Lake Superior Coastal Canoe: Day 3 & 4 - Windbound

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Day 3

We awoke to the sounds of rustling leaves and bending branches. A cool, stiff breeze had blown in overnight and we became increasingly discouraged with the prospect of a productive early rise and launch. After encountering less than ideal conditions the previous two days, we were beginning to think Gitchi-Gami was doing everything in her power to stymie our southerly progress. Clambering out of the tent, I swiftly traversed the coast in hopes of catching a better glimpse of the lake conditions from the exposed headland abutting our tranquil cove. It can be hard to discern open water conditions of Superior from the relative shelter offered by the protected bays and coves, so a trek to a prime vantage point can offer better insight. As I ascended the headland, I let out a sigh of relief, the exposed waters appeared relatively calm, only punctured by smooth, gentle rollers.

Bolstered by the positive findings, we made quick work of packing up camp, scarfing down a hearty breakfast of oatmeal and coffee in the process. All the while, the overnight winds quietly subsided, giving way to slowly lumbering patches of heavy fog. Launching our Nova Craft Prospector, we swiftly and quietly paddled off into the white abyss.

Willow River views!

Ready to start day 3.

Island hopping through Shot Watch Cove and Fish Harbour, we searched in vain for some elusive Pukaskwa Pits rumored to be concentrated along this stretch of coast, but the thick fog hampered any serious efforts. The Pits are something of an ancient enigma whose origins are estimated to stand at 500-1500 years BP, with further speculation that some may be traced back as far as 8,000 BCE. The Pits are rocky structures with low walls and a corresponding depression where stones have been removed from within the enclosure; usually elongated ovals in shape. Their exact function has been lost in the mists of time, but leading theories hypothesize these venerable sites were used for vision quests, temporary shelter, cache pits or hunting blinds.

Undaunted, and buoyed by the prospect of more pits further down the coast, we pressed on to Cave Harbour, hoping to catch a glimpse of the namesake cave amongst the heavy fog. Cruising through the mist, we strained our eyes, scanning the imposing cliffs for a craggy opening. As luck would have it, the fog thinned and the cave was revealed. We pondered if ancient travelers had frequented this site, especially given the proximity to the nearby Pukaskwa Pits. The open mouth certainly looked inviting enough, but it didn’t take much creativity to imagine an angry lake whose waves filled the cave’s bowels with frigid, churning waters.

Fog clings to the Superior shore.

The cave at Cave Harbour.

The formidable challenge of the day was crossing Oiseau Bay. Set back nearly 3km from the open waters, the bay is sheltered by a small archipelago, whose many rocky islands provide excellent nesting grounds for all manner of birds. Hugging the coast offers up a 6km paddle, but an open water crossing halves that. The downside of the shortcut is a relative lack of shelter and full exposure to incoming rollers, though darting between the rocky islands can afford for an easier crossing.

A heavy fog shrouded most of our island landmarks in a thick, white blanket of cool mist. Tepidly, we ventured across the open expanse, ears strained for the distant crash of waves revealing hidden and deadly shoals. At times the only indication we were nearing a collecting feature was the local population of Gull’s, whose overhead cries suggested they were not receptive to guests. Oiseau, French for bird, is quite fitting.

With a keen eye on our heading, we made short work of the thankfully uneventful crossing, pressing onwards to our destination for the day; Fisherman’s Cove. The cove is situated deep within a Fjord and we had heard it held one of the most scenic campsites on the Pukaskwa coast.

Lunch stop before crossing Oiseau Bay.

Paddling Superior’s fjords, bays, and coves is akin to entering another world. The most notable difference is the presence of a unique microclimate. Where it may have been breezy and cool on the open waters of Superior, the protected channels and inlets can be hot and humid. With humidity approaching nearly 100% and the mercury soaring above 30C, these sheltered hideaways can feel downright tropical at times!

The surrounding forests are lush with all manner of greenery. Ancient cedars, gnarled and twisted with age, and a lush carpet of moss and ferns gives these areas a rainforest vibe. In fact, some scientists have proposed that species assemblages and the lake induced microclimate would suggest these coastal stands could be categorized as rainforests. The unique microclimate allows for the growth of towering White Pines, and sporadic stands of Black Ash, species more commonly associated with warmer regions south of the boreal forest.

The fjord at Fisherman's Cove.

Tucked away in the easternmost reaches of Fisherman’s Cove, lie several inviting beaches. We set our sights on southernmost beach, the jewel of the lot, and were awestruck by what we soon found. Turquoise clear waters met golden sandy beaches, flanked by rocky, pine capped knolls. It was hard to believe an oasis like this existed in Ontario!

Cracking a well-deserved cold brew, we stuck our toes in the surf and bummed around our new-found paradise. The bliss was unfortunately short lived. Darkening skies and a distant low rumble hinted that a third day of stormy weather was on tap for the ‘rainforest’. The thunder seemed to act as a dinner bell to the blackflies, who quickly filed out of the adjacent woods in droves! Swatting our new-found camp mates away, we made our way towards the bug shelter. After several rain free minutes, I grew restless and decided to clamber up an adjacent ridge, convinced it would offer the best angle to capture a few shots of our site. Bugs be dammed!

A short while later, Leah, who wisely remained in the shelter, noted a strong wind appeared to be blowing down the cove. Hunched over my camera and blinded by clouds of insects, I turned around and squinted in horror; a wall of water was racing down the cove! Making a mad scramble to the bug shelter, I darted in with just seconds to spare, nearly losing it on a patch of wet rock in the process!

Hunkering down to wait out the storm, we cracked another beer sat back in the sand and watched the drama unfold before us. All the while, hordes of black flies clung to the exterior mesh of our bug shelter. It was hard to tell if they wanted to escape the deluge or simply take advantage of our new confinement for an easy meal. Thankfully, our Eureka! VCS tarp did the trick and we remained bug free and dry.

We remained shelter bound for the next 5 hours. Despite the fact our Canada Day was a washout, we remained unfazed; a rainy day in paradise is better than any other day back at work in the ‘real world’.

Prime campsite at Fisherman's Cove.

Paradise found!

Fisherman's Cove, after the storm.

Day 4

The winds raged overnight. A shift was taking place as two opposing directions seemingly fought for supremacy. Strong easterly winds funneled down from the coastal mountains to meet with the westerly offshore winds. Trees snapped back and forth in the whirling circulation; dancers in Mother Nature’s great play.

When we emerged from our tents just before sunrise, we were dismayed to witness a lack of marked improvements. The west wind had claimed victory in its battle, whipping up a steady stream of waves that broke upon the beach with great force. While windy, the offshore wave height appeared minimal and did not suggest too much cause for concern. Accurate perception from our relative shelter deep in Fisherman’s Coe was difficult due to the distance, but we could make out waves breaking upon distant shoals.

Deciding to give the waters a shot, we swiftly broke camp and launched headfirst into the crashing surf. Initially the paddling was smooth and straight forward, just a few gentle rollers and brisk headwind, but we knew it wouldn’t last...

Morning at Fisherman's Cove.

As we trepidly approached the first large shoal, it was quickly apparent conditions were steadily deteriorating. Waves nearly 3m in height peaked over the exposed rock and swells soon began to crash against our North Water spray deck. As we scanned the horizon in hopes of a break, our eyes were disappointedly greeted by a lake awash with whitecaps. Superior’s waters were far too turbulent to continue safely and the thought of a dump in her frigid waters sent chills down our spines. Surfing a crest, we tacked inland and rode the waves back to the safety of our abandoned site.

Washing ashore, we mused for some time as what to do with our current situation. After slight debate, we decided it best to hike the coastal trail to an adjacent lookout, both in hopes conditions would improve while we trekked, and to catch a better glimpse of what was happening further out on the open waters of Superior.

Trekking along the trail was a great excuse to stretch our legs, but the going was tough as we ascended steep valleys running with water from deluge that had assailed the coast over the past few days. As we peered out over a high point, we could observe a marked diminishment in offshore whitecaps. It appeared conditions were improving!

Looking out over Fisherman's Cove from the Coastal Trail

Getting ready to give it another go.

We decided to give the paddle another go. The escape from Fisherman’s Cove proved much less eventful than the previous attempt. However, as we rounded the fjord we were faced with rollers of ever increasing height. While the waves peaked near 2m, the period was dispersed enough that we could ride through the troughs with minimal difficulty. So far so good… Things started to go sideways as we neared a jagged headland. The wind began to swirl from all directions and it quickly became increasingly difficult to read the waves. Dangerous surf began to break and peak from all directions, pushed by chaotic winds and unpredictable reflection waves. The now violent waters were eager to toss our canoe wherever they so pleased and it took everything in our power to keep course. My forearms were now screaming from the constant bracing and corrective strokes as conditions rapidly degenerated around us. For each forward stroke, we were seemingly forced backwards by another two. Were we even moving?!

Waves crashing into the beach in our sheltered cove. Not a good sign!

Knowing we had to get of the maelstrom we now found ourselves in, my eyes darted down at the map in hopes of finding a place of refuge along the desolate coast. I could not afford to take them off the incoming wash in fear a rogue wave would unsuspectingly capsize us. Safe landings are few and far between along Superior’s north shore as much of the coast is comprised of aggressive, rocky cliffs and outcrops that would easily dash an attempted escape. With a quick glance at the map, I spied a hopeful safe haven; a small unnamed cove set back in narrow bay. Making an aggressive tack, we pointed the bow towards our prospective shelter. We knew the approach would be rough. Reflection waves angrily frothed with churning whitecaps, funneling down the narrowing rocky channel. The push for safety was akin to a pilot landing their plane during violent turbulence. A bumpy ride with no margin for error. Deep breaths and immense focus were required as we dialed it in and powered through the chop. Finally, after an agonizing and stressful few minutes, we broke through the chaos unscathed and found ourselves in a beautiful, quaint cove. It was hard to fathom that such clam waters were to be found just a stone’s throw away from the angry lake. Beaching ashore, we kissed the ground and sought out shelter for what promised to be a lengthy windbound stay.

Through the heavy surf!

After landing in our newfound refuge, we set about searching for a suitable encampment to wait out the windstorm. The tiny cove we had found ourselves in provided no obvious space for a tent, but our prospects were bolstered by a narrow, dry channel leading to a small adjacent inlet. Pushing through a tunnel of overhanging cedars, we emerged at a natural shallow harbour with a sweeping rocky point. Tucked away behind the outcrop, was a level spot shielded by a canopy of ancient, twisted cedars. Much to our surprise, we discovered a few saw marks, old and weathered, but indicative that some other party had sought refuge in this cove long ago. As we portaged our gear across the channel, we pondered aloud what circumstances may have befallen the past occupants. Had they experienced a white-knuckle landing much like ours?

Leah, hanging around at the windbound campsite.

We spent the remainder of our afternoon hiking to the summit of nearby peaks, rock scrambling and shimmying off trail. Our efforts were rewarded with sweeping views of the surrounding coastal mountains and the violent turquoise waters below. We spent a great deal of time watching the waves pummel the shoals and kept watch for majestic birds of prey circling overhead. In the distance, a power boat – likely the park shuttle – crashed through the turbulent waters; surely a stomach churning ride.

As the evening crept in, so too did the bugs. Much to our shock and dismay, hordes of bloodthirsty blackflies pestered us as we futilely attempted to ready dinner. Reluctantly we retreated from our exposed point to the dark cedar forest and sought shelter within our bug shelter. It was quite the unpleasant surprise that swarms of blackflies were persisting well into July! The Superior breed was clearly something else!

With the bugs putting a damper on our evening, we made an early retreat to the tent with the intention of an early rise. We had planned for some windbound days, but with 4 days of delays already behind us, we knew tomorrow would have to be a push to get us back on schedule. Cascade Falls – a pre-trip planned highlight – awaited….

Waves crash ashore along the foreboding coast.

Small cove where we camped. Site is in the upper left reaches.

Bugs, bugs, bugs!!

The sun sets on our windbound day.

#LakeSuperior #ExploretheBackcountry #explore #backcountry

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