by Burton W. Blais © 2008
originally published in Small Craft Advisor magazine
Beyond Superior's north shore lies a vast wilderness harbouring a few pockets of settled humanity joined by a thin blacktop ribbon wending through a measureless boreal forest set upon the fractured Canadian Shield landscape. Here saunters the black bear on a soft carpet of pine needles in a rock-walled ravine, the wolf trots resolutely through the spruce and the moose chews placidly at the water's grassy edge. A summer's venture upon the cold waters of the Wolf's Head brings an encounter with the ever present fog - not always meteorological - evoking the mystique of the ancient native cultures which first extracted its stories.
The northwest corner of Lake Superior is an area of large bays separated by vast peninsulas creating an impression of shaggy ears on the wolfish profile rendered by the map-maker's art. To the east of Thunder Bay lie several clusters of islands, beautifully wild and exuding a primeval character. The imagination conjures a succession of days spent idyllically in this island kingdom, each dawn inciting the exploration of a new segment of pristine coastline, and at the setting of the sun landing in a quiet cove to pitch a tent ashore. I had built Jackrabbit, a seaworthy lug-rigged open sailboat, for the very purpose of carrying me to such far-reaching venues. It was all too tempting, lazing in the blush of the fireplace on a long winter's night, poring over the charts of Lake Superior which suggested a week's journey from the southern tip of the Sibley Peninsula, east of Thunder Bay, to the town of Red Rock, in the northwest corner of Nipigon Bay. My long time sailing partner, John, was easily persuaded to sign articles aboard Jackrabbit for a venturesome foray on these redoubtable waters. A timeframe in the latter part of July was chosen for the voyage since this is the season finding the lake in its most generous mood.
Came the appointed season and we made the two day car journey from my home in Eastern Ontario, finally launching Jackrabbit into the still harbour fronting the tiny hamlet of Silver Islet. My first impression while at the ramp handling the boat in ankle-deep water was of a mercilessly cold lake (indeed, the weather broadcast on the VHF radio proclaimed a surface water temperature of about 5 degrees Celsius, and a forecast of 15 knot southwesterlies for the afternoon). Saying our goodbyes to my wife, with whom we had arranged to rendezvous in Red Rock the following week, we made our mid-morning departure by oar under a breathless overcast sky, the mainsail set -though not drawing - in case we were later favoured with a propitious breeze. Morning passed into afternoon as we crept away from the shore, traversing the wide mouth of Black Bay on a calm surface, making for the main archipelago through which the small craft passage winds northeastward, there hoping to overnight in Loon Harbour.
By mid-afternoon we were abeam Porphyry Island as the sail began filling with a light puff from the southwest setting Jackrabbit on a chuckling run across a vast panorama of sea, sky and rolling mainland, toward Shaganash Island, barely visible in the offing. So entrancing was Jackrabbit's flight over the water that we scarcely noticed the gradual intensification of the wind. The lake began to breathe in lively fashion, taking in deep draughts of wind and heaving its watery chest in an undulating display of rising and falling crests, some showing a curling cap. Jackrabbit would occasionally find herself atop a swell and break out in an exhilarating surge of speed, with centreboard humming and a powerful press of wind giving her a strong tendency to round up. A great deal of concentration was required on the helm to keep from broaching as she rushed and yawed through an endless succession of peaks and valleys. A quick glance astern revealed a turbulent seascape studded with whitecaps borne by an inexorable push of steely waves. We were several miles offshore and soon found ourselves being rushed almost uncontrollably through these icy waters, and although capsizing in this remote realm would likely be fatal we durst not turn her head-to-wind in the tumult to take in a much needed reef. We flew on a prayer, hoping to make Shaganash Island, now closing fast, where we could turn into the protective lee of a nearby islet bearing a small lighthouse. The presence of numerous shoals littering the area immediately downwind from the islet provided strong inducement to make fast work of reefing. This we did, though a sloppy affair it was, yet making the boat much more manageable. To the northeast lay another stretch of wind-tossed open water before the protection of the main island cluster could be gained. With wind on the rise we changed our plans and decided to seek refuge among two prominent islands, Stanton and Hanbury, nestled in a bay two miles to the north. A jibe brought Jackrabbit on a wild reach over a heaving surface in which the struggle to maintain course was soon resumed as Aeolus again attempted to wrest control of the tiller. Approaching the northern tip of Stanton Island we turned on a run, entering the gap between the two islands and pitching violently through a series of standing waves pushed up by the shallow bottom. Jackrabbit hooked behind a small point reaching out from Stanton and came to rest in quiet water off a gravelly shore. We pitched the tent on the strand, and after a brief exploration of the boulder-strewn weather shore on foot, settled into a peaceful camp routine for the night.
We rose with the fair orb starting its climb into the pale morning sky. A quick breakfast of oatmeal with brewed coffee and we were off, pulling across the still expanse for the gap between Gourdeau and Swede Islands to the east, marking the western entrance of the small craft route through the archipelago. At length we slipped into the huddle of pristine islands, our gaze held by a passing scene of crag-faced embankments topped by stands of spindly spruce. We eventually met a fickle breeze, giving us a brief respite from rowing, but dying out as we emerged from the last of these islands onto a vast flatwater expanse bounded by a forbidding mainland shore to port and a mist hanging over the landless horizon to starboard. We were again consigned to a monotonous oar-plying regimen along a course of land tapering toward a distant group of lofty islands in the mouth of the Nipigon Strait, which we hoped to reach before nightfall. From seaward Jackrabbit would have seemed a speck drifting across a monolithic landscape featuring a scattering of conical peaks ranging into the hazy distance, at one point passing the remarkably postured Roche Debout, an enormous oblong boulder set on end at the water's edge. Late in the afternoon while rounding Spar Island, which guards the mouth of the Nipigon Strait, we picked up a light easterly and turned on a northerly course for Moss Island where we decided to stop for the night. We had barely entered the sound when the erratic wind abandoned us altogether. Again the slow grind of oars along the rock-bound coast of Moss Island, then rounding its northern tip and reversing our course down the narrow channel created by its near joining with the mainland. In the early evening we arrived at a low-lying point on the island offering a suitable landing place. This island like all others we had seen along the way was thickly populated with soaring conifers having a tenuous hold on the thin layer of soil overlying the ubiquitous rocky mantle.
Our campsite was located at a point where the channel between Moss Island and the mainland narrowed to a few hundred feet, creating a cozy tree-lined canal inviting us the following sunny morning to enjoy an easy downwind drift under sail to the southern tip of the island. There we passed one of few cabins to be seen in these heavily timbered environs, waving at the honeymooning tenants with whom we gammed the previous evening when they had paid us a visit in their fishing skiff. A brisk sail on the shimmering morning waters of the open sound, and then began an ascent of the strait along the western shore of Fluor Island, its volcanic form presiding majestically over the area. The island soon stole the easterly wind, putting us back on the oars creeping along a sheer rock facade at the base of several towering peaks. Gaining the northern end of Fluor Island, at the confluence of the Nipigon Strait and Blind Channel (which runs along the island's eastern shore), we picked up a moderate southeasterly propelling us on a close reach up the narrow passage.
The day's advance brought a build-up of tall billows to the north and west, and while there were yet patches of blue sky overhead we heard faint rumblings of thunder, prompting us to begin a search for shelter. By late afternoon Jackrabbit was working swiftly up the strait under an increasingly gloomy sky. Now the thunder resonated much closer, and our sense of urgency increased as we beheld nothing but a high-banked rocky shoreline on either side. Finally, about half-way up the strait we found refuge on a sandy beach protected from the sweep of open lake by a substantial point projecting from the mainland shore. Here was a cove-like setting with a quarter mile stretch of fine sandy beach in places littered with head-high piles of grey weathered slash boards - the off-cuts of a once flourishing lumber industry on Nipigon Bay - fronted by a calm patch of shallow water. We anchored Jackrabbit in shin-deep water, with a bow line made fast to shore. The narrow beach was backed by a dense thicket with impenetrable undergrowth, providing little space to pitch the tent, leaving only a narrow sandy strip separating sill from lapping water. The water's edge was rimmed with a thick layer of black silt ominously displaying fresh bear prints. We were nonetheless grateful for the haven offered from the thunderstorm which struck soon after camp was established. Later in the evening when conditions improved we conducted a brief inspection of our beach, climbing the slash board piles and dragging the best specimens back to camp to cobble some rustic seating and a galley area for meals, as well as a stage for the tent's entrance to keep out the sand. We settled into our sleeping bags at the peaceful twilight hour, and were soon asleep.
The night delivered a walloping thunderstorm, attended by a strong onshore wind pushing ragged waves up the beach to the tent's sill and washing away the staging. Jackrabbit made a striking vision in the brief flickers of lightning as she took a pounding on her transom, prompting me to issue forth from my cozy sleeping bag into the cold lumpy waters to bring her bows into the waves. Her situation thus improved, she comfortably rode the incoming surf, allowing me to leave her to a less worrisome fate. Morning dawned grey with the strong nor'easter unabated, the strait presenting a daunting spectacle of angry white-capped waves rushing in from Nipigon Bay. Thus we were wind-bound the entire day, consigned to spending another night on this beach, hoping for improved weather on the morrow so that we could continue our journey. This wind-bound day was pleasantly spent exploring the shoreline, culminating in a climb of the rocky bluff at the tip of the point, atop which was gained a magnificent perspective of the strait to the north, with glimpses of Lake Superior to the south. Spellbound by this breathtaking wilderness vista, we watched in awe as an eagle soared in the draughts overhead, to be startled from our reverie by an eerie shrill cry as it plunged to make a kill. Beauty and death - such are the contrasts offered up by the wolfish lake's conflicted personality. That evening we supped quietly on the beach, watching Jackrabbit tug gently on her rode in the falling wind, enjoying a restful night.
Sinuous wisps of mist rose from the glassy surface extending up the channel, overhead the sky's hue vivified by the rising sun. We did not disdain the long row along the remainder of the strait, finally entering the expansive waters of Nipigon Bay, where we picked up a light northeasterly lifting us toward a group of large islands to the north. The most impressive of these is La Grange Island, with its massive north-facing cliffs. With a scheduled pick-up at Red Rock set for the following day, we hoped to enjoy one last night out among these islands, but finding no suitable landing place along the exposed rock-rimmed shores, we reluctantly turned our bows toward town, a few miles off. Entering the neat marina on a following breeze, we found a slip and there settled in for the night, this time electing to sleep onboard under the boom tent. The setting sun drew a reddish glow from the La Grange cliffs, a majestic presence even from afar. Sleep was hard-won under an onslaught of mosquitoes flourishing in the calm night air.
The final dawn on this journey was bathed in warm sunshine as the town bestirred itself for another day's business - a serene conclusion to a small vessel's passage through a magnificently untamed country. Later that fine morning Jackrabbit was pulled from the lake, her wet hull glistening as she sat on her trailer, ready for the long journey home and other adventures in waiting on waters big and small. Hope finds inspiration in the knowledge that even in this arrogant age of fast-paced living and globalization, the cockpit retains the power to reveal the world as it really is; a wondrous big place after all!