Kayaking the Rossport Islands

Off Ontario's Superior coast, a lighthouse is an irresistible destination.

The beach of Wilson Island is filled with beautiful stones.

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At the top of Lake Superior, there's a dramatic coast lined with rugged cliffs, cobblestone beaches and islands.

It's the home of Parks Canada's new Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area, created last October to protect the waters between the Sibley Peninsula, east of Thunder Bay, and the Slate Islands, off Terrace Bay.

The many islands are big, much like the Apostles in Wisconsin except closer together. That makes them ideal for kayaking. The Slate archipelago, where caribou live, attracts serious kayakers. But the Rossport Islands are perfect for any paddler.

Two hours east of Thunder Bay, novices can explore the small islands around Rossport's harbor, shielded from the big lake by a quartet of large outer islands.

More adventurous paddlers can make their way out to a third tier of islands, smaller but shielded from winds that blow from the north.

On one of those islands, there's a 1911 lighthouse, one of the last Great Lakes lighthouses still tended by a keeper when it was automated in 1991. The retired keeper still spends his summers tending its grounds, and if he's in a good mood, he'll show visitors around.

One July, I paddled out to Battle Island with my husband and guide Aaron Nicholson of Superior Outfitters in Rossport. More than a decade before, I'd paddled the inner islands with Superior Outfitters owner Dave Tamblyn, who worked out of his house until he built a harborfront shop in 2007.

Despite the superb kayaking, Rossport isn't much of a tourist destination. Tamblyn says he hopes that will change now the Rossport Islands are part of the world's largest freshwater conservation area.

"Just having the "Parks Canada'' sign on the highway would help draw people in,'' he says. "We hear over and over from people who say they've driven by Rossport hundreds of times.''

An amiable outfitter

When we were there, Tamblyn planned to spend the day tiling his shop, so we paddled into the lake with Nicholson. Most U.S. outfitters would cancel a kayaking trip if only two people signed up; not the easygoing Tamblyn, who's a high-school principal during the year.

Islands rise in tiers around the harbor, and we headed for the gaps between them. As we passed Channel Island, 300 feet from the lake, Nicholson said it had sold to documentary producer Ken Storm Jr.

"A lot of these islands are for sale,'' he said. "We thought some guy from the States would come and drop a big resort on Channel, and that would be the end of little Rossport. But a guy from the National Geographic bought it for not very much money and put a little cabin on it and said that's all he'd do.''

We pulled into Wilson Island so my husband could adjust his foot rest and stepped out onto a magnificent cobblestone beach.

There were smooth, round stones in an array of colors and stripes, a paradise for children and rockhounds, and I realized that this is what every beach on Lake Superior must have looked like before tourists began carting off the prettiest stones for landscaping.

A bald eagle burst from the trees as we paddled away. As we approached Salter Island, the slight chop of the waves calmed into near glass.

Lulled by the fair skies and easy paddling, I was surprised when Nicholson pointed out a rock shoal nearing my bow, in the middle of the channel. The islands provide haven, he said, but not necessarily safe passage.

"It's taken down some big ships,'' he said. "Have you heard about the Gunilda?''

Historic arrogance

The Gunilda was an American luxury yacht that tried to sail into Rossport in 1911. Its captain asked its owner, a New York oil baron, to let him hire a local pilot to guide them around the shoals, but the owner balked at the fee.

The yacht grounded, and a tug was called to pull it off. The tug captain recommended that two boats be used to lift the 166-foot boat off the rock, but the owner again refused to pay the extra cost. 

As soon as the Gunilda was pulled free, it sank in 265 feet of water, with all its mahogany, crystal, china and fine wine.

Many people have tried to salvage it, Nicholson said, but so far have succeeded only in bringing up part of the mast, now the flagpole of the Rossport Inn. Jacques Cousteau called it the most beautiful wreck in the world.

The well-preserved wreck, its gold-leaf scrollwork clearly visible, is a favorite site for technical divers, who call it "the G spot.''

"It's fun to hear the stories,'' Nicholson said. "There are still people around here with a treasure-hunt mentality.''

We pulled into Battle Island, had lunch on the curving harbor, then walked down a spruce-lined path to the immaculate keeper's house and tower. There was no sign of keeper Bert Saasto, and Nicholson warned us that he doesn't always socialize with visitors.

'The genuine article'

But as we were hanging around on the lichen-covered point, admiring clumps of deep-purple harebells nodding in the breeze, Saasto walked up. We introduced ourselves, and he started talking about life on the rocks.

"GPS put lighthouses out of business,'' he said with a wry smile. "I was the last keeper. I'm the genuine article.''

Every September, Saasto has a helicopter pick him up and take him to Thunder Bay for the winter.

But when he was working, he stayed through November, and he was on the island during a 1977 storm in which 30- to 40-foot waves lifted fuel tanks off their concrete cradles and pounding surf blew out the windows of the tower, 70 feet above the lake.

"The most frightening thing is the sound,'' he said. "It's like a freight train going by; it's deafening. That's what puts the fear of God into you, the sound.''

It wasn't the last storm he weathered during his 14 years as keeper.

"It's what they call a sublime experience  you're fascinated and afraid at the same time,'' he said.

We'd just visited a half-dozen other Superior lighthouses, so we traded stories for a while, and then he got his keys and opened the gates to the tower, which we admired from the concrete helipad. Then he said, "Well, do you want to go up?''

It was the first time Nicholson ever had been invited to climb the tower. Battle Island Light never had a Fresnel lens, and when we reached the top, we were surprised to see a bulb the size of a book light, a 100-watt halogen bulb with a revolving parabolic reflector  low-tech, but still effective for 10 miles.

From the catwalk, we had a panoramic view of the islands, and we thought we could see Isle Royale on the horizon, but Saasto said it was a mirage.

"You can't see below the horizon,'' he said. "You can only see 30 miles, and it's 80 miles south until you hit Yankee Doodle land.''

By then, Saasto was getting warmed up. The lighthouse was removed on nearby Talbot Island, which was called the Island of Doom, he said, because three of its keepers died there. Of course, a keeper drowned on Battle Island, too.

"It's not for everyone,'' he said. "Some people try it and go stir crazy, but I always have a lot to keep me busy.''

When we headed back, the waters still were calm. But when we emerged into the Wilson Channel, the winds were coming from the north and also the northwest, the only two directions from which islands don't protect kayakers.

The waves were breaking every which way, and Nicholson called them "confused seas.''

"It's hard to read the water when the wind is breaking on the islands,'' he said.

It was hard work paddling, and several times waves filled my spray skirt with water. But our 17-foot sea kayaks didn't waver.

"I've had waves hit me in the face and wash over my head, and the boat is still very stable,'' Nicholson said.

It wasn't the free ride we got paddling out, but it was still a treat. When we got back, he gave us a map of the islands and campsites, and said we needed to come back for an overnight stay. It's already on our list.

Trip Tips: Kayaking the Rossport Islands

Getting there: Rossport is about three hours from the U.S. border at Grand Portage. Because Ontario is on Eastern Standard Time, people entering from Minnesota will lose an hour.

Border details: U.S. residents need passports. Don't bring more than 8.5 liters of  beer or 1.5 liters of wine per adult. The Canada Border Services Agency has details.

Kayaking: Superior Outfitters rents kayaks and offers half-day instructional sessions. It also offers full-day tours, two-day tours and five-day paddles to the Slate Islands, where a herd of caribou lives. Call 807-824-3314.

Hiking: The Casque Isles Trail follows the shore of Lake Superior 32 miles east from Rossport to Terrace Bay.

There are five signed and groomed segments and access points from the highway, but hard-core hikers could carry a light pack and do it in two days, staying midway in Schreiber.

Accommodations: Guests should know that trains go through the village, including two or three at night.

In Rossport, the Willows Inn B&B has a view of the harbor from its pretty deck and four attractive rooms. The Quarry Room has two single beds; the Wilson has a sitting area with a great view.

Rates include a hot breakfast, and proprietors Dawn King and Robert Muller also will prepare lunches and dinners. Reserve at 877-825-1275.

The Serendipity Gardens Guest House doesn't have a view, but its four suites, each under hand-crafted Romanesque-style arches, are visually arresting.

When we stayed there, we were given keys at the cafe, a box of muffins and juice and left to fend for ourselves, but according to the guest book, most guests feel well-attended. The suites have kitchenettes. 807-824-2890.

Camping: Nearby Rainbow Falls Provincial Park has two campgrounds with showers, a beach on Whitesand Lake and, of course, a beautiful waterfall. The Casque Isles Trail runs through the park, and canoes and bicycles can be rented. 807-825-3406.

Dining: Serendipity Gardens Cafe is very pleasant place to eat and has a view of the bay.

Nearby attractions: For more, see Circling Lake Superior.

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