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Manitou River Kayaking Trip Report

Kayaking through a sea arch at the Manitou River.

If a kayaking trip included one arch, one cave and one waterfall, I’d call it a winner. By that definition, the trip from Sugarloaf Cove to the Manitou River on Lake Superior wins the world championship. During the 11 mile round-trip, you will paddle past three arches that you can kayak through and many others above the waterline. You’ll see two postcard worthy waterfalls, paddle past towering palisades, kayak into caves (one with a waterfall falling down over the entrance) and encounter mansions and old fishing buildings. Rock from Keweenawan lava flows and intrusions makes up the shoreline and the presence of glaciers gone shows itself with gouge marks. A forest consisting primarily of white cedar, birch and aspen tops the cliffs. In the fall, these trees turn a brilliant golden color, which makes for a fantastic fall paddle if the temperatures hold.

  • Distance: 11 miles round-trip.
  • Trip Rating: Intermediate. Conditions, especially in late summer or fall, can change quickly. Use an experienced kayaking guide if you have doubts.
  • Maps: NOAA Chart #14967, Lake Superior Water Trail Maps #2 & 3.
  • Hazards: Exposed, reflection and clapotis waves, fog, unreliable compass readings, limited landings (no public landings), shoals, cold water, strong current near rivers, standing waves.
  • More Info: George H. Crosby Manitou State Park and Sugarloaf Cove.
  • Notes: There are no public landings or access on this route. Although the beach at the river allows for landing, the cliffs surrounding it make escape impossible. In the spring, the river’s current creates large standing waves and can completely wash out the beach. An emergency landing at Fenstad’s Resort is about 2.5 miles southwest of the Manitou River.

Put-In on Lake Superior

Launch your kayak from the Sugarloaf Cove Nature Center, located on Highway 61, 4 miles south of Schroeder. The Sugarloaf Cove area was once home to a large logging company, and the cove was used to corral logs before tugs rafted them across the lake to become paper. If you paddle around the cove, you’ll find old anchor sites and spikes driven into the rock. The non-profit Sugarloaf: The North Shore Stewardship Association bought the land in 1993 and saved it from becoming a large marina. Now, the association works towards restoring the land and protecting the state Scientific and Natural Area on the point. The Scientific and Natural Area features 1.1 billion year old lava flows with examples of lava flows rarely found in the states outside of Hawaii. You’ll launch from a well-protected, except in northeastern blows, cobblestone beach.

The carry to the beach is long, so I suggest driving to the nature center, unloading and then moving your vehicle to the parking lot.

Kayaking Route to the Manitou River

The paddling route is straight forward; you paddle around the point out of Sugarloaf Cove, turn right and head southwest along the shoreline until you reach the waterfall of the Manitou River. Low cobblestone beaches and old houses characterize the first mile and a half. Paddling past some of the old fishing shacks and their wooden boat launches gives you a sense of what life was like before Highway 61 existed. You’ll also paddle past the old Sugarloaf Cove resort, which are the cabins right on the shoreline.

Once you reach the first rock islands, the shoreline changes from mainly cobblestone beaches to cliffs. Look for an island with a wooden bridge connecting it to the mainland. Wouldn’t it be fun to live there? Stick to the shoreline, because you’ll soon paddle near the first arch. It’s slightly hidden and hard to see if you’re off-shore even a little distance.

Paddle through the arch and swing around the corner to admire the houses on each side of the mouth of the Caribou River. You can just make out a picturesque waterfall that looks like it’s following over a man-made dam. Continue along a shoreline characterized by cliffs and small, steep, cobblestone, pocket beaches.

As you round the corner to Pork Bay, you’ll see the second arch, which looks like it could collapse any day. In wavy or low water this one is a no-go. In 1894, Myron Cooley wrote in his book Outings and Innings in Northern Minnesota, and Along the North Shore of Lake the origin of Pork Bay’s name:

Pork Bay was so named because a certain famous commodore once stopped there and made camp. When the party went on they made the discovery that they had left all the pork behind. Some weeks later another party also camped there. When they reached Duluth inquiry was made as to where they had camped, and one of the party replied, “Oh, we camped where the old commodore left his pork.” So Pork Bay it has been ever since.

Continue along steep cliffs until you see the Manitou River waterfall framed in by an arch. If you’re here at the end of September or early October, chances are good that the pink salmon will be running. If so, have your camera ready before you round the corner, because the beach might be covered with bald eagles. Here you’ll land on the sand beach for a break and to stretch your legs. Check out the large cave in the back of the cove and admire the waterfall–one of the best on the northshore.

After you finish, turn around and head back to Sugarloaf Cove. Or continue down the shore for a quarter of a mile to see an old mansion and in the mansion’s bay, a nice cave to paddle into.

Manitou River Route Map

View Manitou River in a larger map

Picture from the Manitou River on Lake Superior

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  • You’re so lucky the entirety of the falls were in shadow. Sure it can screw up the dynamic range, but at least you got all the water within a few stops. Congrats. I’ve been trying to get down to see those falls since the early oughts!

  • It seems like early morning or afternoon when the shadows cast over the waterfall are the times to be there.

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