Our UP Adventures, Part III

So, it turns out the “Gale Warning” wasn’t much of an event for us. The wind—reportedly blowing at 23-27 mph where we are—blew the treetops around us at a pretty good clip and the waves got noticeably bigger in a startlingly short amount of time, but there wasn’t the drama we were expecting when we saw the words “Gale Warning.” The wind didn’t even blow hard enough at ground level to justify the effort we made to put the lawn furniture in the shed, but better safe than sorry, I guess. It was a different story farther out from shore. Looking way out into the open waters of the lake through the binoculars, you could see huge waves breaking on the horizon. Although tempted, we decided not to venture up to Copper Harbor where the winds were coming in directly off the lake from the north to see what the “gale” was like from that vantage point because…well, because it was warm here, we had a pot of chili on the stove, there were good books begging to be read, and because, for the most part, we didn’t care that much. We had a lovely show right out the big plate glass windows here.

We may not have seen the main attraction, but we did learn a few things. First, we now have a new understanding of the phrase “the calm before the storm” because that’s exactly what happened yesterday. When we got up, the lake was like glass. The calmest it’s been since we got here. It was so calm; we could make out every detail of the rock formations in the lake right out front. Look for yourself:

The calm lasted until early afternoon, and then the winds started to pick up and the waves began rolling in…literally a change that happened in the span of about 30 minutes.

The dramatic change on the main body of the lake and the speed with which the change happened made it abundantly clear (if it wasn’t already) why Lake Superior can be so dangerous even for experienced mariners. The second thing we learned (because we googled “Storms on Lake Superior”) is that besides the weather and surface changes that happen in the blink of an eye, the average temperature of the water is 42 degrees, and it’s nearly 1,400 feet deep. You do not want to capsize on this lake. As we continued reading, we learned that because the water is so cold, bacteria can’t do what bacteria do, so bodies don’t float. They sink to the bottom, never to rise again, and don’t decompose. As one writer put it, Lake Superior doesn’t give up its dead. Rather gruesome, but something to consider before ignoring the warnings. We shall consider those lessons learned.

On a lighter and happier note, a quick drive through a couple of our favorite stretches of fall foliage this afternoon proved me wrong about the wind blowing the leaves off the trees (see my previous post). Those suckers looked almost exactly like they did the day before the storm. Apparently, the trees up here are as tough as the Yoopers who, by the way, survive ungodly amounts of snow every year. Last year, they got 27 feet of snow. Check this out:

Our drive today ended in Houghton, MI, the home of Michigan Technological University (MTU). MTU is a beautiful campus with over 7,000 students (most of them studying engineering) who happen to be celebrating Parents’ Weekend, Homecoming, and the 100th anniversary of the founding of the school this weekend. We were just finishing our lunch at a restaurant called The Library in downtown Houghton (I highly recommend the Creamy Swiss Au Gratin soup) when things took a serendipitous turn. Besides the food, we had enjoyed looking out their large windows which face the Keweenaw Waterway (essentially a river that bisects the peninsula and connects Lake Superior on the east of the peninsula to Lake Superior on the west). The view was like something out of a picture book or movie. We could see fall colors on the opposite bank, the historic Portage Lake Lift Bridge, and the handsome, newly renovated walkway along the waterway. An occasional boat floated passed; and at one point, a float plane took off. There hadn’t been many people out and about for us to watch, but that was about to change. Just as we finished paying the bill, we saw a cardboard boat, hoisted over the heads of about eight to ten young men, pass by on the street below headed toward the bridge. Hmmm. Cardboard boat…engineering students…a river…40-degree temperatures. Dang. This was promising. The waiter confirmed that there was a boat race scheduled to take place at the park on the other side of the bridge in an hour or so as part of the homecoming festivities which was all we needed to hear. We had our coats (and hats and gloves) on in nothing flat and headed out the door in hot pursuit.

As we hurried along the walkway to the park about a mile away, we saw more cardboard boats and more people heading in the same direction. Some, like us, were dressed for the weather (which was, at the time, in the low 40s with sleet-like rain coming down) and some were in swimsuits, shorts, and tee shirts (the latter were the engineering students…the smart ones…supposedly). What ensued once everyone was gathered was one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a long time. These kids had made the craziest boats (and I use the term “boat” loosely) out of cardboard and duct tape. Nothing else. In order to compete, the 8-12 people who made the boat had to race their boat down the sand and into the water (did I mention it was in the low 40s with a wind chill in the mid-30s?), jump into their creation, paddle it out into the waterway and around a buoy about 30 yards out, paddle back to shore, get out, and carry the boat back up onto the sand in order to stop the clock. Some boats didn’t survive being boarded and sank immediately. Some looked like they should have sunk immediately, but they somehow managed to make it back to shore despite their questionable construction. One boat looked like an engineering marvel. I was sure it was going to smoke the competition. It was impressive. I was in awe. Double-wall hull, completely covered in duct tape so no raw cardboard was exposed, shaped for speed, and large enough to hold its crew. Sadly (or hilariously, depending on your perspective), the kids in it had no idea how to paddle it. They jumped in and began slapping the water with their paddles like they were having seizures. Their progress was slow and chaotic but absolutely hilarious. Did I mention it was hilarious? Best afternoon in a long time. Even better, the kids looked like they were having a blast. Congratulations to all of them! And good luck at the football game this weekend!

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