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Kayak journey: Close and cheap, cold and deep

Polly Scotland perches on an overlook on Spar Island. Submitted Photo

Ten minutes into this kayak trip, I feel like I am riding a bucking bronco let out the gates. Where is my warm-up session? There is barely time to find the rudder foot pedals and attach my spray skirt, when I must remember how to handle the gusting 20-30 mile per hour tail winds.

This is the beginning of a 60-mile expedition on the high seas of Lake Superior. Mindful of these economic times, my husband and I drive to the USA-Canadian Port of Entry on the Pigeon River using one tank of gasoline and purchase five nights' permits to camp on Crown land totaling $100. This is one cheap trip.

Fifteen miles north of the border up the Ontario Canadian shoreline is Little Trout Bay Conservation Area. There is a $2 launch fee, but parking is free. After loading our kayak with eight days of food and two weeks of coffee, we don our wetsuits and life jackets and shove off.

Rough water

It is mid-afternoon when the winds typically are at their peak. But the sunny skies are inviting and I am eager to depart. Blowing out beyond McKellar Point I feel the grab of the wind and the cold temperatures send shivers down my back. I quickly turn back to the mainland to add more clothing and a fleece hat. Better prepared to take on the wind power, I focus on the first two-mile open water traverse to Victoria Island. My number one rule is don't roll the boat. Having respect and a healthy fear of Mother Nature's capacity is beneficial.

Approaching the channel between Victoria and Albert Islands, I cut hard left and surf into the skinny slot. We cover six nautical miles as the crow swims or the fish flies to Victoria Cove. I am prepared to find a campsite on the cobblestone beach and recover from a tense afternoon. I open my mouth to complain about my aching arms, but then I remember I am trying to tone up some of my saggy bicep areas in time for my daughter's upcoming wedding.

Evening rest

The hypnotic glow of the driftwood fire and the soothing sounds of lapping waves, lull me to sleep before dark.

Shortly after sunrise we paddle on gentle rollers past the chiseled cliffs of Devil's, Jarvis and Spar Islands. A sequined pathway of reflective sunlight points to the silhouette of Isle Royale on my starboard. This is the largest island on the world's largest fresh water lake and it looms 16 miles across the horizon.

For my own curiosity, I perform a little experiment, testing the lake's temperature. I submerge my bare hand into the frigid water and begin counting. After 40 seconds of enduring the icy soak, my hand goes numb, becoming more uncomfortable, even painful, reinforcing my number one rule to always keep the kayak upright.

Our lunch stop is Wray Bay on Thompson Island. A group of local motor boaters have implemented decks, a sauna, platforms and a picnic shelter piecemeal. They use this haven as a springboard from points surrounding the Thunder Bay Area. We gather information from "Dave" who shares a wealth of knowledge about this location with us.

A rustic trail along the spine of Thompson has climbing aids such as ropes, ladders and wooden bridges assisting the hiker's scramble up to several magnificent vistas. Because the winds continue to build beyond my comfort level, my husband and I decide to postpone the afternoon paddle and continue to explore the beauty of this venue.

Just before nightfall the winds finally abate, the yachts depart and we have the community sauna all to ourselves. A sign welcomes the public but asks that any wood used be replaced. After a few good stokes of the stove, we are enjoying a real Finnish tradition.

Pie Island

In the morning, I make the mistake of consuming two large cups of java. The two-mile crosswind, open passage to our ultimate destination of Pie Island, is quite uncomfortable. Once across I leap from the boat and hear a tremendous crash just beyond the brush. At the same time I notice footprints in the black sand that are easily identified as moose tracks.

Scooting back into the cockpits, we glide atop glassy water for the next four miles, admiring the 500-to-600-foot precipices just three arm lengths away. I enjoy playing the "Rorschach Inkblot Test" game. I identify the rock outcroppings as a dragonhead, castle gates and Paul Bunyan's molars.

Lost in my reverie, I hear a flurry of activity overhead. Two peregrine falcons are attacking a lone eagle that is trying to steal its baby eyasses. In the blink of an eye, the eagle rolls 360 degrees with its talons splayed, trying to pluck one of the adult falcons from midair. The eagle is unsuccessful, moving onto other territory.

Rounding the most northeast point of Pie Island, we spot a "speck-sized" freighter on the horizon. In less than 30 minutes and with amazing speed, the ship is three miles north and parallel to our craft as it heads into Thunder Bay's port. It dawns on me that my brother Andrew Keith was in this exact location in 1990 during his kayaking odyssey from Grand Marais, Minn., along the Great Lakes and out to the St. Lawrence Seaway. In his book, "Afloat Again, Adrift," Andy tells about his risky paddle across the Thunder Bay shipping lanes. At 4:30 a.m., Andy began the two-hour, six-mile "short-cut" from Pie Island to the Sleeping Giant on Sibley Peninsula. Once halfway across the channel, he saw an inbound ship. He paddled with all of his might. Thirty minutes later, the freighter was so close Andy heard the captain giving orders to prepare for docking. The kayak would not be detected by radar, nor were the crew hands even aware of my brother's existence. By the grace of God Andy safely crossed. I now have a vivid appreciation for the 30 miles Andy "saved" by avoiding the city of Thunder Bay and taking the shortcut.

Safety route

Unlike my brother's Pie Island experience, I am doing a humble 20-mile circumnavigation under near-ideal conditions and out of any unpredictable shipping channels.

By late afternoon we pass the landmark Le Pate, a mesa that is cliff-lined, jutting 800-feet straight up. Along this shore stands an abandoned lighthouse that is slowly disappearing into the boreal vegetation. Since we had been moving for more than 10 hours, we quit at the next protected cove and camped near an isthmus with a view of our origin and our turning point.

By the third day I learned to have espresso coffee with half the liquid prior to any open water routes. Back on the inland side of Thompson, we explore a genuine Pukaskaw Pit. This is believed to be the most western site for these lichen-covered enigmas. No one knows if the ancient creators built these for hunting, religious or lookout purposes. The mystery remains.

Continuing along Thompson, I observe the morning half-moon in the wispy sky as I stroke next to more spectacular bluffs with unusual, almost glow-in-the-dark chartreuse lichen splotches.

Our next granola break comes on Spar Island. Behind a makeshift party spot is a hidden ladder leading to a trail rising up a bald rock expanse. The back seat of a Ford van is perched at the apex. From this vantage point I can see all the waterways for this entire trip and beyond. Departing Spar we return to Victoria Island's Cosgrove Bay. Somewhere off this point, a Civil War era boat with a steam engine is rumored to be sunken.

Stormy weather

The weather radio is predicting unstable conditions over the next few days. Our final night's campsite contains two dead trees, which we assess to be non-threatening. (Later we learn that two dead trees did fall parallel to some girl's tent 60 miles from our location.)

At precisely 2:02 a.m., my husband and I bolt upright. Our calm bay now sounds like the ocean roar. It is the only night we did not tie our craft to a tree. We had to race to the beach and pull the kayak to higher ground. I rescue my water shoes that are being licked by the waves.

In the morning, we leisurely break camp and reflect on how the moods of Lake Superior have favored us. Stepping a few paces into the woods, I am assaulted by a mother grouse. I scream as she charges at me with puffed neck feathers and flapping wings. I accidentally walk between her babies. After circling me, she leaps to a fallen log, leading her cheepers under the brush and on to a new sanctuary.

Fog alarm

After breakfast a patch of blue appears from the predominately, overcast sky. While on the final open water passage, I observe that of the three Cloud Islands, only two are visible now. A few minutes later, only one is detectible. It seems Gitchi Gumee's trickster Nenabozho will tease us on the way home. The fog is moving in fast and we are at least a mile from land. I take a compass reading of 270 degrees to McKellar Point prior to our total envelopment in grey. It's hard mentally to stay at 270 degrees when the waves slide me one direction and my equilibrium has a touch of vertigo. It's uncomfortable and exhausting, but I am elated when land appears exactly where I am aiming.

Little Trout Bay to Pie Island is not an entry-level voyage. Intermediate or advanced experience is recommended for this route.

The first and last ten minutes of this tour, as well as the five days sandwiched in between, make this a most remarkable place that should be shared with other adventures.