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Head North to Old Woman: A Lake Superior Kayaking Adventure

Kayaks on Canada's Lake Superior coast

This is a guest post from sea kayaker Tim Gallway.

It was a cold August morning, and I was heading for Wawa, Ontario to teach at the Greenland Symposium put on by Naturally Superior Adventures (NSA). Or at least I would have if the event hadn’t been cancelled. Due to many last minute cancellations instructors would outnumber students, so the plug was pulled. But I was still going. I was planning on spending the long weekend sleeping on beaches, playing in the surf and rock gardens around Superior Provincial Park with the other instructors that were going to do the same thing I was. One way or another I was going to make it a great trip.

Tim Gallaway kayaking on Lake Superior
Tim Gallaway, the author, kayaking. Photo Credit: Roin Cook
When I arrived, I made the rounds to see what was going on and to say I had arrived. Then I promptly went surfing. NSA is located at the mouth of the Michipicoten River and faces southwest on Lake Superior. As I was checking out the lake conditions I met Bonnie Perry and Robin Cook, two of the other instructors. After a short hello I headed for the water. The mix of the outflow and the topography of the beach make the location an amazing surf spot. The waves weren’t big but they were good. They blew off the lake in nice even sets without the wind blowing the tops over.  When they hit the shallow water they lifted and broke like a zipper with the foam pile racing from one end of the wave to the other. With good timing you could ride a wave from well past the river entrance marker all the way into the turbulence of the river outflow. After surfing on my own for a while I noticed a beautiful wooden tandem kayak heading out of the river mouth being paddled by a father and son team. We exchanged pleasantries and the typical “Nice waves, eh?” As I headed in I realized I was out there surfing with the Greenland-style paddling legend Doug Van Doren and his son Aiden. After I introduced myself, Aiden and I had a rolling session in the river before we headed in.


I walked into the middle of a meeting before I realized there was a meeting going on. The kitchen at NSA was abuzz with activity. Charts and lists were spread out across the table and hovering over them were David Wells, the owner of NSA, and David Johnston, the man behind I was asked if I was outfitted for camping and without realizing why I was being asked I said, “Uhh, Yeah.” A few minutes later things became clear. We were heading out for an overnight trip in Superior Provincial Park.

Waves of Lake Superior.
The waves on Lake Superior kick up.
David, David, Bonnie, Robin, Doug, Aiden, and I loaded into the shuttle van and headed for Old Woman Bay with all of our equipment and six Greenland paddles. I felt pretty giddy at this point. I was about to go out paddling with a group of people I had never been on the water with but had heard so much about. It didn’t sink in that I was really going paddling with them until we were on the water at Old Woman Bay and cruising north. We looked like a Inuit hunting party with all of our low-slung boats slipping through the wind and the swell. Our thin wooden paddles glistening in the afternoon sun as they dipped into the water at a fast cadence.

Folklore tells us Old Woman Bay is named because in the tall rocky cliffs that line the south shore of the bay you can see the image of an old woman. Every now and then I  spun around in my seat to see if I could spy the old woman in the cliffs but eventually came to think that the Voyageurs that first saw the cliffs were simply missing their mothers.

As we headed north, Lake Superior started to get restless. One meter and growing swells rolled in from the west and pounded the steep rocky shore. The wind blew from the west and was getting stronger. We only paddled a few miles that day. But we were all having so much fun in the sun and swells that the short day didn’t matter. As we neared our camp spot, David Wells led us into a protected cove. The forest went right down to the water, and despite the growing conditions on the big water, it was flat and calm. In the calm we chowed down on trail mix, re-hydrated and eventually headed out of the cove for our camp spot.

David Wells was first in to the camp spot and the rest of us followed. After landing the boats in a shallow rocky cove that was buffeted by small swell, which could be surf if the wind turned more to the south, and bringing them up the beach we realized what a gem of a spot David had brought us to. We were facing south by southwest with steep granite cliffs rising from the forest right behind camp. Great grey monoliths lined the shore to either side and made for great places to lay out wet equipment to dry in the sun. Out in front of the camp was a large rock within short swimming distance and acting as a gate keeper to the bay was a large tree capped island. On the beach a fire ring and stacked rock couch faced the water. Just off the beach was the remnant of a jerry-rigged counter attached to some trees for cooking and enough space to wedge in a few tents, or in my case a tarp strung up with paracord because I forgot my tent poles. Lesson: always have a tarp and paracord. The location stands now as one of the coolest and best spots I’ve ever camped.

We cooked dinner that night on the beach, and sat around the fire telling stories and laughing. We couldn’t hear anything except ourselves, the wind and the water. The sounds of civilization and its lights were gone. All we saw were the stars, the fire and the moon, which rose bright and brilliant over the tall hills across the bay.

Cliff jumping on Lake Superior.
Bonnie, both Davids and Aiden jump off a cliff into the cold Lake Superior water.
The first thing I heard when I woke up the next morning was the wind. The wind was strong and driving out of the west. We all scrambled up the hills behind our camp and made our way toward the open water. We saw big waves and lots of white-caps from the top of the bald hills.   After discussing our options we agreed that we could make it to our next spot if we wanted to. It would have been a bit of a fight to get there, but we could make it. We were in no rush. If we had to we could paddle the few miles back to Old Woman Bay and catch a ride back. Instead of fighting our way north we would stay. We would spend the day at our camp and surf, surf, surf.

I made the first lap going counterclockwise around the island in front of our camp. The water felt big. Every swell obscured the others. Every now and then a reflected wave off the island formed a clapotis wave, which tossed me upward. The feeling of being sling-shotted upward then dropped would put my stomach in my cheek. Around the south end of the island was a shoal a short distance from the point of the island and between them would form steep breakers. I found myself as the day progressed on the face of a few of them either clawing my way over so as to not get washed into whoever was behind me or surfing along with them back into the lee of the island. We made a few more laps around the island or “The conveyor” as we began to call it. Going clockwise was an easy ride, and we could surf most of the way while counterclockwise was like paddling up a river.

We concluded our day of play by jumping off of the cliffs into the water. On one jump Bonnie, David W., David J., and Aiden all leapt in unison. As they popped up we learned why cliff jumping in a drysuit is an interesting endeavor. Bonnie leapt into the water but instead of bobbing to the surface head first she came up feet first with her legs full of the air that got squeezed out of the rest of her drysuit. When she got her head up we all had a good laugh.

Camping on Lake Superior eating food.
Both Davids and Doug fighting for fondue.
Chocolate fondue and a bottle of Wawa white wine capped of the day. If ever you need to impress someone with a backcountry meal be sure to make chocolate fondue. You learn about the true character of people when there is fondue involved. I’ll leave it at that…

The next morning the waves had diminished greatly. We still bobbed around a bit on the lake, but the wind had died away considerably. We packed up our camp, and with silent paddle strokes we headed out of the bay and turned north toward Wawa. The shoreline became, if anything, more impressive than what we had paddled by before.  The forests which we had paddled by the days before were still lining the shore but were now a hundred feet up on the tops of the cliffs. In places sheer cliffs rose from the lake while in others rock gardens lined the shore.  With Lake Superiors crystal clear water we could see down to the giant granite boulders that had fallen from the face of the cliffs countless seasons ago and now call the cold water home. As we got closer and closer to our destination the wind became more and more to our backs. Eventually the rocky shore gave way to a long sandy beach that juts right up against the mouth of the Michipicoten River and NSA. In classic paddler fashion we arrived at our destination smiling, smelly, and just in time for lunch.

About Tim

Tim Gallaway is a ACA L4 sea-kayak instructor, guide and Greenland-style paddling buff based out of the eastern end of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  When not teaching the subtle arts of sea kayaking you can expect to find Tim on long solo expeditions, in the surf and rock gardens, building Greenland style skin-on-frame kayaks or running local whitewater in “his other boat.”  In the frozen water season, Tim is a mechanical engineering student (and now, with his first article published, an aspiring adventure writer).

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  • Great story, Tim. Sounds like a really fun trip.

    For paddlers interested in paddling in the same areas, the best guidebook for kayaking on Lake Superior is Bill Newman’s Guide to Sea Kayaking on Lakes Superior and Michigan. He describes trips from all over the lake, which is the premiere sea kayaking destination in the Midwest.

  • Gee Tim, for an engineer you sure do write good! Great story, well written, an Adventure I would have loved to been in on! And thanks for the picture of David J. He sure is white!!

  • Should be very influential to those students that missed out on such a fun adventure. Very exciting read and hope too see more great story’s of future explorations that you partake in. Wish I could have been there. Looking forward to the trip this spring.

  • White! My pale complexion is a complement to my awesome entourage who are asked to always carry an umbrella over my head when I’m outside. It can be tricky when I’m in my boat but they really get the job done as you can see.

    That’s a great article Tim. I was just talking to Bonnie last week about how it was one of the key highlights of my paddling season last year.

    David J.

  • Tim, What a great article. I felt like I was right there with you, enjoying the surf. Even though my body maybe wearing out, my sence for adventure is as strong as ever. I hope to read more article by you and live your adventurous life vicariously. Would love to read about your experience on and around Isle Royal. Keep them coming!

  • Thanks everyone for the comments. I have these stories and now I just need to get them out to the world. That was one of the best trips I have ever had. In comparison with my trip on Lake Superior from the beginning of that season (in early May), which more or less was a endeavor in futility against the lake, it was just amazing. An amazing trip in an amazing place.

    Yeah David the entourage was a bit interesting. Good thing we brought enough fondue for all of them.

    Seeya on the water,


  • […] Head North to Old Woman: A Lake Superior Kayaking Adventure By TIM GALLAWAY | Published: APRIL 19, 2011 •  This is a guest post from sea kayaker Tim Gallway. •• And To see the original post, select Head North to Old Woman: A Lake Superior Kayaking Adventure. […]

  • […] It was solo except for four days when kayak instructor and Greenland-style paddling expert Tim Gallaway joined me. I used two ferries to get from Hougton to Isle Royale National Park, the trip’s […]

  • […] Kayaking Instructor and Greenland kayaking expert Tim Gallaway. Read his other contributions: Head North to Old Woman: A Lake Superior Kayaking Adventure and Ninja Paddling – The Path of the Ninja Paddler. Check out his website Kayaking to the […]

  • […] the frozen water season, Tim is a mechanical engineering student. Read his other contributions: Head North to Old Woman: A Lake Superior Kayaking Adventure, THE SKELETON COAST: Paddling Lake Superior’s Desolate Southeast Coast and Ninja Paddling – […]

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