A Path to the Past 

Minneapolis Star Tribune, 20 August 2000
© 2000 by Greg Breining

THE WIND OFF LAKE SUPERIOR was raw and rising. Despite the heavy fog, I thought we could follow a compass bearing to Macoun Island, a spit of rock that lay, invisible, two miles away. I took a bearing from the map, double checked, and we began to paddle our kayaks. 

As we lost the protection of several islands to the east, the wind hit hard. We still could not see a trace of Macoun.

"Are you sure we should do this?" Jim Weseloh asked. 

"Sure," I said, not sure at all. And Jim, his 17-year-old son, Ben, and I paddled off into the gray, as though off the end of the earth. 

I had known Jim, a forest planner for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, more than 20 years. We had canoed together on streams across the United States and had traveled together in the Boundary Waters. I had known Ben nearly as long. He was only four months old when his parents first brought him on a canoe trip. I remember baby Ben covered by black fly bites. 

Jim and Ben had kayaked only a little, but their years in canoes served them well. They were a bit stunned by the ferocity of the wind at times, but paddled well. They certainly weren't timid. 

But as we continued into fog, with wind and waves building, Jim's doubts prevailed. So we backtracked to shelter and listened again to the weather report: Small craft wind and thunderstorm advisories. We decided to follow a more protected route toward Stanton and Hanbury islands. The fog had lifted a bit by now, and we could see the two islands clearly, two miles away. 

At first we paddled briskly through small waves that quartered from the rear. But soon the waves began to build. Our boats twisted and surfed as the waves passed beneath us. 

"Why am I getting nervous about this?" Ben asked. 

"Well, because we're a half mile from shore, we're in the middle of Lake Superior and the waves are getting kind of big," I said. I didn't sound as reassuring as I meant to. "Paddle easily and relax," I said. "We'll be fine." With easy strokes and the wind from behind, we soon made the gap between the two islands. The waves dropped immediately. We found a long beach, where we pitched our tent and made dinner. 

"Don't want to do that again," Jim said. 

"No," I said. 

WE WERE PADDLING the long archipelago that stretches along the Canadian shore of Superior. Starting in Rossport, Ontario, a quaint railroad and fishing town, we had set out to paddle westward 70 miles in four days, to the town of Silver Islet, near Thunder Bay. There, Jim and Ben would return home, while I continued toward Minnesota. 

This is the real North Shore, far from roads and settlements, where help is a long way off if something goes wrong. It is, perhaps, the most rugged strech of the Superior shore, with several large islands and hundreds of small islands and skerries. The area is being considered as Canadian national marine conservation area.

The first day, we had paddled from island to island, taking shelter from a strong headwind. By late afternoon the wind had flagged, and the water turned to mercury, all silver and smooth. We paddled into Woodbine Harbour, on Simpson Island, with cliffs to our right and a smattering of islands to our left. Even Jim, with whom I had shared many scenes of wilderness, marveled at the beauty of it. 

In the days that followed, despite the wild and isolated nature of the shore, we often passed signs of human history. Atop an tiny island, we spotted a four-by-four post, two feet high, supported by a cairn of rocks. Encrusted with lichen, the post bore no writing, no clue to its origin or meaning. 

Nearby, on Armour Island, we landed for lunch and found a boom log, 30 feet long and three feet in diameter, used to contain rafts of pulpwood logs that were then towed to paper mills on the shore. Large holes, bored through each end for a cable, were reinforced with a wooden cap and rubber bumpers to withstand the stress of towing thousands of cords of wood. 

At Bowman Island we landed at a weathered boat house flying a Canadian flag. A log house sat just up the hill. The site, according to a guide I had read, had been a fishing camp, in use from the early 1880s until the widespread decline of the lake trout fishery in the 1950s. Down a wooded path, in a tiny sunlit clearing, was a grave. A plaque on a white cross said: "In memory of Thomas Lampshire, Talbot Island lightkeeper, died 1869." 

The lives of Lake Superior lighthouse keepers were renowned for hardship and loneliness, but none, I had learned in reading Superior: Under the Shadow of the Gods, an excellent guide to the Canadian shore, were so ill-fated as those who manned Talbot Island. 

William Perry manned the light in 1867, its first season. In the fall he set sail for the mainland but never arrived. His body and boat were found the following spring in Nipigon Bay. 

Thomas Lamphier (the actual spelling of his name) was the second "keeper." He and his wife decided to overwinter on the island. But as the shipping season closed, Thomas Lamphier fell ill and died. With no boats passing, Mrs. Lamphier could not get off the island. Indeed, she couldn't even get her husband's body off the island. Talbot Island is solid rock and there was no way to bury it, so Mrs. Lamphier wrapped it in canvas and stashed it behind the house. Finally, one spring day, she spied a small boat out on the lake and flagged down its occupants, a small party of Ojibwa. They carried Lamphier's body to Bowman Island and buried it, marking the grave with a simple cross. 

If anything, the Lamphiers' tragedy seemed to solidify the curse of the Talbot Island light. At the end of the season in 1872, the third keeper, Andrew Hynes, closed the lighthouse, loaded his supplies on a small boat and set off for Fort William. The weather turned stormy. Hynes struggled ashore 18 days later. Hypothermic and exhausted, he soon died. 

OUR FINAL NIGHT together we pitched our tent on a pocket beach of gravel, where cliffs framed a perfect view of the rock formation known as the Sleeping Giant. In the setting sun, he lay in stony repose, four miles long, hands folded on his chest, his feet disappearing in the low mist. 

The Sleeping Giant represents Nanaboozhoo, the mythic Ojibwa figure with the powers of a god and the frailties of a human being. 

Several stories recount Nanaboozhoo's death: He died in battle with the "Evil One." He killed his wife in a rage and died from grief, preserved in stone by a benevolent Great Spirit. But the following story tells not only of the death of Nanaboozhoo, but also, figuratively, of the end Ojibwas' reign in Superior country. 

One day, as Nanaboozhoo sat on the lakeshore, he scratched the earth and discovered silver. Alarmed that white men would covet it and take the land, Nanaboozhoo gathered up all he could find and hid it on a tiny island. An Ojibwa chief watched him, and after Nanaboozhoo had left, took some for himself. The chief was later killed by Dakota. Seeing his silver weapons, the Dakota realized the metal must exist on Ojibwa land. They devised a scheme: They would brag of their discovery to the whites, who would drive off the Ojibwa, take the silver, and leave the land for the Dakota. As the Dakota led two white men to the island, Nanaboozhoo discovered them and caused a storm that drowned them all. As punishment for killing the men, the Great Spirit turned Nanaboozhoo to stone. But more white men came, and they discovered the silver, buried on an island only ninety feet across. Once known as Skull Rock, it is known now as Silver Islet. 

Jim, Ben and I reached Silver Islet in early morning. We had plenty of time before our rendezvous with our Rossport outfitter, so we decided to explore. 

Amid wheeling gulls, we looked over the timbers and concrete foundations of the old Silver Islet Mine. Silver was discovered in 1868. Within two years, mining had begun, and a shaft soon extended nearly a quarter mile below the surface of the lake. Silver Islet was Canada's first successful silver mine and, for a while, one of the world's richest. But during the winter of 1883Ð84 the mine flooded and was abandoned. 

We left the island to the scolding gulls and paddled into the town of Silver Islet. We stripped off our wetsuits, and walked to the general store, where we ordered ice cream. We hung around the dock until the outfitter pulled up with a trailer. I helped Jim and Ben load boats and gear. And then they left. Just like that. 

Watching the truck disappear, I considered the task of paddling on by myself for several days. I knew I would encounter the signs of past lives. All the same, I felt very much alone.