Lake Superior Journal: A Cruise Across Time
Some may see a cruise boat in the Wenonah; I see a time machine awaiting my arrival at the Silver Bay Marina.
Our cruise started in the bright sunshine, but also with the chilly bite one expects from Memorial Day weekend on Lake Superior. We pulled out of the harbor, passing resorts and rock cliffs sporting the Lake’s signature bright orange lichen.
It was North Shore Scenic Cruises’ first outing of the season, and I was voyaging on the Wenonah from the Silver Bay Marina past Split Rock Lighthouse along Minnesota’s North Shore.
The nip in the air may be why the passengers consisted of only me and two Twin Cities women who come north each Memorial weekend to visit the grave of a loved one. Like me, they were traveling not just across the water, but across time.
This was, you see, not my first trip on the Wenonah, and the Lake waters sparked recollections of childhood. More than 40 years ago, the Wenonah ferried me from Grand Portage to Isle Royale, setting me on a lifelong voyage of connection to the Big Lake.
It was my mother’s 50th birthday. To commemorate the milestone, she wanted my dad and me to join her on a 5-mile hike on the island through shoulder-high, rain-soaked thimbleberry bushes from Windigo to Hugginin Cove to camp. What turned out to be a rainy slog might seem a rather unglamorous way for a 50-year-old woman to mark the occasion, but it didn’t seem strange to me. I was only 11, but already a seasoned camper and obviously my mother’s child.
On that trip, I watched the Wenonah’s deckhands with awe as they deftly handled the boat’s lines and jumped from the dock to the ship. I stood outside the cabin, mesmerized by the movement of the clear water sliced by the hull. I was enchanted to see the wreck of the America, barely under water as we neared our destination.
At our tent camp at the cove, I fed cracker crumbs to minnows in a small stream that fed the Lake … until a stealthy fox stole my cracker stack. I turned just in time to see him running into the woods with a full mouth. Casting my lure from shore, I did not catch fish but instead caught the Lake itself – reeled in on the dripping fishing line, spattering my hands. Sunsets over the water combined with the call of loons. I fell hard for Lake Superior.
The magic sparked my watery career that has spanned almost 30 years and started, appropriately enough, on Isle Royale. To feed my need for the Lake during my college years in Minneapolis, I worked as a waitress on the island for two summers. My first job after graduate school was with the Superior National Forest, returning me to the shore, but then prompting a job change when the Forest Service wanted me to move. I next worked with Minnesota Sea Grant, spreading the word on findings of the water-based researchers there.
What I call my midlife crisis tempted me to work in southern Minnesota, but I quickly recognized the error and returned, first to a job with the St. Louis River Alliance and then back to Sea Grant, but this time in Wisconsin (where I am happily situated today).
That stimulating Wenonah trip inspired more than my work career; it also contributed to my writing of two novels, both with Lake Superior at their heart.
Lake Superior Journal: A Cruise Across Time
Gold Rock bears a colorful, perhaps haunted, history from a 1905 shipwreck.
Four decades later, back again on the deck of the Wenonah, my warm memories staved off the early spring chill. The boat’s bright blue-and-white paint and modern video screens belied its age as a vessel older than 50. It has been well cared for by its owners and, like me, the Lake had been its livelihood. Also like me, it had changed jobs. No longer a working ferry for the Grand Portage Isle Royale Transportation Line, it was now part of a new venture to return a cruise boat to the North Shore, a niche left empty after the Grandpa Woo III was sold and sent away from the Lake.
On this trip, the North Shore Scenic Cruises’ crew pointed out Gold Rock, the treacherous cliff where, in a 1905 storm, the schooner-barge Madeira split in two, a first mate lost his life to the Lake and another crew member’s bold leap with a line to the cliff saved his other mates. We marveled at the enchanted turquoise water and small caves along the cliffs, black monoliths topped with scraggly spruces clinging precariously to the rock face.
Although the Lake is so much a part of my work, I don’t often get the chance to ply its waters. Viewing Split Rock Lighthouse as a mariner sees it – from the water – proved an arresting sight. The beautiful brick tower atop the sheer cliff projects bold grace and a brave confidence that warned so many vessels away from harm. This lighthouse, after all, was the country’s answer to the terrible loss from that 1905 storm that wrecked the Madeira and 10 other ships on Lake Superior that night.
Though by day my work revolves around the science of water, my books are works of fiction. With a fiction writer’s imagination, then, I contemplated the soul of Split Rock Lighthouse and its century of watching Lake Superior’s moods and magic. A human-made structure, does it still thrill to wonderment that is the Big Lake? If so, then we hold something in common.
The Lake still inspires me, too.
Marie Zhuikov is a science writer for Wisconsin Sea Grant, a poet and a novelist. Her eco-mystic romances, Eye of the Wolf and Plover Landing, are set on Lake Superior. She lives in Duluth.