Canoeing Lake Superior’s Wildest Coast [Video]

The folks from Explore the Backcountry embarked on a 10-day canoe trip along Lake Superior’s wildest, most remote coastline. Here’s their story…

Lake Superior
Looking out over the campsite at Floating Heart Bay; Michipicoten island rises out of Superior in the distant horizon

 

By Brad Jennings

Superior, the world's largest freshwater lake, is very much an inland sea. This powerful body of water is larger than the country of Austria and directly influences the climate of its surrounding landmass. Fog can envelop her shoreline for days on end and wicked storms can whip up waves over 10 meters high, taking with them many a ship.

A Bucket List Trip along Superior’s Wildest Coastline

In the summer of 2018, my partner and I spent an amazing 10 days paddling the most remote coast in the Great Lakes—a section of the Canadian shoreline of Superior.

Originally, I had planned for a daunting expedition—10 days of canoeing up Ontario’s Steel River system, followed by bushwhacking to the headwaters of the Little Pic, and traveling its seldom-paddled course to Lake Superior.

The departure was set, but unfortunately I was still on the path to recovery from a sprained ankle sustained on a previous trip. Slogging through unforgiving terrain was likely not the smartest nor safest idea.

Brad Jennings
Brad Jennings with a freshly-caught pike at the mouth of the Dog River

 

I scrambled to come up with a route that would fit our 10-day timeline while keeping portages at an absolute minimum—a daunting task! After a bit of internet searching and rifling through the map drawer, I found the perfect destination—the Lake Superior coast. Portage-free with innumerable route options!

We had paddled the coastline through Lake Superior Provincial Park several times before and have come to fall in love with the splendour of Gitche Gumee. Crystal clear waters, sweeping beaches, boreal rainforests and imposing coastal mountains (tall by Ontario standards) create an awe-inspiring landscape not seen anywhere else in the province.

The section through Superior Park, while remote and challenging, pales in comparison to the stretch of coast between the Pic and Michipicoten Rivers. Wild, unforgiving and rugged, it remains the longest undeveloped coastline in the Great Lakes.

The 185 km stretch through Pukaskwa National Park to Michipicoten Harbour had been a bucket list trip of mine for years, but had eluded me due to complications in timing, weather and logistics.

Lake Superior's clear water
The crystal-clear waters of Lake Superior just beckon to be paddled!

 

Our 10-day canoe journey along the northern coast of Lake Superior took us through:

  • A national park, Pukaskwa
  • A provincial park, Nimoosh
  • A conservation reserve, Lake Superior Highlands
  • Crown land

The route is commonly attempted by sea kayakers, but skilled canoeists often make the trip, albeit with a hearty dose of respect and skill.

The Gear We Used

We paddled a 16-foot Nova Craft Prospector, equipped with a North Water spray deck to cut through the wave action.

For paddles, we used the Aqua-Bound Edge. It’s marketed as a 1-piece whitewater paddle, but we enjoyed the large surface area of the abX carbon-reinforced blade for maneuvering through heavier surf, sometimes akin to plowing through standing waves and holes.

leah with gear
Outfitted for adventure—Leah stands by the decked 16-foot Prospector on a beach just north of Oiseau Bay

 

Don’t Miss These Spots When You Paddle this Route

There are plenty of sights to take in along the coast and numerous must-see stops along the way. Some of our personal favourites included:

  • The suspension bridge over Chigaamiwinigum Falls on the White River
  • Cascade Falls, a favourite haunt of the late Bill Mason
  • The lighthouse and chance to spot an elusive caribou on Otter Island
  • The ghost town of Pukaskwa Depot
  • The sprawling beach at The Wheat Bin
  • Spectacular Dennison Falls on the Dog River
  • Numerous Pukaskwa Pits (don’t enter or disturb)…and more!

What You Need to Know Before You Go

1. Plan for the wind! Expect to be windbound 1-out-of-5 days through the months of May to July, and 3-out-of-5 days in August and September. We were windbound for one day and had to work around a few half days of stronger winds, storms and waves.

canoeing in wind and waves
Contending with heavy surf on the ‘Inland Sea’—a spray deck comes in handy when attempting the route by canoe

 

2. Lake Superior is cold and unpredictable. Although water near the shore may be warmer, the lake’s average temperature is only 4°C / 39°F year-round. Hypothermia can start within 5-10 minutes if you’re not wearing a wetsuit or dry suit.

3. Fog is common and can last for days. Be prepared to navigate using a compass.

4. Paddling around most exposed points can be hazardous due to reflection waves which can easily swamp a boat. Leave early—at or before sunrise—to beat the stronger afternoon winds and waves.

5. Safe landings can be scarce at times, especially in heavy surf. Plan your days accordingly as weather tends to rapidly deteriorate. Identify coves and harbours as potential bail out spots and allow for some flexibility to your itinerary.

Here’s the video that distills Brad and Leah’s 10-day trip into an hour:

 

Brad Jennings has been paddling and exploring the backcountry for more than 25 years. Besides his day job, he’s a reporter for Get Out There Magazine, with assignments covering adventure races and other wilderness-based endurance sports. When he’s not racing, Brad is often paddling and adventuring for his personal website, Explore the Backcountry.

He started Explore the Backcountry, with his father over a decade ago as part of a TV pilot. The team has since expanded to include his partner, Leah Schmidt, who’s paddled with Brad for nearly 7 years. They document, map and clear routes, hoping others will follow and embark on an extraordinary adventure of their own!

(All photos courtesy of Explore the Backcountry)

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