Thursday, August 6, 2009

Duluth, Pothole Capital of the U.S.

August 4

Scenic North Shore Drive runs close to the rocky shores of Lake Superior north of downtown Duluth. It has many turn-outs for folks who want to stop and enjoy the view or scrabble down to the water's edge, and its extra wide shoulders are well-used by bicyclists and walkers. There are lots of little motor inns and vacation cottages scattered all along the Drive, and ours is less than twenty minutes from downtown.

We appear to be the only people at the Lake Breeze Motel who are not on a family vacation. This little resort features a heated pool (no one swims in the lake here) and a miniature golf course. When we sit on our front porch to look out at the lake, we notice we are the only ones who do not have beach towels and bathing suits hanging over our porch rails. The families here are cooking burgers on the grills and having campfires in the evening, while we are eating at the local restaurants and catching up on our e-mail.

We decide to begin our sight-seeing day in Duluth with a drive on the Skyline Parkway. Like the Great River Road which we attempted yesterday, the Skyline Parkway is not just one road, but a combination of roads. It is promoted in our travel guides and in several Duluth tourism brochures as a "must do" experience that will take us on a tour of the cliffs and bluffs high above Lake Superior and Duluth, offering breath-taking views, and many roadside parks and paths to explore.

As was the case with the Great River Road,
we find that the route is poorly marked and is interrupted by detours, so that we are often unsure of which way to turn. We are amazed to find that the roads are in the worst condition of any we have encountered--paved or unpaved--in over ten thousand miles of driving this summer. The roads here are paved, but they have been patched many times with materials of different colors and textures, so that they resemble crazy quilts. And, there are quite a few potholes remaining to be patched, as well. So, we bounce, rock, and jiggle along trying to follow the parkway, while our bicycle rack groans under the strain of our heaving bicycles, and the plastic plates in our picnic box clack like castanets.

When we have gotten our fill of aerial views of the city and its impressive inner harbor port areas, we abandon the Skyline Parkway before we reach its end. As the haphazardly patched pavement pattern continues through the charming residential areas we tour on our way down from the heights, we realize that this style of roadwork is a unique characteristic endemic to the city as a whole, earning it our designation "Pothole Capital of the U.S."

The best way to avoid the roads is to explore by boat, so we hop on a Lake and Harbor Tour where we enjoy a beautiful cruise narrated almost non-stop by a terrific guide. We learn far more than we can possibly remember about the lake, the cities of Duluth and Superior along its shores and the busy port area in its sheltered harbor. Lake Superior is the largest, coldest (average surface temperature=39 degrees), cleanest and deepest of our Great Lakes, and it is the world's largest freshwater lake by volume. Its waves are commonly over ten feet, and have been known to rise to forty feet. Weather can blow in quickly, with little warning, but today the sun is shining and the water is flat.

Duluth boasts the world's most inland seaport—it is 2,340 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. It is also the world's most busy inland seaport. Not surprisingly, after all the grain elevators we have passed for the past several days, the largest grain terminal in North America is right here in Duluth Harbor. We also see the fastest coal ship loader in the country in action.
Just one man controls the loading action via remote controls strapped around his waist which move the coal chute around in the boat's cargo bays to balance the load. The train cars on the trestle above are flipped upside-down to dump their load into receiving bins below the tracks. We also see steel docks where they load taconite pellets onto ships. (The most efficient way to transport iron is to pulverize the rock near where it is mined, collect the iron via magnets, and combine it with clay to make taconite pellets.)

After many historic plaques singing the praises of railroads on this trip, we learn from our tour guide that "ships are six times more fuel efficient than trains and sixty times more fuel-efficient than trucks."

Back on land, Dick manages to get us to a restaurant we saw during our boat tour. The restaurant is in an old Fitger's brewery, and sits high on a bluff overlooking the lake. We have a late lunch at a table on the patio, and imagine that the people in the tour boats that pass below us are probably looking up at us and thinking that they, too, would like to figure out how to get up here for dinner after their tour is over.

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