Gitchigoomie Land

Lake Superior and its shores are one of the most breathtaking areas in the world, and one of the harshest I have ever lived in. The lake appears to be as vast as a sea but without the smell of salt, as it is freshwater, that can be as still and serene as a pond or have waves well in excess of forty feet that tower over you as they roar by. Many times, I watched the ocean-going iron-ore ships rise up on huge swells and then completely disappear into the troughs only to appear once again with the next mountain of water. If I had not seen it myself, I would never have believed it possible on an inland lake.

Many ships have been lost to Gichigoomie, also called gichi-gami, gitchi-gami or kitchi-gami,

the Ojibwe name for Lake Superior. Probably the most famous such wreck is that of the Edmund Fitzgerald, a massive taconite ship that vanished without trace in a November storm, about which Gordon Lightfoot wrote his eerie and epic hit, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. It took decades for them to find the remains.

It is a bewitching lake, stunning, and deadly. Even in summer, if the surface temperature is swimmable, down a foot or two the temperature plunges to frigid lows. If you fall in, you have only minutes to escape before hypothermia sets in. In winter, death is only moments away.

Lake Superior is so cold that it creates its own weather. I used to call it, ‘The Giant Refrigerator’. In the summer, if you drove up over the hill a few miles, the temperature would rise twenty or thirty degrees. Descend back down to lake level and you were piling on the jackets again. Summer rarely made it to the shore. In winter it was just bitter everywhere, but the added humidity by the lake made it feel even colder. School kids often had to make up at the end of winter term for days lost to cancellation because it was fatally cold to go out of doors.

Some nights in summer when I was driving to or from a late shift, the northern lights would be vivid that I would almost drive off the road watching them. Mostly yellow, they would sway and dance like fairies, sometimes hovering and shimmering, sometimes shooting across the sky like a spooked horse. Occasionally there would be other colours and I remember one night when I laid out on the grass for hours, mesmerised by the blues, greens, pinks, oranges, even purple and red. The show was simply too grand to miss, like God was showing off his artistry and grandeur. I swore I could almost hear them, but they aren’t supposed to make noise, so I think it was my imagination.

In the winter, driving to work at night was an adventure of another kind. Deer by the hundreds would come out onto the ploughed roads for a break from the deep snow and to lick the salt that was spread to melt ice. I only ever hit one, but it was a slow and white-knuckled trip sometimes. When it wasn’t the deer it was ice or blizzards. The road that winds up the north shore of Lake Superior is narrow and treacherous, flanked on both sides by thick trees and sharp drops, and some of the curves have resulted in many unsuspecting tourists ending up off the road, sometimes fatally.

It was in villages by the shores of Lake Superior where I first became and Emergency Medical Technician. The area was so remote that, at the time, there were few paid ambulance services so volunteers formed rescue squads who would respond to emergencies and treat and stabilise patients until the ambulance arrived, often an hour or more later. Horror road accidents, skiing mishaps, snowmobile wrecks and drownings were just some of the incidents I would respond to, often in blizzard conditions. As I said, it is a harsh and unforgiving land, but also a stunningly beautiful place.

Lake Superior rarely freezes over but sometimes parts of it around the shores would freeze out as far as you could see. An endless plain of ice and snow shimmering off into the distance, causing shipping to come to a halt. In the eerie stillness the ice would sing high-pitched tunes or ring like bells as the sheets of it rubbed against each other. Sometimes a crack would open and shoot off into the distance with a bang and a hum. I would often sit by the shores, mesmerised by the constantly changing sights and sounds of the frozen water. Finally, the wind would come up and break up the sometimes several foot thick ice sheet. When that happened, depending on how intense the wind, the ice would either tinkle and ring as it slowly piled onto the shore, creeping up over the rocks like a white and blue slothful monster, or else crash and heave into massive piles ten or more feet high in a deafening cacophony, like a war of ice. These piles would sometimes take until May or June to melt.

Northern Minnesota is a visual feast of wildlife. As I said before, one of the most common road accidents was car versus deer. They were everywhere, including the backyard, and if the bucks were in rut you had to be careful in case they felt you were intruding on their harem. If you drove over the hill you would often see moose in the lakes and swamps, and sometimes they would come down to the Lake too. For several years we had a young white bull moose who would entertain the tourists by peering into the windows of their lakeside condos. He would sometimes trot alongside my pickup as I drove up the hill, which I did with caution. The other side of the moose story is that if you hit one side-on with your car you are very likely to be badly injured or die as they are the perfect height to come right through the windshield and take your head off, or else peel back the roof of your vehicle. I attended several such accidents and almost lost one of my Highway Patrol Troopers when his unit hit a moose.

Black bears abound and often, when I was cooking in summer, one would appear on my deck attracted by the smells. I would have to go out and bang some pots and pans together to chase them away.  Rarely did black bears bother humans unless they were sick or were mothers with cubs, unlike the grizzlies that I would encounter later when I lived in Montana.

The wolves were the most fascinating to me, however. Unlike the western states of America where wolves were almost extinct at the time, in Minnesota they had a healthy population. Once, when I first moved there, I went out for a walk late one afternoon. As I headed back, I felt like I was being watched and once in a while I would catch a glimpse of a movement just off in the trees to my left or right. Spooked, I walked a little faster, but they kept up with me and there seemed to be more of these shadowy forms. As the sun was setting, I glimpsed the grey fur and face of one of them. A wolf! I was pretty terrified by now, except that they didn’t seem to be wanting to get any closer and there were no menacing growls or noises. They were almost completely silent. I did make it home and when I told the local of my unnerving walk, he laughed and told me that, as I was new in the area, they were just checking me out. Nobody had come to any harm by a wolf in the area that he had ever heard of. After this, I would often see my pack off in the trees or on the road at night feeding on one of the deer carcasses and, no, I never felt threatened at all. This was very different when I later moved to Montana where they were reintroduced, with catastrophic effects on both wildlife and farmers. The wolves there always seemed far fiercer and I did confront one once and it scared the pants off me.

Skating on a frozen pond under the stars, snowmobiling through virgin snow deep in the woods, canoeing across a shimmering lake with the drip of the water off your paddles the only sound, I experienced so many amazing firsts in this wild and remote land. Also, some not so amazing adventures such as living in an uninsulated log cabin at sixty below with no running water, an outside toilet, and huddling in blankets next to the fire the only way to get any sleep as the blizzard howled outside and snow blew in through the cracks in the chinking. But I survived, obviously.   

If you ever get to travel to the north shore of Lake Superior, it is well worth the trip to see beauty unlike anywhere else. Just go in summer. And watch for deer.

2 thoughts on “Gitchigoomie Land

  1. This was wonderful to read, Robyn. Thank you! As I think you know, I grew up just an hour or so further north–in fact, I realized reading this that I don’t even THINK of there being a “north shore” of Lake Superior in the US, as almost all of it is in Canada., and we–or I, at least–don’t think of it as a narrow and treacherous road going up the north shore, but the Trans-Canada Highway. Yes, I suppose it is the most treacherous stretch of that national highway, but also by far the most beautiful, I think. Northern lights don’t make noise, they say? Sure couldn’t prove it by me. Just lie still and listen. I never had a close wolf encounter, though I spent hours lying on rocks by lakes listening to them howl. We were dog-sledders, and though it’s not something I remember, my father told stories of having had dogs shot while hitched to his team, in the early 50s when wolves were being hunted to near-extinction.

    Thanks for the trip; it’s one I would be taking in real life this week, were it not for COVID, as my friends and family gather for the holidays.


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