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Lake Superior

As I left Winnipeg with my Dad, after an enjoyable and much needed break with my sister Deb and her sons Jake and Kody, I’d originally planned to get back on the water in Thunder Bay Ontario and head out from there. While camped out with my Dad that night though, about an hours drive from Thunder Bay, I asked Dad (also an avid paddler) if he would be interested in joining me for a couple days on the water if I were to start in Rossport instead of in Thunder Bay.

If we launch from Rossport, we could paddle in and around the Rossport Isles, do a loop around a few of the islands before returning to Rossport where Dad would resume his drive back to Nova Scotia and I would start paddling eastwards. From Thunder Bay on the other hand, If Dad were to join me there, he’d have to backtrack along the same waters we’d already paddled, as I continued on eastwards by myself. I figured I could just as easily start in Rossport as Thunder Bay…either way, I’ll be returning to Superior again next year to finish off the middle section of the trip that I ended up skipping over this year. If starting in Rossport this time around, a 2-hour drive east of thunder Bay, would mean a couple of days paddling with my Dad on Lake Superior, I was all for it!

In the end, Dad decided he would join me on the water for a couple of days so we pushed on for Rossport. When we arrived, we pulled up next to Superior Outfitters, the local sea kayak outfitting shop where my friend Crystallee has done some guiding over the years. Crystallee has shipped out my next box of supplies…food, maps and books…to Rossport where I’ll pick them up from David, the owner of the outfitters. There was nobody at the outfitters building when we arrived….they were likely out on the lake with clients. No problem though, we unloaded our boats and gear, packed our boats and headed out onto the lake, paddling out to Wilson Island, setting up camp at Sandy Beach where we’d both camped 4 years ago during a previous trip. I’ll check in with David when Dad and I head back into Rossport in a couple of days.

The paddle over to our island campsite took us about an hour, passing several other islands along the way. We stopped and chatted with a small group of 4 sea kayakers who were just finishing off a trip from Silver Islet, near Thunder Bay, to Rossport, they looked like they were having a great trip! Over on Wilson Island we went ashore, unloaded our gear and hauled our boats …mine a Clipper Sea 1 solo canoe built of kevlar, Dad’s a wood strip sea kayak of his own design that he built 5 years ago. Just inside the trees above the sandy beach is a small clearing with room for a few tents, a firepit, some crude…but comfy wooden benches and an equally crude equally effective wooden table about waist high. It is a great little campsite and having spent a couple nights here in the past, I was pretty happy to be back once again.

We passed the evening by sitting and talking around the campfire, enjoying a tasty supper along with a couple of cans of beer before calling it a night and retiring to our tents.

The next morning we awoke to a beautiful sunny day on Lake Superior, the type of day you just sometimes feel like kicking back, relaxing and not doing a whole heck of a lot if you know what I mean. Well, it seems that Dad and I both felt that way today. We had a leisurely breakfast and ended up deciding to use our present camp as a base-camp for a second day and head out later on for a day paddle out around Wilson Island, admiring the rugged beauty of this pristine island on this amazing lake. We took our time, exploring the little coves and inlets, terraced cobblestone beaches and spectacular scenery along the way, paddling out amongst a couple of the tiny islands just outside of Wilson before heading back to camp.

The following day we were going to head back into Rosport and Dad would load his boat onto the car and get ready to drive back to Nova Scotia. Myself, I’d pack the rest of my gear into my canoe and, with luck, pick up a package that was shipped out to me last week from my friend Crystallee in Calgary.

When we headed off to our tents for the night, it looked like we were in for some rain overnight, maybe thunder and lightning showers according to the weather forecast from my VHF radio (Compliments of Marlin at Clipper Canoes, my canoe sponsor for this trip). Sure enough, I awoke during the night to the sound of thunder and heavy rainfall pelting the flysheet of my Kelty tent. Despite some recent repair work on the seams of the tent, I got up in the morning to find a couple of small puddles of water along the floor of the tent….nope, I was not too impressed with the tent at this point! This tent, the Sage 2 from Kelty, I bought new just before beginning my expedition. I’d had great success with a couple of Kelty tents in the past but so far, I was not at all happy with this one!

The rain eased off to a light drizzle by the time we got up to break camp and we packed away our wet gear, had a quick breakfast, loaded the boats up and hit the water. Before heading back over to the mainland however, we each took the time to catch a few waves, riding along on the building swells working their way in along the channel. Once we were back in Rossport, we started sorting out our gear, Dad loading up the car for the drive to Nova Scotia, myself loading the canoe with supplies for my trip down Superior and along the Georgian Bay, up the French River and on to Lake Nippissing where my next food drop would be waiting for me. I walked up to Superior Outfitters, talked to Dave Tamblyn, the owner, but my box from Crystallee had yet to arrive. No problem, I’d just head over to nearby Healy Island, about a 30 minute paddle away, make camp there and take it east for the next day or two until my package showed up.

By now it was a heavy rain and, back down at the lake, I scrambled to finish packing the canoe, trying not to get all of my gear soaking wet in the process….yeah right, good luck! Soon though I was packed, had the spray cover fastened in place and was all set to push off. Dad and I said our goodbyes and in a couple more minutes, I was back on the water, paddling off towards the islands once again. Once I arrived at Healy Island, I unpacked the canoe quickly, setting up my tarp in a small clearing in the tress just off the beach. Next was the tent….the stupid leaking tent! I set it up directly underneath my 8′ by 10′ Integral Designs tarp, hoping to at least keep the leakage to a minimum seeing that the forecast is for rain for at least the next three days.

I ended up spending three nights camped out here at Healy Island, making a daily trip over to Rossport to check on my package. I picked it up from Dave on Wednesday afternoon and spent the evening back in camp getting things repacked and ready to paddle off the following morning. Luckily the rains had stopped by the time I got back in camp and the rest of the night turned out beautiful as I got organized for tomorrow. After I’d finished my “work” for the day, I spent a couple of hours sitting on the rocky lakeshore, reading “A Walk In The Woods” by Bill Bryson, a tale of an attempt to Thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. It was a great book, very well written and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I started it the evening I arrived at Healy Island and was finishing it tonight, just three evenings later. What else do you do when camping in the rain in the same place for three days right? Thanks for the loan of a really good book Linda, it came in handy!

Waking up at around 4:30 AM the next morning to answer the call of nature…too many hot chocolates last night…I was treated to an incredibly beautiful night sky. Not a cloud to be seen and just a beautiful star-filled sky, the milky way clearly visible in the heavens overhead, a light breeze in the air…just enough to keep the mosquitoes away. After enjoying the view for a few more minutes, I went back into the tent, crawled into my sleeping bag and grabbed another couple hours of sleep before getting up for good, having a hearty breakfast and breaking camp.

The lake was calm as I eased the Clipper out into the water, slipping the blade of my paddle into the mirror like surface of the lake and paddling off, finally on my way towards the waters of the Atlantic once again. Now that I’ve decided to turn this into a 2-year paddling expedition rather than a 1 year trip, due mainly to becoming very ill while paddling on the Churchill River and falling well behind schedule, I had made the decision to slow things down and take my time on Lake Superior, I now had the time to not just paddle Superior but to really see and explore the shoreline of this incredible lake, heading into numerous small bays and coves, paddling along the rocky shoreline, passing by the cliffs close enough to reach out and actually touch some of the oldest rocks on earth! The lake was very calm today and the canoe seemed to glide along almost effortlessly as I soaked in the warm sun and savoured the sensational scenery. Yeah, life is pretty good right about now!

During the first days paddle out from the Rossport Islands, I was surprised by how many great looking beaches I encountered, numerous sandy beaches, perfect for camping as well as countless beach of rounded white cobblestones, all littered with an abundant supply of driftwood for campfires and with spectacular views of Superior. The scenery was out of this world with rugged headlands, rocky cliffs, beautiful wind & wave sculpted rock formations formed over thousands of years of interaction with the forces of nature. Also conspicuous by it’s absence was litter…virtually no litter for kiloeter upon kilometer of this vast and still nearly pristine shoreline. A true paddlers paradise.

Several places along the way I encountered sections of the Coastal Hiking Trail that follows much of Lake Superior’s northern shores, trails which periodically travel directly along some of these pristine beaches and over rocky headlands. While paddling I found myself contemplating how much fun it would be to return here to do some backpacking along these trails, to see the lake from the perspective of the trail…from her beaches to the bluffs and headlands, it would be a totally different perspective from the viewpoint from on the water by either canoe or sea kayak. Backpacking is another activity that I enjoy a great deal but unfortunately rarely get to participate in. It seems that paddling always comes first followed by cycling (road biking and mountain biking) while backpacking tends to get relegated to being third on my list so to speak due to the paddling and cycling always consuming the bulk of my free time.

Right from the start when I first began planning this trip, I always thought that Lake Superior would likely be the highlight of the trip. Being the largest fresh water lake on the planet, it is certainly living up to it’s name…”Superior”. I certainly made the right choice when I decided to slow things down and take my time to savour this amazing lake. There is one other lake that also claims to be the largest on Earth. Lake Baikal of Russian, located in the rugged interior of Siberia is indeed the largest lake on Earth based on sheer volume of water, owing to it’s much greater depth. Lake Superior however has the largest surface area, hence the longest shoreline, being the biggest lake in that regard.

Incidentally, speaking of Lake Baikal, I have two friends, Brandon and Heather Nelson, who just last year, in the summer of 2003 circumnavigated Baikal by sea kayak, travelling in a pair of Current Designs sea kayaks. It sounded like an amazing journey and you can read their account by going to their website at www.chargelife.com

In fact, some of the gear I’m using on my trip, including the Brunton solar panel for charging the laptop that I’m typing on right now, belongs to the Nelson’s. I wonder how much outdoors gear out there have travelled the shores now of BOTH Lake Superior and Lake Baikal?

The first few days of paddling after leaving the Rossport area were in great weather with generally small water conditions…from complete calm to small swells of maybe two feet or so. I was beginning to wonder if I was going to experience some of the harsher conditions and big water that Lake Superior is famous for? I’d be somewhat disappointed if it remained this tame for the entire portion of my paddling here on Superior. As I was soon to find out however, I need not have worried about that. Things would change soon enough!

On the third day after leaving the islands of Rossport behind, on a warm and sunny day with just a slight breeze early in the morning, I broke camp as usual, loaded the canoe and paddled off, anxious to see what lay around the next corner…and the next one and the next one and so on….

Gradually the wind starting picking up as I made a crossing of a bay 6 or 7 kilometers across towards Neys Provincial Park on the mainland and Pic Island just offshore. This itself is a beautiful area, if you are ever get the chance to paddle here…do it! Just after a brief stop for a snack on a rocky outcrop of pink bedrock, warmed by the sun, I saw a trio of kayakers a few hundred meters away, heading in the opposite direction towards the seaward side of Pic Island, the first paddlers I’d seen since Rossport. Later that same day, near the small town of Marathon, I met up with two more sea kayakers, a couple from Duluth Minnesota, paddling a pair of plastic sea kayaks from Current Designs. They were on Day 35 of a circumnavigation all the way around Lake Superior! Wow, that would be an incredible trip! We talked for awhile about our respective trips and exchanged some relevant route information before we both paddled on, continuing our own journeys, heading in opposite directions. I never did get their names but if they happen to read this…please email me, I’d like to talk to you about your trip!

Meeting this couple, paddling the perimeter of Lake Superior, made me think of my good friend Crystallee. She too plans to circumnavigate Lake Superior one of these summers. She grew up in Thunder Bay on the western end of the lake and has done extensive sea kayak guiding on Superior out of Rossport Ontario for Superior Outfitters, the sea kayak outfitters owned and operated by Dave Tamblyn. Crystallee is currently finishing work on a sea kayaking guidebook for the section of Lake Superior from Silver Islet, near Thunder Bay, to the Slate Islands, east of Rossport. This book should be a wealth of information and will be a must-have for anyone wishing to canoe or kayak this section of Superior. I can hardly wait to obtain my own copy from her as soon as it is off the press!

Not long after meeting these two kayakers, I went ashore on a beautiful cobblestone beach just the other side of Marathon. It was meant to be just a lunch break, it was only 3:00 PM after all. Well, I liked this spot so much that I ended up making camp right here on a small sandy section in the midst of all the head-sized cobblestones. As I relaxed around my small campfire, sipping hot chocolate and doing a bit of reading and writing in my journal, I noticed the waves gradually building more and more, breaking as they neared the beach. Nothing too big and I never thought too much about it at the time as I was far too busy just relaxing, living life to the fullest. Yup, life is good….certainly beats the hell out of the alternative which would have been to stick around doing the 9 to 5 Monday to Friday routine. I think I picked a good time to do this expedition, better than risk sitting in a chair years down the road thinking “I wish I’d done that canoe trip I’d wanted to do years ago”! Definitely no regrets here. At the same time though, I still miss all my friends back out in BC.

The following morning is when I got my wish…I got to see some of the Lake Superior conditions I’d been looking forward to. What’s that old saying? Be careful what you wish for? Can you say “Windbound”?

Stay tuned here for the scoop on what came next as I entered a 180 kilometer section of remote wilderness paddling along the Lake Superior coast, from Pukaskaw National Park down to Michipicoten River and Naturally Superior Adventures.

Cheers…Joe O’Blenis