Dispatch from Ontario: A Superior Travel Day

I’ve been on a three-week research trip across northern Ontario, and one of this trip’s unexpectedly special places turned out to be Lake Superior Provincial Park. The end of a trip is always bittersweet, so it’s a bonus when you discover an awesome spot just before you head home.

With a strong wind buffeting my little rental car, I drove 85 miles north from Sault Ste. Marie to the park’s Agawa Bay Visitor Centre. But what surprised me when I got out of the car was the sound–not just the wind, but the crashing surf. I’m, let’s see, at least 900 miles from the nearest ocean, right?

I drive a little farther to sheltered Katherine Cove, and it feels like I’ve landed on another planet. The sun is sparkling across the flat blue water and on the fine white sand.As I walk around behind the Visitor Centre, I’m almost blown over by the wind, and then there’s the lake. Of course, I knew the lake was big–Superior is not only the largest of the five Great Lakes, but the largest body of fresh water in the world – but I’m not really prepared for just how big. Steely blue-grey water disappearing into the horizon, with no land in sight—and I didn’t expect waves like you’d see in Maine or California to be rolling into shore.

Lake Superior, I learned, has legendary winter storms, including the 1975 gale that sank the freighter S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald (immortalized in Ontario-born singer Gordon Lightfoot’s ballad, “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”). With waves like this in early September, I have trouble imagining how it must blow come November!

Up the road, I hike down a steep, rocky trail in hopes of seeing the Agawa Pictographs, red ochre graphics that Ojibway people painted on a lakefront rock face several hundred years ago. You have to scramble out onto the slippery rocks below the vertical rock wall to see the pictographs, and unfortunately, with waves slamming the rocks, it’s too hazardous. I console myself with the dramatic view of the surf spraying the massive boulders.

I drive a little farther to sheltered Katherine Cove, and it feels like I’ve landed on another planet. The sun is sparkling across the flat blue water and on the fine white sand. If the swaying trees were palms instead of evergreens, I could be in the Caribbean.

When I head to Old Woman Bay at the park’s north end, the terrain is different still. Evergreen hills rise and fall around the bay, and the waves are pounding even harder onto the broad sandy beach.

I had been surprised by the scenery around Sault Ste. Marie earlier in the week when I rode the Algoma Central Railway train to Agawa Canyon. As the train chugged north, the city’s steel mills and railyards gave way to lush green woods and lakes so clear they’re like the cliché of “pristine wilderness.”

For striking natural terrain, I certainly wouldn’t pass up the Agawa Canyon trip, but Lake Superior is even more, well, superior. Just the kind of place that will have me planning another trip–soon!

Photo © Carolyn B. Heller

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