Friday, November 6, 2015


The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down, Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee, The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead, When the skies of November turn gloomy--Gordon Lightfoot

It was late fall in Minnesota. Winter comes quickly there. It pushes the season of autumn out rapidly like an out-of-control locomotive. The beautiful colorful leaves one day are swept away by the rain, ice and snow on the next. Veteran paddlers of Lake Superior will tell you that when the weather turns to winter, the lake can become extremely hazardous for vessels no matter the size. A single storm on Nov. 28, 1905, damaged 29 ships calling for American novelist James Oliver Curwood to write, "It is the most dangerous piece of water in the world. Here winter falls in autumn, and until late spring, it is a region of blizzards and blinding snowstorms. The coast are harborless wildernesses with...reef and rocky headlands that jut out like knives to cuts ships into two." The alarm went out and in 1907 the US Congress appropriated $75,000 to build a lighthouse and fog signal southwest of Silver Bay, Minnesota, on the North Shore of Lake Superior.   

Split Rock Lighthouse is considered one of the most picturesque lighthouses on Lake Superior. The lighthouse long since retired by U. S. Coast Guard is now part of the Split Rock Lighthouse State Park and is operated by the Minnesota Historical Society. It has been restored to the way it appear in the late 1920s when it guarded the treacherous and rocky coastline against its 130-foot cliff perch overlooking the lake. Only once a year is the lighthouse lens re-lit in tribute to the SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank in a storm on November 10, 1975.  All 29 crew members perished in one of the Great Lakes' worst shipping disasters forty years ago this month. On the anniversary of the ship's sinking, the names of the crew are read and the beacon is lit at dusk.

Against lake, the imposing and beautiful lighthouse seems to shrink. The forests and rocks on its edges have been diminished. I have never felt so small in a kayak than on Lake Superior. The lake, powerful even when calm bounced me up and down like a float toy as I paddled around the island and bay below the lighthouse. My son Cole and I were on a late-season camping trip on the North Shore. We had brought our Wilderness Systems Tsunami 140 to experience paddling in Little Two Harbors Bay and under the lighthouse. This place has special meaning us. We had visited it several times as a family and had good memories there. Now we would have one more.

While Cole paddled out into the bay, I climbed to the top of nearby Ellingson Island across from the lighthouse's rock face wall. Cole braver than I went out further under the lighthouse. Unprotected from the windswept waters, I watch waves break over his bow. Alone in the vastness, from my viewpoint, he was only speck on the giant sea. Like, novelist, Joseph Conrad said, "The sea has never been friendly to man. At most, it has been the accomplice of human restlessness." It is like that with Lake Superior, sudden storms, very cold water and an unforgiving coastline. It's an uninviting place that seems to call for us home, even in the days before winter.
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