Kayaking Lake Superior Provincial Park
By Polly Scotland
The final jewel in our crown of adventures – Lake Superior Provincial Park – began in July, 2016, when my husband Lee and I loaded our tandem kayak atop our van and drove Trans-Canadian Highway 17 to the outfitters of Naturally Superior Adventures (NSA) in Wawa, Ontario.
This was our tenth trip over a ten-year period to reach our goal of kayaking the northern shoreline of Lake Superior from Duluth, Minnesota to just north of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.
We arrived at NSA’s Rock Island Lodge in time to join the other guests for a home-cooked dinner of chili, cheese bread and bottomless glasses of wine.
In the morning of the first day, we drove from NSA’s headquarters on the Michipicotan River to our southern terminus at Montreal River Harbor. Jake, our shuttle driver, helped Lee carry the kayak to the water’s edge, organize the gear and stow our 10-day food supply before he took our van back to NSA.
By noon, under a sky thick with whipped gray clouds, we donned our wetsuits, made our peace offering to the great waters of Gitchigami, and set afloat.
We crossed the southern boundary of Lake Superior Provincial Park (LSPP) after a few miles. We glided onto a sandy beach, then checked out the Visitor’s Center and Museum. The bedrock of this area is more than 2.5 billion years old, but humans have survived here for a mere 2,000 years.
That night, we camped across from Agawa Island in a harbor sheltered from wind in every direction except the south. I grabbed my mosquito head net before exploring our tiny plot of boreal forest.
Lee cooked water-soaked corn-on-the-cob, baked potatoes, and steamed veggies sautéed in butter over a driftwood fire.
Just beyond our tent was the Coastal Trail, a path that goes from Agawa Bay to Chalfant Cove. This 40-mile hiking trail that meanders near the shoreline can be hazardous due to the lake’s moods of fog, dew and rain.
In the morning of the second day, a strong southerly wind kept us wind-bound, so we hiked, rather than paddle, to the see the pictographs of Agawa (Ojibwe for sacred) Rock, a site that impressed me when we visited with our small children 30 years ago.
The Coastal Trail was marked with blue diamond-shaped signs along a path that was underused, narrow and slippery. We hiked at a slow pace of one-half mile per hour past weeping caves, ankle twisting roots, and face-tickling spider webs.
The Coastal Trail intersected the park’s trail at Agawa Rock. To reach the pictographs, I walked through a chasm of granite and moss-covered bedrock. At the base of the fissure, I turned left past a few signs, some explaining the area’s geological landscape and others the Ojibwe legends. Warning signs, reporting the unpredictable nature of this lake that had swept people to their death from this perch, urged extreme caution.
The trail sloped to a flat boulder where a park ranger waited by a thin metal railing. As I approached, she said, “Let me tell you about some of the 35 pictographs you will see. These well-preserved pictographs were first described to Henry Rowe Schoolcraft in 1851 and were painted 150-400 years ago. They may commemorate great events, represent family Clans, or be spiritual symbols.”
The ranger pointed to four thick ropes dangling into the water and said, “That is the only safety feature in case you fall into the lake.”
I walked barefoot out onto the ledge, grabbed the chain bolted into the granite wall, and padded out to a boulder dais angled straight into the icy lake. I looked up at the cliff canvas and saw ochre-painted canoes, a turtle, and the great, horned, water spirit Mishipeshu, that ruled the lake with a flick of its tail.
Other people were lining up single-file, so I departed to let them experience the rock. A light rainfall made the hike back to our campsite even more treacherous.
At sunset, the seas relaxed, so we kayaked back to Agawa Rock and enjoyed an alpenglow view of the pictographs that can only be seen by water. This experience at Agawa Rock was just as powerful as it was three decades earlier.
After a full day, I fell asleep to a cantaloupe-colored half moon.
The serene, cloudless morning of the third day developed into a fast moving tailwind that shoved our kayak past colonies of squawking seagulls parked on a rock.
After hours of paddling, the long sandy beach of the Sand River looked inviting. We knew the strong surf would let us land but we might not get back out.
We looked for the river’s mouth and navigated past the sand spit, while fighting the conflicting forces of the wind and river’s current. We took on a lot of water when our cockpit spray skirts didn’t hold. Once inside, we beached the kayak, pumped out the excess water, and hiked as we waited for the 30-mph winds to abate.
The Sand River is a 34-mile canoe route requiring 29 portages as it flows from the interior. We explored the 4-mile round trip Pinguisibi (Ojibwe for fine white sand river) Trail leading up to the 28th portage. This important route allowed its users to bypass a series of impressive waterfalls and whitewater rapids.
I called to Lee above the roar of a cataract, “Imagine the hardships the Ojibwe people endured for 2,000 years as they seasonally moved back and forth between the interior and the lake’s coast.”
Lee replied, “I’m thinking of the voyageurs, too.”
By mid-afternoon, the winds were still strong. We napped under our umbrella, providing the only shade from the scorching sun, and tarried on a beach that posted “No overnight camping” signs.
We ate dinner while watching tourists vacillate between body surfing in the steely-blue lake and swimming in the amber-colored river. The oblivious swimmers were unaware that a dark, threatening front was approaching.
A booming thunder-crack got everyone’s attention. People ran to their cars and we raced to our kayak. We grabbed the necessary gear to erect a shelter before the storm hit.
I ran down the sugary beach toward an opening in the forest, arms loaded with sleeping bags and pads. I glanced at Lee. A bolt of lightning zigzagged through the menacing black clouds behind him.
“Yikes!” I hollered as I redoubled my efforts.
Mosquito activity spiked. I slapped my arms and legs as I hurriedly assembled the tent. We dove inside our sanctuary. A lull set in. All was quiet.
I was contentedly reading when lightning lit up the sky and a rolling thunderclap jolted me upright. “That was close,” I remarked.
There was a sudden drop in temperature. Pinging sounds hit the rainfly. Lee said, “Look outside.”
Hail ranging in size from pellets to ping pong balls bounced off pine needles and decayed leaves. Our port in the storm was this “no camping” beach.
On the fourth day, we skipped breakfast, launched from Sand River, and muscled our way back onto the lake.
We passed Katherine and Robertson Coves in a light rain. At Bald Head, roiling reflection breakers felt like riding a bucking bronco. The waves darted about the kayak like shark’s fins in a feeding frenzy. There was a tendency to get closer to shore, but the smoother ride was away from land.
After a three-hour workout, we stopped at Beatty Cove for a hot bacon and egg breakfast.
Back in the kayak, we encountered a headwind with turbulent waves that swelled from three to five or six feet. I was nervous and yelled to Lee, “Let’s turn back and wait.”
“Just keep your paddle in the water!” said Lee.
We planned to stop at Rhyolite Cove to see an example of the erosion between the 2.5 billion-year-old granite rocks and the 1 billion-year-old volcanic rock; we also wanted to find the rumored Pukaskwa Pit – a mysterious grouping of rocks used by the ancient people – but the 30-mph winds prevented us from landing.
I dug harder into the frothy whitecaps and pulled myself up and over each roller. On the descent down the waves, the front of the kayak smacked the water, nose-dived, then bobbed to the surface.
I asked Lee, “Does it mean anything that the front hatch is 3/4-inch off-center?”
“No. There’s a gasket to keep everything dry.” In an effort to lighten the mood Lee said, “I can’t see Canada. Oh, there it is. I can’t see it again. Okay, now I can!”
As the hours passed by, I observed the wave color turn from gray to glacial-blue where it hit small rock outcroppings with a thunderous crash.
I noticed a pattern to the rhythm of the waves in height and proportion. I counted to see how many moderate waves there were before a more powerful set developed. The Ojibwe call this group of two large waves followed by a bigger third one “The Three Sisters.” This phenomenon was becoming more frequent and gaining in size.
It took 3-1/2 hours before we arrived at Gargantua (pronounced Gar-gone-too by the locals) Bay. In 1909, the 130-foot supply tug Columbus caught fire here. In order to save the docks and town, the vessel was cut free from its mooring and sank. The ship’s boiler is visible in the bay, but we were too exhausted to search for it.
In a misty rain, we pulled onto a small sand beach at Gargantua Harbor to warm up with hot tortilla soup. The harbor had a dilapidated boathouse, defective docks, and a drying rack – remnants of the 1871 fishing village. Introduction of the lamprey in 1960 destroyed the fish industry, leaving this place a ghost town. Notions of camping here were questionable after hundreds of flies swarmed to my black wetsuit. I squished 10-12 flies with each slap to my knees.
A sign at the west end of Gargantua Bay pointed to a path meandering to an overlook of Warp Bay. The sun emerged from the gloom and beckoned us to leave the fly-infested area, so we moved.
We proceeded north and passed Devil’s Warehouse, the island where the red ocher paint used for the Agawa Rock pictographs may have been mined. This island was home to the region’s oldest “Bircher,” a person who bites birch bark with her teeth into intricate artistic designs, before her recent death.
By 7 p.m., we arrived at Warp Bay in a drizzle. Lee set up the tarp so we could keep our tent dry during assembly.
I opened the aforementioned front hatch and found it full of water. Apparently Nanabozho, the trickster of Ojibwe legend, had played a joke. Being 3/4-inch off-center had made a difference as we crashed through waves. I pulled out the tent and fly from the swimming pool compartment. Lee lifted his drenched sleeping bag and groaned, “It feels like a 100-pound weight.”
Even the soggy toilet paper was now transformed into wet-wipes. My sleeping bag, wrapped in a waterproof bag, was the only dry item.
As we stared at each other in despair, the sun burst forth. With an hour of daylight left, I erected the tent, placed it atop my head, and walked the beach until it dried. Next I grasped the rainfly, climbed up on a picnic table, and flapped the material like a sail.
After an hour, the shelter was ready, but Lee’s bag, hanging from a clothesline, dripped overnight.
I offered to share my bag, but Lee stated, “I’ll be fine in my puffy coat and long johns.”
About 3:00 a.m., I felt a frozen foot on my leg. I knew it was time to give Lee half of my bag.
We ate a hearty breakfast, since we’d skipped last night’s dinner, and listened to the marine forecast. The winds were less intense and the sunshine helped to bolster our spirits.
We left Warp Bay by mid-morning of the fifth day and paddled to Tugboat Channel. The wind intensified after we nosed out beyond the safety of Hursley Island.
A crosswind made reaching Devil’s Chair laborious. Ojibwe legend says that Nanabozho rested on Devil’s Island after leaping across the lake from Thunder Bay to here. A few years ago, Devil’s Chair had two apertures, but erosion has turned this distinctive landmark into a single opening shaped like Africa in reverse. I snapped a few photos before Lee turned the rudder eastward as we surfed into an inlet to rest.
The cove had one campsite and access to the Coastal Trail. We beached the kayak and hiked to a scenic overlook for a different perspective of the Devil’s Chair and the Devil’s Fry Pan.
We took advantage of an afternoon lull to paddle back out to Devil’s Chair and around the corner of Cape Gargantua.
The fickle wind sped up again as we moved forward at a sluggish pace. At one point, the wind pushed us sideways then backwards. With a single-minded effort, we paddled north for an hour before turning east and gaining the tailwind.
We sped into Chalfant Cove, landed on a tiny sand beach covered with moose prints, and checked out the two campsites by the north terminus of the Coastal Trail. Lee ventured along the underused trail to search for two other campsite marked on our map. He quickly returned after letting a 150-pound, gray-nosed bear and her cub know that we had arrived.
The evening’s temperature dropped to a nippy 35 degrees and we were both happy to have dry sleeping bags.
A campfire on the sixth morning was welcome, as we sipped coffee and ate oatmeal before shoving off in a coastal fog with a hint of a breeze. We hugged the coast between Ryan Point and Cap Chaillon, noticing that the beaches were more gravel and bowl-sized cobblestones than sand.
From Cap Chaillon to Grindstone Point, there was a two-mile stretch of sheer cliffs with inhospitable landings in rough seas. We were fortunate that Mishipeshu was benevolent and gave us pristine water to search the lake bottom for pieces of the grain-carrier Acadia, that ran onto rocks in an 1896 November snowstorm. All the crew survived but the ship was a total loss. During our lunch break on the cobblestone beach of Bushy Bay, we found large chunks of rusted steel, presumably from the Acadia.
After a mid-afternoon stop and a short hike to Till Creek Falls, we paddled to Old Woman Bay on a sea of glittering diamonds. The dazzling light made it difficult to hunt for the remains of the wooden steamer Golspie, which went aground in a 1906 December storm. Her crew survived, but some suffered severe frostbite.
Our campsite was situated at the south end of a wayside rest for travelers on Highway 17, and was a nice distance from the tourists swimming in Old Woman River and hiking the four-mile Nokomis Trail. The remains of an old log cabin served as a decent stand-up kitchen for Lee.
The evening sky morphed from blue to light pink as we listened to a whisper of wind, a crackling driftwood campfire and an occasional semi-truck grinding up a bluff.
On Day Seven, a pair of geese frolicked in the peaceful bay under a peach-colored, cloudy sky. After breakfast, we kayaked toward Brulé Harbor with plans to look for a Pukaskwa Pit. Within minutes of leaving the serene bay, the sea monster Mishipeshu must have moved its tail as the waves became three-footers.
I regretted having a second cup of coffee. In my growing discomfort I asked Lee, “Can we pull over for a minute?”
Lee said, “We could, but we won’t get back out. I’ll aim for that island’s leeward side.”
After a few more minutes, I moaned, “Can we pick up the pace?”
“Sure. But this isn’t a highway where we can pull over at will.”
I focused on the undulating cloud formations encroaching upon the bluebird sky.
Lee asked, “Isn’t this a beautiful day?”
“I can’t talk about that right now,” I grumbled. “Just get me in!”
After enduring more torment, I finally disembarked at Entrance Island.
Afterward, I happily paddled to Brulé and Beauvier Points before a lunch break at the well-named Noisy Harbor, where wailing loons and a family of mergansers called to us.
We continued up the coast and discovered peregrine falcon nests in the vertical cliff ledges. These birds are among the fastest in the world and can hit their prey at 200 mph.
We arrived at Smoky Point, the last campsite before the end of our trip. We had planned to camp one more night, but the early afternoon sky was growing dark and the car was close-by. With the wind at our back, we headed for home.
Our speed doubled after I opened the golf umbrella. Lee stopped paddling and steered past the whitecaps and froth that crisscrossed the lake. “We’re windsurfing!” he hollered.
My arms began to ache as a fierce wind popped the umbrella inside out. I placed it over my shoulder to get it to snap back. I repeated this series as we zoomed along.
As we approached Michipicoten Harbor, Lee yelled, “Put the umbrella away.”
“I can’t. It’s broken,” I called back.
“Then hold it down so I can see.”
Lee negotiated the swells, surf, wind and river current alone while I helplessly gathered the folds of a billowing, but impaired, umbrella. It was a wild ride until Lee made the final turn into the sanctuary of Rock Island Lodge.
We checked in with Dave at Naturally Superior Adventures. He was listening to the marine radio. “You two were lucky you got off now,” he said. “A severe weather warning was issued.”
Lucky indeed. During the next eight hours, the heavens opened with torrential rain, thunder, lightning and fog.
Mishipeshu and Nanabozho had permitted us to safely paddle 78 miles from Montreal River to Michipicoten River in seven days.
Our decade-long goal of paddling across the northern half of Lake Superior’s 2,726 miles of shoreline is completed.
Gitchigami, with all its beauty in Lake Superior Provincial Park, had once again left its mark on me – even after the tenth adventure.