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Magnetic North - June 20, 2018

Magnetic North 6/11/18
Barking dog navigation; Isle Royale Part 1
 
Welcome back to Magnetic North, where visitors now stream up the narrow highway from Duluth, braving detours and cavalcades of RVs, rubbernecking drivers, and excruciating miles in-between rest stops to get to Cook County. Once here, they crowd the restaurants and shops, take pictures of the Beaver House walleye and soak up the history and beauty of our little piece of heaven. 
 
But there is another breed of visitor whose primary reasons for coming to the county, specifically the town of Grand Marais, revolve around three fairly mundane pursuits: finding ice, a laundromat, and groceries and pumping out the effluent they carry onboard. These seekers come - and go -by water. And having spent a fortune on their mode of travel are less interested in land than in riding the waves of the big lake and taking home tales of having “cheated death again,” to their friends and families. 
 
I know this because I was such a one in the late 1970’s. For seven years I sailed the waters of Superior and for most of those years only spied the town where I live now. When I crossed the big lake from the Apostle Islands off Bayfield, Wisconsin, the homeport of my sailboat, Amazing Grace.
 
Looking back I realize now that, just as I had longed to be on the shore instead of slogging through the BWCAW years earlier, I was just as hungry to stay ashore whenever I tied Grace up at Grand Marais. Not because I dislike sailing - although there are about a hundred things I’d rather do -but because my inner compass always pulled me to the land where I live now. And, like many who have sailed in the troughs of high waves on Superior, I have seen her teeth close-up and respect them and her enough to keep my distance.
 
It was July of1976, our bicentennial year, when first I crouched on the bow of our sailboat as my then-husband, Jack pointed her towards land; at least the map and compass said there was land off our bow. Fog completely shrouded the harbor of Grand Marais. Nothing, not a building or tree or light could be seen.
But we were in luck. Friends who made the harbor before the fog moved in were on the break wall with an air horn, providing audible navigation in lieu of the usual sighting of lights at the harbor entrance or the radio tower on the hill above town. Sailors call this “barking dog navigation.” As in, you know you are about to go aground if you can hear a dog bark. Although, usually it was hearing waves lapping on rocks.
 
That foggy day we couldn’t have been more than 20 yards off the breakwall, following the compass and the blaring of the air horn, when we could actually see the wall, then the town... As usual, but not always, fog meant no wind, so we entered the harbor “flying the Atomic four,” the name of our diesel engine, -then tied up alongside the Coast Guard building at the foot of Artist’s Point.
 
As with my previous visits to Grand Marais, two arduous backpacking trips to the BWCAW, I longed to explore the town, to just lallygag on the shore and stare out at the lake for no good reason. And who knows, maybe even find a cove where the water temperature didn’t make my bones ache before I’d even dived in all the way.
 
But again, this was not to be. This was a quest, just as the backpacking trips were forced marches. The object of our adventure was Isle Royale. Washington Harbor, to be exact; the famed graveyard of sailing vessels like the America off Rock of Ages lighthouse.  Sure, why not go there on vacation? 
 
We divvied up tasks with our friends - they got the blocks of ice for our perishable food lockers and we got the grub. We didn’t need a laundromat or pompous yet. 
 
Our crew numbered three and a half, not counting the dog. A young intern who worked with Jack was along for the ride. She was tall, strong, brilliant and keen to experience sailing. Good, I thought. More naps and fewer dishes to wash for me! Our daughter Gretchen, just seven years old, had our Pug, Spanky, to entertain her, plus she was learning to knit. Jack, of course, was captain and I was navigator/cook/and chief complainer.
 
I think we saw only one square block of the town. So different then, except for the Blue Water Cafe and Ben Franklin. Mostly, we stayed aboard our boats - our friends had a 33 footer and we had a Pearson 30. - cozy spots on a chilly July night in fog. I remember that we sat up comparing notes on the crossing from the Apostle Islands; coming way too close to an ore boat, and hearing their chugga-chugga engines as we prayed that they were watching their radar. 
 
Little did we know that the day ahead would be the real test of our mettle. That the sunny day’s wind would whip up twenty-foot troughs between waves and threaten to send one or both of our boats to rest beside the America at the hungry mouth of Washington Harbor.
But I’ll save that tale for next time.
 
For WTIP, this is Vicki Biggs-Anderson with Magnetic North
 

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