Over breakfast of pancakes, sausages and maple syrup in our sun-drenched cockpit, Steve and I watch our friends on Gabe’s Ghost leave Otter Cove, bound for Indian Harbour. Shortly afterwards a sailboat at the other end of the anchorage, Epicurious, comes to say hello and goodbye as they weigh anchor and leave, heading north to Marathon for a crew change. So here we are all alone in this all-weather anchorage that could hold the Spanish armada, literally. Bluffs tower over us on one side, and wilderness on all sides. A bald eagle soars overhead. For miles around we are the only signs of modern civilization, the only humans. We feel privileged to be here, to see this – the vast, lyrical beauty of a virtually untouched part of the world.
We hear a waterfall, and take the dinghy out to explore the small stream nearby. We find an old derelict log cabin and the waterfall – pretty in the trees, but sadly no trail. The bush is thick and the rocks too high to scramble up. Signs of a busy beaver nearby. We leave to go trolling in the dinghy around the huge cove – and catch two large pike, at which point we take our lines out of the water, not needing to catch any more. We explore another creek before coming back to the boat to clean the fish for dinner tonight and for the freezer. All this before noon. We see no-one else all day. We swim in the cold, clear water. We read, enjoying the peace and quiet, the setting sun. We are both awestruck by this place, by Lake Superior – by it’s majesty and power.
Lake Superior is not just the greatest of the Great Lakes….it is pretty much the greatest of all lakes on our planet. At 82,100 square kms it is the largest by surface area, the size of Austria. It’s 4000 km shore line is larger than that of Nova Scotia. It holds one tenth of the planet’s surface fresh water. It is the least populated of all the Great Lakes, home to only 2% of the 40 million people who inhabit the shores of the Great Lakes…and most of these are on the US side of the Lake. Its oceanic temperatures cause nightmarish fall storms and to summer calms so tranquil that we can see 20 meters or more into the glassy water. It is by far the cleanest and coldest of the Great Lakes. We have been filling our forward water tank straight from the lake to use for dishes, showers and washing, and preserving our midships tank for drinking only. But we could be drinking the lake water too.
We can attest to the cold. We do not get up the gumption to go swimming very often, and only on the hottest of days, like today. And then it is, to put it mildly, refreshing. In fact the lake acts as the world biggest air conditioner. Near constant temps year-round, it has done a good job of refrigerating the air around us. We listened carefully to an Environment Canada weather warning on our VHF radio the other day, only to find that it was for heat wave conditions in Northern Ontario, not far from us.
We were sailing along dressed in layers of clothing, and jackets, and the enclosure down on the windward side to shut out the cold wind. We have thanked our lucky stars for our enclosure this year as we use it daily either to keep out the cold wind during the day whilst sailing, or to keep out the mozzies in the evenings. It is only just getting to the time of the year when we can leave the sides up to enjoy the scenery on a calm evening in a peaceful anchorage till after the sun sets, before being chased below by the mosquitoes.
Three years ago 95% of Lake Superior froze over, the first time it has done so in 200 years. We were living aboard in Toronto at the time, our plastic cover acting like a greenhouse to keep us warm, but dismayed by shore birds, swans and ducks dying around us, starving due to the lack of open water. We keep looking for blueberries to pick – they usually ripen in mid-July near our cottage. Here we found one ripe one – most are still small and green and apparently one can occasionally find blueberries as late as October! Arctic micro-habitats and delicate-looking plants are found on these rugged shores. (POST SCRIPT: We eventually found a good patch on Michipicoten Island – Cozens Bay on August 3 – picked enough for a good bowl each and leftovers for blueberry pancakes the next day)
This land is old. We did the headlands trail from Pulpwood Harbour (part of Pukaskwa Park)– and we were standing on rock created 3 billion years ago when the earth’s crust broke open forming a giant sickle-shaped abyss (the Midcontinental Rift System). Giant volcanoes followed the split, lining the rift with molten lava which solidified into this rock. Two million years ago glaciers sculpted and gouged the rock with melt-water or rocks embedded into mile-thick ice, and the melting of the last glacier occurred just 10,000 years ago, to fill the rift in the heart of this continent with this great inland sea.
What truly amazes us now, as we become accustomed to being alone in this vast wilderness, is that it wasn’t always like this. It is strange to think that a century ago this harsh environment was a busier place than it is today. Not very many places in our crowded world have become less populated over time. This is one. People have come and gone, their stories and secrets buried in the wilderness along with some reminders to us of their presence along the shores.
In the late 1600’s, hardy Jesuit missionaries completely encircled the lake with their missions, documenting native life and habits, plants and animals – true pioneers of the lake. The fur trade followed, mostly French voyageurs in canoes discovering minerals and opening fur trading routes. And then shipping in the 1800’s, serving mining ventures and fur companies with square riggers and multi-masted schooners.
Mining has come and gone and come again. Copper and iron lead the list, but silver, lead, zinc, nickel and gold have been mined in some quantity on these shores at one time or another. In fact, the current gold mines just to the north-east of Superior are one of the greatest gold strikes ever – and certainly the largest in Canadian history.
Commercial fisheries have had their heyday here too with entire fishing villages – the remnants of which we explored on Michipicoten Island – Quebec Harbour.
We have used our dinghy to explore several wrecks including that of an 1870s, 149 foot wooden steamer, the Hiram R Dixon in Quebec Harbour, and the Columbus, a 139 foot wooden tug which caught fire and burnt in Gargantua Harbour in 1910.
We also stayed out a stormy day or two in well-protected Gargantua Harbour, now part of Lake Superior Park. Other than one derelict cabin, not much is left of the once thriving fishing station, light-keepers house and village, established in the early 1900’s. It was also a favourite stopover for the wealthy who ventured along this shore in large cruising yachts as the wharf was used as a dance pavilion for parties. Now, in the middle of summer, we are the only boat here, though we occasionally hear some human noise from campers and kayakers around the corner in the Park campsite. We imagine Tai Chi here in the early 1900s! I guess people in general have found kinder places to live.
But the greatest scars of former habitation and industry that we see today are from the late 1800’s through to the mid 20th century when lumber was king. Towns like Terrace Bay and Marathon had their start as paper mills. Almost every wilderness anchorage we have been in have vestiges of log booms – cables and rings embedded in the rocks, logs under water, pulpwood on beaches, underwater cribs that you have to watch for or they could do damage to your dinghy, or worse yet, the hull of a boat if you do not post a bow watch and anchor carefully. The lighthouses have been automated and most of the lovely red and white light keepers houses are falling into disrepair, unless kept up by volunteer “friends”.
The cables, cribs and signs of former commerce in this wilderness do not mar the landscape for me….in fact that are symbols of encouragement and respect for nature that has won back these areas.
The industry has not all gone away entirely (fishing, forestry and mining continue in the area),but modern practices and improvements in standards have a less negative impact than they used to…at least here. And thanks to provincial and federal governments, parks have been built and maintained to preserve and provide recreational access to enjoy this wilderness. The trails and campsites that we have seen at Pukaskwa Park, Giant’s Tomb and Lake Superior Park make us proud to be Canadian.
We spent time in the Slate Islands – a wilderness of closely packed islands forming large lagoons such as McGreevy Harbour – now banked by a wildflower meadow among the thickly wooded islands. It is hard now to imagine that as late as the 1940s – 77 years ago -the harbour was almost completely filled with pulpwood. Logs were brought here to be stored and sorted in giant rafts miles long before their final slow journey to waiting paper mills along the shoreline. The rafts sometimes broke, creating income for locals who retrieved them and sold them back to the paper mills. We have to watch for floating logs as we travel each day – I was horrified to see a large tree in our wake the other day – roots, trunk and branches in tact. How closely we must have come to hitting it while under full sail!
It is not just humans that find this beautiful but harsh environment difficult to live in. Even mammals are scarce. I saw a beaver in Pulpwood and another in Simons, deer in Tee Harbour and (finally) several Woodland caribou in Quebec Harbour. The insects are prolific and we have been pleasantly surprised by the wild flowers and the smaller songbirds birds we see and hear. A few eagles, and several flocks of mergansers. But we have seen very few mammals given the extent of the wilderness surrounding us.
We feel privileged to see this, to be here. We have lived and traveled in parts of the world where overcrowding leads to squalor and poverty.
And for those of you who think that this is too good to be true, you are correct. Steve and I decided rather late in the summer that we should have been measuring the fish we caught so we started yesterday (for the record Steve’s was 25.5” and mine 27.5”). Last night I decided that we should instead have been measuring the huge horse flies that we have hunted and swatted. And after retreating last night to watch the stars through the hatch over our beds I heard the thrum of a helicopter and wondered if it was Search and Rescue until Steve pointed out that it was “only” gazillion mosquitoes right above our screened (thankfully) hatch.
Addendum: Gargantua Harbour 3 days later
My moods change with the Lake’s. The only predictable part of the weather forecast is that it is usually wrong. And so, we ventured out for a short trip from Quebec Harbour to Cozen’s Cove supposedly in the lee of north-east winds at 10 knots, and were surprised to be bashing into 20 knot south-east winds, on the nose. And then, instead of light overnight north-east winds in the south-facing Cove, we had the worst night on anchor ever, forcing us to resort to taking sea-sickness meds as our crockery crashed around in the cupboards with wallowing SE swells all night. (We did, however, enjoy exploring the shore with cabins and picking blueberries in Cozens Cove).
We escaped early the next day (in supposed “light wind” conditions) to hammer into 5-6 foot waves (Environment Canada calling for waves less than a half-meter) and 20 knot winds, which suddenly dropped to zero as we closed in on Gargantua Harbour, staying that way till midnight. We are warm and cosy here now, in 25 knot winds, feeling safe and secure in the relative calm of a protected harbour as rain slashes across, swabbing the decks for us. My mood improves. But I mourn a loss at sea. Sadly my herb garden, hanging off our bowsprit, was torn off in the rough wave conditions yesterday and is buried at sea, hopefully being tended by some little mermaid of Superior.
Steve is much more at ease with being so remote as to be out-of-touch altogether than I am. We have had no wifi or cell coverage for a week. Otter Cove is between Coast Guard repeating stations so we could not even get marine weather forecasts very easily, though we managed, faintly, through static. No radio stations. Nothing. I worry about emergencies at home, and get more jittery as time goes on without means of communication, not happy about being so out of touch with family, friends and current affairs. Steve does not miss daily Trump Twitter news. He is a true sailor – even happy in the 20 knots of wind and 2 meter waves we encountered. We are both grateful, not only to have seen this part of the world this way, but also to have done so in such a seaworthy vessel, with a trustworthy Spade anchor!
And at least I can check off another ‘blue planet’ experience, courtesy of this Lake. We enjoyed watching several woodland caribou tramp through the swamps around the edge of our anchorage in Quebec Harbour, purposefully heading for the salt lick in the derelict fishing station.
I think about the lovely North Channel anchorages and reflect on the fact that there are, according to Roy’s Little Current Cruisers Net, about 400 boats there at the height of the season. Very few cruising boats venture into Lake Superior any more. I understand why. Lake Superior’s vicissitudes are not for the faint of heart. You need a good boat, decent equipment and an experienced skipper for these waters, one who will not throw caution to the wind (literally). But if you have those things, the character, the charms of this Lake outweigh the challenges.