The next hop was along the famed Pictured Rocks National Seashore, 30 miles of towering sand dunes and wave-sculpted variegated sandstone cliffs. The high that followed the gale had left glassy-smooth waters, so we could motor up to shore under the cliffs. Then it was on to one of the few anchorages along the south shore, a lovely bay on the south side of Grand Island with a long-deserted lighthouse. There we anchored next to a sunken schooner wrecked over a hundred years ago. We had covered a little over 100 miles of our Superior journey and had seen only two other sailboats.
Our next big hurdle was getting to the Keweenaw Peninsula (pronounced KEY-wa-naw). The Keweenaw is the scowling, 100-mile-long mouth of the wolf, composed of lava that flowed out of a rift in the lake’s bottom a hundred-million years ago. You can pass over its top, or go through its middle via a river, lake, and canal. We worked our way west for several days, anchoring one night in Huron Bay, where hungry bald eaglets chirped continuously while they waited for mom and dad to bring them dinner.
Finally, we entered the Keweenaw Waterway and stopped in Houghton, Michigan, to reprovision and explore the area’s rich cultural history. We were halfway to Duluth, and not just geographically. Houghton started to remind us of our Midwestern roots (Jennifer is from Wisconsin), where folks are open and generous, the twang in their lilting speech is unmistakable, and every answered question is accepted with an “Oh, okay” by the inquisitor.
The only local sailor we encountered while we explored the Keweenaw asked where we were headed and then responded, “Oh, okay. Duluth’s a cool place.” Cool? My hometown? What happened in the 40 years since I left?
As we wested again into contrary-but-mild winds, we checked into a small marina at Black River, Michigan, run by, of all folks, the U.S. Forest Service and manned by an amiable, Goth-dressed, multiply pierced dockmaster who kindly fetched us a six-pack of Leinenkugels beer the next day. “Leinies” is brewed in Wisconsin and was the first choice in my illicit-beer-drinking youth. It was then, and still is, simply the best beer in the world.
Leinenkugels safely stowed, we jumped to the Apostle Islands. These 22 islands form the bulk of a National Seashore and are the principal cruising ground for upper-Midwest sailors. It is a wonderful sailing area; the islands are uninhabited, underwater hazards are nonexistent, the winds are plentiful, and sailboats outnumber powerboats five to one. It is not a wonderful anchoring area; local sailors are used to having only one- or two-sided protection at night. The surge at some anchorages reminded us of the rolling Pacific
Ocean swells that harassed us when we lived in Los Angeles and tried anchoring off Catalina Island.
Because Lake Superior narrows at its western end, we could see the Minnesota shoreline for the first time across the lake to our north. But then, as we anchored on a Friday evening, our shifter cable broke. Suddenly Duluth seemed very far away. We sailed 20 miles to the Apostle Islands Marina in Bayfield and motored up to the dock with me yo-yoing down into and back out of the engine compartment to shift by hand. We were sure we were going to be stuck for days, but a sweetheart of a mechanic named Allen Appel came in on a Saturday and got us going again.
Most important, our family joined us in the Apostles. The kids hauled spinnaker halyards, set the anchor, piloted the dinghy, and cooked the meals. Our granddaughter fished off Catamount’s stern and swam in Lake Superior, something I had done the previous year for the first time in my life. We were still 75 miles away from my hometown, but a boat full of three generations of family was starting to feel like home to me.
Finally, it was time for the last push to Duluth. We chose a day that promised fair skies and southeast winds, but instead produced rain, fog, and wind from the west. As we headed into the enveloping grayness, the prospect of bringing Catamount under the Aerial Lift Bridge with my boyhood home visible on the hillside seemed to dim. We monitored ship traffic in and out of the harbor on the VHF, watched for blips on the radar, and plowed on. Was this going to be anticlimactic?
Three miles from the bridge we could finally make out the massive grain elevators and cranes of the harbor; clouds obscured most of the city, including the hillside where I grew up. Then the bridge itself began to separate from the mist, its familiar silver erector set of girders announcing the end of our voyage. We headed down through the massive concrete breakwaters, on whose walkways I had, in my youth, watched countless ships come and go, and that were now flooded with tourists taking our picture. Taking our picture! We were sailing (well, okay, motoring) into my hometown.
The lift bridge, looking bigger than I remembered it, rose in front of us, its span seemingly way too close to our mast as we passed underneath. And then we were through. We broke open the ice wine we had carried all summer and toasted Lake Superior, Duluth, Catamount, and ourselves.