Paddling the Pukaskwa

They say the Pukaskwa Peninsula (pronounced PUCK-a-saw) is the most beautiful stretch of Lake Superior as well as its most challenging. Yup, our adventure across 120 miles on the east side of Lake Superior’s North Shore was both gorgeous and tough.

We seven youngsters (ages 61-73) headed off early on a Wednesday morning and arrived at the Pukaskwa Park campground in time to make dinner. Jerry and Jim (stalwarts both) crawled out of their tents at 5 AM to drive our vehicles two hours to the other end and caught a prearranged shuttle back ($600—not cheap). By the time they returned, the rest of us had broken camp, hauled the kayaks to the beach at Hattie Cove, and had everyone’s gear ready to load. You wouldn’t believe how much a kayak can hold—the contents of two large plastic bins, and then some.

Hattie Cove, our launching point near Marathon, Ontario:

Kayaks loaded and ready to launch by noon:

We launched into calm waters, the sun shining on our azure inland sea The shoreline’s mammoth stone edifices were garbed in pines growing on no soil at all.

Dick & Jini head out of Hattie Cove to explore Lake Superior:

So began 12 days of paddling in every condition from calm water to 7-foot waves. Our 17-foot kayaks rode up and down rather than through the waves, so we got to surf a bit. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Our first campsite was 10K (6 miles) from our launch, which we paddled in less than three hours, marveling at the rocky coastline, picturesque inlets, and dancing waters.

The sun followed us the whole time—except for one rainy day.

We were all getting our “sea arms” but were happy to pull up onto the white sand beach of the Willow River, our first home.

Kayaks pulled up on the Willow Creek Beach, away from the big lake.

The campsite had plenty of space, an actual outhouse, and a suspension bridge just up the river.

Willow Creek’s amazing suspension bridge that we couldn’t even sway:

Dick went out fishing, and the rest of us set up camp, relaxed on the beach, swam in Lake Superior (which is usually far too cold, but not this year—global warming?). My friend Jerry was new to kayaking Lake Superior, and he dove into the experience with gusto. Susan and Jim served hors d’oeuvres, burritos, and dessert, a pattern repeated each night. We lived high, but decided on one-pot meals in the future (with hors d’oeuvres and dessert, of course).

Our first Lake Superior sunset:

We enjoyed eleven campsites, all pristine sand beaches a la Caribbean, some a thousand feet long. The water was aquamarine blue and amazingly warm, so we swam every day but one (rain).

The second night we were crowded on a SMALL pristine beach:


Wavelets were common, as streams often flowed near the beaches.

Then there were the waves. We had two days of flat water—well, one and a half.

One of our calmer mornings; Tom and Jerry peruse maps as a distant bluff watches over them.

Though a windless day was a rarity, it got darned hot without a breeze.

Sometimes the wind comes up out of nowhere on Lake Superior, particularly on the east side, which makes the Pukaskwa Peninsula a challenge. We paddled into the wind, with the wind at our sides, and with it at our backs. I’d thought I hated side winds the most, but at least you can see what’s coming.

It was hard to take photos in waves, and we often completely lost our compatriots behind the swells.

On the fifth day after being wind-bound all afternoon in Bonamie Cove, we decided to give it another try around dinnertime. The waves were 8-10 feet high, and when Dick got pounded by a wave straight into his chest, he yelled at us all to turn around. Turning was difficult in such high winds, but we each waited for a set of smaller waves (under 5 feet) and turned as fast as we could before more big ones came. It was all I could do to keep my kayak on a straight line as the waves lifted me from the back, threatening to toss me aside. I make it sound scary, but it was also great fun. Jerry said he would have liked to go on, and Dick’s comment was, “But you might not have made it.” This was intended to be a safe trip.

Jini Jerry and Dick discuss our options after we’re wind-bound by sudden winds behind Le Petit Mort Rocks.

The next morning we launched into the waves from our sand beach.

Jerry helped Susan and Jim launch their tandem into the waves.

Another highlight of the trip was the Pukaskwa pits, which are nest-like formations of rounded stones in vast fields of lichen-covered rocks. No one knows what they are, how old they are, or what they were for, but they are clearly man-made, perhaps for food storage or some religious observance. Hunting, perhaps? We found one that was about 9 feet across and probably four feet deep, perfectly rounded.

Dick stands in a Puckaskwa Pit near the end of our trip.

On our whole trip we only saw two other kayak groups, two sets of canoeists, a sailboat, and a solo kayaker. On our ninth (windy) morning we pulled into a small, protected cove for a respite from the waves and found a lone kayaker hopping around on the rocks like a mountain goat. Finn greeted us warmly, explaining that he was touring the Ontario coast of Lakes Superior and Huron to Georgian Bay, near Toronto. He planned to do it in a month, traveling about 70 K  (40 miles) a day. We were averaging about 12 miles a day. Needless to say, we were greatly impressed at our newfound hero. He used a Greenland paddle, less than four inches wide, and he could paddle circles around us.

Finn beams as Jerry shows off his Greenland paddle.

Finn is 70 years old and has circumnavigated Lake Superior twice. He grew up on the Faroe Islands, a tiny country in the Norwegian Sea midway between Great Britain, Norway, and Iceland. He regaled us with tales about his youth, his adventures, his wife, and his cabin in Michipikoten, our destination. He told us about the best campsites ahead, and as he paddled by our site at 6AM the next morning, he blew his horn to wake us. “Wind’s on the water already—time to get up!” We got up early to beat the wind on our last three days.

We never saw a bear, but we often found bear and moose tracks in the sand.

A stunning view from a stonefield where we hunted for a Pukaskwa pit.

Tom heads out early from a morning break on the rocks, halfway to our lunch destination.

I have many more stories to tell: Jerry leaving a pile of gear at a campsite, Jini and I sneaking off to skinny-dip, Jerry’s kayak floating away at the Pukaskwa River, camping in the rain beside a 100-year-old chimney (great fire!), finding a rock carved with the name of someone who drowned on November 7, 1920, discovering three falling-down log cabins, and the list goes on.

We lucked out on our one rainy day with a concrete chimney in the woods. Jerry and Jim sawed wood and built a fire to warm us.

A trappers cabin Jini discovered in the woods near Trapper’s Harbor, aptly named.

We had an amazing trip, and after being delayed again by high winds, we finally surfed our kayaks onto Indian Beach, thirteen days after we left Grand Marais. Let me tell you, paddling Lake Superior is a real rush, and the Pukaskwa is the bomb.

Of course, I sure didn’t mind my cozy bed at home on Monday night.

The Stalwart Seven, Bottom row: Dick Swanson, Jini Danfelt, Susan Gulstrand. Back row: Tom Egan, Ann Mershon, Jerry Wilkes, and Jim Gulstrand


Old Fogies kayak the Apostles

The sixth annual Old Fogies Lake Superior Kayak Trip challenged us—at least a bit. We had a few handicaps this year: I was just over a month beyond foot surgery, Dick has a bum hip, and Annie has temperamental elbows and shoulders (due to an oversized kayak). Jini and Mike seemed to be in pretty good shape, but there’s always the spectre of arthritis haunting us. Could we actually BE Old Fogies? We range from 59 to 69. Hmmm…
Because we couldn’t get out until September, we decided to return to the relatively protected area of the Apostles, hoping to visit the islands we’d missed on our first trip. The weather had been stellar for weeks before our trip, so we had high hopes it would continue.

It didn’t.


Maggie'sMe and Mike and Maggie’s flamingoes
Late Thursday afternoon (after a DELICIOUS lunch in Bayfield at Maggie’s Restaurant–decorated to the hilt with flamingoes) we pulled into the Little Sand Bay, our destination. We hauled our kayaks down to the beach and loaded untold amounts of gear into them, a process called “staging.” According to Mike, we finished in record time. As we cast off from shore, we wondered about the six men who’d loaded their kayaks up on the lawn near their cars. Though it’s a chore to haul gear down to the beach, it’s FAR more difficult to carry 150+ pound loaded kayaks. To each his own.


My kayak and the gear that will go into it.

We donned our rain gear, and a mist began to fall as we paddled the six+ miles to our campsite. The guys pushed on ahead while Annie, Jini, and I took our time crossing, ecstatic with the glee of a new adventure. The mist abated as we approached Sand Island, where we were rewarded with shoreline sea caves. It’s virtually impossible to pass a sea cave without exploring; we took our sweet time enjoying the echoes, splooshes, and challenges of paddling through them.


Sea caves along Sand Island

Our first trial was paddling around the northerly point of the island into the wind, where crosswinds created a jumble of multi-directional waves, peaking erratically. Challenging, but VERY fun! We had to focus on the waves, so we could only steal quick glances at the picturesque Sand Island Lighthouse perched high on the point.

Sand lighthouse

Sand Island Lighthouse

FINALLY! We reached our campsite before dark, well aware that it might be our home for the next few nights. We’d been warned of high winds to come and expected to be windbound. Luckily, both Mike and Dick have weather radios, and we did daily checks on weather and small-craft warnings. Our campsite was in a protected cove where we couldn’t really see the waves, but we were later told that ten-foot waves were reported on Friday.

Needless to say, we spent two nights on Sand Island. To fill our non-paddling days, we hiked. Down the beach, over to the lighthouse, and around the island (at least the others did—my foot wasn’t up to more than a few kilometers of hiking at a stretch, so I only walked the beach and to the lighthouse).

wlking Sand beach
Walking Sand Island beach

Saturday the sun was high and the waves were, too. We were disappointed, but our radio informed us that the waves would abate later in the afternoon. We decided to enjoy the sunshine and then pack up our gear. We would have our big evening meal at noon, then be ready to cast off when things looked safe. I think we launched about 2:00 for a 14-mile paddle to Rocky Island. The good news is that the wind was with us, though we felt a bit more like surfers than kayakers.

Mike sunning-SandMike reads on a rock as we wait for the waves to calm down

We were totally exhausted when we rounded the sandy point to our destination (leeward, thank goodness) on Rocky. Lo and behold, there were no less than 12 sailboats moored just down from the first campsite.

Rocky sunsetSunset from our campsite on Rocky Island

We had no reservation there, but we assumed that since it was 6:00 p.m. we could take any available campsite. The first site was located just off the beach, it was close, and it had great tent sites. We heaved a great sigh of relief, hauled our food to the bear box, unloaded our lunch packs, and dove in. YUM! After imbibing in both food and drink, we got the tents up just before the sun set.

Imagine our surprise when two shadows emerged from the dark just offshore, paddling our way. OOPS!!! They had, indeed, reserved this campsite, but they kindly offered to camp on the beach nearby. “Don’t worry. We’ll just wait for the ranger to leave. We prefer the beach anyway.” This considerate pair of brothers from Chicago refused our offer to join us in our site and waited until the ranger’s boat left the cove. Whew! Were we lucky! They could have made a real stink about us taking the site, but they WERE really late.

Rocky siteOur lovely Rocky Island campsite—after breakfast

The morning brought calm waters. Hooray! We indulged in a big breakfast of bran muffin/pancakes, then walked the beach, watching the birds and exploring the island. Mike took off on a 20-mile trek to North Twin and Outer Island, while the rest of us lollygagged before heading out on the short 6-mile paddle to Cat Island.

lone cedar-South Twin

A fascinating lone cedar along the shore of South Twin, imagine two nearby eagles shrilling to each other…

Our campsite on Cat had a beautiful sand beach, but the cooking area and tent sites were high up on the hill in the woods. No picnic table—bummer. We had to fix food on top of the rusty old bear box. Halfway up the hill was a moldering toilet–our joke for the day. It was our first real latrine—a system of composting where we’d toss in a handful of “forest duff” after each use. The base of it was open, though screened from insects and bears, and believe it or not, it didn’t stink. Good thing.

moldering toilet

The Deluxe Moldering Toilet, complete with instructions

Just as we were wondering how late Mike would be, he pulled up on the beach. He’d said he’d be back by 6:00, and it was 6:05. Of course, we gave him grief for being late. Why not? We were joined by a few sailboats moored off the beach (It was Labor Day weekend), and they made a point of visiting the famous toilet. Three of the boats were peopled by Single Christians who were there for some serious socializing. They couldn’t outdo us, though—in fact, one of them walked over to ask what we’d been laughing about so hysterically. “Inside joke,” Dick explained. We felt it a bit too ribald for single Christians (something about Dick’s little orange hot-dog tent). Actually, we dissolve into hysterical laughter at least daily. This trip it was often over the Dick and Mike Show: two drunks at a Wisconsin bar. Guffaw.
Dick and I sat up with the trip’s first campfire until late that night–nearly 9:30 (we were usually in our tents around 8:00).

campfireAh, FINALLY—a camfire!

Dick roused us all at 6:30 with a report that we needed to race through breakfast and get on the water, as the waves were going to increase to 4-6 feet by afternoon. ARAUGHHH!!! Man, did we MOVE! Cold breakfast (thanks, Jini), pack up, and off we flew. The wind was behind us, and the waves were already 2-3 feet high, amazing after the calm of the previous day.
We tried to stay together, but it wasn’t easy, especially since Jini and I decided to break the trip up with a short stop to investigate a STELLAR campsite on the south tip of Ironwood Island. The waves grew, and once we were closer to each other, we would lose sight of everything but heads–big waves. Mike was busy surfing them, smart-alec. He set a plan of action for landing in the high waves at our Oak Island campsite. He would go in first, then each of us in turn would ride a wave onto the sand, hop quickly out of the kayak, and those on the beach would pull it up before the next wave crashed. Annie made the mistake of standing up IN her kayak and was thrown off balance when they yanked her kayak up. Oops! No injuries–just laughter.

M&A cooking

Annie and Mike prepare a delectable Breakfast for us.

It was a nice campsite, except for the wind, which pounded us head-on. I now understand how women on the prairie would go crazy from the wind. We got rid of our wet clothes, bundled up, then sat in the sun to enjoy a late lunch. Once again, we were totally exhausted. According to Dick’s GPS, we had done 8 miles in two hours with a top speed of over six miles an hour. Thank-you, Wind!

tarp silouhetteBehind the tarps on Oak Island
Jini and I pitched our tent in a quiet clearing back near the loo (wind blew away any odors), and by the second night, Annie and Mike joined us back there. We set up a rain tarp and a wind tarp, and there was a small area behind them where the wind was just tolerable. It was better to be back in the woods. We all headed up to the Overlook during the afternoon, marveling at the unique forest of hemlocks, maples, and birch.


“THIS is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms”

-from Evangeline, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Mushrooms abounded as well–it was gorgeous. Later we did our share of reading and napping in hammocks and tents. Even back in the woods, though, the chilling wind shortened our hammock sojourns.

coral mushroomA coral mushroom, growing on a downed tree

fungiFlowery-looking fungus on a downed tree

We knew we’d be windbound another night, so we took our time with cocktail hour and meals—always with the added treat of the Dick and Mike show. What a pair!
We’d hoped the wind would die down during the night on Wednesday, but the gales were still blasting us. The waves were manageable, though, and we were tired of hanging out at Oak. We packed up and headed off for Raspberry Island, hoping to be rewarded with a wind-free beach. It was a rough paddle into the wind, but we finally made it. And it was perfect. Annie and I washed our hair, letting it dry in the windless sunshine. HOORAY!!! We relaxed over lunch, napped, and read on the beach, then hiked through the woods to the lighthouse on the north end of the island. Dick and Mike enjoyed a rollicking game of croquet while Jini and I listened to the tales of our young ranger guide. He finally explained, too, that the lush Canadian yew on the island was due to the dearth of deer on Raspberry. It had been mere ground cover on Sand Island, where there’s a big deer herd. Apparently it’s pretty delicious. I’ll pass.

croquetCroquet on the Raspberry Island Lighthouse lawn

Raspberry lighthouse kitchenRaspberry Lighthouse Kitchen, circa 1920
We tore ourselves away from the island around 2:00, and it took us a few more hours to paddle the five additional miles to our landing. The wind gradually abated, and we were able to chat and explore the shoreline as we approached our final destination on Little Sand Bay. Whew!

paddling inLate afternoon, paddling back to Little Sand Bay
As we drove home, the sun set over a glass-smooth Lake Superior. Now how did THAT happen? We later learned that a kayaker had drowned near Sand Island the next day. I’m glad we’re cautious. Old Fogies are.

groupHappy Old Fogies: Jini, Dick, Me, Annie, & Mike.