A canoe on Gitche Gumee?

The following is a guest blog from my amazing friend Katie. Captions, most photos, a few inserted comments, and a few words at end are by me (Markus). Here's Katie:

When I told my folks of my plan to join Markus for part of his trip on the ‘great lake they call gitche gumee’, they wondered, more than once, if I was aware of her legend. I would generally respond, that yes, this was a gusty lake, but my upcoming adventure was just a puddle crossing relative to Markus’s previous and planned voyages. As Markus later pointed out, it may not actually make my folks feel better that I was getting in a canoe with someone who’d already attempted an ocean crossing and was planning to do it again.

Indeed, hundreds of ship wrecks have made Superior’s wrath famous, not least the Edmund Fitzgerald, and I was planning for a wet, cold trip. Thankfully for me, we did not experience the early November Gales that Lightfoot memorialized in song (Listen now). Superior that week in September was nothing less than glorious. Yes, the wind blew straight at us 6 days of 7, and the swell was arguably better suited to sea kayaks than canoes, but for the most part that week she was sunny and stunning.

The following is my attempt to capture the highlights of this adventure.

Part 1: From Vancouver to Thunder Bay

Early July: Markus meets me in Vancouver the day he’s flying to Toronto on the last airplane he’s going to take in 5 years. Having seen him only once since we graduated, I’m looking forward to spending some time with him before he leaves and to see him off on this positive journey of epic proportions. Our short visit was inspiring - Markus has a way of empowering those around him to also want to do amazing things. The seed is planted for me to join him along the way somewhere…

The months and weeks prior to starting were some of the most stressful in my life.

The months and weeks prior to starting were some of the most stressful in my life.

Late July: My friend Heather and I decide we’re going to travel together in the fall. Options include Iceland, Portugal or Colombia. We choose Colombia. Neither of us speaks Spanish. I’m going to meet Heather in Toronto to fly to Bogota after Ali Brough’s wedding in Muskoka (Ali is a former Dal roommate, TCS alum and Routes of Change supporter). Looks like Markus is going to be somewhere on Superior by that time. My brother is in Thunder Bay. Markus speaks Spanish. I just finished making a (giant) canoe paddle. The universe has aligned and the path is clear.

That paddle was beautiful and well made. I wish I had the time to make one myself.

That paddle was beautiful and well made. I wish I had the time to make one myself.

Sometime in August: I am wrapping up the most intense project I’ve ever been a part of, a 2 year slog assessing the risk of, and building the case against, Kinder Morgan’s proposed Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project and the associated 7 fold increase in tankers in the Vancouver harbour. Are you curious? Click here. I need to disconnect, de-stress and appreciate the great outdoors far from my computer. A canoe trip is just the ticket. I tell my folks I’m going to fly to Thunder Bay to visit my brother Matt and his girlfriend Sarah, then meet up with Markus wherever he is (hopefully South East of T-Bay) and paddle with him as far as I can. I’ll take care of meal planning for the trip and pick up supplies in T-Bay.

Late August: Major windstorm hits Vancouver, my plan to pack and do meal planning for the trip is sidelined by a week-long emergency response operation (that’s what I do). Markus is also battling winds coming towards Gitche Gumee and its unclear how far he’ll make it or where we’ll meet up. I’m at the edge of burn-out from several 18 hour days in the emergency operations centre. Mostly though I’m concerned that we will starve because I haven’t thought about food, and that I’m going to be so exhausted from work that I’ll drown. Markus wonders how I’m going to pack for our canoe trip, a wedding, and 3 weeks in Colombia and not sink the boat.

By this time, Markus has met Mark in Blind River and has swapped out his Algonquin Outfitters Canoe for Mark’s trimaran. This will get him closer to a good location for us to meet up, but adds another level of logistical planning requirements. We need to organize a replacement canoe, and figure out how to get the Algonquin Canoe from Blind River back to the Outfitters in Muskoka. I go into contingency planning mode, initiating a 24/7 food dehydration operation that will simultaneously keep us fed and ensure my garden bounty doesn’t go to waste (Thanks Marissa and Rachel!). My folks (greatest parents on earth) offer to come to Thunder Bay and pick me up, along with the other canoe, and drive us both to Muskoka.  Sarah happens to have a contact who runs an outfitters in T-Bay and can lend a canoe. Matty organizes food barrels (actually 3 olive oil barrels, genious really) from his friend Simon in T-Bay. Friends from all over help me out by recommending their favourite camp meals and I create a menu and shopping list. Amazingly, everything is coming together.

Sept 5: On a plane to Toronto and then Thunder Bay. Packed for a 7 day canoe trip, a wedding, and 3 weeks in Colombia. Travelling with a paddle packed in a bag with the following dehydrated foods: 5 zucchinis, thai curry meal (thanks Tamsin!), 20 tomatoes, squash soup and blueberries. Have never dehydrated anything before. I hope this works. Matty and Sarah pick me up in Thunder Bay! The relief is instant and I can’t wipe the smile from my face.

Sept 6 ,7: Markus says it’s really windy out there – some of the biggest waves he’s seen yet. He’s hoping he makes it to Rossport and I can join him there. I’m bracing for wind and rain, but hopeful that the forecast is changing. I finish packing the meals and pick up the canoe. Matt and Sarah have been amazing- hosting me, making cookies, lending me their vehicle, hooking me up with various pieces of gear, and offering Markus a place when he arrives.

Sept 8: I get on the highway, driving Matt and Sarah’s car to Rossport, Mom and Dad will pick it up when they pass through a few days later. Holy shit. I’m excited. I hope I have everything. The canoe shifts on the roof. Stop car, tie down canoe again. Continue.

I arrive in Rossport to meet Markus who has decided to crash at the Willows Inn B&B – he deserves a hot shower and some laundry. I’m ok with him cleaning up too. Rossport is beautiful. Serendipitously we meet Heather and her 2 kids who are stranded en route to Blind River. Heather has boundless energy and absolutely no qualms about strapping Markus’s latest vessel, the Trimaran to the roof of her van, along with the hardtop luggage carrier, and taking it to Blind River for return. Heather is a medical geologist doing work to expose the health impacts on First Nations people of the poisoning of their community waterways as a result of various industrial operations, most recently fracking in Northeastern BC. Heather has a lot to say about this. It is fascinating.

Part 2: The Adventure Begins – Rossport to St. Ignace Island

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Sept 9 - Day 1 (for me, Day 58 for Markus): By 1:00 pm Heather and her kids are packed up and roll out to Blind River. In all the commotion, Markus and I have spoken about 10 words to each other since I arrived last night. It’s lunch time. We decide to eat before getting a very late start in the canoe. The water was calm in the morning but as we loaded up the trimaran (which involved the complete emptying and re-loading of Heather’s very full van), I watched a bit nervously as the wind crept around the corner and began to whip up the water. Whitecaps are forming. It’s pretty sheltered here, I think. It’s going to be windy out there. Our trip begins. “Listo?” Says Markus, seemingly unperturbed by the conditions. “No hablo espanol.” We take advantage of my wedding attire, I put on my heels for a pre-launch shot and we set off into the wind.

Something about high heels in a canoe got me excited.

Something about high heels in a canoe got me excited.

We head diagonally across the inlet as the wind pushes the water around both sides of Vein Island and the waves crash together in front of us. I immediately realize that Markus’s perception of “close to shore” is much different that my own, and drastically different than my Dad’s. I suppose when you cross an ocean that’s what happens. (Markus: hahaha..I never knew. Sometimes closer to shore is closer to danger though. What was that word? Clinitis?) But the feeling of paddling hard into the wind and being out on the water is exhilarating. We made the first short crossing and decided to camp that night on Minnie Island. A short day gave us time to get set up and settle into each other’s company. We exchange some Spanish and Markus shows me how the GPS works. The decision to be made is which side of Simpson Island we will travel along tomorrow.

The Wolf’s Head is the most likely comparison that people make with the shape of Superior, but the part that we were travelling looked more to me like a whale’s tail, with Simpson and St. Ignace islands making up one side, and the Black Bay Peninsula making the other. We were at the far tip of it and either had to travel on the inside (North) or the outside (South). Either way, we would definitely have to paddle on the South side of the tail when we got past St Ignace Island. I was glad that Markus, a surfer, adventurer, and experienced paddler, had a good handle on the marine forecast. Given that the winds were forecast to come from the North West for the next few days, he opted to navigate us along the South side where we’d at times be fully exposed to all of Lake Superior, but hopefully sheltered somewhat from the North wind.  

It's edible, but we didn't go there.

It's edible, but we didn't go there.

Sept 10 - Day 2 (KM) / Day 59 (MP):

Although I am pretty damn good at logistics and organizing big things, it’s the small things often elude me. Markus is up and packed in minutes, while I search for just about everything. He clearly has a system down that I do not. I’m relieved that my habit of losing important things several times a day, doesn’t seem to faze him. It would be a long trip otherwise. (Markus: It didn't faze me one bit, Katie smiled through it all and I was never actually waiting for her to be ready. mp)

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We push off after a late breakfast and head towards Simpson Island. I can barely contain my happiness. Paddling offers this incredible meditative state and being on Superior makes me feel satisfyingly small; it lends a different kind of perspective to life and all its challenges. The stress and mania of my pre-trip preparations melt away.

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We are on what is now designated as a Coastal Marine trail. The shoreline is spectacular, the Inland Sea is well named not just for its size and the swell, but for the resemblance it has to the ocean. Aqua-marine waters and jagged black cliffs remind me of the coastline around Ucluelet.  

Around 11:00 am we are about to round the corner to come to the first of many crossings that would pit us into the wind. Markus’s calculations are largely based on an “as the crow flies” approach, which again, is different than my Dad’s preferred “close to the shoreline” approach – but close to the shoreline would tack on kilometers we couldn’t afford. The trees ahead were bending in the wind. We decide to take a break to assess. Although in future days we’d make crossings in significantly more challenging conditions, the wind stops us this time. I’m ok with this as I’m still gaining confidence in my paddling ability. Plus, this gives us a chance to explore an incredible shoreline – the black basalt rocks were stunning.

Markus and I don’t talk a whole lot when we’re paddling into the wind, so the breaks are a nice chance talk to about what we’ve been noticing. We wonder if any vessels have met their match on this island. The winds die down a little bit, we give up our search for buried treasure, and head off in the direction of a rainbow towards St. Ignace Island.

I’m impressed and appreciative that Markus has mastered the art of building a cooking fire in 5 minutes flat. That evening, while cooking up a meal of halloumi cheese and wild halibut chilli (yes, it was gourmet), we have our first 3 visitors – otters coming to check us out and entertain us with their synchronized swimming display. It’s a beautiful night.

Katie's meal plan was so good it didn't lend itself well to photos.

Katie's meal plan was so good it didn't lend itself well to photos.

Our second campsite as seen from the water.

Our second campsite as seen from the water.

 Part 3: The Generosity of Strangers

Sept 11- Day 3 (KM)/ Day 60 (MP)
It’s amazing how spending 2 days in a canoe with someone can make you feel like you’ve known each other forever. Without speaking, our roles and strengths are sorting themselves out. Markus keeps me abreast of where we are heading, but I’m fully reliant on him for navigation. (Markus: I thought you were steering us?) When it’s calm we talk – he regales me with adventures that make me want to travel again – walking giant cats in the jungle, rowing the Mississippi, you know, the usual. He teaches me some survival Spanish and gives me some tips for my upcoming trip to Colombia. I ask about his journey thus far and we talk about the different people he’s met along the way. It’s an interesting study to think about the way that different people have reacted to Routes of Change - For the most part they are supportive and generous, but at other times suspicious and unwelcoming. That day we meet the only 3 people we will see on our entire journey, and all of whom fit under the “welcoming and supportive” category.

After our first stretch of headwinds we turn the corner into a sheltered bay and see smoke rising out of a log cabin in front of us. Pulling up we’re greeted by a friendly German Shepard who nearly climbs aboard. We follow the dog around the property until we run into Robert, cutting wood for the winter – there have to be several cords already stacked. He is surprised and pleased to have visitors, in particular ones who have arrived by canoe in September and invites us in for coffee. When he hears of the full scope of Markus journey, he adds some Carolyn’s to our mugs. We learn that over the course of a few decades he has cleared this land and built his camp along with several outbuildings with his own hands. It is truly a labour of love and the details are impressive – from the small bridges crossing the creeks to the benches perfectly located along the shoreline, you can tell he’s put his heart and soul into this place. He tells us that he lives in Nipigon with his wife and he comes here every chance he gets. Before we leave he tells us to watch out for Gordie and Ava – who have a camp around the way, and to make sure that we stay at the CPR slip that night. We thank him for his kindness and paddle onwards.

An hour or so later, we have the good fortune of running into Gordie and Ava – they are in their boat having just dropped off some fresh baked bread to another neighbour. These 2 are the epitome of a great relationship. Ava wants to make sure that I know that Markus is crazy for taking me out here in September. Her reaction when we tell her that he’s going around the world is astounding – she can barely contain her emotion- with tears in her eyes she asks if she can take a picture. Markus does the same. They tell us again about the CPR Slip and wish us well.

The CPR Slip is not quite as far as we’d intended to go but it is well worth it. A piece of land owned by a family from Nipigon, the site has been made available to the public and maintained by volunteers over the years. The dozen or so guestbooks and pictures on the wall tell a story of community and generosity that is all too rare.

Markus and I take full advantage of the sauna, making a few round trips between the lake and the heat, and then make up our own rules to one of the many games built around the property.

Cooking up pizza on the woodstove and sleeping on the beds is an unexpected and welcome treat. This has been the best day yet, definitely worth the stop. I feel energized by the kindness of Robert, Ava and Gordie, and the generosity of all those who have made the CPR slip a welcoming place for boaters and adventurers a like.

Sept 12- Day 4 (KM) / Day 61 (MP)

Our windiest day yet begins as just the opposite. The water is so glassy and calm I can’t believe it. This side of the island is totally different from Simpson Island, but equally as stunning. The colours on the cliffs leap out in the sun and look like they must’ve been painted on. Even the trees are different here. When we stop we find entirely different ecosystems, including the most hardy raspberries I have ever seen!  

We clear the west edge of St Ignace in record time, but by early afternoon the winds have come up again. We have made less distance in the last few days than we wanted to, and the long-term forecast looks menacing. At this point however, we are at the mercy of Gitche Gumee and our path is set, there are very few islands left to hide behind and we have several large crossings to go, including across the Black Bay to the Sleeping Giant. This is an exposed crossing about 16 km wide with only one island in the middle.

Despite the water we keep bailing from the boat, and the fact that I’m drenched from head to toe with the brim of my hat permanently glued against my forehead to prove the direction of the wind, I’m feeling more confident and Markus and I are having a good time. He keeps saying I’m a strong paddler but I can’t imagine what would happen if he weren’t in the stern. Whenever he stops to eat or take a picture we quickly start turning in circles or just going backwards. (Markus: I wasn't just saying that, Katie was super strong and I couldn't steer that boat from the bow either!) There is nothing to do but revel in the experience and appreciate the smallness of each of us on this planet. I’m exhausted by the time we reach our destination for the night -  A small island across from a very sketchy looking camp. We are barely sheltered from the wind. At some point in the past somebody has obviously used this site as a garbage dump – there are piles of glass underneath layers of moss. Still, its calm and quiet at night. Life is good.

Part 4: The final (slightly delayed) stretch

Sept 13 – Day 5 (KM) / Day 62 (MP)    

This day marks the 2 month anniversary of the beginning of Markus’s trip. Nature is celebrating this milestone by offering up 20 knot winds later in the day and we intentionally get up before sunrise to catch what we can of the calm before the storm. It doesn’t last long and we paddle our hearts out to get to the western tip of the whale tail – soaked but still smiling we have reached the Black Bay. It’s time to stop and consider our options. There is a wind warning in effect for the next 24 hours or so. We have enough food for 2 extra days – although it won’t be the gourmet style meals we’ve had thus far. Paddling along the shoreline of the Black Bay is not an option- it would add 80 km to our trip. Because of a few late starts, high winds and early stops, we’ve averaged only about 10 – 15 km per day so far. I’m well aware that Markus has been doing much more than this on other parts of his trip and hope I’m not the reason we’re moving so slowly. (Markus: Along with the weather, you WERE the reason, but only because I was in no rush to get the trip over with. It was a pleasure paddling with you)

We pull the boat onto a windswept island and walk to the edge to look across at our destination. The answer is obvious – the swell suggests that you can likely surf somewhere nearby and there’s no way we’re going to attempt the crossing today. Despite the wind, it’s a beautiful sunny day. Markus gets a bit of signal so he can update his blog and we take the time to get some good footage. For much of the afternoon we explore this tiny but incredibly vibrant island on our own. I am always amazed at the strength of small things – yarrow flowers, wizened spruce trees and juniper bushes cling to the rocks. There are blueberries hidden in patches around the island. We find a less windy spot behind a small patch of trees and hang out in the sunshine. The thai curry meal we have that night is stellar.

Sept 14 – Day 6 (KM)  / Day 63 (MP)

Despite the forecast from the day before, we wake up to find the water relatively calm. We eat quickly and jump in the canoe to get as far as we can. We have 65 km or so to go, and if I’m going to make Ali’s wedding, we better do it in 2 days. The pressure is on for the first time and maybe that’s why this is the first day that is really mentally hard. I’m feeling sore for the first time also.

We make it a quick 5 km or so before the wind starts blowing. It’s coming West South West this time – right at us. (Markus: I remember it being beam which was a bit sketchier for me). My arms are tired and I’m constantly smashing my hands against the gunnels. It’s that frustrating feeling of banging your shin – you could cry but it wouldn’t help so you just grit your teeth and curse, take a few deep breaths and keep paddling. Markus has a way of keeping a positive attitude- I’m feeling a bit foolish for being moody today – this is a small trip in the context of his bigger journey. (Markus: For being moody Katie was still smiling and a pleasure to paddle with.) But maybe my emotions are a reflection of what happens when we allow the pressure of being on time to get to us. The last few days, with no deadlines or stresses, I had been so relaxed and free. We finally made it to a sheltered side of an island and slip past a giant bald eagle staring down at us from a low branch in a tree. He was sending me a message - I needed to let it go and accept the situation. This too shall pass.

In 10 hours of hard paddling we only made about 15 kms. I was so tired. Anytime we stopped for a break in the boat it felt like we blew back hundreds of meters, so we didn’t stop often. The waves were massive. (it mellowed out greatly on the lee side of island)

Our final campsite of the journey would be on Edward Island on a rocky shoreline. The next day we had to travel 50 km, to the other side of Black Bay, around the Sleeping Giant, and the 25 km across from the tip of the Sleeping Giant to the Thunder Bay harbour. It was daunting to say the least.

Sept 15 – Day 7 (KM) / Day 65 (MP)

Not sure if this would be our last day on the water we got up early and set off. Gitchee Gumee was on our side today for the first time yet. The wind was finally in our favour. It was warm and sunny and I’m not sure we could’ve done it in any other conditions. The favourable winds and calm water meant that, although we had to paddle consistently, Markus and I were actually able to talk as we went.

We were wondering aloud about the history of First Nations in the region, and discussing how different the acknowledgement of their history was by most people here, in Ontario, compared to BC. We tried to imagine what the islands we’d stayed on, with names like Minnie and Simpson and Edward, were known as to the people who’d lived here since time immemorial. We also wondered why the islands seemed so uninhabitated by all but eagles. It was a sad conversation really, as we neared Thunder Bay we started to see the clearcuts, and we knew soon we’d see the smoke stacks. But then something really amazing happened.
 

Markus first noticed the bear from several hundred metres away, walking briskly along the shoreline. Although we were downwind it didn’t notice us. We paddled closer. In all my years of treeplanting and multiple bear encounters I’ve never had one as cool as this. We were within 50 m of the bear (us in the boat, it on the shoreline), when it finally noticed us. Instead of taking off as I expected it, it sat down and just hung out. Then it came closer – maybe it was the peanut butter and chocolate square I had in my pocket, but it was staring right at us. I didn’t feel any fear at all, there were no signs of aggression – it was a connection. We were curious about each other. Then the bear walked into the water. We realized the curious connection could go south quickly and vigorously paddled backwards. Nothing we could do would scare the bear who continued to follow us back along the shoreline. It was such a cool experience, words can’t do it justice. As silly as it sounds, it was as if the universe was reminding us that this place was still inhabited, and had been for millennia. The life on this place may come and go – but the place will remain.

For days we’d been pointing up a big cliffs trying to figure out which was the Sleeping Giant. There was no second guessing when we finally saw it though. Towering sheer cliffs ran from the backside of the perfectly formed shape of a human body. Past Silvers Inlet, and finally around the tip of the Giant.

With 25 km to go my shoulder was aching and my hands were raw with blisters. We couldn’t yet see the City of Thunder Bay but we knew it was in front of us. Despite the pain, we were making good time, the sun was shining and I was really excited to see my parents when we arrived. Markus turned on the tunes to get us through the final stretch and by 6 pm we had pulled into the harbour. Bruce and Penny were there to greet us. It was the perfect way to end this leg of my own trip and I was so happy to introduce Markus to at least part of my family.

Katie had the wave down pat.

Katie had the wave down pat.

Part 5: Parting Ways

To arrive in Thunder Bay with my folks there to greet us was fantastic. Even better was that we got there in time to celebrate my Mom’s birthday on Sept 16! Markus was set to stay for a few days with Matt and Sarah while he waited for a recumbent hand bike (his next mode of transport) to arrive. And Mom, Dad and I were going to pick up the Algonquin Outfitters canoe in Blind River before heading to Muskoka.

Saying farewell to Markus gave me a good opportunity to reflect on the amazing friendship we’d formed in just a week. We were both off on further exciting adventures, and I knew we’d see each other again in Vancouver, and possibly at other junctures around the planet.

Getting to travel south with my parents was also really special –they are the best parents in the world, and were there to help at every step of the way. Without question they had travelled 18 hours north to pick me up and turn around, only to drop me and a canoe off 10 hours later. After a great visit with Mark and Cindy in Blind River, we strapped the canoe to the roof and were off towards Algonquin Outfitters.

The Outfitters had prepared the lettering to officially name the canoe in which Markus had begun his journey. As the final step in my part of this journey, I was honoured to be able to adhere a Routes of Change sticker alongside the name “Margaret Riocea.”

Epilogue

Having taken fully 6 months to get this experience on paper, there are no doubt things I have missed. But since it was intended only as a short blog and has turned into a near-book, I will leave it at this. I left Markus on a sunny day in Sept, and he has since made it all the way across Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and BC to Tofino. Although I doubt I’ll ever make such a trip, I think often about the message he is spreading, and the energy with which he shares his vision and hope for future generations. Personally he has inspired me to understand that I too can live differently, and better. I can see risk as an opportunity for transformation and learning, and I can do small (or big things) every day that can make a difference. Thank you Markus for helping me and countless others to see the opportunities in front of all of us, and for leading the way beyond our perceived boundaries to prove that a better way is possible.  I hope to see you again soon my friend!

 

Katie is an amazing adventure partner. I knew that if she could handle treeplanting for years and keep that wonderful smile, she could do anything. She is strong, patient, wise, and fun! I'm so grateful to have been able to share the adventure together. The main reason the trip was so much fun and went so smooth was because of the hard work Katie put into organizing it all. She showed up with everything we needed, including an amazing meal plan that was a very welcome change from the food I had been eating. I can't find strong enough words to express my gratitude. I hope with all my heart that you will join again Katie. Thank you.