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Circling Shakespeare on Lake Nipigon

The sunrise lights up our Lake Nipigon campsite near the Virgin Islands.

Within a minute, the mirror-like surface of Lake Nipigon kicked up as northerly 30-knot winds descended on our island campsite. The calm, silent, evening turned into a rumble. It felt like the air above the entire arctic plains spilled down upon the Boreal forests. We shouted over the breaking waves and the rush of the wind through the trees.

“Now!” I heaved the bear bags into the air as Tim ran with the rope. When the slack ran out on the weighty bags the rope stretched and stopped. Then the branch broke sending our supplies to the ground. Trying to race the wind, I threw the rope over the limb of another tree. It held and our four bags slowly twirled high over our heads.

Back at our campsite, waves tumbled up the slope of our 5-foot-wide black-sand beach. The wind was deafening, and we had to yell to each other to be heard. The water from the newly formed waves lapped at the stern of our kayaks, so we pulled the boats from the beach into the dense cedar and birch woods and even then felt it necessary to tie the boats to trees. The mainland was over six miles away, and this late in the fall, we doubted anyone would be on the lake to help us if the wind took our boats.

My tent was the next priority. The marine forecast predicted calm weather, so after we’d landed I’d set my tent up on the beach. Now it was fully exposed to the wind and the stakes were pulling from the sand. The guy lines pulled free, and the tent pole was bending. The rain fly flapped violently. Tim’s tent occupied a small clearing in the woods. We maneuvered mine into the woods, wedged up against Tim’s tent. I drove stakes deep into the sand and tied off guy lines to a few trees.

Tim decided to get out of the wind and retreated to his tent. I stood on the beach, leaning into the wind, and I watched the full moon cast quivering shadows on the wind-whipped trees.

I walked back to Tim’s tent. He seemed slightly unnerved from this sudden change in weather.

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“Imagine what it would have been like if we had been on the water,” he said.

Timothy Russell paddles his kayak away from the harbor.
Timothy Russell paddles his kayak away from the harbor.

—–

We were out on a week-long trip into the wilderness of one of the last big untouched lakes in the Great Lakes water system, Lake Nipigon. The lake, located north of Lake Superior in western Ontario, spans approximately 65 miles long and 45 miles wide. Its nearly 1,900 square miles of cold clear water is well-known for producing record-breaking Lake Trout. Over 500 islands, ranging from several square miles large to small pine covered bumps, dot its surface. Most kayakers in the Midwest dream of paddling in Lake Superior’s Apostle Islands, but for me, the islands of Lake Nipigon offer a true wilderness experience with more islands than I could explore in my lifetime.

Tim had never taken a sea kayaking trip into true wilderness, let alone Lake Nipigon, a place that sees few kayakers. We set a goal, the motivating factor for me, to circumnavigate Shakespeare Island, an island ragged with coves and headlands and nearly split in two by a long bay over four miles long and scarcely a half mile wide. Several mile-long lakes dot the interior of Shakespeare, and if we had time, we planned to visit Rea Lake. We could kayak up an almost mile long river from Lake Nipigon into Rea Lake. From there, another river connected to Vanooyen Lake, which had its own island – an island on a lake on an island on a lake.

Tim and I had known each other for a couple of years. He had visited a resort where I guided sea kayaking. He decided to take a half-day trip and after completing the trip, he wanted to learn more, so he signed up for a couple of full-day lessons. After the lessons, he was hooked, bought a kayak and started kayaking at destinations around the world.

We had taken a kayaking trip together in Norway, but it was a disappointment in many ways so I wanted to make the Lake Nipigon trip great.  Unfortunately it started with several logistical problems. A friend, who had agreed go with us bailed on us at the last minute, a hurricane forced Tim to flee Houston just before our trip and a mover backed out on bringing Tim’s kayak up to my place on Lake Superior’s north shore. We got Tim a kayak that he’d never paddled before. The hatches leaked and when loaded, no matter the trim, it proved uncontrollable, and it lacked a rudder. I felt grumpy and dreaded a repeat of Norway, and so far, our first three days had been thrown completely off plan by high winds.

On our first day, I had instructed Tim to load his kayak slightly stern heavy to help with tracking in the crosswinds. As we paddled, it became apparent that my choice was the wrong one—once out of the bay and on the lake the waves pushed Tim around, and he couldn’t counteract the turning force. We turned back into the bay and landed at a sand bar.

While Tim repacked his kayak, I walked along the 10-foot-wide, sand beach. Near its end, a dirt shelf separated it from a swampy area. I stepped into the swamp and jumped from one clump of alders to another trying to avoid the water in between. Looking at the dried-up plants on a kayak-sized clump of dirt, I found a batch of late-season blueberries. I filled my hands and brought them back to the beach to show Tim. Soon after, we filled our hats with berries and stuffed the berries into our mouths. They tasted sweet. My hands eventually turned a spotty blue from picking the ripe berries.

We pushed off again to paddle south to Grant Point Harbor and our night’s campsite. Fifteen to twenty-foot cliffs and rocky rubble alternately made up the shoreline. A Boreal forest of birch, white cedar, spruce and pine topped the cliffs. Between cliffs, the forest came down to the shore – the trees seemed to grow straight out of the water. The shoulder-high waves hit the rocks, splashed into the air and turned some of the tree trunks dark with water. Near the cliffs, the waves rebounded and created a jumble of pyramidal waves. Tim’s reloading worked, and he had no problem controlling his kayak.

As we neared Grant Point, a rocky outcropping just before where the map showed the campsite, Tim started stroking harder, and he pulled away from me. It was starting to get dark. The sun was low in the sky and obscured by dense stratocumulus clouds, which made it feel later than it was. Our map showed a campsite in the bay about a tenth of a mile from Grant Point, but we couldn’t find it, so after paddling another 10 minutes, we landed on a 16-foot wide beach at the bay’s back.

A forest fire had burnt through this area. Green white cedar remained along the shore, but the forest behind consisted of white tree trunks with bases blackened and cracked from the fire. It looked like someone had burnt a box of matchsticks and stuck the each stick in the ground top down. A tangled underbrush of alders, birch saplings and a few pines saplings filled the space between the dead trunks.

“I think we should set up on the beach,” I said.

Tim was already ahead of me. He had picked a flat area of sand behind a half-buried log. The log was only a few feet away from where the one-foot swell was washing up the beach. I followed his example and set up my tent behind another log about 50 yards from his. Shortly after setting up our tents, the sun set and changed the sky between the lake and the clouds orange. On the horizon, I watched the Macoun Islands turn into silhouettes. The tops of tall pines stuck out above the dark mass of trees. A mirage made the most distant islands appear as half water and half land.

After dinner, I got into my tent and zipped up my sleeping bag. I listen to the swell roll in; its highest point was four feet away, I hoped the wind wouldn’t blow higher waves or we’d end up wet.

—-

In the morning, I awoke to the clap of waves hitting the log a foot away from my tent. A stiff wind was throwing spray onto my rainfly, which shook with the gusts. During breakfast, we sat in the burnt forest with our backs to the wind. I didn’t talk much, but just thought about the plan for today. We wanted to cross 6 miles to Cedar Island, one of the Macoun Islands, head northwest through the chain to Shakespeare and then paddle to a campsite in the Dockrey Islands near the southwestern corner of Shakespeare.

We paddled out into a sea of whitecaps. As waves passed under, my kayak’s bow broke free and then slammed down into the trough behind. Spray splashed my eyes. When the set waves hit, my bow speared deep into the waves and the foam hit me in the chest. The waves, only three feet high, were shaped like squares. Steep sides, flat top, flat trough.

After 15 minutes, I looked behind us. We were only 100 yards away from Eight Mile Island, an island protecting the bay we camped in.

I shouted, “I think we should turn around.”

Tim cupped his ear and yelled something. I only heard the roaring wind. I pointed back at the island.

Rafted up in the calm water behind the island, Tim said, “I think we should try it again.”

“With that wind, it’ll take all day,” I said. I pointed at the map and drew a new route from our position south along the eastern shoreline to the southern reach of the lake. From there I traced to the west. “We can paddle to entrance to Pijitawabik Bay, cross through The Devil’s Elbow and find a campsite near Pipestone Point.”

We abandon the crossing and started down the shore. The broadside waves washed over my deck, and the wind pushed us towards the shore, so we weaved a zig-zag path south; paddling out as we neared shore and being blown back towards shore. Mid-morning, we landed on a 20-foot wide beach in Lion Bay near a creek that flowed into the southeast corner. A beaver had dammed the creek mouth and created a pond. Barkless, sun bleached and burnt logs floated in the pond. The waves surged up most of the beach.

As the day wore on, the wind calmed and the waves changed from white caps to one-foot swell, so instead of heading south, we crossed into the Virgin Islands, a group of 20 islands in the southeastern corner of the lake. From there, Pipestone Point, a 100-foot cliff with a rubble pile of soft red and white stone at the bottom, rose above the surrounding shoreline. As Tim paddled past, his kayak was dwarfed by the cliff.

After eight hours of paddling,, we made camped on a Canadian Shield granite ledge rock. The granite rose three feet above the water and stretched over 100 yards. While the rock sloped gently into the water, near the forest were several flat areas for tents. Between the two tent sites, a flat area with a pile of rocks would serve as a kitchen. Unlike our last campsite, the forest was green with life. White cedar lined the forest’s edge and 100-foot tall white pines rose above the canopy. The wet, sweet scent of a Boreal forest in fall permeated the air. The sky had cleared to a pale afternoon blue and the only ripples marred the lake’s surface. We enjoyed a clear night to watch the full moon rise over the bay we were in. We topped the night off with hot chocolate and Bailey’s. I wondered what would have happened if we had stayed in last night’s camp until the wind calmed down. I wondered if we would have crossed and stayed on plan.

In the morning, we paddled west along the mainland. The shoreline elevation was low and the white cedar tree dominated the water’s edge. After about two miles, we turned to the north and surfed 1- to 2-foot wind waves for a little over 4 miles to Lone Island, an island in the middle of nowhere. We stopped on the island to eat lunch. Just 30 yards up the rocky beach we watched a bald eagle sitting on a boulder surrounded by water a few feet from shore peck at a fish, pull a string of meat from the fish’s body and then raise its head, opens its yellow hooked beak and swallow the meal. When I got up to grab a water bottle from my kayak, the eagle spread its wings – a wing span as broad as my arms when held out to the side — and flew away. We dined on a lunch of crackers and cheese. Shakespeare Island loomed in the distance. On the 5-mile long south shore, which we could see, white pines rose above white cedar and birch.

After lunch, we surfed wind waves to the Macoun Islands. By dinner, the southerly winds were calm and the lake smooth as glass. That’s when the 30-knot winds from the north hit.

—-

The morning after the wind storm, I woke to a gray sky. The wind beat on the side of my tent. It took a half-hour to motivate and put on my wet paddling clothing. We sat on the beach and ate a hardy breakfast of oatmeal, brown sugar and loads of dried fruit. We’d planned to get around Shakespeare in two days, but after our detour to avoid the rough crossing, we were a day and a half behind. Now we faced a hard choice: if we paddled to the northwest corner of Shakespeare, any bad weather would make getting back to shore with enough time to catch Tim’s flight almost impossible. Either we could explore the Macoun, Carson and Asseff islands on eastern side or do the 26-mile circumnavigation in one day. Because I’m goal oriented, I wanted to complete the circumnavigation instead of exploring the islands. Tim reluctantly agreed. It would be his longest paddling day ever. That concerned me, but, as I saw over the past few days, he had come a long way in paddling skills since those first lessons.

We launched off through a set of islands and fog on a compass bearing to Shakespeare just visible as a dark shadow through the haze. I let Tim go out in front. We paddled past Amikwian Island, a domed-shaped island covered with white cedars and pines, and then past a few unnamed islands on our map. The calm water between the islands felt like a treat after the last three rough days. My kayak seemed to glide across the water’s surface and even lazy strokes pushed my kayak forward at almost 4 knots. My arms and shoulders relaxed as the kayak cut through the water with nary a sound.

When we reached Shakespeare, I peered into the forest. Like on the other islands the cedar, birch and pine came down to the shore. Only a few pine saplings filled the underbrush, and the floor was covered in a velvety, green moss. Foot-long masses of the gray-green Old Man’s Beard lichen hung down from the lower dead branch of all the trees. Tim paddled point-to-point, and I hugged the shoreline peering into the dense forest when it opened up trying to spot a bear or woodland caribou, which the area is well known for. I didn’t see any mammals, but bald eagles perched in the high branches of old-growth pine. Every now and then, I’d see Tim stare off towards the shore at something in the woods. He looked like he was enjoying himself.

When we got to Mink Harbor, a protected bay on the southern part of the island, I watched as the wind pushed Tim off-course out into open water towards Eagle Nest Island where on the tops of several 100-foot tall white pines, five bald eagles turned their heads in unison to watch us as we passed by.

We paddled around the southwest corner of Shakespeare to the western shore and a brisk headwind. The water was flat, because we were protected by the Dockrey islands, a set of 20 or so densely forested islands, so despite the wind, paddling was easy. Ahead of us, we could see the elevation rise as a number of hills built towards the north shore. Paupuskeese Mountain, an 1126-foot tall, oblong hill at the end of a peninsula, dominated the horizon.

At lunch, we found a hunting camp and explored it. A canvas tent’s wood frame and a number of plastic containers stashed under a surprisingly intact blue tarp hid back in the woods. After exploring the camp and wondering about who built it—poachers, researchers or hunters—we continued up the shore past 10 to 20-foot, dark gray cliffs, black sand beaches and even a crumbly sea stack. Then we stopped on Luck Island, which should have been our campsite last night. It was completely denuded of trees from a fire and had a long flat beach for camping. With the right weather, camping here would still give us just enough time to make Tim’s flight.

I asked Tim, “How are you doing?”

He said, “I feel like I can paddle the rest of the afternoon.”

We were less than 4 miles away from King’s Head, a 300-foot tall granite cliff rising directly out of the water, and then another 7 miles from our campsite. The map showed about a mile of cliffs to paddle past until we reached King’s Head. I clicked on the weather radio, and it crackled back that we would face southerly gales the next day, but a calm afternoon. We could camp here or continue on without worrying about getting wind bound on the north side of the island.  The sun was still high in the sky, and the wind felt gentle when it blew across my skin. We decided to go for it.

We paddled past the opening of McRitchie Shortcut, the bay that almost cuts the island into two; its banks where covered with granite shelves, boulders and a thick Boreal forest that came to water’s edge. It looked like river cut through the island. We rounded the point on the northeast corner of the shortcut and saw the cliffs of King’s Head. The vertical to overhanging, bleached-white palisades dropped 300-feet directly into Nipigon’s clear waters. Cracks ranging in size from fist wide to body wide ran from the water to the top. Along the cracks, green and orange lichen covered the wall. Ledges near the top supported small aspen and white cedar. Without the wind, the waves were 2 to 3-foot swells instead of whitecaps. Even away from the cliffs, the reflecting waves created a chaotic maze of peaks and valleys to our shoulders or slightly overhead. I had to brace against a wave face now and then to avoid being pushed over. My eyes followed the cracks up the gray-white walls, and I imagined climbing to the top and looking out across all of the northern section of Lake Nipigon, over the 100s of islands covered in cedar, birch and pine. I imagined being able to see the north shore almost 40 miles away, and the forest beyond that stretching as far north as I could see. We bobbed up and down in the waves in complete silence while looking at the cliffs.

By the time we rounded King’s Head, the sun was hugging the horizon. We wouldn’t finish the 7-mile paddle back to our campsite, so we paddled to where the map showed an established campsite. It wasn’t there so we split up. Tim went clockwise around the island and I went counterclockwise. Eventually, we found a five-foot wide sand beach just big enough to pull up our two kayaks and a grassy campsite.. We watched the sun set behind two old-growth white pines on Shakespeare Island as the sky turned orange-yellow.

After the sun disappeared, I found myself pulling on all my dry clothing and shivered as I cooked dinner despite huddling close to the fire.I pulleda bothy bag around my shoulders as a cloak, but my teeth still chattered. That night cold air seeped into my sleeping bag, and despite curling up in a tight ball, I still rolled from side to side all night trying to warm one side against the ground and then the other.

I awoke early to the sound of wind shaking my tent. Tim wanted to get the crossing from Cedar Island back to Grand Point Harbor out of the way today to be sure he wouldn’t miss his flight. The marine forecast was predicting two days of gales from the south, which would make our emergency escape route a brutal into-the-wind paddle if we couldn’t make the crossing. Judging from our aborted crossing, I doubted that we could escape with gales.

We worked our way south towards Cedar Island staying in the wind shadows on the northern sides of the islands as much as possible. Once into the open water between the Asseff Islands, which we had camped on, and the Macoun Islands, the wind blew spray off the top of the ripples. It took almost an hour to paddle the mile and a half between the island chains. By the time we reached the campsite we stayed in before heading around Shakespeare, my arms hurt from fighting the wind. Without saying anything, Tim landed on the black sand beach. We finished our official circumnavigation, but felt defeated by the wind. I decided to check out the south side of the island and the open water to see how bad it was. Once there, I got out into whitecaping 4-foot waves with periods of five or six seconds. The spray coming off the tops and the water washing over my deck soaked my clothes completely. I paddled past the end of the island and surfed a few waves up the channel on the east side of the island before heading back to camp. The prospects of making Tim’s flight dimmed.

We set up our tents almost wall to wall in the small opening in the cedars. I erected a tarp in the remaining space. Tim gathered firewood. I sat under the tarp and listened to the waves, which sounded like thunder against the backside of the island, and I watched the 100-foot tall white pines whip back and forth in the wind. There was a loud snap down island. It sounded like a tree breaking in two. Tim continued to bring piles of firewood.

Soon rain started to fall in sheets, the wind drove the sheets across the wind-whipped water in front of the campsite, then thunder and lightning erupted all around us. From the dry space under the tarp, we listened to thunder and watched the flashes of lightning. Tim dug a pit in the sand, piled a bunch of sand behind the pit to reflect heat into the tarp and used birch bark, the most flammable bark in a Boreal forest, to start a fire. We sat under the tarp and watched the day turn to night.

Warming his hands over a small fire. Macoun Island, Lake Nipigon, ON.

I got up in the morning and made fry bread with cinnamon, sugar and loads of butter while watching the trees continue to sway. The storm felt like it was blowing itself out. After breakfast, I walked 100 yards through pines, birch and cedar to the island’s east side. There I watched waves splash against granite ledges on the next island over. They looked smaller than yesterday. I turned south towards the island’s end. The ground changed from a dense forest to one log piled over another. The bark on most was falling off and moss grew on the tops of the logs lowest on the piles. I slid across the tops of some, carefully planted my feet on the ground on the other side. When a log pointed south towards the island’s end, I balanced along its top. After a third of a mile I reached the granite tip of the island, I had a view of the open water to the south. The whitecaps were few and the waves were about 2-feet tall. When I got back to camp, I sat down on the black sand and looked out at the islands.

By noon, the blue sky appeared above our campsite, the tops of trees stops moving, and it felt like a good time to head to shore. We paddled to the Cedar Island. Once there, I glanced back at Shakespeare. To the north King’s Head rose above its shore and all the islands we had paddled through. To the south, 100-foot white pines dwarfed the birch and cedar below.

“Look at that, Tim,” I said and motioned with my chin towards Shakespeare. “We just came around it.”

He shook his head yes, and we set a course to High Hill Harbor and paddled home.


Note: This is from a trip I took in 2008. This story was never published. A version appeared in the now-defunct Superior Outdoors Magazine.

 

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