Another isolated beauty is the Rock of Ages on Isle Royale National Park, an island known for its resident pack of wolves. This smooth white tower casts its beam 29 miles, the most powerful light on Lake Superior. It may have been equal parts bravery and utter loneliness that drove a Rock of Ages lightkeeper in 1933 to row through a frigid storm to the rescue of shipwrecked passengers and crew from the freighter George M. Cox, and then shelter all 125 of them in the light tower. But lighthouse lore is rife with stories like that.
The second largest freshwater lake in the world can generate huge swells and screaming icy winds. Superior's fury drove 19th century schooners ashore, and split the Edmund Fitzgerald, a giant modern iron ore freighter, in two.
Travelers running the gauntlet of lighthouses along Superior's American side may want to take a break at Munising, Mich., to visit a shipwreck or two just offshore near Grand Island, an area now protected as part of the Alger Underwater Preserve. Grand Island lies just off Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, a ribbon of high, sculpted sandstone cliffs. Springs carrying minerals such as copper and iron have put colorful streaks in the sandstone, where erosion has created startling faces, caves and beaches. There are guided boat tours, which should include a look at the 1874 Au Sable Light, a tall white tower that's still on the job.
Museums honoring the ships that have gone down are found all along the lake shore. One of the dozen or so museums is the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point. The museum faces a rough piece of water east of Pictured Rocks known as the Graveyard of the Great Lakes. The Whitefish Point lighthouse, situated between the museum and a pleasant beach, is one of the oldest on the Great Lakes (the structure dates from 1848), guarding the mouth to Whitefish Bay, where Superior drains into Lake Huron.
At the center of the museum is a giant Fresnel lens--named for its French inventor. Arrayed around it are displays about Lake Superior's most notorious shipwrecks, including the Edmund Fitzgerald.
The living quarters of the lighthouse keeper have been restored as they would have been at the turn of the century. The keeper's family had the sunny side of the building, and the assistant keeper was stuck on the northwest half. In another building on the museum grounds, a touching video about the Fitzgerald shipwreck and the families of its crew is shown.
A swath of sandy beach by the lighthouse was crowded with swimmers and strollers during my visit. The air cooled at twilight as I tiptoed my way out on some half-submerged pilings. It was a peaceful moment, with the light dropping, people strolling on th beach and the dependable beacon of light turning.
Then I lost my footing and fell waist deep into the cold water. Reminding myself between shivers that in a few hours I'd be warming my toes in a lighthouse B&B, I hit the road west to Big Bay.
Arriving late at the Big Bay Point Lighthouse, I went straight to bed but found I couldn't sleep. The rooms at Big Bay Point are warm and comfortable, but I was too excited at the thought of finding myself spending the night in a lighthouse to sleep much. The square, brick light tower at Big Bay Point is attached to the lightkeeper's quarters, so the stairs to the tower were only a couple of walls away.
In the morning, after breakfast, I had an opportunity to explore the Linda and Jeff Gambles' lighthouse home. It is surrounded by woods, and they have put benches on the adjacent meadows that run right up to the edge of the cliff. In the summer, visitors can sail on a nearby lake, fish or float the rivers, or hike to waterfalls. In winter, the lighthouse stays open for skiers and others daring enough to venture this far north.
To get to the tower, I passed through a snug library, climbed up narrow wooden stairs past a sauna, and up a spiral staircase in the tower itself. The hatch to the light platform was barely wide enough for my shoulders. From the circular walkway around the beacon, I could see open water. At the horizon, the water blends with the sky, and I felt the lake gazing back at me with those cold, blue eyes the writer had described. I had an urge to get out of the way of the big lens, as if my minuscule shadow might interfere with its work. But I returned down the stairs to sip coffee with the Gambles and talk about the haven they'd found here by the lake.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
GUIDEBOOK: Superior Lights
Getting there: Northwest is the only airline offering nonstop flights from LAX to Minneapolis. Lowest restricted, advance-purchase round-trip fare is $224.
Highlights: Split Rock Lighthouse, (18 miles northeast of Two Harbors); telephone (218) 226-6372. Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, mid-May through mid-October. Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum/Whitefish Point Lighthouse, Paradise; tel. (906) 635-1742. Open May 15 to Oct. 15, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily.
Where to stay: Big Bay Point Lighthouse B&B, tel. (906) 345-9957. Open year-round. Summer rate: $115 for a double room.
Sand Hills Lighthouse Inn, tel. (906) 337-1744. Open year-round; rates $115-$175. --G.O.