Words by Conor Mihell // Photography by David Jackson
Lake Superior has a way of building and quashing paddlers' hopes. The wind comes and goes, teasing the surface of the world's largest expanse of freshwater from millpond calm to waves that rival the ocean. Moment to moment, one day to the next, the lake can morph from paddleable to impassable. Photojournalist David Jackson experienced Lake Superior for the first time in September, the month when the big lake rises from its relative summertime slumber and assumes its restless mood of autumn.
"The first day, coming out of the Kaministiquia River [near Thunder Bay, Ontario], something didn't feel right," recalls Jackson, who joined canoeist Mike Ranta on a cross-country epic to celebrate Canada's 150th anniversary, starting on the British Columbia coast in April. "The wind was blowing and big swells were rolling in. We had to portage the breakwall just to get on the water."
Jackson and Ranta were promptly "put down" for the night. The scene was disappointingly reminiscent of their slog across the Canadian prairies, where the pair was delayed over a month by a summer of incessant winds. On their second day on Superior they reeled off a spirit-buoying 40-mile day. But then they were pinned down five consecutive days on an island. The cat and mouse game continued for nearly two weeks as the pair slowly traced the remote, island-dotted waters of the Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area. For Jackson, a moment of reckoning came in 100-mile-per-hour wind gusts and snowsqualls. "The writing was on the wall," he acknowledges. "I just needed to get off the lake."
After two weeks of intermittent paddling, the pair finally arrived in the community of Red Rock, Ont., not even 100 miles into the 550-mile north shore. After more than six months on the water, Jackson decided to pull the plug. "Mike was absolute," says the 24-year-old from eastern Ontario. "He insisted he was staying out there."
"Superior still wanted to have a conversation with me," says Ranta, who continued on alone with his dog, Spitz, for three days. "Those few days by myself were amazing, but I had a couple of bad experiences. Everything would be fine and then the wind would come out of nowhere. It was scary. I thought, 'What the hell am I doing out here?' Everything told me to swallow my pride."
Ranta called it quits on October 8, Day 191 of his fourth nationwide epic. He says the decision to end his 2017 expedition was made easier by the fact that he'd already completed three cross-Canada canoe trips, including a 200-day, 4,750-mile journey in 2016. "You always feel a little bit of post-trip depression," he says. "But not all expeditions are successful. I thank God every day this wasn't my first trip. It would've been incredibly disheartening to try it again."
Jackson says he'll never forget Ranta's happy-go-lucky personality. "Every day is an adventure for Mike," he notes. "Every corner has potential for something exciting. You never know what you'll encounter, who you will stop and talk to. It's such an absorbed way to live and it took me away from the trivial problems of everyday life."
As he edits through thousands of photographs, a few memorable images encapsulate the experience for Jackson. "There's a picture where Mike is launching the canoe into surf on Lake Winnipeg," he says. "Spitz is in the bow with a wave spray crashing over him with another one looming. There's something about the picture that speaks to me. It's something about the commitment and bond and trust between the man and his dog. I could look at it for hours.
"None of my photographs were staged. I wanted to capture Ranta for who he is: The last voyageur," continues Jackson, referring to the hardy French Canadian canoemen that powered the 19th century fur trade. "Mike is part of an era lost. He's old school, he's tough and he doesn't quit. He does things savagely. He uses a pop-up Walmart tent and wears a hockey jersey. He gets it done. At one moment he's down in the dirt, cussing his bad luck. The next moment he meets someone and becomes the happiest person you've ever met, so passionate about Canada—his country.”
For his part, Ranta considers the thousands of signatures on the hull of his battered canoe evidence that he's achieved his mission. "The whole deal is to inspire others to get out there," he says. "It's amazing to have that kind of effect on people."
— Stay tuned to CanoeKayak.com in November for a series of stories describing the lessons Mike Ranta and David Jackson learned as they paddled their way across the continent.
— See more of David Jackson's photos on Instagram
— Keep track of Mike Ranta's winter adventures on Facebook.