Hwy. 61 heading northwest out of Duluth. Near French River, watch for fake horses with load of logs.
Continue on into Two Harbors, Pierre the Voyageur on the left. To visit the Sandpaper Room head to the Two Harbors CofC, watch for lighthouse sign, Waterfront Drive, open 9 to 5pm, 888-832-5606.
Heading northeast, there's a Giant Liquor Barrel in Beaver Bay. In Silver Bay, turn left at the light a block off Hwy. 61 (Amoco station). Rocky Taconite is up the hill and on the right.
The minor St. Urho statue is north up Hwy. 1 at the junction of county road 7, and so is the Big Fish With Beer Keg. Now drive a very long time until you enter the town of Ely for the Cabin of the Root Beer Lady and Wolf Interpretive Center. Head west from Ely on Hwy. 1/169 for 20 miles, the Deepest Mine in America is near Soudan, on the right.
Continue south on 169, which connects to Hwy. 53 after 16 miles. Take first Virginia exit off US 53, come into town, Mesabi Community College on right, Silver Lake and parking lot for viewing World's Largest Floating Loon on left.
The Uncle Sam is along 53 on the right at High Trail Motors, the Mineview in the Sky is little further south of Virginia.
Three miles south on 53 is the town of Eveleth, home of the US Hockey Hall of Fame. The World's Largest Hockey Stick can be found on the side of downtown, corner of Grant and Monroe.
Head back north up 53; when you get to Virginia, turn left (west) on Hwy. 169. The huge Iron Man Statue stands along 169, across the street from Ironworld USA. Head south on 169 a few more miles to Hibbing. The Greyhound Bus Origin Center was at Fifth Ave. & 23rd St., but has since moved to a new building north of North Hibbing Cemetery (The center is open Mid-May through September, Monday through Saturday, from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Closed Sunday.).
Head north through Chisholm, past the Minnesota Museum of Mining, Main St., top of the hill and onto Hwy. 73 for 31 miles. Turn north onto Hwy. 53 for 9 miles for the Bluefish photo op in Orr. Another 36 miles up 53 gets you to the Leaping Walleye with saddle in Ray.
Go north 18 miles to International Falls, scope out the Thermometer, Smoky Bear and restaurants. Cross into Canada if you must. Then head east on Hwy. 11 to Ranier. The Big Vic Protest Colossus is on the left. Another 7 miles east will take you to the haunted resort, the Island View Lodge on Rainy Lake (1817 Hwy. 11 East. Reservations: 800-777-7856).
We're excited about Day 4's itinerary, lofting us into Minnesota's northeastern flange, the " Land of Rocky Taconite." During pre-trip planning, we bitterly disputed the targets, arguing anticipated merits of the Sandpaper Museum vs. Iron World. Consensus and teamwork yields a "win-win": an S-shaped route that hits nearly everything ... AND dumps us at a haunted lodge at the Canadian border by nightfall.
We head up Highway 61, along the northern shore of Lake Superior, and before long we are in Two Harbors, scrutinizing Pierre the Voyageur. He's 20-feet tall, a French explorer holding a paddle. The design is boxy and blocky, like the cubist Bunyan we encounter later in Bemidji. At one time he talked, and his eyes moved -- but not today.
Two Harbors, Minnesota
The Sandpaper Museum ain't all we hoped for. It's where the 3M company started, and where sandpaper, 3M's first product, was invented. It is essentially two rooms in a dull historical house that must be unlocked by a Chamber of Commerce guide. She confides that many 3M executives, eager to prove their corporate loyalty, make a pilgrimage here to see where it all began. We'd be likewise inspired by the sandpaper samples and sanded products (shoes, tools, etc.) if we worked in the abrasives industry ... but we don't.
Silver Bay, Minnesota
In Silver Bay, the bulbous metalloid face of Rocky Taconite brightens our morning. A Reddy Kilowatt kind of anthropomorph, Rocky is made of quarter inch steel plates, holds a pick in hand, and wears a miner's hat. He stands on a boulder of taconite, the ore that saved America's steel industry when we learned to extract iron from it after the pure ores in the Mesabi Range were exhausted. Rocky assumed his perch in 1964. A plaque on the taconite notes that Rocky commemorates "the transition of taconite to steel," is "symbolic of a new era," and honors the "genius" of those who figured out how to change "a useless rock into a valuable product."
St. Urho is the patron saint of Finland, supposedly, and a very popular fellow in Minnesota. Two statues of sanctified grasshopper-skewerer grace the Land of a Thousand Lakes. We encounter our first of this trip in Finland (the town), an "interpretive" Urho. Carved by Don Osborn in 1982, it's an 18-foot-tall head with a tiny grasshopper carved in the back. According to locals, the head was supposed to be 30 feet tall, but the wood was rotten. A more entertaining chainsaw sculpture beckons across the street: a ten-foot-long fish holding a beer keg, up on a pole, outside a bar named Our Place.
A single, meandering, two-lane road takes us through miles of trackless, attractionless woods north towards Canada. There is really no reason to drive here, except that beyond lies the town of Ely (pronounced "EE-lee" - rhymes with "really"), home of the Wolf Interpretive Center and the Cabin of the Root Beer Lady.
The WIC is mostly a bust. The interactive howling booth -- once a prime draw has been dumped and this place has gone PC and educational. It does still have lifelike statues of fearsome-looking wolves on the back lawn. We recommend arranging small children in terror-struck poses in front of these statues for some memorable vacation pix.
Cabin of the Root Beer Lady
Now, the Cabin of the Root Beer Lady -- that was something! Dorothy Molter brewed root beer at her isolated cabin for many years, quenching the thirst of thousands of canoeists. Dorothy is long dead, and these days her cabin is crowded with Root Beer Lady fans, who peruse her artifacts and then sit down to watch a l-o-n-g video documentary on a tiny TV. [Read the complete report]
Afterward, while others murmur reverently about Dorothy's solitary lifestyle, Doug's only question is: "I wonder how she got carbonation in her root beer?"
It's a long drive down from The Land of Too Many Trees and back to towns where Man leaves his easy-to-interpret trail. We stop briefly at the Soudan Underground Mine. According to the guard it's "the deepest place you can go in America" -- like a half mile or maybe ten miles underground -- but no way can we spare the 90 minutes it would take to do the tour.
The Lake of the Loon
The huge Floating Loon in Virginia, MN, is caught in a sunbeam on Silver Lake, bright against a backdrop of locust trees, wildflowers, and the belching smokestacks of an unidentified factory. The circular gravel road in Olcott Park, the prime loon-viewing vista, is lined with cars -- but no one dares venture outside into the gale force Minnesota winds. They sit inside and eat their lunches and look at us. And we look at the loon. It was first floated by the "Land of the Loon Festival Committee" in 1982 (replacing a smaller, vandalized loon built in 1979). The World's Largest Floating Loon is fiberglass over a metal frame and 20 feet long, although you'd never know it. It's tethered to the bottom of the lake by a long cable far, far out in the water, spinning and bobbing merrily in the wind-whipped waves. At this distance, it might as well be a life-size loon.
Virginia also provides a few other minor targets: a big Uncle Sam statue at a car dealership along US 53; and the " Mineview in the Sky," a viewing platform that overlooks the abandoned Rouchleau open pit iron mine. The C of C lady was proud of the "nicely graded road" that leads up to it, and the gift shop has an excellent assortment of bleak open pit postcards.
Big Hockey Stick
Just down the road from Virginia is Eveleth, home of the Hockey Hall of Fame and the World's Second Largest Hockey Stick. The stick fills a downtown vacant lot: it's 107 feet long, weighs over 3 tons, and has an accompanying 700-pound hockey puck (probably the world's largest). The stick reportedly has enough wood to make 3,000 regular-sized hockey sticks, although Eveleth really could use that wood to spruce up the sagging facades along Main Street. This is a brawny, blue-collar burg, winning no points for eye appeal. Cooperstown it ain't.