The idea comes from reading Danielle Soisin’s novel about Lake Superior, The Long-Shining Waters. No, the inspiration comes from living fifty years near the largest freshwater lake in the world without ever seeing the other side of it. No, the need comes after our fifty-year-old daughter dies on a midsummer’s morning and we are numb: wanting to flee the sadness, not knowing how to move forward.
Whatever the reason, in the last week of September, Spencer and I take off to drive around Lake Superior.
In the Twin Cities it is 92 degrees, and when we reach what will be our starting point—tiny Port Wing, Wisconsin—the car’s thermometer still reads 90. We take a selfie with the Lake behind, and another posing beside his Audi convertible as if beginning a vacation. In the photo, I am wearing oversized sunglasses and a tank top I brought to layer under sweaters for chilly Lake Superior weather. We set the trip meter to zero and drive east. In Bayfield, we treat ourselves to a lake trout dinner in the restaurant, then walk in thundery heat to a café and share a slice of blueberry pie.
“How are you doing?” friends ask in the weeks after Allison dies. I don’t know the answer, don’t know how I should grieve. I get up every morning and manage to get through each day. Mostly I carry grief around quietly inside me, the way I once carried my child. At times I lie immobilized with sadness, clutching the merino wool shawl she knitted for me, stroking the soft yarn that twined through her fingers, knit and purl, knit and purl. It’s been twelve years since the first diagnosis of cancer—already stage three. Twelve years of steeling for this. How horrifyingly different, I think, it must be for parents whose children have been violently ripped away. The parents of Newtown or Manchester or Aleppo. I should be grateful to have had those twelve years to get to know my daughter better as a mature woman and to be able to reconcile with the unthinkable idea of losing her. And yet, gratitude is not what I’m feeling today.
After breakfast in Bayfield, we wander the pretty town, admiring flower beds of brilliant marigolds set against clusters of deep crimson coleus. Sailboats in the marina float still in the morning mist. I examine things and snap photos, acting as a tourist.
The two-hundred-mile drive across Michigan drags tediously. We pass through towns that seem to have given up hope. We bypass the Keweenaw Peninsula, extending like a broken finger into the Lake from the south. In the 1970s we camped and bicycled on that broken finger with our two young daughters. It was there, camped near the intriguingly named community of Bete Grise, that Allison spilled her Coke over her younger sister’s sleeping bag. Or maybe it was the other way around. I remember the rain coming down steadily, seeping into the tent. As if obeying a primitive instinct to protect his family by making fire, Spencer built a flaming conflagration of driftwood on the beach with the help of half a can of lighter fluid. We put the girls to bed in the car, a Saab 99 with the seats opened flat, and tried to sleep in the only dry spot in the tent. Forty years later he wept when Allison died, saying it had been his job to protect her. Our daughter’s death feels like a failure, as if we weren’t paying attention when danger stalked.
We find the Lake again after passing Marquette, and we drive through little towns with names like Au Train and Christmas to reach the only pre-booked destination on our journey: Sunset Motel in Munising, Michigan. The Lake Superior Circle Tour blog recommends it as a place to stay if you plan to take the boat tour to view Pictured Rocks Lakeshore from the water, something we think would be worth doing. Past the town and the paper mill, we see the sign for the Sunset Motel with a No Vacancy board hanging beneath it. The green and white motel faces the Lake, a covered walkway running along the front. Green plastic chairs flank each door. It looks like something from the 1950s. An expanse of grass stretches from the parking area down to the water, white Adirondack chairs grouped at the edge. I imagine sitting there with a glass of wine—later, after the blistering sun has set.
The boat leaves from the pier at six o’clock for the Sunset Cruise—the evening light being best to view the pictured rocks—and we stand in sweltering heat for tickets, in line with other tourists from all over the U.S. Once out on the lake, the air is blissfully fresh after the heat of the day and the colorful striations on the cliffs, mirrored in calm water, glow in the evening sun. The cruise lasts two and a half hours and in the cool dusk I finally pull a sweater on over my tank top.
We drive back to the motel and sit watching the Lake in darkening twilight with a bottle of wine, some crackers, cheese, and chocolate. The moon is low, sending a shaft of light dancing towards us on the water. For the first time in months, it feels OK to say, “This is great!”
When Allison died, a friend gave me Max Porter’s novel, Grief is the Thing with Feathers. It’s a story in which a man’s wife has died suddenly, and a huge filthy talking crow moves into the house with him and his two young sons. The crow is a metaphor for the grief he and his sons are experiencing, and it almost drives them mad and wrecks their home. But as their lives gradually resume a sort of normalcy, the crow’s words provide a strange comfort. Its visits become fewer and less chaotic. They begin to miss him. I came to see that the crow of grief had moved in with us when Allison was first diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer twelve years ago. At times, when treatment seemed to be going well, I could shove the crow into the closet. We could almost forget it was there. But it was always poised to escape, peck our eyes out, and crap all over the house. The last weeks of her life had felt like that. As we sit by Lake Superior watching the moon set, I begin to think it’s time for the crow to leave.
My tank top, still damp from washing it in the motel sink last night, feels good in the muggy morning air. We drive through town looking for a place to have breakfast; For Rent signs hang in many of the boarded-up businesses. In the Dogpatch Cafe, men at the next table are wearing red MAGA hats, and the breakfast is indigestible. It’s my birthday—one of the many “firsts” we face without Allison. First birthday, first Thanksgiving, first Christmas, and then will we stumble into the New Year with a sense of putting it behind us—moving forward? Or will we be circling back into the grief? Will the crow ever leave?
I’m usually a planner, but we have not made reservations beyond Munising, imagining that this will be an unstructured tour, taking us wherever whim dictates. But the No Vacancy signs have made me nervous. We want to get to Sault Ste. Marie, on the Canadian side of the border. I pull up TripAdvisor on my phone, looking for accommodation. The first two hotels of our choice, on the waterfront, have no availability. I try the Sleep Inn and only relax after I’m texted a confirmation number.
Allison was a planner too; I can’t dodge the past tense. The day we gathered as a family to hear her end-of-life wishes was the worst day of my life. We stood at the granite island in her kitchen with her hospice nurse and I felt as if I were floating helplessly above, watching our family acting out a macabre play. We talked about memorials. I wanted to stay strong for her, but I heard my voice break and felt tears well up as I said we wanted to set up a scholarship fund in her name at the wilderness canoe camp that had been a valuable experience for her in her teens. Allison, the strong one, hugged me and said, “That would be great!” In her concise way, she knew what she wanted: cremation, no open casket, no memorial service. But she would like us to have a party. This surprised me. Allison, like me, was an introvert and shunned the limelight. “Yes, but,” she smiled, “I won’t have to be there, will I?”
I’m remembering this as we cross the International Bridge into Canada. We held the celebratory gathering at the end of July in the party room of the condo building where she lived with her husband, David. I’d been dreading the event, but it was, six weeks after she passed away, a comforting gathering of family and old and new friends, sharing stories, poems, music, pictures, food, and wine.
From our room in the Sleep Inn, I try to book a tour on the Agawa Canyon train. The hotel’s brochure promises the tour will allow us to, “experience the same rugged landscapes that inspired the Group of Seven to create some of Canada’s most notable landscape art.” The train is sold out, but the nearby Algoma Art Museum has some paintings from the Group of Seven painters, known as the Algonquin School. Sturdy landscapes with strong lines, lively colors, and looming textured rocks.
That evening we celebrate my birthday at an Italian restaurant on Queen Street. The food is so-so and the atmosphere dowdy. In the morning, after a visit to the old locks, we head to the Sault Ste. Marie Museum, a massive Richardson-Romanesque building. The museum is one large room filled with knick-knacks from a bygone era. The admission desk is empty, and we leave after five minutes saving ourselves the $8 admission fee. Sault Ste Marie seems to us like one more town that has given up. I’m not sure what we thought we’d find there; perhaps we are looking for the wrong thing.
On a circle tour, once you leave you’re already heading back to where you started. We have been to the far end of the Lake, and now we begin to head north, up Highway 17, the Trans-Canada Highway. We will stop tonight in Wawa, which I learn is the Ojibwe word for Canada goose. The trees, still heavy with summer, show no sign of turning color yet. I get a sense of being in a special place, the Bawating of Soisin’s book, the “place of rapids.” It looks like one of the Group of Seven’s landscapes: granite slabs and boulders with striations of gray and pink and swaths of black-green firs. This was the meeting place for the Anishinaabe, where they first saw men with pale faces who had come from Europe: the collision of cultures. After climbing through the hills, the road drops down to a bay and opens out to the Lake on our left. I shade my eyes and look out at the glittering horizon, thinking that on the other side lies Minnesota’s North Shore, “our” side of Lake Superior. From those rocky beaches, I’ve often gazed out at the vast expanse of water, never thinking about what lies beyond the horizon.
Since crossing into Canada we’ve noticed slabs of rocks, stacked to look like diminutive human forms, balanced high on the rocky outcroppings. They’re lodged every kilometer or so and I remember a character in Soisin’s book commenting on them. What are they? And who climbed up there to build them? I try Googling, “Ontario stone piles,” on my phone, but there’s no signal here.
At the Wawa Motor Inn I run into the office and, yes, they have one room left. It is a log room down the slope behind the main lodge, and the back windows look out to a grassy area and some woods. There’s a back door with two chairs outside where we could sit—if it weren’t raining.
Before waking the next morning, I have a dream in which I see a stranger—a young woman—wearing my hat. I ask her for my hat, but she tells me I gave it to her a long time ago and says she’s my daughter. I protest, but my husband appears in the dream and he says yes, she is our daughter and she was born first, before Allison. I cry and say, No! I would remember if I’d given birth to another girl. My heart is pounding as I jerk awake then sink back onto the pillow as the Northwoods décor of the Wawa motel room comes into focus. My husband is up and has made a mug of tea for me. Shaking, I tell him about the dream and try to make sense of why my brain has woven this strange narrative. It has left me with a hollow sense of inadequacy, as if I let this girl down, this other dreamt-up daughter.
North of Wawa, the Trans-Canada Highway runs inland. We no longer glimpse the Lake although we sense it, over there, somewhere on our left. We stop for lunch at a sunny roadside café and a crow lands on a nearby table. It cocks its head sideways at me, its yellow-ringed eye staring insolently. I’m still here, it seems to say. I’m holding opposite ideas in my mind at the same time: relief that Allison’s ordeal is over, sad that she’s gone. Glad for the fifty years of her life, angry that her forties were consumed with sickness, worry, and fear. The crow feels like a symbol of all our daughter went through and I don’t know whether I want it to stay or leave. It hops to the ground, and a dog chases it off.
The drive along the northernmost shore is the most dramatic yet, Lake Superior a glittering deep blue now. We pass inlets and pebble beaches all inviting us to linger, but we don’t stop. It’s as if we’re feeling a pull back to that place where we lost something, something important. We meander through the town of Rossport, its narrow street winding between colorful gardens and rocky shoreline, and go on to Nipigon—the northernmost town on the Lake.
Along the highway coming into Nipigon, we see a Vacancy sign, but the low-rise yellow brick motel doesn’t look appealing. We drive down the hill into the town. The weather has changed dramatically, from the mid-80s yesterday to barely 50 degrees today. Each place we stop to ask about accommodations has none, but people are friendly and make suggestions as to where else to inquire. With no luck in town, we wind back up to the main road and check into the dingy yellow motel we’d first seen. Trucks thunder past on the Trans-Canada Highway but we have access to the internet, and I Google the little rock pile figures we saw along the highway and learn that they are Inuksuk, an Inuit cultural symbol. The word means that which acts in the capacity of a human. They were navigation aids, markers for travel routes. The modern use of them is to leave a mark, something to communicate to other humans after we’ve departed from this spot; some evidence declaring, “I was here.” It’s what we all want to do; why we paint or sculpt, or write words for others to read. For some of us, our children are the living clues that we once were here. I think of the “marks” Allison has left: skillfully knitted shawls, sweaters, scarves, and toys for her niece and nephew. And her pottery: bowls and plates, pitchers and candlesticks. It had fallen to me to write her obituary, subverting the norm of the child looking back over a dead parent’s life. I struggled, and in the end wrote about her accomplishments, as if that could bring her to life.
The night in Nipigon is quiet; the truck traffic has stopped, and we sleep well. In the morning we head south-west, toward the U.S. border. We have that sense now of going home, completing the final quadrant of our circle. Before leaving Canada, we stop for a tour of an amethyst mine and make lunch from all our leftovers at an overlook with a view of the Susie Islands. One pear, a handful of cashews, a bag of banana chips, two Milano cookies, a packet of M&Ms.
As we pull into Grand Marais, with its buzz of tourists and clear waterfront light, I think of the family trips we had up here when, for us, Minnesota’s North Shore became the familiar jumping-off point for all our camping and canoeing trips. One of my favorite photos of Allison was taken in the Boundary Waters when she was ten. She’s sitting on a blue life cushion, engrossed in a book. She went twice to a wilderness canoe camp in her teens, embarking on three-week canoe voyages into the Boundary Waters and Canada’s Quetico Provincial Park. Family canoeing trips were never the same after that: we had to do things the right way. Where we had always run our canoe up onto the sand (or rocks), Allison now insisted we jump out into the water and lift the canoe clear of the bottom. When we set up a memorial scholarship at that camp in her name, it seemed the right way to honor her. But was the camp really as important in her life as we wanted to believe, or is the idea a narrative we need to build? Does creating the narrative help us get the crow to leave?
We check into the Harbor Inn in Grand Marais and later walk along the waterfront to the Angry Trout Restaurant. There’s always a line—they don’t take reservations—and after a twenty-minute wait, we are sitting at a table for four, perusing the menu, when we recognize the couple joining the end of the queue. They too are at the Harbor Inn, in the room next to ours, and we had briefly said hello as we passed on the veranda. Spencer and I are used to being alone together. We are not people who invite strangers into our lives, but now we look at each other. “Shall I ask them to join us?” he says. I nod, and he makes his way through the crowd at the door and returns to the table with Steve and Joan from Juneau, Alaska. They are surprised but happy to skip the long wait in line, and we spend a convivial evening sharing food and stories. They are intrigued to hear about our journey around the great Lake. Spencer and I have a tacit agreement that mentioning the recent death of our daughter is a conversation stopper. This evening our heavy secret stays hidden.
Our casual hospitality is rewarded the next morning at the crowded Blue Water Café when Steve and Joan beckon us to skip the line and join them at their table to enjoy the crepes with lingonberries and cream.
We had hoped on this journey to see the northern lights, but the skies did not grant us those “merrie dancers.” Had we seen them, I might have latched on to the experience as a sign of—what? Hope? Resolution? Transformation? I’d have probably scribbled in my journal about the swirling lights as a metaphor for our lost daughter. But her life wasn’t like that. Hers, like most, was a life of both accomplishment and defeat, challenge and disappointment, confidence, and uncertainty.
By early afternoon, one week after we began our journey, we finish our circuit of the great Lake Superior back at Port Wing, Wisconsin. We’ve traveled 1351.3 miles, taking in a jaunt up to Lake Nipigon. It is the last day of September. We take an end-of-tour selfie at the beach and my face looks shiny in the cold sun. I am bundled in a Polartec jacket, quilted vest, and scarf.
There were things we didn’t do on the journey. Besides not seeing the northern lights, we didn’t visit the Museum of Shipwrecks. We have sailed on Superior and know the Lake to be dangerous. It demands respect and has earned the name Bete Grise—Grey Beast. We admit to having a morbid curiosity about the 550 wrecks that lie beneath the icy water, but we gave it a pass. We also did not scramble down the steep path in Lake Superior Provincial Park to see the Native pictographs. It was raining, and we are old.
Danielle Soisin’s fictional character, Nora, was drawn into a journey around Lake Superior when she found her life unraveling. Our lives are not unraveling, but they have undergone an irrevocable shift. We have completed a circle and seen the other side of the Lake, a new perspective. On a picnic table, I try to build an inuksuk but, failing to construct even the semblance of a human form, I leave a stack of five flat stones. Nearby, two seagulls strut around the remains of someone’s picnic and I throw a pebble, sending them flapping silently away.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/David Schroeder