Waterfalls and Voyageurs

Text & photos by Maryann Gaug

Split Rock Lighthouse; Lake Superior; Minnesota
Split Rock Lighthouse

Driving down a forested hill, the ocean appeared reaching to the horizon. Wait! Not an ocean, but Lake Superior! I’d never seen this largest of the Great Lakes. Once on the main north-south highway along Minnesota’s North Shore, my exploration started. I had with luck reserved five nights in three different state park campgrounds, giving me plenty of time to hike to waterfalls, past cascades, and to explore historic sites in between. My journey would cover 110 miles of Gichigami’s shore, the Ojibwe tribe’s name for the lake.

The forests contain varied trees and bushes, many new to me. Leaves were just starting to turn. Lava flows from 1.1 billion years ago combined with glacial scouring of the Great Lakes formed stair steps near the lake, creating perfect cliffs for waterfalls and cascades. 

Middle and Lower Gooseberry Falls; near Lake Superior's North Shore; Minnesota
Middle and Lower Gooseberry Falls

   Hiking proved quite different than my favorite Colorado trails. I never walked up/down so many stairs, the best way to climb steep rocky cliffs. Gooseberry Falls, a triple decker cutting through forest, were laced with root beer-colored water, a result of humic acid from trees decaying in the rivers. I enjoyed the picturesque trio despite my complaining legs.

Hidden Falls in Temperance River State Park hid in the shadowy depths of a gorge, barely visible from the trail. More stairs climbed above to where I looked into the narrow gorge, tan water swirling around. My favorite was the Lower Cascade River Loop Trail, climbing up a trail with stairs in the steeper sections. Several waterfalls tumbled off cliffs, and the river cascaded down boulders through a small canyon. I really enjoyed walking through the forest, watching the water playfully splashing its way to the lake. 

Along the Lower Cascade River Loop Trail, Temperance River State Park, Minnesota
Two cascades along the Cascade River Loop Trail in Temperance River State Park

No North Shore trip is complete without seeing 120-foot Pigeon Falls, Minnesota’s highest, located in Grand Portage State Park. The Pigeon River forms the border between the US and Canada. The short paved trail included more stairs to reach the two overlooks. The sun came out as I arrived, the spray creating a beautiful rainbow, even more brilliant against the dark sky. The Visitor Center had excellent exhibits about the Ojibwe people then and now. 

Heading back south, I stopped at Grand Portage National Monument, which documents Ojibwe life and focuses on the voyageurs who traded goods during a late June rendezvous. One type of voyageur traveled over the Great Lakes from Montreal in canoes laden with metal and other goods. The other type, hardy men who followed the inland trails and river paths of the even hardier Ojibwe and other tribes, traded with tribes and returned with mainly beaver pelts. At Grand Portage, the two groups exchanged their goods, then the inland crew headed west with metal goods and the lakes crew took pelts back to Montreal. I enjoyed touring the recreated “fort” which gave a glimpse of life from 1784-1803.

Ojibwe birch bark lodge, Grand Portage Nat'l Mon.
Ojibwe birch bark lodge at Grand Portage Nat’l Mon.

Split Rock Lighthouse examined the dangers of Lake Superior. In November 1905, a bad storm sank or damaged 29 ships, sending many sailors to the icy depths. By 1910, this lighthouse had been built to prevent a future disaster. Without roads, they transported building materials by boat, then hauled them up the large cliff. Always amazes me what our forebears went through to live in less than friendly environments.

I thoroughly enjoyed my explorations of a sampling of Minnesota’s North Shore, and my legs survived.