Thursday, September 13, 2012

True North (With apologies to Jim Harrison)


In common parlance the Superior Basin is divided like this -- The UP (Michigan), the South Shore (Wisconsin), the North Shore (Minnesota). And Canada.

Regardless of convention, any dummy with a map knows Minnesota's claim is specious. And then when you actually go there...

This is the north shore and most of it bears little resemblance to anything in Minnesota:


Manitou dwell here, as do Thunderbirds. And Mishipeshu, the Great Lynx. It's where Nanabijou sleeps, consigned to stillness through disobedience but a sentinel still and for all the days of men, until there are no more left of days or men.

For First Nation Peoples and Voyageurs alike, the canoe route across the top of the lake was especially arduous. More often than not a  vertical landscape rises straight from the water, making safe harbor tough to come by. Prevailing winds frequently hurl Superior in crashing waves against that hard rock. Sudden storms rake the place, roaring either unexpectedly down from behind  the brooding hills or reaching from the horizon across miles of open water so fast that by the time you think maybe it's best to turn around, it's too late.

Even today, the drive up & over can be epic. Trans-Canadian Highway 17 is one of the great drives in North America. Whether leaving from the Soo and traveling west or from Grand Portage east, the northern half of the Lake Superior Circle Tour is the sort of journey that should be undertaken at least once in a person's life.

Heather & I have 'done' the north shore multiple times. The 1st by winging it during September, which uncertain delight I'd not recommend. Services can feel slight even in summer and with some of the Provincial Parks closed for the season come mid-September, making a plan sure helps ease the way.

For this project we've bit off the journey in two redundant bites -- first to Agawa then back they way we came, now from Grand Portage MN all the way to Pukaskwa National Park and back. We've done it this way 'cause while making the entire trek is a really cool thing to do, when hurtling straight through what you've missed along the way is irrevocably left behind  -- there're no 2nd chances to get things right.

North of Superior is a wildness so remote that most folk don't imagine such vastness of untrammeled space still exists within a day's drive of millions of people. And the Queen's Highway ribbons right through it, up over and around every magnificent kilometer, nearly all of it staying within rough spittin' distance of Superior.

Except, that is, for where the road arches like the back of a Halloween cat to work its way around massive Pukaskwa, which is where we'll start this leg of our journey. I choose this place because I love it. And because, with the exception of White River where still lives Winnie the Pooh, when we head out of here and by the time we make Minnesota, the circuit will be complete and we'll then have visited the length & breadth of the Superior shore.


PukaskwaNational Park is the largest contiguous preserve on the Superior Basin, no matter which direction. Inexplicably, it's pronounced Puck-ah-saw. By any name, it's gifts are many. If you wish, you can take a canoe out of White River and run the 52 miles down to the lake, between 9 & 18 portages included, depending on your expertise. But make sure you build a few days slack in at the end, in case the open waters of Superior prevent return to anyplace that'd accommodate a car. Or you can pack it in -- put it all on your back then cross the new suspension bridge and hit the trail into the interior. All that takes is a permit. And moxy.

Or you could take the challenging Coastal Trail to see the world famous Pukaskwa Pits, but if you do kindly treat the sites with utmost care as the passing years aren't doing anyone any favors in the effort to figure out who made these, when and for what purpose.

But most folk content themselves with the fine campground near Hattie Cove and the Park's visitor center, located in the one tiny space of the entire place that'll allow for creature comfort and with a honeycomb of day trip trails leading off across a remarkable landscape.


For me the highlight of the place is the chance to camp amidst the boreal forest, hard by the lake.



At some 4.4 billion square kilometers of mostly wilderness, the boreal forest of Canada is considered the largest intact forest on Earth. The north shore of Superior is the southernmost reach in North America of these distinct woods and the differences between it and the rest of the forest that surrounds Superior is instantly recognizable -- there're far fewer species of trees and almost no broadleaf, but with a dizzying array of other plants including wild orchids. 

Visit here and you'll know you're altogether someplace else, even compared to the rest of the Superior region.


Typified by dunes and long sand or cobble beaches frequently broken by sudden rises of massive rock, the area plays host to what's commonly called "Old Man's Beard", a parasitic symbiosis of lichen and algae that resembles Spanish Moss and drapes from the conifers, lending them a singular appearance. Considered an exotic, destructive species outside its native range, Old Man's Beard has long been recognized in folk medicine to be an effective antibiotic.



To get to the camp you'll skirt the town of Marathon, a paper mill company town that you shouldn't count on for much. Then you'll pass through Pic River First Nation territory. Unlike too many areas along the south shore, at Pukaskwa the Ojibwa play a role in the management of the Park and maintain a strong ancestral presence in the region.

Upon arrival at camp, I set up and kicked back a bit to shrug off the long day on the road and sink into the place. No sooner had I gone quiet than a jackrabbit came to visit. He noodled around for maybe half an hour, working over the small shoots of tender grass along the edges of my campsite. Occasionally I'd speak softly to him and he'd look at me with liquid black eyes and twitch those long ears in response, then return to munching. Nanabozho is often depicted as a rabbit, so I took him for a good sign.


Stayed three nights. One morning brought storms, which is why the improvised rain fly built the night before. 

We went this way when we have because there'd be no time to go back and it's during late summer when the weather is most stable. Sadly, the harsh August light paid the fieldwork scant favors, but those three nights spent in the embrace of this amazing landscape remain for me one of the highlights of the year.

Then it was back on the road, knowing that the coming months will bring shorter days and the most sublime light, even if the places in which we'll find it won't be quite like this again...



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