Quick Trip Report of Michipicoten Island: Land of Mystery and Failure

Friday, 16 August 2013
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Last week I had the amazing privilege to guide an eight-day sea kayak expedition on Lake Superior for Naturally Superior Adventures. The route started with a boat shuttle out to Cozens Cover at the eastern end of the very remote Michipicoten Island. From there we worked around the island clockwise before making the 18km crossing to the north shore and back towards Wawa and Naturally Superior Adventures. Here is the full route map (new window).

This trip was different than a typical guided trip in that each participant was responsible for their own food, camping gear and boat. My role throughout the trip wasn’t to do the cooking (they would have starved to death if they did) but rather to get everybody back home safely.

Lets cut to the chase, Michipicoten Island is wicked awesome. If it isn’t already on your bucket list of trip destinations, you need to add it. Even if you just plan on circumnavigating the island as the vast majority of visitors do, you will die a happier person (hopefully long after the trip is done).

Here is what makes the island special:

  • The island is home to over 400 caribou wandering around the place. In our case we only saw four but another guided trip out the week earlier reported seeing 15-20.
  • The geography on the island is quite unique since a lot of the rock is volcanic in nature and most of it is over 470 million years old. Geologists believe that the island was part of an ancient vent in the earths crust that got filled with magma. Over the years there has been extensive exploration for minerals from everything like copper, gold and diamonds. You can still find agets on the island if you know where to look.
  • There is an old copper mine ready for your exploration. Quebec Mines was a copper mine that was abandoned back in the 1880’s. Since then the trees have reclaimed it but walking around you can find lots of old machinery including old boilers and massive iron gears scattered about. Exploring the area you realize that the people working back then had more manliness in their pinky then you do in your entire left leg. Be careful walking around the old mine as there are several overgrown old mine shafts that you could easily fall into so step lightly.
  • Along the south shore of the island make sure you explore the the three sunken ships that are in Quebec Harbour. They are relics of the large fishing camp that operated during the fishing peak of 1930-40. The camp was abandoned in the 1950’s after the fish stock collapsed.

The wreck of the Billy Blake. The tug caught fire and was scuttled.

The crossing from the island to the north shore of Lake Superior was something that was always a concern in the back of our head. We had a two day window to make the crossing so it came down to figuring out which day was better. We decided to make the jump on the trips third day and cross north from Bonner Head. This meant that we only made it around 3/4 of the island but if we kept going and crossed the next day (from the east end of the island) it would mean a very strong head wind and medium seas. I believe we made the better choice and was on the water at 7am with light tailwinds. Just over three hours later we were on the north shore patting each other on the back, happy with our accomplishment.

Gear left behind at the abandoned Quebec Mine on Michipicoten Island.

Michipicoten Island has a long history of failure over the years. Explorers to the island had dreams of striking it rich through mining or fishing but more times than not they were sent home bankrupt. It was a very tough place to try to make a living.

Talking to the owner of Naturally Superior Adventures, Dave Wells, we figure that less than 50 people visit the island each year and we were one of only two commercial trips that will visit this year. Also, the route that we took by crossing and paddling home has only been done by about 20-25 people in the past 15 years so as you can guess, Michipicoten Island is a pretty remote place.

Due to that remoteness, if you do go, you need to make sure that your paddling and rescue skills are rock solid. There are several sand and cobblestone beaches to camp on but they can be few and far between in certain points so plan your day out carefully. Finally don’t count 100% on your VHF radio being able to access the Canadian Coast Guard in the event of an emergency. Due to the high mineral count in the rocks, there were several places along the north shore where you will be in a radio shadow and unable to get a signal. On a trip I took out there in 2007 we had a difficult time reaching the Coast Guard and had to paddle offshore about a mile or so to report in one evening.

The new inReach SE.

To help out with our risk management plan, inReach Canada sent me one of their newly released inReach SE to put through it’s paces. The inReach SE is a two-way satellite communicator that allows you to send short text messages to anybody in the world from anywhere. It has a built in keyboard similar to your old cell phone so it doesn’t require you to connect your smartphone via bluetooth (though that option is there if you want). I’m working on a more extensive review but the real short review is that I was blown away by the unit. The fact I could send a note to the NSA base (or my wife) letting them know where I we were located was amazing. Even better, a couple of days I sent them a request for a more precise weather report then what was on the radio and 15 minutes later we had the response. I did find a couple quirks with the unit but I will hold onto them until I publish the detailed review. Overall, I was very pleased with it.

Should you do the trip next year? Of course you should. I would tell perspective paddlers that they should be comfortable in medium seas with 2-3 foot swells and have a firm grasp on both rescue and camping skills.

Here is a very cool short documentary that I found while researching the island. It gives a very good idea of what you can expect when you visit next.

If you want to see more photos, stop by my flickr page and scroll through the collection or click through the slideshows below.

David Johnston

David Johnston

David Johnston has been introducing people to the sport of sea kayaking for the past 15 years. He is a senior instructor trainer with Paddle Canada and teaches for several paddling schools in Ontario, Canada. Full Bio.

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