Where are we?
Sea kayaking through the fog along the Canadian shore of Lake Superior
The afternoon is overcast and dank. A yellow, rusted metal swing gate stops motorized traffic from crossing the railroad tracks. To access Lake Superior's Coldwell Peninsula on the Canadian north shore, my husband, Lee, and I unload our tandem kayak from our roof rack onto a two-wheel cart, randomly tossing our food and equipment inside the boat's seats. Shoving a stick into the kayak's front handhold, we pull our watercraft a short distance down an overgrown path to the lakeshore near the ghost town of Port Coldwell.
As a friend shuttles our car to Terrace Bay, Ontario, we arrange our gear into the proper kayak holds. We have one week to explore 65 miles of Lake Superior's most isolated and rugged areas 14 miles west of Marathon, Ontario.
Launching into a fjord beside the tiny Port Coldwell Cemetery, I wonder, "Where are we?"
As we paddle south toward Detention Island, something in the west catches my eye. Curious, we move closer to a red and white moving object. It is a tattered Canadian flag wedged between rocks, beckoning us to spend the night on this sandy beach at the foot of Mount Premier.
Abundant driftwood makes building a campfire easy. After Lee places two unhusked corncobs and two foil-wrapped potatoes into the fire, he cooks the steaks on our grill over the open flame. After a restful night's sleep, we awake to the noise of the lapping shore. The morning sky is cloud-covered and calm - perfect for the two-mile open water crossing to Pic Island.
Socked in but compass guided
Once we are halfway across Thompson Channel, a heavy fog advances quickly from the west. Lee, occupying the forward position of our double kayak, asks what our compass heading is. From the rear seat in control of the rudder, I report we are 280 degrees. Within minutes we can no longer see the 14-mile round Pic Island in the thick fog. Where are we?
Holding our compass heading, we arrive at one of the smaller McDonald Islands to take a midmorning break and think about our options. Searching for a landing point, we pull off on a ledge I dub "Broken Ankle" after I slip on a rock, reminding me to move more cautiously.
The moisture-filled, misty fog cools us down, so we put on our raincoats before enjoying a cup of hot coffee. After an hour we become antsy waiting for the weather to improve. Lee convinces me that if we trust our compass and stay the course, we will land on Pic Island after just a few minutes.
With trepidation, we leave the security of a safe rocky outcrop and head into the gray wall. My breathing is audible as I gaze out on nothing but water, the back of Lee's head and the floating black ball inside my yellow compass. Where are we?
Pic Island lost & found
As if a curtain is partially lifted, a sliver of Pic's waterfront appears. I now have a solid, discernible image to navigate to. Hugging the island's shore, we spend the rest of the day exploring its mostly invisible coastline. In the surreal atmosphere, we paddle past thick, dense evergreens and jagged, inhospitable cliffs.
Wondering if I will see one of the 25 woodland caribou said to inhabit this island, I am startled when Lee's fishing line zings. Thinking Lee has snagged a shallow rock, we are surprised to discover it is our trout dinner putting up a fight.
Continuing our travel along the isle's inhospitable shoreline, we head for Pic's only safe anchorage on the northwest side. Deep inside the harbor, I aim for the large, ornate piece of driftwood and slide our kayak onto another sandy beach. Fresh moose, deer and wolf tracks meander toward a trickling brook lined with wild irises. A trail leads to a rocky ledge filled with patches of violet harebell flowers springing from the bedrock. An evening campfire is used for cooking, drying our saturated clothing, and reading.
By morning, the glassy water and tranquil winds allow us to paddle the vulnerable and exposed south lakeshore. Paddling along the west leg of a three-mile, V-shaped indentation, we are startled by a mink that bolts from a rock and swiftly runs along the craggy edge to the dead end of the inlet. This member of the Mustelid family is an aggressive hunter. Mink is a Swedish word meaning "stinky animal," and whose other relatives include the skunk and the most pungent wolverine. I am grateful for the water distance between this ferocious predator and me.
After circumnavigating Pic, it is time to return to the Coldwell Peninsula mainland. The fog remains dense and thick. Where are we? Taking a zero-degree compass reading, we paddle due north. I'm still uncomfortable without a horizon, but it's hard to miss Canada. After 30 minutes of monotonous stroking, the sound of waves striking land reaches our ears. Another dozen strokes and the serrated edges of conifers appear as we land near Guse Point at Neys Provincial Park.
As if to taunt us, the impenetrable fog over Pic Island lifts briefly, allowing us to see her beauty in its entirety. The moment is fleeting and we are once again encompassed by sea smoke.
Ghosts of WWII POWs
We paddle to the Neys Visitor Center, which is built over the site of a former Prisoner of War camp. During the war years, 1941 to 1946, high-risk prisoners were interned at the Neys POW camp surrounded by three rings of barbed wire fence. Natural deterrents, such as the cold lake waters, sandy soil and vicious, black flies also kept the prisoners from escaping.
To keep the detainees occupied, the Pigeon River Timber Co. utilized the prison's available manpower for the logging industry. The men were transported in wooden boats to the nearby Little Pic River to work the log drives and boom lines. Even though the detainees did hard labor, they were reportedly treated so well in prison that after the war, numerous Germans returned to Canada seeking asylum and citizenship. Rumor has it that the summer fogs Lee and I are experiencing are the ghosts of the POWs returning for a visit.
Another area of the Interpretive Center has a display of artwork from the "Group of Seven" - artists trying to break with a British style of painting to create a uniquely Canadian style. Of particular interest to me is Lawren Harris' Pic Island, circa 1924. Is this where we were?
Of the four short hiking trails within Neys Park, we take the Under the Volcano Trail and stop to read 11 signs describing the area's formation by a volcano's magma chamber 1 billion years ago.
Train tracks lead to waterfall
Under continued fog, we kayak west to McKellar Harbor. We come to expect a sugar sand beach with ample firewood and we are not disappointed. Sitting by the campfire waiting for our lemon-seasoned trout to bake, I look up from my book when I hear a train whistle beyond the fog. The ground begins to quake and I hear the ear-splitting squeal of brakes as the train slows down to round a bend. It seems as though the powerful locomotive is a phantom headed straight toward me. Rail cars marked with the words "Canadian Pacific" appear from a gauzy veil, barely visible beyond the single row of evergreens.
After dinner, we explore the train tracks on the far side of the conifers. Discovering a river flowing into the lake, we drag our kayak over the shallow spots at the river's mouth and paddle until we reach a picturesque waterfall. Where are we now?
An eerie wail of a common loon wakes us in the morning. Even as we sip our java, the hidden loon calls out, so Lee answers. Soon the bird silently emerges into view, only to realize we are human and drift away.
After breakfast, we leave Ashburton Bay, hoping to reach the ghost town of Jackfish. After eight hours of paddling in and out of every cove and bay, my arms ache in protest. For the first time we can't find the ideal site to camp overnight. We reluctantly pull up on a shore that is terraced with egg-sized pebbles stacked in perfect rows. Walking on the small stones that sound like rolling marbles is difficult. We find a flat spot for our tent, beyond the cobbled beach, that is filled with soft, sphagnum moss. During our post-dinner stroll, we realize we are camped beside a handful of Pukaskwa Pits, the puzzling holes believed created by the ancestors of the Ojibwa. There is speculation that the pits were built for hunting, fishing, observation or spiritual reasons, no one really knows.
Trans Canada Trail hiker met
On our last full day, proceeding toward Terrace Bay, there is a sense of an impending storm. When the rainfall adds to the steadfast fog, we decide to cut our trip short one day. Still kayaking close to shore, we scull past orange lichen and yellow wildflowers, muted in color, due to the ever present gray haze. The chiseled rock faces and glacially carved boulders are all looking the same.
As we glide past a rock filled with squawking sea gulls, Lee catches another trout. Once the fish is on our stringer, the rain stops, the sky brightens, and the round outline of the sun is detectable. Taking this as a sign to spend one more night, we continue past our parked car and pull into Lyda Bay. As I set up the tent, a hiker approaches Lee.
The young man, Dana Meise, explains he plans to walk all three oceans of Canada via the Trans Canada Trail for a total of 13,000 miles. Dana tells us he began walking from St. John's, Newfoundland, in May 2008. While exchanging email addresses, a loud thunderclap reminds the three of us that more bad weather is approaching. We hastily say goodbye to Dana, who still has eight miles to walk before stopping for the evening.
As I fling the sleeping bags and pads into our tent, Lee quickly erects a tarp. Since a campfire is impossible, we boil our fish from under the refuge of the tarp. The thunderstorm grows in intensity and the lightening show is dazzling. After a time, I become tired of sitting in my soggy wet suit, so I race to the tent for dry clothes. I am annoyed to discover there is a 1-inch pool of water on my side of the tent floor. I sop up the liquid with a sponge and ring it out six times before there is no more standing water. Trying to arrange myself for the night's slumber leaves me cranky. My pad has a slow leak and my sleeping bag is damp. This is the last trip for this tent, pad and duffle bag.
On the last morning, a gaggle of geese, honking and waddling around our kayak wake us. Dragging my damp body out of the tent, I get into my cold wet suit one last time. After placing our drenched gear into the kayak, we paddle to Terrace Bay Harbor. The fog is the thickest of the adventure. There are no dancing prisms of sunlit sequins on the steel-gray water. Yet, even in all this dreariness, there is an inexplicable mystique and peace in this secluded wilderness.
In the past several days, I learned it is OK to risk leaving the shore even when the fog rolls in. In uncharted territories, I discover enjoyment and understanding. If I trust my compass and don't deviate too much, I will arrive safely at my destination.
Where am I? I am here: at a new level of sea kayaking confidence.
Polly Keith Scotland lives in Bemidji, Minnesota.