Minnesota’s high point is cozied in its crown jewel, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a dense maze of lakes and riverways perforating the majestic North Shore of Lake Superior.
I paid my respects to mighty Gitche Gumee, the deadliest lake on the continent, and then never let her out of my sight as I headed north from Duluth, where the tourist billboards stopped advertising bumbleberry pie and started listing opportunities to Nordic Ski, mush a dogsled, or purchase mukluks. It was an easy drive, with heavily-accented discussions of hockey on the radio and drivers who cheerily let me merge with a wave.
The trail starts off beautifully, a loamy singletrack meandering through thick dark pines and ghostly papery birch. Wooden walkways were constructed neatly over stream crossings and squishy wet bogs, where all the world’s mosquitos are bred.
Huge roots burst from the damp soil and rippled over the trail. I startled when one of the roots moved, then watched a perfectly camouflaged olive and yellow snake slip silently across the muddy trail, deftly avoiding the miniature lakes created by the moose hoofprints overflowing with welled water.
I pushed through patches of brush with shiny red-tinged leaves, belatedly cursing my forgotten knowledge of Great Lakes foliage. Every time I paused the mosquitos swept in with a high-pitched whine, the stereo in both ears until it drilled into my brain. Despite the sweaty humidity I tugged my long sleeves down over my hands and wrapped my buff over my face like a ninja.
Soon some forest sounds impeded on the mosquito whine, and I passed a lake lapping against the very edge of the trail. Frogs grunted in the mud and in the distance loons howled their eerie wolfy wail.
The trail turned upward and became more steep and rocky. A tiny spring trickled down mossy boulders into a tiny waterfall, which became the trail itself. The trees opened up to a flat rock overlook of the boundary waters below, and the whine of mosquitoes was joined by the deep droning of angry black flies.
Away from the view, the summit marker was set in a stone next to a heaping anthill. (Confession here: I’ve been wary of ants since age ten, when I watched, horrified, an episode of MacGyver where a character was skeletonized by a relentless swarm of army ants, which unfortunately coincided with the discovery of giant ant mounds on my grandparents’ property in northern Wisconsin. I’m sure my parents wondered why their adventure-loving tree-climbing tomboy suddenly preferred a book indoors, but then I fell into the throes of a tumultuous puberty and they stopped trying to find any reason in my behavior whatsoever). I warily skirted the summit marker and headed back to the breezy overlook, stepping hugely over a billion-year-old volcanic field perched above the most majestic lake of all.
About the beer:
Minnesota makes some great beers, and before arriving I was mentally debating bringing a Summit for the name, or a Surly for their reputation (I love Surly beers and had already stopped at the brewery for a t-shirt and a selection of cans, now rolled neatly in bubblewrap for the flight home) but this early in the morning a mild coffee brew sounded ideal.
Duluth’s Bent Paddle Cold Press black ale smells exactly like coffee and tastes like… coffee. I’ve had strong imperial coffee stouts before, but this black ale is mild and mellow under the good cold press coffee flavor, so there’s just a hint of the tasty beer and then a nice sweet espresso, delicious and rich. I could only briefly sip it since every time I paused I was swarmed by dive-bombing black flies, but every sip was as good as the one before. I enjoy coffee beers, and this smooth flavorful one just skyrocketed to the top of my list.