On the Shores of Gitche Gumee: Canoeing Lake Superior, Upper Michigan

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Mom & Rider

(State #32/50) I wanted to canoe Lake Superior… easier declared than done as the body of water acts more like an ocean than a lake; its storms whip deadly cold waters into swells, which have destroyed vessels much larger than my 16-foot canoe. So, I required two factors to carry out my plans — 1. A location that would limit exposure to the open waters and 2. Good weather.

After consulting maps and the always trustworthy internet, I concluded Grand Island, off the coast of the Upper Peninsula, was the surest bet. Knowing anything short of mild conditions would scrub the launch, I was thrilled when my parents and I arrived at the landing. We stepped out into a hot, sunny afternoon shinning down on a blue, tranquil stretch of water. Conditions were ripe for my Father and me to canoe the largest lake in the world.*

DSC_0088We’re taking all this?” Dad said, looking at the loaded down boat. “Yep!” I replied. “It looks pretty low in the water, Eric,” Mom said, sure we were going to sink. But it was all necessary… the snorkel gear, bungie cords, the extra pans, the beer, the backup tuna cans, the backup, backup peanut butter. They’ll understand once Dad and I get swept across the lake and have to live for weeks in the Canadian wilderness, I told myself.

We launched Rider into the clear, cold water next to the ferry crossing. “We can always put on the canoe and ride the ferry back if the water’s too rough,” I told Dad. Mom took photos and, dutifully, watched as we paddled out into the channel. A few boats kicked up wakes, which we turned to the boat to meet head on, bobbing down over the crests. Besides that, we canoed across the half-mile stretch to Grand Island without drama.

DSC_0096 (1)There were some boats at anchor off the shore and a smattering of houses and docks down at the shoreline. But, beyond that area, the island was a sweeping span of tree-filled wilderness with ridge lines running through the center of the islands two main sections. Dad and I steered out into calm Murray Bay with no firm destination. It was more of a “let’s canoe that-a-way” and “ooo what’s that over there?”

Sunlight lit the sandy bottom fifteen feet below in the shallow areas while dark blue water filled the deep portions. We passed over huge submerged logs and boulders. “I’m definitely going to snorkel,” I told Dad. Heading towards the far side of the bay, we paddled past a narrow cape called Muskrat Point. Across the shallow cove, we claimed an unoccupied campsite by leaving the tent bag. Hours from dark, the mosquitoes were already heavy in the thick conifer forest surrounding the site. So, we jumped back in the boat and canoed to the tip of Muskrat Point.

DSC_0119We beached the boat on the sandy/rocky point, hopped out and opened warm beers. A few low growing shrubs and pines occupied this little sliver of land, but the scene was largely made up of clear water and shallow, sand-rippled lake floor. I dug around my gear bag and got out my snorkel and mask.

I walked into the lake up to my knees. “Count me down from 10!” I called back to Dad on the beach. At zero I fell back into Superior — near freezing, but refreshing. I snorkeled off the point on the main bay side, where the sand sloped down a steep bank into the dark oblivion. I noticed something resting on the sand near the ledge. I dove down about eight feet and surfaced, triumphantly, with a GoPro on a stick (broken, but I still need to investigate the memory chip). Meanwhile, Dad had been edging his way into the water in the form of hesitant, sissy, tiptoe steps. It was all I could do not to tackle him. But, after the twenty-minute spectacle, Dad finally submerged and swam around. Though he grew up in Wisconsin, it was his first swim in  the Great Lakes.

DSC_0193We dried off and paddled to the other side of the bay, passing an anchored sail boat and a few white buoys. When we returned to our campsite, the mosquitoes were waiting for us. We bathed in bug spray, gathered wood and used the last of my lighter fluid to get the fire going. Even with spray, heat and smoke, the mosquitoes remained. But, this was Upper Michigan, and we knew to expect this, so we didn’t let it get to our spirits.DSC_0186

With the high clouds and storms, the sunset lasted for hours and went through multiple phases and color schemes. High light yellow clouds with sun rays shooting through turned to orange, then pink and then purple, all reflected in our own personal section of bay. A shower passed overhead and dotted the glowing orange lake surface. Later on, a thunderhead to the north joined the show and sent bolts through the clouds, towards the lake and rumbled the twilight.DSC_0254

DSC_0278We began dinner prep in the fading evening light. Without time to shop at a store, my Dad was set to try a four-course supper of car trunk food. We started with a stale English muffin, split in two, warmed in a pot and topped with Amish blackberry jam. We then left Pennsylvania Dutch country for Austria and enjoyed fried Vienna Sausages — a delightful “meat” based finger sized tub, with a little crunch of sand from the dirty pan. And for the main course… a taste of Italy prepared and canned by the master Chef Boyardee; and, yes, the Beefaroni was resplendent. We finished with fruit-filled, processed breakfast bars. In all of my Father’s travels, he said he’s never enjoyed as lavish of a meal… Or I thought I heard him say that through the thunder.

The next morning was overcast and cold. While I slept, Dad got up and could barely make out the anchored sailboat through the thick fog. After a few hours, the weather cleared, but the wind was up and the water, even on the calmer bay, was rolling with little white caps. I shuddered to think of what the channel across the mainland looked like. Texts from Mom to Dad said that there was “two-foot chop.” “There’s always the ferry,” we said.DSC_0303 (1)

DSC_0317The sun came out as we began the voyage back, paddling hard and hitting the waves dead on, straight across Murray Bay. After admiring the construction of a 1840’s cabin, we decided to try for the mainland. I hugged the island’s shoreline as we paddled back to where the ferry crossed. Passed a jutting gravel point, we left the protected waters and now faced the temperament of greater Lake Superior.

Big waves hit the canoe and I turned the bow to cut them, tacking against the wind and waves, heading away from our destination. It would take more time, but the alternative was canoeing strait across and getting broadsided and rolled. After enough distance, I turned the canoe and headed with the waves hitting our back. The directions of the waves wasn’t perfect to the ferry crossing, so I tried to cheat the angle and cut the distance. This was a mistake — a big swell hit us sideways and the water was an inch away from pouring over the gunwales. “Paddle Right! Paddle right!” I called to my Dad before we tested another wave. From then on, I kept the boat with the waves and Rider surged and dropped as each rolled by us. We made it back, though, white knuckles and all.

DSC_0358As we unloaded, we talked to a ranger. She mentioned something about the ship wrecks in Murray Bay. “What??” we said. “Oh yeah, there’s three out there, real close to the surface, that’s why the glass-bottomed boat tours go there…”  We had seen tour boats stop at the white buoys all the previous evening and had even canoed by them, without thinking what they were marking. “We could have seen sunken ships!?”  For the next few days, my Dad and I couldn’t tell the story without bringing up that we missed the shipwrecks, shaking our heads, every time, in deep regret. I mean we could have taken pictures, snorkeled above them, found the treasure… We’re still kicking ourselves. Though after experiencing only a tiny fraction of the lake’s furry, I suppose we should just be happy we didn’t join those boats at the very bottom of Lake Superior.

*Superior is usually considered the largest lake in the world by surface area and the 3rd largest by volume. Some try to lump Michigan and Huron together, but we all know those people are idiots.

Lake Stats and Fun Facts:

  • Lake Superior, Michigan
  • Miles Canoed: 7
  • Dates Canoed: 7-6/7-2017
  • Weather: Sunny and warm, isolated thunderstorms in the evening, foggy clearing to sun the following morning. 100% chance of mosquitoes.
  • Elevation: 602 feet above sea level
  • Launch Point/Takeout Point: Public launch at Grand Island Ferry (46.445103, -086.664727)
  • Campsite: Muskrat Point (46.463555, -086.641746)
  • Applicable Poem: The Song of Hiawatha (IX Hiawatha and the Pearl Feather) by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Dad found this: Opening lines raw
    “On the shores of Gitche Gumee (Lake Superior),
    Of the shining Big-Sea-Water,
    Stood Nokomis, the old woman,
    Pointing with her finger westward,
    O’er the water pointing westward,
    To the purple clouds of sunset.”
  • Thanks to Deanna, the Forest Service Ranger for providing information post canoe
  • Wildlife Spotted:
  • Birds: Loon, ducks, seagull and songbirds
  • Noted Species: Black bear on Grand Island
  • Dominant Vegetation: American Beech, Northern Red Oaks, Sugar Maple, White Pine, Yellow Birch, White Birch, Hemlock and other conifer species
  • Ecoregion: Northern Lakes and Forests, (50x) Grand Marais Lakeshore
  • Current Threats: Sea Lamprey in Lake Superior, Garlic Mustard (both invasive species)
  • Trash collected: lots of micro trash (tiny bits of plastic), GoPro, part of a firework
  • Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $2666 of my $5000 goal. Please go to my Crowdrise link below to donate. American Rivers is a 40+ year old NGO working to clean up rivers, remove antiquated dams, restore riparian ecosystems and preserve Wild and Scenic Rivers among much else. If you find my trip remotely inspiring, please consider donating! As always, thanks to all that have already given! https://www.crowdrise.com/canoe-50-campaign
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