Our kayaks are gliding over water like crystal. It’s hard to tell if the boulders under our keels are one meter down or ten. We’re hugging a strip of beach but just behind it the rugged island rears up cloaked in green.
We’re not in British Columbia and we’re not in Belize. This is Lake Superior — the North Shore. The water is clear but cold. There are caribou tracks on the beach. And we are only a day’s drive from Winnipeg.
If you mention sea kayaking to most Winnipeggers, their thoughts turn to the West Coast. Yet several outfitters offer a variety of guided trips much closer to home.
You can spend days or weeks on the greatest of the Great Lakes. Superior could well be a fourth sea in Canada’s informal “sea to sea to sea” motto. The world’s largest fresh water lake is positively oceanic. Even a short distance from shore it can be 150 meters deep and it reaches a maximum depth of some 400 meters.
Today, Canadian tour operators’ offerings span the lake from the Sibley (Sleeping Giant) peninsula near Thunder Bay through the National Marine Conservation Area announced in 2007, to the spectacular swaths of eastern coastline in Pukaskwa National Parkand Lake Superior Provincial Park.
You don’t have to be an eco-warrior to take a trip. There are tours available for every level of experience, although a reasonable level of fitness and a day’s kayak course under your belt are desirable.
I’ve come to the Slate Islands with Caribou Expeditions, an established tour operator based in Goulais River on Superior’s eastern shore and owned by Mike and Colleen Petzold (who share my last name but are not related to me, so no family rate). Since the 1990s they have offered guided sea kayak tours, river trips, kayak instruction, outfitting and even lodge-based whale watching from kayaks on the Saguenay. They sometimes kayak on Superior in the winter.
We rendezvous at a motel near the ghost town of Jackfish, ON. Our destination is an archipelago in the northernmost reaches of Lake Superior. The Slates are located directly south of Terrace Bay and where the ten kilometre open water crossing keeps out casual visitors. They are made up of two main islands, five minor ones and a number of small islets.
Since 1985 the islands have been a Natural Environment Provincial Park, best known for their hundreds of woodland caribou. There are no residents, no staff and no facilities. This particular trip is still suitable for all levels of experience.
We have several hours of instruction and evaluation on nearby Jackfish Lake before we head across to the Slates the next morning. I’m told to “sit up straight”. Kayaking is great for your posture. As the only Manitoban I am at the low end of the experience spectrum. I can boast of little except trying to stay out of the goose poop during a course at Fort Whyte Alive.
You don’t have to do Eskimo rolls to take a kayak trip. But you will be asked to capsize, escape your kayak (basically fall out) and then slither back in with some assistance from your partner. It’s not that shocking an experience when you are wearing a wet suit. Since this is a fully outfitted trip, Mike and Colleen have turned up with wet suits as needed, as well as tents, kayaks, safety equipment, cooking equipment, food, sleeping pads, etc. I only have to worry about my own sleeping bag and clothing, and elected to bring my own life jacket.
We catch our ride to the Slates in nearby Terrace Bay, shoehorning our kayaks and gear onto and into the shuttle boat. The blue hills of the Slates beckon on the horizon as we bob over a healthy swell.
The Slates impress. They are hilly — the highest point in the islands is about 120 meters above lake level- and heavily wooded. Although there was logging here many years ago, today we are hard-pressed to see any open ground.
We leave behind the breakers on the perimeter of the islands to camp on a quiet interior channel. My tent is on the beach, so close to the lapping water that at night I have the eerie feeling of sleeping in a canoe. The view reminds me of a Group of Seven painting; not surprising given that the North Shore is the setting for some of their most iconic pictures.
The first night we stand and gape at the sky. We are at Superior’s widest point — Marquette, Michigan on the south shore is over 240 kilometres south of us — and the absolute darkness brings out thousands of stars and quite a few meteorites. Ironically, the Slates are believed to have been created by an ancient meteor impact.
On our first full day we don our wetsuits and circumnavigate Mortimer, the main northern island, paddling perhaps 18 kilometres on a glorious sunny day. In many places the heavily wooded hills give way to cliffs that drop straight into the blue water but there were a few beaches to break up the trip or spread a lunch buffet.
Our second day we explore the winding passages between the main islands. It could be blowing a gale on Superior but these waterways are always calm. Here we find more evidence of the islands’ human past.
We paddle by an iron ring set in a rock outcrop — till the 1940s boomed logs from the mainland were stockpiled in the islands before being towed to mills. There are still a few cabins or shacks scattered through the islands quietly rotting away, left by former squatters.
When we poke inside one shack we find a guestbook which we dutifully sign with a crayon. In the afternoon we haul up at a stony beach and Mike leads us into an abandoned copper mine. We scramble into a large tunnel where we walk a short distance straight back into the cliff. It ends at a vertical shaft –thankfully full of water.
The largest island, Patterson, boasts some of the most spectacular shoreline and, at the southern tip is the Slate Islands lighthouse — over a hundred years old. The lighthouse itself is a relatively humble wooden octagonal structure, but it is reported to be the “highest” lighthouse on the Great Lakes. Its hilltop setting is 68 meters above the water. The light has been automated since 1989. The former light keeper’s residence is now rented, surely one of the most secluded “cottages” on the Great Lakes.
Like many isolated island groups, there are gaps in the food chain here. Caribou crossed over from the mainland to the islands in the early 1900s and flourished in an environment with no predators and little competition. There are no wolves, no bears, no moose and no deer. Nothing else is bigger than a beaver or fox.
Before a population crash in 1990, the caribou vacuumed up lichen and peaked at some 650 on the islands. Mike tells us that they often wander into a camp to chew on charcoal from the fire.
Colleen refers to the kayak business as a “labour of love.” Perhaps she meant the food.
Colleen works miracles on a Coleman stove. This is not a freeze-dried expedition. Breakfast might be french toast or pancakes or fruit-laced oatmeal — please pass the mangoes, where’s the maple syrup? Dinner might be salmon or ginger chicken rice. One night Mike broils steaks and baked potatoes on the fire and we follow up with corn on the cob.
In the end, some incoming weather results in two of us reluctantly hitching a ride out a day early, to avoid the possibility of being socked in an extra day. Our ride is a local doctor heading home after several weeks cruising on Superior and Huron. We spend several pleasant rainy hours steaming down the coast in the 12.8 meter Iron Lady to his home port of Rossport. Before threading the needle into Rossport harbour he tells us how the local innkeeper punched out rocker Bob Seger for refusing to stop smoking.
I was hooked. I signed on for a trip on the Gargantua coast in Lake Superior Provincial Park for the next year and found: beaches and blueberries and paddle-by pictographs. And at least one out of body experience chasing an otter when I looked down in the clear water and my kayak seemed suspended in midair.
Winnipeggers should give Canada’s Inland Sea a chance and try out magical places like Gargantua, Pukaskwa and Michipicoten. It’s only a day away.
If you go:
Caribou Expeditions: (www.caribou-expeditions.com ) offers trips for novice to advanced paddlers. Mike and Colleen Petzold live on Lake Superior and it is their focus, although they have kayaked from Baja toNewfoundland. Great web site. North Shore kayak tours are also offered by Naturally Superior and Superior Outfitters.
Rossport: (www.rossport.ca) you should stop at this tiny former fishing village. It boasts a beautiful harbour with a sprinkling of B and B’s, a good restaurant — Serendipity Gardens — open year round, another kayak outfitter, and the Rossport Inn, a local landmark dating to 1884 when the railway arrived.
Coach House Motel: (www.coachhousemotel.net) the motel near Terrace Bay dates from the 1960s, nothing fancy but owners Dennis and Patti Fisher have it gleaming and they will make you breakfast. Launch your kayak at the beach across the highway with access to Lake Superior. Or stop here as a midpoint on two-day long hauls to Southern Ontario. May to October. Terry Fox stayed here.
Paddle Manitoba: (www.paddle.mb.ca) do yourself a favour and take a course. One day flat water kayak courses at the Fort Whyte Centre are a good start.