Canoeing Lake Superior

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Follow the route to see the beautiful countryside.
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“Top 60 Canoe Routes of Ontario” by Keven Callan, has canoe routes for all skill levels.

Top 60 Canoe Routes of Ontario(Firefly, 2018) by Kevin Callan, is filled will canoeing routes for anyone to try. Learn from Callan the tips and tricks he found on each route and how to be prepared for specific routes. Find this excerpt in Chapter 8, “Lake Superior.”

Northern Ontario

Lake Superior

  • 4 to 5 days (3 days in good weather)
  • 20 km
  • Canoeists must be experienced in paddling rough water and prepared to spend two days being windbound.

I’ll never forget the first time my trip buddy John and I experienced the magi­cal powers of Lake Superior. We were paddling out of the mouth of the White River with some colleagues, all of us feeling the ill effects of a can of toxic oysters I had packed, and as we leaned over to retch into the water, John and I observed flat-bottomed clouds drifting across from the west. Wind patches soon appeared on the once-smooth surface and swells quickly began to lift and deepen. Then swirling wind flicked ice-cold water off the crests of the waves and into our now flimsy-seeming canoe. Within minutes the lake shifted from a gentle undulation to a jostling of bottomless swells and tumbling breakers.

After witnessing such a drastic change of conditions, it is easy to feel some understand­ing of the Ojibwa belief that Superior is a major spiritual center, an enchanted place regarded with deep veneration, where one must give homage in order to travel without peril.

 So, on a return trip, this time joining John’s daughter Kerry and friend Grace, visiting from New York, to paddle Lake Superior Provincial Park’s coastline, we ceremoniously tossed an offering of tobacco into the lake before heading up the coast. We felt some­what skeptical at first, even joking about how we resorted to using a cheap cigar we had purchased at a roadside cafe. But when we were done and headed out on Superior, it was as if the unrehearsed ceremony had rewarded us with a sort of calm assurance, a sense that we had done something right.

 Originally we had planned to paddle the park’s remote Sand River. Once we arrived, however, we quickly discovered the effects of a three-week dry spell. The river had been transformed from a rushing waterway into a dried-up boulder garden.

Disappointed, we somberly chose to cancel the river trip and began making the necessary arrangements for traveling up the coast. By noon we had paid for an interior camping permit at the Agawa Bay gatehouse, shuttled a second vehicle down the 12-kilometer bush road to Gargantua Bay and then parked along the west side of Highway 17 to unpack our gear at the Coldwater–June Creek access point.

The first day out we took advantage of an unusually calm Lake Superior and paddled close to the heaped boulders and steep, jagged cliffs of Bald Head Point, taking time out to collect multicolored rocks, identifying various species of raptors hunting flocks of shorebirds and snapping photos of ancient Arctic plants rooted in inhospitable knobs of granite. We had an extended lunch stop on the cobble terrace at the mouth of the Baldhead River, where the Group of Seven’s Lawren Harris once depicted the rugged shore of Superior on canvas, and then paddled up to the twin falls for a refreshing swim.

It was only 3:00 p.m. when we pitched our tents at the designated campsite in Beatty Cove, a crescent of sheltered water screened from the expanse of the lake by a 70-meter-long raised beach. Enjoying the hot sun beaming down on the sandy shore and the slight breeze that was keeping the bugs at bay, we no longer felt disheartened about abandoning the river trip. Life out on Superior was far better than dragging a canoe down a dried-up riverbed.

 The calm persisted the next day, with only a slight breeze barely ruffling the surface of the lake. We continued north, enjoying brunch on a small island, mop-topped with stunted timber, and then spent two full hours investigating the reddish rock mass north of Rhyolite Cove. The bizarre geological structure marks the place where the two-and-a-half-billion-year-old granite rocks and the one-billion-year-old volcanic rocks meet. This gap of time represents one of the most extensive periods of erosion along the coast.

After our shoreline excursion the group decided to call it a day and we paddled around to the campsites in Gargantua Bay. At the entrance to the protective inlet, however, Kerry and Grace suddenly steered their canoe back toward shore. At first, John and I figured they had gone inland for a pee stop. But after waiting out in the swells for nearly half an hour we decided to check things out. One hundred meters away we could see Grace bent over and vomiting onto a slab of rock.

I was worried that it might be food poison­ing and said so. “Well, we all ate the same thing at that grease pit up the highway,” John replied. “I guess we’ll all know in the next 24 hours.”

For Grace’s comfort we decided it would be best to paddle to my truck, which we had shuttled to the end of Gargantua Road, and have Kerry drive her to the hospital in Wawa. In the meantime, John and I set up camp on the beach near the parking area and waited.

By 10:00 p.m. we were sitting on the beach still waiting. Sundown brought a sharp change in the weather. The temperature plummeted and we could hear a line of rain squalls approaching from the west. As we ducked for cover the wind fell off, though the rain began falling hard against the parched soil. John and I lay beside each other inside the tent, silently spending the time counting the seconds between flashes of lightning and the echoing thunder, and consciously keeping tabs on our bodies for the initial symptoms of food poisoning — headache, nausea, severe stomach cramps.

By morning the storm had gone and so had our worries about the highway diner’s food. To celebrate, John and I pumped up the camp stove and cooked a stack of buttermilk pancakes, spiced with cinnamon.

An hour later, still working on my second helping of flapjacks, I saw Kerry and Grace wandering back up to the campsite. I quickly leapt to my feet, ran down the beach to meet them and, gasping for breath, asked, “Well, was it food poisoning?”

“Worse,” Kerry replied. “Try a hernia an hour away from peritonitis setting in.” We all just stood there dumbfounded.

So, choosing to recover from her opera­tion on the sandy shores of Lake Superior rather than in a hotel room in Wawa, Grace stayed back at camp while we took turns day tripping up the coast. The first day we explored Gargantua Harbour itself, rummag­ing through the ruins of the once-thriving fishing village that dates back to 1871. The place is deserted now, with only two rustic shacks remaining. Just out from the dete­riorated docks, the barely submerged skeletal remains of the 150-foot wooden tug Columbus can be seen. In 1909 the ship caught fire at the docks and was pulled out to the harbor and left to sink there.

On the island at the mouth of Gargantua Harbour lies yet another historical gem — the charred ruins of the Miron Lighthouse. The structure was built in 1889 and was tended by three generations of the Miron family. The light was dismantled in 1948, and now a solar-powered automatic beacon has taken its place upon the bleak rock.

On the second day, with Superior still surprisingly calm, John and I paddled up to the mouth of the Gargantua River. We spent the first part of the morning paddling upstream, following woodland caribou tracks along the beach and chatting with a group of fish and wildlife specialists who were work­ing in the area. We were amazed to learn that they had heard stories of Grace’s ordeal back at their home base in Wawa. We then traveled north to have lunch near the Devil’s Chair (a sacred place believed by the Ojibwa to be where the Great Spirit Nanabozho rested after jumping over the lake). Then on our way back to the campsite, we took time out to visit Devil’s Warehouse Island to search for the sites where ocher might have been mined. On the east side of the island we found an incredible dome-shaped cave, probably used hundreds of years ago as a shelter by shamans while visiting Devil’s Warehouse to gather the red-colored rock used to paint the picto­graphs at Agawa Rock.

These islands were not originally named after the Devil. This place, revered by the Ojibwa as the altar inside their cathedral, was renamed by Christian missionaries who saw their own Satan in the Great Spirit of the Native peoples. Even the voyageurs named Gargantua Bay itself after seeing a similarity between the antics of Nanabozho and the hero in the satirical romance Gargantua and Pantagruel, written by Rabelais in 1552.

John and I returned late in the day to find that Grace and Kerry had taken the time to pack in fresh groceries, and for our last night’s dinner on Superior we gorged ourselves on milk, vegetables and beer. Kerry even opened a can of oysters. Poor Grace, keeping to her strict diet, slurped her soup as we feasted. We finished our dessert of strawberries and cognac (Grace had apple­sauce), and feeling somewhat guilty about our gluttony, we treated our hernia victim by chauffeuring her by canoe to the north end of the harbor, where the Coastal Hiking Trail leads to a prominent lookout point.

John, Kerry and I helped Grace hobble up to the ridgetop, and from the slab of rock we watched as the sun set, illuminating this wild place with its reddish glow. We stood in awe of the expanse of it all, questioning how a landscape so beautiful could be mistaken by the black-robed Jesuits as a home for the Devil. To us, Gargantua Harbour had become place of benediction.

We stood there on that ridge until the stars came out, not saying anything, but everyone was quite conscious that if we had chosen to venture down the remote Sand River rather than being lured out into the calm of Lake Superior, our canoe trip to Northern Ontario would have ended as a tragedy.

Fee You must purchase a provincial park interior camping permit at the Agawa Bay or Old Woman Bay campground gatehouse before heading out onto Lake Superior.

Alternative Access Depart from the parking area for the Orphan Lake Trail, located a short distance north of the Coldwater–June Creek access point on the west side of Highway 17.

Alternative Route The trip can be extended by continuing north along the Lake Superior coastline to Cape Gargantua, making camp at Indian Harbour and then returning south to the parking area at Gargantua Harbour.

Outfitters Naturally Superior Adventurers R.R. 1 Lake Superior Wawa, ON, P0S 1K0 1-800-203-9092 or 705-856-2939 www.naturallysuperior.com

For More Information Lake Superior Provincial Park 705-856-2284 www.ontarioparks.com

Maps The Ministry of Natural Resources Lake Superior Provincial Park coastline map.

Topographic Maps 41 N/7, 41 N/11 & 41 N/10

Gps Coordinates 47.468911, −84.788632