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Kayaking Lake Superior 2015

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.

03-Paddle toss 3

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.

17-Cookie

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.

05-McCoy Harbour parking

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.

08-Dog River Beach

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.

09-The Crew at Denison Falls

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.

12-The fog lifting

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.

21-Devils Warehouse

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.

26-Denise

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.

28-Taking out at Old Woman

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exumas 2015

We spent Christmas 2013 kayaking in these waters. We liked it so much, we decided it was worth a return visit.

In our previous outing, we ran out of time to visit the swimming pigs at White Cay. So this time, we put this at the start of our trip. Once again, we relied on the services of Tamara and Dallas of Out island Explorers for kayaks and most of our kit.  We got into Georgetown Thursday, staying at Marshall’s Guest House in town. Next morning we met with Tamara and did some shopping in town. Then we did some shopping in town. And then some more shopping. Finally, we picked up the kayaks and headed up to Rolleville. After the mayhem that always accompanies the first packing of the kayaks, we head out to White Cay to visit the swimming pigs.

00-Pig Swimming out to Kayak 01-Swimming Pig 1

After spending some time with our porcine friends we head up to Levy Cay for our first night, encountering some big water as a result of passing a little too closely to one of the cuts along the way.  We get to Levy’s beautiful beach in time for a great sunset –

03-landing at Levy

Next morning, a leisurely start. (This was not going to be a mile-bagging trip by any stretch of the imagination). We finally got packed up and continued on our way up to Rat Cay. Last year, when  we stayed on this island, we could clearly see hoof prints on the beach – evidence of a resident pig, although we never actually saw her. This time however, she was there in person, and managed to make quite a nuisance of herself. To the point, in fact, that we decided we had to pack up and find alternative accommodation. Plan B was only a short hop over to Pigeon Cay, but it was dark by the time we got everyone back in the water and across to the other island. There is not a lot of real estate on Pigeon and there were a few tense moments as we tried to agree on a suitable spot for tent and kitchen that would be above high water mark. As it was, we were on the neap tide and the squeeze wasn’t as tight as we feared. Next morning we packed up and resumed our journey north to Lee Stocking Island.

On the way, we stopped off at a tiny beach on Windsock Island. As we had our snacks, we were approached by two couples in a small dinghy. They were touring the cays by sail and came over to tell us about the school of stingrays just off shore. After comparing notes, we headed over to the bay they pointed out, and sure enough, we encountered a huge school of rays in the shallow waters. Almost, but not quite close enough to touch……..

08-Reaching out

 

08-Rays 2

 

07-School of Rays

We dallied with these strange prehistoric creatures for quite a while before finally setting course for Lee Stocking, and Twin Beaches.

Twin beaches is a beautiful spot. A short trail leads over to the Atlantic side of the islands and some magnificent cliffs –

23-Atlantic Cliffs

 

13-Heather Ais at Twin sunset

 

21-Girls at the Cairn

22-Ais Photo Dawn

24-Twin Beaches tight squeeze

Unfortunately, the beach also seems to be a popular spot for day trippers from the Sandals resort at Emerald Bay. Our little haven was invaded twice. But they stayed only long enough to take a look at the cliffs and were off again.

Next day we took a short paddle up to a nearby beach. There are trails tucked away at each end . The one at the left leads up to Perry’s Peak. The “highest” peak in the Exumas. Only 123′ high, but enough to give a good view of the surrounding countryside and the wonderfully-named “Tug and Barge” rocks in the distance.

The other, longer trail, from the northern end of the beach, led up to an abandoned marine research centre. Once known as the Perry Institute for Marine Science.  Perry was a founder of the NOAA in the US. I assume the peak was named for him.

The trail leads out onto an airstrip. The old hangar and maintenance sheds are strewn with bits of machinery and parts. it struck me as a great set for an episode of the X-files.

15-Hangar

We would have spent more time poking around, but it was getting late and we needed to get back to the boats. Back at the beach, we were greeted by another party from Sandals. Things are definitely busier on this side of the Exumas. Last year, we started out in the Brigantines and went four full days without as much as a sign of human activity.

We decided to spend our last night back on Levy. That left us with a short hop back to our take out at Rolleville. Murphy’s Law of course – the wind had swung round 180 degrees by now, so we had it in our faces going out and coming back. As it was though, we had little cause for complaint. The storm front that threatened to play havoc with the last leg of our trip held off until we were safely back in the hotel.

More photos on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dermotmckeown/sets/72157650500861957/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kayaking in the Exumas- December 2013

Denise and I enjoy kayaking Georgian Bay in the summer months. Over the years, we have also done a few guided trips overseas including Greenland, Baja California, Costa Rica and Belize. This time we were looking for a winter break. The original plan was to sign up with Out-Island Explorers for a guided trip in the Exumas – an island group in the Bahamas – but we were unable to get schedules aligned. Out-Island Explorers (OIE) is run by Dallas and Tamara Knowles. As we talked to Tamara on the phone, we settled on the idea of just renting kayaks and gear from OIE and going self-guided. Tamara advised us that the waters would be paddling were generally benign and routes could be modified if conditions required. Tamara also agreed to help with a meal plan and did some shopping for us locally.

01 - bahamas_islands_map

We were four adults – My wife and I, who are regular kayakers, our daughter Aisling, who had previous kayaking experience, and her boyfriend Adam, who was completely new to paddling. The Exumas is a close-knit chains of islands. The lee side of the islands offers lots of sheltered water for paddling. You have to pay attention passing through the gaps between the islands (called ‘cuts’). Here, depending on the tides and the width of the cut, one can encounter strong currents and contrary waters. Generally however, you can stay out of trouble simply by giving the cuts a wide berth. At no point on our journey would we have to cross more than about two miles of open water. We had some headwinds at times that made for a good workout, but for the most part nothing complicated or extreme.

We left Pearson airport Sunday morning, Dec 22nd –and just in time as it turned out. An ice-storm was settling in in the area and we managed to escape just ahead of the worst of it. It was a direct flight to George Town, Great Exuma. We spent our first night at Hideaways, Palm Bay. Dallas picked us up next morning and took us to their place where we sorted out our gear, loaded up the kayaks and jumped into the truck for a short trip to the northern tip of the island of Great Exuma. Our put-in was at Odi’s Creek near the community of Barraterre.

What with a mess of snorkeling gear, camp table and chairs, we set off down Odi’s Creek with more gear loaded on deck than I would normally have tolerated. But we were paddling big stable boats (Necky Looksha Vs). The first mile or so was a quiet channel in the mangroves. This gave us time to get used to the boats – and for Adam in particular to figure out some basic maneuvers, including practicing his technique for reversing out of mangroves.

02- Exumas Route

The only real navigational challenge we encountered on the entire trip was as we came into open water from Odi’s Creek. After some second and third guessing, we ended up making the cross to Cluff’s Cay further north and much closer to Pudding Cut than we should have. With the strong cross-current and a brisk wind blowing, this made for a more nerve-wracking crossing than I had bargained for, especially considering Adam’s total kayaking experience to date was to be measured in minutes rather than hours. Adding to the anxiety was the fact that, from this angle, the chain of islands that mapped out our intended course for the rest of the day were all hidden from view behind Cluff’s Cay. So, as we headed past the Southern headland of the cay, it felt like we were headed out into the open sea.

Once we rounded the headland however, the Brigantines came into view and all was good in the world. We landed, had a snack and got ready for the rest of the journey to our first campsite. We got to Brigantine before nightfall (just). Too tired to start fussing with unfamiliar cooking kit, we settled for cold cuts and pita pockets, generous rum rations and some stargazing before retiring for the night.

Just like many parts of Georgian Bay, the shallow waters around the Brigantines render them out-of-bounds for most boaters- which of course also make them a kayaker’s paradise. It was a full three days before we saw a sign of another living soul (unless you count airplanes).

20 - Blues

Even after that, other boat traffic was sparse until we came within sight of Barraterre on the last day. The Brigantines are particularly beautiful and on hindsight, I would have spent more time there. Actually, as a general comment, although I love to paddle, if doing this again, I would be less ambitious in terms of itinerary in favour of allowing more time for snorkeling and generally enjoying some of the locations we stayed at.

 

As it was however, we broke camp next morning and headed out on the next leg of our journey –  another fairly long day’s paddle, along the south side of a string of cays and through a particularly beautiful stretch between New and Gold Ring Cays. 04-paddle toss

We dallied a while there taking photos before making for the crossing to Cook’s Cay. We had a quick snack break there and then set out for the long cross to Norman’s Pond Cay. Norman’s Pond was our home for a couple of days. Christmas day, we paddled up to a channel that leads into the pond that occupies the centre of the island. The channel is a wonderful narrow passage among the mangroves. We disturbed a pair of ospreys. I thought at first they were fish eagles of some sort as they seemed much bigger than their Ontario brethren. The pond was once used to harvest salt and under the water, you can still see the grid of shallow walls that were built for this purpose.

Back at camp, we saw some sting ray and reef sharks. At the same time though, that we were discovering local wildlife, it was discovering us. No-see-ums to be specific. I thought there would have been sufficient breeze to keep them at bay, but no. They seemed indifferent to deet and skin-so-soft. Long sleeves/pants and socks seemed to offer the only protection, but in those temperatures, we were in and out of the water all the time. They got you in the end, one way or another.

Dallas told us there was some good snorkeling off the Southern tip of the island but on the day, the water seemed too rough, so we decided to strike out for the third leg of our adventure – Rat Cay.

This was another fairly long paddle along a stretch that seemed to have more private properties than we had seen so far. Rat Cay eventually came into view. The waves seemed to be hitting the beach pretty hard, so rather than risking a surf landing we slipped in at the far-left end of the beach, where it was more sheltered and then lined the boats back to where we wanted to camp.

19- Kayak parking lot

The first thing we noticed as we walked the beach was hoof prints. Swimming pigs near Staniel Cay are a favourite tourist draw. There are also some at Black Cay. (The latter was on our original itinerary but was scratched in favour of spending some time snorkeling at Square Rock). Now it seems, someone is trying to establish a porcine colony at Rat Cay. We found a pen made of shipping crates back in the bush, but no sight of the pigs themselves.

Next morning we packed for a day trip and set off to Square Rock for some snorkeling.

23 - Square Rock

Square Rock is just that, a big square hunk of rock a few hundred meters off shore. Its sheer walls provide an ideal habitat for all kinds of exotic fish. We also came across a sunken sailboat just offshore which added a nice bit of interest. Then, a paddle back to Rat Cay for our last night on the cays.

25-Rat Cay Sunset

Our stove had been acting up on the trip. Now we made the mistake of leaving the propane hooked up when we left camp that morning. When we got back that evening, we found the last of our fuel had leaked during the day.  Tuna wraps for dinner again – which was fine – but the coffee-holics really bemoaned the loss of their precious brew the next morning.

We had a long pull against the wind for our final stretch from Rat Cay to Barraterre.  At noon, we were pulling up to the dock where Tamara was waiting for us with the truck. We loaded up the boats and headed back to Hideaways for our last night. There was a Junkanoo parade in George Town that night, but after six days of solitude on the cays, it seemed more than the group was prepared for so we decided instead to walk from the hotel down to the fish shacks down the road for dinner and finish up with a nightcap at the hotel bar.

Next morning, we sat with a handful of other Canadians outside a café waiting for our plane to come in. A duo on guitar and keyboard played old Harry Belafonte tunes. It was an airport, but it was as far from Pearson as you could imagine. But cell phones were being pulled from the deepest recesses of our baggage. Texts were being read. Reality was setting in. Toronto had endured one of the worst ice storms in its history. Thousands were without power. What would be waiting for us when we got home?

Check out here for more photos:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/dermotmckeown/

And here for more info on Out-Island Explorers:

http://www.outislandexplorers.com/