We drive around another bend on Highway 17 and my heart cracks open: framed by the green hills, a canvas of the brightest blue stretches all the way to the horizon until it merges with the sky. This is not our first trip to Lake Superior, yet every time we come here, its power strikes me in new, unexpected ways. Every time I feel my brain, my eyes, my heart are too ill-equipped to embrace the immense beauty of Gi chi Gamiing. Everything is exaggerated here: dramatic views, overwhelming rage, fiery sunsets, deep calm painted in cotton candy colours, sudden mood swings. More than anything, Lake Superior is a study in extremes.
Lake Superior is a study in extremes: the rage, the calm, the immense beauty – everything is exaggerated here.
Once we arrive at Pancake Bay, our first stop during a week-long trip to the greatest of Great Lakes, I dash to the beach before we even set up camp. The surface of the Lake is smooth, wrinkles ironed out, its pastels matching those of the sky so perfectly it’s hard to find the horizon. This calm makes it hard to believe the Lake is capable of fury so spectacular and terrifying that over 350 ship wrecks are buried under these smooth waters – one of the most famous ones, Edmund Fitzgerald, resting not too far from where I am standing right now. I drink in this serenity, knowing it will not last, and dive right in, a cold current shooting through my body straight to my core. Even though it is one of the fastest warming lakes in the world, swimming in Lake Superior’s waters is a refreshing experience, to say the least.
On our first night at Pancake Bay, we are greeted with unexpectedly calm waters.
Lake Superior is the largest in the world by surface area and third largest by volume. It holds 10% of the world’s fresh water or three quadrillion gallons. In case you are wondering how much it is, that’s 15 zeroes, enough to flood North and South America under a foot of water. Its average depth is 147 metres, with the deepest point reaching 405. Lake Superior’s shoreline, at 4,387 kilometres (including islands), could connect Duluth in Minnesota all the way to Bahamas or, in Canadian terms, Halifax to Vancouver, if stretched in a straight line. With the help of Google, I can keep throwing in more numbers, each more impressive than the one before. Yet, none of them can convey the power, the beauty, the astonishing diversity of landscapes: from sand dunes and pebble beaches to billion-year-old rocks along its north shore, to stripy sandstone Pictured Rocks and vertical cliffs of Sleeping Giant. A few years ago, we did the Lake Superior Circle Tour and it was hard to believe these constantly changing vistas were all part of the same lake.
Massive sand dunes line up the southern shore of Lake Superior in Michigan.
The northern shore features some of the oldest rocks on the planet,
about 2.5 billion years old.
Rocks on Agawa Bay polished into works of art by water and time
At Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan, nature puts her artistic genius on display.
Captivating views from the top of Sleeping Giant
This year, we didn’t have time to go all the way around, nor would we be able or willing to cross the border into the United States. But even a week-long trip offered a variety of experiences. We took dips in Pancake Bay and enjoyed our morning coffee to the sound of waves lapping at our feet at Agawa Bay.
The perfect curve of Pancake Bay
Drinking in the calm
Watching the last night of our Lake Superior trip melt away
We took long walks along driftwood strewn beaches. Our feet pounded hardened magma along the Under the Volcano trail at Neys Provincial Park.
Wood and water work together to create these flights of whimsy.
Featuring billion-year-old rocks, Under the Volcano Trail offers a stroll back in time.
Driftwood sculptures strewn along the beach at Neys
We ventured into the backcountry of Pukaskwa, one of the least developed stretches along the Lake Superior Coast, and marvelled at the power of Chigaamiwinigum Falls on the White River.
A cozy cove along the Mdaabii Miikna trail at Pukaskwa National Park, far away from the hustle and bustle of civilization
Mdaabii Miikna, ‘go to the shore trail’ in Anishinaabemowin, at Pukaskwa is challenging but look at the views!
Chigaamiwinigum Falls on the White River are a testament to the power of water.
And while the raggedness, the sloping hills, gnarled forests and whimsical driftwood sculptures were sights to behold, the water stole the show every time. The sheer power, the ability to transform, a rich palette of blues, greens, aquamarines and teals, sunset reds and sunrise oranges – the Lake was a limitless, constantly shifting force, capable of creating its own weather, break through rocks and polish stones, re-shape the shoreline, soothe and terrify.
Milky green waters at Picture Rock Harbour in Pukaskwa, one of the best campsite views of all time
Zigzagging coastline constantly re-shaped by the mighty waters of Lake Superior
The north shore of Lake Superior is where water and rock work together to create the most striking landscapes.
Pretty in pink in the early hours of the day
Raging or calm, Old Woman’s Bay is a beautiful sight.
With Lake Superior as her canvas, Mother Nature taps into her most spectacular fiery sunset palette.
Ojibwe believe Mishipeshu, the Great Lynx or Water Panther, is responsible for these sudden changes in Gi chi Gamiing’s demeanour. When angered, this horned lake monster thrashes his tail and creates dangerous waves making the waters impassable. One of the most famous depictions of this creature can be seen on the Mazhenaubikiniguning Augawong (Inscription Rock), now more commonly known as Agawa Rock. This 100-foot-tall rock face features dozens of ochre pictographs – multiple images of canoes, bears, turtles, snakes, suns, serpents, all telling stories of Anishinaabe people who have called this area home for tens of thousands of years. While one of the most accessible pictograph sites in Canada, the sloping ledge at the bottom of the rock can be quite a challenge, even dangerous on a stormy day.
Mazhenaubikiniguning Augawong (Inscription Rock), now more commonly known as Agawa Rock, is one of the most accessible pictograph sites in Canada.
This time, the Lake is relatively calm, its waters the striking blue colour, gentle waves rolling at the bottom, occasionally licking the rock. I opt to go barefoot to get a better grip of the smooth stone. The rock is vibrating with the energy of the sun; I can feel it seep through the bottoms of my feet.
Mishipeshu, with his horned head and spiked tail, stands out among the other paintings. During our past visits, we found tobacco and other gifts right next to it brought here to request safe passage. This time the ledge is empty. I keep watching the Lake for any sudden changes but it continues to hum peacefully, a drastic shift from the roaring grandeur just the night before. Mishipeshu must have exhausted his powers and is now sleeping at the bottom of the lake.
Agawa Rock features dozens of pictographs – multiple images of canoes, bears, turtles, snakes, suns, serpents – Mishipeshu most prominent among them.
The ochre image of Mishipeshu that has survived against the elements over hundreds of years is a reminder that the lake hasn’t always been called Superior. To Ojibwe, it is known as Gi chi Gamiing, meaning Great Lake or Great Waters. When the French arrived, they named it Lac Supérieur, as in Upper Lake acknowledging its position above Lake Huron. Once the English adopted the name, it got imbued with the greatness befitting its impressive size.
Mishipeshu, the Great Lynx or Water Panther, is a horned lake monster that thrashes his tail, when angered, and creates dangerous waves.
As I look at the spiky outline of Mishipeshu, I think of the reverence, connection and respect for nature that our so-called western civilization has worked so hard to erase. Here, on the shores of Ga chi Gamiing, it’s hard not to succumb to awe, to feel humbled in the presence of something so immensely grander than our human world.