A year and a half ago, my husband Stephen and I moved up to Grand Marais, Minnesota: a small, artsy town on the North Shore of Lake Superior. Apart from earning the title of America’s Coolest Small Town and being adorable to boot, Grand Marais also sits at the base of the Gunflint Trail and is one of the starting points for many Boundary Waters Canoe Area trips. As a result, many midwesterners know, have visited, and love this little village.
So ever since making the move to Grand Marais, the question that keeps coming my way is: What’s it really like? You know, to dwell in this wilderness-y, picturesque, remote town not for a weekend every year, but all year long? Am I lying on a beach for half the year and narrowly avoiding frostbite for the other half of the year? Is the Lake Superior backdrop as dreamy at it would seem or do you just kind of get used to it? And how the heck do you survive all those mosquitoes?
Well, those are the questions I’m going to answer here. For the next year, I’m going to write a post every month about what it’s really like to live in Grand Marais, and by next June you’ll have an idea of what living up here for an entire calendar year looks like. Got it? Good. So without further ado, let’s get started with June.
June: Grand Marais comes to life
While some parts of the country experience warm weather months earlier, June is when it really starts to feel like summer here.
Our “shoulder seasons” tend to linger on the North Shore: fall seems a bit more elongated than where I grew up in Wisconsin, and spring is certainly in no hurry to give way to summer. As such, it usually isn’t until school’s out that the North Shore warms up and takes on that summer liveliness. But once June rolls around, alive it becomes: cabins and shops re-open after a winter hiatus, lilacs start to bloom, and pasty Nordic skin begins to make appearances from beneath the usual layers of flannel.
Grand Marais (which I typically just call “town”) also begins to feel lively. Sometimes, a bit too lively. Those of us who’ve chosen to live in a county with a population density of four people per square mile can get a bit disgruntled at the beginning of the summer, when the county’s population increases by about 10,000 people, and running basic errands suddenly becomes a fight against traffic and mad hunt for a scarce parking space. We small-town folk can be kind of wimpy about navigating crowds, and I’m no exception: typically, I don’t go into town on weekends in the summer if I can help it. But I do love the hum of weekday evenings when the shops are open, people are milling about and enjoying the beach, and we finally get to eat at the Angry Trout again.
The other great thing about living near Grand Marais in the summer is the access to natural air conditioning. Cook County actually has two different climates, with the temperatures near Lake Superior (which creates its own micro-climate) differing significantly from those “over the hill,” or north of the lake and into Gunflint territory. At our house, it gets hot. As someone who doesn’t do well with heat (and in typical Cook County fashion doesn’t have air conditioning), I love to go “down the hill” nearer to the lake, where in the summer it can be twenty degrees cooler than it is at my house. Twenty degrees! I’ll be wearing shorts and a t-shirt at home, but if I’m driving the ten minutes into town I’ll always bring a sweatshirt, just in case.
The Grand Marais weather station is right near the harbor, so whatever temperature reading it’s getting is usually not how it feels at my house. Likewise, googling “Grand Marais weather forecast” usually doesn’t give me an accurate estimate of what temperatures we’ll be experiencing “over the hill.” I’ve found that whatever temperatures are predicted for Ely are usually pretty accurate for how hot it’s going to get at home.
Apart from writing, my main job is in the schools, so summer gives me more time to be outside, enjoying walks along our quiet road or reading on the porch. I also clean a cabin on a lake up the Gunflint Trail, partly for the typical reasons one gets a summer job but also because I genuinely enjoy the drive and the quiet hours spent working with nothing but the sound of loon calls in the background. There’s a unique peace found at the shores of these inland lakes, and I think that peace–combined with driving up and down the winding wilderness road to Mumford & Sons–makes for very effective therapy.
Two weeks ago, though, my drive up to the cabin was certainly not peaceful. I was heading up early in the morning, and the road was quiet. As I was rounding a bend, I spied a deer standing by the side of the road. Not wanting a deer to come through my windshield, I slowed down, and as I got close it turned and walked into the woods. It was then that I realized that this animal was no deer, but definitely had the body of a giant cat. And not just any cat, but one that was all tan with a long, thick tail.
A mountain lion!
Limbs shaking, mind in disbelief (do we even have them up here?), I drove a little farther ahead until I got to one of the lodges along the trail. A stop in at the front desk and a chat with the amazed owner confirmed that, while rare, we do have mountain lions in northern Minnesota. Who knew? After talking with some people over the last week, it seemed many people except me were aware of this fact, and there’d been quite a few sightings of these elusive animals along the North Shore.
I’m coming to realize just how wild this wilderness area is, and also how preciously few places like this there are in the world. There’s a reason the moose, bear, caribou, lynx, and mountain lions love the tip of the Arrowhead: because up here, nature is still pristine. We have clean air, immaculate lakes, silent nights, and the most brilliant stars I’ve ever seen. Humanity hasn’t reduced and polluted these wild spaces for our own purposes, and because of that, it is a place of healing and refuge: for animals, plants, and people alike.
Up on the North Shore, we may not have easy access to movie theaters, shopping malls, or summer music festivals. I may have to drive two hours to the nearest Target and pay what feels like way too much for groceries in town.
But the Milky Way shines bright over our house. Fireflies blink on my bedroom window screen. I drink coffee on the deck and hear nothing but the wind. I step outside and feel, even if just for a moment, refreshed. Like this is the way we were meant to live.
The way I want to live.