Way Up North: Winter around Lake Superior

I would say my reputation as a traveler is slowly being defined by traveling in the “wrong” season.

Technically, there isn’t a wrong season. At least not in my opinion. There are the seasons you’re prepared to adventure in, and those that you’re not. I cannot say whether that is the opinion held by most.

However, it is traveling at these times that allows me to see places in a way that most people don’t get to. I like to think I’m prepared for ALL seasons.

Not having the gear is never a good enough reason to not answer the call of adventure.


Simple, here’s a taste of what the “wrong” season gets you:

Near Sleeping Giant Provincial Park – Thunder Bay, ON, CA

An Overview in Numbers:

Oklahoma City, USA -> Thunder Bay, Canada

  • 1,383 miles
  • <300USD
  • 6 days
  • 4 frozen waterfalls
  • 2 travelers (Alex and I)
  • 1 lighthouse
  • Unlimited fish & chips

So – do you want the good news or the bad news first?

The Bad, the Good, and the Breathtaking

Moon setting in Thunder Bay, ON, CA

Do you know the number one question you get asked when you tell people you’re going to Canada in the winter?

“You know it’s cold up there, right?”

Obviously. Canada + winter = where the moose and the polar bears play.

If I had a dollar for every time I was asked that, I could have funded the entire trip. Okay, maybe not, but it was going to take a lot more than people thinking we were crazy to scare us out of this particular adventure. We usually manage alright..

And by “manage” I mean that Alex and I end up with stupid luck. The only catch is that something bad has to happen first.

That said, the shock was minimal when our vehicle broke down on the highway – a highway that was narrowed down to one lane due to snow, no less. Of course, one thing led to another and we were towed to (and consequently stranded in) a small town in Wisconsin for a night. Apparently securing parts when every town in fifty miles is under a blanket of snow isn’t the easiest task.  A kindly local put us up, so rather than worrying about where we would sleep, we dedicated all remaining energy to an all-out bowling royale.

Let’s just say my losing streak to Alex is on-going. It mostly includes Go Fish! from our time in China, and now I get to add bowling…

Vehicle fixed, we started the next day well-rested and back on the road where we hit Duluth, Minnesota. It was our first glimpse of Lake Superior, but I can’t say that it inspired much hope for what lay ahead. Everything, from the sheer winds blowing the car around, to the bridge suspended over icy harbors, and the layer of dirt settled on all visible surfaces was reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno. Specifically the scene where Dante reaches the lowest level of hell and he finds a giant, winged Satan stuck in the middle of a frozen lake.

Gooseberry Falls near Two Harbors, MN, USA

They say first impressions are everything, but I don’t think Duluth got the memo.  For a moment, I caught myself wondering if I would see a towering, winged figure in the distance if I looked hard enough.

Good news is, I didn’t.

The even better news came several miles down the road where we made our first stop at Gooseberry Falls. It, unlike Duluth, was magical!

Split Rock Lighthouse near Two Harbors, MN, USA





Later we also hit Split Rock Lighthouse.

Fortunately, with it being off-season we were able to get free access to a special museum for the lighthouse. I stayed long enough to find out how light house glass is shaped, and that all of the materials to build it were brought by boat because there weren’t roads back then. Mostly I wondered why I was in a museum when there was a trail along the shore below me.

Just after the sun set we finally, FINALLY crossed into Canada, but not before the Canadian border patrol razzed warned us about their “Winter Temperature Advisory” or something like that. We shrugged it off as no big deal.

However, negative forty-three degrees (fahrenheit) IS most definitely a big deal!

Sunrise in Thunder Bay, ON, CA

This entire trip was based around the fact that we would sleep in the car to keep costs low, but we were not aware that it would be THAT cold before leaving. Had it not been for turning the car on every couple of hours and having good sleeping bags it would have been miserable. It wasn’t the best night’s sleep I’ve had, but…

Thunder Bay, ON, CA

It was worth it. We didn’t get to see anything we had planned on seeing, but isn’t that the beauty of traveling without any real plan?

Our time in Canada was brief, and American border patrol was a real hassle, but just outside of Duluth we found amazing fish and chips. Nothing like good food to warm the soul after a long night in frozen country. Plus, Duluth had to make up for it’s hellish first impression.

From there our journey began to wind down quickly. After one last stop in Baraboo, Wisconsin our adventure ended. We were able to work in some killer views at Devil’s Lake State Park.

Devils’s Doorway at Devil’s Lake State Park, Baraboo, WI, USA

Here’s the thing:

I find myself going into a lot of situations wondering a) how I got myself into a mess in the first place and b) how I’m going to get through it.

As we crept closer to Canada and I saw the temperature drop, and drop, and drop I asked myself “Are we gonna be okay?” Would our preparations be enough for us to survive our stupidity. Naturally, these kinds of things are only brilliant when you hear about someone else doing them.

I like to think I’m prepared for anything, but here’s the truth.

I’m not.

Things usually end up working out one way or another, but that’s partially because I start every adventure abandoning expectations. Expectations are dangerous, and as a good friend of mine once told me, they only set you up for disappointment.

Every time I hit the trail or buckle up for a road trip I gain a little bit more experience, a little bit more information that the world has to offer on how to NOT die. For those who like to adventure in nature, it is very practical information and it always goes towards making the next trip a little easier.

As I said, ditching expectations is only part of it. The other bit that always seems to ensure our survival is people.

If you turn on the news, you might think stepping outside your door will wind up with you dead. However, it has been my experience that people aren’t out to stab you in the back all the time. You learn to read the signs and avoid some, while risking to trust others. That’s just how it goes.

While stranded in the middle of Wisconsin our host was graciously listening to all of our crazy adventures, before telling us that there may come a time in life when everything is just right. A moment when you are at perfect peace with the world. It’s not an ideal, nor it is a place, it is a passing shadow that, if you fail to appreciate right then, you may never get to again in this thing called life.

Had we not broken down, we would not have been graced with that grain of wisdom. And if we do not continue to live with an openness to others, it will be a very empty life indeed.
Until next time!


Real-life car campers

2 Replies to “Way Up North: Winter around Lake Superior”

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