Minnesotans have some pretty distinct quirks, like watching hockey in June, torturing their vowels, and waxing poetic about going “Up North.”
Up North, it seems, is more of a theory than an actuality. The most common version involves semi-rustic log cabins, copper-colored lakes and dark pine forests. But the widely agreed upon Holy Grail of Up North-ness is another equally nebulous destination called the “North Shore.”
Lake Superior’s northern coastline is the origin of countless childhood memories for my native friends. They feel a special connection to it and return as often as their weary souls require. For some, an annual pilgrimage is simply their Minnesota birthright.
By contrast, I grew up along the sandy shores of Lake Michigan imagining it was the warm California coastline. Milwaukee was as far north as I cared to go. I imagined everything geographically above me to be a vast wasteland of conifers and outlet malls. A girl from my seventh grade class moved to Hayward, WI – the official lumberjack capital of the world. I pitied her.
Despite repeated exposure to it, my prejudice has not shifted much over the years. At best, I became tolerant to it. At worst, I simply ignored it altogether. Ironically, it took a warm rock in a cold lake to turn me into a believer.
Tettegouche State Park is a popular North Shore destination for both avid adventurers and day-trippers alike thanks to its proximity to waterfalls, Midwest-style mountains and a freshwater ocean. But it’s the park’s cart-in campsites overlooking said freshwater ocean that stir my heart.
These sites are among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. And thanks to the new online reservation system, they are nearly impossible to get your hands on. Fortunately, I had the foresight in January to book primo site “J” for a weekend in May, when the weather is a little less winter-like and the kids are still in school. I invited a few of my most weatherproof friends, to leave sunny and 75 behind in Minneapolis and spend three days shivering in temps that barely touched the 50’s.
We arrived at our site just as the sun was powering down for the day. It took the better part of an hour to cart our gear a half-mile from the parking lot to our site, assemble our tents and get a fire started. A thin line of trees separated us from the lakeshore and the spring foliage wasn’t substantial enough to block the wind coming off the lake in cold gusts.
As the early evening sky shifted from blue to purple, we scrambled down a small path leading directly from our site to a large rock outcropping extending from the shore into the lake. We hopped from boulder to boulder, carefully avoiding the crevasses and scrambled down to the outcropping’s edge.
The Palisade Head stood imposingly to our right and a loose ribbon of rocky coastline ran into Shovel Point to our left. Lake Superior’s cold, clear waves intermittently lapped lazily, then slapped aggressively against the rocks below. Bright spots of turquoise stone reflected from the bottom.
The next day was spent touring the area’s highlights. We took a walk around the adorably named Moose Lake on its picturesque boardwalk, checked out the rustic trail shelters located along the Superior Hiking Trail and climbed around the slick stone of iconic Gooseberry Falls.
It was an incredible day filled with wonderful memories that will stick around for a while, but all I really wanted to do was return to my rock.
When we got back to the campsite, the rest of the gang cracked open cold beers and snuggled up to the fire. Meanwhile, I siphoned heat from the warmest rock lining the coldest Great Lake. I let my eyes focus on the horizon – the steady to the water’s variability. The sound of wind and waves filled my ears. I thought about the rock outcropping 25 meters away with a bright orange patch of algae growing on top of it. The water would never be warm enough to swim out it. It belonged to the seagulls.
On our last day, I woke up at 5 a.m. to a blood red sky over a black body of water. Wobbly legs carried me back down the path to my rock along the shoreline. Tired eyes tried to anticipate where the ball of orange would rise. A strong wind whipped cold air through my hair as I waited.
Suddenly, it appeared at the tip of Shovel Point, growing larger and brighter with each passing second. Sitting on my rock in the soft morning light, freezing my ass off in a 38- degree straight wind coming off the lake, with involuntary tears streaking down my cheeks was the moment my North Shore story was written.
Discovering the beauty of this complicated place is not a simple task. To the untrained eye, it appears desolate, cold and hostile. Much like the desert, its beauty is a subtle one. It requires you to invest time and energy before it reveals itself to you.
As soon as you see it, you get it.
Robin Pfeifer is a travel and lifestyle writer currently based in Minneapolis. You can read more of her writing here.