Growing up only a 2 hour drive from Lake Superior, I never realized how fortunate that I was. Each summer, my parents would take us on a weekend trip into harbor towns such as Ashland, Bayfield, Superior and Duluth. Some of my favorite trips were those up Minnesota's north shore. It was a scenic delight, stopping at places like the Split Rock Lighthouse and Goosebury Falls.
Along the way there are a number of roadside pull-offs, each of which highlights rivers and streams as they make their final drops to the level of Lake Superior. Despite these many wonderful trips, it never failed that each one stopped just short of the U.S./Canada border. Canada seemed forever a mystery to me. This all changed in August 2011, when Jennifer and I loaded our sea kayaks and gear and headed north. We not only returned to Minnesota's shores of Lake Superior, but onward across that mysterious border crossing into Canada. In two days time, our journey had taken us half way around Lake Superior to our destination in the Slate Islands Provincial Park of Ontario. This is an extended summary of our adventure.
Driving from southern Wisconsin, we spent one day traveling across the state and into Minnesota, making quick stops at several of the scenic parks and waysides on the north shore. For a first-time visitor, exploring these places alone could make for a lengthy but worthwhile vacation. It was my intention to stop and get a motel room in Grand Marais MN, but that plan was foiled by an overabundance of tourists, who left nary a vacant room. Slightly exasperated, we continued on through Grand Portage and to the Pigeon River border crossing. Passports in hand we were asked a few questions, and were officially granted access into Canada.
With darkness falling fast, we spent another hour looking for moose as we made our way to the city of Thunder Bay. Once there, we again had trouble finding a vacant motel room. My idea of "winging it" was not turning out so well. With over 13 hours and 600 miles of driving behind us, it was about 11pm when we finally found a run-down motel in an older area of town and were finally able to rest our heads for the night.
We woke the following morning, happy to see that our vehicle and kayaks were still where we left them. After breakfast at a local diner, we poked around Thunder Bay for a bit before making a side-trip to the spectacular Kakabeka waterfalls in a park to the northwest of town. Unfortunately, we didn't have proper change for the park's parking meter, so rather than explore, we ran down to see the view and snap a few pictures and were back on the road shortly thereafter.
While this was indeed a "paddling trip", I found that driving the Trans-Canada Highway and seeing part of Canada's north shore from the road was a big highlight of the adventure. From Thunder Bay eastward, the scenery often seems to go up, and up, and up. Off shore are many large islands, some of which rise out of the water for several hundred feet, and form a plateau often topped with boreal forest. It didn't click at the time, but I had seen some of these islands before. Later I realized that some of these same islands and plateaus are ones that I had seen from Isle Royale a couple of years before.
Once east of Thunder Bay, we drove through mountainous ranges where the highway was carved through solid rock in many places. We stopped to enjoy several scenic overlooks along the way.
Along the way, towns which I though might be more formidable while looking at a map, proved smaller than I had imagined. Among the larger are Nipigon (pop 1750) and Schrieber (pop 900). Just off the highway between the two is the tiny town of Rossport (pop 66) which is the home of Superior Outfitters , the only sea kayak related business we noted on the north shore. Located adjacent to waters protected by the Rossport Islands, it looks like ideal locale for promoting sea kayaking on the Great Lakes.
By mid-afternoon we reached the end of our drive at Terrace Bay Ontario (pop 1625). Terrace Bay is the closest town to the Slate Islands. A recent "revitalization project" resulted in the opening of a sort of strip mall in the town's center, which contains a small grocery, restaurant, and several other businesses. There is also a small hospital, visitor's center, campground, and the local office of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. The focal point of town is a wooden replica of the State Island's lighthouse, which is open for climbing to the top and a nice view of Lake Superior.
Among the other area attractions are 2 beautiful beaches, and Aguasabon Falls, which is a 100' drop of the Aguasabon River. If one were to visit during the spring melt, I am willing to bet that it is a very impressive site. During our visit the water was low, and views of the main drop were shrouded by the surrounding foliage.
We checked into the Aguasabon Falls Campground, which as one might guess, is on the river adjacent to the falls. The campground is much like one would expect, and provided a plot of land for us to pitch a tent for the night. The camp host told us to pick any site, as she wasn't expecting anyone else on a Sunday afternoon. As luck would have it, the campground also sells permits and licenses. There, we were able to buy our Crown Land non-resident camping permits needed for the Slate Islands. The cost of permits was $10 per person per day. This saved us from need to wait for the MRN office to open the following morning.
After setting up our camp for the night, we spent a couple of hours exploring Terrace Bay's lakefront on Lake Superior as we eyeballed our crossing to the Slate Islands. As luck would have it, a lakefront hike amongst giant boulders led me right into huge patches of wild blueberries, which were small but sweet.
Back at camp, evening soon came and went, much of which we spend relaxing and listening to weather forecasts before sacking out for the night.
Monday morning we woke to heavy fog and dew covered everything. We broke camp and went to town for pancakes before paddling. I was hoping some of the fog would burn off during breakfast so that we didn't have to make a blind 7 mile crossing on unfamiliar water. In the diner, I overheard a truck driver ask a waitress how long the fog would last. "It's usually gone after lunch", she said un-surely. Dang.
The Slate Islands Provincial Park is not a park in most common forms of the word. Oddly enough, science has proved that the islands are the center of a large meteor impact crater, with evidence of a crater rim 20 miles in diameter. In 1985, the Ontario government established the Slate Islands as a "natural environment provincial park". In the islands there are no roads and no developed campsites. A big attraction for me (beyond paddling amongst isolated islands on Lake Superior) were that these islands are home to Ontario's southern-most herd of woodland caribou. Existing trails on these islands are mainly those which have been made by hooves.
After finishing our breakfast, we returned to the mouth of the Aguasabon River, which is adjacent to the beach. A boat launch is provided here which allows boats to make their way out the mouth of the river and onto Lake Superior. We piled all of our drybags of food and gear at the water's edge and began packing our kayaks. Despite the challenges, I find that there is something very satisfying about being able to pack everything one needs to live into a long and skinny boat. As we were packing, I was thankful to see the sun was starting to burn off some of the fog which shrouded the lake.
The crossing from Terrace Bay to the Slate Islands is one of the main sticking points of a visit. With over 7 miles of open water which is exposed to wave fetch from the far ends of the lake, even a moderate wind can create havoc on the water. Once the main crossing is completed, there is plenty of sheltered water between the islands, but it is still 2-3 miles further to a location suitable for setting up camp. Once the camping is over, there is yet the issue of crossing back to the mainland. The lake is the boss, and regardless of forecasts we always pack extra food, knowing that our stay may be extended due to weather. A good rule of thumb during summer on Lake Superior is to plan one weather day for every 3 days of paddling.
On this day we were happy to have light winds and calm conditions. This was particularly nice since we were paddling blindly into the fog with only our compasses to guide us. We were perhaps 1/2 way across before the fog had lifted enough for us to make out the outline of islands in the distance. It felt good to see that my chartwork had us right on target for the channel between Mortimer and Delaute Islands.
About 2-1/2 hours after leaving the mouth of the river, we made our first footprints on a rocky point on the east end of Mortimer Island.
A quick snack and stretching of the legs put us back on the water again a few minutes later. It wasn't until we turned the corner and entered the sheltered waters that I finally began to really size up the area. Sitting at home studying maps and charts never gives me a true feeling for the scale of things. The Slate Islands are big, but not too big. With 7 islands, several additional islets, and over 50 miles of shoreline, I found it quite ideal for a trip of 3-5 days.
Paddling near shore towards McGreevy Harbor, we found the first signs of humans having been there- several canoes overturned up above the high water line. We didn't know what to make of the canoes at first, and thought that the islands might be more populated than we had imagined. Eventually we realized that there was no one around, but that adventurous Terrace Bay residents must leave the canoes out on the islands to use at their convenience after motoring across in larger boats. We also found floating docks at a couple of the more popular areas for camping, and I suspect that the docks may be of the same regard.
On the islands, there are a few old cabin sites from a time previous to the islands becoming protected land. Now being public property, these sites are open to the public- but maintenance, repair, and improvement of the existing structures is no longer permitted. What this means is that nature is slowly taking it's course. All but one of the cabins is in poor condition. The "Come-n-Rest" cabin on McColl island has survived, perhaps because Caribou researchers fixed it up some years ago. Since, it been in use by fishermen, campers, and residents of Terrace Bay. It remains open for any who wish to use it, with the only request being that one must leave it cleaner than they found it. Only time will tell how long this can go on, but it would be an ideal place to "camp" for a couple of days in the Slate Islands.
With our own camp set in McGreevy Harbor, we took advantage of lightened (empty) boats to explore a couple of large bays on the north shore of Patterson Island. Paddling close along a shoreline of steep and solid rock topped with thick boreal forest, there is seldom a sign of human existance. Deep in a bay with water temperatures in the 60's, we took advantage of a sandy point for a swim and snacks.
Throughout the week, the interior waterways of the Slate Islands proved beautiful and rugged. At the same, time the inside passages provided protected water to paddle and explore on days that could be too windy or rough to venture onto open waters. With a fair number of miles behind us on this first day, we returned to camp feeling the effects of a long day of paddling.
With dusk coming, we had dinner and were enjoying the beautiful surroundings, with music of the loons calling across the bay. I was basking in the joy of the moment when I was suddenly startled by the sight of Jennifer running towards me with a look of fearful excitement on her face. It was apparent she was being chased, but this made no sense! As she got near me, it was all she could do to stammer out the words- "CARI, CARI, CARI, MOOSE!! ; IT RAN OUT OF THE WOODS RIGHT TOWARDS ME!!!!" "Caribou?" I asked. "Yea" she said. I couldn't help but to laugh at Jennifer's antics, but I was a bit concerned, as my personal experience with Caribou was right up there with my experience flying the space shuttle. I took a few steps to get a view around a line of trees between us and our camp, and sure enough- we had company.
With about 20 yards between us, I was looking the caribou in the eye, and he, the same of me. It was an obscure looking animal- bigger than a deer, but smaller than a cow. Most impressive was the giant rack of antlers that appeared obscenely large for the head. Not knowing what else to do, I moved slowly across camp to grab my camera. The eyes of the beast were on me every step of the way. His demeanor was not at all what I had expected, as the big bull seemed quite unconcerned by our presence. So much in fact, that as we stood there with great concern he lowered his head to the ground and proceeded to spend the next several minutes eating the grass around our tent. It all seemed very surreal as he slowly munched his way towards the picnic table, when I realized that we could have a problem. We had just finished eating and ALL of our food and kitchen items were spread out across the top of the table! In a flash he was there sniffing away at our goods as I ran up from the other side of the table yelling NOOO!" "GET OUT OF HERE!!"
The bull flinched a bit and stared me in the eye once again, but this time from only an arm's length away. I couldn't help but to think that I might be just short of being gored by the wild animal, but with a little more yelling and flailing of the arms, the bull turned and wandered back into the woods, seemingly unfazed by our encounter.
With the adrenaline rush winding down, we stowed our gear and hung our food as darkness fell upon us. Just as we were turning in, another caribou made it's way through our camp. This one bolted quickly back into the woods as soon as she realized she was not alone. I thought it strange that one would ignore us while another would run away in fear. In the tent during the night I woke several times only to hear the sound of the caribou munching on surrounding grass. I was thankful our tent required no guy-lines or they would of surely been tripping over them. Perhaps it was that I was tired, or half-asleep, but at the time I recall feeling great comfort in the fact that the caribou were there, doing what they do.
The next morning it was apparent that Jen had had enough of the caribou, as when I suggested breaking camp to paddle the exposed open coast to the south side of the island group, she quickly agreed. With that, we broke camp and were off into the fog.
We found the exposed coast of the islands to be more rugged and potentially unfriendly to kayakers than anywhere we had previously been. Much of the shoreline consists of broken vertical rock face, with few good places to land or launch if conditions were not ideal. Where it was possible to land, the shore was steep cobble terraces. At our one stop on a cobble beach, we found that the shallow areas leading into it were lined with a solid bottom of sharp and jagged volcanic rock. I was thankful that there was no surf, or landing might have been a disaster.
By lunch, we had paddled down much of the east shore and the fog had mostly lifted. There are a couple of interesting islets protecting a fairly deep bay on the southeast shore, which looked like it may have been suitable for setting up camp. We wanted to round the corner to see the Slate Islands Lighthouse, but little did I know at the time, our paddle was far from over.
We were happy to see our compasses turning as we rounded onto the south side. It didn't take long before atop one of the island's highest points the lighthouse came into view. Closer to the water's edge we found that there was a residence on top of a rocky shore. Though tempted to stop and meet the residents, we chose to paddle on around the bend and into Sunday Harbor.
In the harbor is the rather unique light-keeper's house. Deep in the harbor we found a good sized cabin cruiser which had seemingly broken down during a previous year and was then tossed up onto the beach during a storm. All the components of the boat appeared to be intact, and I remain curious about the boat to this day.
We spent a couple of hours on that beautiful sand beach, snacking and taking in the sun. I was looking for the perfect spot to pitch our tent for the night when I found a set a wolf tracks on the edge of the beach. This was a surprise, as there has been no documented wolves in the Slate Islands for many years. I took a couple of pictures and forwarded them to the MNR on our return to civilization.
It wasn't long after finding the wolf tracks that Jennifer surprised me by explaining that she wanted to finish the island circumnavigation instead of camping in Sunday Harbor. Happy to see that she was feeling good about committing to a 20+ mile day, I figured that I should jump at the chance. After looking over our charts, we refilled our supply of drinking water and headed up the rugged western coast.
With the afternoon sun upon us, the island took on a glow. Every couple of miles the rocky shore changed from black to blue, then reds, and golds. With the sun also came the winds, and after a long day of exposed coast, we were happy to make our way back into the protected waters between Patterson and Mortimer islands.
A couple of more miles brought us into Copper Harbor, and our home for the next 2 days. Within the harbor we had our own private sand beach, protected from the winds by a massive outcropping of solid rock. In the woods we found a flat terrace on the side of a large hill, just big enough for our tent. We slept well that night despite a hard rain, which was the only of our trip.
The next day we could hear the wind blowing through the tops of the trees. After lolly-gagging in camp for some time, we bush-whacked over a ridge through thick pine forest to get a glimpse back towards the mainland. We found the open waters were churning with wind and waves of good force. It was clear that there would be no open coast paddling today, and I was again thankful for the protection provided by our position between the islands.
Returning from the woods, we found that the rock outcropping protecting our campsite just happened to be an ideal spot to bask in the sun. I cannot speak for Jennifer, but for that afternoon, I felt like I was the king of the Slate Islands.
Eventually, we returned to our boats and went across the harbor to search for the Copper Mine which the harbor was named for. Our search was futile, and having had enough bushwhacking for one day, we gave up the without success and headed back out of Copper Harbor for more exploration.
Making our way around a couple of the smaller inner islands, we stopped to see a couple of the cabin sites that remain. We had passed by the Come-N-Rest cabin on a previous day and saw that a family was staying there. On this day everyone was gone, and it seemed that the the Slates were ours. Visiting the cabins, I couldn't help but to think about the history and people who built and stayed on these islands over the years. Near the cabin we found a large collection of Caribou bones and iron relics which people had recovered over years of exploring the islands.
Near the water's edge sits a cast-iron bathtub which campers fill with lake water and then stoke a fire beneath, for a sort of woodland hot tub. One story is that the tub came from the light-keeper's house during a past renovation. I was thankful that we had been blessed with lake water in the 60's, in which we swam daily. Had we not already had a comfortable camp set up in Copper Harbor, we might have tried cabin life that night.
With the weather forecast calling for strong winds for the next few days, we were faced with the choice of staying in the islands indefinitely, or attempting to paddle out. While we were equipped to spend an extra night or two, the forecast was not on our side even then. We spent our last night enjoying Copper Harbor, and wondering how we missed the Caribou who had left fresh tracks across "our beach" sometime during the day.
We broke camp early in the morning, hoping to beat the winds during our crossing back to the mainland.
The first couple of miles were not comforting, with big swells and confused waves which brought question to every forward stroke. Jennifer was looking confident, perhaps more-so than I was feeling, which was good for both of us. Once we got away from the islands the confused waves were left behind and we were left with only big swell, which was a pleasant but tiresome relief.
I was proud of what we had accomplished, and especially of Jennifer, who had not only paddled long and hard every day, but also kept us fed. Despite the excitement of the crossing, I was left with melancholy knowing that the adventure was winding down. A few miles later and we were loading the truck in preparation for the big juicy cheeseburgers which we knew were only a couple miles inland.
As a visitor, I found Canada to be everything that I hoped for and more. With rugged terrain, giant herbivores, big water, and spectacular islands, our "next trip" is already coming together in my mind.
If you have any thoughts of it, I will just say that even if you never touch the water, the drive alone is worth the trip!