By Jesse Maloney -
When following Highway 61 north along the shore of Lake Superior, you cross over many bridges. There’s one in particular that is labeled, “Manitou River.” Glancing sideways, you see nothing but poplar, birch, and pine. But it got my attention.
Unannounced to just most passersby, one of the most remarkable river gorges in Minnesota lies right beneath those trees. It’s a jagged fractile of water smashing through vertical basalt. A number of falls fill the chasm with thundering bass; the kind that rumbles through your entire frame. The river terminates in a 30 foot plummet to Lake Superior in a hidden cove. It is the only river on the north shore to join the lake in such dramatic fashion.
Of course, its beauty is of a caliber that people would gladly pay to see. The reason why very few have seen it is because access is practically non-existent. Land on both sides of the gorge are private with signs posted every 100 yards. There are no pull off areas anywhere near the bridge along the highway. In addition, access by way of the lake is also very difficult. There are no public launch accesses for miles in either direction.
Being the relentless adventurist that I am, I was determined to see the Manitou River as it plunges headlong into Lake Superior. I knew it would be a challenge, so I had to get creative. I started by dropping off my gear in the brush along the road several miles away, on public land. Then, I drove 5.2 miles inland to an overnight trailhead lot for the Superior Hiking Trail to park my car. I biked the 5.2 miles back to my gear and hid the bike in the woods. Then, strapped on my 20 lb pack and 2 piece paddle, grabbed my 35 lb portable inflatable kayak with one hand and the hand pump with the other.
The next part gives me a bit of post-traumatic stress just thinking about it. I bushwhacked through a thicket of underbrush, fallen trees, jagged shin banging rocks hidden beneath a blanket of green, with nothing more than a visual memory of a satellite image I stared at the day before.
During the course of this last foray, a wrong turn was inevitable for me. When I reached the shore, I discovered that I was about two soccer fields away from where I was supposed to be. I was trying to reach a point where the rock gradually declines all the way to the water. Instead I ended up at a 30 foot cliff with no access to the lake and a huge ravine between us. In order to get to my intended target, I’d have to haul all of the gear back up a 45* slope for 100+ meters. By this time, the lactic acid build up in my system was sending me very strong signals letting me know that my body was in protest. Back up the hill I went. What choice did I have?
I finally reached the launch point. I inflated the kayak with my hand pump. Normally this is a reasonable endeavor but at this point, every pump was a merciless reminder that I was spent. Finally, the kayak was inflated. I put on my wetsuit and life jacket (Lake Superior bites 12 months out of the year) and did my best to balance my pack on my narrow water vessel. I couldn’t clip it onto anything so if I tipped, my adventure would sink along with my pack to the bottom of ol’ Gitchegumi.
After paddling along the rocky coast riddled with sea caves and swells, I finally came to a natural arch jetty that indicated I had arrived at the cove. As I paddled through the arch, it framed the picture that only mother nature could paint. I made it and it didn’t disappoint.
There’s a price to pay for everything. If we want easy access to beauty, we pay for it with crowds, litter, and gift shops. If we want access to the inaccessible, we pay for it with blood, sweat, and tears. The reward for this kind however is different than any other. Manitou Falls is hard earned. It is won. For me, it’s the best kind of reward in the world.