Have you ever wanted to sell everything you own and just "take off?" Travel the country's back roads, paddle down a meandering stream, experience breath-taking mountain views, walk among 100-year old trees, and just marvel at America's beauty? That is the dream that my partner, Betsy, and I decided to make a reality. This blog describes our adventure. The food we eat, people we meet, sights we see, and the enjoyment we find in traveling.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Outdoor Adventure in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of Minnesota

Once we drove into the town of Ely we knew it was our kind of place.  We were up in the northeast portion of Minnesota where woods and water abound.  Here we found a small (population of barely 3,400), outdoorsy, and surrounded by public land area with lots of water and tall green trees that made our faces light up with excitement and a feeling of “belonging” and that we were going to be very busy.  The town’s main street is lined with outfitters ready to strap a canoe on your car and set you off into the land of lakes where traveling requires a paddle and life preserver.  The "Mayberry" feel of this town overcomes you when you drive by the centrally-located park filled with picnickers laughing and kids playing on jungle gyms.  Everyone comes to town on Tuesday evenings in anticipation to see what will show up at the Farmers Market then migrates through the town as the stores shake off a sleepy weekday evening with Tuesday Night Live where downtown is a buzz with live music, great restaurants, tours and shopping.  The diverse downtown has a brewery, just down the street from the store selling hand-made mukluks which is near the wildlife art gallery and across the street from a chocolatier.  Oh yes, we fell in love with this town and its’ outdoor adventure hipster vibe quickly understanding why it is one of National Geographic Traveler’s “50 Places of a Lifetime.”

The draw of this area is the Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) which are overseen by the federal government. Great glaciers carved the land by scraping and gouging rocks leaving behind rugged cliffs, gentle hills, craggy rock faces, sandy beaches, and thousands of lakes and streams speckled with islands and bounded by forest. We must say that it was pretty spectacular.


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Our First Taste of Minnesota - Duluth and Grand Rapids

Some little voice in my travel head said Duluth was going to be a pretty cool Minnesota town.  And, based on reports from friends who had been there we decided to check it out.  So after spending two months in Michigan we left it in our rear view mirror and ventured west to the land of Ten Thousand Lakes to spend some time in a state we had not visited in the RV.20170801_211141

Duluth has a vibrant downtown so we decided to stay right where the action was.  Some friends had mentioned the Lakehead Boat Basin Marina and RV Park which is within walking distance of the Canal Park District so we decided to give it a try.  Here’s the thing to know about the Boat Basin … it is a parking lot.  Yep, that means pavement with barely a few strips of grass for your dog to pee on.  This is not a “campground or RV resort” it is a parking lot.  But, what you give up in amenities (like grass) you gain in location and a great view of the iconic lift bridge.

There are many reasons to stay in downtown Duluth which has a very high walk-ability rating with restaurants, breweries, distillery, shopping, and attractions all within a few mile radius.  The first thing you notice about Duluth is their most famous landmark - the Aerial Lift Bridge – which has been in operation since 1905.  Duluth (and its sister town of Superior, Wisconsin) are major shipping ports on the Great Lakes where iron ore, coal, limestone, and agricultural products are always on the move.  The 900-ton lift bridge climbs slowly up in the air (nearly 200 feet) to let the thousand foot long Great Lakes freighters and other boats glide through the channel. 


During the busy season the bridge may rise and fall up to 26 times a day which draws thousands of tourists to watch the action.  The bridge and canal are operated and maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who also operate the Lake Superior Marine Museum and Maritime Visitor Center (which is free).  The museum is filled with information about local shipping, historical facts about Lake Superior shipwrecks, and resurrected artifacts from sunken ships.  A computer board displays times and information about ships passing through the canal so you can time your visit to watch the bridge in action.  Decades ago, pedestrians were able to ride on the bridge when it was raised. But, this was outlawed in the early 1980's after a horrible accident that claimed the life of a woman when she was crushed by the steel bridge.


Just over the bridge in downtown Duluth is the revitalized downtown district of Canal Park.  If you have just a few hours to spend in Duluth this is the epicenter so start here.  Breweries, restaurants, shopping, a distillery, an aquarium, and museums make up this vibrant area.  We drove in on a Sunday and this place was in full swing with people milling about everywhere.  Running along the water adjacent to Canal Park is the Lakewalk which is a paved path and serves as a great place to get some exercise, or in our case, a conduit to our lunch destination – Fitger’s Brewhouse. 


Fitger’s has graced the waterfront since 1859 when the idea of constructing a brewery was proposed to put people back to work in the trying economic times.  In fact, brewing is said to have been Duluth’s oldest continuously operating industry.  Today, the old brewery is a destination with shopping, a hotel, entertainment, and restaurants.  But we really didn’t come here for the beer it was because I wanted to try a Minnesota wild rice burger.  Minnesota wild rice was sold everywhere – gas stations, welcome centers, souvenir shops – and I definitely bought some poundage.  But, a wild rice burger was new to me and sounded delicious.  This one was amazing and while I was eating this juicy rustic flavored piece of Minnesota my fingers were spontaneously Googling recipes.  Betsy just sits and laughs as she enjoys a real hamburger!  20170731_130644

After our lunch it was time to head back downtown with a stop at Duluth Trading Company – a store that got its start by making the “Bucket Boss” a tool caddy that fits around a five-gallon bucket.  The company has really grown since their start in 1989 now making men's and women's apparel, tool bags and luggage, dog gear, and automotive accessories.  They also invented the much appreciated apparel item call the Longtail T Shirt which is a “cure for plumbers butt” as it stays tucked in when you bend over to tighten a pipe.  Women everywhere thank you.

Betsy and I split our afternoon with her going to the Great Lakes Aquarium and me going to the S.S. William A. Irvin Ore Boat Museum.   The most prominent exhibit in the aquarium is Unsalted Seas which showcases large lakes of the world, the animals that call them home and the importance of freshwater ecosystems around the world.  It features the largest sturgeon touch tank in North America that brings you up close with these prehistoric creatures.

The S.S. Irvin is your opportunity to explore and delve into the Great Lakes shipping industry and the role it played in moving iron ore across the region.  The moored ship is a prominent downtown feature but in 1938 she began her service as a workhorse for US Steel moving up to 13,000 tons of taconite across the Great Lakes until her retirement in 1975.  It was also a favorite ship of dignitaries and elected officials because of the luxury and comfort of her rich mahogany staterooms and comfortable amenities.  While considered technologically advanced at one time she soon became a dinosaur when 1,000-foot long ships graced the waters moving faster, carrying more cargo, and requiring less crew.  Today, the ship is a floating museum open for hour-long guided tours taking you through staterooms, the galley, engine room, and most interesting – the belly of the ship where the taconite was stored.  (Admission to the ship is $7 unless you go on $5 Tuesday.)   


Before leaving Duluth we ventured out of town 25 miles to the Jay Cooke State Park one of the most visited state parks in Minnesota.  The park is known for its rugged beauty and year-round outdoor activities (including hiking, camping, skiing, mountain biking, and lots of ranger-led programs).  One of the most iconic features is the suspension bridge known as the “Swinging Bridge.”  It was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933 and stretches over 200 feet long across the rapids of the St. Louis River.  Rigid steel cables now support the wood and steel structure, but when it was first built it truly lived up to it’s name.  At the time it was built, the wooden bridge swayed when walked on and was only for true adventure seekers.  The new bridge doesn’t have quite a lot of sway which it was originally known for which was fine for me and Spirit who are not really fans of swinging bridges suspended over rushing rivers.  While we were in the park, we decided to hit the trails for a few miles because our next stop was going to require us to be hungry and burn off some calories. 


The book Hamburger America has been at times a road map for us and on page 149 was Gordy’s Hi-Hat which was 20170802_12142720170802_121830way too close to Duluth for us to pass up.  The owner proudly claims that they are a real deal drive-in with no fancy stuff on their burgers.  Gordy’s opened some 50 years ago and has an amazing following.  We were floored at how many people came there during our visit as there was a constant stream of hungry patrons.  The restaurant is only open six months a year during which time they serve up to 2,000 burgers a day.  The burgers were GREAT!   The simple combination of perfectly seasoned meat, melted cheese, onions and pickle was full of juicy goodness that made us happy. 

On our way to Gordy’s was a truly unique gas station in the little town of Cloquet that deserved a look.  What was the fascination with a gas station you ask?  It was the only one ever designed by the famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright.  Wright had designed a house for a resident of Cloquet named R. W. Lindholm, who happened to be in the petroleum business.  Back in the late 1920’s  Wright designed a gas station to be built in Buffalo, New York which never came to fruition.  Knowing what Lindholm did for a living, he convinced his client to build a gas station that was similar in design to the Buffalo station.  The station opened in 1958 one year before Wright died at the age of 91 and is still in operation today.


After Duluth we ventured on west to Grand Rapids.  What was the attraction to Grand Rapids, you ask?  Well, there was a paper mill open for tours and The Greyhound Bus Museum was nearby. The other major tourist attraction in Grand Rapids is the Judy Garland Museum but we didn’t have enough time because our campground was located on a lake that was known to be a fishing hot spot and once we started fishing we couldn't stop.  Sorry Judy, we’ll see you next go-round.

The Blandon Paper Mill was a fascinating guided tour that started off with a video followed by a tour of the factory guided by a 30-year Blandon veteran.  The paper mill started in 1901 and today is one of North America’s leading producers of lightweight coated magazine and catalog printing papers (which is the only product they make) and one of northern Minnesota’s largest employers.  The paper making process is pretty simple.  Take the raw wood from trees (whose fibers are called “cellulose”) and turn it into “pulp”  which is a watery soupy-like mixture of cellulose, wood fibers, water, lignin and added chemicals.  The next step is to remove the water from the pulp (which makes up nearly 90% of the pulp) which is done by huge machines that pass the pulp through a layered mat which squeezes out the water. Next, the mat passes through heated rollers that removes any remaining water and compresses it into one continuous roll of paper.  The final step is to press the paper into a desired thickness, add coloring, and special chemicals to give it the texture and coating desired.  Rolls are cut to size and packaged for shipping.  Unfortunately, Blandon does not allow photographs to be taken in the plant but I did find this video that illustrates the paper-making process.  This was a very interesting and informative tour and was well worth the two hours it took (and it was free).

A short drive from Grand Rapids is the town of Hibbing which is recognized as the birthplace of the bus industry in the United States and home to the Greyhound Bus Museum.  The museum is filled with thousands of pieces of Greyhound Bus memorabilia and artifacts including 13 buses from years past.  The story of the bus industry started in 1914 when Carl Wickman and Andrew "Bus Andy" Anderson got the idea to charge miners for rides to and from the mines in their Hupmobile vehicle. 


Turns out the miners were good customers and the gentlemen made $11.50 on their first day.  After working long 10-12 hour days in the mines it was a relief to have a ride home.  As ridership increased, the men heard of a company that was building larger vehicles capable of carrying more passengers so they could keep up with demand.  They loaded the passengers onto the new bus but realized the bus unfortunately wouldn’t move.  The overloaded bus was too heavy for the springs which caused the fenders to push down on the tires and act as brakes.  The men changed out the springs and decided to build their own buses.  Wickman and Anderson's simple idea morphed into the bus line known as Greyhound and they retired as millionaires.  


When we arrived at Trout Lake RV Park and Campground in Grand Rapids it was obvious to us and the owner that we were going to be a tight fit in the spot they assigned to us.  The preferred alternative was for us to park down near their pavilion where we had water and electric coupled with a great view of the Trout Lake with beautiful sunsets.  The campground had a little beach and boat launch so we were happy to get our first fishing lines wet and experience this highly recommended lake for fishing.  A Minnesota annual fishing licence was only $45 which when compared to other states was a bargain.  Turns out Betsy found the walleye honey hole while small mouth bass and I were getting acquainted near the grass beds.

Our first taste of Minnesota was filled with lots of attractions mixed in with outdoor activities like hiking, kayaking, and fishing.  Next up, we will be heading to northeastern Minnesota to visit the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area near the Canadian border where we really fell in love with Minnesota!  And so did Spirit.


Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Exploring Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, History and Food

We are going to introduce you to some small towns in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula that you have probably never heard of unless you have a kid in college at Northern Michigan University, are an avid skier aspiring to be inducted into the U.S. National Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame and Museum, or interested in copper and iron ore mining history.  Come to find out these little towns provided a lot for us to do and are jammed packed with events in the summer time. In fact, we had trouble getting campsite reservations because of the popularity of these areas.


The weekend we chose to come to this area coincided with the Blueberry Festival, the Italian Festival, and the summers' big arts and crafts fair.  I’m a lover of blueberries and Betsy is always game for a good hometown festival so we packed up Spirit and headed to downtown Marquette to the 17th Annual Blueberry Festival.  It started at 10 a.m. and we got there at 10:01 because we didn’t want to miss anything. The festival takes place in downtown where city streets shun cars so pedestrians are free to stroll along enjoying blueberry lemonade, blueberry pizza, blueberry beer and perusing the local artisans crafts and outdoor stores with amazingly good sales.  We don’t shop much because our house is full and space is limited but when it comes to deals on good outdoor wear, watch out credit card. 


Ishpeming is a little Michigan town that we had never heard of before but turns out to be the birthplace of organized skiing in America and home to the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame and Museum.  Here is a place where you are introduced to America’s best skiers and snowboarders in a 15,000 square-foot building that contains exhibits, a library, films, and a comprehensive history of organized skiing.  The 400+ person honor roll at this place includes the sports greats like Picabo Street, Johnny Mosely, and Phil Mahre. 


The towns of Ishpeming (and neighboring Negaunee) developed as a result of mining in the Marquette Iron Range which holds vast deposits of iron ore that has been mined continuously from 1847.  So it’s appropriate that the Michigan Iron Industry Museum be located in this area.  The museum highlights more than 125 years of mining history in Michigan and tells the story of the men who worked in the cold damp depths through interactive exhibits, entertaining films and educational displays.  And, it’s FREE (donations appreciated)! 


The importance of iron ore in this area can still be seen today in downtown Marquette after all this mining industry in the Marquette Range has been continuously in operation since 1847.  Evidence of the iron ore industry still plays out along the downtown water front where the ore docks (shown below) stand ready to fill the 1,000–foot long Great Lakes freighters.  To learn more about the rich mining history in this area we headed north up the Keweenaw Peninsula.

Keweenaw Peninsula

The Keweenaw Peninsula is alive with mining history mostly due to local residents who feared loosing their heritage.  In the 1970’s, as residents watched the demolition of historic structures in these long-established mining towns they felt an unease about what was taking place and formed a grass roots effort to petition congress and establish a National Historical Park.  In 1992, congress granted that wish and established the Keweenaw National Historical Park to preserve and interpret sites, structures, and stories related to copper mining on the peninsula.  In and around the National Park are over a dozen independently operated Keweenaw Heritage Sites that work in partnership to expand the realm of historic preservation and interpretation.

In the midst of trees and water of the Keweenaw a shiny surface grabbed the attention of early Native Americans 7,000 years ago and so copper mining began.  The copper was so pure, Native Americans used it straight out of the ground and crafted it into beads, tools, and ornaments.  Douglass Houghton, the Michigan state geologist, was sent to the area to map the reserves.  He discovered what turned out to be the largest deposit of pure elemental copper in the world.  Where the Native Americans revered the copper and took only what they needed, the white men saw a resource to exploit.  By the 1870’s the mining operations caught international attention and thousands of immigrants flooded the area – bringing with them their mining skills, culture, and food that is still evident in the area today in restaurants, festivals, and community events.  By far, the copper rush in Michigan was more profitable than the gold rush in California.  So why the need for copper?  Copper was used in making munitions, as a sheathing on wooden-hulled ships, for decorative building features and as a component in making bronze and brass alloys.  Later copper became important for making electrical wiring and water piping and now an important component in computer chips.20170724_180757

We parked the RV at Houghton RV Park and were lucky to get a spot in this small but great park. (More on that in a future RV Park Review.)  The campground was in a convenient location to exploring the peninsula and within walking distance to downtown Houghton.  Plus we had a water view out our front window and a great patio that was a wooden deck overhanging Portage Lake which made for a nice place to sit and watch the sunsets. 

A visit to the Keweenaw would not be complete without a tour deep into a mine.  We chose the Quincy Mine which is affiliated with the national park and takes you down the midwest's only cog-rail tram where you enter the dark and damp environment of a copper mine.  The deepest point in the mine was 9,260 feet below the surface earning the title of the world’s longest mine shaft.  We had a wonderful guide who was extremely knowledgeable about the mine's history and operation which made for a fascinating two-hour tour.  The most significant advancement in mining came when the pneumatic drill was introduced.   This revolutionary machine meant that companies could significantly increase in production, employ less skilled workers, and reduce the number of employees.  After visiting the depths of the mine we moved to the massive hoist house located above ground.   The Quincy Mine had the largest steam-powered hoist ever built and was capable of hauling 10 tons of iron ore up from the shaft depths at 36 miles per hour.  Thus making this a far more efficient mine than others. 


Continuing on up the peninsula you come to the town of Calumet where the once thriving mining town is now practically a museum in itself.  In its heyday Calumet was the center of copper mining in the United States with a population that swelled to 95,000 people.  Here you will find the National Park Service’s visitor center – a two story interactive museum housed in an amazing old building with so much historical character still in tact and highlighted.  Within the Calumet Historical District are some half dozen other museums and historical sites to explore.  We wandered down to the Calumet Theater which is one of many opulent buildings built to serve the growing community.  In its heyday, the theater was one of the most elegant theaters in the midwest.  In a time when gas lights were the norm, the theater had electric.  Box seats, a sculpted curved balcony and gallery and Louis 14th style arch set this venue apart from others and added to the opulence of the town.  Today the Calumet Theater is open for self-guided and guided tours and still operates as a public venue offering musical, theatrical, and community events. 


At the very northern tip of the Keweenaw is an outdoorsy little town called Copper Harbor whose slogan is “where the road ends and adventure begins.”  While summer activities here were in full swing it was clear this was a year-round active time (but we weren’t staying around to see what winter activities looked like!).  The town is where coastal charm, outdoor spirit, and historical reflection co-mingle.  We stopped at the Fort Wilkins Historic State Park for a look around and found ourselves busy for a couple of hours.  The U.S. Army built the fort in 1844 to “keep the peace” in Michigan's copper country and now serves as a living museum demonstrating how army life in the UP was in the mid 19th century.  Many of the buildings (12 of which are original) are restored to period time and have interesting exhibits and beautiful grounds.  There is also a campground on the property, lake for fishing or boating, lighthouse for gazing at, beach for swimming, picnic areas, and hiking trails.   


What happened to Michigan’s copper industry?  The production peaked in 1916 at 267 million pounds but declined severely after WWI when copper deposits were depleted and mine profitability waned.  A year-long labor unrest also hurt the industry and saw the rise of strip mining for copper in other areas.  The Quincy Mine nicknamed “Old Reliable” finally closed in 1945 and today there are no mines in operation. 

Before we left the UP there were some foods we had been repeatedly told were “must-eats” by Michiganders.  One was the highly touted whitefish caught from the cold waters of Lake Superior and the other was the hearty dish consumed by miners called pasties.  One of our tour guides at the Quincy Mine told us the best whitefish was right across the street at Peterson’s Fish Market and Restaurant.  It got great reviews online and pictures showed it had a fun divey decor and outside seating perfect for enjoying the sunny day.  Verdict on the fish: Sorry Michiganders, you can keep your whitefish we still prefer New England-style beer battered cod.  At least we tried!  Pasties we did like and have continued to wander into pastie restaurants across the UP and even left Michigan with some in our freezer.  For more on pasties check out our blog on Eating and Drinking Our Way Through Michigan.


We spent a good two months exploring the UP of Michigan.  In just a short time one realizes that mining is why this area was settled.  Waterfront skylines are dominated by massive ore docks ready to fill freighters, historical museums reflect on the mining boom with memorabilia, and the scars from mining on the landscape are still visible.  Today, the UP attracts those seeking outdoor adventure.  Outdoor enthusiasts will find this area a playground with an impressive amount of land in public ownership managed by state and federal agencies and there are plenty of acres to zip through the woods in an off-road-vehicle, hundreds of lakes to paddle, and miles of trails to roam.