A great kayak day trip should have interesting landscapes, open-water crossings, nice places for lunch and a chance of surprise. In my book, it should also be remote but easily accessible. On Minnesota’s northshore of Lake Superior, the trip from Grand Portage through the Susie Islands to the Pigeon River includes all those features and more making it the best full-day kayaking trip on Minnesota’s shoreline.
- Distance: 16 miles
- Trip Rating: Advanced. Water conditions, especially in late summer or fall, can change quickly creating large waves. Use an experienced kayaking guide if you have doubts.
- Maps: NOAA Chart #14967, Lake Superior Water Trail Map #4, USGS Pigeon Point and Grand Portage
- Hazards: Exposed, reflection and clapotis waves especially at Hat Point and Pigeon Point, fog, unreliable compass readings, two-mile open-water crossing, limited landings, cold water.
- More Info: The Nature Conservancy’s Susie Island / Francis Lee Jaques Memorial Preserve
- Note: To land on Susie Island, you need permission from The Nature Conservancy (call (218) 727-6119). To land on the other islands, you need permission from the Grand Portage Trust Lands Department .
I do this trip often and have written about it before as a trip report and about the Spirit Tree. One of the best times of year to do it is the fall, because the red and yellow trees brighten up the landscape. The air is crisp and clear, which usually means you can see Isle Royale in the distance 15 miles off-shore. On really clear days in the fall, the top of Isle Royale appears bright red from fall colors. The fall also offers unpredictable weather. NOAA’s near-shore wind and waves predictions easily double in the area during the fall. We’ve been there on a flat-calm day, ate lunch in a cove, and after lunch were surprised to find over-head waves consuming the lake.
Put-in and Take-out
The trip starts at the Grand Portage National Monument, a reconstructed fur trading fort and cultural heritage center highlighting Ojibwe culture and the fur trade. Drive east past the stockade and put-in at the picnic area. If you do this as a one-way trip, the take-out is on the Pigeon River boat ramp. Shuttle a car to the take-out before you leave and make sure to bring your keys with you on the kayaking trip. Don’t count on hitchhiking! Because the take-out is so close to the border check-point, it’s doubtful you’ll find a ride. If doing it as a one-way trip, try to leave time in the day to visit the new visitor center and waterfall at Grand Portage State Park, which is near the take-out. The visitor center showcases the culture of the Grand Portage Band of Chippewa. The waterfall plunges over a 120-foot tall cliff. It’s the tallest waterfall in Minnesota, although part of the waterfall is located in Ontario, Canada.
Once on the water, paddle past Grand Portage Island and Hat Point. Listen and look for a green, bell buoy marking a shoal off to your right. As you past Hat Point, check out the orange and green lichen covering the rocks. Lichen is a symbiosis between an alga or a cyanobacterium and a fungus and it covers the shoreline rocks all along this route. Past the point, turn north and follow the shoreline until you see the Spirit Little Cedar Tree (the Witch Tree). The Spirit Tree is a stunted 400-plus-year old white cedar tree seemly growing straight out of the rock. The Chippewa believe that leaving an offering protects your passage on the big lake. The traditional offering is a pinch of tobacco. Don’t attempt to land here, because access to the tree without a tribal guide is forbidden.
After you leave your offering, kayak the two-mile crossing to Susie Island. During the crossing, you’ll notice the channel between Susie and Lucille. Heading between the two islands offers the best landscape. Paddle along the islands and look for plants left over from the glaciers. Because the islands are a half-mile off-shore and exposed to the cold waters of Lake Superior, they harbor species typically found further north. Interesting plants include alpine bistort and slender hairgrass, mountain or rock cranberry, common bearberry, Norwegian witlow grass, northern eyebright, pearlwort, Arctic lupine, purple crowberry, and sphagnum moss. A thick layer of sphagnum moss covers the islands. It’s easily damaged by walking on it, so stay off.
If you have permission to land, the cove on the northeast corner of Susie offers good protection and a nice beach to land on. Consider taking a short break, because the waves build quickly in the afternoon when the winds pick up. It’s best to make it around Pigeon Point by one, and there’s about four miles of cliffs and steep boulder beaches to paddle past before you round the point. If conditions deteriorate and you’re not willing to risk Pigeon Point, which is notorious for reflection waves, consider taking the portage shown on the attached map to skip the point.
After you round Pigeon Point, head west into Pigeon Bay. The area is relatively protected. It’s a short paddle to Hole in the Wall. Land on the sandy beach in the protected bay for a quick-lunch. At the back of the bay, there’s an old emergency cabin, picnic tables and a dock. Lots of people use the area, so keep it clean. It’s best to get permission from the tribal government to land here.
After visiting Hole in the Wall, paddle west along tall cliffs. The mountainous terrain is especially brilliant in the fall, because the maples turn bright red and the birch turn bright yellow. Soon, you’ll enter the muddy water of the Pigeon River. It’s just a short paddle to the boat ramp from there.
Susie Island Map
View Susie Islands in a larger map