ArticlesTrip Reports

Kayaking the Canadian Sauna Islands on Lake Superior

Kayakers ready to go kayaking.

Last week I did a kayaking trip from Grand Portage to Squaw Bay. I was paddling with Dave and Amy Freeman of Wilderness Classroom (Facebook page), their new intern Dan Modahl and John Amren who used to own Superior Coastal Sports in Grand Marais.

Dave and Amy just started out on the last leg of their 13,000-mile trip across North America via kayak, canoe and dog sled. They’ll complete the trip next April in the Florida keys. They started the trip in 2010 by kayaking the Inside Passage. John sold his store a couple of years ago, which freed him up to finally do the Lake Superior kayak circumnavigation that he had dreamed about.

I was along to take pictures and wish friends good luck on their journey. Plus, I was scouting the islands for possible guided kayak trips in the future. Despite living only 45 minutes away, I had never done a trip in the sauna islands. It’s one of those kicking myself for not getting there sooner things, because they’re pretty amazing.

the spirit tree, the witch tree
Stopping at the Spirit Tree near Grand Portage.

Our trip started late on Wednesday in Grand Portage and we camped at Hole in the Wall on Pigeon Point after finding the old mine on Susie Island. Paddling into Hole in the Wall is like finding a secret pirate cove filled with treasure. There’s a small opening between two cliffs that leads of a calm cove with a sandy bottom. The aquamarine color of the water makes it look like the Caribbean but with 38 degree Fahrenheit water temperatures. At the back of the bay an old run down, but cozy cabin, fire pit and outhouse (with a really wet hole — watch for blowback!) dominate the scene. A rickety old dock allows boats to tie up to escape the weather. We set up camp and had the place to ourselves.

Kicking back and enjoying the view from Spar Island
Kicking back and enjoying the view from Spar Island.

The next day we kayaked to Cosgrove Bay on Victoria Island. Along the way, we tested for water clarity and maxed out the secchi disk at 30 feet. Later, we added rope to the secchi disk and maxed it out at 45 feet, which was just barely perceptible. On the island, we tested Wilderness Classroom’s new technology/Internet set up and at one point all five of us were connected to high-speed Internet. It’s a little mind blowing to think that you can now have high-speed Internet on an island in an undeveloped area of the shore. Note: To kayak into Canada, you need a CANPASS Remote Area Border Crossing (RABC). You can get this from the youthful and pleasant Canadians (as opposed to the grumpy guards on the U.S. side) that work at the Pigeon Bay border crossing station or via mail. It’s recommended to get one via mail.

The next day we paddled to Thompson Island, with a stop on Spar to hike up cliffs and get a view of Pie Island and Thunder Bay. On the way to Thompson, a storm blew in and gave us a nice tailwind. Thompson Island has an amazing sauna and in summer, it’s a busy destination for boats, but we had it to ourselves. We saunaed.

The next day, we shot a few photos and then parted ways. The rest of the group went south around Pie Island and I west to the southwest point before crossing about five miles into Squaw Bay. About a mile into my crossing the winds picked up to 15 knots from the southeast and made for a fast and easy crossing. In Squaw Bay, I left my car at the boat ramp. It felt pretty sketchy, but it was still there unharmed when I got there.

For this trip we definitely took our time and had plenty of time for exploration. It’s definitely a good kayaking destination.

Subscribe! Get PaddlingLight in your inbox. Enter your email address:


  • Nice trip Bryan, I’m sure you all had a great time. I’ll be out there all next week on a solo canoe trip (a much needed break). Thanks for doing up the artilce, makes me lok forward to my trip even more!

    Cheers… Joe O’

  • Sorry for the typos on my prior post. The sun is glaring directly through the window right now and I can barely see the screen on my laptop :)

Comments are closed.