Over 700 miles from Chicago, millions of years of volcanic and glacial activity on Lake Superior’s northern shore have created a sea kayaker’s playground. This playground is located in a 10,000 square kilometer area Canada recently designated the Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area (LSNMCA). Hundreds of islands provide the adventurous kayaker with endless opportunities to rock garden, surf, view wildlife, marvel at historic lighthouses, explore historical landmarks, or simply paddle in awe next to enormous basalt formations. In early August, four CASKA members, Russ Johnson, Bill Burton, Sarah Hartman, and Gary Steinbauer, embarked on a 90-mile, five-day expedition from Silver Islet to Rossport. What followed exceeded everyone’s expectations and left all involved with a deep respect for Lake Superior and one another.
After a solid day of driving and soaking up the beauty, culture, and culinary delights (i.e., Betty’s Pies) of Lake Superior’s north shore, we convened at the Rossport Provincial Park’s Rainbow Falls Campground. Curious campers inquired about our kayaks and our plans. One visitor, Darrell Makin, co-authored a guidebook for paddling the LSNMCA. Darrell gladly autographed a copy of his book, with the condition that we help him and his team launch a 600-pound voyageur canoe that they were paddling to a nearby folk festival. The hospitality of Darrell’s group and everyone that we encountered rivaled the area’s natural beauty.
Day 1 of our paddle began with the kind folks from Superior Outfitters shuttling us and our boats and gear to the marina at the southern tip of Sibley Peninsula, home of the Sleeping Giant Provincial Park. We arrived at the historic general store and packed our boats at the launch site under the approving watch of onlookers. We packed our boats in the lee of the peninsula, but a quick peek to the windward side confirmed that it would be a lumpy day on the water. Some of the local veterans quizzed us about our plan for the day, nodded approvingly at our backup plans, and offered some suggestions for alternative campsites. By 1 p.m. we were on the water and headed out toward Silver Islet to the old silver mines. Landing is prohibited and the water was too rough to get near the old mine shafts so we took some quick pictures and were on our way.
The crossing of Montreal Strait was hairy. Environment Canada marine weather broadcasts noted waves were 3 metres, which, along with a 20-knot wind, were off our rear quarter. The swells were large but consistent. Occasionally, the tops of the swells would break. At one point as we were all along the same wave crest, with Russ at its very peak, the wave crested and sent him soaring a full metre above us, hurtling sideways. Later in the crossing, Bill capsized in a trough after a brace, rolled once, and got knocked back over. Already in the rear, he then wet-exited to call out and be sure we knew he was over. We gave him a quick assist back into his oversized kayak.
A mere 9.78 statute miles later, and after passing our first lighthouse of the trip on Porphyry Point, we arrived at our campsite on Porphyry Island, across from Dreadnought Island. We enjoyed our first night away from civilization on a black volcanic sand beach. The fine gravel looked like cinders from an old coal furnace. Orange lichen and the occasional nearby purple flower covered the rock
outcroppings that surrounded our campsite. Russ shared that these lichen take many years to grow, so we all took great care to observe without any trace. After dinner, we attempted to bushwhack across the island to the lighthouse (there were no paths) but gave up and ended the night at camp watching a squall line pass.
Day 2 started with a greeting by a plover family. Mom and dad plover carefully shielded
junior from the cameras. Our first
objective was to paddle back to the lighthouse at Porphyry Point to get a
closer look. With the Paps keeping us company
on our port side, we paddled over 20 miles past Edwards, Magnet (none of us experienced any magnetic interference), Tunnel, Longfin, Shaganash, Island #10 (another lighthouse), and Macoun Islands on our way to the channels between Swede, Cartwright, Spain, and Borden Islands. After exploring the lighthouse on Island #10, a group of three otters curiously checked out Russ. While weaving between islands, our boats could not pass through some channels. Throughout the day, several loons said hello with their distinct tremolo. We ended the day by paddling through Loon Harbor towards the east side of Lasher Island, where we set up camp on a smooth rock campsite that offered captivating views of the islands we would explore the next day.
The islands we paddled alongside on Day 3 had more rock outcroppings and higher elevations. We enjoyed a windbreak between Brodeur Island and Pugsley and Coutlee Islands. After rounding the northeast corner of Brodeur, we crossed Roche Debout channel and headed for the point bearing the same name. Our next stop was the Lamb Island lighthouse, where we stretched our legs before heading for the massive, Fluor Island. More loons and otters kept us company as we paddled, and we saw our first bald eagle soar in the distance.
Bill received some intel prior to our trip on a c-shaped passageway halfway up the east coast of Fluor. He convinced us all that it would be worth the trip and could give us the opportunity to spot a moose. It was a detour that we could not miss. We paddled through shallow, sand-bottomed channels keeping an eye out for moose. Although we were did not spot any signs of moose, we all remarked at the warm temperature of the water in the channels.
With Puff Island flanking us on our starboard, we shot the gap between Irvine and Tisdall Islands and crossed Blind Channel. We paddled towards Newash Point with the hopes of securing a campsite at the infamous CPR Slip, which is reportedly “privately owned but open to the public” and a destination for power boaters. Several tents were pitched at our intended destination, so we opted for a campsite across the bay on the west side of Agate Island. We observed wolf scat near our campsite and made quick work of a well-deserved dinner after nearly 20 miles of paddling. During dinner, we discussed the possibility that the three tents at CPR Slip were the power boaters’ decoys and intended to keep kayakers away. We never did substantiate our theory.
On Day 4, we awoke to the sound of rain drops drumming against our tents. We seized an opportunity during a lull in the rain to break camp and enjoy a cold breakfast. We paddled from Agate Island to Owl and Paradise and prepared for an open water crossing into a headwind. We arrived at Hope Island and then Armour Island, looking forward to decreasing winds and shelter for the remainder of the day.
Our next stop was Armour Harbor on St. Ignace Island, home of the nation of Nirivia. The Nirivians created quite a stir in the late 1970’s when its citizens, from Lake Superior’s north shore, declared this area a new nation, complete with their own freshly printed currency. A sign for the Nirivian Embassy confirmed that we were in the correct spot. Several geodesic-roofed cabins were built into the hillside and would be a wonderful base camp for exploring the nearby islands.
After paying tribute to the Nirivians, we paddled along the shoreline of St. Ignace Island. St. Ignace is the second largest in Lake Superior and the fifth largest in the Great Lakes. Compared to the other islands that we saw, St. Ignace was imposing. Mount St. Ignace, the highest point of the island at over 1,800 feet about sea level, is almost directly north of Armour Island. St. Ignace is definitely a place to which we all plan to return for thorough exploration.
We paddled east past McNab Peninsula and through the strait between McNab and Bullers Island on our way to Bignell Point for a break. A small cabin was located on St. Joe Island, and the inhabitants nervously greeted us as we peeked into the Bay. Continuing northeast along the shore of St. Ignace, we considered our crossing of the Moffat Strait. Paddling just north of Bead Island, we set our sights on Grotto Point on the southwestern side of Simpson Island.
Grotto Point, or Simpson Island in general, was a sight to
behold. Massive columnar basalt
formations dot the southwestern shoreline of Simpson. From the water, the columnar basalt formations looked like
neatly arranged spires, stacked vertically. From above, each vertical spire is hexagonal.
As we paddled past the basalt
formations, we took every opportunity to paddle through slots and rock
garden. We ended our day on a
fantastic beach campsite in quiet Woodbine Harbour. Fresh moose tracks awaited us as we pulled our kayaks
We began Day 5 by packing glass and other trash that was left behind by previous campers. The remainder of Simpson Island’s southern shore was even more scenic than the day before. We rock-gardened along the shoreline through ancient lava flows, volcanic dikes, and basalt formations. Gary’s timing was less than impeccable in a couple of slots, causing some hang ups and a severely bruised ego.
After several hours of playing in the slots, marveling at
the geology, and observing an eagle and several loons, we reached Morn Point
and prepared for the crossing of the Simpson Channel to Battle Island. We decided to explore the lighthouse
before searching for a campsite on Battle. The Battle Island lighthouse should have its own picture
calendar and undoubtedly has been featured on several postcards. The old lighthouse is perched atop an
almost 100-foot tall basalt outcropping, protruding off of the southwest corner
of the island into the vast expanse of Lake Superior.
Our campsite was located in a cove on the north side of Battle. Pulling our kayaks ashore, it was very apparent that the last retired lightkeeper, who spends part of his summers on the island, had been busy. All of the structures were freshly painted and everything organized in neat piles. While he was not there during our visit, his presence was impossible to ignore, and his dock made for a great diving board into the refreshing water.
We took advantage of our early arrival into camp to explore the island and hike to the lighthouse. A rusty early-1950’s Chevy 1300 pickup truck was parked along the path to the lighthouse. It had seen better days, but undoubtedly served the keeper well during its time. Exploring on foot felt wonderful after having been in our kayaks for several long days. We returned to the lighthouse before sundown to catch the sunset.
Day 6 of our journey was a gorgeous sunny day with little wind. Our time on the water was now down to hours, and none of us was in a hurry to start our final paddle to Rossport. We paddled through the strait between Harry Island and Minnie Island across the mouth of Chummy’s Harbour to the southeast corner of Vein Island. We made short work of crossing Wilson Channel with a plan to explore the north side of Wilson Island, particularly Little Lake Harbour. As we paddled into Little Lake Harbour, several bald eagles left their perches and soared past. The final leg of the paddle led us through the passage between Quarry Island and Healy Island, around Nicol, and into the Rossport Harbour shortly after noon.
The end of our journey was bittersweet. Over the course of five days on the
water we witnessed the ferocity of Lake Superior and all her grandeur. The mark of a great trip typically ends
with the question: when and where are we going to do this again? This trip was no exception.
While we all gained fond memories and lost vacation days, the rest of the ledger is as follows:
- Miles driven: 1,764 (including car shuttle)
- Currency exchange rate: $1.00 US = $1.02 CN
- Ontario Provincial Park Campsite: $41.75 CN per night (Canada's park system is self-funded)
- Crown Land Non-Resident Camping Permits (backcountry): $10 CN per night
- Tank of gas in Canada: $92.34 CN (17.4 US gallons) ($10.62 tax)
- Days wind-bound : 0 (average wind-bound days for Lake Superior: 1 in 5)
- Meals carried for a 5-day expedition: at least 21 per person
- Pieces of Betty’s pies consumed: 4
- Happy visitors of BoDaddy’s Canajun Bar and Grill: 3
- Items forgotten at home: short tow rig
- Items lost: sunglasses, dignity
- Jump starts for Bill’s dead van: at least 3
Text by: Bill Burton, Sarah Hartman, Russ Johnson, and Gary Steinbauer
Photos by: Russ Johnson