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A ‘Superior’ land, with the friendliest people

One of the more defining characteristics of being American is our blessed and often taken for granted opportunity to just pick up and go experience every varying climate and natural terrain on earth, all without leaving the comfort of our own home(land). You want mountains? Colorado is calling to you. You want high desert sunsets? May I suggest Northern New Mexico? You want amber waves of grain? Iowa is your ticket.

This last summer I conjured up the tallest of orders for this diverse land of ours. I wanted to live and work in a place where the temperature rarely tops 80 degrees (a San Francisco style natural air-conditioning would be even better). The place also needed access to a large body of water, like an ocean or large lake, to satisfy my love for fishing and paddling. And finally, there had to be a modest sized city within reach (no metropolis for this Nevada County boy) just big enough to support a decent night life and a few cultural refinements. A tall order indeed.



And what did a long night of pouring over maps find? (Brace yourself) …

Duluth, Minnesota.




Duluth and its smaller, over shadowed neighbor, Superior, Wis., are situated on the farthest western tip of Lake Superior and all of the Great Lakes in general. It once was, and in some respects still is, the upper-Midwestern shipping hub for the cornucopia of agricultural and industrial goods that Middle America produces.

On any given summer evening, you’ll find hundreds of locals and tourists alike walking, rollerblading or biking along the miles of paved lake walk from Leif Erikson Park (check out the Viking ship reproduction in progress) to the only place on the Great Lakes, or perhaps the world, where one can capture three distinctly different lighthouses in one picture frame.

More so in recent years, giant cargo ships are coming from the North Atlantic, from places as far away as Russia, down the St. Lawrence Seaway to load up on coal, grain and other commodities and pass under Duluth’s famous and unique drawbridge. Standing next to the canal while one of these mammoth ships passes through, and knowing how far they came to do it, is just surreal to witness.

Still within the city limits, more challenging and unpaved hikes like Chester Park wind up the Chester River basin to one of the highest points in the area, rewarding you with a superb view of the city and lake.

If architecture and history interest you, guided or self-guided walks around the hilly north end of the city tell an amazing story about how more millionaires per capita than any place else in the country once called Duluth home. The giant hand crafted quarry rock mansions commissioned by the turn of the century movers and shakers, topped with gargoyles and solid copper roofs, were built to weather brutal North Country winters and to look majestic doing it.

Duluth was built on the southern end of what is called the Iron Range, the country’s oldest and thus most worn down of mountain ranges. It spans nearly 200 miles up the North Shore of Lake Superior, finally passing into Canada. Being the last real city of any size before our northern neighbors, Duluth has been a jumping-off point to the thousands of lakes and millions of acres of north woods for centuries of adventurers looking to step back into untouched nature.

For those who have a bit more time and would like to see some of the surrounding area, you couldn’t go wrong crossing the bridge and taking a drive east on Highway 2 across the top of northern Wisconsin. The Bayfield Peninsula and Apostle Islands lie about an hour’s drive from Duluth and just north of the lakeside village of Ashland, Wis. ” home to Northland College, one of the few environmental liberal arts colleges in the nation. I suggest walking around the pleasant downtown area until you come across the Black Cat Cafe. There you can grab an organic treat and a good cup of coffee, sit on a comfy couch, pull a book off one of the shelves and take in all the mellow vibes Ashland has to offer.

Viewing Lake Superior from various vistas is an important way to start getting your head around this often overlooked part of the country. As you move around it some, it will slowly start to sink in just how massive Lake Superior really is. It wouldn’t be exaggerating to call it more of a fresh water sea than a lake.

Unlike the itchy-footed West Coast, much of the population around Lake Superior are the descendants of the original Europeans who first settled the area to work in the lumber and mining industries. Cultural buffs like myself will find fascinating how northern Minnesota has a disproportionate number of Swedes and Norwegians with strong Nordic features and humble personalities. Then, just a short two hour drive to the east, one will start coming across the quietly stoic Finlanders and passionate Italians who came to the Western Upper Peninsula of Michigan to work in the copper mines.

Lake Superior is an amazing body of water that dominates and influences everything from the weather to those who live around it. I’m happy to report I found what I was looking for last summer. Aside from a couple of rare miserably hot and humid days, Lake Superior did one of its many jobs splendidly, bringing cool air across its surface from Canada. As far as fishing and paddling, I could have found a different nook or cranny to explore every day I was there and still not have exhausted the waters just surrounding Duluth alone.

And finally, the cultural opportunities were more than I could ask for: a fresh water aquarium, a Great Lakes museum, live music and smoky pubs, just to name a few. But what will leave the most lasting impression on me is the people. Before last summer, when someone would ask me where in all my travels have I met the friendliest people, I would answer, “New Zealand.” After this last summer’s adventure, I say, “Superiorland, that’s where the friendliest people live.”


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