Crossing Lake Superior and Beyond in a 1/2-ton Boat – published in Sailing magazine’s 25th anniversary issue.
Early one July morning in 1986, after three days of dawn-to-dusk motoring, I brought my weary car, an aging 1600 cc Datsun, to a stop above the Lake Superior shoreline in Duluth, Minnesota. I was towing a bright red boat and trailer, and even with its outriggers tucked under the cockpit seats, the 21 foot trimaran drew stares as I contemplated the inland sea before me. Already the memory of the 2,200-mile drive from Portland, Oregon was fading. Prospects for sailing now dominated my thoughts and the next hurdle was to find a quiet ramp to assemble the boat and a safe long-term parking place for car and trailer.
Several years have passed as I reflect on that journey by road and 1,000 miles by sea I describe here, but a reasonable explanation for this marathon continues to avoid me. “Because it’s there” must suffice as a justification for this extreme piece of trailer-sailing. The Pacific northwest had been my cruising ground since I designed and built the trimaran Vakea six years earlier. Hauling the half-ton boat from my home on the Columbia River to Puget Sound was only a morning’s drive, the assembly filled an afternoon and I was usually sailing by evening. Having covered the coast between southern Oregon and Alaska the first six summers, I had begun to look further afield.
The next option was clearly Lake Superior-big enough to hold Vancouver Island with a 100 miles to spare, wild and remote. The distance lent enchantment and the Great Lakes began to assume a mythical air. (The only time I had sailed “back east” was in my native England in the 1960’s.) It soon became a habit that winter to trace my way on a road map back to the Great Lakes and plot my course on the world’s largest freshwater lakes! It was not long before that enthusiasm would begin to look like naivete.
Finally in Duluth, I drove along the Lake Superior waterfront until I found a park and a chance to stretch my legs. Following a sing, I walked down to the lake and discovered the neglected hull of a 42 foot Viking longboat that had sailed from Norway in 1926. Unfortunately, for want of a basic roof, the Leif Erickson had rotted out its bottom and decks. The demand for $250,000 for restoration seemed too much, too late. (Happily, the boat’s restoration began in 1991, after which it was shrink-wrapped to keep the rain out! The roof never did arrive, but the boat was finally taken into a workshop in 2013.)
This led me to the local maritime museum where I found more promising exhibits, from pre-history to the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. A visitor heard me enquiring about a quiet launching ramp and recommended I drive further east to his brother’s boatyard. I quickly abandoned my goal of sailing the entire lake and headed east again, away from the grain elevators and ore terminals to Cornucopia, Wisconsin.
Beside the diminutive Siskiwit River, I found the ideal spot to relax, sleep and assemble the boat to its full 1- foot width. I soon had assistance from some local children who were invaluable when I found the ramp was narrower than the boat! Their father appeared with his tractor, pulled my car back onto the ramp and lowered the Vakea gently into the lake. I found a safe spot for my car behind their barn, gave everyone a sail around the bay-and was ready to depart on my Great Lake Adventure.
Fog closed in and I donned hat and gloves as I tacked past the famous sea caves toward the Apostle Islands. Rather than end the day by motoring further I ghosted in to a tiny dock at Raspberry Island. (Actually it was just two short piers around a lifeboat launching ramp and shed–really no more than a lunch stop.) From the old lighthouse the lake was as smooth as a mirror………until midnight.
I was woken by the shock of my fenders crunching against the pilings, leapt out and manoevred the boat around between the end of the piers and in over the ramp. With the bows almost touching the boathouse doors and inches to spare abeam I jammed sailbags and coils of line down into the gaps and secured bows and sterns with a confusion of lines. The boat continued to bounce so severely that I hauled my bedding onto the dock and slept soundly there.
By morning, the wind had subsided. The next day’s lunch stop was on Manitou Island, at a fascinating and well-restored historic fish camp. I discussed the previous night’s epic with another sailor who confirmed my suspicion that none of the 20 islands had a safe anchorage. Only inside the Presque Isle breakwater did I feel secure for the night. My last night in the Apostles I was caught again, with a whole fleet of boats, as a stunning thunderstorm broke over us. The next morning Vakea was the only boat remaining, floating in three feet of water with mooring lines strung between piers 100 feet apart. This time I had waded ashore and slept in a park service cabin.
Ready or not, it was time to cross the Big Water, a minimum 50 mile shot NE to Grand Marais. (After 10,000 miles of coastal cruising, this is still the longest, exposed, offshore passage Vakea and I have made together.) I sailed steadily away from land, straight into fog in the shipping lane. The sky cleared in the afternoon and I reached into the north shore as the sun set.
Feeling that I had survived all the perils of the lake, I took a swim in a public indoor pool before continuing up the coast to Grand Portage. This is a place made famous two centuries ago by the seemingly trivial matter of Europe’s taste for top hats. (It was no small matter at the time and led ultimately to the building of more forts along the Columbia and the settlement of the Oregon country.)
Struck by the novelty of having “portaged” my boat all the way from the west coast, I set out to hike the crucial, portage link in the 3,000 mile fur trail. The nine miles to the falls on the Pigeon River went through mud and rocks, black flies and mosquitoes, and was hard enough without 180 lbs on my back! I stopped only briefly at the river’s edge, aware that the leaves were rustling to a new wind. On the hike back I slowed to a crawl at times and at mile 14, crossing a logging road, I met a solitary driver who stopped for one rapidly fading voyageur.
The parks staff at the fort of Grand Portage, Minnesota is familiar with canoeists who may even follow the entire fur route from Lake Athabaska to Montreal in two summers. A small-boat sailor, however, was definitely something of a novelty. I was shown the TV room and some valuable video-tapes documenting the fur trade and the annual Trappers Rendezvous, a celebration still held at the fort in mid-July.
Inspired by the exploits of the trade canoes and the still freshening breeze, I cast off from the end of the fort jetty, waving goodbye to a small crowd of rangers and onlookers. I reached away in fine style at 8 knots. (This was the one and only public departure of my sailing career.) As the shore faded astern I looked ahead to Isle Royale, while confronting the fact that the size and the mood of the lake continued to intimidate me.
Passing close to Rock of Ages lighthouse I skirted the narrow islands that run parallel to the shore, taking three leisurely days to work my way east to Rock Harbor. Rain and mosquitoes kept me confined to Vakea’s minimal cabin that third evening, so early the next morning I was ready to depart the island in a following wind. What followed made that a less-than-prudent decision.
Rapidly increasing wind was accompanied by thunder-from the direction of Thunder Bay. I dragged down the mainsail as the speed reached double figures and the bows began disappearing into the wave ahead. My mood spun from exhilaration to terror and back in seconds. Whitecrests crashed over the boat from all angles–this was the only time the possibility of capsize has ever come into my head!
After three hectic hours I sighted the Canadian shore and the triple peaks of the Evelyn Rocks and raced into a lee of what I consider to be the loneliest navigable shoreline I have found outside Alaska. I found anchorage each night at Loon Harbor, CPR Spit, the Slate Islands and the Pukaskwa, all carefully detailed in my guidebook by Ron and Bonnie Dahl.
Finally my navigation became less precise than the admirable directions and I searched in vain for Dampier Cove. Behind an obstructing island I spied a tall mast and only then had the courage to find a way into the bay. The mast belonged to the Dahlfin–the Dahl’s Columbia 10.7m yacht! In the morning Ron and Bonnie rowed over and we compared notes and boats.
With their personal advice and guidebook in hand, I was ready for the next day’s passage to the Otter Head lighthouse. At the dock I met the Dutch keeper and his wife who generously shared some of their limited food supply, all of which they bring along in the spring. The next morning Mrs Gouweleeuw led me through the bush to a stonepit she had discovered on a hike. It has been judged by archaeologists as the finest known example of the Pukaskwa Pits–rocky depressions for which no purpose has yet been established. I listened carefully to their radio forecast before heading tentatively offshore for the last time to Michipicoten Island.
The beat in the morning turned to a run as I sailed around the island’s eastern tip and found an anchorage in the sheltered end of a deep bay. A beaver scampered down the beach and swam around the boat while I was peering down at the hook, which sat on the bottom between boulders the size of cars. The rock from here on south was all pink and brown, the ancient geology of the Canadian Shield.
At Agawa a small section of cliff was used by native Ojibways as a religious art site; red-ochre paintings are still visible from the base of the rock. Since Isle Royale, two people had been a crowd. Now the Trans-Canada highway was not far off and a stream of people drove up while I was moored to a broken dock which was cut off from the shore. Here too the water was warm enough for swimming and I found enough blueberries above the bay to flavor the next two meals.
In the morning I floated the boat close enough to the cliff to get a better photo of the paintings. It was the 14th day of the trip. The lake and especially the Ontario shore had provided an experience and a challenge beyond anything I had known in Alaska or British Columbia. Out there time was of little consequence and fittingly I found I didn’t know the actual date. It was, I concluded, my 39th birthday, give or take a day!
On the 15th day Vakea caught a westerly and raced in to the Soo after 500 miles on Lake Superior. Both shores were finally visible again-now crowded with homes. The water too was full with boats, skiers and boardsailors. Under the International Bridge I watched nervously until I identified two tour boats emerging from the smaller, Canadian locks. Alone with my 6.5 meter boat in the 274 meter chamber, I was happier to be dropping down to a more populated lake. But the Superior cruise will never be forgotten.
I must admit I had not done any research on this area–so was improvising my route from this point. The journey continued east along the North Channel, and its many stunning granite island, recognized as the best freshwater cruising ground in the world. I then sailed out into Georgian Bay and open waters of Lake Huron and headed west to Mackinac Island. Since no combustion engine vehicles are allowed, I enjoyed the quiet streets, and borrowed a cruiser bike and rode 8 miles around the island by moonlight.
The next day, I continued east under the big bridge and into Lake Michigan, then set a compass course for Beaver Island, some 30 miles offshore. Again I rented a bike and rode across the island, to take a break from sailing. the last day was a challenging one, 50 miles on compass-only through a gap between the Door Peninsula and Summer Island. I spent the night at Fayette Historic State Park, which is known for its historic iron smelters. I finished the trip at the Escanaba Yacht Club, and set off on the difficult road trip, hitch-hiking back to the car and trailer in the village of Cornucopia.