The Pukaskwa Coast, July 10-21, 2006  
By Jose Joven - Indianapolis, Indiana - USA
Photos by Larry Ricker - Rochester, Minnesota

The winter of 2004 I built my 15' decked sailing canoe, "Vinta". I spent the summer of 2005 outfitting, shaking her down and building different sail rigs. Eventually I settled on a 40 square foot balanced lug. I am primarily a canoeist. Daytripping is fun but I really enjoy extended camping trips in the Canadian bush, 2 weeks minimum or longer. For me, wilderness traveling is the thing, everything else is just practice. The 100 mile Pukaskwa Coast of Lake Superior had been on my short list for quite some time. I now had the boat, I started looking for other "like minded venturers" to join in the trip.

None of my regular paddling partners were interested in Lake Superior. "Too big, too rough, you can't do that", were their responses. The winter of 2005 I started posting on various canoe and kayak boards. At one time 7 people were interested, by trip time it had dwindled to three. Then due to a medical emergency my good friend, Mick Wood, had to pull out. It came down to two, an internet aquaintance, Larry Ricker (NibiMocs, Rochester, Minnesota), and myself (Indianapolis, In). Nibi didn't have an adequate boat for the trip and considered renting a seakayak. Luckily Mick graciously offered one of his Kruger Sea Wind canoes, a boat eminently qualified for a big water expedition. We were all set.

Nibi and I met for the first time July 9th in Wawa, Ontario. Prior to this we had communicated via the internet. Larrys' passion is landscape photography and he provided the photos for this report. He also is a Boundary Waters specialist, having made many solo canoe excursions there. Neither of us had done an extended trip on Lake Superior before. That afternoon we prepared our gear and discussed the trip, anxious to be underway. We overnighted in the lodge at Naturally Superior Adventures (NSA,), a kayak outfitter on the shores of Lake Superior at the mouth of the Michipicoten River. The next morning the wind was force 2-3 and whipping Michipicoten Harbor into a frenzy. I tried not to show my trepidation at the prospect of paddling in those waves. What had I gotten myself into? At 9:30 our shuttle driver arrived and ferried us 100 miles up the coast to Hattie Cove in the Pukaskwa National Park. Here he dropped us off and returned my vehicle to NSA.

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Hattie Cove beach

By the time we arrived it was early afternoon, cold, overcast and the wind was force 3 out of the east. There were two groups of kayakers on the beach readying their boats and deciding if anyone would "get out" today. One group was a guided kayak tour from Naturally Superior Adventures. Hattie Cove didn't look bad but out on the lake could be a nightmare. Nibi and I decided to paddle out the cove to at least check conditions, leaving the kayakers on the beach wondering what we were up to. Once out and around Campbell Point there was no turning back. We continued against 2-3' waves and steady headwinds for a long two hours until finding welcome refuge in Picture Rock Harbor. Here we shared a quiet cove with a motorboater from Thunder Bay who was also sitting out the storm. Bernie Cline and his dog Hobbes had spent the last two weeks touring around Superior. They were on the homeward reach and invited us aboard. We spent a friendly afternoon chatting and drinking coffee in the cabin. We camped that night on a small beach nestled against a stand of pines. The sunset was brilliant.

Distance covered Day 1, 3 miles.

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Picture Rock sunset

The next morning dawned clear, cool and the weather had settled. We paddled out of Picture Rock Harbor at 9am and headed south along the coast. There was only a breath of wind. The first four days were very hot with cool, crisp nights. The Lake was calm and the water flat as a pancake; not what I had expected. It was so hot I often paddled without shirt, using a bailout jug to pour water over my head. We kept our course southward down the coast finding secluded bays with beaches each night for campsites. The scenery was beautiful, gulls called to us from their rock islands, eagles soared over the pine clad ridges, huge granite cliffs and shoals extended into the deep blue green waters. Once I was able to sail a few hours on a broad reach, ghosting between pink granite outcrops. But mostly progress was by paddle, the "spruce breeze".

Distances in miles Day 2, 12.5, Day 3, 15, Day 4, 9.5

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Hot and Flat

 
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sailing in light wind

On the fifth day we ventured from behind the protection of Otter Island. Rounding Otter Head we came face to face with a changed Lake Superior and force 3-4 winds off the starboard bow. I briefly tried to pinch upwind with reefed sail but couldn't make headway, instead being driven onto the cliffs. I had no choice but to strike sail and paddle. For the next 6 miles we found no welcome or refuge along the coast. We were grinding out the miles, stroke by stroke a quarter to a half mile out. Nibi and I often lost sight of each other. The swells were head high and occasionally breaking. It was exciting and quite an experience.

After lunch we landed on Richardson Island and climbed high to the top of an ancient cobble beach. Centuries ago, after the glaciers melted, Lake Superior was much deeper than today. Its decline is recorded in the terraced beaches. We climbed eight terraces and a hundred feet up on rocks the size of bowling balls. At the top we found a group of Pukaskwa Pits. These pits, which abound in this area, are excavated depressions in the rocks made by natives centuries ago. Theories abound but no one knows for sure who actually made them, how old they are, or for what purpose, whether lodges, food storage, or spirit quests. The name, Pukaskwa, is Objibwe for "strange rock formations". Their existence testifies to the hardiness, strength and stamina of the primitive indigenous peoples.

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A Pukaskwa Pit

We met the NSA kayakers in the lee of Pointe Canadiane. It was late afternoon and they had decided to camp on a rough cobble beach before rounding the point next morning. Nibi and I were tired, but after a snack and short rest felt we could round the point and make camp on nearby Pukaskwa Depot. Pointe Canadiane was a high point on my trip. Not quite halfway, it stands one of the most exposed and remote reaches of this coast. From here we would start heading eastward. There are no roads or trails leading out to the Point, the only way is by boat or helicopter.

We made camp that evening on the long sand beach at Pukaskwa Depot. It's harbor is protected by Davis Island and in its lee was anchored a large ship. We learned it's owners, Mr and Mrs Noyes, are a retired couple who spend their summers exploring Lake Superior. They now live on Michigan's Upper Pennisula but originally are from Indianapolis, Indiana, my home town. What a small world.

Day 5, 11.5 miles

The Depot was a busy place in the 1800's. Many hardy souls lived there year around. Logs were brought down the rivers and rafted up in the harbor before being floated south to be cut into lumber. As the forest was harvested the Depot became a fishing camp and when the fisheries declined it was abandoned. Now all that remains are a few scattered rock foundations, a single grave and a some iron pins and rings in the surrounding cliffs. Around three that night I exited my tent to answer the call of nature and was delighted to see a sky full of stars with a full moon low over the bay. The Noyes yacht lay serenely at anchor in the harbor. It was beautiful, if not for the chilly evening and all the pine trees I could have almost imagined a South Seas panorama.

The next day we again saw the NSA kayakers as they rounded the point in the early dawn. We pushed off at 8am with a rising ESE wind, anticipating another day of headwinds. At 10 when we stopped for break I decided to bring the sail into the bilge. Things were not working out for me sailing and it was in the way on deck. I left the leeboard in place as it seemed to provide some stability in the rough water. Trying to tack against 3' swells and chop was too tough. What I wanted was beam and broad reaches, or runs. Besides, tacking would put me a mile or more out and Nibi and I had promised to stay close throughout the trip. We continued until 12:30 when high winds and waves forced us to pull off in a small shelter cove one third mile from our scheduled lunch stop, the "Wheat Bin". That afternoon we waited out the blow, exploring our small cove, watching the waves and resting on long granite slabs that extended out into the water. As the day progressed the weather deteriorated, until resigning there would be no more paddling this day, we set camp. It was a short day.

Distance day 6, 5.5 miles

Late afternoon a fellow came onto our beach from the adjoining cove. He asked if we knew where on the map we were and Nibi replied, "That is Chimney Point and the Wheat Bin is just around the corner." Like us he had wanted to make The Wheat Bin today but with the wind and waves had fetched up in this small cove, which I had christened "The Rice Bowl. It looked like rain and he asked if we would share the beach for the night. Of course we agreed.

Nibi set his Lean2, which is a modified Baker Tent made of lightweight silnylon (Cooke Custom Sewing). That afternoon we three sat out a drizzling rain and solved the problems of the world. We learned our guest was Herb Pohl, 76 years young. Herb had been expeditioning the Canadian bush for 40 years, often solo in a special custom decked canoe built by a friend. I learned he and I had paddled a few of same rivers but Herb also been on distant waters I had only dreamed of. He had decended rivers where no one, even the local trappers and indians, dared go. He was "Old School", and his gear and clothing reflected his preference. No yuppie goretex or quick dry nylon for this man, Herb was dressed in wool pants and shirt. His gear was well used and well maintained. Herb enjoyed traveling alone, but said this may be his last trip. Age was catching up, and he wasn't enjoying the experience as in days gone by. He said, "The sun doesn't shine as bright, the forest isn't as green and even a shot of single malt whiskey doesn't taste as good as it used to". It was a delight talking with Herb. The evening passed too quickly and we adjourned to our individual tents for the night.

Next morning the wind had died but the woods and water were shrouded in fog. As we struck camp Nibi and I each went over to bid Herb farewell. I shook his hand and said, "Hope to see you again in the wilderness." To which he replied with a smile, " Hahaha, if I live." I thought it was paddlers black humor, but perhaps Herb had a premonition. As Nibi and I cautiously creeped down the hidden coast Herb bravely set an easterly course and paddled out into the fog, without wearing his PFD. In short time he had faded into the mists.

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Herb Pohl

It was nerve wracking paddling blind in the fog. Thankfully the wind and waves were managable, but traveling for miles with such limited visability wore on me. My GPS had malfunctioned, showing a black screen. We used dead reckoning and often didn't know exactly where we were on the map. Following an easterly course we tried to stay off the rocks and shoals which frequently extended far out into the lake. Occasionally a swell would cross a submerged shelf and a white breaker would rise, growling at us. I was reminded of the old map notations, "Beware, here lie Dragons ".

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Foggy waters

We traveled all morning in building swells and fog and by late afternoon the lake had us rocking and rolling. Again there was no place to pull off and we had to paddle at least a quarter to half mile out to avoid reflection waves. Mid day found us in Ganley Harbor which unexpectedly was fog free. I had read Ganley Harbor was an ancient native spiritual area. It is guarded by a high broken red granite cliff and there are Pukaskwa Pits there. Whether geographical, meteorlogical or spiritual, we were thankful for the brief respite of clear skies and bright sun. A sailboat was anchored in the back and as we ate lunch under a balsam pine a couple paddled up in kayaks to see if we needed anything. Nice folks those sailboaters. After lunch we continued, and eventually made camp at a scenic spot called "Petit Mort Rocks". A channel is formed by a string of islands and we camped in the shelter of their lee. The early afternoon stop meant we could swim, wash clothes and organize our gear. Late that night a storm came through with thunder, lightning and rain.

Day 7, 9 miles

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Petit Mort campsite

Morning dawned overcast with warm, calm conditions and we got a late, lazy start. By midday the calm oily water changed to wind and bright sun. Again we had headwinds with 2' waves, chop and an occasional 3' swell. We paddled for miles without seeing any takeouts, the coastline rough rock cliffs and shoals with crashing white water. One thought kept running through my mind, "This is wild". Late afternoon found us landing at the mouth of the Ghost River, on a long exposed beach called The Flats. The weather radio was calling for wind 20 to 30 knots and waves over a meter and a half. We pulled our canoes high up on the beach, battened down our tents that night and prepared for a siege.

Day 8, 12 miles.

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windbound on the Flats, Cliffs of Isacor in distance

The next morning we were windbound. With line after line of whitecaps, and wind in excess of 20 knots, it would have been foolish to attempt travel. Besides the next six miles traverse the Cliffs of Isacor, and again there are no safe takeouts along that reach. We needed calm conditions for making a crossing and so we spent the day washing clothes, resting, eating, taking pictures and exploring. The NSA kayakers caught up with us that evening, surfing two foot waves into the beach at sunset. They had waited at Floating Heart Bay all day for conditions to improve. An hour before sunset their guide, Jason, convinced them it was safe to continue. With the wind at their backs, they had paddled and surfed 4 miles in under an hour. Everyone was excited and relieved to be off the lake.

Day 9 zero miles.

The next morning I was up at 4:30. By 5 we could see the kayakers paddling out under headlamps. Man, Jason really wanted to get a head start. We had been checking the weather report everyday and today heard a red and white kayak was found floating in Michipicoten Harbor, all boaters were to be on the look out for a lost paddler. Since Michipicoten was at the end of our trip and still several days away we didn't pay much attention. We both figured it was some daytripper that hadn't tied his kayak down in the blow.

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The Cliffs of Isacor

The early morning calm made the lake smooth as glass, in opposition to the fury that raged yesterday. The Cliffs of Isacor were almost anti-climatic as we paddled past them with no problems. In 2 hours we reached the safety of Tamarack Bay. Throughout the day we enjoyed light and variable winds with nothing more exciting than local chop. A helicopter flew directly overhead, heading east down the coast. By late afternoon we were at the mouth of Dog River and found the NSA kayakers already encamped. They said the helicopter had actually landed on the huge gravel bar and asked if they had seen a kayaker in a red and white boat. They hadn't, but I remembered Herb Pohl, wasn't his decked canoe red and white? Nibi and I paddled 1/2 mile back along the shore to a deserted cove to set our camp. There Nibi checked his camera and sure enough had a picutre of Herb paddling off into the fog, in a red and white decked canoe. We discussed our concerns about Herb. I made a VHF call to the Coast Guard but got no solid answers from them. Only that the search had been turned over to the local police. That afternoon in force 3 winds I got to sail a little, beating out into the lake and running back to the beach several times. At least I can say I sailed Lake Superior!

Day 10, 10 miles

The next morning I had a rest day scheduled at Dog River so we got up late. Dennison Falls are three miles upstream and I wanted to pay a visit. In case the weather turned bad we moved our tents to the mouth of the river. The kayakers had already moved on. Our hike to Dennison Falls wasn't a piece of cake. Somewhere I had read (misundestood?) that you could paddle right up to the lower falls. But as we got further up the canyon we could see the river was blocked by rapids, CII-III whitewater. Tying our canoes off in an eddy we started hiking up the riverside, fording the knee deep river in a couple of spots. Soon the cliffs on each side pinched in blocking our progress, unless we wanted to swim. Spying what looked like a slide leading up. I scrambled up the slippery slope and found a good trail about 100 feet above the river. Following the trail another 45 minutes we came on the lower falls.

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The lower falls

The lower falls are about 10' high but the major attraction is around the corner. To reach Dennison Falls we had to scale a 30' rock cliff to the upper trail. Whitewater kayakers come down the river every spring and leave a knotted rope hanging in this spot. I was sure the rope was replaced yearly but it felt shaky trusting a manky looking piece of 3/8" green poly. Upon reaching the upper trail a short walk led to the main show. Dennison Falls is a multi cascade dropping over 350' in a series of ledges. The sound was deafening and the mist from the falls drifted across the drop pool to the rocks below. We ate lunch and Nibi spent an hour snapping pictures. We then headed back to camp arriving late afternoon footsore and tired, but happy we made the detour. That evening a SSW wind rose and we listened all night to the lake pounding the gravel bar.

Day 11, zero miles

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Dennison Falls

The next morning dawned overcast with variable wind and 2' waves. The forecast called for SW wind 10-15 knots and waves to a meter. Irregardless, we had to move when possible even if only a few miles. After waiting until 10:30 we decided to push on. Large breaking waves at the mouth of the River made getting out tough. By 11 the fog came in and visibility dropped to 20'. Again there were no safe landings and the one meter waves were crashing against the rock shoreline. We paddled 1/2 mile out, straining to see the shore and the reefs ahead. By late afternoon the fog cleared and 3-4 foot swells started coming off the stern . It felt like we were riding a rollercoaster as each wave passed under the canoe, up and down. At times we lost each other in the troughs. Finally, we saw a beautiful 1/2 mile strand of sand in a bay and surfed the waves in for a much needed break.

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fog paddle

It was mid afternoon, still early. I wanted to try and make 2 more miles to Minnekona Point for our final campsite and to be in good position on our last day of paddling. We waited an hour or so and the waves looked different to me. Besides, one more hour rocking and rolling with the swells passing under helping sweep us on wouldn't be too bad. I got Nibi to agree for a final push and we fought our way out through the breaking waves. Once out the swells were still from the SW but the 10-15 knot wind had shifted to the NW and was pushing us out to sea. Between that and the conflicted chop I felt very uneasy. With every gust I had to hunker down and try to reduce my windage. This wasn't good. I signaled Nibi to exit at the first opportunity.

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The good beach

We made a surf landing on the next sloping beach. It was smaller than the last one, and covered with gravel instead of fine sand and worst of all was inhabited with flies! I asked Nibi if he wanted to try and paddle back to the good beach, he declined. Thanks to me we had traded an ideal campsite for a bug ridden sloping gravel pit. Our last night out and we had to endure a less than perfect bivouac. Oh, well, I started clearing a level pad for my tent.

Day 12, 8 miles

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surf landing

Our last morning was clear with light variable NE winds. We were up at 5 and on the water by 7. We had 8 miles to the take out at NSA. The early morning smooth water made for easy paddling. While Nibi followed the coast I stayed outside, making a 5 mile crossing from Dora Point to Perkwakwia Point. There Nibi and I rejoined for the final 3 mile crossing of Michipicoten Harbor. We remembered the wild frothing wavetrains of a few weeks ago but this morning the harbor was smooth and benign. We picked a low spot on the horizon that looked like it might be the mouth of the Michipicoten River and went for it. By 12 noon we landed at Naturally Superior Adventures beach and had a small celebration.

Day 13, 8 miles.

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The NSA lodge

We asked the people at NSA about the missing kayaker and were told Herb Pohl's body was found in shallow water just outside the river mouth, within sight of the finish. Larry and I were shocked and saddened to hear such bad news. It was later, after returning home we learned Herb was a famous Canadian explorer, a wilderness veteran with many crossings of remote lands, and decents of wild rivers.

We dedicate our Pukaskwa Adventure to the adventurous spirit of Herb Pohl, may he rest in peace.

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Hoz and Nibi Mocs

For more information about Herb Pohl,
http://nebula.on.ca/hamiltonassoc/h_pohl.htm
http://www.wildernesscanoe.ca/news.htm

Before leaving NSA we took one last look at Lake Superior. In 2 hours the wind had changed and Michipicoten Bay was again frothing with wave after wave.

The Pukaskwa Coast is a beautiful, wild and forbidding landscape. Conditions on the lake can change quickly. Before paddling Lake Superior be sure of your skills. Carry a VHF radio, help or rescue could be days away.

For information, planning and logistics and shuttles contact Naturally Superior Adventures, http://www.naturallysuperior.com/

Boat marina and shuttles (vehicle and boat pickup) Bucks Marina, Wawa Ontario, Ca. http://www.bucksmarina.com/aboutUs.asp

Canadian topographical maps 1:50,000 scale
42D/9, 42D/8, 42D/1, 42C/4, 41N/13, 41N/14, 41N/15

SAILS

EPOXY

GEAR