Lake Superior Coastal Canoe: Day 1 & 2 - The Departure

Superior, the world's largest freshwater lake and very much an inland sea. This powerful body of water is larger than the country of Austria and directly influences the climate of its surrounding landmass. Fog can envelop her shoreline for days on end and wicked storms can whip up waves over 10m in height, taking with them many a ship. In the summer of 2018, we spent an amazing 10 days paddling the most remote coast in the Great Lakes - 220km of undeveloped, wilderness shoreline. We were moved by the lakes' rugged coastal mountains, boreal 'rainforests' and endless sandy beaches.

Teaser video of the journey

I had planned for a daunting expedition - 10 days of canoeing that would take us up the Steel River system followed by bushwhacking to the headwaters of the Little Pic and traveling its seldom paddled course out to Lake Superior. The departure was set, unfortunately a sprained ankle was still on the path to recovery and slogging through unforgiving terrain was likely not the smartest nor safest idea. Scrambling, I had to come up with a route that would fit our 10-day timeline whilst keeping portages at an absolute minimum. After a bit of internet searching and rifling through the map drawer, I found the perfect destination - the Lake Superior coast. Portage free with innumerable route options!

Cascade Falls, one of the best sites on the coast!

I've paddled the coast through Lake Superior Provincial Park several times before and have come to fall in love with the splendour of Gitche Gumee. Crystal clear waters, sweeping beaches and imposing coastal mountains (tall by Ontario standards), create an awe-inspiring landscape. The section through Superior Park, while remote and challenging, pales in comparison to the stretch of coast between the Pic and Michipicoten Rivers. Wild, unforgiving and rugged, it remains the longest undeveloped coastline in the Great Lakes. The 185km stretch through Pukaskwa National Park to Michipicoten Harbour had been a bucket list trip of mine for years but eluded me due to complications in timing, weather and logistics. Finally, after all this time, the trip got off the ground!

Backcountry charcuterie spread. We certainly eat well on our trips!

Our 10-day canoe journey along the northern coast of Lake Superior would take us through: 1 national park, Pukaskwa; 1 provincial park, Nimoosh; 1 conservation reserve, Lake Superior Highlands; and crown land.

We would begin our journey in Pukaskwa National Park. Established in 1978, Pukaskwa is known for its vistas of Lake Superior and vast boreal forests. The park covers an expansive 1,878 square kilometres and protects part of the longest undeveloped shoreline anywhere on the Great Lakes.

Day 1: Arrival

Driving through heavy rains and strong winds, we arrived at the Pukaskwa permit station an hour behind schedule. Severe thunderstorms had wreaked havoc on the landscape, leaving a mess of downed trees, deep puddles and melting hail in their wake. As we mulled about the station, a persistent rain still lingered, and we wondered if we would be able to venture out on Superior that evening.

Our bubbly attendant finalized our permits and delivered a mandatory safety briefing; a requirement for any adventurer heading out into the remote and unforgiving Pukaskwa backcountry. By the time we were finally on the water it was nearly 8:30pm, well behind schedule but at least the storms of earlier had given way to patchy fog and a cool offshore breeze. Twilight lingers well past 10:45pm here, so we were unconcerned with the prospect of nighttime navigation (something we are VERY familiar with thanks to adventure racing and typical late Friday arrivals).

Typical superior shores. Rugged and no safe landings in heavy surf.

The only shot of the first campsite. Foggy after the rain.

We made quick work of the 4km paddle and ended up at the first available paddle site, tucked away in the back corner of Picture Rock Harbour. That evening, we celebrated with a shrimp ring appetizer and a scrumptious dinner of steak, roasted red peppers and seafood cakes.

Day 2

It was 3am, and the low rumble of a distant but encroaching thunder had shook us awake. The humidity was rapidly decreasing and the fluttering leaves of aspens overhead indicated the winds were blowing in a system with teeth. In a matter of minutes, powerful storms were rolling in off the lake and thunder echoed all along the coastal mountains, booming with intense ferocity in our seemingly sheltered cove. Intense heavy rains and destructive high winds lashed the coast and our campsite. All the while, the dark night sky was continuously illuminated by the crack and flash of lightning. At times, the ground seemingly shook from a few close strikes. All we could do is lay back, listen and bear witness to the powerful show unfolding around us.

The storms raged for hours, hurling themselves towards to the coast in waves of ever increasing intensity. The final line rolled through at 10:30am, after which we begrudgingly exited our tent. A late start would likely mean facing less than ideal water conditions. Along the Northern Superior coast, the winds have a tendency of picking up around 11am, whipping up larger waves and slowing or stalling forward progress by canoe.

It was nearly noon by the time we finally got on the water. We had only paddled 3km before, as if on cue, a shift in weather brought strong head winds and ever-increasing waves. As conditions deteriorated, we decided it best to temporarily alter plans and land at the White River portage. Our planned destination of Willow River was still some distance away, but forward progress was unwise given the now angry lake.

Down the coast we go!

After a quick and easy portage, we journeyed upriver to wait out the windstorm. About 4km upstream, the river is crossed by the White River Suspension Bridge, a swaying span set 23m above powerful Chigamiwinigum Falls. Here, the river carves its way through an imposing gorge where the deafening roar of the white water below echoes against the towering walls. It was here that we decided to take a well-deserved lunch break and explore a section of the Coastal Trail while the lake hopefully calmed. The bridge and falls are a must-see destination that can be reached by a 9km hike along the Coastal Backpacking trail or, for paddlers, travelling along the coast or by descending the once stunning White River canoe route. Sadly, the latter is losing its wilderness appeal thanks in part to a series of hydroelectric developments.

Chigamiwinigum Falls, White River

Leah, hanging out on the suspension bridge.

After spending a few hours exploring, we paddled downstream to the mouth of the White River. We approached with bated breath; the river mouth can be a treacherous spot where strong currents and waves mix to create powerful waters that can easily swamp an unsuspecting canoe. Thankfully, the winds of earlier had diminished to a few knots and floating the river mouth was no more difficult than running a CI rapid.

Gliding through patches of thick fog, we journeyed south, finally on track to reach our destination of Willow River. When we arrived, we were greeted by a sweeping sandy beach with several intimate and inviting campsites tucked away beneath a canopy of spruce. The river mouth was situated in a protected cove and the surrounding rocky headlands gave off a fjord-like vibe. Large driftwood had accumulated high and dry on the shoreline, hinting at the furry Gitche Gumee can unleash when winter storms batter the coast. Gathering a few choice pieces, we lit an evening fire and encircled the roaring blaze while recounting the happenings of the day.

Beachfront campsite at the Willow River.

The sprawling beach at Willow River.

As the sun dipped below the horizon, we retired to our tent, setting our alarms for an early rise. The aim for tomorrow was to beat out the afternoon winds and make swift progress to our next destination; Fisherman's Cove. Tomorrow was Canada Day and we wanted to ensure we had ample opportunity to celebrate the occasion in a supposed paradise.

#backcountry #canoe #camping #LakeSuperior

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