Sunday, August 02, 2009

Northern Great Lakes Visitor's Center

The Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center near Ashland, Wisconsin is a place that you can return to again and again. Admission is free. Go alone or take the family. There is something for everyone – exhibits, films, a trail, and a special outside kid’s area. I visited the Center twice during our stay on Lake Superior.

When I first stopped at the Visitor Center, I arrived too close to the 5 o’clock closing time to spend more than 45-minutes there. I approached my short visit this way: up high and descending to the exhibits.

From the top of the Center’s five-story observation tower, I enjoyed the panoramic view of the Chequamegon Bay from the outside catwalk. The landscape was flat with farm fields, grassland, wooded acres, and a pond where cattails thrived. In the far distance, I could see the outline of the Ashland ore dock jutting into Lake Superior. A strong cold wind gusting forced me back inside the window enclosed observatory where I could study the displays explaining the landscape around me.

On the next level, I found an exhibit about winter life on Lake Superior. The more I read, the more I wanted to plan a return trip in January or February. That’s when part of the Lake freezes and the ferry is docked. Residents on the island communities travel on ice roads over the frozen lake to get to the mainland. Some use snowmobiles; others actually drive their vehicles on the ice road. How cool is that! An authentic sign on display warns: “Ice Road Travel At Your Own Risk.”

Historical photography hangs on the walls outside the Wisconsin Historical Society Archive & Research Area on the second floor. This pictorial exhibit documents the families and workers who settled the region in the 1930’s and 1940’s. As I browsed these black and white photos, I overheard a woman discussing the exhibit. She had intimate knowledge of the people and places. She pointed to the faces in the photos calling them “Dad,” “Aunt,” and “Uncle” while she talked to her lady friend about fond memories of summer passed on Lake Superior.

I had just enough time to stroll through some of the first floor exhibits before closing time. I enjoyed the mining display the best. I could peer through a dark tunnel where lanterns barely gave light. A rail car waited to be loaded with the ore. A box detonator with the “T”- shaped handle tempted me to push down. When I gave in to curiosity, I mimicked the old time movies and used a two-handed grip to push down. Sure enough an explosion rocked the tunnel – the boom echoed, lights flickered and a simulated explosion clouded the tunnel view! I waited for the exhibit to re-set, and then did it again! This time more lights flickered, it was the Ranger – not me – grabbing visitor’s attention. Closing time would be in a few minutes.

Several days later when I returned to the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center, I took a new approach. There are many films available to view in the theater. With no rigid schedule, visitors just pick a film and on-demand the Ranger will start the show. I selected one about how Native American Indians in the region are working to preserve and practice their historic language. Other visitors slipped in and out of the theater, but I stayed for the entire length of the film learning much about this little known topic.

I needed to stretch my legs after that 45-minute film so I walked outdoors to the boardwalk trail. This ¾ mile trail is called the Transition Trail. It begins surrounded by tall waving grasses, an invasive non-native species called Eurasian Reed Canary Grass. Because the grass offers little food or protection, few birds or animals are seen along the trail. The trail winds from waist high grass through a grove of towering trees. Some pines have lost their anchor in the ground and lean into other trees. When they swayed in the wind, their bark creaked like an old board in Grandma’s hardwood floor. Where sunlight broke through the trees, wild flowers grew. And here and there, budding blackberry bushes showed signs that fruit would ripen in a few months. Benches long the boardwalk trail invited me to sit a bit but not for exertion. The trial was easy and flat. I sat just to enjoy the music of the trees and wind.

A “Y” in the trial presented a choice: go left past the cattails in the pond back to the Visitor Center or go right to the Nature Discovery Area. I chose right. This “Let’s Go Outside” area is designed for kids. Colorful rubber boots of all children’s sizes give parents no excuse for stopping the kids from playing in the tiny shallow pond. At the next outside station, they can crawl through a manmade hut that replicates a beaver dam. In another area, there are nets to catch butterflies. One play area has kid-size pieces of tree branches and rocks to handle for close inspection. And finally, a timeless sand box invites kids to enjoy themselves with pint-sized trucks, buckets and shovels.

Something for all? Oh yes! And, it’s fun for free at the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center.

July 8 & 15, 2009

Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center

2.5 Miles West of Ashland, Wisconsin

29270 County Highway G


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