North Lake is a special place to arrive at by canoe, and the saddle which slumps amidst towering ridges is a place that stirs feelings of a canoe trips wonder. This ease in the terrain has been a momentous place for time immemorial, signifying the divide between Arctic Ocean waters and Atlantic Ocean waters, the height of land. So often, watershed divides are low lying and swampy, places where water and land hardly differentiate from one another, but here, between North and South Lake, the sense of crossing a divide is real. It is here that a rain drop must decide its next journey, to fall slightly to one side means thousands of kilometres to polar bears and Churchill, MB, and to fall slightly the other side means thousands of kilometres to the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. First Nations have long used this crossover to head north, and later it became a place of importance to the Voyageur brigades of the fur trade, for here, once they crossed the saddle upon which we looked, they transitioned from Pork and Beaners, who specialized in the arduous freight trip between Montreal and Fort William(Thunder Bay), to Homme Du Nord, or people of the north. This was the gateway to the interior, or a ticket back to the bustling south, and as we neared, the feelings were much the same as they have been for so long, a new journey, raindrops falling to a new destination.
As we shouldered our packs and set off on the short trail, Branwen confessed that her excitement was more than she had anticipated. For nearly a month Leah and I had talked about this place and what it meant to us, but to be here hammered home for Branwen the distance we had come and the journey we had taken. Somewhere in the middle, almost imperceptibly, we noticed the water under our muddy feet begin to trickle with us, following little ditches in the trail towards South Lake until we reached the shores. With the landscape towering all around South Lake we reloaded, a lovely evening tail wind pushing in our favour, and did our best to drink it all in and enjoy the rapidly approaching conclusion of our summers trail. By the fire that evening, after swims in the blue, clean lake, where I had dove down and enjoyed big gulps of the perfect water, we looked on talking about the awkward days ahead.
With the pandemic protocols still in place along the US/Canada border, we weren’t able to remotely cross the border and take the long and well trodden trail of the Grand Portage. On the Canadian side, Path of the Paddle, should it stick to water, falls into gorges on rivers that are best described as treacherous. There was a reason the Grand Portage existed, and what this meant for us was that we would have to take a short ride to Lake Superior, and after another few days of long portages and narrow, straight lakes, we were greeted by Leahs family, who live nearby, and delivered to Pigeon Bay on Lake Superior. For Leah and I, we were sad to not find our way down the canyons of the river, perhaps there is a way, but we also knew that this idea of seeing the water down could have suspended us for a week, or more, in a place of no trails and geography that is unrelenting in its steepness. Besides, the journey was never about being purists, it was about travelling a long and lovely trail for 1,000km to experience a land that we so easily glance over on a map, yet move so slowly across by canoe.
After 27 days with never a day of not travelling, we were so suddenly on the ice water mansion, the world biggest lake, to which Leah and I call home. The water was hovering around 6 celcius (44 farenheit) and a swell rolled lazily from the south. we dawned all our layers and battled the shivers of summer on Lake Superior. Moving along a cliff band towards Big Trout Bay, wisps of fog gently rolled across the land, momentarily consuming our little world, the sounds of waves reverberating off cliffs echoing around us. People will always have their place, everyone has regions to which they feel intricately connected to, and for all of us, Lake Superior is the place we had worked so hard to reach. Here, canoeists are tiny vessels amidst a massive body of water, capable of paddling for months without ever needing to portage or change waterways. For us, Lake Superior was the crown jewel after a month spent paddling and portaging through the forests and swamps of northwestern Ontario. That evening, we put to shore in Big Trout Bay and watched as the sky moved through its moods, listening to the whispering lake, all of us short for words. Shortly after darkness settled, rain began pattering against the tents, and all night a frigid downpour fell from the sky, only breaking with the dawn, the sound of rain replaced by a screaming north wind.
Everywhere else on our trip, weather and forecasts mattered not, we were at the mercy of what was to come so we lived our life with rain gear at hand and sunscreen nearby. On Lake Superior, marine forecasts and wind predictions are essential tools for paddlers to try and move past shorelines that are cliffy and dangerous in the wrong conditions. The forecast we saw the next morning as we moved into headwinds from the north was worst case scenario. Hard north winds, which would bring headwinds but not dangerous swell and waves, were going to be replaced by strong southerly blow, conditions that would halt our movement for days, of which we only had one remaining. We moved in the overcast conditions, battling occasionally against wind, ducking into giant sea caves hidden amongst long cliff bands, our echos and breathe drifting around in the otherworldly environment. In Mink Bay, we stopped for tea and muffins with the past Board Chair of Path of the Paddle, Clara Butikofer, and her partner, Erwin, before rounding the point into Sturgeon Bay for our final campsite of the trip. The sunshine had broken through the grey and the evening was hemmed by towering walls and laughter by the fire. It’s hard to describe the feeling of knowing you’re at the end of the trail, and for once, we couldn’t see a trip beyond the next day. Instead, we started our conversation in Whiteshell, Manitoba, and let it walk almost 1,000 kilometres across 28 days, all the way to that gravel sand bar on the big lake, with trout sizzling on the grill.
In the morning, we left camp with the sound of distant wind giving us a reason to worry. We wanted to go all the way to Old Fort William Historical Park, though we knew it would be a dance to just get to roads. All morning we were rocked in building conditions, ever unsure if we were minutes from being put to shore, or if we would be afforded just a little more distance. As we tucked behind a small island before McNab and Grand Point, on Fort William First Nation in the traditional territory of the Robinson Superior Treaty, we talked about the final moves of the trip and how comfortable everybody felt. The lake was now full of southerly whitecaps and building, the points jutting out into the conditions, and clearly we would have some spooky maneuvering to round these small but problematic headlands. Leah and I were keen, and to our excitement, so were Bruce and Branwen. We let them lead the way, sometimes only seeing their heads above the waves, their silence and determination so visible from a few boat lengths away. We danced and laughed in the chop, ducking in between breaking waves over reefs, excited by the lake where Leah and I have spent so much formative time, comfortable in an otherwise uncomfortable place, all under the watchful gaze of the Sleeping Giant. We knew that beyond the points we would find safety, and we also knew that there we would be met by Chippewa Park, and that beyond there, the conditions would be too much for us to continue. As we hit the beach at Chippewa, in the distance behind us we noticed the lake turn to white, and the forecasted wind began to blow in earnest. We hugged and aimed for high fives, the trip was over.
Within a few short hours, Bruce and Branwen were gone, zipping away in Leah’s car we lended them, and once again we said hi to her parents, the canoes now atop vehicles instead of under us or shouldered over trails. We had made a few concessions, one being the need to accept a short drive, the other listening to what the lake and wind were saying, stopping our trip where it made sense for all of us. After 29 days, we were done our version of Path of the Paddle. We had updated hundreds of Trans Canada Signs, walked 150 portages, and paddled roughly 1,000 kilometres. Adventure can come in so many shapes, but the rhythm of a canoe trip is the way in which we will spend our summers for as long as we can, and we all hope that forever these trails that make long trips possible see more and more foot prints, for this is what keeps the spirit, and the way, alive. To all the hard working volunteers who maintain the trails we walked, thank you. To all the people who stopped along the way, offered a snack, brought us a resupply, and helped us in our adventure, thank you. To the First Nations who found these trails and pushed them into the earth for thousands of years, Miigwetch.