Perched on an expanse of blue stretching to the horizon, Duluth is a city that I once lumped in with Pittsburgh, industrial and gritty. But just as Pittsburgh has transformed itself, so has Duluth. Headed there for a writer’s conference where I’d be speaking, I was excited to learn that the 310-mile Superior Hiking Trail passed right through town.
I nudged my flight up a day early to take advantage of this easy proximity to a major hiking trail. But I just plain wore myself out on my first day in town by making a big walking loop using the Skyways – a very Minnesota innovation, above-street-level corridors connecting buildings throughout the city to shield walkers from the weather – to get to Canal Park and find the Superior Hiking Trail along the shoreline of Lake Superior, follow it to the Rose Garden, and then loop back on city streets to my hotel.
My second day in Duluth, I realized the conference didn’t start until noon, so I had time to day hike into the city from the other direction. I asked the nice folks at the Holiday Inn for a shuttle, and they obliged. But before I got down to the lobby, John called. His mother had died. We’d expected this might happen while I was away, as she was in hospice. After discussion about what to do, we decided I’d complete my trip. I went downstairs with a heavy heart, but figured a hike would help me clear my head.
I asked the driver to take me to Enger Tower, which sits on a high hill south of downtown. Long beloved of the citizens of Duluth, it’s a highly visible landmark that pre-dates the Superior Hiking Trail by almost 50 years.
Bert Enger, a Norwegian immigrant who did well in Duluth, made this park a permanent gift to the people of his adopted city during his lifetime. The tower, 80 feet tall and five stories in native stone, sits 531 feet above Lake Superior, with commanding views.
Built eight years after Enger’s death, the tower was dedicated by Crown Prince Olaf of Norway in 1939; upon renovation in 2011, the observation tower was rededicated by King Harald of Norway.
The panoramic views, as expected, were fantastic. Despite it being a weekday, lots of people were climbing the tower with their families. Young children raced each other up the stone steps. With multiple levels, the tower provides an ever-changing perspective on Duluth’s expansive waterfront, including the wharf district where ships still load up with taconite pellets of iron ore and massive amounts of grain from the Midwest. The cloudy skies began to clear as I headed back down the stone steps.
As I walked down the hill, I saw gardens laid out before me, swarming through the woods under the tree canopy. This was a surprise. Gardens and moms are linked in my mind with my own mom’s love of gardens, and our month-long expedition to explore Southern gardens during the azalea blooms. When I’d written a little tribute to Dorcas before I headed to the tower, I’d picked out photos I had on my phone to go with it, and one of my favorites was of she and John in an orchid garden in the rainforest of Panama.
Gardens soothe my soul. I found myself in no hurry to get down the trail to the conference – I hadn’t even found the trail yet – but took the time to enjoy the colorful flowers under the tree canopy. I didn’t expect to see flame azalea this far north, but other woodland wildflowers like Dutchman’s breeches were old familiars.
A stand of blue flag iris shouted for attention. Hydrangea peeped out beneath leafy greens shading them. I walked every little path, looking for sprays of color, and eventually popped out at a pretty pavilion with a view almost as amazing as that from the top of Enger Tower.
Roaming back towards the tower, I saw a bright red Japanese pagoda on the hill, a rock garden and Zen garden at its feet. This was a surprise wrapped in a surprise. A single bell, a replica of one in a temple in Duluth’s sister city of Ohara, had its own place of honor.
Oddly, the original temple bell from Ohara had been found by sailors from the USS Duluth after World War II ended. The bell ended up in Duluth’s city hall. When asked, the city gave it back in 1954. This forged a bond between the two cities, with this replica bell placed here in modern times.
I remembered John’s story from the week before. He’d been watching TV with his dad while his mom was in hospice and he saw a program about a trail that connected many temples in the mountains of Japan. He said he’d like to do that trail, because it would be an introspective experience, especially with so little English spoken along the route.
There was a plaque nearby. It said “Peace.” I said a little prayer for all, giving thanks for peace for Dorcas. I rang the bell.
As I stepped back, I found the Superior Hiking Trail marker right within sight of the bell. It led me onward into the forest on the edge of the garden.
Visit Enger Tower
You can’t miss it from Duluth, but it’s not obvious how to get up there. Look for directions to the Skyline Parkway visit Enger Tower, or walk south on the Superior Hiking Trail from the riverfront. Enger Park is managed by Duluth Parks & Recreation and the gardens and tower are free to the public. It is open daily, and located at 16th Avenue West & Skyline Parkway, Duluth.