Minnesota Meandering: Ubetcha!

north shore lake superior

From the U.P. we drove west to Duluth where we spent a couple days relaxing before departing on our journey northward toward the Canadian border. As we have posted on Duluth previously (https://wordpress.com/post/ontheroadwithmariastephen.net/1324) we would refer you to our that post for our impressions of Duluth.

Freighter Entering Harbor at Duluth

We departed Duluth via the North Shore Scenic Drive (MN-61) which closely follows the rugged coastline of Lake Superior to the Canadian border. We stopped to camp along the lake shore in Schroeder, which is about half the distance to Canada.

The Great Lakes coastline is dotted with scores of lighthouse and foghorn stations which were necessary in aiding the navigation of Great Lakes freighters. The freighters have traversed the lakes for almost 200 years carrying the ore which was critical to the industrial revolution in the United States.

Pictured below is the Two Harbors Lighthouse. The light is the oldest continuosly operating light on the north shore of Lake Superior. The Coast Guard fully automated the light in 1981 and is still operational. The lightkeepers house is now operated by the Lake County Historical Society as a B&B.

Iron mining started here in 1884 in earnest and the need for a light to guide the freighters into Agate Bay became critical. The light was authorized by Congress in 1886 and became operational in 1892. As you can see from the photo below iron ore from the Minnesota Iron Range is still being loaded on to bulk ore freighters at Two Harbors for shipment to ports to the east and south.

Of the many light stations we have seen along the various Great Lakes, the Split Rock Light Station is one of the most interesting and historic. The impetus for constructing the light was a fierce storm in November, 1905. During the storm, six ships within twelve miles of the Split River went down to the bottom of Lake Superior.

Construction of the Split River Station was completed in 1909 with the light and foghorn beginning operations in 1910. The original light could be seen from a distance of 22 miles and the foghorn could be heard as far as five miles. The powerful light and horn saved many ships and lives for the next 59 years until it was decommissioned.

Split Rock Light House

The construction of the station was quite arduous as all the materials and equipment had to be hoisted up to the top of the cliffs from boats below – there were no roads that reached the location at the time.

Split Rock Light House (photo courtesy Minnesota State Parks)

The first lighthouses in America date back to the 1600s and were operated by individual colonies or privately. In 1797, the government took control of the operation of all lighthouses in the United States. Subsequently, the United States Lighthouse Service was created and charged with the staffing and operation of all marine navigation facilities.

The Service remained in existence until 1939 when it was merged into the United States Coast Guard, ending the long standing traditions and way of life that existed for the lighthouse keepers and their families.

The Split Rock Station required three light keepers to keep the light operating 24 hours a day. A hand wound mechanism similar to a watch or clock had to be wound frequently in order to enable the rotation of the light. Because of the remote location, electrical service did not reach Split Rock until 1940! The videos below provide a provide a brief view of the original mechanism which was reinstalled after the light was decommissioned.

Minnesota highway 1

With our north coast and lighthouse segments completed, we set off west and north to northern Minnesota. With Ely as our planned first day’s destination, we had the opportunity to journey the 100 miles from the eastern end of Minnesota Highway 1 (MN-1) at Illgen directly to Ely. MN-1 is a scenic highway that crosses the entire state from the shore of Lake Superior to the Red River on the western border. Not surprisingly, the 346 miles of MN-1 is the longest highway in the state.

The drive to Ely is both scenic and fun if you enjoy driving. The road is a sinuous, undulating affair that runs through the Superior National Forest for the majority of the drive – light traffic, no stoplights, no stop signs, no potholes!


We did encounter one town in the middle of the drive – Isabella. At the time we thought we were passing through a ghost town. We were wrong! Our apologies to the 179 independent souls who call Isabella home.The closest town is 20 miles south. Isabella does have a claim to fame as the highest community in Minnesota as it sits on the Laurentian Divide and is approximately 2000 feet above sea level.

The handful of businesses based in Isabella are guiding and camping services focused on fishing, dogsledding, cross country skiing. Our favorite business based on name is the Great Lakes School of Logbuilding which sadly upon further research closed in 2018 after a 43 year run.

Ely, minnesota

Ely is a lively, bustling town that is the starting place for many canoe trips into the Boundry Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA.) The BWCA extends along 150 miles of border with Canada and comprises almost 1.1 million acres. There are 1100 lakes and 1500 miles of canoe routes within this expansive wilderness. While we were not venturing in the wilderness on this trip we took advantage of the good restaurants and shops that exist due to the many tourist who come here to take guided multi-day trips into the wilderness.

Specialty coffee and tea is, of course, a critical element of any OTR itinerary. Northern Grounds Coffee + Wine Bar (https://www.thenortherngrounds.com/) in Ely provided us with sustenance and a friendly cafe for our pre and post bicyling needs.

Life on the farm


There are a growing number of private camping options for travelers looking to avoid large, crowded and noisy commercial campgrounds when dispersed camping is not an option. We utilized the Hip Camp platform to find a location convenient to Ely but off the beaten path.

We spent an enjoyable four nights at a 100 acre working, family farm down the road a bit from Ely. The farm has chickens, pigs, ducks, sheep, horses and a couple of dogs and cats for good measure. We parked on a grass field by a small barn where we could sit out in the evening by a campfire and enjoy the sparkling, night sky.

This is a working farm with farm animals, farm noises and farm smells. Some folks might not enjoy that aspect but we enjoyed the company of the animals and one of their dogs, Smokey, accompanied us on our nightly walks around the property.

We will definitely keep this option in mind in the future based on this experience.

Ranier and the falls

The Echo Trail

From Ely and our base at the farm we resumed our journey north to Ranier. Because we are generally looking for the most interesting, scenic and/or the slowest way to get somewhere, we decided to drive the Echo Trail from Ely to its terminus in Orr. The Echo Trail is a 76 mile gravel road which takes you on a hilly, curvey path through dense forest and by half a dozen stunningly beautiful lakes.

Ranier’s Voyageur

After completing the Echo Trail we refueled in Orr and made a straight line north to Ranier. After a number of nights of camping – no matter how enjoyable – we are ready for more spacious quarters than the van and a shower of more than two minutes.

We stayed at the Cantilever Hotel & Distillery in Ranier, a tiny town on the Rainy River which separates the States from Canada. We had not expected to find such a swanky looking place in this tiny border town – but all the reviews were great and we reserved a room for several nights.

We are happy to report that the hotel lived up to the excellent reviews we had read. We enjoyed great dinners and of course, had to sample a few of the cocktails made using their in-house distilled vodka and gin. While we are usually wine drinkers we, quite enjoyed a number of their different concoctions. Cheers!

We do need to mention the train for the benefit of any future visitors.

The train…the train

CN Intermodal Double Stack Freight Train

Ranier, as we mentioned, is quite small with a population of 626 people. However, in one regard it is quite big. The Candian Northern Railroad (CN) operates a north/south freight line which bisects the town befores it crosses the rail bridge over the river into Canada.

Unfortunately for the townspeople, this freight line has become the busiest rail border crossing between the States and Canada. Twenty-two trains per day, every day of the week, go through the town – at any hour of the day or night.

The trains cut off any passage east and west on Main Street. This is exacerbated by the fact that the trains are required to slow to 10 miles an hour because each car is being scanned by U.S. Customs in order to detect illegal cargo. And, each of the trains consists of 100 to 200 cars, so the trains are over a mile long! The town is going to build a pedestrian bridge over the rail line which will help with some of the issues.

We met a Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officer while in town. We asked him if they actually found enough items to warrant the scanning of every rail car on every train. He indicated that they make a significant number of seizures mostly related to Chinese goods coming into the country which are counterfeit, do not meet pollution or safety standards or were manufactured using stolen intellectual property. The day before we spoke with him CBP had seized a container full of motorcycles which did not meet U.S. emissions standards. How the CBP knows about the items he would not say.

Voyageurs national park

An additional perquisite of staying at the Cantilever was that we were able to bicycle directly from the hotel to Voyageurs National Park (VNP) on the paved path that runs from International Falls to the Rainy Lake Visitors Center.

We spent an afternoon hiking at the park after biking the short (12 miles) bikepath from the hotel to the visitors center. There are a number of hikes which take you along the shoreline at Rainy Lake providing very nice views of the lake and a number of the smaller islands visible from the shore.

We really think that in order to fully enjoy this park, one needs to get out on the water and cruise the lake, possibly visiting or camping on some of the islands. Canoes can be rented from a concessionaire at the small marina adjacent to the visitors center in order to get out on the water and explore. Unforunately, this was not an option for us on this visit due to one member of the team having a torn rotator cuff.

Ranier to north dakota

After our excellent experience in Ranier we got back on the road driving west along the southern bank of the Rainy River on Route 11, known as MOM’s Way (Manitoba – Ottawa – Minnesota). Route 11 is one of a very few roads which carries the same designation across borders.

We finished our day of travel in Lake Bronson – positioning us to cross into North Dakota the next day. Lake Bronson is a tiny town by any standard – a land area of 352 acres and a population of 169. Like many of the tiny agricultural towns that dot the landscape on the western plains of Minnesota the town is physically dominated by the town’s co-op grain elevator.

Lake Bronson

After setting up our campsite at the lake we decided to take advantage of the beautiful evening and bicycle into town. As we were cycling along a residential street, we noticed a yellow crop duster parked at the end of a dead end street.

We cycled to the end of the road and found ourselves at a grass airstrip with two crop dusters, a private home and attached hanger. The owner and chief pilot of the crop dusting firm happened to out in his yard playing with his kids. He graciously allowed us to check out and photograph the aircraft up close. These planes are purpose built and quite rugged with fortified cockpits to protect the pilot in the event of a crash.

The pilot told us that his job as a crop dusting pilot is the “best job in the world” although a bit dangerous at times. If you have ever seen a crop duster in action you would probably agree that there is danger involved. Crop dusters dive down and fly just above the tops of the crops and then must pull up very steeply to avoid power lines, structures and other obstacles at the edge of the field. There is no room for error.

P.S. Fellow Nutmeggers: please note that the enginess that power these crop dusters were manufacutured by Pratt & Whitney.

Dependable Engines!

Rails to trails

Minnesota has a fantastic network of (mostly paved) rails-to-trails bike trails through out the state. Our experience on this trip and a previous visit to Minnesota is that the majority of trails showcase the beautiful scenery in Minnesota as you ride through forests and along rivers and lakes. The other nice feature is that many of the trails are 50 or more miles long allowing for as much uninterrupted riding as you want to undertake.

Final thoughts………

We really enjoyed our meandering journey through the northlands of Minnesota. This trip was inspired by the book Northland: A 4000-Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border, written by Porter Fox. The Northland is defined as the area along the border with Canada from Maine to Washington.

Fox found that many areas along the border are just as remote and unspoiled as they were when they were discovered and settled. We would say that in some cases the modern world is more intrusive than when the book wa published in 2018. Having said that, there is absolutely a feeling of remoteness by today’s standards when you are in the Northland. We also would agree that there is still a strong sense of independence and self-sufficiency among the long time residents and descendants of the original Voyageurs and settlers. Lastly, we without exception experienced nothing but friendly and polite people as we crossed northern Minnesota.

North Dakota next – westward ho!

Be seeing you.

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