Lake Superior Goodness
A blog about everything Superior.
Voyageur Canoe Culture
This year, as part of Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations, Ontario has launched the #paddleon campaign to highlight the canoe as an icon of Canadian heritage. Ontario Tourism developed The Canoe, a cinematic film by videographer Goh Iromoto that explores the various ways this humble watercraft represents Canadian values. “If it is love that binds people to places in this nation of rivers and this river of nations,” concludes the film’s narrator James Raffan, a distinguished author and past director of the Canadian Canoe Museum, “then one enduring expression of that simple truth is surely the canoe.”
What better way to take part in this intriguing and uplifting vision of Canada then to set off this summer on a journey by canoe? Better yet, make your trip in a voyageur canoe, the historical vessel of the Canadian fur trade, in which individual paddlers come together in one boat to achieve a great goal. Naturally Superior Adventures is excited about the 2017 Voyageur Canoe Brigade as a means to recreate the voyageur experience and commemorate Canada’s cultural heritage on Lake Superior’s wilderness coast.
The fur trade was Canada’s first industry, starting in the mid-1700s and lasting nearly a century. It relied on trading posts scattered throughout the north country to gather fur from trappers. The Northwest Company recruited young paddlers to pilot brigades of big 26- to 36-foot birchbark canoes across the country. The voyageurs were like long-haul truck drivers, delivering trade items like beads, metal pots and muskets to trading posts and returning to Montreal at summer’s end with canoes brimming with valuable furs. For their exploits they emerged as early Canadian folk heroes.
Our voyageur canoe is a 36-foot fibreglass replica of a canot-du-maitre, the fur trade canoe traditionally used on the Great Lakes. It’s about the length of a school bus, propelled by 10 to 16 paddlers and designed to be stable and seaworthy in waves. Most importantly, in the fur trade days and now, it’s capable of holding up to four tons of cargo—a valuable asset since the five legs of our journey from Agawa Bay to Thunder Bay range from 5 to 10 days of wilderness paddling.
Ultimately, the voyageur era ended before Confederation. Fur lost its fashion appeal in Europe in the 1840s, just as the construction of locks on the St. Lawrence Seaway made freight canoes obsolete in favour of large ships. But the image of hardy, wilderness travellers—the voyageurs—remained as a pillar of Canada’s vibrant canoe culture.
This summer, Naturally Superior Adventures is honoured to wear the badge of Ontario’s Canadian Canoe Culture program. We believe in the canoeing’s values of personal challenge, wilderness exploration, making real connections, sharing knowledge and being proud to be Canadian. Pick up a paddle and share your experiences on Ontario’s myriad waterways with the #paddleon hashtag.
In the Wake of the Voyageurs: Celebrating Canada’s 150th Birthday on Lake Superior
A nation emerged in the wake of birchbark canoes, the engines of the fur trade—Canada’s first industry. The canoe epitomizes our history. What better way to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary than to paddle the voyageur highway?
Naturally Superior Adventures’ Lake Superior Voyageur Canoe Brigade consists of six guided, all-inclusive wilderness adventures by 36-foot replicas of the North West Company’s “canots de maître.” These canoes are seaworthy and easy to paddle for all levels of outdoor enthusiasts. Each leg of the journey will consist of up to 12 participants (“milieu” in voyageur speak) and experienced guides. Starting July 2nd in Lake Superior Provincial Park, each brigade will travel 5- to 10-day legs, finishing August 19 at Old Fort William Historical Park, near Thunder Bay.
This is your chance to commemorate Canada’s rich canoeing history on The Great Trail. You’ll experience the same rugged shoreline that mesmerized the French Canadian voyageurs two centuries ago. Artist Frances Anne Hopkins immortalized this unknown wilderness and hearty lifestyle; 200 years later, you’ll paddle into scenes that have remained virtually unchanged.
Here’s are three highlights we’re looking forward to on this year’s trips:
#1 Paddle with the Happy Camper – Celebrate Canada Day with a voyageur canoe trip on the wonderful coastline of Lake Superior Provincial Park—with popular canoeing personality and author Kevin Callan (aka The Happy Camper). This 6-day trip has a little bit of everything: Stunning sand beaches, rugged headlands, great hiking and secluded coves.
#2 Becky Mason on the Pukaskwa – Join the daughter of legendary Canadian canoeist, filmmaker and artist Bill Mason on this 10-day journey into the heart of Lake Superior’s greatest wilderness. Becky is an acclaimed canoe instructor, painter and environmentalist who carries on her father’s legacy.
#3 En Route to the Great Rendezvous – We couldn’t think of a better guest than Thunder Bay-based singer-songwriter and historian Rodney Brown for the final leg of our journey, which ends at enchanting Fort William Historical Park—a recreated fur trade post where time stands still.
Each leg of the brigade has its own appeal, from the austere landscapes of Lawren Harris Country on the North Shore, the mystical Rossport Islands and the lonely island lighthouses of the remote waters of the Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area. Join us this summer—each trip promises to be an experience you’ll never forget.
Lake Superior Weather
You can’t get away from watching the weather if you paddle on the Lake Superior coast. When I guide sea kayak trips or take pleasure trips by canoe, I am constantly observing the clouds, the wind, the texture of the water, and the colour of the sky. I’ve lived on Lake Superior all my life, yet more often than not I am at a loss when it comes to predicting the weather. About the only failsafe mantra I know is a familiar one amongst sea kayak guides: It’s better to be on shore wishing you were on the water than on the water wishing you were on shore.
That being said, there are some great online resources and reference books we use while teaching Paddle Canada sea kayak skills courses. But first, here are some basic observations that hold true most of the time.
- Wind shifts – In general, a backing wind (shifting counterclockwise) foretells deteriorating weather and intensifying winds; a veering wind (shifting clockwise) predicts improving weather and decreasing winds.
- Barometric pressure – A barometer is a valuable tool in predicting the weather. Unfortunately, Environment Canada no longer reports air pressure in its marine forecast, however sometimes you can catch it on land-based forecasts, which are occasionally available on VHF marine radio weather bands. If barometric pressure changes more than three millibars in a span of three hours, expect strong winds and changing weather. Note, 1013 mb (or 101.3 kpa) is the dividing line between high pressure (generally fair weather) and low pressure (generally foul weather).
- The sky – A ring around the sun indicates rain in 12 to 24 hours; high, wispy clouds indicate strong winds and rain in 24 to 48 hours. On Lake Superior, “red sky in the morning” is a more accurate predictor (of imminent rain) than “red sky at night.”
- Water – A good last-minute predictor of strong winds is the presence of a dark blue band of water along the horizon line. Usually this means it’s time to get to shore and batten down the hatches.
Our No. 1 source for marine forecasts:
NOAA National Weather Service – Lake Superior
A few online resources for learning about meteorology:
Our favourite weather books:
Wind, weather & waves: A guide to marine weather in the Great Lakes region (out of print) A PDF version is available online.
Navigation, Sea State and Weather: A Paddler’s Manual by Michael Pardy, JF Marleau, Andrew Woodford and Piper Harris. Available for purchase from SKILS.
A Brief History of the Rock to Rock
Like any good legend, the Rock to Rock challenge has obscure origins. Best guess is that it was dreamed up in the early 2000s by a few Naturally Superior Adventures’ sea kayak guides looking to test their paddling stamina against the prowess of the fur-trading voyageurs. In good weather, a 90-kilometre run from Agawa Bay to Michipicoten on Lake Superior’s eastern shore would be a reasonable day for a 36-foot canot du maître. The modern equivalent—a sea kayak marathon from Naturally Superior’s Rock Island base to the towering granite canvas of Agawa Rock—become a few crazy sea kayak guides’ holy grail.
This year, Naturally Superior director David Wells, along with guides Brendan Kowtecky, Jake O’Flaherty and Paul Whipp completed the fifth-ever Rock to Rock and set a new speed record in the process. Graced by a friendly tailwind, Brendan and Paul touched down after 11 hours and 16 minutes and David and Jake finished in 11 hours, 21 minutes.
Here is a synopsis of Rock to Rock challengers:
June 2003 – Conor Mihell and Sebastian Fallu
Celebrating the summer solstice, Conor and Sebastian launched from Naturally Superior around 7 pm and paddled through the night, stopping several hours to cook a hot breakfast of spaghetti on Devil’s Warehouse Island. The prolonged rest only extended the suffering. They landed near Agawa Rock approximately 16 hours after setting out.
June 2005 – Conor Mihell and David Wells
In another overnight solstice epic, Conor and David departed Rock Island around 5 pm and paddled through the night. Fuelled by cans of cold baked beans, they reached Agawa Rock at 7 am the following morning, passed out on a rocky island for several hours and then completed the journey to Agawa Bay by noon. Quotable moment: “If you tip over, don’t expect me to rescue you.” (Wells to Mihell, 4:30 am.)
June 2006 – Conor Mihell, Kim Whitmore and Virginia Marshall
Conor paddled solo (with a recently broken foot) and Kim and Ginny piloted a Seaward Passat tandem on this mission, which launched at 2 am in a misty late June night. The threesome followed compass bearings in darkness and fog to Old Woman Bay, snacking on red liquorice and Mars bar sandwiches. A strong northwesterly wind picked up around noon, creating perfect conditions for open water surfing and a new Rock to Rock speed record of 12 hours, 6 minutes.
June 2011 – Conor Mihell and Ray Boucher
Conor and Ray set off at sunrise on the summer solstice, and discovered that combining Ibuprofen tablets with fresh Lake Superior water on regularly-scheduled nutrition breaks eliminates most of the pain and suffering of an 80-kilometre-long paddle. In glassy calm conditions, the friends completed their mission in a record-setting 11 hours and 40 minutes.
July 2016 – David Wells, Brendan Kowtecky, Jake O’Flaherty and Paul Whipp
Another dawn departure and a beautiful tailwind pushed a foursome of paddlers to a new Rock to Rock record. Rounding Baldhead, after 60 kilometres of paddling, David urged his younger companions to venture offshore. The group skirted the Lizard Islands directly to Agawa Rock, making the most of the following sea. Brendan and Paul finished in 11 hours, 16 minutes and David and Jake landed five minutes later.
Michipicoten Island Unplugged
Few places on Lake Superior have the same mysterious appeal as Michipicoten Island. Maybe it’s the “floating isle” chimeric tendencies, appearing and disappearing at the whims of the weather. Ojibwa revered the island for its shiny lodes of copper and abundant populations of beaver and woodland caribou, and feared the fickle gulf of water that separates it from the mainland. When the swell rhythmically collides with the red gravel beach on Michipioten Island’s western tip, there’s a palpable sensation of being close to Lake Superior’s beating heart.
The lucky paddlers who have explored Michipicoten Island will tell you that sheer isolation is at the core of its intrigue. Making the 16-kilometre crossing to Michipicoten by sea kayak isn’t for the inexperienced. Naturally Superior Adventures self-supported Michipicoten Island expedition puts this enchanting place within reach of strong intermediate sea kayakers, or experts who prefer travelling in the safety of a group. We’ll take a boat shuttle to Michipicoten Island’s East End lighthouse, circumnavigate the island and then cross back to the mainland and follow the Superior Highlands coast to Michipicoten Bay.
Do you have what it takes? Paddlers should be comfortable paddling in one-metre seas (3-foot waves) and winds of 20 kilometres per hour (15 mph); have refined and well-practiced group and individual rescue skills (an eskimo roll is an asset; and have the stamina to sit comfortably in their boat and paddle up to 20 kilometres without a shore rest. You’ll also be responsible for your own menu planning and meal preparation, so be sure to polish these skills in advance. It follows we assign this trip to our most skilled and knowledgeable guides—veteran Paddle Canada instructor-trainers with extensive open water experience. The result is paddling skills mentorship, great camaraderie and a one-of-a-kind experience in some of the most isolated coastlines on the entire Great Lakes.
The Song of the Paddle
Two hundred years ago, when dozens of 36-foot birchbark canoes plied the water of Lake Superior, the paddler with the best set of lungs and a musical ear held a place of honour. Leading the crew in French Canadian folk classics like “En roulant ma boule” and “A la claire fontaine”, le chanteur—the singer—was responsible for setting the paddlers’ steady pace that carried the voyageur brigade to the trading post at Fort William, stroke by stroke. By dint of his musical ear, this canoeman often earned a higher wage.
As paddlers, hikers and highway drivers, we all know the benefit of song in making hours of repetitive activity pass by. For days, I’ve timed my sea kayak stroke to the tempo of Dire Straits and Bachman-Turner Overdrive, the lyrics of “Walk on by” and “Taking care of business” looping endlessly through my mind. Author and canoe historian James Raffan notes that most of the voyageurs’ chansons are set in six-eight time—a fast tempo that mirrored the paddlers’ 60 strokes per minute pace.
You need not maintain such a blistering stroke rate to join a voyageur canoe trip with Naturally Superior Adventures. In fact, our replica 36-foot canot du maître is suitable for all ages and experience levels. Fast and seaworthy, the voyageur canoe cruises effortlessly even with a crew of novices (and an experienced guide).
For an authentic voyageur experience, sign up for our annual five-day all-inclusive, guided journey to the Red Rock Folk Festival. You’ll share the canoe with Canadian folk music icons, such as Ian Tamblyn, Rodney Brown and Katherine Wheatley. Not only will our musical guest set the perfect paddling rhythm, they’ll also entertain with intimate campfire performances as we trace the wilderness coastline of the Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area in northwestern Ontario.
The Group of Seven’s Agawa Canyon
Nearly a century has passed since some of Canada’s most famous landscape painters rode the rails deep into the wilderness of northern Ontario and defined an iconic style of art. Between 1918 and 1922, Lawren Harris, J.E.H. MacDonald, A.Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer and Frank Johnston—members of Canada’s legendary Group of Seven—traveled on the Algoma Central Railway and sketched the rugged hillsides, waterfalls and autumn colors of Algoma, just north of the Great Lakes. They spent their days sketching from canoes and hiking to elevated viewpoints. MacDonald’s “Solemn Land”, Lismer’s “Somber Hill, Algoma”, Harris’ “Algoma Waterfall” and Jackson’s “First Snow, Algoma” are the notable results of this definitive era of painting.
The artists’ journals documented their travels and sense of awe for a landscape that remains much the same today. MacDonald called the Agawa Canyon—the jumping off point for a classic overnight whitewater canoe trip on the Agawa River, which flows into Lake Superior—“the original site of the Garden of Eden…a little Yosemite.”
With the railway’s blessing, the painters repurposed a red boxcar as a mobile studio, complete with a stove, bunks, furniture and a canoe and hand-pump railcar for their sketching missions. “A car to live in, eat in, and work out of,” enthused Harris in a 1918 letter to his friend MacDonald. Many of the paintings displayed in the Group of Seven’s breakout exhibition at the Art Gallery of Toronto in 1920 were inspired by their “boxcar trips.”
Today, many Group of Seven painting sites can be easily identified in the 500-foot-deep Agawa Canyon. Bridalveil Falls, the subject of works by Harris and MacDonald, is easily visible from the windows of the passenger train. Canoeists can paddle right up to the cascade, which tumbles from the canyon rim, for a more intimate glimpse. Just downstream, opposite the tracks on the Agawa River’s infrequently visited east shore, are the remains of a logging camp. Inscriptions on rocks suggest loggers and their families used the camp in the Group of Seven era.
For all their exploration of the Agawa, it seems like the painters missed the river’s greatest highlight. The 80-foot plume of Agawa Falls spills into a rockbound gorge, bathed in perpetual mist. Today, it’s the scenic reward for paddlers (the falls is bypassed via a steep 500-metre portage) and hikers on the Towab Trail.
Making Sense of Water Levels
Environment Canada’s Water Office has taken some of the guesswork out of planning a canoe or kayak trip on Lake Superior’s best whitewater rivers. Real-time water level gauges on the Goulais, Batchawana and Pukaskwa rivers enable paddlers to capture perfect spring flows and make the most of heavy rain throughout the paddling season. We’ve drawn on our experience paddling the Goulais, Batchawana, Agawa, Sand, Dog and Pukaskwa rivers to come up with the following guidelines for a good trip.
Goulais River: Access north of Searchmont on the gravel Whitman Dam Road for single-day, overnight and multi-day trips. North of Searchmont, the Goulais is an intermediate to advanced river. The portages are not maintained and are often located very close to the brink of large rapids and waterfalls. The lower Goulais, from Searchmont (from Highway 556 to the bridge on Highway 552) is a novice-friendly run with a mix of Class 1-2 and flatwater.
Prime water levels: 7.8-8.1, minimum 7.65
Batchawana River: Access via the Algoma Central Railway (Mile 80). It is a 2-3 day trip to the take-out at Highway 17 (Lake Superior), 70 km north of Sault Ste. Marie. The Batchawana features Class 1-3 rapids and several portages around chutes and waterfalls.
Prime water levels: 2.5-3.2, minimum 2.3
Agawa River: Access via the Algoma Central Railway (Mile 114). It is a 1-2 day trip to the take-out at Highway 17 (Lake Superior), 130 km north of Sault Ste. Marie. The Agawa features Class 1-4 rapids and up to three portages, depending on water level, skill level and whether you’re paddling a canoe or whitewater kayak.
Prime Water levels: Use the Batchawana River gauge, 2.5-3.2, minimum 2.3. Note the Agawa is a smaller watershed and will “dry up” quicker than the Batchawana in spring and after a heavy rainfall.
Sand River: Access via the Algoma Central Railway (Mile 136.25 or Mile 138) or via Old Woman Lake (Lake Superior Provincial Park). It is a 4-5 day trip to the take-out on Sand River Road, located just south of the Sand River mouth (145 km north of Sault Ste. Marie). The Sand features Class 1-3 rapids, several scenic waterfalls and lots of flatwater. Intermediate-skilled canoeists will need to make 18-20 portages.
Prime Water levels: Use the Batchawana River gauge as a rough estimate. Anything above 2.5 should be adequate.
Dog River: Access via Paint Lake Road (3-5 day trip) or Hammer Lake (6-7 day trip), finish at Michipicoten First Nation or Naturally Superior Adventures; includes a 20-28 km paddle on Lake Superior. The Dog is an advanced-only river for experienced whitewater kayakers and canoeists. Expect numerous unmaintained portages. Paddlers who are not capable of running Class 3 rapids should not attempt the Dog River.
Prime Water levels: 4.5-5 on the Pukaskwa River gauge is adequate. Note the Dog River tends to “hold its water” longer than the Pukaskwa River during spring runoff.
Pukaskwa River: Access via the Domtar 600 Road, off of Paint Lake Road. The traditional means of access involved paddling Pokei Creek (launch on the upper White River), however intermediate road access means these portages have fallen into disrepair. It is a 5-7 day trip to Lake Superior and a 90-km paddle north to Hattie Cove (Pukaskwa National Park) or south to Michipicoten on Lake Superior. (Boat shuttles may be available—contact Naturally Superior Adventures for more information.) The Pukaskwa River features intermediate-level whitewater and extreme remoteness. Expect lots of rugged portages—especially on Day 1. Ringham’s Gorge is runnable by advanced paddlers in moderate water levels.
Prime Water levels: 4.6-5.2, minimum 4.5.
Contact Naturally Superior Adventures for information regarding vehicle shuttles for the Pukaskwa, Dog, Sand and Agawa Rivers.
There’s a reason the Slate Islands are a perennial favourite amongst Naturally Superior Adventures guests. Paddling this archipelago located 10 kilometres off the north shore of Lake Superior offers the perfect mix of sheltered paddling and exposed coast, amazing flora, fauna and geology, and rich human history. If you’re looking for a novice-friendly trip that captures the best of Lake Superior, the Slate Islands is it!
Paddling conditions: Evidenced by their donut-like shape, the Slate Islands were formed when the Earth’s crust rebounded from a meteorite impact 500 million years ago. This unique landform produces perfect paddling conditions: The islands’ parentheses-like shape creates bombproof shelter for calm-water paddling in all conditions within the inner islands, while the outer coast features rugged headlands and broad gravel beaches—testaments to Lake Superior’s powerful autumn storms. Regardless of the weather, there’s always paddling to be had.
Natural heritage: The Slates are best-known for woodland caribou, a species at risk in Ontario. Because of the islands’ isolation, a remnant population of caribou still inhabits the Slates. Numbers vary from 100 to 600 animals, related to the boom and bust cycles of vegetation. This “closed system” has given wildlife biologists a natural laboratory to study population dynamics. Certain arctic/alpine plant species, including mountain avens, encrusted saxifrage and birds-eye primrose, also thrive in the Slates isolation. That’s because Lake Superior’s perpetually cool waters create a microclimate for these cold-adapted species, whose lineage dates back to the last ice age. Meanwhile, rockhounds can’t get enough of the Slates’ unique geology—including flaky, slate-coloured rocks known as “shattercones” (formed by meteorite impact) and abandoned gold and copper mines.
Cultural history: Adolph King, the son of Slate Island lighthouse keepers, told colourful stories of growing up on Patterson Island at the turn of the 20th century. King and his brothers regularly made the 10-kilometre crossing to the mainland town of Jackfish, then a bustling railway town, by rowboat. Often, the boys returned to their island home in darkness, steering by their wits and the woefully inadequate light of a kerosene lantern. The King’s lighthouse still stands sentinel on the Slate Islands’ south shore, offering modern-day visitors a glimpse of a long-lost lifestyle.
Read adventure bloggers Dave and Deb’s (aka The Planet D) report on their adventures at the Slate Islands.
Facing Waves at Naturally Superior Adventures
In the fall of 2013, paddlesports media icon Ken Whiting and a film crew for Facing Waves, an Outside Television series, arrived at Naturally Superior Adventures to capture the beauty and thrill of sea kayaking on Lake Superior. The inland sea and northern Ontario’s scenic Algoma Country delivered exactly what Whiting was looking for: A mix of calm and rough water paddling, stunning sunsets, an intense wildlife encounter and wilderness day hiking to complement the paddling adventures.
Naturally Superior Adventures capitalizes on one of the most diverse paddling environments in the world. Lake Superior presents numerous options for day- and multiday sea kayak touring in a variety of water conditions and the Michipicoten River affords lots of shelter from wind and waves. This segment also shows Sinclair Cove, a secluded, island-pocked inlet in Lake Superior Provincial Park that’s located a short paddle from the Agawa Rock pictographs, and a short clip outlining the region’s wonderful array of hiking trails.
Many paddlers come to Lake Superior with the intention of experiencing its notoriously fickle moods. Indeed, Naturally Superior Adventures is renowned amongst rough-water sea kayakers and surf kayakers. Michipicoten Bay boasts conditions for all levels of rough-water paddlers: Surf beaches, rocky cliffs and unique standing waves at the mouth of the Michipicoten River. While the lake’s ocean-like waves are awe-inspiring to behold, they’re most common in the shoulder seasons. As Whiting demonstrates, the strongest memories of most Lake Superior paddlers recall stunning sunsets and misty mornings on glassy-calm water.