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Lake Superior: the north shore

Lake Superior is the largest lake in the world by surface area Lake Superior is the largest lake in the world by surface area
22 Mar
To retrace the route of the fur voyageurs on the waterways of northwest Ontario, Canada, Laura Cole embarks on a week-long canoe trip along the world’s largest lake

Voyageurs, avant!’ yells Veronique from the front of the canoe. Her back is to us. Her paddle is down, about to have it out with Lake Superior.

Usually the call for attention causes silence in the boat – she is our avant (French for ‘forward’ and the technical term for our lead bow-person) and we do what she says – but today we are quiet already. We are in the middle of crossing between two islands and have paddled hard for an hour. The shore behind us has become smaller but the one ahead, Pie Island, does not appear to have gotten any closer.

Following her lead, we put paddles back in the water and try to ignore the waves hitting the boat side-on. The wind, meanwhile, pushes against us from the front. It feels dramatic, not only because of the gusts in our faces and freshwater spray in our eyes, but also due to the fact that we are held in place, an hours’ paddle from land in either direction.

Many of our crew of 13 have canoeing and kayaking experience, but few would have braved an exposed crossing like this before. As far as we can tell, we are the only boat here. There’s no fear though, our guides have studied the maps and have checked the weather forecast by the minute. However, from the effort it takes us, there is a new respect for the people that could have crossed this gap without hesitation 200 years ago – the voyageurs of Canada’s beaver fur trade.



Geographic Location: North America, Canada
Latitude/Longitude: 47°42’0”N, 87°30’0”W
Primary inflows: Nipigon, St. Louis, Pigeon, Pic, White, Michipicoten, Kaministiquia Rivers
Primary Outflows: St Mary’s River
Surface area: 82,100 sq km (31,700 sq mile)
Maximum depth: 406m (1,333ft)
Shore length: 2,783km (1,729 mile)
Average underwater visibility: 9m (27ft)
Average water retention age: 191 years



The 13 of us had arrived at Lake Superior the evening before, with the aim of recreating a part of the voyageurs’ route. The voyageurs were master canoemen, usually French Canadians, who travelled using a special type of freight canoe through the rivers, waterfalls, and Great Lakes of what is now known as Ontario. At the height of the fur trade in the 1800s, there were an estimated 3,000 voyageurs to-ing and fro-ing goods from Montreal to the interior over a waterway of 5,000 kilometres.

Before any island crossings, we needed to become acquainted with Lake Superior. ‘Knowing and navigating the lake was of huge importance to the fur trade and the opening up of the northwest,’ explains Rodney Brown, folk musician and our in-boat historian on the fur trade in this part of Canada. Brown has spent two decades researching and retracing the steps of the region’s traders all over the lake’s shore. ‘This route became the backbone, a highway of movement in the region,’ he says.

When first seeing the lake, I was struck by its endless horizon. At 82,000 square kilometres, Superior is the largest lake in the world by surface area and is thought to hold ten per cent of the planet’s available freshwater. The second surprise is that it has waves. While the lake has no currents, it’s at the mercy of winds which can summon dangerous squalls of 40-foot waves, big enough to compete with any Atlantic storm.

On that first evening, it rolled with small but unrelenting wavelets that sprung up through the boards of a jetty on the bank and curled over the pebble beach with white caps. ‘We can’t start out in this,’ said Jake O’Flaherty, navigator and lead guide of our week-long expedition. ‘It would be better to pitch here for the night and set off first thing.’ Caution is his tenet for Lake Superior trips, and for good reason. ‘The place is full of wrecks and we’re not going to become one of them,’ he says. While the lake is known to be unpredictable, ‘mornings are almost always calmer’.

Sure enough, the next morning the lake was still enough to reflect the opposite stand of black spruce trees down to the details of individual trunks and branches. The voyageurs’ boat would have been piled with furs or trade goods with stocks of salted pork. Instead, we filled our canoe with dewy tents and industrial supplies of trail mix and jujubes (a North American gummy sweet). Next, we assembled our modern motley crew of teachers, lawyers, travellers and four guides Jake, Brittany, Veronique and Jack according to the old system of gouvernail (or ‘steerer’) at the back of the boat, the avant (or ‘boss’) at the front, and the milieux (or ‘middlemen’) sat between.

Eventually pushing off an hour after sunrise, it turned out we still were not hardcore enough. ‘The voyageurs would have already been up and on the water before dawn,’ says Brown. ‘They would have gone ashore for breakfast but after that they would have paddled for about 14 hours, taking a five-minute break for pipe smoking every hour. But that was it.’

It turns out competitive brawn was part of the job for the voyageurs. They would canoe from Montreal to the northwest corner of Lake Superior in four to six weeks, covering 50 to 70 miles per day. ‘Short, square, stocky men were the ideal kind of milieux,’ explains Rodney, ‘to cope with lifting all the cargo.’ Incidentally, hernias were a common cause of death.

In any other trade, the voyageurs would have been the hardiest group of workers, but this was a landscape of one-upmanship. Another group of men thought the Montreal canoemen, or ‘pork eaters’ had no right to complain – the hivernants, or winterers. ‘The hivernants were a higher class of voyageur who overwintered in the interior, transporting goods and building trade forts,’ explains Brown. ‘The two groups would meet at a “great gathering” or rendezvous at the trading post called Fort William, where the hivernants would make it very clear they thought the summer men were a waste of space.’

Travelling in August, we were blessed with prime voyageur weather, when the water can take on Mediterranean colours and clarity. Snakes warm themselves on beach rocks and the occasional bald eagle circles above, scanning for fish. To know hivernant weather, however, is to imagine the lake locked with ice, trees buckling under the weight of snow. Lake Superior’s north shore is often subject to Canada’s infamous -50ºC conditions.

canoeA traditional Montreal canoe



It was essential for the voyageurs and trading partners to have working relationships with First Nations in the region – the Ojibwe.

In the 1600s, the Ojibwe migrated to Lake Superior– or 
gitchi gami, the ‘great ocean’ from the east. With the arrival of explorers and fur traders, the skills that the Ojibwe had developed for their own survival – navigating the waterways, trapping for fur, surviving the winter – were turned to commercial advantages. The success of trading companies in region was dependent on interaction with Ojibwe.

As fur traders changed from French to British over a period of 300 years, there are many and contradicting accounts of the treatment of Ojibwe communities. However, there is little doubt among historians that colonial expansion into the ‘new world’ was damaging to their populations on the whole. New diseases such as smallpox greatly reduced communities, while the change from subsistence culture to a dependence on trade made livelihoods unstable.

As British colonists began to settle, rights to land and resources became (and remains) a dominant issue. The Ojibwe communities of Lake Superior entered into a series of pioneering treaties that surrendered land in exchange for reserves, annual payments and rights to areas for hunting and fishing. The Lake Superior Ojibwe’s ‘numbered treaties’ became a model for the rest of Canada after its confederation in 1867.

Upholding these treaties is an ongoing source of tension and debate. In fact, in 2011 the Fort William First Nation finally settled a long-fought land dispute, where the reserve lands did not meet the size agreed in the treaty. Along with a financial compensation, Pie Island and nearby Flatland Island was made part of the Fort William reserve.



We followed the land around the peninsula known as the Sleeping Giant. Its name comes from the shape of its flat-topped mesa formations, arranged in such a way that it resembles a human figure – 15 miles long, laid down on its back – from certain angles. According to one legend of Ontario’s Ojibwe First Nations, the giant was turned to stone when he revealed the whereabouts of a rich silver deposit to white prospectors.

It was here that we found ourselves on the crossing to Pie Island, launching from what would be the giant’s feet and braving the open water. The water turns from turquoise to an unnerving black with its depth (Superior is also the deepest of the Great Lakes, with more volume than all the others combined), but putting eerie thoughts to the side, we make it to the shore in two hours, finding more energy as the uninhabited island comes closer into view. Tents are pitched along a semi-circular shore, behind us dense forests hang over a 400-metre plateau. As dusk turns the island blue, it’s easy to imagine the voyageurs dotted on a shore like this, their pipes making small lights on the beach.

A day later and we’re grounded with bad weather near Sturgeon Bay. Under shelter, the party swap canoeing stories over maple whiskey and Brittany comes back from the woods with handfuls of wild raspberries. Jake pulls out the map to look over the final destination – Fort William on the Kaministiquia river. Within the area is a lake called Loch Lomond.

It’s no coincidence that Scottish names are predominant. ‘When people talk about British fur traders in this area, they mean Scottish,’ says Brown. Scottish highlanders had enormous impact on the expansion of Canada’s northwest. After the highland clearances and Jacobite uprisings of the 18th century, a succession of Scots came to North America to make their fortune. Highlander Simon McTavish was one of them. He swapped the valleys of Stratherrick for the thick forests of the Canadian shield to set up the North West Company.

‘They built a big trading outpost near the Pigeon river, which gave them access to the interior,’ says Brown, pointing at a part of the map which is now modern-day Minnesota. One objective was fur, the NWC wanted to rival the trading giant, the Hudson Bay Company, which held a powerful monopoly over the north. The second was to discover a river passage to the Pacific Ocean in the hope of linking trade between Asia, North America and Europe. The Fraser and Mackenzie rivers were named after the famous Scots who, encouraged by the North West Company, explored their lengths.

However, in the early 1800s the Americans begin to enforce their new northern border, which meant the NWC had to move its trading post to a river further north – the Kaministiquia. ‘It built a new fort there,’ describes Brown, ‘and named it after William McGillivray, nephew of McTavish and by that point, the chief partner of the company. Nepotism was traditional in a company that was run like a Highland estate.’



Lake Superior has some of the oldest geology in the world. In fact, it was born out of fiery volcanic activity that almost broke North America in two: the Midcontinent Rift.

Like the rift valley in Africa, the Midcontinent Rift was created by a break in the tectonic plate pulling slowly apart. A rift valley is thought to have spread in a high arch across the land surface from present-day Kansas up to Ontario and back down to Ohio, with Lake Superior in its middle. In the rift’s fissures, molten basalt bubbled up and spread wide and flat across the Earth’s surface. The basalt solidified, weighing down the existing rock to create the beginnings of the Lake Superior basin. It is possible to see these old basalt flows all over the North shore of the lake, given away by its tell-tale dark colour. Some features still have a liquid appearance even though they are 1.1 billion years old.

A rift that size can result in the formation of a new sea, however, this rift ‘failed’ leaving the North American continent intact. Over the following billion years, the basalt basin filled with softer sedimentary rock. That is, until glaciers carved through the landscape 2.5 million years ago, scooping an enormous bowl for the lake as its seen today.



Our final day of canoeing takes us to Fort William, and the transition from lake to river is astounding. ‘This is really the guts of Thunder Bay,’ says Jack, as we paddle past grain elevators, factories, and power generators. What would once have been the marshy banks of the delta have been straightened into a lattice of railroads. I count 70 boxcars on one train before it turns away out of sight and I’m warned that Canadian cargo trains can go on for three or four kilometres.

The keel of a freight ship comes into view, its deep hold being filled with grain from a silo on land. A handful of its crew come to watch us go by from its deck but its so high above us we can barely make out their facial expressions. ‘I’ll bet they’re pretty intimidated by us,’ says Jack, dryly. For a short moment the two vessels float side by side, the old and new way of transporting Canada’s resources.

The site of the original Fort William is hidden under a railway yard somewhere in these banks. However, we continue up the Kaministiquia. Nine miles upriver the Ontario government built a full-size working recreation of the historical site, and they are expecting us.

The river becomes more suburban, banked by riverside cottages. Then, up ahead, there’s cannon fire, followed by the offensive blare of... bagpipes? In full – and very surreal – rendezvous spirit, actors in voyageur and nor’wester costume pull us off the water and into the Fort. Complete with a reconstruction of the raised Great Hall and a working farm, it’s an impressive sight. On first entry, a striking feature is the 1,000m-long wall running around its perimeter. As with the original, the wooden wall was not created for any military use, but purely as a sign of power.

Its dominance could not last forever though. ‘The collapse of the beaver populations, rising tensions and crippled finances meant that the British government forced the NWC to merge with its nemesis, the Hudson Bay Company,’ explains Brown. ‘The HBC moved trade to its bigger depot in York Factory so Fort William fell out of use.’

With or without the NWC, global trade had arrived in Canada. Even as interest in fur declined, Fort William’s geographical position on the northwest corner of the Great Lake system meant that it would remain the gateway to the interior’s raw materials for another century and into the present day

We pack the boat gear into the bus. However, standing on the bank of the Kaministiquia – having arrived on it via the largest lake in the world – the mind can’t help wandering northwards and upriver to the similarly enormous country beyond.




8000-500 BC
Archaic Indian people first settle in Lake Superior region.

Ojibwe Indigenous Peoples thought to have migrated west to Lake Superior from St Lawrence river.

French explorer Étienne Brûlé believed to be first European to see Lake Superior.

French explorers Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Médard des Groseilliers begin two-year expedition around the lake.

Hudson Bay Company is formed, beginning significant fur trade around Lake Superior.

Seven Years War. The Ojibwe side with the French. France loses control of the lands in Canada and the Midwest to the British.

British fur trade prospers on Lake Superior’s north shore. Grand Portage becomes the inland headquarters of the North West Company.

The end of the American War of Independence. All the land south of the Great Lakes becomes American soil.

North West Company moves headquarters north to Kaministiquia river, after the US begins to enforce border.

War of 1812 between US and British. First Nations put aside differences and come together. They strategically ally with the British to fight encroaching US forces. While many did not trust the British, they were seen as a lesser colonial evil.

Treaties of Robinson-Superior are first of ‘numbered treaties’ granting rights to land, payment and to the region’s Ojibwe communities.

Confederation of the Dominion of Canada formed.

Canadian Pacific Railway constructed.

Canadian Pacific Railway destroys last building of original Fort William site.

Saint Lawrence Seaway opens, giving access to the Great Lakes to Atlantic shipping. Thunder Bay ports become the furthest northwest in the Great Lakes, 3,700km from the sea.

City of Thunder Bay formed by merger of Fort William and Port Arthur.

Canada’s bicentennial anniversary.

Naturally Superior Adventures: www.naturallysuperior.com
Destination Ontario: www.ontariotravel.net/en/home
Fort William Historical Park: www.fwhp.ca

This was published in the March 2018 edition of Geographical magazine

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