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I first set eyes on Lake Superior after moving to Minnesota nearly thirty years ago. From early spring to late fall, I drove north from my Saint Paul home to wander the rocky ledges along the lake. Each time I stepped from the woods onto the shore, the firmness of the bedrock under my soles rekindled an ancestral belonging. I walked around with a notebook and field guides in my pack and on seeing a new shrub or flower wrote down its name and a few observations. Eventually I sought the lee of a wall or boulder, uncorked a thermos, and sat down to watch the water caress the rocks or ripple in from infinity on the horizon. Soon I began to travel around the lake every summer. Returning to Superior’s shores became a ritual and form of devotion, a way of grounding the seasons and years in the familiar features of a dependable place. 


I grew up moving between the coastal landscapes of northern Long Island and Sweden, the country of my parents’ birth. In Sweden, my family lived in the port city of Gothenburg and spent the summers at an inherited cottage by a seaside bay with rocky islets and jumbles of boulders. Even in the city, rocky knolls and pine-clad ridges rarely lay more than a five-minute walk away from our homes. Swedes looked upon the outdoors as a shared public heritage, and the Allemansrätt or Right to Public Access gave all people the freedom to wander with care across most private lands. I spent much of my teens in Sweden and nearly every day wandered the woods until the wind began to wrack the branches and the trees thinned to a sparse gathering of pines and fringe of heathers, reindeer lichen, and blueberries. Soon I glimpsed a glacially-polished lakeside outcrop or oval of bedrock by a bog and sat down on a familiar hump of rock.


By the time I left Sweden for good at the age of eighteen, northern bedrock shores had imprinted me with an enduring sense of home. Yet I wanted to choose, instead of inherit, which country to belong to, not yet knowing I could do both. I rarely thought of Sweden from the U.S., until I began to wander the rocky, wind-bitten shores of Lake Superior a decade later. Every now and then when I picked up the scent of sun-warmed pine, felt a cold wind tear through my hair, or saw reindeer lichen in the forest or harebells on lakeside outcrops, a primal feeling of shelter nearly stopped me in my tracks. The shore stirred memories of a grounding I had forgotten I had known. 


Lake Superior stretches its waters for 350 miles from Duluth in the west to the Saint Mary’s River in the east and is by surface area the largest freshwater lake in the world. Excluding islands, its shoreline extends for over 1,800 miles. The lake’s tortuous geological history has created a varied coastline of low ledges and rolling outcrops, cliffs and headlands, sandy bays and cobble beaches. Large swaths of granite and gneiss in Ontario, billion year-old basalt in Minnesota, and younger sandstones on the Michigan and Wisconsin shores mingle with smaller amounts of diabase, rhyolite, and other rocks. Each stretch of the shore tends toward a unique character, while also serving up a reassuring host of common features.


In Talking Rocks: Geology and 10,000 Years of Native American Tradition in the Lake Superior Region, Minnesota Ojibwe artist Carl Gawboy states that, according to Indian legends, Lake Superior was made by the spirit-creator Nanabozho after floodwaters destroyed the features of the earth.1 Nanabozho first re-created continents and large islands and then used a measuring string to make rivers, lakes, and mountains to pleasing proportions. Finally, he searched the earth for the perfect place in which to make the greatest of all lakes, Gitchi Gami. Gitchi Gami forms an ever-present companion to my journeys. Yet I know its waters mainly from the shores they shape. When taken together, the places I return regularly to tell the story of the lake’s past and offer a surprising range of habitats for shrubs and flowers. They account for slivers of the total coastline, however, and even when strung together create only a partial rendering of an endlessly variable place. 


At most destinations, I retrace my steps across the same stretch of rock that I’ve walked many times before and rarely wander far. Returning to the same destinations summer after summer, I notice features that haven’t caught my attention during previous visits and witness the constant change that waves, weathering, and the passage of time bring to the shore. Even places I think I know turn out to hold a lifetime of discovery. Shallow pools edged with delicate flowers all but overflow their rims early in summer only to nearly dry out by season’s end; elegant humps of rock appear and disappear with shifting sands and rising and falling lake levels; shingle ridges on beaches end up repeatedly broken down, flattened, and reshaped by surging ice floes and storm waves. What I see during one visit may defy the descriptions in my notebook from the previous visit. Yet each time I bend low over a flower or nook of rock, the lake disappears from view and a small corner of the shore anchors my vision against the vast sweep of water and sky.


Nearly a decade ago, I moved back East into a landscape of forested hillsides over a thousand miles from Lake Superior. I expected the lake to release its hold on me so that I could gradually sink my heart into a new place. Instead, it did the opposite. Like a compass needle that always points North, it provided an unwavering clarity of direction, and every summer I camped my way around its shores. Eventually, I moved back to Minnesota. Lake Superior speaks to my need to know an abiding place of belonging. Summer after summer, I long to see familiar flowers and feel the cold wind on my face and bedrock firm under my soles, to continue translating the rootedness forged on Nordic shores into a dependable sense of home in the present.


 1. Ron Morton and Carl Gawboy, Talking Rocks: Geology and 10,000 Years of Native American Tradition in the Lake Superior Region (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).

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