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Facing my fears: Paddling Lake Superior/Gichigami

Facing my fears: Paddling Lake Superior/Gichigami

I faced some of my fears this summer by kayaking the largest clear water lake in the world: Lake Superior. Or Gichigami, as the Indigenous Peoples of the area have called it for over 7,000 years.

A brief history

We launched our boats in late July, south of Wawa at Michipicoten in northern Ontario, where the summer grounds of the Anishnaabe were long ago. This is where families would gather, celebrate, trade and renew connections. When the Europeans arrived in the 1600s, they began to harvest the riches of the land and waters, trapping furs and fishing.

In 1850, the Crown and Chief Tootomenai of the Ojibway signed the Robinson Superior Treaty. Over the next years, the Crown sold much of the original treaty land for resources, forcibly relocating the Indigenous Peoples. Today, the Ojibway have had some of their land returned to them, especially the rich coastline and fishing, and hunting and trapping have resumed.

Amazing facts about Superior/Gichigami

A billion years ago, the North American Mid-Continent Rift tore apart the land, leaving a massive scar that gradually filled with water during the last glacial retreat, about 10,000 years ago. Superior/Gichigami rests on Precambrian Rock at the southern edge of the Canadian Shield with the largest exposure of bedrock on the planet.

Superior/Gichigami has 10 per cent of the planet’s fresh water over 82,000 square kilometres. and it generates winds that can change at a moment’s notice, creating massive swells and waves up to nine metres high; more than 10,000 people have died on Superior with over 350 shipwrecks.

Paddling Superior/Gichigami

And here I was paddling on the first of an eight-day wilderness trip on this ancient lake. We had calm winds today, but the rugged shore had jagged rocks that had clearly been ravaged by high winds and relentless waves. I could feel the vastness and power of Superior pulsing beneath me.

The winds usually start later in the day, so we paddled early in the morning. We paddled for three days, with overnight stops at large sandy beaches. As we rounded the point to see our final destination at Dog River, we fought to land our boats in the smashing waves. We unloaded our gear, set up our campsite under the trees, and sat down to enjoy the panoramic view of cerulean blue water. 

The incredible Denison Falls

The next day, we hiked the wild boreal forest towards Denison Falls, a favourite of well-known Canadian paddler and documentary filmmaker, Bill Mason. 

The forest felt ancient (even though there are only .07% of old growth forests left in Ontario) filled us with delight as we hiked the semi-gruelling trail: there was peeling grey-pink birch, silvery green alders, green-leaved mountain maples, flat-needled balsam firs and blue-green black spruce with distinctive cluster of branches at the top.

Incredible Denison Falls

We landed in a clearing next to the river and could hear the Falls but not yet see them. You had to climb a sheer rock face – with the help of a rope – of about 10-12 metres. I was afraid of falling or injuring myself, but I took hold of the rope, planted my foot and took my first step up the rock face. About halfway up I began to think I couldn’t make it, but looking down, I realized going down would be just as far and likely just as difficult, so I persevered and made it up to the top.  And it was, indeed, worth it. 

These remote Falls were magnificent, 40 metres of swirling, rushing water cascading down the rocks. (Find my friend Marvin in the top right hand corner of the photo to the left)

As we hiked back to our campsite later that day, tired but exhilarated, we knew we were going to really enjoy our hearty dinner before landing, exhausted, for a good sleep in our tents. 

We paddled out the next day, the Falls nestled like an extraordinary gem in the wilderness in my mind and heart. I was grateful I’d faced my fears and climbed the rock face to see their exquisite beauty. 

Lake Superior had been gentle to us so far and on our last day, with only 11 kms to go, we didn’t rush to leave, enjoying “wilderness time”: moments sliding by with orange sunrises; enjoying Andy’s homemade Bannock with wild blueberries; and icy cold waters soothing our aching muscles. 

Andy’s Famous Bannock

We left our last campsite and were paddling back to our take-out spot at Michipicoten when we entered a narrow channel and I slid into my fears that had been hiding inside my long-held dream of paddling Superior.

Suddenly, we were facing high winds, large swells and white caps. I was ahead of Andy and Marvin and began to struggle to keep my kayak steady. My fear rose with an urgency that shook me. Later, I would learn my friends were also struggling to manage the choppy waters and at times couldn’t see me because I was at the bottom of a two-and-a-half foot wave. 

The wind was blowing from the south-west and we were paddling east so my kayak was “weathercocking” or pushing to turn into the wind. I was barely managing to hold my boat at a 45° angle to the waves, as I had been taught. At times, I felt the waves were beyond my ability and I could feel my fear mounting. I needed to maintain my focus so I consciously unclenched my teeth and breathed deeply to settle my pounding heart. 

When I finally made it to the end of the point and into slightly calmer waters, I turned out of the waves and glanced over my shoulder. Both my friends were still in their canoe and heading my way. I was profoundly relieved.

I’m deeply grateful I was able to realize my long-held dream of paddling Lake Superior and able to successfully face my fears – before the trip, at the bottom of that rock face, and while fighting my way through challenging winds and waves on Gichigami. I’m equally grateful I had the kinship of dear friends adventuring together. of the 

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