The more often I travel to far-flung locations for paddling expeditions, the more I appreciate the canoeing and sea kayaking opportunities in my own backyard—the "near-north" wilderness of Lake Superior Provincial Park, a 395,000-acre preserve located between Sault Ste. Marie and Wawa. Sixteen years ago, I guided my first-ever canoe trip on the Sand River, a spring-run waterway that rises in the Canadian Shield hills and flows in twists and turns and pools and drops 40 miles to the Lake Superior coast; in the summers, I guided countless groups of novice sea kayakers along the wild shoreline of Lake Superior Provincial Park. These trips ignited my passion for sharing the outdoors with adventure travelers; over the years, "the Park" has become a familiar old friend—a place I return to as much as possible.
Perhaps the greatest advantage of Lake Superior Provincial Park is its accessibility: Centrally located in the Great Lakes, less than two hours from the international border, it's as close to Midwestern paddlers as the infinitely more popular routes in the Boundary Waters, Quetico and Algonquin Provincial Park, yet it receives a fraction of the visitors. Here are three favorite paddling trips in Lake Superior Provincial Park.
Canoeing the Sand River
The Sand is a blend of easy whitewater, scenic waterfalls, challenging portages, fun trout fishing and outstanding wildlife viewing. It's accessed via the Algoma Central Railway (which departs downtown Sault Ste. Marie); a four- to five-day downriver trip terminates at Highway 17. Alternately, it's possible to pond-hop to the Sand via stunning Old Woman Lake, a trout-filled jewel set deep in Lake Superior Provincial Park's interior. There are 29 portages on the Sand River but intermediate river paddlers can easily eliminate 10 of them by negotiating Class I and II rapids. Both Calwin and Lady Evelyn falls come with harrowing portages—and also the opportunity to witness scenes immortalized by Canadian filmmaker Bill Mason.
Season: Spring (late May is prime) and wet autumns
Level of difficulty: Intermediate
Time required: 4-5 days
Favorite campsite: Set beneath a 200-foot slab of granite, the High Cliff campsite comes complete with excellent brook trout fishing and one of the longest stretches of runnable whitewater on the Sand.
Weekend Basecamp at Gargantua
The fur-trading voyageurs named this enchanting area of islands, bays, cliffs and beaches after the racy characters 17th century French writer Rabelais, perhaps making a connection between European mythology and mist-shrouded monoliths of Ojibwa spirituality. Today, Gargantua (pronounced "Gar-gan-twa") is accessed via a nine-mile gravel road from Highway 17. Launch from the gravel beach and head north. There are sheltered campsites within a half-hour paddle of the launch. In good weather, continue to Warp Bay, a sandy retreat and ideal base camp located within a half-day's paddle from Nanabozho's Rock and Devil's Warehouse Island—landforms of Ojibwa legend. While this route is suitable to both sea kayakers and canoeists, be mindful of wind and waves. Even though you're in Canadian waters, NOAA is your best source for accurate forecasts.
Season: Go in August for warmer water and fewer biting insects
Level of difficulty: Novice-Intermediate
Time: 3-4 days
Favorite campsite: The beach at Warp Bay boasts good swimming, access to hiking trails and stunning views of offshore islands.
More info: Plan on doing some day hiking on the Coastal Trail in the Gargantua area. Click HERE for trail notes.
Sea Kayak from Old Woman Bay to Agawa
You'll fall in love with the north shore on this journey encompassing most of the Lake Superior Provincial Park coastline. Six-hundred-foot cliffs soar over Old Woman Bay; mysterious sea caves beckon paddlers at Grindstone Point; and secluded beaches at Rhyolite and Beatty coves are unforgettable. Most of this trip is exposed to 300 miles of open water, so it's only suitable for experienced coastal paddlers. Landings are limited south of Old Woman Bay, at Cape Gargantua and around Agawa Rock (the site of a large collection of Ojibwa pictographs). Expect a wonderful dose of solitude. Take your time and be mindful of wind, waves and fog.
Season: Mid-July to mid-August is prime time for sea kayaking Lake Superior
Level of difficulty: Intermediate-Advanced
Time: 4-7 days
Favorite campsite: The sweeping sand and cobble beach at the mouth of the Red Rock River will make you feel like you're camped on the open ocean—sans tides.
More info: Contact Naturally Superior Adventures for vehicle shuttles and guided trips.