Northern Michigan drive brings waterfalls, bears, ship wrecks and fog

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The last leg of our Northlands vacation was Duluth, Minnesota, and the scenic North Shore drive. The drive from St. Ignace, Michigan, to Duluth was supposed to be about 7.5 hours, according to Google Map.

I wanted to see the bell from the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, since the museum it was in was a couple of hours north of St. Ignace. Since we were so close, I felt it was a must-see. It only added a couple hours on to the drive, so we’d get into Duluth about 6 or 7 p.m. that day.

Then, Lisa took a look at attractions in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. She wanted to see the waterfalls at Tahquamenon State Park. That was doable, because it’s about a 30-minute drive from the shipwreck museum.

Then, we added a couple more stops – a bear ranch and then a national park on the north side of the upper peninsula.

Still, all doable, in my thoughts. We’d get to Duluth by 10 p.m. easy.

So, began a 17-hour travel day.

We left St. Ignace about 8 a.m. ET (7 a.m. CT). Tahquamenon Park was about a 2-hour drive. It was an enjoyable drive – trees and more trees. We even saw two vultures dining on road kill. I pulled over to get a couple of pics of them. They flew into a tree. I still had my sights on them. The pic would be even better in the trees, I thought.

Just as I finished focusing, one flew off. Before I could press down on the shutter button, the second one flew off. Like fishermen with their fish stories, the vultures got away. This became a pattern throughout the day when it came to wildlife for us.

We eventually made it to the state park. The first thing we noticed was the mosquitoes. They were everywhere! Lisa got out of the car to pay for our park entrance fee. They seemed to automatically notice humans and dive bombed her.

Once we actually parked the car, the Off came out and we sprayed ourselves down for our adventure. It seemed to work. They left us alone. To be honest, this was the only part of the vacation where bugs were an issue.

We walked the trail to the upper falls area. The state of Michigan was kind enough to let us know how many steps were on the staircase leading to the upper falls – 96.

Tahquamenon Falls
Tahquamenon Falls

The Tahquamenon upper waterfall was an excellent view. The water fall is one of the largest in Michigan. It’s 200 feet across and has a drop of about 50 feet. More than 50,000 gallons of water falls constantly. It is one of the most powerful waterfalls east of the Mississippi River, behind Niagara Falls and a couple of others.

The water has a brownish tinge to it, because of tannic acid. It seems to add to the beauty of the falls. The acid comes from some of the trees and plants.

Tahquamenon Falls

After spending some time in the area, we headed out for the main purpose of the side trip – the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point.

Shipwreck Museum

I swear I was like a kid at Christmas – I literally ran to the museum entrance. I got to see the bell!!!!! I think Lisa wished she had one of those kid leashes to use on me.

However, as we were paying our entrance fee, the cashier mentioned a tour of the lighthouse that was starting in a few minutes. For only $4 extra…the rest was Charlie Brown’s teacher’s voice to me. Can we go??!!! Huh? Huh?

Well, about 10 minutes later, we were climbing the stairs to the top of the lighthouse. Since it’s a working lighthouse, we had to be supervised. Or, was it because Lisa phoned ahead about me? Wait, no. We received the text welcoming us to Canada and the international roaming charges that would apply, so I am sure she didn’t call. But, then again…

Lighthouse

Anyway, the guide pointed out to the horizon and said that is about the spot where the Edmund Fitzgerald sank. It’s really sad to know that the ship and its crew were that close to making it out of the worst part of the storm.

Whitefish Point

As the song goes, “They would’ve made Whitefish Bay if they’d put 15 more miles behind them…”

He said the weather was calmer around the point. He showed us Whitefish Point, which was at the end of the beach near the lighthouse grounds.

Whitefish Point

After the tour ended, we decided to check out the grounds before heading inside the museum.

Whitefish Point

The lighthouse keeper’s house was nicely decorated. His family lived here with him. He had his office, while his wife maintained the rest of the house. They had two kids. When, the lighthouse was restored as a museum, organizers relied on the keeper’s daughter to provide memories of what the house looked liked.

Once we finished our tour of the grounds, it was time to go inside the museum.

Shipwreck Museum

As soon as you enter, the bell is front and center. Lisa started walking around looking at other exhibits.

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I was focused on getting my picture of the bell. After taking about 50 shots to ensure I got a nice one, I moved on.

The museum itself is small, but contains a lot of information and exhibits of shipwrecks on Lake Superior.

The first known shipwreck involved The Invincible. With a name like that, they had to know it would sink, right?

The Independence is a steamer that sank in Lake Superior.

Shipwreck Museum

The causes of some of the shipwrecks ended up being stupidity. One ship sank because the captain wanted to say hello to another captain. He navigated the boat too close to the second ship, and they collided. The first ship sprung a leak and they had to abandon ship.

Shipwreck Museum

Some ships ran aground. Some caught fire.

Shipwreck Museum

The Edmund Fitzgerald wreck wasn’t the worst one in the lake. It didn’t have the largest death toll. It wasn’t the last one to sink in Lake Superior.

Lego model of Edmund Fitzgerald. About 80,000 legos were used, and required about 50 man-hours.
Lego model of Edmund Fitzgerald. About 80,000 legos were used, and required about 50 man-hours.

However, it was made famous in the song by Gordon Lightfoot. It’s also likely the first real modern sinking that people would recognize.

Edmund Fitzgerald at Shipwreck Museum

The Edmund Fitzgerald sinking is among the most controversial wrecks, according to the museum. Its true cause is debated.

The Wreck is covered in multiple books, films and other stories. It is surpassed in coverage by only the Titanic.

The largest exhibit in the museum was the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Items from the ship were on display.

Edmund Fitzgerald exhibit at Shipwreck Museum

The dive for the bell was a joint effort between the Museum, National Geographic and the families.

From the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum (www.shipwreckmuseum.com):

In November 1994 The Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society (GLSHS) was invited to Mariner’s Church in Detroit, Michigan because of concern expressed by family members surviving the Fitzgerald’s lost crew. Advancements in diving technology were allowing more and more divers to visit the wreck site. As the Fitzgerald is the final resting-place for their beloved husbands, fathers, sons and brothers, the families were not in favor of the site being disturbed.

GLSHS Executive Director Tom Farnquist, and Tim Ascew, Director of Marine Operations for Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, listened to the families’ plea that their grief was still painfully acute after nearly 20 years. The families were seeking a way to bring closure to their feelings of loss.

The discussion led to the families’ suggestion that one, single significant artifact be recovered from the wreck to serve as a symbolic memorial. The ship’s bell, which was attached to the roof of the pilothouse, was unanimously selected to serve this important purpose. Further, it was suggested that a replica bell, inscribed with the names of the lost crewmen, be placed on the wreck as a permanent grave marker.

Following this meeting, GLSHS set to work contacting a long list of U.S. and Canadian governmental agencies and owners of the wreck. It was also necessary to locate and secure nautical vessel support, underwater contractors, and contributors. In June of 1995, the Canadian Government granted permission to recover the bell on humanitarian grounds. Recovery was set for Tuesday, July 4, 1995.

A special wet suit was designed to dela with the depth – NEWTSUIT. The suit allowed divers to work with some flexibility, rather than have to be tethered. Diving suit at Shipwreck Museum

From the museum’s website:

…the tug Anglian Lady positioned herself above the Fitzgerald wreck site. A series of dives using the NEWTSUIT diving system, designed and constructed by Phil Nuytten of Vancouver, BC prepared for the delicate procedure of recovering the bell. NEWTSUIT Diver Bruce Fuoco worked late into the evening of July 3 at a depth of 535 feet. A special underwater cutting torch was used to separate the bell from the roof of the pilothouse.

Sony Corporation loaned the use of its prototype High Definition Television Camera and provided technician Jeffrey Cree for support of filming the Fitzgerald bell recovery. The Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians backed the expedition by co-signing a loan in the amount of $250,000. GLSHS retired the entire debt in 1998 without any outside financial assistance.

Once the divers were in place, they removed the bell and sent it topside. In its place, they placed a replica of the bell. Family members had included cards and letters as part of the ceremony. The replica bell acts as a final grave marker for the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Afterwards, we visited the beach on the north side of the point. The sands were clean. The water was so clear that you could see the rocks below on the bottom.

Whitefish Point

After walking along the beach, and watching some people dive into the very cold lake water (cold, because you could hear their screams as they emerged from the water), we headed off to our next destination – Newberry and the Oswald Bear Ranch.

Whitefish Point

Again, the drive in the region was visually enjoyable, with the tall trees and blue sky. The drive to Newberry took about 45 minutes.

It was lunch time, so we decided to find a place to dine at. There was a pizza joint that served pastys. These are a regional treat. They usually have meat and vegetables wrapped in dough. They resemble a calzone or runza (for us Nebraskans).

Pasty in Michiga

I am not a fan of chicken pot pie; the result of having to eat too many as a kid. When your parents work for Campbell Soup, they bring home a lot of company food from the employee store and Swanson’s TV dinners and pot pies were among them.

I actually enjoyed it (no, Lisa, I will not eat another pot pie in my lifetime). It comes with a side of gravy or you can use ketchup. I asked the owner how locals eat it, and he said with gravy. So, that’s how I tried it.

After lunch, we headed to Oswald Bear ranch, which is about four miles from town.

The bear ranch is home to almost 30 bears, ranging from cub to adult. The ranch is divided into four areas – adult male, adult female, yearlings and cubs.

The ranch started when the owner would take in abandoned or injured bears. One bear grew to two, etc. Now, it is the largest ranch of its type in the United States.

Bears at Oswald Bear Ranch

Each section has a platform, which is supposed to allow barrier-free viewing. However, in order for that to happen, the bears have to be in that specific area. Since each fenced-in area allows the bears to roam, well…We did a lot of walking along the fence lines to see the bears. Once you see them, if they are along the fence line, forget getting any pictures. Just enjoy the view.

Having paid $20 (per car charge except for lone visitors), I was getting a little disappointed in the place, until we came up to the yearlings section.

Oswald Bear Ranch

The bears in this area were out in force, and all in the area with the platform. We saw one chewing on something in the woods. Two were walking around. A couple was near the water.

This, I told Lisa, made up for the lack of earlier photo opportunities.

Bears

One bear was cute. He tried to crawl into a cave near the water feature. When one cave didn’t work out, he went to another. We saw his hind legs momentarily. Then, he was gone.

We walked some more, checking out bears along fence lines.

Once at the cub area, three cubs were in two pens. Two cubbies were playing around, wrestling and working on their domination stances.

One cub was available for photos with visitors. People can pay $10 to have their picture taken with a cub. We do not support this behavior. Lisa and I agree that we think it’s exploitative of the cub. Bears on display for photos

Other people had their picture taken with it. The handlers have the visitors feed the bear a spoonful of oatmeal, so its focus is on the food and then they stand near it and have their picture taken.

After the bear ranch, we headed out for stop No. 4 of the road trip – Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The national park was about 90 minutes away.

We saw a sign for Grand Marais, MI, as we pulled out of the bear ranch property. Grand Marais is on the eastern edge of the lakeshore, so we thought it would be quicker than going back to Newberry and then north.

Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. The paved road ended after about 30 minutes of driving. The rest of the drive was on gravel roads. And some sections were not in the greatest shape. So, I guess there is a solid reason to sometimes “go out of the way” to get some place.

As we passed a lake, we noticed some fog standing above the water. This, we should have realized, was a preview of things to come.

Fog in Michigan

Also, there is a reason for having a paper map, sometimes. When phone service does not work, um, you cannot rely on Google Map.

After driving for what seemed like forever, we hit pavement a few miles outside of Grand Marais. We stopped for gas. I visited with the gas station clerk about the best way to get to the national park. She told me to stay on the road I came in on and we’d get there soon.

Dang, if she wasn’t right. We were only about a mile from the east entrance.

We stopped at the first attraction, Seible Falls. We hiked in a little ways until we came upon another set of steps. We walked down to be next the waterfall. It was a pretty area. Lush green vegetation populated the riverside.

Seible Falls

We stopped at the park ranger’s office a few miles inside the park. The two rangers on duty were very friendly. The one who helped us told us what spots to check out. Some had short trails off the parking lots, while others were longer hikes.

He mentioned the fog. Yeah, we had noticed it as we approached the station. It was a bit thick, he said. It made viewing difficult. You could see things fairly nearby, but distance viewing was jeopardized.

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Little did we know. Most of the drive through the park is just a drive. Woods, trees, and fog.

In one spot, away from the fog, I noticed a bird on the side of the road. I pulled over. It was a Sandhill Crane. Now, we have come to see them every March in central Nebraska as part of their migration. But, to see one truly in the wild was awesome. I pulled the camera out and went to focus on it. Well, as they do in Nebraska, this crane quickly pulled away, into the trees and bushes. Again, no picture of wildlife today.

We continued the drive. Lisa noticed a white-tailed deer near the tree line. It scampered into the trees. Farther down the road, we noticed one right along the roadside. We slowed down and he stayed there. So, we pulled over to get a picture. Before I could even raise the camera, off he galloped into the trees. We did a shot of him in the trees. But, this was typical of our wildlife experience that day.

We came upon a sand dune stop to check out. It was not your typical sand dune. Back in the day, loggers used this dune to send trees down to the lake for transportation. The side of the dune was a steep drop. I was thinking the wrong step and a few seconds later, Lake Superior owns a person. A few young people had slid downhill toward the lake. They were climbing back up.

Sand Dune

We explored the area from atop the dune. Again, the fog ruined any long range viewing. You could make out the gray of the water and see where the fog was, but that was it. We moved on.

We stopped at a nearby lake viewing area. It was one of the nicer spots on the park. Again, no views of the pictured rocks or nearby lighthouse, due to the fog. But, we could walk out to the lake shore. We saw a stream that helped feed Lake Superior. That was nice to look at.

Lakeshore

We moved on to our final stop in the park. This stop would have some cliffs that resembled a castle. It was called Miner’s Castle. Well, once we pulled up to the parking lot, we should have known better. The walk to the viewing deck was nice, but again the fog had packed in, so nothing in the distance could be seen. Lisa was most disappointed. She really wanted to see the cliffs known as the pictured rocks.

Lisa pouting about the fog
Lisa pouting about the fog

After realizing there was nothing to see from the deck, we started walking back to the car. But, there was another trail. I suggested taking it. Lisa didn’t want to go. But, we went pressed on. Turned out to be a better move than not.

We came upon the backside of Miner’s Castle. It wasn’t as nice as seeing it from the side view of the cliffs, but it was better than nothing. We took some pictures of the rock formation that made up the top of the castle.

Castle Rock

After this, we decided it was time to hit the road and get on to Two Harbors, Minnesota. The town, about 25 minutes north of Duluth, was our actual destination for the day. We pulled out of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore about 5 p.m. CT. It was supposed to be 6 hours. Toss in dinner, and a few stops for gas and drinks along the way, and it turned into a 7-hour drive.

Thank goodness for small town gas stations and coffee machines. About 10 p.m., I needed a shot of caffeine, so we found a place and a large French vanilla latte later, I was rockin’.

I was never so happy to see a 4-lane highway and then interstate as I was when we hit it a few miles east of Superior, Wisconsin. Driving the last 40 minutes in the rain just added to the “fun” of the fog, dirt roads and lack of cell service on that stretch of the trip.

But, you know, as long as the day was, I wouldn’t trade it for anything…except maybe taking the main road out of Newberry instead of the “shortcut.”

A view of our day trip: