GOOSEBERRY FALLS STATE PARK, MINN. — Had I known how far it was to Fifth Falls, I probably wouldn’t have done an hour of in-line skating that morning on the Lake Walk in Duluth, Minn.
Pushing myself slightly, I managed to dodge the rocks and roots along the path and keep up with my son in a repeat of a hike we took two years earlier to Buttermilk Falls.
That hike was along a tributary to Cuyaga Lake, the easternmost of the New York’s longer Fingerlakes. This one took us upstream beside the iron-darkened waters headed in the other direction to the largest, deepest and coldest of the Great Lakes: Lake Superior.
How cold is it? Cold enough that floating ice was spotted on the lake in June.
At hike’s end we would walk over the ancient stone formations along the lakeshore and marvel at the grittier life forms there: green and black lichen that grip the stone like stubborn stains on a stainless steel sink.
They somehow manage not to be scoured off the rocks like the wooden buildings early 19th century settlers erected along the shoreline at Duluth 50 miles to the southwest.
The lake’s ability to wash those structures away led 19th century settlers to build a safe harbor so coal, iron ore and timber could be shipped out of the Iron Range and money could be shipped in.
That continues now in the port that connects Duluth with neighboring Superior, Wis.
The storms that took those early buildings have been around since before recorded history, of course. And in recorded time, they have given canoes, paddle boats, steam boats and all other manner of watercraft something in common with the Edmund Fitzgerald: Homes on prime real estate at the bottom of the big lake they call Gitchi Gummi.
As Benjamin and I climbed upstream, families taking the hike in segments played safely along the gently flowing river. But even as they did, scars in the landscape testified to the violent surges of spring melts: Dirt sagged from the edges of the river bends; huge broken stones rested at the bottoms of falls; and the running stream cut so thin a ribbon through the breadth of bare rock around it that it seemed to me it would be worth returning to the creek in the spring even with a blindfold on just to listen to the roar when the water covered it all.
After crossing the footbridge that arches above Fifth Falls, we began to ease our way back downstream and stopped now and again to enjoy the view.
I then noticed again what I noticed two years ago on the trail at Buttermilk Falls — and what I notice every time I look up at my friend Scott Kissell’s picture of Clifton Gorge: The rock face and the trees.
At the upper falls, miles downstream, there’d been a sign of it: thick tree roots that covered the ground like the veins over the bones on the back of my hands, and seemed to grip the rocks like they’d been welded to them.
But it’s on the cliffs that the full gravity of the situation comes to me.
How is it that roots with nothing to hold on to but bare stone can support the weight of a full grown tree?
Is the connection that springs to mind between straining human muscles and the twisted trunks of trees imaginary, or would time motion photography show movements in wood and flesh that are the same?
And how is it that all this can be produced by tiny seeds encouraged only by what thin streams of light fall in the shadows along the cliff faces?
Trying to keep up with my son on this hike along Lake Superior’s North Shore, I am reminded that life always must be as strong as nature is severe – and that’s easily strong enough to handle a little floating ice on the Big Lake in June.