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Lake Superior - Edward Islands

Story By Mark Stevens • Photographs by Sharon Matthews-Stevens

DAY TWO

Morning. Thompson Island on Lake Superior. Fourteen nautical miles out of Thunder Bay.

Perfect weather.

This begins on Day Two because we cast off yesterday and conditions precluded time spent below deck with my nose buried in “Frodo’s” logbook: co-operative winds, scenery that could make a politician cry, waves decorating cobalt waters that glittered like jewels in a crown. 

Day two because right here is the perfect beginning: remembering last night, sun dipping in the west, sky-reaching islands hovering like mirages or a Lawren Harris landscape, a fine mist creeping over the water, blurring the edges of a perfect full moon, silvery light on a sauna built by boaters, fired by hardwood, the smell timeless and evocative. 

Remembering steaming heat inside the sauna then a leap from a rickety dock into frigid Superior, a dockside campfire, a warm berth.

Now the mist has burned off and we hike through a forest laden with moss (“Old man moss,” says Parks Canada staffer, Greg Stroud, who’s on board because this is his turf: new-born Lake Superior Marine Reserve, three times the size of Prince Edward Island, roughly six hundred islands), to heights with views of Pie Island, a great green plateau, surreal landforms of the Nor’wester Mountains, we descend to a pebbled beach guarded by a cliff fifty metres high, waters lapping the shore with sounds like a marimba melody.

And now we will make for an anchorage Greg Heroux, skipper of “Frodo” and proprietor of Sail Superior, calls “one of the most beautiful on the lake.” 

Ship manifest: Stroud, Heroux, my wife and me.

Lake Superior - Forty-knot winds

There is a gentle ground swell when we clear this steep narrow cove bound by pine on one side and precipitous granite slopes on the other, but winds are fair, sun is shining, and the lake is on her best behavior.

Close reach, boat speed six knots steady, following waves that nudge our stern like tame horses.

Next waypoint: Edward Island, the Hook inside Horseshoe Cove.

 

DAY THREE

Late yesterday we nosed into a green canyon with not a sign of humanity. Waters are jade and emerald. Heroux bushwhacked through dense undergrowth and Stroud tossed him a line for us to spider across the isolated inlet.

A twilight stroll through the woods to another pebbled beach but this time the surf assaulted the shore with a constant tympani roll, soundtrack for a sunset view of the Sleeping Giant, reaching skyward like the battlements of a medieval castle.

Then a crackling campfire beside glassine waters, two bald eagles soaring overhead as night steals in, as we sip cocktails and share sailing stories in the lime-and-lavender glow of Aurora Borealis.

And now, this morning, Otter Cove awaits our pleasure. Not a huge distance but a foray into ever deeper nature, a brisk sail through pristine waters bounded by unbroken forest and granite ridges. 

Now we ride an inside passage off Shaganash Island but it feels like open water. We beat into growing waves, whitecaps everywhere, doing seven or eight knots with double-reefed main and a foresail set small as a lace doily. Every once in a while the boat groans, heeling sharply, but the sailing is still exhilarating.

Now we drop the hook on a clay bottom at Otter Cove, we scramble into the dinghy.

Lake Superior - Unspoiled forest

The cove narrows into a rock-strewn stream and we drag the dinghy onto a log-bedecked shore. Here, at the base of a waterfall that feels like it has been seen by no man, is solitude and silence but for the sizzle and hiss of water throwing itself over a twenty-metre precipice.

Our boat is green and lonely in a cove surrounded by volcanic basalt and granite.

I look back at the falls, out over the water painted indigo and gunmetal gray.

Methinks they should change the name of this body of water, so awe-inspiring, so majestic.

Welcome to Lake Solitude.

 

DAY FOUR

And welcome to the deluge.

Last night wind howled through the anchorage. Rigging rattled, waves thumped against the hull.

The place we dropped our hook was gorgeous – tucked in behind Borden Island near Loon Harbour, a popular overnight spot for local cruisers even though we haven’t seen a single other boat in the last day-and-a-half. 

Last night, over steaming beef stew, Superior’s mood deteriorating along with the weather, we shared more sailing stories in the saloon of “Frodo”, a vessel we’ve grown to appreciate.

Today we will also learn to appreciate our skipper and crew. Today strains of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” play themselves over and over in my head.

Heroux has been sailing this lake for nearly four decades. He bought “Frodo” a 40-foot Jonmeri Finnish boat in Mystic, CT and sailed her over here. He’s since crossed the Atlantic twice (in “Frodo”) and offers sailing instruction, harbour tours, a variety of overnight skippered adventures and bareboating on “Frodo” or a Kirie Elite 326’ DI, all under the banner “Sail Superior”.

Lake Superior - culture and tradition

Stroud is a Newfoundlander who knows no fear and has been taking serious sailing lessons all summer. Though he’s since transferred to the Thousand Islands he’s here as resident expert. No one knows this area better than Stroud. Unless it’s Heroux. 

“Gale force winds,” says Heroux first thing this morning when we raise anchor in blowing sleet. 

Almost right out of the lee of Borden our bow reaches skyward, she plunges with a belly-crunching thud; waves break our starboard beam, shattering like glass. 

There is a sudden roar. “Frodo” surfs down the face of one scurrying wave. Another wave breaks off our port beam. Greg Stroud, gripping the wheel white-knuckled, lets out a shout of glee. Heroux shakes his head. “That was easily twenty-feet.”

The day continues. We slog for Tea Harbour, finally limping in and grabbing a mooring ball in the shadow of the Sleeping Giant, bald cliffs overhead two hundred metres high.

Today marks some of the most intense sailing I’ve ever done.

“You have to be ready for anything on Superior,” says Heroux. I was not ready for this.

But I was also strangely exhilarated. “Great training ground,” says Heroux, “for serious blue-water sailing.”

“This was cool,” says Stroud.

Tonight the seas relent. Tonight we own a harbour hard by a gorgeous campground, a provincial park that Stroud tells us offers some amazing hiking. Tonight the campground is empty and our bay is empty but for some grebes wheeling and soaring overhead, but for two loons whose call, at twilight, is perfect soundtrack.

Empty but for us and “Frodo.” 

 

Lake Superior - Thunder Bay

DAY FIVE

Clear skies, gentler seas, sun painting a semi-abstract landscape across the crinkled cliff face of Sleeping Giant.

An almost soporific, almost anticlimactic day, clearing Thunder Cape, rounding that headland, full sails today, “Frodo” making six knots in flat water, past Welcome Island, toward civilization, toward Thunder Bay with its straight-edged skyline in the distance.

By lunch we have achieved the lighthouse guarding the port, we have lashed “Frodo” to her berth.

For me this has been a life-altering experience, an intimate tête-à-tête with the mightiest of lakes. 

For Heroux, just one more adventure, just one more entry in the log of “Frodo.”

 

A “FRODO” FLOAT PLAN

• For information on booking any one of a variety of Lake Superior adventures, from scuba/sailing excursions to bareboat charters, check out www.sailsuperior.com

• For more lubberly pursuits in the Thunder Bay area (worth spending a couple of extra days here to explore a wealth of attractions and activities) check out www.thunderbay.ca

 

Photo Captions

Photo 1 - Dramatic landscapes, like this one on Edward Islands, are a given when you sail these waters.

Photo 2 - One day Superior shows her darkest side while Skipper Greg Heroux sails her through forty-knot winds and four-metre waves.

Photo 3 - Unspoiled forest dominates most of the shoreline of the six hundred islands populating the northwest reaches of Superior.

Photo 4 - Not surprisingly, given its location and climate, Thunder Bay itself is a popular destination for Finnish emigrants who brought their local culture and traditions with them.

Photo 5 - Skipper Greg Heroux, Greg Stroud and the author prepare for “Frodo’s” departure from her Thunder Bay berth.