A Bit Too Superior?

Well fed, and after a bottle of wine, we had a slightly leisurely start the next morning. Leaving Rossport we managed to avoid paddling back around the islands by taking a short cut through a culvert. The GoPro was removed this time in anticipation, but we had loads of room and both stayed in the boat to paddle through. A short haul over a beach saw us heading east once more in brilliant sunshine and light winds, hoping to reach Terrace Bay, some 40km away. 

But our heads were not in it that day. Apart from the effects of the wine, we’ve increasingly had to turn our thoughts to home, and what comes next after the trip. Whilst we’ve been out here we’ve both managed to secure jobs in Perth, Australia, for 2018, which we’re delighted about. Cas doing a fellowship in paediatric anaesthesia, and myself as an anaesthetic registrar. This means paperwork, lots of it, which is tricky and stressful from a canoe and a tent in a foreign country! We’ve resented re-engaging with the real world, but we couldn’t put it off any longer and spent much of the day discussing the visa process and medical admin. We also thought my job might start in early January, which would probably mean an imminent finish to this trip. We were deflated, and upset that we weren’t even taking in the incredible scenery around us. This stretch of Superior is rocky, with lush, rich trees overhanging basalt and granite cliffs above cobalt blue water, stretching out to emerald green shallows around jagged outcrops and islands. In the coves are beaches of white, black or pink sand awash with driftwood from Superior’s perennial swells. It was a travesty not to be soaking in every moment on this great inland sea.

But Superior doesn’t let you dwell for long, and the afternoon brought the predictable wind, and returned our attention to the paddling. After a couple of short but uncomfortable crossings we reached the beach at Terrace Bay around 4pm and, wine gums all but finished, decided to call it a day. We quickly bumped into a couple of friendly locals who told us the town itself was a 40 minute walk, so another bottle of wine was out of the question. We headed to one end of the bay and set about dinner. Whilst this was cooking one of the locals, Luigina, returned. She strolled up to us carrying Boursin, a bottle of wine and an entire coffee cake. Cas politely started to suggest we couldn’t eat an entire cake, but I soon put a stop to such nonsense and gratefully accepted the gifts. Such acts of generosity continue to define this country for us.

Terrace Bay beach – wine gum dismay rapidly replaced by coffee cake joy…

That night was cold, which has started to become the norm as the summer recedes into the memory banks: we now dive into the tent after sundown to escape the chill rather than the mossies. We were on the water early to beat the winds and crossed a series of 3-4km bays on our way to Neys Beach, a former POW camp set on a 2km stretch of sand. Cas started with gloves on for the first time in months, but this luxury was short lived as one decided to sneak over the side when no-one was looking. Her capacity to lose stuff continues to astound me. As the swells built again in the afternoon we picked our way through narrow channels, avoiding the worst of the wind. The open water is taking its toll, with my shoulder reminding me of its injured status, and Cas’s muscles tight and painful too. We paddled well all day, and were rewarded with a fun surf landing onto the beach at Neys. After finding a nice spot to camp we settled down to share a beer with the park ranger, Robert.

Glorious Neys Beach

 Sunset at Terrace Bay

Fog and a gentle swell greeted us on what was to be our final day paddling on Superior. We headed around Neys Peninsula as the sun rose over the lake, considering ourselves so lucky to be on this great adventure. The scenery east of here becomes more hilly, with steeper cliffs of grey and pink, set against an almost tropical looking forest. 

Canada: where the trains are so long they snake around 2 huge headlands and into the distance.

Past Marathon, our destination for the day, Pukaskwa National Park juts out in to the lake, giving over 200km of uninhabited, wild shoreline, with another 200km beyond to reach Sault Ste. Marie and St Mary’s River. It is with this in mind that we have been considering our options. Our delays, due to weather and injury, combined with a forecast of strong winds typical for September, mean that to continue on Lake Superior would be to accept not reaching Quebec. Indeed, we would possibly not get further than the end of this lake. We were both resigned to driving from Marathon to ‘The Soo’ to enable us to see more of this wonderful country, and the colours of Quebec in the fall. But Superior wasn’t going to let us go easily. Our final 5km crossing into the bay at Marathon was increasingly rough as the forecast souterlies picked up, giving a confused sea and tossing us around like a cork. Testamount to our improved paddling abilities we both enjoyed the challenge, as waves broke across the gunwales and our deck earned her place once again. 

Tired, sore and with mixed emotions we arrived at the boat launch, just as a truck and boat arrived to go fishing. Gary and Evelyn were soon joined by Phil and Lucy, friends of theirs who had been out fishing and watched us paddle past. After some discussion about the conditions on the lake, no more boats were launched. But our Bertha found herself on Phil’s boat trailer as they gave us a lift through town to the campsite. Grateful for not having to haul the boat 3km through town, we arrived at Penn Lake campground to finalise our onward plans. Evelyn arrived later with firewood, and we’ve spent a lovely couple of days getting our thoughts and paperwork together and spending some time in the town. We’ve even enjoyed an afternoon with Betty, a 95 year old Swedish friend of Evelyn’s who paints lovely landscape images on large fungi gathered from the woods. But now, as we write this, we are watching the trees turn to red and gold and making our way 400km southeast, to Sault Ste. Marie, where we will put Bertha back in the water.

The mornings may be cold but they are also incredibly beautiful – we’re into the time of year when the fog is on the water and the sun is lower and the light is stunning

What we’ve learnt: 

Superior is the world’s biggest freshwater lake, holding 10% of the world’s fresh water.

Spread out, it contains enough to cover the entire continent – both north and South America – with a foot of water.

Our paddling has improved immeasurably since those early days back in Alberta!

There are actual people who work in actual gold mines in Canada!

Coffee cake is cake that goes with coffee, not coffee flavoured cake…

Thanks go to:

  • All our friends and family who are keeping our admin in check back home.
  • Luigina, for the gifts and good wishes.
  • Robert for the beers and lift to the store.
  • The Marathon posse, especially Evelyn for the food and keeping our woods supplies topped up.
  • Mike, Spitzii and David for all their words of wisdom and support.

Mother Superior 

The area between the Sleeping Giant and Rossport is still well paddled so there are a fair few ‘rustic’ campsites. We lucked out and found one of these tucked onto the north shore of a well sheltered island just short of our next crossing. And then sat there for 2 days. It was so well protected from wind and swell that we struggled to believe the weather was really that bad, but a severe weather warning for strong winds and big swell covered the entire of west Lake Superior, and on looking through binoculars at the treetops behind us and on the other side of the bay we could convince ourselves to sit tight… we whiled away the time with our books and Lord of the Rings, made some necessary repairs, battled with the tarp and failed to catch some more fish. It was a particularly pretty camp though and we told ourselves there were worse places we could be stuck… 

By Sunday morning the weather was due to have settled so we were up early to make the most of it. As usual, Mike was out of the tent first but returned pretty smartish. 

‘It’s bloody freezing! And I can’t see a thing!’. 

‘That’s because you’ve got us up before dawn…’ I may have replied. 

‘Nope, dense fog. Can’t even see the water.’ 

We had breakfast in the tent and found our extra layers before packing up and setting off. Mike was right, it was freezing and we couldn’t see a thing, and the first glimmers of dawn had the same effect as full beams in fog: quite magical but entirely unhelpful. Still, armed with GPS and compass we were able to progress with me trying to describe to Mike whereabouts we were. At one point, questioning a direction change, he said ‘nope, I just can’t visualise it’ to which I said ‘I’m writing ‘Happy Birthday Phil’ with our track!’. He stopped asking questions after that… 

Two days of strong south westerlies had created a pretty significant swell which we enjoyed rolling over on the crossings. There were vacuoles in the fog which gave us glimpses of the coast but most of the time we could just hear the waves crashing on the shore somewhere off our beam. And then suddenly they were crashing in front of us and beside us and behind us and we found ourselves amongst some rocky islets not marked on the map. We dove in to the shore and had ’emergency coffee’ (read: chocolate) until we could see a bit more.

Whilst on the shore we spotted a double sea kayak paddling past and out straight through all the breakers. ‘People!!!’ I squeaked. But they were already swallowed by the fog. Amazingly we caught up with them a few kilometres along the coast. We’d been behind them for a while when they abruptly turned to head out to sea – nearly t-boning them we saw the name of their boat: Titanic! We stopped for a chat and they asked if we’d found any of the ‘Secret Saunas’. ‘Then the stories are true???’ We asked. They very kindly pointed the next one out on the map and we promptly paddled our socks off to get to it. 

Tucked deep into a bay where we undoubtedly would have missed it is the CPR slip (I may be giving away Superior secrets here but I’m trusting to our readership not to tell…). A cabin, several pontoons, a big fire pit and a HUGE sauna! We had the fire lit before we’d even unpacked the boat or explored further – we’d noticed the weather was distinctly cooler since we’d stopped in Thunder Bay but now it was most certainly Autumn and any opportunity to warm up was very welcome! 

We had considered carrying on that evening but once clean and warm, we really treated ourselves and spent the night in the cabin which meant food at a table and a bunk to sleep in. Ultimate luxury. 

Knowing the weather was against us we set off the next day to paddle in the relative shelter of St Ignace island which was stunning, and then got absolutely brutalised by conflicting wind and 2m swell on the exposed sections south of Simpson island. Physically and mentally exhausted we pulled into a beach which had looked promising on the map. Not a spot to pitch a tent (but lots of wild peas, surprisingly, which we happily harvested for dinner). We had lunch and discussed and eventually carried on just around the headland to find ‘MacKay cove’ – another backcountry campsite, maintained by volunteers and beautifully sheltered. Think of it as a bothy but without the building… we spent 2 nights waiting out some fierce northerlies, reading and eating warm bannock for lunch and drying our kit. It was all very relaxing apart from being woken by something tripping over one of our guys ropes at night and then thundering off into the bush… 

With the freezing northerlies reportedly subsiding we set out towards Rossport… and pulled in again after 5km to let them actually subside. Waiting it out on a tiny pebble beach, which we convinced ourselves we could probably camp on if we really had to, we kept a pretty close eye on the channel we needed to get across. 

Eventually the white caps disappeared and we made fairly short work of the 2.5km crossing. Gaining a bit more shelter in between the islands of Rossport we planned to head to a provincial park along the coast. Then we got some mobile signal and found out about the restaurant in Rossport… and the cabins. We didn’t make the campsite! 

What we learnt: 

Superior is beautiful but frustrating in equal measure.

The saunas aren’t a myth.

Cas’s navigating isn’t half as shonky as it used to be!

Thanks go to:

Carole and Yvan for the tip off!

The lovely couple who let a pair of stinky paddlers join their table in the packed restaurant.

Physician chill thyself…

After just over a week in Thunder Bay we finally got back on the water and paddled away from Joan’s cabin. We cannot thank her enough for her kindness in allowing us to stay, giving us the chance to rest and the hope that we might be able to carry on. The combination of rest, anti-inflammatories and a steroid injection by the fantastic Dr Wark at her sports medicine clinic settled the shoulder pain down for now. The diagnosis: supraspinatus and biceps tendonitis due to the many and prolonged portages. Another injury for my quite extensive collection. 

Beautiful Lake Superior

Our first day back in the boat could not have been better – sunshine, very light winds and flat calm. I was nervous, hyper-aware and not exactly brimming with confidence, but we had to try. Thirty kilometres later, sat on the opposite side of Thunder Bay looking back and having noticed only a few small twinges, all seemed well. But we both had an unsettled night, in part due to the shoulder, but largely due to the novelty of being back out again, listening all night for noises around the tent. I sat on the beach the next morning tired, dejected and about ready to give up. I proclaimed, with tears welling up in my eyes, that I thought I might be done. I pretty much was and thought this might be the trip’s end. But we knew this would be hard. We had spoken about the loss of momentum and how difficult it would be to get that back. How we needed to give it time to make paddling a boat all day, every day, normal again. Yes there’s the delight of waking up to birdsong and splashing clear lake water on our faces; the simplicity of 2 mugs, 2 plates, 2 bowls; the joy of watching otters playing whilst the sound of the Loons echoes across the lake. But then there’s the discomfort of being in the boat for hours; the monotony of the endless paddle strokes; the constant eye on the weather and the uncertainty of finding somewhere to camp. Good or bad, over the last 3 1/2 months these things have become our world. Our enforced break had taken us away from these and plunged us back into the real world. But we weren’t ready for that again yet. After much discussion, more tears, and another cup of tea, we decided I wasn’t done. My wife’s words: “I’ll tell you when you’re done”. Welcome to married life.

The Sleeping Giant
The paddling that day was brief. We managed 10km before a storm forced us into the shore. We eventually found a campsite after first nearly losing a paddle and potentially the boat by not pulling her high enough up the bank in a swell. We were definitely out of practice. The sort of storm after which the bay must be named crackled around us all night with the ground shaking from the proximity the strikes, and the next morning dawned, just, giving us our first taste of Superior fog. Rounding the cape we pulled in to the bird observatory at the end of the Sleeping Giant peninsula and were warmly welcome by Rinchen, the resident ornithologist. Amongst many other things we finally learned who has been singing the first few notes of the Snowman to us since Alberta – a white throated sparrow. We also learned that Rinchen used to live in Cannonmills, Edinburgh. Small world indeed. Continuing on we passed the small village of Silver Islet, once home to the largest silver mine in the world, and camped in a calm bay waiting for the wind to fall.

The Giant’s lover…?
Early the next morning we set out to leave the Giant behind us. This was a significant moment, as for the next 150km there would be no opportunity to quit. There are few habitations and no roads until Rossport. This was us saying the shoulder was good for now, we were going to carry on. We celebrated with over 40km of stunning paddling. Lake Superior celebrated with a full day of wind, but we managed to pick our way through the islands and battled across the gaps to find a suitable spot for the next 3 nights – two days of 20+ knot southerlies were forecast and we were going into hiding.