Talking Travel Rediscovering America Elle Andra-Warner Duluth: On the Waterfront

Duluth: On the Waterfront
by Elle Andra-Warner

There’s something about ships and great bodies of water that stirs the soul. And in Duluth, Minnesota (population 87,000, located at the westernmost tip of Lake Superior) you can wander along the Duluth Shipping Canal walkway and watch — only yards away — these huge vessels as they maneuver from Lake Superior into the canal’s narrow channel and under the world-famous Aerial Lift Bridge.

Over 1000 ocean-going freighters (salties) and Great Lakes freighters (lakers) come through the canal to Duluth harbor each year as they head for the ports in either Duluth or Superior, Wisconsin. (The two cities are side-by-side). And as you stand and watch the great ships pass, you may just be reminded that you are in one of the westernmost ports of the world's longest inland waterway: the Great Lakes Seaway.

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And dang, just moments before we arrived at the Duluth Canal, the 767-foot laker Arthur M. Anderson (built in 1952) had passed through, the same ship that had accompanied the legendary 729-foot Edmund Fitzgerald on her tragic last voyage on a stormy November 10, 1975. It was through this same Duluth canal, that the Edmund Fitzgerald had sailed full speed into Lake Superior and less than 30 hours later, had plunged to her icy grave at the lake’s bottom, taking with her all 29 of her crew. Lake Superior is the world’s largest freshwater lake (some call her the world’s eighth ocean) and known for her wicked November storms.

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.

With a load of iron ore - 26,000 tons more
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty
That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed
When the gales of November came early

— ©1976 by Gordon Lightfoot

While the canal has been there for well over a century, the old Canal District is now “new.” Once an abandoned warehouse area with junkyards, the Canal District was revitalized in the 1980s and today is a vibrant waterfront destination. There’s a bit of everything here — from museums to restaurants and quaint shops. It's a great place in which to spend a day.

Great Maritime Memories

After taking our time walking along canal (and my lamenting about missing the Anderson by just a few minutes), we dropped in at the Lake Superior Maritime Visitors Centre (formerly the Canal Park Marine Museum) located next to the Aerial Lift Bridge. Open-year round (with free admission), the museum is operated as a visitors centre by the Corps of Engineers and offers an incredible view for watching vessels entering and leaving Duluth harbor. Inside there’s plenty to see and do. Wander through full-size replicas of ship’s cabins. View extensive collections of historical artifacts (including items from shipwrecks), maps, films, and excellent displays of scale models of Great Lakes freighters. Outside, check out a ship’s propeller, capstan and some anchors (including one from a whaleback steamer).

For ship-buffs like me, there’s more to fuel the passion just a short walk away on the Duluth Lakewalk (the 4.2-mile paved pathway along Lake Superior adjacent to the museum). Permanently docked along the waterfront at Canal Park is the S. S. William A. Irvin, once the flagship of the U.S. Steel’s Great Lakes Fleet hauling iron ore and coal for 40 years and now a floating museum with guided tours. And on the same dock, you can step aboard the well-known U.S. Coast Guard Cutter, Sundew. Launched in Duluth in 1944, the Sundew carried out many heroic search and rescue missions on the Great Lakes, including battling 30-40 feet waves to rescue the only two survivors of the 35-man crew from the S. S. Carl D. Bradley (the laker that broke in two on November 18, 1958, during a storm on Lake Michigan).

Duluth and Marine Biology

Before getting in our car and crossing the Aerial Bridge, we meandered down to the three-storey Great Lakes Aquarium, the only freshwater aquarium in the United States. In the 60,000 square feet of space, there are massive tanks containing 120,000 gallons of water and over 70 species of fish. But this is no ordinary aquarium. For example, exhibits are set up as pockets of six actual habitats in Lake Superior basin, with the biggest one being the 85,000 gallon Isle Royale exhibit.

The educational and interactive displays are fascinating, presenting interesting questions. For example, did paddlefish live in Lake Superior? How did fish get from Lake Superior to the Arctic? How many trees are used in the construction of a house? And how about this one: How can a trout eat a tree?

But there’s more than fish here. Two exhibits (Kakagon Slough and Pictures Rocks) are within the aquarium’s aviary and includes ducks, shorebirds, and turtles. The aquarium also has two permanent resident otters Zhoosh and Anang (orphaned at a young age and now lacking the necessary skills to live in the wild). And then there’s Bogey, the bald eagle who has lived here on the first floor since 2001. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, he fell out of his nest taking his first flight and was permanently injured. He is now fully grown, but injuries to his wing prevent him from being reintroduced to the wild. Who would have thought to find a bald eagle in an aquarium?

A Duluth Eco-experience

Over the years, I’ve visited Duluth many times (my hometown Thunder Bay is only a four-hour drive away), but it was only recently that I crossed the Aerial Bridge for the first time. I was very surprised to find that the seven-mile long spit of land called Minnesota Point (actually an island) had miles of beautiful sand dunes on it facing Lake Superior. And I learned that Minnesota Point has an old-growth pine forest at its eastern tip Point, now preserved as a Scientific and Natural Area. Ah, the things we discover when we take the time to explore.

A People-friendly Travel Destination

Ships and shipping dominate Canal Park and the Duluth waterfront, but the eclectic mix of shops and restaurants bring life to the district. We’ve lunched at Grandma’s and the Blue Note Café, had supper at Red Lobster, and snacked at the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory (Michael & Deb Bolen, 395 Lake Avenue South, Tel: (218) 722-1700
Email: I’m not a great fan of shopping, but I did enjoy the mix of antique and specialty shops.

Duluth’s Canal Park is one of the best places to reconnect with the rugged romanticism, history and lore of the ships and crews of the Great Lakes. It is definitely a top-of-the-list Rediscovering America places-to-visit.

(And oh, the answer to the question about how a trout eats a tree? Well, thousands of little insects eat a tree, transfer plant energy to bug energy, the trout eats the bug — and indirectly the tree.)


Photographs by Elle Andra-Warner

For More Information

Duluth Convention & Visitors Bureau
21 West Superior Street, Suite 100
Duluth MN 55802
Toll-free 1-800-438-5884

Lake Superior Marine Museum
600 Lake Avenue S.
Duluth MN 55802
Tel: 218-727-2497

Great Lakes Floating Museum
301 Harbor Drive
Duluth MN 55802
Tel: 218-727-0022, ext. 234

Great Lakes Aquarium
353 Harbor Drive
Duluth MN 55802
Tel: 218-740-FISH (3474)
Fax: 214-740-2020