freighter sails under the Lift Bridge in Duluth,
Minn. — I crossed the dunes at Park Point and took in
the wide expanse of beach. The August heat was rising, the
sky shone a brilliant blue, and a teenaged lifeguard in
red trunks climbed the ladder to his chair, with not a
swimmer in sight. I kicked off my sneakers and stepped
into the surf.
a few seconds, everything felt normal. Then I looked down
and noticed, through the crystalline water, that my feet
were losing what little color they had, as if the blood
were fleeing up my legs. After 15 seconds, discomfort was
turning into pain. My toes screamed. Finally, after 23
seconds, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I stepped out of
Lake Superior and my numb feet radiated their gratitude.
"swim" at Park Point was over. Yet my
exploration of this strange isle — with miles of
windswept beach that look more like the Outer Banks of
North Carolina than the North Shore of Minnesota — had
Duluth has a Lido, it is Park Point — a narrow strip of
sand that protects the harbor from the immense lake. Also
known as Minnesota Point, it juts 7 miles into Lake
Superior, and together with the 3 miles of Wisconsin
Point, forms one of the world’s largest freshwater sand
only way to get there by land is to cross the Duluth
Aerial Lift Bridge, that famous iron magnet for
shutterbugs, watercolor artists, ore boat gawkers,
souvenir hawkers and mischievous teens. Few tourists
actually cross the bridge to see what’s on the other
day I ventured over, I felt like I had stumbled upon a
short-cut to the sea. Among the few people there that day,
a young woman in a white bikini and shades sat on the sand
watching her muscled male companion, a veteran fresh from
combat overseas, charge into the lake.
splashed some water on his shoulders in a useless effort
to acclimate his body. Then he retreated to the shore.
tossed a Frisbee into the lake, snatched the floating disk
and ran yelping for dry land. Younger children wisely
stayed on the beach, digging holes in the sand and letting
them fill with the lake’s fresh, clear water.
the west, I could see the green hills on the mainland
above Duluth. To the east, the sandy strip stretched for
miles, backed by dunes, trees and rooftops. Past the Sky
Harbor Airport where seaplanes take vacationers to remote
Canadian lakes, Park Point ends in a leafy sanctuary where
birders flock to glimpse sandpipers, loons, songbirds and
other winged wonders.
Mooers, a professor of geology at the University of
Minnesota Duluth, prefers to call this strip of land a
"baymouth bar" — an accumulation of sand laid
down by the restless currents swirling around Lake
Superior. Eventually those sands created an island
separating the lake from the mouths of the St. Louis and
Nemadji rivers. It had one natural opening, the one in
the Duluth-Superior harbor grew, Minnesota wanted its own
canal, so it dug another hole in the peninsula in 1870-71.
That became the Duluth Ship Canal, crowned by the delicate
filigree of the Lift Bridge. Meanwhile, as the moneyed
classes of Duluth erected mansions along London Road,
working folks put up shacks on the skinny island,
originally, in the memory of one lifelong Park Pointer,
with whatever wood they could salvage or steal from the
days, Canal Park has become the center of Duluth tourism,
beckoning crowds to its saloons, eateries, gift shops and
museums. On the point, mansions with hot tubs and rows of
condos are replacing those shacks on both sides of
Minnesota Avenue, the two-lane street that is the spine of
Park Point. Still, the seaside feel is everywhere:
Discarded anchors and buoys decorate lawns, along with
boats in permanent dry-dock in driveways.
locals told me the swimming season might last a week or
two, whenever there’s a benevolent confluence of wind
and warmth. This year, the virtually ice-free winter has
led to milder waters and predictions of superb conditions
for taking a plunge. But when I visited last summer, my
frigid dip indicated that those fleeting days of pain-free
bathing had washed out toward Ontario long before.
wanted to get out on the lake, I would have to armor
myself in polypropylene and venture into the lake on a
search for a kayak led me to the Ski Hut, high on a hill
on the mainland. I discovered that the shop no longer
rented the watercraft, but people there told me to contact
one of their employees, Joe Trela. Not only did he rent
kayaks, but he lived on the Point.
I got Joe on the phone, he told me he would rent me a
kayak for 30 bucks for 24 hours. A wetsuit — not a bad
idea when the water is 50 degrees — was $10 extra. I
found his place on Minnesota Avenue. It was hard to miss,
being the only geodesic dome with a red sailboat high and
dry on the front lawn.
bemoaned some of the changes that have come to Park Point
since he moved there decades ago. Property taxes have gone
through the roof, he said, and I sensed that the general
quiche-ing of the point made the place less hospitable for
geodesic dome-dwellers who keep a flotilla of boats in
signed a long release promising not to sue Joe if the lake
swallowed me up. I asked him how long it would take me to
paddle around the entire island. "For me, maybe five
hours," he said. "For you, maybe 10."
next morning, I drove to his house, parked in front and
fetched the gear. I hoisted the kayak on my shoulder, just
the way Joe showed me. The thing was heavier than I
expected. I trudged across Minnesota Avenue and then set
off toward 25th Street, as instructed.
flash of orange caught my eye. A fox, its long tail
pointed straight back, darted across the street and
disappeared into a back yard. An omen?
a street sign marking 25th Street, I was surprised to find
no street at all, just two front yards. Then I spied a
faint path and headed toward it with my heavy load. The
path led back through beach grass, willow and cottonwoods
up over the dunes and down to the beach.
it was showtime.
lake was smooth as glass. I could see a pair of cargo
ships, one large, one enormous, strangely idle and waiting
for something just off the canal. I chose to launch at a
beached log, and just to be sure I could recognize it on
my way back, I shoved a long stick into the sand next to
lake was like nothing I had paddled before. A few hundred
feet from shore, I could easily see the sandy lake bottom,
rippled and lifeless. The few things floating, mostly
branches, seemed motionless, fixed in the smooth immensity
of the world’s largest pool of freshwater. I dug in my
paddle, pushed, and the kayak slid easily through the
headed east, toward Wisconsin, and glanced at the beach. A
dog, freed from leashed captivity, bounded toward the
water, its owner moving with relaxed strides behind. Down
the beach, someone was setting up rows of white folding
chairs for a lakeside wedding.
one was paying attention to me, except for a troop of
ducks that quickly paddled away as I approached. I
wondered about the watercraft sharing this space — those
two cargo ships going nowhere, and me clumsily paddling
east until I realized that the beach stretched on and on,
and there was no hope of me making it to the inlet.
paddled back, looking for my landmarks. The beached logs
all looked the same, so I did what Joe told me to do and
looked for the roof of a gray mansion. Logs were a dime a
dozen on the point, but the biggest mansions stood out
above the trees. Pretty soon it loomed into view, and I
pointed the nose of the kayak toward land.
I had pulled it up on the beach, I looked around for my
marker stick. It was gone. Plucked, perhaps, by a Park
Pointer who didn’t want any unapproved structures
mucking up the beach. I glanced up and down the strand,
trying to find the perpetrator. But I had the beach to
myself, once again.
TO EAT: Deconstructed Fish and Chips, with local
whitefish, at the Lake Avenue Restaurant & Bar
(394 Lake Av. S.; 1-218-722-2355); Lake Superior whitefish
platter, At Sara’s Table Chester Creek Cafe (1902
E. 8th St.; 1-218-724-6811 ); smoked Superior trout from
Northern Waters Smokehaus (394 Lake Av. S.; 1-218-724-7307
TO STAY: The Inn on Lake Superior (350 Canal Park Dr.;
QUALITY: At press time, swimming was safe at Park Point
beaches on the lake side; the harbor-side beaches to the
west still contained high levels of bacteria after Duluth’s
June flood, according to the Minnesota Lake Superior Beach
Monitoring Program. Get updates at www.mnbeaches.org
or by calling the 24-hour hot line at