An Ode to Duluth Summers

Like many people in this pandemic liberation summer (at least for us fortunate, healthy, vaccinated souls not prone to alarmism), I have managed to fill up nearly every stray weekend between June and mid-September. My few Duluth weekends, coming immediately before or after trips elsewhere, are often consumed by the mundane tasks necessary to keep my life in order. (The simple division of labor is one of the most compelling arguments for cohabitation.) They may also come after exhausting weeks that prompt a desire for introvert time, which keeps me from taking full advantage of everything the place has to offer. Still, I couldn’t help but feel a slight lament: in a rush off on various trips, I am missing out on my favorite city in its most fleeting season?

This city’s park-filled placidity makes it an ideal summer haunt. Every weekend brings an opportunity for some new exploration. Free-range kids roam the streets and swim in creeks or sprout up in hammock colonies along their banks. Miles upon miles of trail beckon, to say nothing of the informal networks wrapping around; here and there are the foundations of a past Duluth, lost amid the trees and taken back by the Northwoods, permanent in its impermanence. Short jaunts out of town open up dozens more adventures of any length or scale, and ridgetops let the resplendence unfold below. On the tamer days, the beach beckons, whether that means a rocky shoreline along the Lakewalk or joining the throngs down on Park Point.

A fondness for these summer crowds is among the tenets of my particular brand of Duluth snobbery. Among them: air conditioning is for the unenlightened, a dull and sanitized life; better to throw open the windows and spend a little time maneuvering them to best catch the sweet lake air. Summer is not a great time for vacations; why waste these fleeting days of this city at its best? Moreover, people-watching in Canal Park is a delightful pursuit. I have come full circle and moved past the longtime Duluthian’s disdain for the crowds and tourist traps and now embrace them as essential pieces of the city’s fabric. I am a city kid, and Duluth lets me be one while still avoiding most of the things that make large cities tiresome.

One event I did not miss in 2021, despite not registering for it myself, was Grandma’s Marathon. The marathon is Duluth’s annual coming-out party, and it unites the full range of humanity. Elite athletes, physical specimens with not a hint of body fat, come from around the world to fly down the streets in feats of prowess. Later, we see different forms of human triumph, or perhaps rash-decision making: people who have hurt themselves or people who really have no business running marathons but have done it anyway. But the marathon is more than a few hours of sweat and strained muscles and littered paper cups: it is a several-day party, with Bayfront suddenly stuffed again with twenty-somethings on display: Duluth is back, perhaps better than ever.

Still, every Duluth summer weekend has some fresh pleasure to offer. Strains of a concert waft up Observation Hill, interrupted by the reliable chime of the lift bridge on the half hour. Canal Park has become infested with scooters now, though I endure their presence far more than those awful path-hogging four-seater bicycles. This summer has been hot and hazy, signs of worrying trends and wildfires elsewhere, but I will confess some enjoyment of the lake’s newly tolerable temperatures. The sporadic fog day will still cloud everything in and cleanse the palette. Rinse in a rainstorm, repeat the cycle, and head out to yet another backyard campfire or barbecue, our time in outdoor repose so precious because it is so fleeting.

It will all be gone before long. I do not regret family time, or adventures further afield; sometimes, one has to accept what the calendar allows. But once again, time away from Duluth makes it seem that much better, that much more of a place worth hanging on to over each passing year. So I’ll savor a few more of these sticky evenings, and spare my readers my rambling so that they can enjoy it themselves, too—or, if they are not here, come and enjoy a taste of it themselves. The lake breeze beckons.

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