The sheer physical presence of Lake Superior astounds. Holding the same amount of water as the four other Great Lakes plus three additional Lake Eries, it’s the largest freshwater lake in the world in surface area, claims 10% of the earth’s fresh water and has a shoreline of almost 3000 kilometres.
Inspirationally, the Great Lake they call Gitche Gumee, as Gordon Lightfoot famously sang, has been the muse for such artists as Group of Seven painter, A.Y. Jackson. “I know of no more impressive scenery for the landscape painter,” Jackson said of Superior. Glen Gould, Canada’s celebrated classical pianist, called it extraordinary and returned to its shores repeatedly for solitude and the beauty and power of the landscape.
Many have been drawn to circumnavigate its waters; and folks have walked, ran, sailed, kayaked and even paddle-boarded around its shore. Most, however, choose to drive, and our family did just that recently in the 2017 Mazda CX-9. The two-week road trip was filled with adventures and memories, but here are the highlights from each of us for THE RIDE in the Mazda CX-9 and THE TRIP around Lake Superior:
THE RIDE (Mazda CX-9) –For our Superior family road trip, we drove the 2017 Mazda CX-9
Personally, driving on a road trip is not just a way to get from point A to B, but part of the journey’s pleasure (except in big cities like Toronto). And behind the wheel of the CX-9, watching the scenery roll past the windows was more enjoyable and more comfortable -- even the kids were happier.
What impressed me the most was how well the radar cruise control worked. It’s smooth. There’s no jerking when it changes gear to go uphill or uneven braking going downhill. Even better, once the speed and distance between you and the vehicle in front is set, the CX-9 does all the work, slowing down when the traffic slows and speeding up when it picks up again.
Not being accustomed to this feature, I couldn’t quite trust the technology at the start. When the brake lights went on in front of me, my foot hovered above the pedal, wanting desperately to push down myself, but there was no need. The radar cruise control worked beautifully; and for the first time, I could almost wrap my head around the idea of a self-driving car. It took no time at all to love this system; and when I’d turn a corner to see a jaw-dropping vista of Lake Superior shimmering before my eyes, it was a real treat to let the vehicle do the driving and simply take in the vistas.
And if my eyes were focussed so much on the view that the wheels happened to veer over the lines, the CX-9 gently tugged us back. Another safety feature I valued was the Advanced Blind Spot Monitoring System, as I’m always nervous passing on highways, especially with kids in the car. Red lights on either side alerted us if a vehicle was in our blind spot or coming up beside us.
The intuitive navigational system came in very handy for this directionally-challenged writer as we could not only input the final destination but stops along the way. Being able to zoom the map in and out helped when we were looking for scenic spots to picnic.
My only complaint is that I got used to the CX-9’s features too fast. When I went back to our own vehicle and it started to rain, I just waited for the wipers to come on. It took me a few seconds before I realized I had to turn them on myself.
What did the rest of the family like about the ride?
Dad – “There was very little body roll going through the twists and turns,” said Grant, who appreciated the suspension on the windy roads. He also commented that “the turbo-charged engine and six-speed automotive transmission provided good fuel economy.” I’m not entirely sure what my hubby meant by that, but our fuel price tag was half of what a similar trip would have been in our current vehicle.
Justin – “This is the only backseat I’ve been in that has enough leg room for me,” says my six-foot-and-still-growing teenager. He also loved the built-in window screen, which made it easier to binge watch downloaded Netflix series.
Danielle – “Everything was good,” said my daughter. But when I pressed her to be more specific, she commented that she liked how the cup holders fit every size cup, and there were two chargers and a divider in the backseat (I’m sure she loves her brother, really).
“And it was comfy!” which was something we all agreed on.
THE TRIP (Lake Superior Circle Tour)
The moments when my teens (15 and 13) became kids again were some of the best memories of our Lake Superior circumnavigation. Without their peers around and surrounded by nature, they giggled at chipmunks that ate from their hands in Whitefish Park in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario; rock hounded for amethyst in Thunder Bay; caught Lake Trout in Grand Marais, Michigan, and skipped stones almost everywhere. Smooth, multi-coloured stones –some of the oldest on earth -- covered many of Lake Superior’s beaches and were perfect for skipping. At the beginning of our road trip, most of the rocks my son threw sunk straight down; but by the end, he was a rock-skipping master. At our last beach stop, he counted 10 skips and raised his hands in victory (body language normally reserved for high scores on video games). Now, on our shelf is a mason jar holding all the treasures my daughter collected from the beaches –pieces of quartz, bits of driftwood and beach glass, reminding me of her younger years when she collected everything.
And then there was the beauty and draw of the Lake Superior landscape. As I’m writing this, I still have a kink in my neck on the left side only, which I’m fairly certain is from constantly turning my head towards the lake (we travelled counter-clockwise). The landscape changes constantly. In Northern Ontario and Minnesota, it’s rugged and hilly with pine-covered granite; in Wisconsin and Michigan, it becomes flatter with a variety of vegetation and sandstone cliffs that are expertly sculpted by the wind and waves. Sometimes, the water is a crystal-clear turquoise, other times shades of blue, ranging from light aquamarine to a deep, dark navy, and for a brief stretch, it’s pink from the soil it carries.
Canyons, cliffs, islands, bays, wildlife, history and mystery--- Superior captivates. We saw so many spectacularly grand waterfalls that we almost grew weary of them, like cathedrals on a European tour. But I never tired of the lake itself, and after two weeks, I feel like I’ve seen only a sliver of this inland sea and crave more.
What did the rest of the family like most about the road trip?
Dad - “Sailing was a real thrill,” said Grant who loved the excursion with Sail Superior in Thunder Bay’s harbour. “I couldn’t get over how much the boat tilted.” And he loved how the kids were able to sit on the edge with their legs over the side, laughing when the water splashed up. “Actually, Thunder Bay was more than I expected,” he added, mentioning the urban vibe, great food and family activities of this Northern Ontario city.
Justin – “Going through the caves and the food,” said my son without hesitation. Like most teen boys, he wasn’t happy when we woke him up at 7:30 in the morning for a kayaking excursion to the Apostle Islands near Bayfield, Wisconsin. He grumbled on the way there and was soooo tired as we began kayaking, but when we got to the cliffs and caves, he stopped. “This is nice,” he said, which for a 15-year-old teenager is the equivalent of saying, “This is an absolutely stunning marvel of nature”, which it was. He explored the cracks and crevices, ducked through the holes and didn’t complain once until we had to go back. “So soon!”
Also like most teenage boys, food ranks high when it comes to vacation highlights. What was his favourite? His eyes light up as he thinks back.
“Whitefish sandwich at Fitger’s (Duluth, Minnesota), pulled pork sandwich at the Red Lion (Thunder Bay), fish tacos at what was that place called…. (The Fish Basket: Munising, Michigan) and the fish and chips at The Dune Saloon (Grand Marais, Michigan).”
Luckily, we also had a good cooler (MEC’s Barebones Explorer) for picnic supplies or we would have gone broke.
Danielle – “I can’t decide,” said my daughter. I tried to help her out. “Zip-lining?” I asked, remembering how nervous she had been as her harness was being fastened and how happy she felt afterwards, having braved what claimed to be Canada’s longest, highest and fastest zip line at Eagle Canyon Adventures in Dorion, Ontario. And like her brother and father, she still revels in reminding her mother how loud she screamed.
“That was fun,” she said. “But I think the best part is being able to say I went around the whole lake.”
I kind of like saying that, too.
For more information:
Mazda CX- 9 - www.mazda.ca/en/vehicles/cx-9/overview
Sault Ste. Marie, ON - www.saulttourism.com
Thunder Bay, ON - www.thunderbay.ca
Ontario Tourism - www.ontariotravel.net
Bayfield, Wisconsin and the Apostle Islands- www.bayfield.org
Michigan Tourism - www.michigan.org
Enjoy the full gallery below: