River, approximately nine miles up Highway 61 from Grand Marais. The river boasts a wayside lot, where hikers can access the Superior Hiking Trail, and anglers can meander down to the lake’s edge in hopes of hooking an overly curious salmon. After walking gingerly (we were still sore from the prior day’s strenuous hike) along the main trail, we hopped down into the river in search of something more—something serene and potentially shrouded. The topography reminded us of our creek walks in New York’s Finger Lakes en route to hidden waterfalls. Tall red sandstone cliffs enclosed us. Light dissipated. And the water was surprisingly warm enough to the touch to invite us into the river from time to time. There were enough rocks and fallen trees to hike up the river for about a mile until we stumbled upon a rushing waterfall that spills into a dark, genuinely jaw-dropping gorge that glistens from the mist.
It’s easy to get swept away in these moments. When exploration leads to something so incredibly pristine and unspoiled, it fills one’s heart with many things, including joy, adrenaline, and wonder. An hour or two later, we pulled aside on historic Highway 61 and hopped down into Devil’s Track River near the village of Croftville. The two of us explored the river’s edge, noting how much fun a young girl or boy could have fishing, swimming, climbing, and skipping rocks in this steep gorge. On the way back to the car, I noticed another water source, what I now know as Woods Creek. And wouldn’t you know it, Woods Creek houses nearly two dozen tiny cascading waterfalls that subtly crescendo into Devil’s Track.
Later in the afternoon, we munched on a smoked salmon fillet from Russ Kendall’s Smoke House near yet another roadside waterfall. I cannot imagine tastier smoked salmon exists. Although we devoured much of the admittedly sticky fillet, we were still famished from a half-day of backcountry exploration, including a four-mile jaunt through Cascade River State Park and its seemingly endless network of trails. Naturally, we strolled down to Cascade Restaurant & Pub, a place that I grew quite fond of many years prior on those chilly January nights. Alicia and I have a bevy of dietary restrictions, so we much appreciated the variety of options available at Cascade Restaurant. Despite being in the midst of a pandemic, the restaurant’s service was top-notch. I ordered the sweet and sour wings, and Alicia gave the grilled chicken pita a try. We were both smiling from ear to ear as I devoured the hefty box of wings. The crisp, housemade kettle chips that came with her meal were among the best I’ve ever had—bravo!