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"Afternoon Sun, North Shore, Lake Superior", (1924) by Lawren S. Harris courtesy National Gallery of Canada.

Lake Superior

By paddle: 709km; By air: 437km.

Satellite photograph of Lake Superior (courtesy NASA)

Scale: 1pixel=1km

Not a good time to attempt the 9km crossing to Pie Island, Thunder Cape.

Not a good time to attempt the 9km crossing to Pie Island, Thunder Cape.

You've heard the stories—ten foot waves, windbound one day out of every three, or for one or two or three weeks (depending on the teller's need for dramatic tension,) sheer cliffs that offer no safe landing in a storm, sudden changes in condition with no warning, giant squalls, and of course the sinking of the bulk freighter SS Edmund Fitzgerald in November 1975 not far from Sault Sainte Marie with the loss of all her crew. Many canoers are scared of Lake Superior because of this reputation. What chance has a canoe got if the lake can take down a huge freighter? Well, certainly it can get rough and if you paddle in November you're asking for trouble but, even then, the lake won't hurt you if you're on shore.

Your only real enemy is not the lake itself but impatience. Go in summer, armed with enough food, fuel and most importantly time, and you will discover an unspoilt wilderness of giant rocky outcrops, beaches and dunes, lush bush, tranquil harbours in pebbled coves, waterfalls and glacially clear water which is glacially cold. Besides, for the first third of the journey you are rarely more than a few miles walk from Highway 17, the "Voyageur Route" (that damn highway has been following us since before Ottawa—why did we bother canoeing?)

Loons—loons alone are justification to canoe around Lake Superior. A large duck-like bird with striking, chequered black and white markings, the loon symbolises Canada's watery wilderness and appears on the Canadian one dollar coin (affectionately known as the "loonie".) But the true appeal of the loon comes from its hauntingly enigmatic wail. Cleverly positioning themselves in bays, loons utilise the acoustic properties of Lake Superior's coastline to amplify their mesmeric, heart-melting calls.

As cold as it is clear, Bushy Bay.

As cold as it is clear, Bushy Bay.

Rudely disturbing your loon-induced trance, the crossings of Goulais and Batchawana bays (depending on the route, 5-7km and 7.5-8km respectively) test your nerves and judgement early on; you don't have to do them—but you probably will; you could circle around each bay—though that would take time; so if it looks a little dicey, do you:

  1. take the long route (if there is one,) or
  2. wait until it calms down, or
  3. go for it anyway?

Of course, the correct answers are 1 or 2, but at some point you will choose 3, through laziness, impatience or possibly some chocolate-related motive, and that's when you are risking your life.

Tip: Be very cautious before attempting a crossing. Always assume conditions will get worse before they get better—never "just go for it".

Crossings aside, the majority of your time is spent scuttling around the edge of the lake. Sure, you'll frequently have to pull ashore if the wind is too strong, or you can't be bothered to struggle against it. You can always find somewhere ("the [inevitable] bay around that next headland" was our favourite,) but you can usually make some progress each day—worrying about the leviathan is more exhausting than dealing with it. With all Lake Superior's tempestuous tales one important fact often goes unsaid:

View back towards Fluor Island (in the distance) from Spar Island, Black Bay Peninsula.

View back towards Fluor Island (in the distance) from Spar Island, Black Bay Peninsula.

Tip: Lake Superior is not constantly wavy! It is frequently flat.

We had far more calm water and full day's paddling than we expected.

Perfect campsites abound: pure white sand crescent beaches; plateaus of spirit-levelled rock, indented high on jack-pined islands' sides offering sheltered, yet unhindered aspects across the great void; finely pebbled coves, graciously landscaped by the lake's long forgotten storms into horizontal terraces, and flanked by towering cliffs. Stupidly, we often succumbed to the misguided urge to squeeze "just another 5km" from our weary bodies, spurning these nearby, exquisite spots and ended up sleeping on indistinct craggy outcrops. Our fondest memories are of the gorgeous campsites we didn't use!

Tip: The later it gets, the fewer good camping spots you'll see, so don't be afraid to camp early.

Shingle campsite, Dog River.

Shingle campsite, Dog River.

Arriving late in the morning at the mouth of the Dog River, just west of Michipicoten, we enjoyed an early lunch on the wide shingle bar that is sandwiched between the river and lake. From the rudimentary log stools placed around a rock-enclosed fire pit, to the "public toilet" installed discretely behind a bush (a plastic seat on a chipboard box that hides a dark, smelly hole beneath) this is clearly a popular and decadent campsite—and with it's views up the picturesque Dog River valley and over the Greatest Lake, we were definitely going to camp here! Casually leaving our packs and gear strewn across the site, we paddled, lined and waded our unloaded canoe two kilometres upstream to view the Dennison Falls—spectacular! They're not huge; they're not vertical, but even in low water levels they are powerfully awesome: an elaborately structured series of drops, swirling pools and cascades, separating around rock pinnacles and reuniting to channel their full power into a single frothing gush, before splaying into a wide skirt down the smooth rock base. Bill Mason said both Lake Superior and its tributaries are beautiful, and neither disappoint.

Tip: To view Dennison Falls, ascend the Dog River to a large waterfall. Using the thoughtfully provided rope, scramble up the small cliff on the right and continue a short distance along a trail to the much larger falls.

Returning a few hours later to the campsite, we noticed that some of our gear had moved! An inventory check revealed that a plastic mug had vanished. Suspiciously, this was the same mug we had used at lunch to catch the brine drained from a tin of tuna. The black bear who stole it left only footprints behind to thank us. We imagined the hungry beast chewing quizzically on our poor mug—"Well Boo-Boo, I dunno what kind of pic-a-nik fish this is, but it's a bit tough!" (That's just silly—Yogi is a grizzly bear; everyone knows black bears can't talk.) That night, we hungered for the luxurious soft shingle of the Dog River campsite as we tossed and turned on a lumpy rock spur a few kilometres west that we'd timidly paddled to.

Standing atop Dennison Falls, Dog River.

Standing atop Dennison Falls, Dog River.

The following morning, for the first time on the big lake, we saw other paddlers kayaking eastward past our camp. Abi, trying to recover some of her bear-denied comforts cried "Why is it that the one and only time we see other people happens to be when I'm shaving my legs?" Duncan didn't reply—he was busy in the bush pining for that comfortable toilet seat.

The principles on Lake Superior are the same as any other lake, even relatively small ones. Its size and frigidity don't change the rules, just the severity of punishment you risk when you break one.

Given the time it deserves, rewards like the steep, green slopes of Bushy and Old Woman's Bays, the thunderous Dennison Falls, Pukaskwa National Park's innumerable rocky spectacles (e.g. Imogene Cove, Cascade Falls, One Lake Island, Oiseau Bay,) the mighty Sleeping Giant of Thunder Cape, and even the lesser celebrated areas like Black Bay Peninsula's scattered islands make Lake Superior a canoeing dream.

Our Itinerary

DateFromToDistance (paddle/air)
07 JunSault Sainte Marie
(16 704925E 5153716N)
Pebble beach near Red Rock, Goulais Bay
(16 691740E 5169076N)
42.0/20.2km
08 JunPebble beach near Red Rock, Goulais Bay
(16 691740E 5169076N)
Provincial park, Pancake Bay
(16 676332E 5204185N)
42.5/38.3km
09 JunProvincial park, Pancake Bay
(16 676332E 5204185N)
Pebble beach, Pancake Point
(16 672868E 5202456N)
4.0/3.9km
10 JunPebble beach, Pancake Point
(16 672868E 5202456N)
Sand dunes, Katherine Cove
(16 669828E 5256416N)
67.0/54.0km
11 JunSand dunes, Katherine Cove
(16 669828E 5256416N)
Island northeast of Cape Gargantua
(16 648793E 5276400N)
32.5/29.0km
12 JunIsland northeast of Cape Gargantua
(16 648793E 5276400N)
Sandy beach, Doré Bay
(16 653517E 5314038N)
45.0/37.9km
13 JunSandy beach, Doré Bay
(16 653517E 5314038N)
West of Dog, aka University, River
(16 631766E 5312488N)
22.0/21.8km
14 JunWest of Dog, aka University, River
(16 631766E 5312488N)
Island west of Cairn Point
(16 601136E 5308461N)
32.0/30.9km
15 JunIsland west of Cairn Point
(16 601136E 5308461N)
Rock slabs near Cascade Falls
(16 571096E 5330741N)
40.5/37.4km
16 JunRock slabs near Cascade Falls
(16 571096E 5330741N)
South of Willow River
(16 555385E 5371110N)
45.0/43.3km
17 JunSouth of Willow River
(16 555385E 5371110N)
Marathon
(16 545182E 5397214N)
32.0/28.0km
18 JunDay off in Marathon.
19 JunDay off in Marathon.
20 JunMarathon
(16 545182E 5397214N)
Pebble beach, Santoy Bay
(16 507545E 5402182N)
42.5/38.0km
21 JunPebble beach, Santoy Bay
(16 507545E 5402182N)
Rocky beach, Copper Island
(16 471052E 5400247N)
37.0/36.6km
22 JunRocky beach, Copper Island
(16 471052E 5400247N)
Below cliffs on Simpson Island, opposite Raymond Island
(16 454492E 5399498N)
18.0/16.6km
23 JunBelow cliffs on Simpson Island, opposite Raymond Island
(16 454492E 5399498N)
Shingle beach spur, Spar Island
(16 413083E 5385800N)
50.0/43.6km
24 JunShingle beach spur, Spar Island
(16 413083E 5385800N)
Edward Island
(16 381265E 5360189N)
43.0/40.9km
25 JunEdward Island
(16 381265E 5360189N)
Thunder Cape
(16 356302E 5351702N)
27.5/26.4km
26 JunWindbound.
27 JunThunder Cape
(16 356302E 5351702N)
Chippewa Park, Thunder Bay
(16 335964E 5356071N)
25.0/20.8km
28 JunDay off in Thunder Bay.
29 JunDay off in Thunder Bay.
30 JunDay off in Thunder Bay.
01 JulDay off in Thunder Bay.
02 JulDay off in Thunder Bay.
03 JulChippewa Park, Thunder Bay
(16 335964E 5356071N)
Rock ledge on island, Squaw Bay
(16 335548E 5351853N)
5.0/4.2km
04 JulRock ledge on island, Squaw Bay
(16 335548E 5351853N)
Campground, Grand Portage, Minnesota
(16 299161E 5314981N)
56.0/51.8km

All coordinates are UTM/NAD83.

Blue sky, blue water. Oiseaux Bay, Pukaskwa National Park

Blue sky, blue water. Oiseaux Bay, Pukaskwa National Park