The Great (Lakes) Escape

The Great Lakes, Superior and Huron, have dominated our lives for the last five weeks. And they’ve dominated our thoughts for much longer, as we always knew they would be a key factor in the success of the trip. They have been beautiful and brutal in equal measure, have offered much more to the paddler than we had expected, but taken their toll. At 9am this morning, both physically and mentally exhausted but ultimately relieved and delighted, we paddled off Georgian Bay on Lake Huron and into the French River.

Dawn from the tent

The last few days on Lake Huron have been characterised by wind, and a constant feeling we were always trying to paddle to the source of it. It has been pretty much continually in our faces. We left our little island (of the panoramic pictures on the last post) at 2pm, when the wind looked like it was going to drop. After paddling 3.5km it was clear it wasn’t, so we found refuge on a cabin pontoon whilst the owners were out fishing. By 5pm we were bored, and decided to try again, sneaking a few more kilometres along the coast before dark, and being treated to a faint aurora away to the north. Up at 5.30am again, as has become the norm, we headed off before the mandatory afternoon break hiding from the wind. An evening limp east, with two or three further stops, finally found us on the edge of the Bay of Islands, our target for the day. We are still managing 30-40km a day despite the wind, it’s just tougher and far more frustrating, whilst still being utterly stunning. But dawn rewarded us with a beautiful sunrise paddle through the islands as we headed for Georgian Bay. A family of otters were out enjoying the early morning calm too, porpoising and playing in front of us, until they noticed we were there.

Daily hygiene in the Bay of Islands

Our target for the day was Killarney, a fishing village in the north channel, around 40km away. Fine, we thought, if we don’t get stuck. This day the wind came even earlier, and just after noon we were hunkered in a bay cursing the lake and Cas swearing she’d never come here again. We sat, and we read, and we drank tea, and we waited….and waited…until at 4.30pm, with falling wind and little hope of reaching the village, we set off. We paddled hard for the portage, which skips across a long peninsula saving over 15km of paddling, and got there after 6pm having surprised a second family of otters out fishing. A portage, and then 5km paddle to Killarney. Phew. Maybe we can do this… At 7.45pm, having raced the rapidly encroaching dark, the flashes and rumbles of an impending storm (which turned out to be truly epic!), and the closing time of the fish’n’chip shop, we pulled up outside Herbert’s Fisheries and ran inside, just as the heavens opened. And they served beer. We could not have been happier. Having shared tales of travels with the staff, and probably slightly alarmed some fellow diners with our table manners, we found a bed for the night at the Killarney Mountain Lodge. They also had a bar, with whisky, and a bloke from Derbyshire playing covers.

Happy wife!

We don’t know how far these two paddled…

Showered, slightly hungover, and resupplied with ibuprofen from the local store (for our tiring bodies, not our heads), we paddled off into the fog the next morning. We knew it was 30km in a straight line to the French River, but more like 40 via a sheltered channel that would keep us out of the wind and allow is to make more steady progress. We briefly rued taking the longer route, but it was an absolute dream paddling on flat water all day and escaping the wind. It also turned out a howling south westerly had been blowing most of the day, so by staying on the main coast we would have gone nowhere. We met some fellow paddlers from Toronto and paddled with them for a while, discussing paddling and politics, and defending our paddling style! And finally, having battled the wind back towards the main lake for the final 10km and realising our hopes of reaching the French that day were being dashed by the wind and swell, we arrived at an incredible archipelago and possibly our best campsite of the trip.

Sunset on our Great Lakes paddling 

Thanks goes to:

  • Herbert’s Fisheries, for the best meal we could have wished for!
  • Killarney Mountain Lodge for accepting two very smelly paddlers.


Our drive down to ‘The Soo’ was beautiful but sad as we both quietly observed all the majesty of this part of Superior’s shoreline, knowing that we were missing out. Neither of us said ‘I wish we were paddling’, but we thought it. 

The drive down…

We spent the next day racing around completing various bits of admin, including several hours at a local library and a visit to a lawyers office, and shopped for the resupply. Dropping the car off at the airport and walking to the campground was almost like being back at the beginning again: so, just us and the boat then? That’s good.
Pre-departure celebratory meal: Moose sausages from Evelyn and lots of salad!

We started from the Point de Chenes campground so that we could wave a proper farewell to Superior and then paddled towards the city. Paddling through towns is always a strange experience – you get a unique viewpoint, usually taking in the very best and very worst of what a city is. In this case the St Mary’s river took us from the tropical blues of the edge of Superior into the murk of the industrial area (though, being a fan of big machinery, I was quite happy passing so close to the cranes and barges and diggers). 

We also had to share our passage with some other vessels, this being part of the main shipping route from Superior to the sea. This gave us the chance to wonder a) how long it takes an enormous freighter on the horizon to catch up to you (not long) and b) how much wake will it produce when it passes (not much). One of the ships was called ‘Presque isle’ which I thought was a funny pun (it was a monster) but it turns out is the name of a place not far from here. 

Taking the old channel on the Canadian side brought us to the Sault St Marie canal lock. We phoned the number on the sign to ask if we could come through: ‘Yes of course you can, and if you look over your shoulder you’ll see one of the big tour boats, let them in first and then pull along the left side’. And so we did! The drop of about 30′ gave the tourists on the boat plenty of time to ignore their guide and ask us lots of questions instead. We got a friendly honk from the captain as we pulled away and many many good wishes. 

From here we were technically on Lake Huron, although the bays and side lakes have their own names too. It was lovely paddling with a gentle tail wind and some sailboats for company as we left the city. We made for another formal campsite on a sandy beach and checked in. It’s getting late in the season now and the campsites are, for the most part, quietening down and emptying out. Not this one! This was a Friday night and the seasonaires were up for one final fling. With music vibrating through the ground our earplugs were useless: I’m afraid to say at 3am we complained to security. At 5am we packed up and left. This was going to be a tough day! 

Dawn paddling: one (of the few) good reason(s) to get up early

We had planned to be up early anyway to make the most of the dawn lull in the wind and we were rewarded with a lightly misted, silky smooth lake. We paddled out onto Joseph lake and crossed to St Josephs Island, making for Richards Landing. One of our luxuries is a cup of proper coffee every day, made using an Aeropress. Usually this requires disposable filters but we had brought 3 stainless steel reusable ones with us. The trouble is, they eventually get a bit clogged and now we were onto our last one.  Some of our research in the Soo was to source a replacement filter and evidently the Island Roasters were our nearest supplier. It was going to be a bit of a detour but it was worth it for coffee! We arrived at the marina and bolted up onto the Main Street. Arriving at the post code we looked around: no sign of a coffee roasters… we popped into a local cafe: ‘ooh, lemme think, they’re away over on A road – not far, 20 minute drive’. Disaster!! Mike looked so disappointed I had to buy him a burger to cheer him up. And a cinnamon bun. And whilst we were here we might as well grab a couple of beers… 

When you have burger for lunch you get bread and jam for tea (which, funnily enough, is actually a treat!)

We feel like summer has found us again and the water temperature is considerably warmer than Superior, so we’re out of our dry gear and back to paddling in t shirts which is a treat. This also means we’re back to sunscreen every 2 hours and bug spray in the evenings… hey ho!

After Richards Landing was a busy pleasure-boat-filled section of bridges and narrows all made more complicated by the head winds which had built through the day. Frustrated, we stopped for tea on a tiny island before carrying on to find a campsite. 

Waiting for the wind… tough times…

After both our delays in Thunder Bay and Marathon we have set out with renewed vigour and determination and paddled hard in some challenging conditions. Our measure of the weather is either ‘paddle-able’ or ‘not’, and if we’re paddling we have distances we expect to cover whether there’s a following breeze or a gale in our faces: we just paddle harder. We’ve both also been changing and tweaking our paddling technique throughout the trip, mostly with good results. But it seems the more aggressive stroke I had adopted for rough conditions was taking its toll: now MY shoulders we sore! 

We had another early start as we headed towards Thessalon, and made good progress until we rounded the point and got fully exposed to the winds. Again. We stopped for a break on an island to wait for the evening lull which allowed us to carry on a few more km and get closer to our target for the day. Pitching a tent on a lump of solid granite is one of Mike’s favourite challenges and he has an eye for a thermarest-sized level patch and a knack for creative guying. Something else I have learnt on this trip!

The lake has become quieter and increasingly pretty as we head east and wangle our way through islands, quite often protected from the swell by a sort of reef just off shore, and with lovely coves and sandy beaches to dive onto when the wind is too much. We may also have taken a brief trip into Blind River in search of ice cream… Mike and I are at an impasse here: whilst several fairly everyday things constitute a treat on the trip (fresh milk, salad, bread) Mike maintains that Ice Cream is (or at least should be) a staple. 

Actually our main staple on the trip is rice – with Dahl, tuna or in a Risotto. Drinking the broth of rice cooked in bouillon with garlic and ginger – waste not want not!

Yesterday, after a night disturbed by sore shoulders and building wind and swell we were slow to set off. We were determined to paddle anyway, wanting to maintain the momentum we feel we’ve regained. As it turned out we had one of the loveliest days paddling of the whole trip: starting with a Moose grunting at us from the misty shore. The lake as we approach Bay of Islands and Little Current is stunning and is going some way to making up for what we missed out on on Superior. 

Afternoon tea stop

We also saw that our comrades-in-canoes Mike Ranta, Spitzii and David Jackson were windswept again on Lake Superior. At one stage on their trip they had been weather bound for 40/108 days and we can’t believe the weather this year, their bad luck nor their incredible patience and humour dealing with it. Whenever we get signal we check where they are and it’s been great to know they’re  out there too, but we have to admit a sense of relief that we bypassed the second half of the big Lake.  

But right now it is us who are windswept, stuck on a tiny island that barely registers on the map: there are worse places to be…

Thank you to whoever mentioned us on myccr this week – it was an invaluable resource for us in planning this trip and we feel honoured to be on the forum!!

Return of the favourite piece of kit: We managed to find another Luminaid in Sault Ste Marie. Hooray for the Luminaid!! 

Happy Birthday to our nephew Rufus who was TWO this week! TWO!!!