Wilderness Sailing in Canada, Eh?

DSC05356Russ and I had the privilege of crewing on the sailboat Neverland on a Lake Superior cruise during the 4th of July week. We sailed from Grand Marais, Minnesota, to Red Rock, Canada, which is as far north as you can go on the lake.

I learned more, not only about sailing, but about my feelings for my country. Before we left Duluth for Grand Marais, we happened to see a beat-up pickup truck driving around town with two American flags stuck behind its cab. Instead of inspiring feelings of patriotism, the sight of the flags struck me as aggressive, pugnacious, and a little redneck.

I have never felt that way before about the flag, and suspect it has something to do with our current president and the political/cultural climate in which we find ourselves. Suddenly, missing Independence Day fireworks because we’d be in Canada didn’t seem so bad. But I brought along several old packages of sparklers I had just so we’d be able to celebrate a little bit on the boat.

The Neverland left Grand Marais on a calm, cool morning. Although the air temperature was in the 60s, the Lake Superior water temperature was around 40 degrees. Brrr! Plunk yourself down in a boat in the middle of it, and it feels like fall in July.

Calm weather means poor sailing, so we motored for most of the day across the Canadian Border. You may be wondering how one can cross the border if there are no customs stations in the lake. Well, you need to fill out a remote border crossing permit beforehand. The permits cost around $30 and you have to provide copies of your passport along with it. Allow a month for processing.

If all goes well, your permit will arrive in the mail a few days before your trip. You need to bring the permit along with you just in case your craft gets stopped once you’re over the border. Thankfully, we never got stopped, but it was good to know we had the proper permissions with us, just in case.

Our first anchorage was at Spar Island, near the entrance to Thunder Bay. This craggy, piney island has a protected cove, which provided for tranquil waters all night. In the morning, we rowed Tinkerbell, the dinghy, to a campsite on shore and found a trail that leads to the “top of the world,” which is a tall bluff that offers stunning views of the lake and nearby islands.


View from the “top of the world” on Spar Island.

Ever observant, Russ found a metal mailbox nestled in a pine tree. It held a logbook and we added our names to it. After enjoying the view, we hiked back down.


Looking down from the top of the world.

After another cold, calm crossing (we could see our breath!), we anchored at Porphyry Island. We began the Fourth of July with a breakfast of luscious banana walnut pancakes courtesy of Captain Dave. Then we rowed Tinkerbell over to Prophyry Island Cove. We were met by a volunteer who gave us a tour of the new sauna and boat house at the cove. The island also features a lighthouse. I’ll describe our tour of that in a separate posting later.

Our afternoon sail took us to Chapleau Island, which is off the Black Bay Peninsula. Cell phone service is nonexistent here, and would be until the end of our trip. We shared our cove with a bunch of kayaker boys who were using the campsite and sauna opposite our anchorage. It was fun to see them whooping and hollering as they ran from the sauna and jumped into the frigid waters.

We celebrated our successful arrival with gin and tonics below decks, enjoying the music of hermit thrushes, winter wrens, white-throated sparrows and loons from the surrounding forest.


Fourth of July sunset.

Russ cooked us THE BEST maple butter chicken I have had in memory. Maybe it was so good because of the holiday, but maybe it was because we were so hungry from a long day of activity.

DSC05435After dinner, Russ and I went on deck and took out the sparklers. We were heartened to see they still worked. We had our own little private fourth of July celebration as the sparklers quietly hissed and threw their light into the Canadian evening.

The next morning, I practiced rowing Tinkerbell by myself in the quiet cove. I will admit I did it perfectly backwards, but was soon corrected by my sail mates and got myself turned around in the right direction.

We rowed quite far to explore an unnamed island that Russ and Capn Dave had seen on their last trip here. The island was half rock and half trees, sloping down into the lake gently on one side, with a steep cliff on the other. Pools of fresh water collected in depressions on the shore, featuring tadpoles and mysterious shrimp-like creatures. On the way back to the boat, I even rowed. I can’t say that I am proficient, but at least nobody drowned.

In the afternoon, we finally had good sailing weather. We reached 6 knots on the way to Moss Island, which is at the beginning of the Nipigon Straits. However, good wind means a lot of cold – I had to wear four layers on top and two on the bottom, but at least I didn’t need to use hand and feet warmers like last year. The air was beginning to smell like wildfire smoke and the sky was getting hazy.

A flock of half a dozen white pelicans greeted us and flew by several times during our stay. The weather warmed enough that I could wear shorts, finally – as one should during July!

The next morning, we motored up the straits to Nipigon Bay. In the bay, the wind picked up enough to sail. We made it to Red Rock Marina, our final destination, in time for supper and most-welcome showers.

This is my third trip aboard the Neverland. I am finally getting the hang of what “port” and “starboard” mean. I can steer the boat well while it’s motoring, but not so well with sails. That will take more practice. I am learning the boat’s quirks and how everything works. I would not call myself a sailor, though. I still have a long way to go before that happens.

As we drove home the next day, we saw plenty of Canadian flags, since Canada Day was July 1. I marveled at the different emotions that flag elicited within me: happiness, friendliness, and peace – similar to the feelings the wilderness islands and lake stirred within.

Now, I realize that Canada is not perfect (for instance, their treatment of native peoples is deplorable) but on the whole, their displays of the flag seemed glaringly different compared to the displays in my home town.

I can hear the haters now: If you hate America so much, just move to Canada! I don’t hate America. I’m just pointing out that the 4th of July doesn’t feel the same as it used to, but it took time away on a sailboat for me to realize that.

I hope this time next year our culture will have changed enough that I can be proud of our flag again.


Tinkerbell on the unnamed island near Chapleau Island.

5 thoughts on “Wilderness Sailing in Canada, Eh?

  1. It seems you had a grand July 4th, sparklers and all! I am impressed with your trip. Interesting that you have to get a permit, I wondered about that. Yes, I agree that this July 4th was rather sad in that we seem to be still so divided and our president does not seem to realize he is president of all Americans. May you soon be a seasoned sailor! I am impressed already. I like the idea of a mailbox and your could write in the log.. Reminds me of a cairn where people could leave messages. Glad you were not lost.

    • Hi Jo Nell,

      Thanks for commenting. Yes, Capn Dave and Russ had both sailed this way before, so they knew their way. I was glad for that. I feel very fortunate to have a friend with a sailboat! Hope your summer is going well.

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