The Great Gitche-Gumee. The Gales of November. Whitefish Bay. Exploring the north shore of Lake Superior feels like you’re stepping inside a Gordon Lightfoot song. It's the wildest coast of all the Great Lakes; in particular the stretch between Agawa Bay, near Sault Ste Marie, and the Sibley Peninsula, near Thunder Bay, holds hundreds of kilometres of remote shoreline and dense wilderness.
It’s a kayaker’s paradise. The coastlines of Lake Superior Provincial Park and Pukwaska National Park define epic. Shorter trips can explore Michipicoten Island and the Slate Islands. Trace wild Crown land near Rossport. Or simply bob around on a day-trip in Michipicoten Bay. Yes, it’s a paradise. But it’s not a mecca—as simply not enough paddlers pilgrimage here. Incredibly, there is only one full-time dedicated kayak outfitter on the entire Canadian coast of the world’s largest lake.
Sitting on a stony peninsula at the mouth of the Michipicoten River, Rock Island Lodge is the only waterfront accommodation on Lake Superior for more than 200 kilometres in either direction. And their kayaking outfit, Naturally Superior Adventures, operates effectively in a monopoly on this rugged lakeshore. (There are a couple other operators in the region, running with select dates/times.)
Owner David Wells began guiding here in 1994 with a 36-foot Voyageur canoe. He came up from Toronto “for love,” (his wife) but was captivated by the area after a kayak trip through remote Pukwaska.
“You could be the first person in history to set foot in an area,” he says. “I just wanted to stay.” It’s his second great love—and sentiment shared by guests over the years.
“There was never any intention to have a lodge… it’s just such a beautiful place that people wanted to stay. So we started with two rooms, they filled up, now we have four,” explains Wells. The original lodge structure was constructed in 1932 by a gold stock promoter; additions were built over the decades as it transitioned from hut to hunting camp. Rock Island Lodge’s current cabin-chic iteration, though, was a result of hard work and rebuilding by the Wells.
Rock Island Lodge & Naturally Superior Adventures represent two sides to one business. The former is room-and-board, booked by everyone from expeditioners starting their epic paddles to road-trippers passing through.
The day- and multi-day paddling excursions fall under Naturally Superior's umbrella. Guided overnight adventures range from camping trips for newbies to advanced-only expeditions on coastline from the Sibley Peninsula in the west to Agawa Bay in the east. Paddlers can delve into Indigenous culture in Lake Superior Provincial Park; see caribou on the Slate Islands; or experience wild adventure along the coast of Pukwaska National Park. Guides work with guests to craft the trip that best suits expectations and skill. Plus, they run simpler half-day and daylong kayak and canoe trips and SUP excursions right from the lodge.
Today, Naturally Superior guide Jake O’Flaherty is leading me on a half-day trip. It’s a gloomy day on Gitche-Gumee—waves form whitecaps as the Michipicoten River meets the massive bay. Rain threatens. Superior is a dynamic, organic environment. Which is why it’s so attractive to paddlers like O’Flaherty.
O’Flaherty has guided here for four years, originally coming to work a summer job while at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay. Like David Wells, he fell in love with the lake.
“It’s the wild of it—it’s rugged and remote, yet there is also a community of committed paddlers. It feels very full of life. The environment is always changing,” he explains as we put-in from a beach adjacent to the lodge.
Here, the Michipicoten River courses slow; it’s easy to paddle against the current as we move upstream. Fog wisps across the surface of the water and we trace back-eddies to expedite our progress. A tumbling cascade, its flow managed by a hydro dam on the Magpie River, creates a picturesque scene at our turnaround.
After pushing back through the river-chop onto the Great Lake, O’Flaherty guides me westward along a rocky shore, past the lodge and to Sandy Beach two bays over. Rimmed with marram grass and beach peas, this spot was immortalized by A.Y. Jackson of the Group of Seven. Local volunteers have made it their mission to identify vantage points where Jackson painted so visitors can gaze at the scenes that inspired his work.
Soon it’s time to paddle back; our full route tracing about eight kilometres of shoreline. The rain is pelting us, the waves grow larger and the sky is outlined with obsidian clouds. The lake’s mood is changing. It’s rarely a straightforward paddle on Superior.
Back at the lodge, dry and satiated with a thick sandwich for lunch, I’m again chatting with David Wells about what makes his operation so special.
“People make a new connection with nature here. The kayak is a tool that lets them do that. They also make connections with other people on their trips,” he says, gazing out the window to the lake’s dark water. “We are the facilitators of that. We’re here. We have great guides. The rest is up to them.”
If You Go
Rock Island Lodge offers accommodation in the main lodge from $138/night, as well as tent sites for $30/night and a Geodesic Dome “glamping” site for $60/night. Reservations are recommended. rockislandlodge.ca
Naturally Superior Adventures offers half-day, full-day and multi-day guided kayaking trips, as well as SUP excursions and canoe trips. Starting at $50. naturallysuperior.com