Photo: Clough Island by Richard Hamilton Smith; courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Spirit Lake & the St. Louis River Basin
Like early European explorers, fur traders or the native Ojibwe, you can scout Duluth’s 17 miles of undiscovered shoreline along the winding channel that was formed during the Pleistocene epoch and is known as St. Louis River Basin – the estuary that spreads out between Minnesota and Wisconsin into two large bays that flow into Lake Superior.
For centuries, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa (Ojibwe) had seasonal camps at the wide part of the channel called Spirit Lake and Indian Point, living primarily on game, fish, wild rice and other plants. They knew all the inlets, channels, marshes, bluffs, sand banks and pockets that make up this coastal terrain.
By canoe, kayak, pontoon or sailboat, you can inspect the islands and sand bars, skimming across water that has flowed over 3-billion-year-old bedrock that is part of the Canadian Shield.
In the middle of the estuary is its largest island, Clough Island. Common terns, an endangered species in both states, find nesting grounds here, with shallow wetlands and sheltered bays around the island providing critical habitat. The common terns feed on emerald and spottail shiners, their primary food source easily found in the sandy, open-water flats near the island. During spring and fall bird migrations, this is an important landmark and resting place.
Not far from Clough Island, you can find the largest of Lake Superior’s fish, the lake sturgeon. Growing as much as eight feet in length and weighing more than 100 pounds, the lake sturgeon are returning to the St. Louis River for its improved spawning grounds below the Fond du Lac dam. Scientists expect that Clough Island’s wetlands are a good nursery for young lake sturgeon, until they are large enough to make their way out into Lake Superior.
Another notable area is Grassy Point, located about eight miles upstream from the mouth of the St. Louis River. It represents a baymouth bar from an earlier glacial lake stage when the water level was at least three feet higher than the current level. Approximately five miles upstream from the mouth of the St. Louis River is Rice’s Point (Minnesota)/Connors Point (Wisconsin), another remnant baymouth bar.
Grassy Point is an area of over 100 acres of wetland and shallow open water habitat where submerged and emergent plants, shrubs, swamp and forest provide homes to a wide variety of fish, birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians.
From the Grassy Point boardwalk and observation deck, you can see bitterns and pelicans, spy kingfishers perched high or watch peregrine falcons swoop below the Bong Bridge. The abundant habitat and diverse plant life here attract over 230 species of birds.
Similar to an ocean tide, water levels of the estuary rise and fall by as much as eight inches due to the sloshing effect on Lake Superior (called a seiche) that pushes water in and out of the estuary. The fluctuating water levels continually mix lake and river waters. These changes influence the types of plants that survive here.
Of the 45 species of fish in the St. Louis River Estuary, walleyes from Lake Superior make the trip upstream to the Fond du Lac dam to spawn. During the early season you can expect great fishing and a chance for trophy walleye, not to mention the breathtaking views. Use night crawlers, leeches and minnows for bait, or catch ‘em by jig fishing and pulling crank baits. Fly-fishermen can whip their lines out over the river or drop a line in the deep waters of Lake Superior, trying for trout and bass as well as the walleye. Of course, St. Louis River also offers great Muskie fishing too. You can fish this river system, casting or trolling, from the dam all the way to Lake Superior.
For landlubbers, the Superior National Forest is just blocks away (access at 8901 Grand Avenue Place, Duluth) . . . a forest with over 3 million acres of diverse ecosystems, where trails and recreation abound.
And Jay Cooke State Park is just a few miles south, with spectacular waterfalls and rapids, a swinging suspension bridge, picnic areas and hiking trails galore.
The Western Waterfront Trail is a city trail that hugs the shoreline and runs five miles up the St. Louis estuary. It’s a great place to search for wildlife and enjoy the rich scenery. A paved biking trail winds through the woods overlooking the picturesque St. Louis River Valley, from west Duluth through Jay Cooke State Park and on to Hinckley. The interconnecting trails are part of the Willard Munger State Trail and are great for hiking, bicycling and in-line skating.
Whether paddling or pontooning around sacred Spirit Island or wandering through Spirit Valley, every so often stop and listen to Great Spirit whose voice you hear on the wind. If lost and in need of direction, or yearning to commune with ancestral spirits, call on the Great Spirit with reverence and you’ll find your answers in this very special place at the end of the lake.