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Soo to Hessel: The Curse of the Last Day

Kayak on limestone beach near Marble Head

As cheesy as it sounds, you don’t have to go far from home to have an adventure. Despite the allure and romance of exploring the long expanses of wilderness in, let’s say, the South Island of New Zealand, Iceland, Patagonia, Kamchatka, or the Himalayas, there are many things worth seeing close to home. I have all of the above listed places (and many more) on my bucket list but at the moment I am unable to wander the world aimlessly by the constraining fact that I am a starving college student and kayak bum. But still the lure of adventure tempted me into a trip. I didn’t have to travel around the world; the starting point was only about 2.5 miles from my house. I didn’t end up very far away, only about 35 miles or so away as the crow flies. But I still had an adventure and experienced an area most people don’t see from a perspective most people I talked to along the way thought was crazy.

As my school year was drawing to a close I solidified a route. It would be a nearly 160 miles route down the St. Mary’s river followed by a series of island hops along the wilderness shores of Drummond and Cockburn (pronounced Co-burn) Island with a final cruise along the stunning rocky Huron shore of the eastern U.P. The original route included a number of border crossings that would have made the trip a bit more interesting but wouldn’t be a major inconvenience. Or so I thought. As it turns out you need a special permit to cross the border via water in a private vessel. I glossed right over that in my research and had to make a drastic route adjustment mere minute before departure. Instead of paddling down the St. Mary’s River in Canada I would follow the flow down the shipping lanes on the Michigan side of the river and forego Cockburn Island altogether.

Day 1:

Neebish cut boat rampIt was a cool and foggy morning as I loaded my boat at Rotary Park in Sault Ste. Marie. I’d launched so many times there for short paddles on the river and for rolling sessions that it didn’t really feel like I was headed out on an extended trip. That changed though as I kissed my girlfriend goodbye and headed south. The stretch of water between Rotary Park and Lime Island, about 33 miles of water, was foreign to me. That coupled with the fact that my charts didn’t cover this stretch of water, since I wasn’t planning on paddling it, made the day a bit of an anxious one. Without charts I was just going on dead reckoning and the vague mental maps I’ve accrued over the years. But I pressed on with the slight current behind me and the sun in front of me. The air temperature actually got so warm that shortly before the Neebish Cut I had change out of my drysuit and into my swim trunks. Even a wetsuit, if I had had mine, would have been too much.

The Neebish cut is a man made channel dug over natural rapids to facilitate freighter traffic. Whereas upstream freighters navigate around the east side of Neebish Island the ships bound for downstream can blast down the limestone walled channel. As I approached the cut the only indication of the passage was the channel markers and the current. The limestone blocks lining the cut cruised past as I rode the fast current away toward the south. I left the cut behind and after a lunch break I entered Munuscong Bay. I had been paddling some 4 or 5 hours by this point and I still had no idea where I was going to camp or where exactly I was. But I got it in my mind that if I could just make it across Munuscong Bay I could make it to camp on Lime Island. I didn’t know that Lime Island was still another 5 hours paddle away. I headed out into the silty water of Munuscong and started island hopping. The current I had in the morning was now gone. A headwind took its place and made the trip south much less enjoyable. The sun was sinking lower and lower as I left Munuscong Bay and entered Raber Bay. Lime Island was only a few miles of open water away and I slogged my way into the shelter of the old freighter dock on Lime just before sunset. I was now in charted and familiar waters.

On this trip I brought something that I thought might revolutionize my camping experience. It was a simply bivy sack. Bought online from an accidental acquaintance on Facebook it’s about the size of a small bag of flour. It’s basically just a big waterproof bag your sleeping bag goes in. I still had my ultralight backpacking tent in case of really bad weather, but I wanted to sleep out under the stars. That first night on Lime was the first time I used it. I fell asleep fast and slept soundly except for one time when I rolled over in the night and I opened my eyes. The stars were absolutely brilliant. I made out Orion, and the Pliedes but before I knew it the weight of my eyelids became too much and I was out like a light.

Day 2:

fossils on the north shore of DIIt was already comfortably warm the next morning when I packed up my boat and continued to head south. Just as I was preparing to leave Lime Island a massive freighter steamed past heading north. Freighters had been a common sight all the previous day and for this morning they would be a common sight once again. I paddled south and snuck past the most southerly point of the Canadian St. Joseph Island and began island hopping across the northern stretches of Patogannissing Bay. I’ve guided many trips in Patogannissing Bay but I’d still never paddled the most northerly islands.

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The water was glass calm and crystal clear now instead of the murky waters I was in for long periods the day before. The northern islands in the bay feel very remote. And they are. I didn’t see anybody the entire day except for a few people on the deck of the freighter that morning. As I looked south and saw the town of Detour Village I felt alone but free like only the distant places make you feel. I kept going east along the northern reaches of the bay and paddled past Burnt Island then Wilson Island and its noisy heron rookery. My last crossing of the day was between Cherry Island and the north end of Drummond. I landed on a lonely point I had camped on before and set up camp behind a big cedar tree near the shore for shelter from the cool breeze blowing off the water. And once again I bivied out and had another spectacular night of stars and clear sky.

The northern shore of Drummond Island is one of my favorite areas to explore. The shoreline varies from cobble stone beaches to limestone ledges with sharp slabs of limestone lining the shore. The point I camped on was covered with fossils. Nearly every rock showed the distinct pockmarks of ancient corals that used to live in a shallow primordial sea that once existed here. Some large rocks show the honeycomb looking patterns while in others you can find cone corals that look like curved T-Rex teeth. I wandered the beach looking for increasingly interesting fossils for a while that night as the sun set and bathed the beach in a magical glow.

Day 3:

kayak campingI knew the weather was starting to shift the next morning right as I woke up. It was a lovely morning but everything was coated in a thick layer of dew as where my first morning out was relatively dry. As I headed east along Drummond the wind started to pick up and, as usual for my expeditions, I was paddling straight into it. Along the way that morning I saw lots of interesting things. There were a few large chunks of ice still on shore hidden against the sun by the thick cedar trees that line the shore. I also had an encounter with a lone beaver swimming in the shallow water near shore. I thought it was a muskrat at first but when it slapped its tail I knew it was a beaver. It paralleled me underwater for about 2 minutes, even swimming under my kayak a few times in the process. I’d never seen anything like it before and I was so enraptured by it that the thought of getting a picture of it completely escaped my mind.

The ledged shoreline of the north end of the island faded away as I headed down the eastern shoreline. They were replaced by large boulder beaches left behind by the last glacier to cruise through the area. At the furthest east point of Drummond Island is a perfect little natural harbor called Pilot’s Cove. It’s called Pilot’s Cove because you have to be an excellent pilot to get a boat into the small area of protected water. I’d stopped there dozens and dozens of times while leading hiking trips on the island and I had the thought of camping there but I had made such good time along the north shore that it was about 2 in the afternoon when I got there. So instead of stopping I kept working south.

As my compass swept pass 180 I went past the cliffs along Marble head and the deserted shorelines. I was now looking at Cockburn Island to the east a few miles away. If the border issue hadn’t been an issue I would have camped earlier and made the crossing to the other island in the morning. It sat looking like a mirror to Drummond. Empty shoreline with no development whatsoever. I stopped a while later a few miles north of the south-east corner of the island and watched as the clouds got darker and darker. The weather was changing. And it was for the worse. I figured it wouldn’t be a good night to bivy out and set up my tent instead.

Day 4:

kayak bivyThe next morning I was glad I did. The rain came sometime early in the morning and let up just as I was getting ready to leave my tent. To stay a bit dryer I put my drysuit on in my tent. Putting on a drysuit in a tent roughly the same size as a coffin had to be one of the most technical tasks in the paddling experience.

A while later when I was crossing Bass Cove a man who looked like a quintessential UP fisherman on his day off came up in his boat. His clothes were ragged, his boat was heavily customized, his hair was wind blown and graying but he was smiling and friendly. He was the first person I had seen in a few days so I was more than happy to chat for a while. We talked about where I was coming from and the weather and small talk for almost 30 minutes before we parted ways and he sped off to the west and I followed slowly behind.

For the first time on any big trip I’ve done I had a tail wind all day. It was so nice to finally have the advantage of being pushed along. With the wind I covered the entire south shore of the island and was at the Detour Passage by afternoon. I sat on the south-west corner of the island watching the freighters and weighing my options. I could push on for a few more hours and make it to the state forest campground on St. Vitals Point on the mainland UP and have a relatively short day the next day as I cruised into the Les Cheneaux Islands, my ultimate destination. With the favorable winds I decided to go for it. I waited for the freighters to pass and crossed the passage with the swell growing around me. I was along the mainland and paddling hard for the point in no time at all. By the time I was approaching the point about 5 in the evening the swell had grown to about 2 feet and made the landing pretty tricky. The shoreline along the point is mainly sand but with tons of sharp limestone boulders in the water. So as I approached the shore I essentially had to surf my way through a rock garden. I’ve been saying for the last few years “It isn’t surfing on Lake Huron unless you’re dodging rocks” and I had to eat my own words. I dodged and tried to carve my heavy boat around rocks and edged hard to maneuver and at length came to shore with minimum scraping against rocks.

Day 5:

backcounty adventure jesusMy last solo May trip ended prematurely in big water and wind on Lake Superior where I lost a water bottle in the surf. I ended the trip early due to the weather then. Since then I’ve always felt a bit of a curse set upon me. The last days of trips are always really rough. Later that same summer as the Lake Superior expedition when I was guiding a trip on Isle Royale we had big winds and a heck of a time getting back to the lodge. It seemed like a curse to me. I was hoping the last day of this trip might break the curse but I was mistaken.

I spent the night in the tent again fearing bad weather and when I woke I had a bad feeling. The clouds looked weird to me and the wind was just as strong at 6 in the morning as it was the day before. If I was going to make it to Hessel I needed to get moving. I hit the water as soon as I could, foregoing breakfast and only having a few snacks. I still had the tailwind and made the most of it. An hour into the trip I heard my first thunder. It was far off to the north-west so I kept pushing on. As I went west the weather began to engulf me. First it was rain then eventually the thunder-cell moved right over me and I had to wait out the weather on shore for 20 minutes. As soon as I thought it was safe I kept going.

I was out in the middle of Beaver Tail Bay when it all hit the fan. The wind, which had been steady for the morning, suddenly roared out of the south-east. The waves grew rapidly as the rain stung the back of my head and spray was being ripped from the surface. I fought my way toward Beavertail Point which I was hoping would offer some shelter from the onslaught of the wind and the quickly growing swell. It seemed like a good idea at the time but in hindsight I should have gone straight into Beavertail Bay and found shelter in a marsh and shallow water. But toward the point I fought on. I was aiming to go wide of the point to avoid the shallow rocky reef that extends off of all the points along the shore but the winds became too much. I got blown straight into a rock garden.

The waves had grown to about 3 or 4 feet on open water by the time I approached the point and they kicked up to be double that around the shallow rocks. I tried to fight my way away from the shallows but it didn’t take me too long to realize that it wasn’t realistic. I would only be delaying the inevitable. I maneuvered through the tall steep waves and half submerged boulders and saw an opening between a set of rocks. It was less than a boat-length wide and was covered by water most of the time but beyond it was the end of the rock garden and open water all the way into the protection of Prentiss Bay. I got my boat pointed down wind between the rocks and made a break for it. I didn’t even come close to making a clean escape from the tumultuous water. I felt my stern rise up behind me as a swell kicked up in the shallows. I did a quick rudder to the left so I would point out to open water if I got broached and surfed along the wave and not into the shore. I’m glad I did that. The wave picked me up and broached me almost immediately. I braced into the wave and looked down water. The limestone boulder that stood as the right side of the gap was directly in the path of the stern of my boat. I need to preface this by saying that I still had my skeg down to help keep my boat pointed down wind. As I watched the boulder get closer all I could think of was my skeg getting sheared off the bottom of my boat and then ending up upside down in the shallow rock garden without a helmet as the wave crashed on the rocks. I didn’t think it would have been much fun to scrape some scull on the sharp limestone. Before my fear manifested itself the wave didn’t break, it just rolled like a steam-roller right over the boulder and carried me, skeg still intact, out of the danger zone. But before the wave let me go it broke over me and washed my water bottle off my boat. So, yes, I lost another water bottle on a May expedition in surf. Luckily my camera and sunglasses were lashed to the deck and didn’t get washed away. I actually watched my bottle float away and I contemplated going to get it but the wind was so strong and unyielding that I just let it float away.

After the chaos around the point the downwind run into Prentiss Bay seemed pretty tame. The waves still obscured the horizon with each crest but out in the open they were even and predictable. I half surfed and half sailed my way behind Rover Island in Prentiss Bay and finally had time to take stock. The lake had tried to eat me but I made it out. I had survived fully intact, minus the water bottle, and besides my hands trembling from the adrenaline I felt pretty good. I even started laughing. A soft cackle that came and went for a few minutes. It’s the same type of laugh that comes from ripping big powder turns down a couloir while skiing and looking at your line from the bottom of the mountain, or running a big scary drop in a whitewater kayak. I felt invincible for a few minutes as I rested in the lee of the island.

As I rested I thought about making the crossing in the still massive seas across into the sheltered Les Cheneaux Island chain. But when I got to a point where I could see the water I would have to cross to get into the islands I quickly reconsidered. It looked like a conveyor belt of 5-foot tall whitecaps all going straight into the islands. I was only a few hours of paddling away from my destination but in that water I knew I wouldn’t make it that day. So I headed deeper into Prentiss Bay and came ashore at Cedar Campus. Woods and Water Ecotours has hosted the Hiawatha Paddling Festival there for several years and I knew most of the people that worked there. They wouldn’t mind a soggy kayaker coming in for safe harbor. I was mere miles from my final destination and that was fine with me. Surviving a windstorm and big water on Lake Huron seemed like the perfect way to end my trip. I didn’t need to go to the New Zealand to have the humility scared back into me. All I needed was a Great Lake. The curse of the last day struck me again. I guess I just have to keep trying until I can break it someday.

Tim Gallaway on a Lake Superior beachThis is a guest post from ACA L4, Coastal Kayaking Instructor and Greenland kayaking expert Tim Gallaway. Read his other contributions: Head North to Old Woman: A Lake Superior Kayaking Adventure, The Skeleton Coast: Paddling Lake Superior’s Desolate Southeast Shore and Ninja Paddling – The Path of the Ninja Paddler. Check out his website Kayaking to the Sea.



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