Back in Time on Lake Gitchigami

Fishing Lake Superior

What Superior's Secrets Have To Tell 

By Liza Finlay / Photos by Naomi Finlay

The ribbon of road wends its way north, bobbing and dipping through wild thatches of forest that have been trimmed and tamed to make room for manSwaths of northern jungle are parted to accommodate small settlements—the schools and stores, donut shops and diners—that are the bald spots on a pate thick with towering trees. 

“Are we there yet?” asks my son Liam, for perhaps the hundredth time.

“No,” I reply. And then add, “You’ll know when we’re there.”

“How will I know? Oh, you mean you’ll turn off the car?”

“You’ll just know….”

Suddenly, the highway bends and an unforgiving landscape of rocks and trees is obliterated by a wash of blue. Water stretches as far as the eye can see. “Are we….oooh,” sighs my son, speechless at last. We’re there.

Lake Superior. The Ojibwe called it Gitchigami, big-sea water. Not really a lake, by any reasonable yardstick, but not quite an ocean. A topographical entity that is inimitable. It’s hard to tell where the lake ends and the sky begins. Is that a whitecap or a cloud? And is the sun dancing on the water, or is the water holding hostage a universe of stars? You could lose yourself here.

And many have, most notably the Group of Seven, who haunted these shores and whose haunting canvas impressions inform our collective Canadian identity. But they weren’t the only artists smitten with Superior. In 1855, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow set “The Song of Hiawatha,” an epic poem of star-crossed lovers Hiawatha and Minnehaha, on these waters. That poem inspired musical works by both Antonín (Leopold) Dvorák and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (who even named his son Hiawatha). Centuries later, musicians Laurie Anderson and Johnny Cash excerpted the poem in their own pop works.

That’s not what we, as Canadians, are most proud of though. We tell our kids tales about the gales of November and the ship that succumbed, sinking to the bottom of Superior’s frigid waters. We sing them passages from Gordon Lightfoot’s “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” hoping to record over the iPod pop imprinted on their musical consciousness and lay new tracks of Canadiana. We pry comic books from their hands and make them muse on “Lonesome Pine.”

But my son isn’t interested in symphonies, whether of music, prose, or paint. He can’t be seduced by tales of legendary shipwrecks and artists sleeping in boxcars with their palettes under their pillows. There are fish to be caught and in his boyish, eight-year-old realm that, and not a new view of life, is the big catch.

Liza and Liam

Liza and Liam

Still, every journey starts with small steps and ours will take us along the shores of the lake until we and the big water part ways, with us veering inland to explore the heart of the Algoma, the Chapleau Crown Game Preserve, before returning to kayak Superior’s shores. Leaving civilization behind us, we aim to follow that ribbon of road until it ends, in search of wilderness—as much wilderness, that is, as a Grade-3 child can safely tolerate. I want my son—an urban boy for whom communing with nature means a cannonball off the end of a cottage dock—to experience an environment that isn’t manicured. I want him to see nature that is, well, natural. I want him to share my own appreciation for the Canadian North.

He’s ready. I wasn’t much older than Liam when my own father put a paddle in my hand and we canoed into the interior of Algonquin Park. “Don’t bother packing your blow-dryer,” my dad had teased. “There’s nowhere to plug it in.” In the back seat, my son has packed up his portable gaming device to stare, transfixed at big-sea water. I’m not worried.

Leaving Sault Ste. Marie, we take the fork to the right and it’s as if we have passed through a magic portal; civilization is behind us, the wilderness lies ahead.

Well, Wilderness Island anyway, a small, family-run fishing camp that is the cynosure of the Chapleau Crown Game Preserve, 7,000 square kilometres of protected land. The camp is accessible by air and rail only. We’ve elected to fly in and are headed to Hawk Junction and a waiting float plane.

From the sky, north of Superior spreads out like a patchwork quilt. Huge blocks of green are interspersed with patches of brown, where trees have been cleared by loggers. The blanket of boreal forest stretches on and on and I begin to wonder if we will ever land. Then, without warning, the wings of the plane dip toward the ground and we begin to rotate in a tight circle, a spinning top. My stomach starts to roll and in a panic I realize I have used the last airsickness bag to dispose of Liam’s gum. Maddy, the young pilot, swivels in his seat and splays his hands on top of his head, wiggling his fingers at me.

“What?” I scream, through the deafeningndin of the motor. He points down and then returns his five-digit antlers to his head. Ah. A moose. Down below. Motion sickness forgotten, I shake my son and, gesticulating madly, point his gaze down to the swampy shoreline of a small inland lake. There he is. A lone bull. Dipping his head to drink, he is nonplussed by the noisy metal thing circling over him. We are as insignificant to him as a fly.

And for Liam, flying so high above, the moose may as well have been a fly. He is disappointed. Moose are as mythical to him, a native Ontarian, as a tiger is to a Thai boy. He knows the stories. How I, as a small child, would stumble upon a moose while picking berries with my father. How we would crawl out of our tents just after sunrise and, while the others slept, crawl across the still-cool rocks in search of blueberries. If we were lucky—and sometimes we were—we would see a moose standing majestically at the water’s edge. Startled, he would spring into the safety of the woods, his antlers stirring the morning mist like cotton candy.

Lake Superior

The Boreal Forest Unfurls Below  

That’s the family lore. But until he sees one, I may as well be telling my son tales of water horses in the lochs of his Scottish ancestors. Though we keep a steady lookout, we won’t see another moose on this trip. In fact, the moose population here is but a fraction of what it once was. Logging has disturbed the equilibrium between moose and bear populations. When big trees are cleared, sun-loving berries become abundant. Bears gorge on the sugary fruit—tantamount to a fertility drug to these caniforms—and as a result produce bigger, healthier litters. Where once northerners saw mother bears with one or two cubs, they are now seeing families of six. Moose calves are the natural prey of the bear so when the bear population explodes the moose population implodes. And so the rhythm of life plays out to an unseen metronome: cause, effect; ebb, flow. It’s a delicate balance—almost as delicate as the emotions of an eight-year-old whose moods now perch precariously between utter joy and abject horror.

But all moose-related disappointments are forgotten when the plane touches down on Lake Wabatongushi and glides to a stop in front of a modest lodge surrounded by rock and miles of water. There, my cub is handed the keys to a kingdom—a teak fishing boat with an outboard. “It’s yours for the week,” says Al Errington, the owner of Errington’s Wilderness Island Resort, and hands Liam a rod and tackle box. Liam’s whoops of glee are so primal, for a second I imagine him in breeches and jerkin, being handed his first crossbow.

Boats are the preferred mode of transportation at Wilderness Island Resort, a small collection of cabins situated in the heart of the Chapleau Crown Game Preserve, the largest wildlife preservation in the world. Al’s parents bought what was a “rustic” fishing camp in the 1970s. A relic. And while the cabins have since been outfitted with propane water heaters and kerosene lamps, it remains charmingly unrefined—the kind of place where feet are not only encouraged on tables, they are expected. For decades, the government has been limiting land development in the Chapleau, which means that outside of the odd fishing cabin, the lake is largely unpopulated—by humans, anyway.

Chapleau Game Preserve

Early Morning at Chapleau Game Preserve

“But we’ve got lots of bears,” says Al, and proceeds to give us a primer on what to do should we come face to face with one. Stand tall, be threatening, make lots of noise, he advises. “How tall and threatening can an eight-year-old appear to a 200-pound bear?” I ask, nervously. “You keep Liam away from the bears,” responds Al sharply. “They’ll go after kids.” I give Liam, who is already in the boat with his hand on the rudder, a long, sobering stare, but he is too intoxicated by the resort’s pet perch to notice.

Wild Al—so-called by Liam because he teaches my son the ways of the wild—is himself a bear of a man. Big and bearded, with a deep bass voice, he has the contemplative nature of a philosopher and the patience of a saint. He teaches Liam what moose tracks look like, how to skin and filet a freshly caught fish and what to look for in a utility knife. Al holds Liam’s full attention for what, in kid years, is an eternity—about five minutes. But the lure of uncaught fish is too great.

We spend our days exploring the lake’s many coves and inlets, casting line after line until our arms ache from the exertion. Liam is undeterred by his body’s limitations and reels in one fish after another—a two-foot pike, a walleye, a perch. I pull in nothing but weed. “That’s OK mom,” says Liam, patting my arm soothingly. “We all have different strengths. I’m still proud of you.”

We decide I need professional help and one of the camp’s guides, Ivan, is called in to remedy the situation. Ivan—whom I quickly rename Ivan The Terrible because he is constantly making sly jokes at my expense—is an Ojibwe, a former chief of the Manitoulin band. As he guides us around Wabatongushi (White Sand), he points out the medicinal plants—sweet flag, a reed used for colds and sore throats—and regales us with tales of big fish caught and lost on these waters.

Liam pays no attention. He is more intent on creating his own stories than hearing someone else’s. That is, after all, what this trip is about—the making of memories, the strengthening of ties, the depositing of bonds in a closely guarded, sacred bank.

There is a tug on Liam’s line and his rod bends and dips, its tip nearly touching the water. “It’s a big one,” he yells, elated. His willow-wisp of a body tenses in preparation for landing. “Reel him in nice and slow,” says Ivan calmly, and reaches for the net. It is, indeed, a big one. A three-foot walleye. Not the biggest fish caught on this lake, but the biggest fish caught in this child’s lifetime. “It’s got to be, what, like five feet?” Liam sputters. I don’t correct him. Ivan meets my eyes and smiles, his tanned face crinkling like a piece of paper being crumpled, leaving only two laughing eyes and the space where two front teeth used to be. But he remains silent. Complicit. He understands the importance of storytelling—and the relative unimportance of fact.

We fire the motor and Liam boats us to a nearby island where Al and Ivan skin Liam’s big catch and then cook it for him over a hastily made fire—an impromptu lunch. To my amazement, my son eats every bite and even tries the bannock that has been brown-bagged for us. “Nothing like freshly caught fish,” he says smugly.

That night, Liam stands at the end of our dock with my cellphone, seducing his little brother with his tale of aquatic conquest. The fish grows right along with the story (as is the custom). His little brother is enthralled (as he is meant to be). The universe is unfolding as it should.

Overhead, the stars wink in agreement. Tonight, the normally inky sky is bright with the beginnings of the aurora borealis. A great swath of the heavens is lit up, white, as if an angel has spilled a glass of milk. Or maybe a giant has reached up and smudged the star-studded sky the way a child smudges the chalk on a blackboard.

Lake Superior Aurora Borealis

Borealis Begins on Lake Superior

Tomorrow, we board a train that will take us south, back to the shores of the bigsea water, Superior. The Algoma Central Railroad has been running from Sault Ste. Marie to Hearst since the late 1800s and proved a lifeline not only for fishermen and northern residents, but artists, too. The Group of Seven were so captivated by the Algoma that they spent every fall, from 1918 to 1922, trying to capture its majestic contradictions on canvas—the hues that range from soft and sensual to fully saturated; the surfaces that are by turns fluid and unforgiving. Using the tracks that dissect the region, the group travelled deep into the heart of the forest by velocipede (a three-wheeled handcar), painting by day, sleeping in boxcars by night.

Now, if I can only get my little Santiago to sleep.

Superior is aptly named. Of the great lakes, it is the biggest, deepest and coldest.

Its shores are unspoiled by urban sprawl. Satellite images of the lake at night show the southern U.S. shore bright with lights while the largely unpopulated Canadian side remains dark.

That solitude is highly treasured here, in a north where the world is quiet but for the sounds of the wind whipping the water and the waves hitting the shores. There is a hush that is sacred; the ghosts of the past are everywhere, their presence felt in ancient pictographs painted on imposing rock faces. Clay-red squiggles of canoes, fish and the mythical Misshepezhieu—the part-lynx, part-sea monster thought to be responsible for Superior’s storms—are haunting revelations of past lives lived here. No wonder, then, that the people who come don’t want to leave. They sacrifice—debunking in the winter only to return at first thaw—so they can live their lives on Superior. They extol her virtues and then quickly quiet the eulogizing. They worship her, but jealously guard her. They praise her, but protect her privacy. Love is complicated.

Kayaking is not. You go when the water invites you and not before. On Superior, bad weather can spell certain death to kayakers. Simple. We were meant to head out today to explore the nooks and crannies of the northeastern shores, but weather has stalled us. Misshepezhieu is angry. The water churns and froths and the sky is an impenetrable grey. We will have to wait out the storm. And that’s OK. There’s much to do.

Our hosts at Naturally Superior Adventures, just outside of Wawa, have equipped us with kayaks, paddles and tents. In preparation for our two-day trip up the northeast coast, our guide Shannon—a trim, tanned, 24-year-old—takes us out into a shallow bay and teaches Liam and me to roll in a kayak: how to release the apron that is wrapped around our waists and fans out to attach to the kayak, disentangle ourselves and find the surface while upside down in cold water. Liam is nervous, but keeps his cool, not wanting to lose face in front of his new crush. “On the count of three I’m going to capsize you,” says Shannon. “Ready? One, two…”
“Wait,” calls Liam. “What do I do if I can’t get the apron undone?” Good question. Now I’m anxious, but not for myself, for my baby. We decide that being alive is more important than being dry and Liam forgoes the apron. One, two, three—we are submerged, head down, in cold, dark water. I allow myself to slide out and come to the surface. But where’s Liam? I can’t see him. I begin shouting, calling his name, thrashing around in the water. I feel a pat on my shoulder. “Mom, I’m right behind you.” Relief washes over me and I press him against my chest until he cries out.

Next, Shannon instructs us to unpack all of our camping equipment and re-pack it in a series of small airtight bags, which we shove into the cavernous interior of our kayak. Shannon spends her summers here. She has the calm, gentle nature of one who understands the Zen of kayaking: be one with the water.

She chooses these waters. Lake Superior has worked its magic on her, too. She comes back every spring, leading groups up and down the lake, camping along the way. When she returns to the base station at the mouth of the Michipicoten, she pitches her tent on the lawn just outside the staff quarters, preferring its nylon walls to the light- and noise-filled cabin.

The next day is bright and sunny with only a light wind. We head out, hugging the shoreline, gliding past Sandy Beach and into Michipicoten Harbour. Lake Superior is full of surprises. At one turn its rugged, rocky drama is quintessential Canadiana and then around the next corner is a tranquil sandy beach hemmed in by azure waters that are classically Caribbean. The best of both worlds.

Kayaking Lake Superior

Kayaking Beautiful Lake Superior

We break for lunch at the Michipicoten Harbour Lighthouse, a long abandoned station that now stands derelict. Over the last two decades, computer automation has left lighthouses like these neglected by man, but not by beast—the grounds are a haven for bears and butterflies. And picnickers, like us. Shannon guides us carefully into a makeshift mooring between two jagged outcroppings of rock and then leads us up to a concrete platform high above the water.

To the east and west, Superior unfurls like a length of satin before meeting the horizon; straight across from us, Lake Superior Provincial Park’s sandy, half-moon coves are barely discernible in the distance.

After lunch, we make our way up to the lighthouse, a sun-bleached clapboard house with peeling paint and broken windows. Around the house, once-manicured gardens are now overgrown. We creep across the grounds like Mary and Colin sneaking into the Secret Garden. Suddenly, the air fills with dragonflies. Clouds of them circle around us, their small wings humming as they dance and duck through the unkempt gardens. Shannon and I stand, spellbound, barely breathing as the ancient creatures alight on our hair and arms. Liam gives chase, dashing over ruined garden walls and under tangles of vines in an unwinnable game of tag.

We don’t want to leave, but we must. The wind has picked up and the smooth lake is now ruffled. Misshepezhieu has awakened. Three-foot swells make our progress painstaking. We circumnavigate Perkwakwia Point and the waves are now smacking the sides of our kayaks, delivering terrifying blows. Liam is exhausted. His paddle dangles off the edge of the kayak like an unused arm. “You’ve got to keep paddling Liam,” I shout over the wind. “We can’t do this without you.”

Liam Finlay on Lake Superior

Liam Paddling Hard

That night, as we huddle around a campfire, I will tell my son about the time my father and I got stuck in the middle of an Algonquin lake with a storm blowing in. I was only eight and counted on my father to be my rescuer. But in order to outrace the storm, my father needed me. That day, I was forced to abandon my princess status and become a soldier “Keep paddling,” he shouted, over and over again. I did.

I echo those words with my own son now. I can see his fatigue—and his fear. Only a few hundred metres to go. “Almost there Liam,” I cry. “Come on.” We surf onto the shores of Indian Beach and collapse on the warm sand. My little prince doesn’t complain. Instead, he builds castles in the sand.

Shannon and I re-assess our situation. We won’t last another three hours on these rough waters, so instead of pushing onward, toward Marathon, we cut our paddle short. We aim for the next cove, a sandy strip where camping is permitted. It’s an hour away, at the outside.

Forty-five minutes later we slide onto a beach protected by a wall of rock that blocks Superior’s bite. We pitch our tents and while Shannon starts a fire, Liam and I scramble over the geological giant, examining its craggy surface for fossils and potholes.

Chapleau Game Preserve

View From Shore

Arctic disjunct—a plant, Shannon explains, that was left behind when the glaciers went through—blooms stubbornly on the hard surface, sprouting from puddles of sand pocketed in the rock, reminding us of how far north we have come. Yet down below, the rock plunges into a lake stippled with the turquoise and indigo of the tropics.

Has this collision of climes been conjured just for us? Is Misshepezhieu casting his supernatural charms? All I know for certain is that there is a special brand of enchantment that is uniquely Superior and right now, I don’t want to share the magic with anyone—except maybe my son who, oblivious to the novelty of this natural wonder, is searching for signs of life below the surface.

“Dare you to jump in,” I say to Liam.
“It’s freezing!”
“Chicken.”
“OK, I’ll do it. But only if you do.” I dip a toe in. Not freezing, but close.
“You’re on.”

We strip and huddle on the edge of the 10-metre-high wall of rock, holding hands. We count to three and leap. The water takes our breath away and we come up gasping. But we do it again. And again.

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