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Need a cool beach? There’s always Duluth

By James Eli Shiffer
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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DULUTH, Minn. I crossed the dunes at Park Point and took in the wide expanse of beach. The August heat was rising, the sky shone a brilliant blue, and a teenaged lifeguard in red trunks climbed the ladder to his chair, with not a swimmer in sight. I kicked off my sneakers and stepped into the surf.

For a few seconds, everything felt normal. Then I looked down and noticed, through the crystalline water, that my feet were losing what little color they had, as if the blood were fleeing up my legs. After 15 seconds, discomfort was turning into pain. My toes screamed. Finally, after 23 seconds, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I stepped out of Lake Superior and my numb feet radiated their gratitude.

My “swim” at Park Point was over. Yet my exploration of this strange isle – with miles of windswept beach that look more like the Outer Banks than the North Shore of Minnesota – had just begun.

If Duluth has a Lido, it is Park Point – a narrow strip of sand that protects the harbor from the immense lake. Also known as Minnesota Point, it juts 7 miles into Lake Superior, and together with the 3 miles of Wisconsin Point, forms one of the world’s largest freshwater sand spits.

The only way to get there by land is to cross the Duluth Aerial Lift Bridge, that famous iron magnet for shutterbugs, watercolor artists, ore boat gawkers, souvenir hawkers and mischievous teens. Few tourists actually cross the bridge to see what’s on the other side.

The day I ventured over, I felt like I had stumbled upon a short-cut to the sea. Among the few people there that day, a young woman in a white bikini and shades sat on the sand watching her muscled male companion, a veteran fresh from combat overseas, charge into the lake.

He splashed some water on his shoulders in a useless effort to acclimate his body. Then he retreated to the shore.

Teenagers tossed a Frisbee into the lake, snatched the floating disk and ran yelping for dry land. Younger children wisely stayed on the beach, digging holes in the sand and letting them fill with the lake’s fresh, clear water.

This strip of land a “baymouth bar” – an accumulation of sand laid down by the restless currents swirling around Lake Superior. Eventually those sands created an island separating the lake from the mouths of the St. Louis and Nemadji rivers. It had one natural opening, the one in present-day Wisconsin.

As the Duluth-Superior harbor grew, Minnesota wanted its own canal, so it dug another hole in the peninsula in 1870-71. That became the Duluth Ship Canal, crowned by the delicate filigree of the Lift Bridge. Meanwhile, as the moneyed classes of Duluth erected mansions along London Road, working folks put up shacks on the skinny island, originally, in the memory of one lifelong Park Pointer, with whatever wood they could salvage or steal from the mainland.

These days, Canal Park has become the center of Duluth tourism, beckoning crowds to its saloons, eateries, gift shops and museums. On the point, mansions with hot tubs and rows of condos are replacing those shacks on both sides of Minnesota Avenue, the two-lane street that is the spine of Park Point. Still, the seaside feel is everywhere: Discarded anchors and buoys decorate lawns, along with boats in permanent dry-dock in driveways.

The locals told me the swimming season might last a week or two, whenever there’s a benevolent confluence of wind and warmth. This year, the virtually ice-free winter has led to milder waters and predictions of superb conditions for taking a plunge. But when I visited last summer, my frigid dip indicated that those fleeting days of pain-free bathing had washed out toward Ontario long before.

If I wanted to get out on the lake, I would have to armor myself in polypropylene and venture into the lake on a plastic boat.

My search for a kayak led me to the Ski Hut, high on a hill on the mainland. I discovered that the shop no longer rented the watercraft, but people there told me to contact one of their employees, Joe Trela. Not only did he rent kayaks, but he lived on the Point.

Once I got Joe on the phone, he told me he would rent me a kayak for 30 bucks for 24 hours. A wetsuit – not a bad idea when the water is 50 degrees – was $10 extra. I found his place on Minnesota Avenue. It was hard to miss, being the only geodesic dome with a red sailboat high and dry on the front lawn.

I asked him how long it would take me to paddle around the entire island. “For me, maybe five hours,” he said. “For you, maybe 10.”

The next morning, I drove to his house, parked in front and fetched the gear. I hoisted the kayak on my shoulder, just the way Joe showed me. The thing was heavier than I expected.

Out into Lake Superior

Now it was showtime.

The lake was smooth as glass. I could see a pair of cargo ships, one large, one enormous, strangely idle and waiting for something just off the canal. I chose to launch at a beached log, and just to be sure I could recognize it on my way back, I shoved a long stick into the sand next to it.

The lake was like nothing I had paddled before. A few hundred feet from shore, I could easily see the sandy lake bottom, rippled and lifeless. The few things floating, mostly branches, seemed motionless, fixed in the smooth immensity of the world’s largest pool of freshwater. I dug in my paddle, pushed, and the kayak slid easily through the lake.

I headed east, toward Wisconsin, and glanced at the beach. No one was paying attention to me, except for a troop of ducks that quickly paddled away as I approached. I wondered about the watercraft sharing this space – those two cargo ships going nowhere, and me clumsily paddling east until I realized that the beach stretched on and on, and there was no hope of me making it to the inlet.

I paddled back, looking for my landmarks. The beached logs all looked the same, so I did what Joe told me to do and looked for the roof of a gray mansion. Logs were a dime a dozen on the point, but the biggest mansions stood out above the trees. Pretty soon it loomed into view, and I pointed the nose of the kayak toward land.

After I had pulled it up on the beach, I looked around for my marker stick. It was gone. Plucked, perhaps, by a Park Pointer who didn’t want any unapproved structures mucking up the beach. I glanced up and down the strand, trying to find the perpetrator. But I had the beach to myself, once again.

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