Wild Shore: Exploring Lake Superior by Kayak

University of Minnesota Press, 2000
© 2000 by Greg Breining  

THE ANNALS OF LAKE SUPERIOR SHIPPING are filled with tales that illuminate the valiant side of the human character: Captain William E. Morse evacuated his crew but refused a lifeline himself with the words "Not by a damn sight," before the foundering William F. Sauber, with Captain Morse still aboard, exploded and sank near Whitefish Bay. Seaman Fred Benson leaped from the deck of the grounded Madeira,scaled Gold Rock Point, and dropped a line by which eight of nine remaining crew climbed to safety. 

Other disasters expose our vices and foibles. Such is the tale of theGunilda, a testament -- at least as it has been handed down over generations -- to parsimony, arrogance and impatience. 

The steel yacht, nearly two hundred feet long with twin masts and a stack amidships, was built in Scotland in 1897 and sailed across the Atlantic. In 1911 its owner, New Yorker William L. Harkness, an original investor in Standard Oil, embarked on a long cruise on Lake Superior with his family, two guests, and a crew of twenty, including Captain Alexander Corkum. The Gunilda dropped anchor in the Canadian harbors of Port Coldwell and Jackfish, where the fishermen and railroad workers marveled at a boat of such opulence. 

Harkness next set sail for Rossport, even then a quaint fishing and railroad village. The approach to its harbor is protected by a string of islands that, taken as a whole, stretches more than one hundred miles across the crown of Superior. By custom, a local pilot would board large incoming vessels to guide them safely through the archipelago. Harkness thought the fifteen-dollar fee was extortionary; so he directed Corkum to take the wheel himself -- and to hurry to try to get the best dockage available. Unfortunately for Harkness, his U.S. charts lacked critical details about Canadian waters. About six miles from harbor, Corkum drove hard up onto McGarvey Shoal. Harkness rode a motorized lifeboat into Rossport to telegraph his insurance company, while the crew and guests remained on board the Gunilda ,whose graceful bow angled helplessly above the water. 

When the tug James Whalen arrived, the passengers left the stricken yacht. But as the Whalen fastened a line to the Gunilda's stern and pulled her from the shoal, the Gunilda took on water and slid backward, coming to rest two hundred forty feet beneath the surface. But more on that later.

Over the years, various efforts have been made to salvage the luxury yacht and its rumored treasure of jewels. Two men have died in dives on the wreck. One attempt to seize the boat with a grappling hook disturbed the hull, which slid fifty feet deeper. 

Among the scant treasures to have come from these efforts are a part of one mast, which stands as the flagpole outside the Rossport Inn, and a small lantern, which hangs on a wall in the hotel lobby. Built in 1884 to serve passengers of the new Canadian Pacific Railway, the two-story inn, called the Oriental Hotel until 1910, fell into disuse and disrepair during the 1970s. Ned Basher, a jet fighter pilot stationed in Duluth, discovered the inn while sailing among the Rossport islands. He bought the building in 1982 and refurbished it in time to open on the inn's centennial. These days, Ned, with a thick knot of gray hair, is an ambling and soft-spoken presence in the lobby and around the grounds. His wife, Shelagh, trim and brunette, waits tables and runs the kitchen. 

The inn's old, small rooms have the cozy charm of a nest, and after our long drive from the Cities, Susan and I immediately set about to nesting. After our nap, we walked the streets of town. Rossport remains a quaint village, through the fishing nowadays is strictly for sport, and the Canadian Pacific no longer stops. Slow, heavy freights snake along the twisting cliffs by the lake and roar into town. I put pennies on the track and waited with childish glee as a train rumbled by less than one hundred feet from the front door of the inn and set the windows to rattling. 

The northern bluebells were in bloom. So were the apple trees, a full month later than my tree at home. Sailors tended to two motorboats down at the government dock. The town has the slapdash look of the Canadian north and appears to have grown organically in the complete absence of zoning -- a mix of large homes with grand windows, small houses with compulsively tended yards, and tarpaper shacks in various states of decay surrounded by firewood, welding tanks, lumber, plywood and re-bar. The Forget-Me-Not Gift Shop, a wood-slab building facing the waterfront and now filled with tourist trinkets, began life as Molinski's Garage, built in 1936. We visited the town's two churches, one Catholic and the other Protestant, standing side by side on the ridge overlooking the lake. In the cemetery that stretches behind them, we learned the names of the one-time parishioners and townsfolk, including the Molinskis. 

After dinner -- grilled chicken and fresh trout at the inn -- Ned stoked the log sauna out back. We sweated in the dim glow of a lantern. The sauna wasn't hot, but I liked the lantern light and gloom of the sauna. I especially liked the idea of a sauna on the shore of the largest lake in the world. 

We cooled off on the wood deck, warmed up one last time, and rinsed off in the trickling wisp of a creek that ran nearby. We retired to the second-floor deck of the inn to smoke a Cuban cigar we bought in Thunder Bay. Well, it was reputed to be Cuban, but it smoked exceedingly hot and dry. Served us right, I suppose, for breaking the trade boycott in spirit, if not in law. 

Ned stopped by, and we all looked out over the dark outline of Quarry Island just beyond the harbor, with occasional interruptions from the Canadian Pacific. Ned said he had been stationed in Duluth and had flown F-4s, the muscular twin-engine fighter-bombers used in Vietnam. I asked if he was one of the guys who thundered barely above the treetops and nearly made me jump from the top of a granite overlook while hiking the North Shore. 

"Yep, I'm one of those guys," he said. "I apologize. I apologize for all the rest of them." 

Ned said he detected a whiff of prosperity in the air. The development boom was on in northeastern Minnesota: land prices were soaring and houses and condos were sprouting like mushrooms along the Superior shore. It would be a long time since such development would reach Rossport -- Lord knows, the Trans-Canada Highway connecting Thunder Bay to Sault Ste. Marie wasn't completed until 1960 -- but people were hungry for a taste of the old-time North Shore, as yet untainted by condos and golf courses. He talked about fixing up the broken-down general store on the main street "downtown." He suggested I buy it. 

"Fix it up, sell high-end stuff," Ned advised. "You know, we've got guys who'll come through here who'll pay $100 for a shirt. People like you. You've got good gear. You're not going to make it selling milk and bread. It needs someone with some imagination." 

A train rumbled by, shaking the inn, and filling my heart with glee. 

MORNING BROKE gray and cool, the hump of Quarry Island shrouded in fog. Susan and I launched our kayaks, packed with lunch along with extra food, warm clothes and a tarp in case the weather turned and forced us to spend the night among the islands. 

We paddled past the small island guarding the harbor, where we watched a raven repeatedly dive on a bald eagle, until the larger bird abandoned its perch at the top of a conifer and disappeared into the distance. We continued to the east, between Quarry Island, where light-colored sandstone was mined for buildings and bridges, and Nicol Island, where two operators named Smith and Mitchell butchered cattle to feed Canadian Pacific crews. Past Healey Island, we crossed to Channel Island, named, perhaps, for the clear view down the Schreiber Channel to the blue mounds of the Slate Islands in the far distance. 

Our kayaks moved as serenely as loons. Cobbles and outcrops, sharply outlined in clear water, passed beneath us and induced a kind of vertigo as though we flew over rough terrain. Occasionally, we heard the distant throb of the Canadian Pacific, so distant and diffuse that it seemed completely unrelated to the colorful cars inching along the gray-green cliffs. 

We explored the nooks and hidey-holes in the marbled cliffs of Channel Island. "It looks like beef," Susan exclaimed. It did, with green-white marbling throughout the bent and folded layers of red rock. A profusion of cedars, deep beds of moss, and a sprinkling of birch and spruce covered much of the shore. I enjoyed paddling these sheltered areas, getting a glimpse of the open lake without having to be out on it. We crossed the narrow channel to Wilson Island, and then across Swedes Gap to Copper Island, within two miles of the resting place of the Gunilda, covered now by impenetrable gray. 

Circling the south shore of Wilson Island, we burst upon the full expanse of Lake Superior -- or rather, it burst upon us, an unblinking flat line, an open fetch of more than one hundred miles. Within minutes, the wind came from nowhere, honing the waves to a sharp scalloped edge. Dark cliffs, looking toward the open lake, stood barren and grim. Battle Island and its lighthouse, where we had hoped to paddle, suddenly seemed far away. We landed on a beach in a cove, where a small stream ran to the lake, to pull on warmer clothes. On the sand, we spotted a wolfy scat. I teased it with a stick and it fell apart into hair and bones. 

Ned Basher had told me the keeper at Battle Island Light would row to the Sault for Christmas. I imagined sitting in the boat alone, pulling at the oars by day, camping along shore by night, for 250 miles, fresh snow on the land, a rim of clear ice along shore, clear days of subzero weather giving way to sudden storms. 

I was, I had learned, only as calm as the weather. I contemplated the days ahead, paddling down the long finger of Thunder Cape, across the open water and shipping lanes outside of Thunder Bay, in and out of the long string of small islands to the Minnesota shore. I reminded myself that the vagaries and dangers of Lake Superior can be sidestepped with time -- if only one gives oneself time, if one is willing to spend extra days on an isolated beach, waiting for the weather to clear. The challenge is not only weather, but also loneliness. Any change in weather, the slightest ruffle on a previously calm surface, begs the question -- Go? Or hold tight? Paddle on? Or take shelter? The decision must be made. And therein lies the anxiety: I like neither risking my life, nor spending long days alone. 

In Superior: The Haunted Shore, Wayland Drew referred to the lake's commercial fishermen, saying "No Europeans have lived more respectfully of the lake or with a more acute sense of vulnerability." They lived with this decision and no doubt felt the same anxiety -- no one more perhaps than Adolph King of Rossport, who almost daily over nine seasons would pilot his fishing boat to the unexploited fishery of Superior Shoal, nearly 40 miles from the nearest sheltering land. 

By contrast, I thought of William L. Harkness and his apparent impatience and arrogance -- poor lubricants in any decision. But Harkness had made the same mistake a second time. Local salvagers warned that the Gunildawas unstable and would list dangerously if she were simply towed off the reef. But Harkness, again suspecting he was being ripped off, would spend neither the time nor the money to hire and wait for additional assistance. Instead, he ordered the Gunilda removed. She slid off the reef, rolled hard to starboard, filled and sunk, lost forever, into Superior's depths. 

And so I resolved that as I continued in my travels around Superior, I, too, would live respectfully and not give in to arrogance or pride, or to let anything other than the lake determine my schedule. 

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