It’s not because you can’t get there. Or that it’s dinky. In fact, it’s the biggest city on the biggest freshwater lake in the world. It’s just that it is the farthest end of the biggest and baddest freshwater lake in the world.
H.O.M.E.S: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior. Childhood mnemonic for memorizing the five Great Lakes.
By now all you Carmen Sandiego fans realize I’m talking about Duluth, Minnesota, on Lake Superior. My hometown, my home lake. For you coastal sailors, Lake Superior is way up there. It’s even farther north than, say, Chicago. Picture Lake Superior as a western-facing wolf head, a 400-mile-long wolf head. Duluth is the nose, which is not a bad way to think of it because when I lived there it smelled of railroads, steel factories, and paper mills.
My boyhood home was on the hill overlooking the lake. I grew up watching lake freighters and oceangoing “salties” appear on the eastern horizon, headed for the Aerial Lift Bridge that admitted them to the city’s totally protected harbor. I wondered what it would be like to arrive by boat, to see Duluth appear in the distance over all that water, to pass under that iconic bridge. But never, not even once, had I been on a boat on the lake that so defined my boyhood home.
Time passed. College, wife, living everywhere else, career, kids—heck, even a granddaughter. But then came Catamount, the Caliber 38 that my wife, Jennifer, and I sail out of southern Georgian Bay. We took her to the eastern, Canadian end, of Lake Superior the previous summer, and this summer there was a family wedding in Duluth, 650 miles away. Should we sail there? Could we sail there, and back, in one summer? Was my hometown still home?
The south shore of the lake, along Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Wisconsin, is all sand beaches and bold cliffs. Anchorages are few in its 400 miles, and protection of any kind is hard to find; most harbors are 45 or more miles apart. The typical summer weather forecast is, “Partly cloudy, chance of rain and thunderstorms, and 15 to 20 knots of wind smack on your nose.”
We set out in late June, sailed up Georgian Bay, and then turned west through Lake Huron’s North Channel, heading for Sault Ste. Marie and its lock, which carries you up to Superior. “All these gorgeous anchorages in this marvelous cruising ground and you’re headed where?” people asked us. “Headed to Duluth, my hometown,” I answered. Across Lake Superior? We’re gonna try. Crazy! was written in their eyes.
On a gray July day we headed out into Whitefish Bay where the lake’s commercial traffic, often chased by Superior’s notorious weather, funnels to the locks at “the Soo.” We consecutively beat, reached, wing-on-winged, and finally motored, all without changing our course once, to the protection of Whitefish Point, where there is a harbor inside a breakwater.
We hiked out to the Great Lakes Ship Wreck Museum on the point, where we pondered the fate of hundreds of sailors who have perished in Superior’s frigid waters. Not far offshore is the final resting place of the freighter Edmund Fitzgerald, driven to the bottom by a November gale in 1975 and made famous by Gordon Lightfoot’s song. It was trying to get to the protection of Whitefish Point, the very point behind which we were currently berthed. It was a sobering place, this Graveyard of the Great Lakes.
The peripatetic, rabble-rousing Horace Greeley visited Whitefish Point in 1847 and is credited with shaming the U.S. Congress into establishing Superior’s first lighthouse, to keep mariners off the shoals that nearly claimed his own boat. All we wanted was to follow his advice and go west ourselves, but for the next three days a gale blew all the way from Duluth. We were going nowhere fast.
On the fourth day we ventured around the point, flailing to the west through the dying gale and dressed in every piece of warm clothing we had. It was mid-July and we had on our woolies! But by the end of the day, Lake Superior showed its softer, gentler side, and we tacked into the beautiful harbor of Grand Marais through sunset-dappled ripples.