Lake Superior’s Shipwreck Coast, in the southeast corner of the lake, runs approximately 50 miles from the sand spit of Whitefish Point to the first safe harbor at Grand Marais, Michigan. As part of my Port Huron to Home trip in the spring and summer of 2011, I kayaked past this mainly undeveloped area. At the time, I wanted to paddle past it in two days to avoid getting stuck there during bad weather. In the end it took me five days, because of wind and waves. Out of the entire 800-mile trip, the Shipwreck Coast, also known as Superior’s Skeleton Coast, was the most hauntingly beautiful and monotonous section of the trip.
I wrote this description of kayaking Lake Superior’s Shipwreck Coast for a magazine article:
Lake Superior’s Shipwreck Coast runs approximately 50 miles from Whitefish Point to Grand Marais, Michigan. Its unending flat sand beaches backed with a boreal forest so dense that you can’t see past the first row of trees extend for as far as the eye can see. Few roads reach the shore, and it has little development. It feels like the end of the world, and a newspaper article that I stumbled across at Crisp Point Lighthouse described it as the “Loneliest Stretch of Shoreline in America.” While the beaches provide great landing sites for kayaks in calm water, the exposed beaches, hidden sandbars and shallow shoreline turn into a sea of forth when the wind blows.
The prevailing northwest wind wails across Superior’s surface and builds waves that converge at Whitefish Point. Add in fog, crystal clear waters that rarely rise above 50 degrees Fahrenheit and the fact that all ship traffic must squeeze past Whitefish Point to pass into the lower Great Lakes and you have the ingredients for ship collisions, wrecks and deadly disasters. Over 300 of Lake Superior’s 550 plus shipwrecks occurred along the Shipwreck Coast. In 1975, the 729-foot Edmund Fitzgerald, Lake Superior’s most famous wreck, floundered here in 30-foot waves just before it reached the safety of Whitefish Bay.[i] The coast is so deadly that in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the U.S. erected and manned a series of life-saving stations along the coast. Daily, men walked the beaches from station to station looking for wrecks and survivors. I hoped to pass through the Shipwreck Coast in two days in calm weather.
When researching this area, I found a great description from Lieutenant James Allen. He kept a journal during the Schoolcraft Expedition of 1832 to find the source of the Mississippi River. To reach the Mississippi, the expedition paddled, rowed and sailed across Lake Superior in several Mackinaw boats and birch-bark canoes. At the time, few, perhaps 1,000 American Indians, lived on Lake Superior’s shoreline.
The whole of the coast passed to-day, presented a very plain bank of fine sand from twenty to a hundred feet high, and a continued forest of pine, generally small, but sometimes large and beautiful. A picturesque grove of white pine (Pinus strobus) of more than a mile extent along the lake, occurs about ten miles from our encampment. The growth is all large, and unmixed with any other trees, the pines straight, tall, without limb, and thickly set together, on level ground, as far back as wee could see.
We passed Twin [Two Hearted] river, twenty-four miles from Whitefish point. It is a small stream, and its mouth is so much filled with sand that it can only be entered by very light craft, and in smooth water. We have traveled to day forty-five miles. [ii]
I don’t remember passing the stand of pines described by Allen, but I expect that they had been logged by barons of the late-1800s. Closer to Whitefish Point, I did camp within a small grove of white pines similar to Allen’s description. I stayed there two nights to wait out a cold, rainy and windy day. The limbless pines provided no protection from the wind and my tent shook constantly. When I looked out the door a fine, airborne sand twisted and swirled around the tree trunks. The sand was slowly burying the trees and anything else around it. Nearby where I camped I found an outhouse half-buried in the sand.
After I finished kayaking the Shipwreck Coast, I met a National Park Service Ranger, who told me the story of his grandfather who worked for the U.S. Lifesaving Service or maybe the U.S. Coast Guard. Every day, he walked a desolate section of the coast. He would leave from one station and another man would leave from another. They’d meet at a shack located between the two stations. There they’d write their name in a log book to prove that they had walked the complete distance, and then they’d turn around and go back to their respective lifesaving station.
The park ranger, a weather elder with a big grey beard, remembered visiting the shack with his late wife when they were young. He reminisced about a photo of her crawling in through the window. The picture showed sand building up around the old hut. He tried to find it after his wife passed away, but found that it wasn’t there anymore. The sands of the Shipwreck Coast had devoured it.
My friend, Tim Gallaway kayaked the Shipwreck Coast a couple of years ago. Here’s what he wrote:
Unluckily, a strong east wind cooled the air as the day progressed, and I was going straight into it. The wind grew stronger all day. If I stopped for even a few moments I was blown backwards. It was miserable paddling. The wind fought me all day and the shoreline was an uninterrupted ribbon of sand. If the weather didn’t wear me down then the boredom and toil of paddling along the empty shore would.
I passed the mouth of the two-hearted river and camped east of the Crisp Point Light on a beach where cobblestones floated on the windblown sand like islands in a tropical sea. Black sand ripples flowed between the stones and sparkled in the brilliant sunset light. Driftwood abounded, and the only footprints I could find were my own.
The day was draining. There isn’t much more disheartening for a paddler than a solid, unyielding head wind. A climber or skier knows that the up-hill exertion will end and they will have gravity on their side for the way down. A kayaker isn’t so lucky. I was drained, physically and mentally, but I was making good progress. I would be off of The Skeleton Coast with one more good day’s paddle. [iii]
An experience that sounds surprisingly similar to mine, windy and stormy. The one feature that proved to prevent the mind numbing feel of the coast was the driftwood, dry and bleached grey from the sun, stacked up all along the shore, but most was pushed up against the dense forest where larger waves from the Gales of November deposited it in years past.
Between the sand and the evidence of waves, the disappearing buildings and the lack of humanity, the Shipwreck Coast feels like no other section of the Great Lakes. While roads reach it now in a few places, I’m sure that most kayakers experience a shore that is little changed since Allen’s trip in 1832. That could change. When I paddled it, I noticed newer summer and weekend cabins tucked back in the woods. I imagine that much like the rest of Michigan’s coast, that the Shipwreck Coast will be developed with condos, hotels, cabins and summer homes. If you want to experience it as Allen did, you should plan to take a kayaking trip there soon.
[i] Stonehouse, Frederick, Lake Superior’s Shipwreck Coast, Marquette: Avery Color Studios, 1994
[ii] Allen, James, Journal and Letters of Lieutenant James Allen, Expedition of 1832. U.S. House Executive Documents, No. 323, 23d Cong., 1 Sess.
[iii] Gallaway, Tim, PaddlingLight: THE SKELETON COAST: Paddling Lake Superior’s Desolate Southeast Shore, September 5, 2011