Paddling Algoma’s Superior Coastline
Lake Superior does not always allow such a close inspection of her haunting and shapely shoreline, but its flat calm today and our canoes cast shadows to the sand bottom as we navigate the narrow passages that rest between the sloping rock of tiny islands and the mainland. Not only is it calm, but it’s sunny and warm, making it as pleasant as it is safe to intimately explore this diverse coastline of sand and rock.
One glance at this angled, wave-beaten environment and it’s clear that traveling by canoe, a paddle’s length from shore, is not always tolerated. When Superior erupts, flirting with the coastline would mean being tossed around like a toy and joining the surf-pounded chunks of driftwood that have been flung to the tree line. But today the inland sea is calm. We keep an eye on the weather and take full advantage of our situation along the Algoma Coastline of Lake Superior.
The Algoma Coastline
Stretching from Sault Ste. Marie in a north westerly arc toward the remote and rugged coast of Pukaskwa National Park, the Algoma Country Coastline encompasses hundreds of kilometers of quintessential Superior shoreline: towering cliff faces give way to long sand beaches; headlands of smooth sloping granite bracket terraces of round cobble, and all are capped by stunted cedar that cling to barren rock in the shade of giant white pine, permanently bent against the prevailing winds. The popular cottage areas of Goulais and Batchawana Bay provides the foundation for summer recreation North of Sault Ste. Marie and more and more paddlers are discovering the undeveloped coast of 1550-square-kilometre Lake Superior Provincial Park (LSPP). There are several access points, a coastal hiking trail, and remote backcountry campsites spread along this spectacular stretch of shoreline.
LLSP is by no means the end of the road for wilderness paddlers. Beyond the Provincial Park is Pukaskwa National Park and beyond that the Canadian shoreline continues its magnificence through the Nipigon and Thunder Bay areas and beyond to the US border. In fact, 140 kilometers of shoreline extending from Thunder Cape at the tip of Sleeping Giant Provincial Park in the west, to Bottle Point just east of Terrace Bay is designated as the Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area; intended to protect the integrity of one of the longest and most undeveloped stretches of freshwater coastline in the world.
Wilderness Between Wilderness
Our chosen route is nestled between Pukaskwa and Lake Superior Parks, and so far it’s standing up well to close scrutiny. I’m occupying the bow position in our 17-foot canoe, fully loaded for a five-day paddling trip, and our guide, Rupert, is in the stern. The trip is hosted by Naturally Superior Adventures (NSA), Lake Superior’s premier adventure paddling company, located at the mouth of the Michipicoten River near Wawa. We are joined by Laura Mitchell and Jeff MacLary and their children, 6-year-old Finn and 4-year-old Isla, in one canoe and Alex Patteron and Justine Glover in another. Virtually all of NSA’s outfitting and guiding along Lake Superior is by sea kayak but we’ve decided to switch it up and paddle the coast by open canoe. Alex and Laura are former paddling guides for NSA and everyone involved in this trip has some experience with Lake Superior. Even the children appreciate the chance to work the calm, clear, waters that lap along a shoreline that alternates from rock to sand to cobble.
We left NSA a few days ago and cut across giant Michipicoten Bay. Our destination is Dog River, about 25 kilometers west. My role in this canoe tripping adventure is a photographer and Rupert provides the horsepower while I photograph the other two boats working the shoreline. After a period of following my terse demands of “faster”, “slower”, and hand signals indicating the direction I want to travel, the 23-year-old guide is able to anticipate my demands as we photograph our way along the coast.
Not the Norm
When the conditions are this favorable it’s easy to forget how formidable Lake Superior can be. If there are waves of any size paddlers must stay well offshore to avoid being swept onto a shoreline that is not always friendly to landing canoes, or any craft. If the waves get too big to navigate safely, then paddlers must find a safe place to land and wait until the lake calms down. It follows that wise trip planning includes building in a day or two to be storm bound.
We planned this trip for mid-July when there is the best chance of calm weather accompanied by warm temperatures. August can provide warmer days but there’s also more likelihood of rough seas into late summer and early fall. May and June provide the best chance of calm conditions but generally cool temperatures prevail.
Even midsummer the chance of fog and accompanying temperatures in the single digits is another endearing trait that often exhibits on the coast of Superior. We all packed warm clothes and foul weather gear and our itinerary is flexible in case of rough seas. We even leave tobacco at the base of a cliff face; a traditional offering to appeal to the spirits of the lake to grant safe passage. Whatever powers control the temperament of Lake Superior, it seems an appropriate and respectful precaution. So far we’ve been given the best July has to offer, but we’re keenly aware that conditions could change quickly.
Picking Apart the Coast
With consistently calm waters we can paddle a stone’s throw off shore as we explore its intricacies. There are vertical crevices jutting into the bedrock and narrow passages delineated by smooth and sculpted rocks. We even find a rock face undercut at the waterline that emits a deep and persistent gurgling sound with the lapping of the lake.
Sand and cobble beaches are inviting places to stop and stretch our limbs. The numerous inflowing creeks and rivers are always dramatic in their navigation of the precipitous shoreline. One diminutive creek spills ice water onto the sand beach after coursing over a series of tiny falls and being cajoled within a channel, deeply worn into the granite. The drama continues on a grander scale after a 40 minute hike to 100-foot-high Denison Falls from our destination at the Dog River.
After paddling, hiking and swimming, the fresh air and exercise go a long way toward making great food taste even better. Rupert’s preparation of freshly baked cornbread and spicy chili laced with chipotle peppers, and chicken curry over brown rice, go down easily after a day of paddling and playing on the cusp of Lake Superior. Our delicious array of outdoor meals culminates in a union of homemade crust and fresh toppings, baked within a surprisingly efficient wood-fired pizza oven built entirely of flat rocks. It’s something Alex constructed on an annual basis back in his guiding days and we all benefit from his revisit with tradition.
Our return voyage over the next few days is punctuated by the same exceptional weather. Although we are all prepared for cool temperatures, rough seas and looming fog, it simply does not happen. If it had, these expressions of the lake’s temperament would have been tolerated, appreciated and respected. But I’m secretly happy we were dealt such a favorable envelope of time to enjoy the Algoma Country Coast of Lake Superior.