Earlier this year, we signed up for a 10-day Lake Superior trip organized by Harbourfront Adventures. The itinerary comprised a 5-day trip from Rock Island lodge, at the mouth of the Michipicoten River to Denison Falls (on the Dog, or University River)and back, book-ended by several day trips from the lodge itself. Denise and I had been to Lake Superior Provincial Park back in 2009. This time, we felt a guided trip would give us an opportunity to venture further than perhaps we might risk by ourselves, and of course also give us a chance to meet some fellow travelers.
We all met for the first time for a pre-trip gathering at the Harbourfront Canoe & Kayak Centre in Toronto. Nine clients and four guides (Liz, Biz, Eric, and Lien). Various travel and accommodation options were offered. We chose to have Harbourfront take our kayaks to Rock Island lodge for us, allowing us to fly to Sault Ste Marie and then be picked up by the guides for the 2-hour drive to Rock Island Lodge. We packed our tents, sleeping bags and paddling gear in the kayaks to minimize the amount of stuff we had to take on the flight.
As the gang gathered round at the Soo airport, re-introducing each other as we waited for our ride to the lodge, the first seeds of crew nicknames began to germinate. By the closing days of the expedition these had blossomed into a full roster of “CB handles” – “Dice”, “Day Hatch”, “Hotsauce”, ‘Wiz”, “Eggplant”, “the Brain”, “Swee’Pea”, “Tiny”, “Cookie”, ‘the Captain”, “XO” and so on. Each a story in itself.
Our guides arrived and we piled into two vehicles for the drive to the lodge, stopping at the Agawa Rock Visitor Centre for lunch. The last leg of the trip was occupied with a group effort to complete the Globe & Mail crossword – and the Captain whispering answers to Hotsauce in the back seat. By the time we got to the lodge and got settled in, there was just enough time for a short hike up to nearby Silver Falls.
Next day we did a short paddle along “Government Beach” and up the Michipicoten River to the base the falls we had hiked to the pervious evening. But the day was mostly about getting sorted out with the boats and practicing some maneuvers . We did get quite close to some bald eagles though, and that evening, were treated to a display of northern lights. Dice, our team meteorologist also gave us an orientation to some of the major star constellations.
Next morning we packed up the boats in earnest and set out on our 5-day expedition. The weather was beautiful and the water totally calm. The pace was leisurely, with plenty of time to goof around and practice our synchronized paddle tosses; We stopped for lunch and water-Frisbee near a spot called Indian Beach; The mood temporarily darkened when one of the gang slipped and dislocated her shoulder. Luckily, Denise was able to reset it without much trouble. After reluctantly agreeing to allowing herself to be towed by Eric for a while to give her shoulder a chance to heal, our patient was able to carry on and enjoy the rest of the trip.
Our first campsite was at Minnekona Point and comprised a couple of small beaches tucked in between two rock outcroppings. In all, we covered about 14km the first day – about half the distance to the Dog River. Lien (“Cookie”) was our master chef throughout the trip – and master chef he was. This evening, it was clear that the culinary standards we had enjoyed so far at the lodge were not going to be compromised in the bush. This was not going to be a Kraft dinner trip by any stretch.
Next morning was again calm. Lunch was on a lovely beach at a spot called McCoy’s Harbour, although there was nothing but some iron rings embedded in a rock to suggest there had ever been any man-made structure there of any kind. Once sufficiently fed and watered, we carried on for the final leg to the Dog River.
Luckily, the water remained calm for our landing at our final destination, which was just as well. The beach at the mouth of the Dog is wide, stony and ‘dumpy’. We got a vivid illustration of this from shore the next day as the wind picked up. It was a great chance for Eric to demo his surfing moves, but the rest of us mortals would have been severely challenged had these conditions prevailed when we were trying to take out the previous day.
The day brought not just wind but rain. Lots of it. The hike to Denison falls was just a couple of kilometers, but the footing was treacherous almost all the way and in the end, we settled for a few photos at the foot of the lower falls before heading back to camp to dry out and warm up.
Miraculously, the next morning was calm again for the first leg of our return trip. We were however, almost totally fogged in. We paddled in the eerie stillness, close to shore, and to each other, until we made our way back to Minnekona point.
The last day of our back-country expedition was overcast. The air and water were completely still as we started to make our final crossing from Perkwakwia Point to the mouth of the Michipicoten. Then Dice, our weatherman, announced that all hell was about to break out in about 15 minutes. Sure enough, as we paddled the last few hundred meters, the winds picked up, the rain came down and we started to hear the first rumbles of thunder. No dawdling then, as we quickly pulled our boats ashore and made for the sanctuary of the lodge.
One full wall of the dining room at the lodge is comprised of big picture windows overlooking the bay. From there, with mugs of chicken noodle soup in hand, we watch in awe as the storm set in.
Next day was a so-called rest day, with an option for a trail hike. Denise decided we were taking the option. What was supposed to be a 3-hour stroll somehow mutated into a 5-hour death march. To begin with, there was a turn off near the beginning which we missed. Twice. Eventually we located it. Completely overgrown. As was most of the rest of the trail. By the time we made it to Government Beach the search parties were out.
After a late lunch, we watched Eric and Liz do some surfing at the mouth of the river. We death-march survivors were too tired to get back in the water, but one brave soul got into her kayak and ventured into the surf – a venture which instantly morphed into an impromptu demonstration of an assisted rescue.
Next day – Gargantua Bay (pronounced Gargan-twa by the locals) was on the agenda, including a paddle along the cliffs of Devil’s Warehouse, and a visit to the sunken wreck of the Columbus – a 136-foot barge that has laid submerged in 30 feet of water at the north end of the bay since 1909, the year it caught fire and was cut loose from its moorings to prevent the fire spreading to the remaining buildings on shore. Those buildings are gone now and there are few other signs of human activity remaining.
By the time we got back to the take-out, the waves had picked up a bit. The beach there is steep and comprised of large cobble – perfect boat-crunching material. Eric and Lien went ahead. They used two big logs as an improvised landing pad onto which they launched us one by one as we came in!
Back to the lodge and another splendid dinner. We rounded out the evening by breaking out the guitar and taking a stab at some old tunes with some assistance from Lien and UltimateGuitar.com :)).
Old Woman Bay was the destination for the final day trip. We headed south along the magnificent 400 ft high cliffs to a small cobble beach. From there it was a short stroll to the very pretty Till Creek Falls.
We would have rounded out the day with a very pleasant incident-free paddle back to the vehicles except Eric decided this was a good time to try some rock climbing while wearing his kayak. Several of us heard the crunch. “Oh, oh. Watch my waterline”, he says. Not sure if he’s serious or not, I turn to Lien. “I think Eric’s holed his boat”. Lien throws his eyes up with a look of resignation and continues to paddle. “Not the first time”, he says. Sure enough, back on shore, Eric’s back hatch is 3/4ths full of water, although he seemed pretty confident he would be able to patch it up back at the shop.
Next morning, back to the Soo and back to Toronto. It’s raining now. We left in shorts and T-shirts. Now it feels like winter is just round the corner already. Looking forward to meeting the gang again for our post-trip meeting – and maybe planning our next adventure.
More photos on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dermotmckeown/albums/72157658568144772