Kayaking Thunder Bay, Ontario, Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, and the Rossport Islands
The bell above the door jingles cheerily as my paddling partner, Jeff Noltner, and I enter the tiny bait shop in Kakabeka Falls, Ontario.
“Hi, we’d like a few backcountry permits for camping on Crown Land.”
“OK,” says the pleasant woman tending to the bubbling minnow tanks, “you’ll need fishing licenses too, eh?”
“No, just the permits. We’ll be camping on some islands.”
She is taken aback. “Well, if you’re not fishing, what’re you doing in the backcountry?”
Jeff and I look at each other and shrug. “Just camping, I guess. Hanging out …?”
She blinks, clearly perplexed. “Well, if you say so,” she says doubtfully.
She finally opens her permit book and gets down to business. While huge speeding trucks roar past outside on the Trans-Canada Highway, I browse her bounteous selection of medieval torture devices for earthworms and baitfish. All involve impalement on barbed hooks, drowning, and often end in consumption by ravenous Canadian walleye.
“Here you go,” the minnow lady says, tearing off our slips and handing them to us. We pay and thank her, then head for the door.
“Have fun!” she calls after us. Then, almost under her breath, “But I don’t know how you’re gonna have fun without fishing …”
Though her voice trails off, the words hang in the crisp morning air like a challenge.
“You know,” says Jeff as we climb into the truck and point the bows of our sea kayaks down toward Thunder Bay, “it’s like a whole other country up here!”
We drive through the Fort William First Nation reservation and arrive at the put-in on Squaw Bay. At the small public dock there, we load our boats, snap on the hatch covers, and set out onto Lake Superior. Our goal is Pie Island, six miles distant and rising from the sparkling bay like its namesake tall French pastry. We paddle along below the high ramparts of Mount McKay for a mile or so, then swing onto a more direct heading for the southwest corner of Pie Island. Before long we can see the fifteen-mile-long form of Nanabijou—the Sleeping Giant—slumbering on his back and forming the far shore of Thunder Bay.
Nanabijou, son of the Great Manitou, was a giant demigod, protector and teacher of the native Ojibwa. He knew that there was a rich vein of precious silver on a tiny island near here, but told the Ojibwa people to tell no one, for he knew the White Man would come and steal the land. The secret was safe for a long time, but eventually word got out, and some dishonorable Ojibwa led whites out to the island in canoes to steal the silver. Furious, Nanabijou stirred up a great storm on the lake, and all the thieves were drowned.
To punish him for this evil deed, Manitou cast his son down and turned him to stone. Nanabijou still lies where he fell, and can be seen for miles around. No one knows if or when the Sleeping Giant will ever awaken …
There is a fifteen-knot south wind today, and we take the two-foot waves on the bow for nearly two hours before easing up alongside Pie Island. We briefly put ashore for a lunch break near the dilapidated navigation light tucked way in the dense forest, then round Keefer Point and thread our way through some submerged shoals, which throw squirrely waves at us seemingly from all sides.
We find a lovely little harbor on the southwest shore of Pie, marked Dawson Bay on our charts, punctuated in the middle by a short, rocky peninsula. From a distance we can make out human forms on the nearest beach, so we continue on to the second, where we cruise in to land on the calm and sandy beach.
The high cliffs of Greenstone Point tower over us to the east, with even greater heights rising behind us in the interior of the island. Our topo maps depict rough and rugged terrain all over the island, with bluffs jutting 850 feet above the lake surface, and deep canyons in between. There is only a narrow strip of sand and cobble beach between the water’s edge and the dense brush of the forest, but Jeff soon finds a level and sandy spot for his tent. I find a similar campsite nearby but soon realize it is literally crawling with thousands of ants. I briefly consider just exactly how tightly my tent zippers can be closed, then instead decide to pitch it on a level patch of wave-rounded, flat stones on the beach.
While Jeff strolls away and up the shoreline, I strip down and dive into the cold waters of Lake Superior to wash away the sweat of the day. I cannot contain a reflexive whoop of elation and cold-shock as I surface for another breath, and my shouts echo loudly off the highest bluffs overlooking our bay. Far down the beach, Jeff turns to see me floundering around in the frigid water like an injured loon, and simply shakes his head and keeps walking.
Later, as the setting sun turns the ruddy overhead cliffs to a crimson orange, we enjoy a shoreside dinner and consult our maps. We debate exploring other nearby islands tomorrow morning, but finally agree to continue circling Pie before returning to the mainland. There are other parts of the north shore we’d like to paddle in the next few days, including Sleeping Giant, so we must keep on the move.
As darkness falls, we retire to our tents and sleep.
I awaken at 2 A.M. to the sound of pounding surf crashing on the rocks only three boat-lengths from my tent. I peer out through the mesh to see breaking waves marching into the bay from the open lake, the fleeting moonlight filtering down through low clouds to illuminate the black bluffs overhead.
Later, daylight reveals a popcorn field of whitecaps all the way to the horizon and to Thompson Island, three miles distant. According to the weather radio, the area is getting blown by twenty-five-knot, south-southeast winds, so we linger around camp for a couple hours, following a narrow trail inland until it peters out in the heavy undergrowth. In addition to an old pickup truck with a thigh-thick birch growing up through its floorboards and windshield, we also discover the remains of a small wood-and-tarpaper shack, hardly bigger than an outhouse, but with an incongruous stovepipe. Judging by the scant debris, it must have been a tiny shed indeed, and we finally determine that it was one of the many Finnish saunas for which the region’s islands are known.
By noon the wind and waves have fallen to a light chop so we break camp and head out. Due to our late start and the residual waves from the south, we opt not to risk circling the island as planned, as its entire southern shore is comprised of sheer stone walls with few landings. Instead, we backtrack along yesterday’s path, the waves breaking even more violently on the offshore shoal. The wind and waves increase again as we swing around Keefer Point, but we surf the two-to-three-foot waves for the six miles back to Squaw Bay.
As we pull up into the small sheltered harbor here, a ragtag bunch of young First Nation kids spills down onto the gravel beach, attracted by the strangers and the shiny kayaks. As Jeff and I unpack the boats and transfer loose gear to the truck, anything that’s not bolted down soon becomes an object of great interest.
“Hey, what is this thing?” asks one shaggy little boy, waving a bilge pump over his head.
“That’s so my kayak doesn’t sink,” I explain, politely but firmly reclaiming the pump.
“What’s this?” another kid cries, twisting the end off an emergency strobe.
“Can I have this?” asks a third as he seizes my Gatorade bottle and begins guzzling its contents.
“Please don’t stand on that!” Jeff urges yet another boy, who is clambering over a carbon-fiber paddle to join his oversized Indian dog inside Jeff’s cockpit.
As our gear begins to scatter in different directions, we hurriedly begin throwing it in the truck as fast as we can snatch it back, with no care for neatness.
I am reminded of the fate of famed world explorer, Captain James Cook, and his untimely demise on a beach in Hawaii. As he and his crew were preparing to return to his ship and depart, local villagers stole one of his rowboats.
As he usually did when a knife or a shovel or other such article was stolen by South Pacific natives, Cook attempted to seize a couple of native hostages until his property was returned. But a squabble broke out, he was soon outnumbered, and he retreated to the water’s edge, where the mob followed and attacked him. As he and his men shoved the boats off, Cook was struck in the head and fell facedown into the water, blood pouring from his skull, dead. Some scholars say his flesh was roasted and eaten by the natives, and his bones eventually returned to the British Navy for a proper burial at sea …
I ponder this gruesome tale now as I consider going back into the fray to fetch my hat, but we cut our losses and slam the tailgate shut. As we adjust the tiedowns on the kayaks, the kids’ mother arrives and we chat briefly about our outing to Pie Island. She says her family has been boating out to the island since before she was a little girl, to pick blueberries and to fish and to hunt deer.
“Did you caahmp in Echo Bay?” she asks in the lilting sing-song of many First Nation people.
“No,” I reply, “we camped in Dawson Bay.”
She shakes her head, unfamiliar with the place. I explain precisely where it is, and she shakes her head again. “No, that’s Echo Bay. We always caahmp there.”
Curious, I grab my deck chart from the truck and turn to show her that we’d indeed camped in the place clearly depicted as “Dawson Bay”, and that there is nothing marked “Echo Bay”. But she is not interested, and she smiles gently and waves my chart away dismissively as she bends down to smack a small boy who is harassing his little brother. It is as if to say, “My family has been going out there for ten thousand years. I know what it’s called and I don’t need your white-man’s map …”
I recall swimming in the frigid water there yesterday, and how my shivering whoops came back to me from the towering redstone cliffs.
I don’t know who Mr. Dawson was, or why he named the bay after himself. But I’ll bet he was white, and I’ll bet he never swam there.
We wave and drive away, over the Kakabeka River and up through the industrial port city of Thunder Bay. We swing south down the Sibley Peninsula to Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, where we take a campsite for the night. With the coming darkness, a light drizzle begins to fall, and the French-Canadian family across the way slaps brick-sized hamburger patties onto their fire grate, the mouthwatering aroma wafting over to taunt us as we sit in the descending rain and slurp spoonfuls of Lipton Cup-A-Soup and freeze-dried noodles.
We finally crawl into our tents and the black rain clouds open up.
Near here is where Nanabijou’s secret wealth of silver was hidden away, on a tiny speck of land now called Silver Islet. White men did eventually discover the silver, and the island was mined, producing over three million dollars worth of ore, before the pumps quit and the cold waters of Superior flooded the mineshaft. And the Ojibwa lost their land, just as foretold by Nanabijou.
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It is into his misty domain that we venture today, cruising out of the cozy harbor and turning westward toward the point of the peninsula. We cannot see the island of silver, as much of the lake is enveloped in dense fog today. All morning, the fog advances and retreats, rising in great swirling wreaths from the cool forest and up the sheer cliff faces of the mainland, which seem to be the remains of ancient fortresses. No sooner does the sun manage to feebly burn through the low clouds, revealing a new rocky promontory, than the mists gather to once again enshroud it. Strange animal cries rise from the dripping trees, and the place seems perfectly suited for a gargantuan king ape, or a mad scientist bent on restoring dinosaurs to the earth. We move a bit further off shore.
We paddle past Tee Harbour and continue on to the very foot of the namesake Sleeping Giant. This remote and rugged coastline is interrupted only by a small outpost on the point here, a research facility for the study of migratory birds. To the southwest we can barely make out the distinctive high bluffs of Pie and several other islands in the group. We turn north here and paddle up along the supine body of Nanabijou, the land rising up in ever-higher cliffs above the lake. We finally pull ashore, roughly adjacent to the Giant’s hip, and break out bagel sandwiches and hot coffee. Fog has once again swept into Thunder Bay, completely obscuring everything but our immediate surroundings.
We stow our gear and hit the water again, returning south along the wall of cliffs. As we near the point, an apparition silently reveals itself from the fog ahead, and we soon recognize it as a huge lake freighter, slowly churning its way through the high stone gates of Thunder Bay. She soon disappears into yet another fog bank, only the deep thrum of her slow-churning props indicating her presence. Soon, we hear a long blast of her foghorn emanating from the mist, repeated again every two minutes—the custom for all powered craft moving blindly through the fog.
We play with loons on the way back to Silver Islet, paddling toward them only to have them submerge and reappear behind us. We meet a lone, phantom sailboat puttering past, sheets furled in the utterly dead air, another ghost craft making for the port of Thunder Bay.
It seems the entire gloomy Lake Superior sky has descended upon us, enshrouding everything around and deadening all sound. Even our light chatter wanes and disappears, and we are soon just two little boats pattering along on the quicksilver sea, only grayness above and below. Guided only by our deck compasses, we finally emerge from the fog, perhaps appearing as apparitions ourselves to the few visitors watching from the pier at Silver Islet.
We load the boats and head eastward along the lakeshore to Rainbow Falls Provincial Park. We opt for the Rossport Campground unit on the shore of Lake Superior, where we set up camp and eagerly partake of the hot showers offered there.
One crucial component we have forgotten on this trip is beer, so we motor around the tiny railroad town of Rossport in search of the golden elixir, to no avail. We turn eastward and drive to Schreiber, where Jeff pumps gas while I go inside to search for a cold twelve-pack. The cooler at the back of the store is stuffed with a plethora of sodas, energy drinks, and other sugar-water beverages, but nothing for grown-ups. I ask the woman behind the counter where she keeps the beer, and she scowls and looks me up and down as though I’ve just requested a three-tiered wedding cake with two little plastic grooms and a rainbow unicorn.
“There’s an LCBO down four blocks on Manitoba Street,” she points.
“An LCBO? I was really looking for more of an IPA …”
“Go down Winnipeg Street and turn left.”
We find the place easily enough, but it’s still a mystery to me. Especially since I come from a place where taverns are customarily situated directly across the street from churches, and where beer is sold at all grocery stores, most gas stations, and many car washes.
But, apparently, the powdered wigs of the Ontario legislature believe that beer and other controlled substances must be stored in heavily-fortified bunkers, like nuclear warheads, anthrax, and my old sweat socks. I suddenly recall my first camping trip to Ontario after I came of age, and being compelled to buy my beer from something called a ‘beer depot’, which turned out to be a grim cinder-block compound. The interior resembled a Cold War-era Soviet bakery. At the back, a low-level government worker stood behind a plain gray counter, and above him hung a meager menu board of the beers and other public poisons offered there. After making my selection, he passed a slip of paper through a hole in the wall and issued me a stub, then pointed me toward the register at the front of the room. After standing in line there with other sad and thirsty comrades, my beer finally trundled out of the back room through a plastic flap on a conveyor track and bumped to a stop at the register. Money was exchanged, and I collected my beer and despondently shuffled back out into the daylight. Evidently, the only thing preventing mass suicide of the entire Ontario population is the excellent fishing …
Today, things are little improved at the LCBO, or Liquor Control Board of Ontario. Their regional bunkers are a bit cheerier now, though the workers are not. The selection of beers has increased from four to perhaps ten, mostly big-brand swill. But their mission statement posted near the door only adds insult to injury: “To be a socially responsible, performance-driven and profitable retailer, engaging our customers in a discovery of the world of beverage alcohol through enthusiastic, courteous and knowledgeable service.” It’s enough to drive a man to fish.
But we take our “beverage alcohol” back to camp and enjoy a few bottles with our lakeside dinner, as the setting sun bathes the Rossport Islands the same luminous amber hue as our beer.
“You know,” I say to Jeff, tipping back a sip, “it’s like a whole other country up here!”
We launch the kayaks mid-morning and head out onto the placid water of the Schreiber Channel. If yesterday’s paddle around the Sleeping Giant was shrouded in fog and mystery, today is clear and crisp, with seemingly infinite visibility. We head five miles west to the tiny town of Rossport, then swing south along Nicol and Whiskey Islands. A couple miles to the south, down the Wilson Channel, we can see the open waters of Lake Superior. But today we are out to explore the dense archipelago of islands here, to scout for likely camping spots for future trips.
This is classic Canadian Shield country, with hard granite bedrock fully exposed and forests growing tenuously on a thin layer of soil strewn atop the very bones of the earth. The islands here, and the channels between them, lie along an east-west orientation, suggesting the glaciers that scoured them clean moved in the same direction. But we find evidence today—deep ruts and grooves worn in a north-south direction into flat rock faces—that the great ice sheets grinding down from Hudson Bay were not slowed by these meager hills. It is difficult to imagine today, with the sun warming our faces and sweat on our brows, that only ten or twelve thousand years ago, mile-thick sheets of ice rumbled down and ground their way across the grain of the granite bedrock on which we now sit munching trail mix.
We swing into the passage between Channel and Wilson Islands, and paddle happily along for a quarter-mile or so until we realize we are in fact between Quarry and Channel Islands. We consult our charts and see we have mistaken the tip of Channel Island for a point on Wilson, so we return to the main channel and resume paddling. Now confident of our course, we promptly turn into a dead-end cove on Channel.
Finally, rounding one more point, we are back on course.
We’ve never had such trouble reading our charts and navigating through new terrain, even yesterday in pea-soup-thick fog. So why today? A sudden burst of solar plasma? Fluctuations in the Van Allen Belt? Too much IPA last night?
After the third wrong turn and the accompanying self-inflicted dope-slaps, we can only speculate that our misguided attempts to make our way here are due to the sheer proximity of the islands. In other places we’re accustomed to paddling, like the Apostle Islands, the islands are widely separated by crossings of three to five miles, so when we round a point it’s pretty obvious what new island we see. But here in the tightly-clustered Rossports, the perspective from the seat of a kayak on the water offers no sense of distance, and the beginning of one island looks like the end of another beyond it.
I know, I know—a handheld GPS unit would end all such navigation woes, guiding me safely through even the most confusing of locations, and forever cure the middle-age onset of latitudinal dysfunction. But I mistrust them. Some GPS users describe their units depicting their kayak path going over the river and up through the woods. I’ve seen waterproof units—inside waterproof bags—cease functioning after a light splashing. And I don’t like being that fundamentally dependent on buggy electronics and sketchy batteries.
So I get around the old-timey way, with charts, compass, and my mediocre wits. It’s simple, it’s unfussy, and (usually) pretty dependable. And, most importantly, I don’t have black helicopters following me around …
So we successfully weave among several islands today, and eventually emerge between Channel and Kingcome Islands, from whence we can clearly see our campground on the mainland. It is only a short paddle of three miles to hot showers and cold beers …
Launching from the public beach in Rossport soon after breakfast, Jeff and I paddle between Healey and Quarry Islands. On the southwest point of Quarry, we discover the submerged remains of a rock-weir dock, presumably vestiges of the namesake stonequarry operation which once thrived here. Large stone blocks and timbers are clearly visible in the crystalline waters.
We cross the main channel to Salter Island, where we pull ashore and take a short break. Near the water’s edge, Jeff builds a small stone inukshuk figure, “as a sign of intelligent life.”
“Hmm,” I reply, recalling our repeated wrong turns of the day before, “we weren’t so smart yesterday …”
We hit the water and continue south along Salter, past Minnie Island, and finally cross to the east end of Battle Island, from where we can gaze out on the open lake. Lake Superior is a singular place, and anyone venturing out on her must be prepared for the unexpected. Old-time sailors will tell you, “If you make a mistake out on the lake, you’ll have to pay for it.”
On the morning of August 10, 1899, the steam propellor ship Ontario was upbound for Nipigon, towing a pair of wooden three-masted schooners, the Wawanosh and the Eureka. She had been struggling in a building snowstorm—in August, no less—and as she turned here into the shelter of Wilson Channel she was pushed by quartering seas into the rocky shore of Battle Island. The Wawanosh threw off her tow lines, set her sheets, and made her way in to Rossport, while the Eureka had to be towed by another vessel. The Ontario, meanwhile, began breaking apart on the rocks. Her crew abandoned the ship and were rescued, but she soon went down and sank below the waves in the small bay here. Only her steam boiler remains ashore, a century-old reminder of yet another victim of Superior’s capricious temperament.
As we leave the shelter of Wilson Channel and turn westward, we are exposed to the conditions of the open lake. It’s fairly calm today, with only a one-to-two-foot chop, but there are numerous rocks and submerged shoals close to shore along here, and we angle out to steer clear of the waves breaking on them. Shortly before reaching the southwest point of Battle, we thread our way through the shallow, rocky entrance to a placid cove, towered over by the Battle Island Light.
After a quick lunch, we hike up through a dense cedar grove on a tight and narrow path evidently crafted by the gnomes of Narnia. Emerging on an old cart road, we follow it to the well-kept and impeccably tidy grounds of the lighthouse, with several maintenance sheds and a cheery keeper’s house, an empty rocking chair sitting on the open porch. There appears to be no one around, and we are greeted only by a large white dog, who seems friendly enough and whose name we later learn is Coda.
Jeff and I wander to the base of the tower to gape upwards at the lighthouse, and when I casually glance back to the house I am surprised to see an old fellow now occupying the porch chair, gently rocking as though he’s been sitting there for years. Which he apparently has.
Bert, it turns out, has been living here at the remote Battle Island light station since retiring as a Canadian Coast Guard lightkeeper several years ago. Though he goes home to Thunder Bay every winter, he returns here each spring to keep an eye on the light, keep the grounds ship-shape, and greet the few visitors who venture out here to the northernmost lighthouse on all the Great Lakes.
“I suppose you wanna go up in the tower?” he offers, jingling his large ring of keys.
Up in the tiny light chamber, it seems we can see forever. Simpson Island sprawls away to the west, Nipigon Bay and the mainland to the north, and to the south, only open water as far as the eye can see. Bert tells us of the time, over thirty years ago, when a hard winter storm struck Superior, with gale-force southwest winds driving up off the lake.
“There’s two hundred and fifty miles of fetch between here and Duluth. So when the waves got here … well, they were pretty big …”
Frigid water and ice leaped upward and broke the glass from the tower windows up here, a hundred twenty feet above the lake, and swept large fuel-oil tanks from their concrete mounts. For those of us who often venture out in little boats, the image is almost incomprehensibly terrifying. I am not sure if it’s the smell of machine oil, the altitude, or the thought of two- and three-story greenwater waves coming ashore here, but I feel a bit woozy.
But I stay, gripping the railing, entranced by the sweeping vista and the eye-searing beauty of this vast inland sea.
“Yup,” murmurs Jeff, equally spellbound, “it’s like a whole other country up here …”
Jeffrey Lee paddles and writes in the Upper Great Lakes region.
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