Thursday, August 22, 2013

Copper Island Adventure

Kayaking the Keweenaw Water Trail

As a youngster growing up in Michigan’s central Upper Peninsula, I couldn’t help but be aware of the influence of Lake Superior on our weather, economy, and recreation. The lake produces copious amounts of snow. I lived not far from the lake but at a 300’ higher elevation. To locals, this was known as the “snow belt”, a term that has since given way to the more meteorological sounding “lake effect”. The big lake also serves as a highway for the big iron ore carriers that bring the U.P.’s mineral riches to the steel mills at Gary, Indiana and to Cleveland, Ohio and to Ford’s massive River Rouge plant outside of Detroit. The fishing industry, though greatly diminished today, still provides a livelihood to many by giving up a steady supply of delicious lake trout and whitefish. And the lake is unparalleled as a challenging place to sail, paddle and sport fish. And watching a beautiful summer sunset over the lake from one of the many hills that surround it is a memory that will warm you through the cold winter.

But as a young kid I was oblivious to the importance of the lake to the thousands of people who depended on it (and still do). What I did know was that Superior was the only one of the five Great Lakes that had any character. To my youthful imagination the lake took on the shape of an angry wolf’s head, with Isle Royale National Park being the eye of the wolf. The animal’s hungry jaws formed the Keweenaw (key-when-awe) Peninsula, a rocky crag of land stretching nearly 50 miles northeast into the lake. Compared to Superior the other four great lakes were just----lakes.

A paddling trip around the Keweenaw Peninsula wasn’t something that I’d planned to do since childhood. But ever since I began kayaking, a trip around the Keweenaw has been in the back of my mind as a trip that I thought might be challenging and would probably be a heck of a lot of fun. It proved to be all of that. And the engineering feat that made the circle trip possible was the Keweenaw Waterway.

The Keweenaw Waterway

The waterway was dredged in the 1860s, extending a small river previously used by natives for transportation and fishing. The effort was a joint venture between the United States Government and several mining corporations. Legislation for construction of the canal was passed in 1861. This legislation created the Portage Lake & Lake Superior Canal Co. The company began construction of the canal in September 1868. The canal starts at the mouth of Boston Creek and continues on to Lake Superior.

The expanded canal allowed freighters to haul copper from the rich copper mines of the Keweenaw Peninsula out through Lake Superior to larger cities. It also enabled supply boats and freighters to reach the cities of Houghton and Hancock, which supplied goods to most of Michigan's copper region. The expanded canal and shipping lane has a depth of 25 feet, deeper in some locations. As the waterway connects Lake Superior to itself, there are no locks needed. The local mines' stamp mills dumped large quantities of stamp sand (containing traces of copper and chemical leaching agents) into the waterway, causing significant environmental damage near the sand dumps. Stamp mills on the waterway included the Old Atlantic, Old Quincy, Pewabic, Old Franklin, and the Isle Royale mills.

The area north of the waterway is known locally as Copper Island, because the waterway separates the northern part of the Keweenaw Peninsula from the mainland. The only land route across the waterway is US 41/M-26 across the Portage Lake Lift Bridge.
Source: Wikipedia

Five of us got together for the trip. We are all loosely affiliated with the East Coast Paddlers, a paddling club from central Lower Michigan. Bill, Charlie, Tom, Mark and I agreed to meet at the Hancock Recreation Area, a campground located just west of the town of Hancock on the Keweenaw Waterway. Our direction of travel was to be dictated by the weather on launch day. Our weather radios gave us no indication of any strong weather systems moving our way so we began the trip by heading west along the canal, seven miles to the open lake.

The lake that day greeted us with a foot high chop and rebounding waves from the long breakwalls that protect the canal from the lake. Even though we generally paddle with some distance between us, we keep an eye on each other to see if anyone was lagging or in obvious difficulty. Once we cleared the protection of the breakwalls we headed northeast along the expansive sweep of the shoreline. We passed McLain State Park and miles of cobble and gravel beaches. During the next few hours of paddling, the wind gradually built. Normally a tailwind is a godsend, but a quartering tailwind is typically the hardest for paddlers to deal with because we have to constantly look over our shoulders to see what’s coming and then we make numerous correcting strokes to keep the boats headed where we want them to go.

Five hours of correcting strokes to travel twenty miles takes its toll, so we scanned the shoreline for a stretch of beach that had no homes on it. Most water trails don’t have a lot of established camping opportunities and we expected to be “stealth” camping much of the trip. Each of us is self-contained and we practice “Leave No Trace” camping. Our water comes from the lake, and we don’t use campfires to cook our food. When we leave a campsite in the morning, there are only footprints to record our passage.

The weather for day two began with sunny skies and the promise of a freshening southwest breeze (again a quartering wind). The coastline stretched as far as we could see with few headlands to serve as mileposts so, while it was a pleasure to be on the water, there were no bays or harbors to duck into for relief from the wind.

Before long we were cruising at five to seven miles per hour which, to an automobile-centered society seems a snail’s pace. But to a touring kayaker we were flying. It wasn’t because we’d found some inner strength but because the wind was blowing a steady fifteen miles an hour and was gusting to twenty five. Five guys paddling together are not inclined to cry “uncle” so we gamely paddled on, taking water over our decks and bracing about every third wave. We were relieved when someone finally said “don’t you think we ought to go in?”

It was a good thought, but Charlie was about a half mile ahead of the rest of us and showed no signs of slowing down. He had his head down and was cranking like a man possessed. Finally he looked back and we were able to communicate our desire to get to shore. We were passing the community of Eagle River so there was no where to camp there and eventually limped to shore about two miles beyond it and were clear of the nearest home. Our intent was to sit for a few hours and wait for the water to calm.

Five hours later the water was still churning, so we called it a day after twelve difficult miles. Charlie is the restless sort and no sooner had he gotten to shore than he was off for a hike. He returned a couple of hours later with news that he’d found a road and a monastery with a wonderful bakery. This didn’t sound right. He informed us that these baked goods were not to be believed, so we followed him a mile down the road to The Jampot, a bakery that is indeed run by monks. And their offerings to us were truly heavenly. We each got an oversized muffin (Charlie bought three) and enjoyed them all the way back to our campsite.

The Monastery

They are a Catholic Monastery of the Byzantine rite, under the jurisdiction of The Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of St. Nicholas in Chicago, and belong to the Ukrainian Metropoly in the United States of America, which is in union with the Pope of Rome, supreme pastor of the universal Church. They embrace evangelical poverty, chastity, obedience, and stability of life, according to the Rule of Saint Benedict and the traditions of the Christian East.
In their skete at Jacob's Falls, on the shore of Lake Superior in Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula, they devote themselves to a common life of prayer and work for the praise, love, and service of God and for the upbuilding of His Kingdom through the Arts.
Source: St. John Society

Our third day of paddling was a lot less taxing. The water had calmed and though we still had some wind, it gently pushed us along. We passed Great Sand Bay and headed into beautiful Eagle Harbor for a cup of coffee and a rest at the corner coffee shop there. The sun was shining and the harbor was placid. We felt that our fortunes were turning for the better. We planned to get to Copper Harbor and find a motel room. It was a Saturday in early August in a beautiful tourist destination.

So our chances of finding a room were slim to none, but fortunately for us, Slim was in Copper Harbor. We found what likely was the last vacant cabin in Copper Harbor. After checking out our cabin we enjoyed walking around the busy village. Despite having an “end of the Earth” feeling to it, the village seems to be prospering with an outdoor adventure company that rents mountain bikes and sea kayaks, and a new brewery and restaurant.

On our fourth day of paddling, we rounded Keweenaw Point and saw the lighthouses of Manitou Island in the distance. The water was calm enough to make the three mile crossing to the island, but we saw little need to explore the island and kept to the mainland shoreline. We were finally on the leeward side of the peninsula, the waves were much more manageable, and we enjoyed the many small bays and the rugged shoreline. We were flexible in our camping destinations and felt fortunate to find Fish Bay, an isolated cobble beach that was rich in thimbleberries and poor in bear tracks. Each camping spot along the way afforded us an opportunity to dry out our gear, filter drinking water, cook and relax before taking to the water again the next day.

Immediately the following day we were treated to the cascading waterfall of the Montreal River. The river is one of a few that drain the many lakes on the peninsula and was by far the most interesting on the trip. Following the shoreline, we began to see homes again, but few people and only a few sport fishermen. Since the waves had abated and we could see no threatening weather on the horizon, we made a beeline across eight mile wide Bête Grise Bay.

Bete Grise from the French Bête grise or "Gray Beast" is a Northern Michigan beach and bay where the sand is said to sing. Local legend says that the musical "voice" that comes from the sand is that of a Native American maid who lost her lover to the Great Lakes and still calls to him from the shore with the aid of visitors who "play" the sand. The sand can be made to "sing" by pressing down with the palm of the hand or "bark" when struck. The sand loses its musical properties when removed from the beach.
Source Wikipedia

Once we reached the other side of the yawning bay we began to see some of the low sandstone bluffs that would become bigger as we headed south. There are a few roadside parks along this stretch of shoreline that allow paddlers to camp. We stopped at Burnette Park for lunch and watched the sky grow darker and the wind freshen. Temperatures dropped a good 10 degrees as we took to the water again, hoping to reach the village of Gay which was ten miles distant. We could see the tall stack from the old Gay Stamp Mill on the horizon, but it was along way off. Fortunately the wind was off shore with little fetch so we didn’t have big waves to contend with.

Gay has a few options for camping, one of which was to stay on the stamp sand spoils. This beach is manmade and is the result of an earlier economy. Stamp mills were found in various places around the copper-rich peninsula. They crushed copper-laden rock and allowed the copper to be smelted from the spoils and be shipped around the world. What was left was stamp sand. The sand was dumped along the shoreline and into the lake. Unfortunately those spoils contain a whole lot of toxic heavy metals that are slowly leaching into the water. Wave action has washed it miles down the lakeshore where it lies today.

The stamp sand location was not our first choice for camping, but we did find a gracious host in Bobby at the Gay RV Park. For a few dollars we got a protected landing spot, a hot shower, a premium campsite, and a ride in the back of his pickup truck to Gay for dinner at the Gay Bar.

The Gay Bar has been around for decades and it only one of two businesses in the village (Bobby’s park being the other). The bar’s special that night was a Surf and Turf for $4.75. Before you make a special trip up for dinner however, note that their Surf and Turf is a Sardine and a Slim Jim (U.P. humor). The rest of the menu is okay bar food and the ambience is free. Our sixth day on the water took us past Big and Little Traverse Bays, Traverse Island, and miles of spectacular Jacobsville sandstone cliffs and arches that reach up to 125’ above the lake.

Jacobsville Sandstone

Jacobsville Sandstone is a red sandstone formation, marked with light-colored streaks and spots, primarily found in northern Upper Michigan, portions of Ontario, and under much of Lake Superior. Desired for its durability and aesthetics, the sandstone was used as an architectural building stone both locally and around the United States. The stone was extracted by thirty-two quarries throughout the Upper Peninsula approximately between 1870 and 1915.
Source: Wikipedia

The campsite on our final evening was at the county park adjacent to the half mile long breakwall that forms the South Entry of the Portage Canal. We felt smug that we had “conquered” the peninsula and only had the protected Keweenaw Waterway left to paddle back to our vehicles. Little did we know that the wind would start to hit us smack in the face and then build throughout the day. Portage Lake is eight miles across and can kick up some good sized waves even though it is inland from the big lake.

The headwind had built to 12-15 MPH and our forward progress was slow, and then we entered the canal that took us under the lift bridge. The teeth of the wind now pounded us at 15-25 MPH and, though we could see the lift bridge and the downtown buildings in the distance, the miles passed as slowly and painfully as kidney stones. There were no eddies to creep into or wind breaks in which to rest. It was brutal. A distance that would normally take us an hour now took nearly two. Finally we passed Houghton and Hancock where the canal narrowed to allow us a little relief from the wind and we eventually limped into the boat ramp at the recreation area to finish the 133 mile adventure. The jaws of the wolf from my imagination years earlier had come to life. But this wolf was a anything but angry.

Keweenaw Water Trail

By definition, a water trail (also known as a blueway) is a network of launch and landing sites, rest areas and attractions for users of human powered water craft on lakes and rivers. On land, trails have distinct surfaces or walkways; on water a trail is the entire water surface, a surface that is constantly changing with the natural flow, currents, water traffic and weather.

The Keweenaw Waterway is part of the Keweenaw Water Trail, a designated loop route (eliminating the need to spot two vehicles or obtain a shuttle) around and through the Keweenaw Peninsula for canoes and sea kayaks. It was established in 1995 and has been designated “A Superior Sports Port” by National Geographic Adventure Magazine. It is said the trail "exemplifies the Keweenaw Peninsula in the most literal sense."

The Lake Superior coastline is craggy and varied, claimed to be comparable to Isle Royale, but without the ferry. Uninhabited wilderness and occasional nature preserves and parks are interspersed with sheltered harbors that offer weary paddlers the option for a warm bed, hot meal and shower at a local inn. An average paddler can cover the route in six to eight days, but extra days should be planned "to compensate for being wind-bound." The circumnavigation of the Copper Island is on its way to becoming "Michigan’s top paddling destination."
Source Keweenaw Water Trail Association

Resources

  1. Gay Bar: http://www.thegaybar.com/
  2. Keweenaw Water Trail: http://www.kwta.org/
  3. Keweenaw Adventure Company: http://www.keweenawadventure.com/
  4. Jampot: http://store.societystjohn.com/
  5. Hancock Recreation Area: http://www.cityofhancock.com/recreation-beach-campground.php

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