The Outside World, In and Around Duluth


Tornadoes in Duluth?

No, probably not.

But not impossible, either.

I don’t actually think much about the possibility. But when NOAA put out a cool new graphic mapping the frequency and intensity of tornadoes in the US, I thought about the axiom I’ve heard – that Lake Superior protects Duluth from tornadoes, and I wondered if it held water, historically speaking.

NOAA reviewed the previous 56 years of tornadoes touching down, it looks as if the North Shore has in fact, been spared of too many touch downs:

Click to enlarge. Image via Data courtesy National Weather Service.

Isn’t that a cool graphic? Makes you wonder what’s happening, meteorologically speaking, that splits the country in half. Mountains, sure. Same thing over along the Appalachians. But what do the mountains do exactly? How do they affect the air? Hmm, a question for another day.

But what about us? Of course, NOAA isn’t particularly concerned about Duluth. But we are, so let’s zoom in a little closer:

Interesting. As I look at this, I see maybe a couple close to Duluth, and neither of those particularly large (heavier line indicates stronger tornado).

A little more searching shows that, since 1950, Duluth has had 9 tornadoes at level F2 or higher:

Data from

And of course, who remembers the details of the F-Scale? Not me – here was the original:

  • F0 (Gale)
  • F1 (Weak)
  • F2 (Strong)
  • F3 (Severe)
  • F4 (Devastating)
  • F5 (Incredible)

I love the adjectives.

Slightly less exciting, and perhaps more understandable:

And to really geek out on the metrics of a tornado, you can visit the Enhanced Fujita scale site:

So do we get tornadoes? I suppose we could. But in the same way that really good winter storms seem to have a tendency to miss us with depressing regularity, so too do tornadoes.

Kind of fun to do a quick little research on something that strikes your fancy, isn’t it?


Springtime in Lester Park

Took a stroll through Lester Park in the morning, instead of my normal afternoon/evening. Cool to see things in different light.

Here’s a nice big white cedar down in the main playground area:

Lester Park is great, because there are some really big old trees that seem to have escaped the logging that was happening all around this area early in the 20th century. Common wisdom says that this lower section of Lester Park is old growth, although I wonder about that. I suppose it’s possible that these are actually second growth trees that are 100 – 150 years old, and that have been growing after first being logged when the Duluth area was initially settled. It’s just hard for me to imagine that so much lumber, so close to the lake would have been left. Doesn’t seem like forbearance was  part of the culture of that time. On the other hand, everyone seems to agree that this is an ‘old growth’ forest, from the city of Duluth to NRRI to local historians.

Maybe my definition of ‘old growth’ is too exclusive?

White pine seed dispersion, via the foamy Lester River:

Over on the other side of the park, the Amity Creek wasn’t as foamy:

Old growth, second growth, or just good growth, I can certainly say that I am lucky to be so close to a treasure like Lester Park.

Deer Leg

I’m guessing wolves or the coyotes got this one.

What’s interesting is how they pulled off the easiest meat, and then were done. Okay, I guess no surprise, really.

I was surprised with how soft were parts of the hooves. I was also surprised at how disinterested the dog was in this leg. I would have guessed she’d have wanted to gnaw on it for a while, but she sniffed it and moved right along. It was also interesting how, when I came back a few days later, someone had hung the leg up on a tree branch. I’ve seen a lot of deer legs on tree branches. Something in our collective psyche about that. I’ve gotta say… our collective psyche is a little weird.

Witch’s Broom

Witch’s Broom is a weird growth in a tree.

They show up as a ball of branches or a mangled cluster that comes out from a single point. I’ve seen lots of witch’s brooms, but this is the first time I’ve seen one that actually looks more or less like the end of a broom:

I wonder if certain types of trees are more prone to witch’s brooms than others. This one is on a balsam fir in Lester Park.

You can see how this could be a perfectly serviceable broom. Whether a witch would want it or not, that’s a question for another day.

The Mists of Lester Park

The atmospheric conditions were just right, and there was a very localized little band of fog right over the Lester River:


Just a couple blocks away, the scene was altogether different:

I call this one ‘Maya on the Tracks.’

Duluth is a nice place to live.

Kayaking the Harbor

The forecast was for almost 70°F and sunny – a perfect early spring day to get the kayaks back in the water.

We got down to the harbor to find that it was cool and foggy.

We were treated to this mystical view of the bridge, from the little cove next to the Army Corp of Engineers vessel yard:

It was cool, but not too cold. However, being right on top of the just-unfrozen water brought the ‘feels like’ temperature down quite a bit. Glad to have been wearing a wool hat.

We paddled across the harbor to check out the Essayons, a tugboat which had sunk a few years ago.

The word ‘essayons’ is French for ‘Let us try.’ There could hardly be a more fitting name – consider its storied past:

  • The Essayons was built in Muskegon, Michigan, by the Army Corp of Engineers in either 1906 (citation) or 1908 (citation), and delivered to the Duluth Harbor.
  • The Essayons was originally powered by a steam engine. During an sloppy loading of coal in April, 1919, the tugboat ‘turned turtle’ and sank. The steam engine was replaced with a diesel engine (charming citation that includes reminiscences of the old children’s story ‘Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel’).
  • The Essayons was the first ship to pass under the Aerial Lift Bridge, in 1930 (citation).
  • Zenith Dredge purchased the tugboat from the Army Corp of Engineers at some point in the 1950s (citation).
  • The Essayons was retired from tug duty in 1966 (citation).
  • Its original steam engine was donated to the Lake Superior Maritime Museum, and is still on display (citation).
  • The Essayons was purchased by Hobart Finn in 1994, and had planned to convert it into a floating bed and breakfast (citation).
  • In 1997, some kids vandalized the tugboat, which was being converted into a bed and breakfast (citation).
  • In 2004, it was vandalized again.
  • In 2007, there was a fire at the True North Cedar factory, and although two other boats were lost, the Essayons survived (citation).
  • Finally, in 2009, shifting harbor ice hove in the hull, which may have been weakened by corrosion (citation), and the tug sank. It now rests in about 20 feet of water (citation).
Here’s a picture of the Essayons from some of her happier days, and in her usual mooring:
Above photo by Dennis O’Hara, from Northern Images
And here’s a picture from shortly after she sank:
Above photo by Bob King, from The Superior Telegram
On our paddle, this is how we found it:

This was interesting, doing a little research on the Essayons. There’s another ship of the same name, and also commissioned by the Army Corps of Engineers. That one is a large dredge, and is definitely the more famous of the two boats. This one is better. A story about the sinking of dreams.

We kept paddling and came across a thousand foot lake freighter that must have been completely empty. I’ve never seen one of the big freighters floating so high:

I also didn’t realize that the propellers were shaped like this. Swept and aggressive. There were a couple of guys doing some welding farther up the shaft. Cheaper than drydock, I suppose.

We also came across an amazing amount of… junk, I guess:

And this is just one small section – there was a lot of the interior shoreline that looked just like this – like a huge, sprawling junkyard on the harbor.

Looking at all of this, I couldn’t help but think of the amount of money and time and expertise that were spent to create all of this. Custom parts, gears, fittings, cowlings, pipes, compressors, awnings… it’s hard to fathom that none of it was usable anymore. The current price of scrap steel is around $400 per ton (citation). Does whoever owns all this expect that the price will be rising anytime soon? Hard to know. Until then,

I usually paddle in woodsier places, so this was an interesting departure. I left with two strong impressions: 1) there is an entire world at ports that most people know nothing about, and 2) there is a huge population of Canada Geese living amongst all of the junk. I guess that makes sense – except for a few intrepid kayakers, there aren’t many people who would come down to bother them.

This was interesting, but I look forward to getting back out into quieter backwaters.

Common Redpoll

poll (noun): the top of the head

And this one had a bright red poll, indeed.

It’s fun to see birds returning, after having been absent for the past six to eight months.

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