Enchanting Lake Superior
Fresh Fish and the Rumble of Motor Bikes
There’s a lot to like about Lake Superior, and you can put nifty discoveries at the top of the list.
First, there was the perfect little road house, the Kinniwabi Pines Restaurant on Highway 17, a welcome find after driving nearly 13 hours in a van to Wawa, Ont.
We discovered the restaurant had local fish, right out of the cold waters of Lake Superior on the menu. And the fresh pickerel and whitefish came with a twist. They were topped with a spicy sauce – part of an exotic menu with roots in the Caribbean.
The excellent cuisine was a big surprise after setting up our tents for the night on the beach below the lodge of Naturally Superior Adventures, the starting point of our trip.
But the menu was not the only twist. At the table beside ours, there was a din of voices that rose steadily in volume as we savoured our fish and sipped our wine.
The voices belonged to a group of eight affable and boisterous women from the Dakotas and points west – and soon we were chatting like good buddies.This group of grandmothers, cousins, neighbours and friends was also on vacation.
While we would be donning life vests and picking up paddles, they would be climbing on to Harley-Davidson bikes (and one Yamaha) to continue their drive along the north shore of the lake. Before bidding farewell for the night, we invited them to our campsite the next morning, little expecting to see them again.
But as we packed our kayaks after breakfast, we could hear a low rumbling approach the beach. Down the gravel lane came the biker women clad in their leathers ready to head for Sault Ste. Marie and back to the United States. We exchanged jokes, took lots of pictures and said goodbye again before they roared off in a cloud of dust.
We launched our kayaks from the beach and pushed off into the haze hanging over Michipicoten Bay, where a trading post for the old Montreal-based North West Co. (which merged with the Hudson’s Bay Co. in 1821) once stood.
Meeting new people was one of the first discoveries and the rest came in quick order, including the broad swaths of sand beaches – which would fit well in Nova Scotia and the Caribbean – embroidering the edge of the world’s largest body of fresh (and frigid) water.
They are welcome sights to paddlers seeking ease of access to camping areas after several hours of exploring the rugged shore of massive granite cliffs topped by cedars, pines and balsams. And it takes some work to find a good campsite. After paddling west for five kilometres, we stopped for a breather at Indian Beach. We were on the Gros Cap Indian Reserve and drawn in the sand were the words, This is Indian land.
The boundary of the reserve is in dispute, and talks are underway between the Michipicoten First Nation, one of the many Ojibway nations in northern Ontario, and the governments of Ontario and Canada to resolve the issue. We went about three kilometres farther to a beach on Doré Bay and set up our first camp
Other visitors had been there earlier because I had to kick some scat (it could have been bear or coyote) out of way in preparation for setting up the tent that Ned Ellis and I would occupy. This coast is prime habitat for bears and other animals with its profusion of blueberry bushes.
A little early
On a previous trip to nearby Pukaskwa National Park, which is home to woodland caribou, we had berries just about every morning with our pancakes, but we were a little early (end of July) for the treat this time. This is a wild and desolate area, where you meet few travellers and you can almost count on having a beach to yourself. We saw kayaks on a couple of occasions and two canoes in eight days.
We really dug in the next day, paddling 17 kilometres to Pebble Beach, which was true to its name. Lifting the kayaks onto the beach was tricky as the smoothly rounded rocks rolled like ball bearings underfoot. Above the pebbles was a flat, sandy area that was perfect for the tents, and that is where we set up camp. It had been a long day, and we were ready for supper.
Bob Johnston, who spent many hours planning this trip, drawing up the menus and shopping for the food, had chosen steaks for this meal. A fire of hardwood soon turned to coals, which roasted our potatoes and allowed chef Doug Taylor to broil steaks to a turn.
On the previous evening, we had fresh chicken breasts poached in broth followed by a fondu of sliced apple and bananas dipped in melted chocolate. To say we were eating well would be an understatement. You can keep food fresh for a couple of days in the compartments of the kayaks, thanks to the chilly temperature of the water. The same conditions also work well for wine and beer.
Hiked up river
Rather than try to launch our kayaks into the waves that pounded the pebbles the next day, we hiked several kilometres up the University River (or The Dog River since 1763, according to a sign erected by the local Ojibway people).
After a couple of hours of scrambling through the thick underbrush and over the rocks beside the river, we came to Dennison Falls, about 30 metres high and a favourite spot of writer, artist and filmmaker Bill Mason. He explored much of this area by canoe.
It was difficult for us to see how anybody could canoe down this river, let alone portage around the falls, until we spotted frayed ropes hanging down the steep incline. They were used to lower canoes and packs, according one of our group, Russ McColl, who had done the trip many years before.
The next day was another long slog in the kayaks. It took us more than two hours to get past an intimidating stretch of granite cliffs rising 30 metres or so before hitting the beach at Ghost River, another superb camping site.
With empty kayaks, we paddled the next day to Floating Heart Bay, our western-most point of progress, and I watched three otters enjoying a cool dip.
There was other wildlife, also. I spotted a large brown figure rise from a tree near Doré Point, and I suspect it was a bald eagle. A little later I saw a huge nest of twigs high in a tree. Joel Cooper, who maintains the campsites and wilderness toilets on a voluntary basis and has helped to reintroduce the peregrine falcon to this shore, confirmed there were bald eagles in the area.
We also saw some tracks at a campsite, and we surmised they were left by a coyote on a foraging mission.
We returned from Floating Heart Bay to Ghost River for an afternoon of loafing in the warm sun and a spectacular sunset. In the hazy distance loomed the hulking profile of Michipicoten Island, a dozen or so kilometres to the south.
The only down side of this trip was the poor fishing. There was not a bite, and some fishermen in a couple of canoes reported the same lack of success.
But luck was with us as we headed for the campsite at McCoy’s Harbour on our way back. Mark Mahoney was able to catch up to a commercial fishing boat as it set nets, and he bought a freshly caught whitefish for $20. Mike Robbins did the filleting, added a Cajun coating and then fried the fish over the double-burner camp stove. It was a fitting repast for our last night on the big lake.
Good to Go
The summer and autumn landscape of this remarkable country has been captured in all its brilliance by A.Y. Jackson and Lawren Harris of the Group of Seven.
But others see dollar signs when they look at this country. A U.S. company wants to grind up the granite near the Michipicoten River for construction of roads in Michigan. Local conservationists including Joel Cooper, of Wawa, who belong to a group called Citizens Concerned for Michipicoten Bay (ccmb.ca), are battling the proposal. They fear the project could affect lake water quality and wildlife habitat.
Jackson and Harris probably arrived in this wild country by train and then explored it by canoe. It took us almost 13 hours to reach Wawa from Ottawa (plus two hours for the extra leg from Montreal for me) travelling along Highway 17 in a rented van.
We took off in kayaks from Naturally Superior Adventures in Wawa (naturallysuperior.com or 1-800-203-9092), which rents kayaks, gives lessons and has a small lodge. The lodge is open well into the autumn . A wet suit is advised as the weather grows cooler.
The Kinniwabi Pines Restaurant, Highway 17, Wawa, 1-705-856-7226, remains open to the end of October and reopens in early May.
A few years earlier we did a similar trip, starting from Hattie Cove in Pukaskwa National Park and paddling east to Otter Island. To reach the park, you drive to a point near Marathon before heading south to the cove.
The park also has a hiking trail of 60 kilometres along the shore. It is growing in reputation and is noted for its wild beauty and the physical challenge.