A web of dirt roads crisscross the Superior National Forest in the far northern reaches of Minnesota, teasing combustion-propelled visitors with a taste of the state’s wilds. To really experience the solitude of this place, you need a paddle and the willingness to get lost—like the French-Canadian voyageurs who explored these lands and waters by canoe in the 19th century. Yet these roads and the free sample of the forest adjacent are enough to hook you.
Northern Minnesota comes as advertised: decadently green pines shoot out of the forest canopy like the spikes of a wrought iron fence; lakes (surely there must be more than the 10,000 boasted of on the license plate) dot the landscape like freckles on the forest’s face (the first, noteworthy, the 100th, indiscernible from the previous 99). At night, the mosquitos organize their attack like a well-trained military battalion, producing a constant, unsettling din, interrupted only by the distant yowls of timber wolves.
We entered these wilds from the east, regrettably leaving the Great Lakes in Madge’s rearview mirror. I mapped out a rough route on the Forest Service map that would take us from Lutsen on Lake Superior to lively Ely to Voyageurs National Park. But despite the Service’s best intentions, it’s easy to miss the small wooden road signs when distracted by a glass-smooth lake reflecting a pastel painting of greens, blues, and the pinks of the setting sun. But missing a turn means passing another lake—this one somehow smoother, greener, bluer, and pinker than the last.
Cell service is hard to come by in the Superior National Forest, yet every time I check in on the day’s automotive news (a regular hobby of mine), there are more and more stories about the latest autonomous automobile technology. Stories about the coming wave of convenience and efficiency that will result from ceding the car’s controls to a computer. As we missed turn after turn dodging potholes and washboard patches of road, seemingly lost in the boreal forest, I thought a lot about the future of driving. I thought a lot about the future of road trips.
I thought about how it will be impossible to get lost—to miss the turn while dwelling on the majesty of a virgin Minnesota lake, only to be rewarded with the next. I thought about how hard it will be to command the car to stop and impulsively take a side road to explore what’s around the bend. And I thought about how you’ll never contemplate the way the dirt road banks around a corner, how you’ll never notice the increasing number of dragonflies as you attempt to dodge their frantic flightpaths, and how you’ll miss the slightly increased vibration in your car’s steering wheel portending coming mechanical problems. Is what’s left even a road trip, let alone an adventure?
We eventually got off the roads and deeper into the wilds. On the recommendation of locals, we rented a canoe to paddle the famed Boundary Waters like the original voyageurs—the one-million-acre wilderness area along the Canadian border, home only to wildlife (the last non-native resident of the BWCA, the famed “Root Beer Lady,” died in 1986). While physically exhausting, our 20-mile day-paddle rewarded us with no less than 15 bald eagles and the exhilaration of exploration.
Northern Minnesota is truly spectacular. It’s remote, but teeming with energy. And it has a hardiness and grittiness that remind you—like the voyageurs before—you will always be just a visitor. But the essence of experiencing this place will be undoubtedly diminished when getting lost becomes a choice programmed into a computer, rather than a fortunate consequence. For when we’re shuttled around by a robot, we’ll never explore that next lake—its greens, blues, and pinks left to glimmer only for the wildlife.