Minnesota - Land of 10,000 Lakes

4th - 14th August 2012

The first lake we encountered of the 10,000 was, of course, Lake Superior, as we crossed over from Wisconsin to Duluth. We checked out Duluth's bustling lake front area and admired the covered walkways between buildings, winters here must be really cold! From Duluth, we took the scenic drive along Lake Superior's north shore, admiring the scenery, but there was no way we were setting out that body of water in our small inflatable canoe, its scale being more like that of an ocean. We headed inland and further north in search of whatever northern Minnesota had to offer.

Downtown Duluth

Lake Superior

Our plan was to drive north 40 miles or so and camp at the South Kawashiwi River National Forest camp ground. In actuality we drove around thirty miles then hit a "Road Closed" sign, followed shortly by a "Detour" sign. It seemed that to complete the last 10 miles of our trip to the camp ground we had to divert 25 miles along gravel roads through the forest! It had to be noted, however, that the condition of the gravel roads was considerably less bumpy than the paved road we'd left!

At South Kawashiwi, we hiked the short trail around the camp ground, which took us to the amazing wooden cabin, built by the Civilian Construction Corps during the great depression. Now available to rent for functions, you wouldn't have to worry about the furniture getting thrown around, if a party got too wild! Most of it was made from large chunks of tree trunks.

From our camp it was only a short distance to the town of Ely, home of the "International Wolf Centre". We weren't overly optimistic about actually seeing wolves at the Wolf Centre after our previous visit to a wolf sanctuary in Idaho, where we'd spent quite some time staring at the chain-link fencing in hope. It also turned out that the wolf cubs at the centre had outgrown the "Wolf Cub 101" session we attended and had been introduced to live among the pack, so we wouldn't get up close and personal that way. However just as we were about to leave a couple of the resident pack walked right up to the viewing window to check out the caged humans. Despite the glass between us, it was amazing to feel so close to such a beautiful creature.

Don't be throwing that furniture around! S. Kawishiwi River.

What time is it, Mr Wolf? People watching time apparently!

Our next stop was somewhat of a surprise. Looking for somewhere to stop and eat lunch we wound up at Soudan Mine State Park. This led to us taking a tour of the mine, descending 2300 odd feet in a cage down to the 23rd level of the mine. Here we rode the mine railway for around half a mile underground, learning about the extraction of high grade iron ore which took place here until it became uneconomical, due to improvements in steel production methods.

Have hard hat will travel - to the centre of the Earth!

The cable that took us there and back again.

Despite the claustrophobic's trepidation, the whole excursion was great fun, particularly the 2300 foot descent, which felt like plunging at great speed into the centre of the earth, when the actual descent speed was 10 mph. So much so, that we decided to do it all over again three hours later. This time we took a tour of the underground physics lab. This tour was a complete contrast to the earlier tour when we'd experienced the working conditions of the early ore miners, who mostly seemed to fumble around with high explosives by candle light. In the physics lab a massive neutrino detector, half a mile below the surface, searched for the tiny subatomic particles fired towards it from a particle accelerator in Chicago. If this didn't blow your mind, the search for dark matter was taking place in the room next door, which was the coldest place in the entire universe, at absolute zero, apparently five degrees colder even than outer space! All this at the bottom of a disused mine in Minnesota!

A mural brightens up the physics lab, the massive neutrino detector in the background.

Deep man!

After so much excitement in one day, we holed up for some peace (and of course fishing) at nearby Pfeiffer Lake. Here the bass were frisky and eager to bite as we took to the lake in our canoe. Between fishing trips to exercise our legs instead of our paddling and casting arms, we hiked the trail marked on the camp ground map. The hike may have been easier if we'd exercise our arms with a machete, to clear the so-called path but trying to actually locate the trail in the undergrowth added to the excitement.

After our couple of nights at Pfeiffer Lake, we tore northwards a hundred or so miles to the Voyageurs National Park, planning to take a boat trip from the Kabetogama Lake visitor centre. Somehow we'd managed to read all about the boat trips offered, but omitted the part about which days they actually ran. The upshot was that we either had to wait around for a day to take the trip we'd fancied or tear another 30 miles north, to the Rainy Lake Centre, hoping to arrive in time for the boat trip which actually was running that day. After another hour on the road, we arrived just in the nick of time to catch to boat for the two hour Discovery Cruise.

We picked a spot at the front of the boat, which meant that much of the commentary was lost in the wind but the scenery was so stunningly surreal and the trip so relaxing (not being on the helm for a change!) that it didn't matter. There was plenty of bald eagle, deer and loon activity for entertainment. Most of the visitors to the park canoed the waters and camped on the islands, which would have been a great adventure.

Getting ready for our voyage around Voyageurs on the Voyageur.

Stunning water wonderland.

With the camping options near the park being limited, unless you were paddling your tent to an island, we decided to head south again to another area rich with lakes in the George Washington State Forest. Our camp site was picked largely by virtue of it's wierd name, Thistledew Lake and the fact that the camping guide said there were fish in the lake. Thistledew Lake turned out to be another stunning and peaceful spot, despite the campground sharing the lake shore with a young offenders correction facility, locally known affectionately as "bad boys camp". Still the bad boys spent some of their time chopping up firewood for the campers and depositing it in the camp ground, free of charge, for campers' use.

Our tiny campsite at Thistledew Lake.

Campsite view.

We'd heard the lake had a fish called a walleye in residence, along with pike and many, many bass. Having no clue really how to go about fishing for walleye, we paddled the water in our trusty canoe, landing plenty of bass. Out on the water, we ran into Mary and Ted, delightful folks and walleye gurus, who landed a large specimen right in front of us. Eager to encounter this new species we rushed over to their camp site on landing ashore, to take a look at their catch. Not only did these friendly locals make us laugh, give us a crash course on walleye fishing, donate some of the necessary equipment and a pile from their collection of bait worms (known there as night-crawlers), they also gave us half their catch, so we could see how walleye tasted. That was all it took, the walleye was so delicious we were determined to master the art of catching them.

It's not a walleye but it's a mighty fine bass.

Sevy Paddle-steerus taking a break.

The following morning we were back on the water but landing only bass, still lots of fun but no walleye! We broke up the day with a bike ride, which turned out to be a tour of the roadworks. The road crew were hard at work laying a new stretch of tarmac, the road was closed but the friendly folks decided that we could carry on with our bike ride, provided we dived off the road each time a construction lorry brought a new load of tarmac, every three or four minutes! Christine literally dived off the road at one point, her bike stopping dead as she hit a bank of thick sand, whilst she kept moving, luckily landing on her feet! Further on we stopped to consult the map, only to find our wheels sinking in the fresh tar! This trip was certainly full of excitement and watching the speed with which the new road materialised was fascinating.

Our excitement filled bike trip.

Back on the water that evening, now with some friendly rivalry with our new buddies Ted and Mary, we finally landed a walleye. It was quite a small walleye, we relented and let it go only to learn later from our friends that the small ones are the best tasting. We'd have to get out there again the next day to make up for the ribbing we'd taken from our friends.

Next morning Ted took Phil out in his boat for a walleye masterclass. Unfortunately they weren't biting but the guys had fun catching bass and telling tales.

Off for the walleye masterclass in Ted's boat.

Finally that afternoon, under our own paddle power we finally snagged and kept a good sized walleye. At this point we realised that we were ill-prepared for walleye. Their fins and gills have sharp spikes, not inflatable boat friendly, we'd forgotten the landing net and had to resort to grabbing the fish out of the water with gloves on. At this point we were sitting in the middle of the lake with a large, very spiky fish in an inflatable boat, not sure what to do next! Ted and Mary to the rescue and our catch was safely secured in the live well on their boat with many comments about us never seeing it again!

Walleye number 4.

Ted showed us how to clean the fish, taking care to extract the denser flesh from the fish's muscular cheeks, almost like scallops in texture.

Next morning our fishing plans were nearly scuppered - our canoe had sprung an air leak. Finally we found the tiny pin hole, repaired it and finally took to the water later than planned. Only ten minutes of paddling later we'd hooked ourselves another medium sized walleye but Phil didn't want to stop fishing at this point. We did need to get the very spiky fish out of our blow-up boat before we continued. We headed back to Mary and Ted's camp site and Mary volunteered to clean the fish while we carried on fishing. About twenty minutes later we had another to paddle ashore.

By this point both we and Mary were amazed. Ted and Mary had told us how many people fished this lake all their lives, never catching a walleye and we'd already landed our fourth! The technique Ted and Mary had taught us and knowing which spots to fish had made all the difference. Strike too early when you got a bite and all you'd land would be the remaining half of your bait worm. It seemed that walleye fishing was all about knowing exactly when the fish had nibbled it's way right up to the hook!

We were leaving the next day, so despite the brisk wind, we headed out again that afternoon for our last fishing trip at Thistledew Lake. Ten minutes from shore we had a bite, this time a large bass which brought up a large amount of weed with it to add to the challenge. We'd just decided to head closer to shore, out of the wind and fish for bass when lo and behold, yes, walleye number 5 came to visit. Totally dumbfounded by this point we rowed the large spiky critter ashore before any further harm came to our canoe. It was great to be able to thank Mary for all their help by inviting her for a walleye fish fry!

Often we've said it was not all about the places we've visited, so much of our adventure is about the people we've met in those places. Ted and Mary definitely made our Minnesota visit a gem!

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