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Cruising Lake Superior

Catamount in Richardson Harbour, Canada, where a nearby island has six pits and the mainland five

Catamount in Richardson Harbour, Canada, where a nearby island has six pits and the mainland five

Almost anywhere a sailor drops the hook someone else has been there before. We are hardly ever the first. That remote Maine harbor without a soul in sight: there’s a lobster trap. The south coast of Newfoundland: the crumbling remains of a fisherman’s cabin lie hidden among the boulders. British Columbia’s inside passage: the charred remnants of someone’s campfire.

Rather than diminishing the thrill of discovering a pristine anchorage, though, these reminders that someone else used water, as we have, to get there and leave their mark actually tie us all together. So it is in the remote northeast corner of Lake Superior.

My wife, Jennifer, and I sail Catamount, our Caliber 38, to that corner of Canadian wilderness almost every summer. Once there, we often go 10 to 14 days without seeing another boat or another person. We never have to share an anchorage. Nonetheless, when we walk the deserted cobble beaches of Richardson Island or Brulé Harbour or Otter Cove, we are reminded that we are far from the only people to tread there. Someone beat us by about 5,000 years.

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On these cobble beaches from an earlier version of Lake Superior, usually 50ft or so above the current shoreline, are pits three or four feet deep and about eight feet in diameter, with stone walls raised around the perimeter. The result is a depression about four or five feet in depth. Some are solitary, some are clustered together in groups of four or five, some are connected by trenches. These are known to archaeologists as Pukaskwa (PUCK-a-saw) pits, named in honor of the ancestors of the current First Nation residents of the area and protected in a Canadian national park of the same name.

Who were these people? No one knows, since carbon dating and artifacts from the pits are virtually nonexistent, and the First Nation elders do not include them in their collective tribal memory. The dating of the pits is anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 years old based largely on dating lichen growth on the rocks within them. The pits are found nowhere in Canada other than the shores of northeast Lake Superior.

Since the interior is impenetrable, what sort of watercraft did these people use to travel from beach to beach? Did they do so in larger groups or as individual families? Were the pits used for overnight protection from storms, perhaps overturning watercraft on top of them for protection, then moving on once the storm had passed? Did they serve a religious purpose? Were they used by hunting parties to cache food for the winter or to store food under piled-up shore ice for consumption later in the summer? Were they meant as defensive structures against predators, human or otherwise?

Lake Superior’s Pukaskwa pits are shrouded in mystery

Lake Superior’s Pukaskwa pits are shrouded in mystery

This last explanation seems especially compelling as Jennifer and I bushwhack a couple of hundred yards inland on Otter Island to where an ancient cobble beach sits hard against a south-facing cliff. There we marvel at a large complex of interlocking pits with a single exterior entrance and numerous internal connections. The walls are three to four feet tall and after several millennia just barely able to support an occasional scrawny birch tree. Commonly referred to as the “Fort,” but with no proof it was built for community defense (which would raise the question of whether there were enough other people around to require defending against), the complex invites contemplation, speculation and, finally, admiration. Whoever these people were, they raised children, fed themselves and built lasting structures. Not much different really from what we still do today.

As Jennifer and I sit near one of the shoreside pits or contemplate the complexity of the “Fort” on Otter Island, we often wonder if these people ever admired a sunset over the water? Did a soft shore breeze allow them use of a sail? Did lusciously ripe blueberries in July mean anything to them other than just sustenance? Did they ever note the beauty of solitary red maple leaf in the late August without being reminded that life-threatening snows were in the offing? Impossible to say.

One thing we do know, though: we are not the first visitors in this amazing wilderness to step ashore from a boat. To us, that connection to an ancient people is a great comfort. 

March 2021

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