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A pristine sky hangs overhead as I follow the gravel path behind the Coast Guard station onto the seawall that connects the eastern and western sides of Artists’ Point. The point belongs to a long underwater ridge that briefly breaks the surface at the end of a spit that juts lakeward between Grand Marais harbor and East Bay. Framed by water on three sides, its rocks are dark, angular, and easily wave-washed, but here and there softened by dabs of flowers and lichen. A place of clear, sculpted forms, the point defines the land as much by its sturdy walls and fractured columns as by its worn flats and delicate plants, comfortably holding the paradoxes of the shore.

 

The point was once an island, but is now connected to the mainland by a tombolo, a large, wedge-shaped collection of sediment that built up over thousands of years where waves and currents moved sediments onto a shallow area of the lake bottom. Before European settlement, Anishinaabe maintained a seasonal village at the harbor and called the area Kitchi-bitobig, ‘great duplicate water’ or double body of water. Grand Marais today serves as the northernmost destination for many visitors who drive north along the shore from the Twin Cities. An interpretive sign by the path explains that the point has no official name, but may have received the name Artists’ Point in the 1970s to appeal to tourists. A large paved parking lot covers the spit, and eateries and hotels line the harbor, bay, and nearby streets. On a sultry high summer day like this, people stream back and forth between the parking lot and point. 

Yet as I reach the end of the path and step onto the low seawall, I lose myself easily to the zigzagging rock walls and jade-green waters. To my west, the seawall crosses a channel that connects the harbor to the lake, then tacks over flats of red-brown rock and short stretches of water until it meets a long breakwater with a light signal at its end. Roughhewn chunks and pieces of rock litter the shallow waters, coming in and out of view as lake levels fluctuate across the seasons and years. Shed by the point’s abundant walls, if light enough, the pieces wash into nearshore waters and move inland with storm waves until they come to rest around the seawall, or if heaved across it on the bottom of the channel. Many pieces are smaller, but some form slender columns of two feet or more, creating an assortment of irregular shapes that visitors arrange into rock sculptures.

Erosion has everywhere pared the point down to stark, elemental forms. I wander a few dozen paces east atop the seawall onto a low-lying platform and stop before a jointed wall that gradually rises inland to a height of eight feet. The wall’s vertical face is covered in a multihued tapestry of sage-green, orange, gray, and white lichen with salmon-red patches where chunks of rock have cleaved off. On the ground, a massive toppled column measures over seven feet long and five feet wide. Smaller blocks of rock rest nearby, as does a second large column higher up on the rock, where shorter walls move east toward the platform’s far end. Like the walls, the fallen columns and blocks reveal a sharp contrast between areas of clean and heavily lichenated rock. Though I’ve barely begun my walk around the point, already a finery of textures and vivid colors arranged into shifting swatches temper the austere lines and angles in the rock.

At the platform’s far end, a second main wall drops into the water from a broad plain of sloping rock that runs eastward along the lake. Both the platform and plain are too exposed to storm waves to support much vegetation. Yet to their north, a small forest fills in a dip between the lakeside rock and the outcrops along East Bay. As I follow a path into the forest, the air turns cool and damp and the earth dark, rooted, and mossy. A patch of freckled pelt lichen lurks amid the mosses, its large upright lobes having turned bright green with recent rains. When dry, the lobes instead curl inward and take on a drab tan hue that gives them a superficial resemblance to dead leaves. Dark flecks of cyanobacteria dot their smooth faces, single-celled microbes that can extract nitrogen directly from the air, an ability most plants lack. Common in damp northern forests, freckled pelt lichen often amass into dense patches and, as old lobes die and decompose, enrich the earth with nitrates that nourish the growth of surrounding trees and shrubs.1 

The path winds between Labrador teas, bare patches of dank earth, and mossy mounds with bluebeads, mayflowers, and bunchberries. Downed trunks litter the ground and beard lichen drape from black spruce, fir, and birch, thriving in the cool, damp air created by frequent fogs. Before long, I ascend toward the point’s far end and reach the rim overlooking the entrance to East Bay. With the sun beating down on the open rock, I linger at the edge of the forest. Short walls and ledges drop down to the water, where a narrow channel slips along a craggy islet with profusely flowering three-toothed cinquefoils, and a few feet to my side a mat of lingonberries hugs a mossy dip under the boughs of fir and cedar. 

An exceedingly cold-hardy plant of subarctic and boreal lands, in the continental United States the lingonberry appears only around the upper Great Lakes and in New England. In Minnesota, it grows in inland bogs and more rarely on rocky reaches of the Superior shore.2 The plants to my side stand no more than two inches, with many only half as tall. Poised and upright, they bear clusters of ruby-red berries and lightly glossy oval leaves that curl gently downward at the edges. I sink onto the rock and finger a leaf. The finely veined upper surface feels soft and slick to the touch while the pale underside bears tiny dark glands.

Lingonberries take their common English name from the Swedish word lingon. The word is thought to have originated as a reference to the plant’s shared growing environment with the heather or ling, known in the Old Norse language of the Vikings as lyngr and in modern Swedish as ljung.3 Smaller, darker, and sweeter than cranberries, lingonberries remain ripe under the snow all winter and in Sweden often grow on the thin-soiled bedrock under open pine stands. Unobtrusive and enchanting, they typify the simple charm of the ground-hugging plants common to winter-born northern landscapes.

From the far eastern rim of the point, I look north across the water toward a low trim of hazy hills that parallels the highway inland of the shore. A mile up the road, just beyond Grand Marais, an old wooden church marks the location of a former Anishinaabe village called Chippewa City. Grand Marais became a growing hub for white logging, prospecting, and fishing operations in the decades after the 1854 Treaty of La Pointe between the U.S. government and local Ojibwe opened up northeastern Minnesota to white resource exploitation and settlement.4 Gradually the Ojibwe who had lived at the harbor were displaced and shifted their residences east to what became the new village of Chippewa City. An allotment provision in the 1854 treaty allowed individual Ojibwe and people of mixed Indian-European descent to register an eighty-acre parcel within the treaty territory as a ‘homestead.’ Since many Anishinaabe people lived in seasonal groups along the north shore, writes Staci Lola Drouillard in Walking the Old Road: A People’s History of Chippewa City and the Grand Marais Anishinaabe, few apparently chose allotments.5  

Among those who did, however, was a fur trader of mixed Ojibwe descent who in 1866 registered Artists’ Point and within two months sold the land on.6 In the early 1870s, the point transferred to Henry Mayhew, a white prospector, land speculator, and major force in the early European development of Grand Marais.7 As the town grew, Mayhew built a general store on the point and warehouses and docks, and steamships carried fish, logs, passengers, mail, and supplies to and from the harbor. In addition to relaying on traditional subsistence activities, many Ojibwe worked in logging operations and on building projects and harbor improvements in Grand Marais.8 Though Chippewa City grew to between one and two hundred families in the late 1800s, most of its residents moved away during the coming decades. Some families had their land bought up by white investors when unable to pay property taxes or moved to the Grand Portage reservation or elsewhere after having their homes destroyed in a devastating forest fire or seeing the city cut in two by construction of  Highway 61, which continues north from Grand Marais to Grand Portage and the Canadian border.9

I finally turn from the grand view and follow the rim south onto the broad sloping lakeside plain. Low-growing cedar and spruce join dogwood and other shrubs in a large fissure and the occasional shrubby cinquefoil or harebell hugs the base of a short wall. But the plain otherwise remains largely bare of vegetation. As if to compensate, the lichen on the walls below the rim put on a striking display of intriguing shapes, some round and compact and others curving into crescents or squiggles. A pale gray cinder lichen is covered in charcoal-black flecks, the spore-bearing bodies of its fungi, while a fleshy light green rock posy sports a painterly mesh of wavy orange buttons. Equally eye-catching, a rocky mound with a tight orange, white, and ash-gray lace of lichen creates a dazzling focal point at the plain’s far outer tip. 

The mound ascends lakeward with small steps, shelves, and uneven columns to end in a six-foot drop onto a ledge along the water. I make my way onto the ledge in search of faint currents of coolness that rise off the lake. Partly shielded from waves by a claw of low-lying rock, the mound harbors a few shrubby and three-toothed cinquefoils and other flowers. Both the three-toothed and shrubby cinquefoil are common on the shore and once belonged to the Cinquefoil or Potentilla genus, a large grouping of northern and arctic plants with mostly compound leaves. As technological advances allowed older classifications to be refined by genetic testing, however, the shrubby cinquefoil was moved to the Dasiphora genus and the three-toothed cinquefoil to the Sibbaldiopsis genus. On the mound, the latter’s leaves create dark fans one to two inches above cushions of moss, topped by white flowers with gently rippling petals that drop down like open palms around long wiry stamens with burgundy-rimmed anthers. While some anthers face skyward, others bow forward or turn lightly to the left or right. Every now and then if I look closely, I can see a perfectly poised anther nod to a nearly imperceptible current of air.

A more substantial harbor for vegetation is provided by two pools that fill in dips not far from the edge of the forest on the upper plain. One dip has taller walls and mostly supports clumps of woolgrass while the other sits in a long, shallow fissure fringed by small cedar, mountain ash, and alder. On the lower rim of the latter pool, a spiderweb spun between a woolgrass and bog goldenrod in a shrubby patch has snared half a dozen gnats. Round-leaved sundews twist their lime-green leaves into bunches in the nearby moss, each leaf edged by glistening hairlike red stalks with sticky red drops that likewise trap gnats, midges, and other small insects, which are digested by fluids secreted by similar drops on the leaves’ upper faces.10 The practice of carnivory helps the sundew survive in the acidic, nutrient-poor soils around rock pools, and while the leaves only measure one quarter to one half of an inch the splash of red makes them easier to spot in the moss.

The sundew opens its flowers only for a few hours in direct sunlight and high temperatures but also produces seed from flowers that self pollinate and never actually open.11 I rarely see sundews in generous bloom. To my amazement, I now spot nearly two dozen fully or partially open flowers and another dozen flowers with closed petals that create loose knobs, all atop four to eight-inch stems. A study in understatement, each fully open flower measures barely four millimeters across and has five oval white petals accented by five pale green sepals, a round pale green ovary, and a collection of white stigmas and stamens. On the scape under each open flower sits the occasional bud along with several oval green seed capsules that have developed from closed, self-pollinated flowers.

In the fifteen minutes that I spend taking notes and photographing the plants, all of the fully open flowers curl their petals inward and eventually close to loose knobs, as do the partially open flowers. The speed with which the flowers close astounds me. How many times in the past, I wonder, have I have missed seeing a round-leaved sundew flower by mere minutes.

 

From the pool, I make my way west past several deep fissures until I reach the top of the wall at the edge of the platform from which I set out. The wall extends lakeward from a shallow inlet with a few fallen blocks and many years ago formed a favorite subject for the old medium-format camera that I used to carry around the shore. When visiting Grant Marais, I returned to the wall at dusk, set my camera on its tripod, and pressed the cable release and sat down on the rock. For five or eight minutes until the timer on my watch went off, I sat alone in a womb of softening light watching swells break along the wall and caress the backs of the blocks. 

Now I descend onto the platform and soon join a line of other visitors to cross the seawall onto the low-lying mounds and flats of the point’s western side. Only toward its center does the western lake-facing rock reach high enough to support a cluster of spruce and cedar and a few fissures with tufted bulrush, bird’s eye primrose, and low shrubs. The more sheltered rock along the harbor, in contrast, is all but covered in tall grasses, shrubs, and a stand of black spruce that partly obscures the view of downtown Grand Marais. From the far end of the point, the seawall runs west across more rocky flats until it reaches the taller breakwater at the entrance to the harbor. Hundreds of flowering bird’s eye primroses had capped earthen mounds with alders and sweet gales on the harborside flats in late May. Surrounded by shallow pools and channels, the mounds had boasted a flourish of tall plants with lavish umbels, including one with nine flowers, the most I’ve seen anywhere. To my dismay, rising summer waters now submerge at least a third of the rosettes. 

I wander across the flats onto slightly higher ground and take in the view. While the Sawtooths stick their forested peaks into the sun-bleached sky to the west, people mill about the waterfront of the downtown and tents and RVs crowd the campground on the harbor’s far side. A few sailboats lie tied to buoys and more boats shelter behind the pier in the inner harbor. By the time commercial fishing and logging operations dwindled on the Minnesota shore in the 1920s, Grand Marais and the northern reaches of the Minnesota shore had become a destination for tourists who initially arrived by steamship and stayed in boarding houses and eventually in cabins and small resorts.12 The seawall was added in the 1930s to allow the light signal at the end of the breakwater to be serviced from land instead of by rowboat, but also makes it easier for tourists to visit the western point. Of all the places I visit around the lake, Artists’ Point offers the least remove from roads, buildings, and people. 

Yet like the Minnesota shore, the Swedish coast that imprinted me with my earliest landscape aesthetic was a place profoundly altered by human use, where people had for centuries eked out a meager living by farming, fishing, and cutting down the forest to graze their livestock. Farmers and fishermen had begun renting out rooms to summer visitors in the 1930s, and by the time of my childhood a sprinkling of cottages had sprung up on former farm fields and pastures. As the popularity of the area grew, the nearby fishing harbor became a recreational boat destination and tourists congregated along the waterfronts of small cities to the north and south. Summer after summer, the coast cradled me in a security embedded as much in its stone walls, farm fields, and cottages as in its boulders, islands, and pine groves. Though I thought of it as a wild place, I couldn’t have imagined it existing naturally as anything but a human-shaped landscape.

Though the particulars of their landscapes and histories differ, the Swedish west coast and Minnesota shore have undergone a similar transformation over the past century from places where livelihoods were once wrested directly from the land to places where economies largely revolve around outdoor recreation and tourism. For years I assumed that I sought only a wild shore and solitude around the lake. I rued the popularity of Artists’ Point, all the while its harbor-side views stirred an inexplicable reassurance. After returning to the cottage, however, I stopped yearning for the Superior shore to exist only in a wild state that human development had diminished. Artists’ Point offers fewer prospects for solitude than most places I visit around the lake. But as I look across the harbor now, the sailboats, eateries, and people seem nearly as intrinsic to the landscape as they did on the Swedish coast—and to the belonging that this place, too, has come to grant me. 

I eventually leave the harbor-side flats and wander onto a long, low-lying platform of gently mounded rock along the lake. As shown in a photograph on the signpost behind the Coast Guard station, the platform’s surface is incised with long shallow grooves cut by boulders that froze into the undersides of the glaciers. The immense weight of the overlying ice must have held the boulders in an unwavering grip for the grooves cut remarkably straight paths. Best visible as myriads of lines toward the center of the platform, the grooves largely disappear to the west into a pattern of irregular shapes, each shape about a foot or so across with a slightly raised salmon-red center and rougher pale gray or tan margins. As so often, I had crossed the platform many times before I noticed the shapes. The paler margins have formed around thin cracks that allow water to penetrate the rock and erode the surface along a narrow strip, in the process leaching out its hematite.13 The difference in color and texture is partly obscured by the blackish stain that covers the rock, which even where fairly light creates an impression of uniformity that tricks me into believing there’s little to look at. But the pattern is still readily visible and I wonder how I missed it for as long as I did.  

 

On the platform’s outer edges, waves have kept the stain at bay and broken off pieces to fashion the rock into a mosaic of angular shapes with uneven surfaces. The shapes ascend steplike out of the water and include triangles and rectangles with vivid salmon-red centers and roughly one-inch tan margins. The same cracks that can be hard to trace elsewhere either slice clearly through the margins or bound the short vertical steps created by the fracturing rock. One shape forms a perfect isosceles triangle with nearly ruler-straight margins, its sharp lines and corners reproducing on a small scale those of walls and columns all across the point. 

 

I follow the pattern east until it dips under a finger of water that flows from the lake into a channel of water that separates the platform from a line of short inland walls. The shallow channel is littered with broken columns and pieces swept across the platform by storm waves. But a few feet above the water, a cluster of harebells clings to a mossy crevice in a wall, creating a medley of soft forms amid the surrounding angles and lines. Soon I’ll retrace my steps across the seawall back to the parking lot and leave the familiar ledges of Minnesota for the bolder contours of the Canadian shore. Yet for a few minutes longer I linger on the rock, looking from the supple bells to the broken columns, open waters, harbor, and town.

__________

1. Joe Walewski, Lichen of the North Woods (Duluth: Kollath+Stensaas Publishing, 2007), 29.

 

2. Katy Chayka, Vaccinium vitis-idaea (Lingonberry),  Minnesota Wildflowers, https://www.minnesotawildflowers.info.

 

3. Lingon, Vaccinium vitis-idaea L., Den Virtuella Floran, Naturhistoriska Riksmuseet, accessed Sep. 10, 2021, http://linnaeus.nrm.se/flora/di/erica/vacci/vaccvit.html.

 

4. Dorie Carlson, “North Superior Coast Guard Station," Minnesota Historical Society, MNOpedia, last modified April 13, 2022, https://www.mnopedia.org/place/north-superior-coast-guard-station; Ada Igoe, “History Speaks: Artist’s Point,” WTIP: North Shore Community Radio (July 2, 2015), accessed February 11, 2024, https://archive.wtip.org/content/history-speaks-artists-point.

5. Staci Lola Drouillard, Walking the Old Road: A People’s History of Chippewa City and the Grand Marais Anishinaabe (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019), 77-78, 80-81.

 

6. Drouillard, Walking the Old Road, 84.

7. “Grand Marais Harbor,” Historical Marker, Historical Marker Database, last revision, Aug. 4, 2022, https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=203209; Igoe, “History Speaks;” “The Point Interpretive Site,” (placard, Superior National Forest, Grand Marais, MN).

8. Drouillard, Walking the Old Road, 145; Igoe, “History Speaks.”

9. Drouillard, Walking the Old Road, 243-55.

10. E. Wolf, E. Gage, and D.J. Cooper, “Drosera rotundifolia L. (roundleaf sundew): a technical conservation assessment” (USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Region, June 29, 2006), https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5250874.pdf, 12.

 

11. B. Baranyai and H Joosten, “Biology, ecology, use, conservation and cultivation of round-leaved sundew (Drosera rotundifolia L.): a review,” Mires and Peat 18 (2016): 1–28, http://mires-and-peat.net/media/map18/map_18_18.pdf. ISSN 1819-754X DOI: 10.19189/MaP.2015.OMB.212, 6; Wolf, Gage, and Cooper, 19.

12. Igoe, “History Speaks;” “North Shore Tourism and Recreation,” In Exploration and Fur Trade (1650-1840), History of Minnesota's Lake Superior (Minnesota Historical Society, History of Minnesota's Lake Superior, n.d.), accessed December 20, 2020, https://mnhs.gitlab.io/archive/shipwrecks/www.mnhs.org/places/nationalregister/shipwrecks/index.html.

13. Jim Miller, Personal Communication, “What’s This Rock? Unraveling the Geologic Story of Minnesota’s North Shore. Part I: Grand Portage to Grand Marais” (workshop, North House Folk School, Grand Marais, Minnesota, June 2-4, 2017).

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