Americana: A great inland sea

July 29, 2018

The Ojibwe Native Americans called it Gitchi–Gami or Kitchi Gami. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote it “Gitche Gumee” in the “Song of Hiawatha.”

French explorers named it “The Sea Above” (Lake Huron) and the British anglicized it into Lake Superior. It is “superior” both for being the northernmost of the Great Lakes and for being the largest freshwater lake by surface area in the world.

There’s so much water in Lake Superior that if you flattened out the mountains, Lake Superior could cover both North and South America with a foot of water.

I first glimpsed it at its westernmost point and most inland port, Duluth, Minnesota. Ships and docks and cargo wharfs make it seem every bit a seaport.

As we followed the shoreline to the east, I was enchanted by the scenic highways. Evergreens mix with maples, aspen, birches and others delight the eye while blueberries, raspberries, huckleberries and wintergreen delight the palate. Wild rice and cattails crowd the marshy areas.

It was the wild rice that brought the Native Americans to settle along Gitchi-Gami. Legend says that they once lived far to the south and a prophet told them they must travel north until they found a land where food grew on water. When they found the reedy plant with long black seeds growing along the shores of a huge inland sea, they claimed it as their home.

Wild rice is not rice at all, but a member of the reed family. It was traditionally harvested by gliding a canoe into the stand and tapping the wild rice so it falls into the bottom of their canoe. Much of the seed falls into the water, providing for the next year’s crop.

Jeff and I started our Great Lakes adventure with a kayak trip in the area around the Apostle Islands in Wisconsin. They got their name because there were thought to be 12 of them. There used to actually be 23, but now there are 22 because a little one got washed away in a storm. Waves on Lake Superior are regularly recorded at 20 feet and even 30-foot waves have been recorded.

In the winter, much of Lake Superior freezes over. The region around the lake regularly records more than 20 feet of snow.

Except after summer storms, the water is clear and clean, sparkling green along the shore. We had signed up with Living Adventures Outfitters for a kayak tour of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. We wanted to explore the sea caves on the south shore.

The kayaks required a skirt, worn over the paddler’s shoulders, that hooks around the lip around the opening. Jeff rode in the back and operated the rudder with his feet.

There was enough chop to make the ride fun and navigating into the narrow caves, through the turns and rooms a little exciting. We nudged into the dark crevices not minding the showery water from above. As the waves increased, so did the schlop, gargle and schnork sounds as they shlobbed into the nooks and bowls weathered into the sandstone cliff.

Trees twist and scrabble to keep a foothold as the top edges of the cliffs erode away. In the winter, sometimes the lake freezes solid and the caves turn into natural ice sculptures. Nearby towns blossom to life as tourists pour into them to explore the ice caves on foot.

The face of the shoreline is constantly changing. Shortly after we paddled under a majestic arch in the area the guide called The Cathedral, a chunk of stone the size of a watermelon plunged into the water. Timing is everything!

In one cave, an arch has formed underwater and though the room above the water is very dark, (especially on an overcast day like the one when we were there), the sunlight slants through the arch underwater like a backlit aquarium.

Agates, jasper, quartz and other colorful stones line almost every beach. We saw a bald eagle perched near her nest.

The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore boasts majestic and intriguing scenery and lures adventure seekers.

Only in America, God bless it.

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