The unofficial land speed record for driving around Lake Superior is 21 hours. But why would you do that, given all the beauty the lake holds, the gems a short hike from the road reveals? Setting a record for most blueberries gathered, taking the best roadside attraction selfie, or winning a rousing game of spot the chip wagon (more on that later) — now those are worthy goals. Plan to spend a week accomplishing them, preferably two.
To make a circumnavigation of the Great Lake, you need make only one firm decision: Clockwise or counterclockwise?
Beyond familiar shores
To many tourists, Lake Superior means the North Shore between Duluth and Grand Marais, Minn., or the South Shore between Superior and Bayfield, Wis. Both are scenic, with gift shops and B&Bs at critical mass. Venture toward the Keweenaw Peninsula or rural stretches of southern Ontario, though, and things get rustic.
Car campers are in luck. Choose your park, make your reservation, and you’ll be all but guaranteed a well-maintained site on either side of the border. Michigan’s Porcupine Mountains State Park (http://tinyurl.com/l9c6lc5) near Ontanogan, Mich., also offers camper cabins — a nice compromise between a budget motel and tent camping.
Rossport, Ontario (population 65) is two hours east of Thunder Bay. On either side, there are wild and majestic views from Trans-Canada Hwy. 17 — and very little in the way of amenities. By the time you find Rossport, you may want to leave the tent and camp stove in the car and enjoy a meal with a view at the venerable Rossport Inn (1-807-824-3213), or stay in their simple but comfy cabins or main lodge.
Hunting the wild poutine
Poutine (poo-TEEN) is chips, aka French fries, topped with soft white cheese curds and brown gravy. It’s sublime, decadent road food. Chip wagons (food trucks that predate the term “food truck”) are part of the landscape in southern Ontario. There are modern, fusion versions of poutine, topped with the likes of cilantro or short ribs; aficionados shudder. In the birthplace of poutine, they stick to the holy, melty trinity of chips, curds, and gravy. When you spot a chip wagon, pull over.
On the American side, you can hunt sweets. Many people take a kind of short cut by driving across the Keweenaw Peninsula, which juts into Superior from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Hug the shoreline, for an extra three hours of scenery — and treats from Jampot (http://store.societystjohn.com/) in Eagle Harbor, Mich. There, Benedictine monks sell wholesome baked goods and preserves in a tiny storefront that smells like heaven.
Manganese, copper, limonite, and iron: They’re the mineral “paint” that forms the colored layers in sandstone formations at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (http://www.nps.gov/piro/index.htm) near Munising, Mich. You can explore over 100 miles of hiking trails, including 15 miles of sandstone cliffs, along the shore of the big lake, or stop at a beach in downtown Munising and enjoy nearly unobstructed views of the horizon.
Ontario’s Lake Superior Provincial Park (http://www.ontarioparks.com/park/lakesuperior) features the Agawa Pictographs, ancient Ojibwe drawings carved in ocher along a rock face and narrow ledge, accessible by foot (only when the lake is calm, and only for the adventurous) or by private or chartered boat tour.
Wawa, Winnie and other giants
The Circle Tour is studded with giants. I don’t mean Sleeping Giant Provincial Park near Thunder Bay, Ontario (although that’s worth a visit). I mean roadside attractions in the form of giant statues: the Giant Chicken and Pierre the Voyageur in Two Harbors, Minn., the enormous goose outside of Wawa, Ontario (Wawa is taken from the Ojibwe word for wild goose), Daniel Greysolon Sieur duLhut in Duluth, and Winnie-the-Pooh in White River, Ontario. It’s kitschy fun to visit these landmarks, but there’s history, too: Did you know that Winnie-the-Pooh is named for Winnipeg, Manitoba?
A low point
Members of the Highpointers Club, whose goal is to summit the highest-elevation spots in each of the United States, will be underwhelmed by L’anse, Mich. There are no vistas, no drama — just a sign in the thick, mosquito-filled woods designating Michigan’s high spot.
You can mitigate your disappointment by visiting the Bishop Frederic Baraga Shrine (http://tinyurl.com/nqx2vzz) in L’anse and learning more about the Snowshoe Priest, a missionary and linguist who cataloged American Indian dialects and grammar.
The Soo Locks (http://www.saultstemarie.com/soo-locks-46/) makes another interesting stop. Let the kids spend a couple of mesmerizing hours watching the water rise and fall to accommodate mammoth boats.
Jean Sramek is a writer, theater artist and playwright based in Duluth.