By the Shores of Gitche-Gumee

Blog Post created by bejacob on Jun 25, 2018

My most recent county collecting trip took me along the northern parts of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota along the shores of Lake Superior. In the Ojibwe language, the lake is known as gichi-gami, meaning “great sea” or “big water,” though most English speakers know it as gitche-gumee from the Longfellow poem The Song of Hiawatha. Not a place I’d want to visit in the winter, but a great destination a week before the first day of summer. 


The journey started well with a nice upgrade to a spacious suite at the Columbus Airport Marriott the night before my Saturday morning flight from CMH to MSP. Though breakfast in the M Lounge was just being set up about the time I left, I was able to grab a quick bowl of cereal and some fruit before catching the airport shuttle. Despite being number 7 out of 7 on the upgrade list, I still managed to score a FC seat. While the SPG/Delta crossover rewards don’t give many perks, I will be sad to see the partnership end in mid-July. It may not be as nice as getting UA Silver status, but an upgrade is an upgrade. 


Weather along the way forced the pilots to take a slightly longer route than intend. Even so, we landed at MSP only about 15 minutes late. The storms moving through the city forced the temporary closure of the airport ramp, meaning all incoming aircraft had to wait on the taxiways. It was maybe 20 minutes before the weather cleared enough to open the ramp and for the ground crew to direct us into to the gate. Finally, a bit over an hour after our scheduled arrival, I was in my rental car and on my way.


Throughout the day as I made my way north and east of the twin cities, rain kept me from spending much time outside of the car. On my county collecting trips, I love finding interesting or unusual things to photograph, as it helps brings these blog posts to life. With the weather uncooperative, I hardly have any photos to share. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so with the lack of pictures, I hope in the fifteen hundred or so words in this entry I am able to provide a mental picture (and a half) of this part of the country. 


Driving through northern Wisconsin, many of the towns show traces of their European heritage. Some towns clearly reflected Norwegian or Swedish influences. Others could have been transplanted from Germany. All had Midwestern charm, but ties to the old country run strong in this part of the USA. Some of my ancestors came to Wisconsin less than 140 years ago from northern Germany, and despite settling a couple hundred miles to the southeast, I have no doubt the town of Hayward was not all that different to the towns where my forefathers settled. I continued on, stopping at county seats along the way before finally reaching the Courtyard in Wausau, Wisconsin, my destination for the night. The front desk associate, apologized profusely for not being able to upgrade me to one of the three suites at the property, as all had been reserved by other guests. I did, however, get a comfortable room with a balcony. He also offered to comp my breakfast at the Bistro, though as I was planning to hit the road by 5am, I declined. I must admit, I was quite pleased by his welcome and the recognition of my Platinum status. 


The rain continued Sunday morning as I made my way north from Wausau into Michigan and along the southern shores of Lake Superior. Though I had hoped to get a few nice photographs of the lake, between rain and mist, there was nothing to see. When my view of the lake wasn’t obscured by trees, a thick, dense fog kept the water hidden. With no real reason to stop, I pressed on following the shore across the top of Wisconsin and on to Duluth. Not content with just preventing me from seeing the lake, the rain decided to force me from my planned route. From Ashland Wisconsin, I had planned on driving the 10 miles to Washburn, and then backtracking to Ashland to follow US 2 across to Superior, WI and Duluth, MN. Nope. Due to flooding and high water, route 2 was closed just west of Ashland. Instead, from Washburn, I was forced to continue around the Bayfield Peninsula following state route 13 before eventually meeting up with my original route just east of the city of Superior. Even along this route, there were a few tense moments. All around me, creeks and streams were running bank full of red-brown water churning like rivers of frothing chocolate as they poured into Lake Superior. One of those streams gushed across my new route, nearly reaching the frame of the car. I could feel the pull off the water as it rushed across the road. I can only imagine how deep it must have been on the other route. Here’s one place I wish I could have taken a picture, but safety comes first. It would have done me no good to be swept off the road while trying to snap a photograph. The detour probably added about 30 minutes to the drive.


Despite the rerouting, I arrived in Duluth by early afternoon. Although I would be staying there that night, I had quite a bit more driving on the schedule for the afternoon. There are two counties in far northeast Minnesota hugging the northern shore of Lake Superior. Feel free to jump down to the maps posted below if you need a visual. Fortunately the county seats (my destinations) sit along the shore and are readily accessible by MN state route 61, also known as the North Shore Scenic Drive. On a lovely day, I’m sure the drive is beautiful. On the day I was there the view was obscured by fog so thick you could almost walk on it. In several places along the road, the fog thinned enough to get a peek at the lake. Out maybe 100 yards from the coastline, the steel gray water blended into the lighter gray mist making it impossible to determine where the water touched the sky.


Between the occasional thunderstorms and the ever-increasing fog as temperatures dropped from the mid-80s to the mid-60s, there was little point in stopping at any of the scenic waypoints, spaced every few miles along the rocky shoreline. Sometimes visibility was less than a quarter mile. Other times, you might be able to see twice as far. On a few stretches of the 110 mile drive between Duluth and Grand Marais, the rain and fog retreated enough to get a hint of how beautiful the drive might be in nice weather. With all that rain, the water had to go somewhere, and it was fascinating to see the craggy, rock walls beside the highway sprout impromptu waterfalls as they struggled to deal with the deluge. The one drawback of this part of the trip was that upon reaching Grand Marais, the Cook County seat, I had to turn around and follow the same route back to Duluth where I was staying the night.


When I began planning this trip in early April, I booked the Fairfield Inn in Duluth. Roughly a month later, I received an email from the hotel informing me that the property would be rebranded as an AmericInn by Wyndham, and while they could honor my reservation, I would not be able to earn Marriott Rewards points. Well, that’s a non-starter, so I quickly canceled my reservation and secured a room at the only other Marriott property in town, the Residence Inn. While there is a Sheraton in town, it showed as unavailable on the night of my visit. The Residence Inn turned out fine and I was upgraded from a studio to a one-bedroom suite, complete with fireplace (not that I needed it). By the time I stopped for the day, almost 15 hours after I left Wausau, I had logged just shy of 750 miles. 


The next morning, I hit the road early (5am) to make the three hour drive to International Falls. In the US, we often hear about International Falls during the winter as it is frequently the coldest city in the country, or at least in the lower 48 states. As a tourist destination, there’s not much to see. It is however a jumping off point for visitors of Voyageurs National Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Neither were on my agenda this trip. From International Falls, it was back in the car and another two hour drive to the next stop, Grand Rapids (MN, not MI). The rain from the previous two days had finally passed, so the drive through the northern forests was actually quite pleasant. Birch, fir, spruce, and who knows what other sorts of trees provided a lovely green panorama as I made my way back from the borderlands. It seems wrong to post a blog without any pictures, and while I would have rather posted a view of Lake Superior, at least I have one from the north woods of Minnesota. That will save me adding another thousand words. 

The return trip to MSP was uneventful, as was the flight home. In all I visited 27 counties, including the last ones I needed in both Wisconsin and Michigan. That brings my total of states complete (meaning I have documented visits to all the county seats) to 18. As usual, I like to include my before and after maps showing the latest progress. Note, that I’ve only included the Upper Peninsula of Michigan since the last two counties I still needed to visit in the state were located there. By completing the counties around Lake Superior, I have now visited every US county bordering all five of the Great Lakes.

I have a couple trips planned in July, though none will involve county collecting. The next time for that will be in August when I’m heading to Colorado. Unless something comes up sooner, that will be the next blog entry.


Until then…


Happy Travels