Wild on Superior

A solo voyage into the northern arc of the world's largest freshwater lake mixes brief moments of fellowship with long spells of perfect solitude

In my wake was Mystery Island; ahead lay the Island of Doom. I was exploring the waters of a wild archipelago in the northernmost arc of Lake Superior, and I was prepared: I had both of Persistence's depth sounders in operation--her electric one and her noisier one. As depth finder, my steel centerboard was proving infallible. The advice I'd gotten was that with my 20-foot shallow-draft sloop, I could wriggle into St. Ignace Island's CPR Slip, named for a Canadian Pacific Railway lodge. But the channel was lined with unmarked shoals that sailors had found over the years. I'd been duly cautioned not to find any more reefs. Apparently, they had all they wanted.

This was beautiful cruising, with green roundels of islands arising from shimmering blue waters. Clearly visible in the crystal waters, rocks glided mesmerizingly beneath my keel.

My electronic depth sounder indicated that I had a foot under the keel, then zero. This was truly wilderness, and there was no marked entryway. I pushed ahead. But where was that channel? I heard a noisy scraping sound. My mechanical sounder bumped into action, the tiller twitched in my hand, and I was thrown roughly into the boom.

Lo, I was aground.

Persistence piled into the rocks and spun sideways, pinioned by her centerboard. Whump! Whump! The onshore waves began to thump us rockward. I threw out a small Danforth and yanked hard to test its grip. The anchor popped loose. In the rocks, the flukes wouldn't catch. Now the boat canted to port, still pinioned by the centerboard. When I yanked up the pennant, Persistence obligingly righted herself, promptly sliding over one row of rocks and farther onto the reef.

I was hard aground. The blustery winds were building. In this stark wilderness, I felt very alone.

An Innocent Abroad
I was discovering that this Lake Superior voyage was unlike any other cruise I've ever taken. I'd long dreamed of sailing to the wild Canadian archipelago, with its thousands of remote and serene islands rising majestically from the water. The Canadian north shore is one of the cruising world's better-kept secrets. And now I was beginning to find out why.

To get here, I'd trailered my boat, a 22-year old cedar-and-epoxy sloop, up from my home in Shoreview, Minnesota, and launched her not far from an old voyageur fur fort in Grand Portage harbor. On July 4, I sailed across the Canadian border, with the echo of a NOAA weather report forecasting "the hottest day of the year." But as I approached the mouth of Thunder Bay, I was caught in an impressive blow--a derecho with wild downdrafts and gusts up to 115 mph. When I finally got enough control of my boat, I hightailed it into Thompson Island's tiny harbor, feeling chastened.

Next, I cruised across the mouth of Thunder Bay and into the shadows of Sleeping Giant Mountain. Here, on the Sibley Peninsula, I found the drowsy little hamlet of Silver Islet. Rusting mining machinery lined the shore. Silver Islet was once the location of the world's richest silver mine. Today, it's a boomtown no more. That evening, long rollers from the southeast came directly through the breakwaters to pound my boat heavily against the weather-scarred dock. It was a long night--with me inside the cabin, hanging on.

Shoving off again the next day, I entered the archipelago I'd long dreamed about. Around me, hundreds of islands with fir-clad hillocks, remote and serene, rose from the water. This was a pristine, ancient, natural world--and the site of the proposed Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area (LSNMCA), whose nearly 4,200 square miles (about one-seventh of the total area of the lake) is expected to become the largest marine freshwater conservation area in the world. The area stretches from the tip of the Sibley Peninsula to just eastward of the Slate Islands.

We dashed past islands and out into Superior's open waters. Persistence handled the seas just fine. I'd brace myself in the cockpit, head up into the waves, then gently fall off.
I was using Canadian Hydrographic Service chart 2301, Passage Island to Thunder Bay, with information both in English and French. Canadian charts give depths in fathoms, not feet; depths of less than three fathoms are tinted blue on the charts. It seemed to me that there was a lot of blue where I was headed.

The vista around me was changing. I was getting into one of the big lake's most beautiful areas, one of sailing's lesser-known treasures. This was gorgeous wilderness cruising, a remote and wild archipelago unchanged from the time when the voyageurs paddled through in their birch-bark canoes.

I glanced at my GPS for headings, ignoring my three compasses. To the north of me lay Magnet Island; on my chart, stamped in purple ink, was "Magnetic Disturbance/Anomalie magnetique." That meant my compasses could be wildly off. Waves now smashed against my beam in small explosions of white. Foam slopped over the cockpit coaming, showering me. The wind was building, and by now I was really flying along, with my GPS registering 6.9 mph--outstanding for a homebuilt 20-foot sailboat.

I flew into a channel, with its welcome protection from the waves of the open lake. But the wind had turned the passage between Spain and Gourdeau islands smoky as the brown tips of waves were foaming off.

As I entered Swede Harbor, the engine just ticking over, I shielded my eyes against the lowering sun. My mechanical depth finder was now in operation, and the boat gave a slight shiver as her steel centerboard nicked bottom. I quickly backed up and tried several more times to find the channel. The last time, Persistence ran partly aground. It was time to quit screwing around and go to Plan B--get the hell out of there.

I headed back. Emerging past the tip of Swede, Persistence caught the full brunt of the winds and smoky seas. By now it was really howling out there, and I soared along Spain Island, then along Lasher.

I searched for an opening. Along that minimally marked coast, the wilderness can fool you. But when my GPS heading came up, I entered a cut guarded by two lofty islands, their bases awash in surf and their sides covered with dark fir trees. I'd found Loon Harbor.

I dropped two Danforths forward and watched them sink clear to the bottom. They settled in at 20 degrees off each side of the bow. Wind moaned in the rigging, and water gurgled past the hull, but Persistence was gently gliding back and forth. The sun turned red as it set, and I watched it move across the portlight, then back again as we swung to the anchors. To me, the sun seemed like a beacon, and my mind turned to F. Scott Fitzgerald, who grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, and I recalled the way Jay Gatsby, also a sailor on Lake Superior, looked longingly at a beacon in The Great Gatsby.

The island fell into shadows, and the world changed into black. Persistence tugged playfully at the anchors, at home in the water. I grew drowsy, and as I lay down, my last impressions were of being rocked gently in the night in my wooden cradle.

I'd slept well, but the next morning, my body ached and my muscles were stiff and sore from the previous day's outing. Time for a little breakfast of champions: a powerful latte and no-aspirin aspirins. I checked the Canadian weather forecast on the VHF because I never knew what was going to happen on that patch of Superior. Apparently, the forecasters didn't either. The day I left on my voyage, they'd called for bright skies and sunshine, and I ran into what felt like the storm of the century.

A blurt of noise, and there was the Canadian weatherman. Today, the voice said, I'd have winds out of the west up to 25 mph, with alternating cloudy and sunny skies. As I stepped out on deck, rain started to fall, then pelted down, hard. I smiled. Fortunately, I had been a step ahead of the forecasters. I was already in my foul-weather gear.

The day brightened as I dashed past Spar Island. As I neared the spectacular Nipigon Strait, heavy woods and high ravines surrounded me. I ducked into the channel near Moss Island, and once again I heard the snick of my centerboard kissing bottom. I threw the helm over, and we kept moving. I found a solitary anchorage off the northern corner of the island and spent a pleasant night.

And here I was the next day, hard aground on the rocks after trying to find CPR Slip's unmarked channel. I stood sweating on the foredeck, feeling helpless as my boat ground against the reef. On the horizon, I thought I saw buzzards start to circle.

Suddenly, an unmistakable noise like a buzz saw. "Pan-pan!" I called into my VHF mike. "I'm aground near the entryway to the CPR Slip channel, and I need assistance. Particularly from that small boat I just heard starting up."

What happened next was one of several pleasant surprises that enlivened my cruise. Around the island's tip roared a small aluminum runabout with a heavy-set sailor standing nobly in the bow, dressed as if he were on an island cruise in the Caribbean. His partner, leaning back and grinning, was also garbed in shorts and an overly large T-shirt emblazoned with a red maple leaf on it. They were off Ogima, a 40-foot Canadian steel motorcruiser.

"Hey," he said casually. "Having a little trouble?"

"I could use a little help," I said, watching the heavyset man slip into the chill water and splash over to my stranded boat. In his hand was a stout line, which I secured to a bow cleat. While the big guy in the water pushed, the runabout's 35-horsepower outboard roared. My boat's wooden keelson crunched against the rocks, lurched, and shifted, and suddenly I felt a surprising lightness under my deck shoes. We bobbed up and down, alive again--in deeper water.

I'd discovered all the rocks I wanted to for one day, so I carefully followed my new-found Canadian friends into a narrow channel and around a rocky point. Sunshine beamed down on my face from a blue sky swept with cotton-candy clouds. I could see down into the depths of the clear water. I was home for the night in beautiful St. Ignace Island's CPR Slip.

Out of the Woods
The next morning, I slowly awoke to a patter on the cabin top. Rain slapped at the water, making little holes; the pines had turned black. St. Ignace Island's hills were an ominous mass below overhanging blue-black clouds. I rubbed my eyes and made a tough decision. Today wouldn't be the time to fix the rudder I banged up yesterday--or to do any work in the cockpit.

Instead, I fixed a latte. As the steam rose and a wonderful aroma engulfed the cabin, I switched on my VHF radio. From 26 feet above me, Persistence's antenna probed the Canadian airwaves, and the forecast seemed about right: thunderstorms, fog, strong southwest winds, another small-craft warning.

It was a good day to stay put. At considerable leisure, I reviewed my breakfast menu. Food is important when cruising, and on this cold, wet morning, a couple of eggs would go down easy, along with a rasher of bacon and toasted muffins.

My mouth watering, I began to rummage in the bilges. No eggs, of course, much less muffins or rashers of bacon. I found a damp-looking sealed packet of low-fat grain cereal with dehydrated fruit. Just heat up a little water, fill up the cup, and, voila--a hearty breakfast.

"So much better for you, too," said a small, pious voice inside my head as I munched unhappily on half-cooked cereal with tough, dry fruit.

Deciding to stretch my aching muscles, I put on foul-weather gear and got off my boat for the first time in days. I sauntered into the dark woods, overhung with moss, and found a pine-laden trail. I hobbled over a rise and stared. Before me was a vision come true. Anchored off the reefs, bobbling lightly in the mists, was a wooden sailboat--a golden beauty. She was bright finished, and my eyes took in the sweep of her sheer and the carefully matched mahogany planking. She reminded me of my own Persistence, somehow grown bigger and, though I hated to admit it, a lot better looking.

"Ahoy there," I hailed. I saw a sailor come out on deck and look up, probably surprised to see a lone stranger emerging from the woods.

The boat was Orenda, owned by Calgary's Michael Keyser, and he invited me aboard. Mike and crewmember Cam Reid rowed out to get me in a small inflatable. As we came closer, Orenda seemed to grow more massive in the water. I reached out to touch her hull. It was smooth, and the finish was deep, like a musical instrument.

"Come aboard," Mike said, taking hold of the rudder. I saw no ladder or steps.

"Here's how to do it," Cam said, and I did as he did. I put one foot on a massive gudgeon and stepped out of the bobbing inflatable. I dangled in space until I saw another handhold. I lunged for it. Moments later, I was aboard, my eyes traveling up the varnished, 65-foot Sitka spruce mast. I learned that she was a Vic Carpenter boat, a 45-foot beauty that was a sister ship to Golden Goose, which the legendary Canadian shipbuilder crafted for singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot. It's Lightfoot's Lake Superior dirge that's played every November 10 to commemorate "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald."

The five-foot-diameter wheel was handcrafted of alternating strips of mahogany and spruce. I grasped it; the boat felt alive, almost ready to fly away. Belowdecks was a woodworker's dream. Everything was bright finished. I saw bunks that seemed to grow out of the cabin sides. Overhead handrails were sculpted into the cabin top. In the stern was a magnificent navigator's saloon, in varnished wood and full of natural light. The chart table was big enough to open up a chart.

Mike and Cam had sailed out of Canada's Georgian Bay, through Lake Huron's North Channel, then through the locks at Sault Ste. Marie into Superior and westward to St. Ignace Island, a distance of about 500 miles. Orenda was quick.

As I got ready to leave, I couldn't help but slip behind the wheel again and imagine what it was like to drive 1,200 square feet of sail piled on that golden mast.

"She handles like a dinghy," Mike said.

I looked up at that tall mast, a happy smile on my lips. Yeah!

One Man's Meat
Out of the harbor mists glided two sea kayaks, and I directed them to a grassy hillock just beyond the bow of my own boat.

The paddlers were chilled and exhausted, after having fought headwinds the previous day. They'd finally pulled ashore to wait it out, but then they couldn't find a soft beach. "Rock beds are hard to sleep on," one kayaker grumped.

The tall man was a forester; the smaller was a cardiologist.

"And you're a writer," said the small man. I must have looked surprised, because he went on with a grin. "There are predominantly two occupations here on the lake: photographer and writer." I couldn't argue.

They'd been on the lake making their way east through the islands, and on a good day they paddled about 30 miles.

"Do you carry a radio?" I asked.

"No," they replied. "We watch the water. When it gets rough, we pull off. Why do we need a radio?"

A good point. I mentioned my fascination with the voyageurs who used to paddle this way in their birch-bark canoes--I was retracing part of their watery trail. Perhaps they stopped at this very harbor.

The kayakers brought me up short. "I can't imagine anyone out on the lake in an open canoe," the tall one said. He shook his head in disbelief, then looked over at Persistence. A crafty gleam came into his eyes. "Or a sailboat like yours."

I was amused. He carefully stepped aboard Persistence and flexed his knees to put the boat into motion. As my little sailboat rocked obligingly, a contrived look came over his face. With an exaggerated gesture, and holding his stomach, he quickly stepped off.

"I'm seasick already," he announced loudly.

I grinned, but I quickly realized he was only partially joking.

A White Bank
At 0730 the following day, my ensign drooped limply. Water lapped idly at my hull. Fog wisped around the harbor, and I waited patiently.

My VHF issued a securite alert: another small-craft warning. But a Canadian cruiser advised me, "Up here, you have to move or you'll never go anywhere. If you listen to them, they'll scare the hell out of you."

"I'm going," I said. The fog was burning off, and I was the first boat out of the harbor. I made my way past Agate Island (yes, there are agates--I picked some up), and the "Island of Doom." This was Talbot Island, the site of Canada's first lighthouse on Superior and the place of haunted tales. As I passed it by, I listened carefully--legends say you still may hear shrieks, but I heard nothing.

Something dark rushed toward us in the water. I threw Persistence to one side, narrowly avoiding it. The next one, however, hit the hull with a resounding thump.

I jumped up. Ahead of my bow and stretching into the horizon were black things: tree stumps, logs, whole twisted branches. I slowed my engine, and zigged and zagged until we got past our game of Dodge 'Em. This was the first time in all my years of sailing on Superior that I'd come across something like this.

I went below and lifted the floorboards. Luckily, no water was coming in. I didn't know how impact-resistant a three-eighths-inch-thick cedar-and-epoxy hull would be. And I didn't care to find out.

As the wind began to blow from the southeast, Persistence slowed and began swaying with the gusts. Waves hit our starboard bow, giving us nasty little shoves. I glanced below just in time to see a slop of water shoot up through the open centerboard slot and splash on the floorboards. I hated that.

A white bank rolled in. All my visible landmarks disappeared in total fog. I could barely see beyond my bow. My adrenaline surged as I hauled out my GPS and spread out my chart and worked my dividers. The jouncing ride wasn't helping, and sweat dripped down my face. My eyeglasses fogged up as I calculated additional landmarks. Simpson Channel was coming up, and if I didn't turn at the right time, I'd run right into the nasty reefs off Battle Island.

"Securite, securite," I broadcast on my VHF radio. Minutes passed, then came a response. It was the Thunder Bay Coast Guard telling me it had sent out my warning and heading. The voice on the speaker also said there were a few fishing boats staying put in several coves.

When all my GPS numbers aligned, I made my turn. I still couldn't see anything, and I knew I'd have to be right or run into reefs. I was theoretically west of Battle Island, entering the channel between Simpson Island and Salter Island.

The motion of the boat changed. I looked up to see a white orb--the sun burning the fog away. Below me, the waters turned blue. I was right in the middle of the channel, where I was supposed to be. My route was toward Quarry Island, a towering island sticking up out of the water. The sun was beating down on my back, and in all my foul-weather gear, I was perspiring heavily.

Ahead lay Rossport, with its beautiful harbor and a good dock. My plan was to replenish my gas, stock up on water and food, rest up a bit, and head out to the Slate Islands.
As I approached the municipal dock, I saw someone waving. It was one of my friends from Ogima, whom I'd met at CPR Slip.

"Where's the best place to tie up?" I called.

She tipped her head as if to say "This way," then walked to one side. I tossed her my line, and then Persistence and I were inside the L-shaped dock, safe and secure.

"Welcome to Rossport," she said brightly. "Did you have a good trip?"

"A little fog," I allowed.

"You get some of that around here," she said.

Marlin Bree (www.marlinbree.com) is a longtime Lake Superior cruiser and the author of In the Teeth of the Northeaster, Call of the North Wind, and Wake of the Green Storm.