Friday, September 02, 2005

A Few Days in Duluth

The children and I rode our bikes to Duluth, a ride detailed in Day One and Day Two, should you have an interest. After we'd arrived, Karla joined us and we spent a few days. Here's what we did.

The Best Western Edgewater under construction
In daylight, the abrupt end to our bike trail by the hotel became clearer. This hotel is adding a big enclosed waterpark on this end and there was lots of construction disruption. When we'd arrived, well after dark, we'd had to pick our way through the grass and parking lots around to the front of the hotel. It was much simpler in daylight. This waterpark is supposed to be done this winter, and perhaps the whole hotel will have a less ad hoc feel to it. We still liked it well enough; it has a pool, free breakfast, decent location and the balconies to park some of our bikes on.

Henry heads down the overpass ramp
There is an overpass over Interstate 35 with the switchbacks to get down. Here goes Henry. This one has blind corners at each switchback, so we'd ring our bells to alert other users.

South Light on Duluth Ship Canal
We went to Canal Park. I was dying for a decent coffee so left the kids playing on the rocks and went to Caribou Coffee. Afterwards I rode out to the lighthouse at the end of the Ship Canal. The first day there started out pretty cloudy. From here I could see the children playing on the rocks--those flourescent yellow jackets really stand out, though they're behind me and not in this photo.

Fishing Boat coming into Ship Canal
One of the cool things about Duluth is that it's a working port. Our license plates say "10,000 Lakes", but that understates it by about 50%. Lake Life is big up here, but for all the charms of the cabin on the lake, I like working water. That's why I like the Mississippi and Lake Superior. Here a charter fishing boat comes in off Lake Superior while in the background you can see the Antigua-registered 606-foot Federal Matane ocean-going freighter at anchor waiting to go to CHS to get a load of grain. To those not from Wisconsin or Minnesota, it might seem odd that ocean-going freighters come in to Duluth, 2,300 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean, but this is the far west end of the Saint Lawrence Seaway and this trade has been going on for decades. It's not that exotic, either; a Polish ship, the 591-foot Pomorze Zachodnie, also sailed in for a cargo of grain during our stay.

Fishermen show off catch
You get very close to the action here. As the boat came by I asked if they'd caught anything. One of the guys, in the red jacket, grappled around and held up this big fish, a lake trout, I'm guessing. (As with most photos on my blog, if you click on the photo you'll get a bigger version and the fish might be more evident)

Roger Blough coming in
A lot of the ship traffic is Lakers, ships confined to the Great Lakes. It may sound counterintuitive to those not familiar with Great Lakes shipping, but these tend to run bigger than the ocean-going freighters that come to Duluth. This is because the ocean-going ships have to fit through the Welland Canal, which bypasses Niagara Falls, to get from the Atlantic to the upper Great Lakes. In this instance, the 858-foot Roger Blough is approaching the entrance to the Duluth Ship Canal.

One of the charms of Duluth is that there is a hardcore shipping enthusiast who publishes a daily sheet (and has a website) called the Duluth Shipping News. This lists expected ship movements and times so you know when to watch.

Roger Blough coming in
And here she goes through the Canal. The famous Lift Bridge has raised to let her by. You can see the close proximity of tourists to the actual ship and even see a little boy racing along after it.

Faith and Matt
I swear, I never touched her! The base of the lighthouse has quite a bit of graffiti on it. Faith and Matt, another Matt, memorialized their devotion out here for all to see.

Duluth hills as clouds break up
Duluth is pretty hilly. I've driven in San Francisco and Duluth's not that steep, but going straight back from the lakeshore you do climb (or descend) some pretty brutal hills. We avoided riding up and down these on our bikes!

Seagull poop on cycling glove
I love the cry of seagulls, it's such an evocative sound even if they are pretty much rats with wings. Sadly, the ones around Canal Park are very used to tourists. Apparently they get irked if you don't feed them; one came flying towards me and, with remarkable precision, made a deposit on my cycling glove. I've decided cycling gloves are among the vilest concentrations of filth and squalor around (full of sweat, dirt, snot, etc.) so this only added to the mess. I went back to Caribou and washed off the poop in the Men's room. Next time the kids need to grow some bacteria in agar for Science class I'll just have them toss a cycling glove in there.

Montrealais turns to starboard around buoy
I'd noticed that the lighting would be better from the south pier of the Ship Canal so when another ship began to approach I moved to that side. Once you get over the bridge and it raises, you're stuck--there's no other way off the peninsula called Minnesota Point. Locally, this is known as being "bridged". Here the 730-foot Montrealais executes a slow turn to starboard around a buoy in the harbour to begin the approach to the Ship Canal.

Out of interest and perhaps an excess of boyish enthusiasm, Geneva and I decided to pace the ship and see how fast they come out. We rode our bikes down the breakwater at the same speed as the Montrealais as she went through, 6.5 mph by my bike computer, then we zoomed ahead.

Henry races Montrealais out
It was not hard to get ahead of her and take this photo. On the far left you can see Henry racing the ship out as well. In the old days, when people weren't so concerned about liability, you could stay on the Lift Bridge and ride it up. That would be fun! Now you have to stay off when it does its thing.

Montrealais departs Duluth
And out she goes into the lake.

Henry and Geneva by lighthouse in Duluth
I had to take the kids' photo with the Federal Matane in the background.


Two 1,000 footers by Superior Entry
Just visible in the distance to the south were two of the thirteen thousand-footers on the Great Lakes. On the left, inbound for the Superior entry, is the Stewart J. Cort, the first of the thousand-footers. There was a guy with a radio scanner there who knew a lot about these ships. He said the Cort was the first one built and the only one with the pilothouse (bridge) at the front of the ship, in traditional Laker fashion. The other 12 were built with the pilot house and machinery spaces all at the stern. Even at this distance, you can see the difference in these two ships as the outbound thousand-footer, whose name I don't recall, has only the rear superstructure. The link to the Stewart J. Cort is worth looking at if only to see the pictures of her when she was built. The bow section and stern were built in Mississippi and welded together into a hilarious-looking stubby little ship (that must have been really overpowered--great for water skiing!) and sailed up the Atlantic Coast and through the Seaway to Erie, Pennsylvania, above the Welland Canal. Here these two bits were cut apart and an 818-foot midsection was welded in, yielding the final 1,000-foot freighter. You wonder who thinks of these things.

We didn't just watch ships come and go and play on the rocks. Nope, we took a train ride too! I rode over to The Depot to book tickets for the 3:00 ride on the North Shore Scenic Railroad. While there, I saw a cool bike.

Xtracycle at The Depot in Duluth
The beer case has other non-beer stuff in it and the flowers are in a pot behind the bike, not in the Xtracycle, but it's still fun to see these in the wild.

Weeride Child Seat on Xtracycle
This guy also had a nifty child seat called a WeeRide. I saw this chap when I was inside buying the tickets and asked him about the bike. He was big on this child seat, a Canadian product. The kid sits in front of the cyclist and is between the cyclist's arms. It's easy to talk them, he said, and they see the same sights you do, not just your backside.

I booked passage on the 3:00 train. I've always thought that no vacation is complete without a boat ride, but a train ride is a good substitute. We rode over, locked up our bikes to some movable metal fencing, and boarded.

Henry hanging out of train window
Yes, yes, I know what the sign says, but who can resist hanging out the window? We'd never done this train before, but the other people must have. I gather that it gets very crowded on weekends, and you need to sit down and stake out your territory. Well, there were about 30 people on this one and they all climbed on and sat down in the car we boarded on. Not us! We roamed up and down the cars a couple of times to see what the choices were. We settled on the covered open car right behind the engine.

Henry and oblique view of engine
Here's Henry and the General Motors EMD GP30 engine. It started out life as the Soo Line number 700 and remains painted that way. I don't know much about trains other than I think they can be pretty photogenic in some contexts and they are also fun to ride. Funnily enough, my brother-in-law's father was a high-up in General Motors Electro-Motive Division, who built this engine.

Geneva and Karla on train
Geneva and Karla liked the open car as well. Karla had wanted to sit on this one since we saw the train go by our hotel.

Henry on open car of train
While Henry stands transfixed by the view a couple of other passengers filtered forward, finally realizing that you don't need to sit in one place on a mostly-empty train. Meanwhile, I had an idea. I asked the conductor if it might be possible for the kids and I to visit the engine cab. He came back a few minutes later and said we could when the engine switched ends of the train. Our ride goes out to a creek called Lester Creek, comes back a mile and a half to a siding, and then the engine uncouples and moves to the other end of the train to pull us back into town. We could ride in the cab during this move. One of the conductors would come and get us.

Henry and Geneva in engine cab
Sure enough, we got to the siding, stopped, and the conductor fetched us and we got off the passenger car and walked along the train to the engine and climbed in. Here are the kids in the cab.

Our engineer in Duluth
Here is our engineer. He also is an engineer on the Osceola and Saint Croix Valley railroad that runs out of Osceola, Wisconsin. He was very friendly. As a side note of excessive parental pride, in situations like this, it really pays to have polite, friendly children. The kids just charmed these guys with their obvious enthusiasm, pleases and thank yous and pride in having ridden their bikes up from Saint Paul. There's a line in Ysaye Barnwell's terrific song Wanting Memories which says "I know a 'Please', a 'Thank you', and a smile will take me far". It's true. Polite children are a real joy. If you have young 'uns, keep in mind my maxim, "If they can say cookie, they can damn well say please." It pays dividends for years. Today's dividend was when the engineer asked if we'd like to ride all the way back to The Depot in the cab. We said yes.

Geneva in cab of engine
Dad, this is so cool!

Henry in cab of engine Soo 700
Henry here watches to make sure things are ok. There were a couple of other guys in the cab too. One of them had just got his engineer license today so he could be in charge of operating this train.

I should note that another reason we got a ride in the engine was that it was a quiet day. This is an advantage of being there mid-week rather than on a crowded weekend. Faced with the same polite inquiry and a train packed to the gills my guess is the answer would have been "no", in part because then dozens of people would want to do it, so if you're up there some Saturday and ask for an engine ride and are declined, don't raise a stink, just try again on a quiet Thursday afternoon.

Geneva and Jack the conductor
Karla, who used to be a quiet wallflower, has become more social over the years I've known her. She and Jack the conductor had been talking and discovered we had mutual friends in Saint Paul. When we got off, Geneva chatted him up for a while but only after one of the other conductors had taken the kids down to get a couple of souvenir rusty railroad spikes, which I got to carry on my bike!

We did other stuff too. The kids and I toured the William A. Irvin, a retired US Steel lake ship. Here I ran into the double conundrum of digital photography, as my camera ran out of memory at about the same time Geneva's ran out of battery power. Darn! So, you are spared photos of the Irwin. It's worth a tour. We did Glensheen Mansion, a robber-baron mansion on the shores of Lake Superior where a sordid murder took place in the late 1970s. This mansion has in common with many robber-baron mansions I've toured over the years that the owner gets it built just so (imported exotic woods, hand carved this, hand blown glass shades, etc.) and then doesn't get to enjoy it very long. This guy lived eight years in it before he died, though his widow was there for much longer and his daughter, by then an old lady, was one of the victims of the murder. We rode our bikes around, we threw rocks in the lake, my birthday happened during our stay and we ate a delicious meal out for that. I even got a long-desired item, a Frigits Advance set, a remarkbly engaging toy to put on your fridge.

Boat way out on Superior in sunlight
I love the ocean. It's a funny thing to say coming from someone who has lived his entire life in the interior of the North American continent, but I do love it. Lake Superior is a pretty decent substitute. You get the same ever-changing interplay of water, clouds and light, the same flow of ship traffic passing by, the combination of charm and seediness. You don't get the same smell; the smell of the sea is really the smell of the seashore and all that lies rotting in the tidal areas. Without tides (which brings up an interesting point--how big does a body of water have to be to become tidal? Is the Mediterranean tidal? The Black Sea?), there's not as much rotting stuff along the shore nor that twice daily rhythm of the waters coming and going, yet there remains a seasonal and daily flux and the same sense of constant motion you get at the seashore. For a few days of wasting time before the routines of school, church and kids' activities kick in, Duluth and the North Shore make a great place to hang out.

The rest of this is about New Orleans. Everyone's got to have their $0.02 worth and this can be safely ignored. Well, the whole blog can be safely ignored, as far as that goes.

Matt's New Orleans Observations--nothing to do with Bikes
It was with morbid fascination that we watched the news each night, as New Orleans flooded, the crowds pushed their way to the Superdome, and reports began arriving of the squalor, shortages, danger and death. The parallel to our vacation in September 2001 was reinforced by the common denominator; the abscence of President Bush in any public way. There are many aspects to the destruction in New Orleans including the longstanding corruption in state and local politics there, lax environmental standards friendly to industry but corrosive to the buffering coastal wetlands and the less-satisfactory aspects of living in a low-tax state, but the story thread that caught my interest was the FEMA leadership. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has long been an ineffective beaureaucratic backwater when President Clinton came into office. Under Al Gore's Reinventing Government initiative, he appointed a guy named Jamie Lee Witt to run it and he did a great job. Governor George W. Bush even specifically cited Witt's excellent work in his first debate with Al Gore in the 2000 election, debates in which Mr. Bush also said natural catastrophes were "a time to test your mettle". Once Mr. Bush became President, though, he dismissed competence and instead appointed his campaign manager, Joe Allbaugh. When Mr. Allbaugh left to pursue the more-lucrative lobbying business, he was replaced by his old college roommate, Michael Brown. He had gone to a non-accredited law school, briefly worked as a lawyer, then resigned under pressure for corruption while leading the International Arabian Horse Association, which he did from 1991-2001. At this point, he was basically a failed lawyer, but lucky for him he was well-connected, and got a position at FEMA and became its head when his buddy left. This is cronyism at its worst. This gentlemen has overseen the sluggish response to the events in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast. And don't tell me this was unforeseen; people have realized the risk here for more than 150 years and even I, who have never been there, knew that the Mississippi flows high above the city. (as an interesting aside, the New Yorker has rerun a snippet of John McPhee's 1987 article about New Orleans here. I highly recommend his book The Control of Nature of which 1/3rd is about the lower Mississippi).

Weren't the Republicans supposed to be the "grownups"? Wasn't their strong suit supposed to be competence? Maybe you create this image by admitting no wrong; on Friday, President Bush complimented FEMA's head; "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job." Lying on a hotel bed in Duluth we could see that this was in fact a horrendous job. On 9/11, 2,800 people died because of terrorist action; in this instance, thousands will have died because of government inaction. One of the quieter news stories running in parallel was the new poll results showing President Bush hitting new lows of approval ratings and highs in disapproval ratings, worse than Clinton ever had, and that was before Hurricane Katrina. Funny to wistfully dream of a real leader in charge, Tony Blair or Bill Clinton, and not this smirking clueless clown. It's embarassing.

There are some interesting long-term questions raised here. Much heroic talk is about about rebuilding New Orleans. One hesitates to ask this, but why? If the city is built in a sinking bowl below sea level susceptible to flooding, why would we want to pay to recreate it? I can see working on the port and maybe the tourist core, but all the low-lying residential neighbourhoods, thoroughly soaked, covered in toxic slime and full of corpses? Who is going to pay for all this? I believe we have a moral responsibility to help those affected by this storm. I don't know that we have an obligation to rebuild in the exact same spot with the continuously increasing vulnerability. And I wonder what the New Orleans diaspora will think of the other parts of the country once they're past this initial shock. Maybe life elsewhere will have its attractions for some of the displaced people, maybe the already-declining population of New Orleans will take a sudden plunge by 100,000 or more.

One also would like to congratulate the FEMA authors who early in 2001 said the three most likely catastrophic scenarios in the U.S. would be a terrorist attack in New York, a hurricane strike in New Orleans and a major earthquake in San Francisco. Less than five years later, they've got two out of three right. The bad news is, any of them could recur. I'd be nervous if I lived in the Bay Area. [And in the You Heard It Here First department, keep in mind a couple of other disasters I wonder about; a bad flood year on the Mississippi redirecting the river westwards north of Baton Rouge, isolating the lower river, as outlined in McPhee's The Control of Nature, something that I thought might happen in 1993 but didn't, and the prospect of a major New Madrid Fault earthquake, centered on southeastern Missouri, that would shake up the entire Midwest. There were three huge ones in 1811/12, big enough to ring church bells in Boston, but hardly anybody lived here yet; the next one will hurt.]

Back to Duluth. At one point, I was chatting with a guy out on one of the Ship Canal piers and said I'd happened to pass through Duluth one day in August 1979 after going camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and that there had been several ocean-going vessels at anchor out in the lake, awaiting the end of a longshoreman's strike that prevented them from loading grain for overseas. He said that strike had long-lasting effects, right down to this day, because as a result of it, many Midwestern grain shippers had shifted their export business to barges on the Mississippi for transport to New Orleans and then transfer to ocean-going vessels there. I worked a couple of years for a commodity company, and it was true even then (1982/3) that farmers got better prices along the Mississippi because of the export demand from the river grain terminals; I hadn't thought of it then as a recent development, but perhaps it was. The grain export trade through Duluth/Superior has never recovered to its previous levels even now. I wonder if the events in New Orleans might shift some of this back, redirecting grain shipments through the upper Great Lakes.

End of Observations

Have a great Fall!

1 comment:

George said...

Matt, I have to say I *really* enjoy reading your blog posts.

Are you saving your posts offline?

I would think your kids would really get a kick out of showing *their* kids some of the stuff they did when they were growing up.

Great writing!