Sailors on the lower Great Lakes regard Lake Superior with a mixture of awe, respect and—frankly—fear. Tales of cold and fog, shipwrecks and wind keep most of us from exploring Superior’s shores. But there is another side to this greatest of the Great Lakes, and I found it on a summer cruise aboard my Westsail 32, Antares. This lake is a challenge alright, but it is also a place of stunning natural beauty, secluded anchorages, welcoming towns and warm-hearted people.
For years, a punch list entitled “Lake Superior Cruise” has reminded me of the upgrades and improvements Antares needed before she could tackle the big lake. Every spring I looked over the list and promised myself I’d go that summer, yet every year another season slipped away. Finally, I decided it was time for action. My destination would be Washington Harbor, on Isle Royale National Park, a distance of about 500 miles from our home port of Detroit.
I improved the mainsail reefing system, installed a cabin heater, upgraded the GPS, purchased new foul-weather gear, rebuilt the Aries self-steering system, and carefully checked the boat from stem to stern. I prepared for Superior as though I were crossing the Atlantic. The lake is enormous, and harbors and help are often miles away. Self-reliance is essential on this vast freshwater sea.
I sailed the 220-mile length of Lake Huron, then motored up the St. Mary’s River to the massive locks at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. Traveling solo, I worried about navigating the giant 800-foot McArthur lock that would lift me 22 feet to Superior. A lock tender threw down two long lines and the mighty gates closed behind me. As the lock filled I was relieved to find the rise was gentle and easy to handle.
When the lock gates opened, ahead lay Lake Superior, 350 miles long, 160 miles wide and 1,300 feet deep. The biggest of the Great Lakes and one of the world’s largest bodies of fresh water, the lake is crystal clear and always cold, reaching only 50 degrees in summer. French explorers first arrived in 1622, but Superior has been home to native peoples for many thousands of years.
Awed by Superior’s immensity and fearsome reputation, I was nervous when I set off across Whitefish Bay at the lake’s southeastern end. It was early July, when the lake is most tame, but fog forms year round and by evening the distant shore had faded into mist. That night, in a thick pea-souper, I cautiously rounded Whitefish Point, keeping just outside the shipping lanes. Here ships enter the main body of the lake, and over the centuries countless vessels have collided at this congested turning point or run onto the shoals in fog and wind.
Now westbound, I followed the southern shore all night down the infamous Shipwreck Coast. Uninhabited and exposed to the prevailing westerlies, this 60-mile shoreline is particularly dangerous. Here the bones of more than 300 vessels and their crews lie hidden in the shifting sands. A small harbor called Little Lake is the only refuge, but silt often fills its narrow entrance.
Mid-morning under a hazy blue sky, the low-lying fog was starting to burn off. Installing radar had now moved to the top of my wish list. At the snug harbor town of Grand Marais, I picked my way up the misty channel and popped out into brilliant July sunshine. The village streets were full of tourists, the shop owners delighting in their brief rush of summer business.
I continued west, past the bright glare of the Grand Sable Dunes rising hundreds of feet above the narrow shore. The wind died and in a rare calm I motored all night past the distant glow of Munising and Marquette, two of the larger towns in the area. The lake was a sheet of glass, and brilliant stars reflected perfectly in its still surface. By morning, sailing again, I passed the Huron Mountains, which rise in dramatic green folds from the rocky pine-covered shore. Two exhausted little brown bats fluttered aboard, crawled under the dodger and fell fast asleep.
Like a giant upraised thumb, the Keweenaw Peninsula juts into Superior pointing northeast toward Canada. Across it runs the Portage River, a shortcut for boats traveling the southern shore. On a warm evening I doused the sails and started up the Portage. Summer cottages lined the forested bank and kids swam in the protected inland waters. As night fell I turned into a little side channel in an open marshy area and dropped anchor in 12 feet of water. The following day I’d be in Houghton—the jumping-off point for Isle Royale.
The next morning, in my haste to reach Houghton, I ran Antares headlong into a sandbank. To careen her off, I rowed ashore 550 feet of line and secured one end to a tree, then ran the other end to a block at the masthead and down to the genoa winch. I cranked and cranked till my arms ached, afraid the winch would tear out of the boat. After seven hours, she finally slid off. I was exhausted, covered in mud and blood, sweat and seaweed, but we had escaped. I never felt so fine, and that night in Houghton the beer never tasted so good.
The twin cities of Houghton/Hancock are home to once world-famous copper mines that made many a millionaire in the 1850s. Tours of the mines and the mansions of their owners are a must. I re-provisioned Antares and early that evening passed under the massive Houghton lift bridge, then continued up the winding Portage River. Steep hills plunged down to the quiet water like a scene from the Rhine River Valley. I half expected to see a medieval castle perched atop a rocky ledge.
Now Superior showed its other side, the one sailors fear. On a stormy 50-mile passage across the open lake to Isle Royale, thunder squalls and driving rain chased me all night. Early in the morning, just five miles off, I stopped. The island lay completely hidden in fog. I waited hours for it to lift, then (very carefully) made my way toward land. Running dead slow with my heart pounding, I threaded my way between pine-covered islands. Grounding here, I wouldn’t hit soft sand, but sharp rock and blunt boulders. The chartplotter showed me climbing up over one small island—a good reason to trust only eyeball navigation close to shore. Finally, Washington Harbor, long and fjord-like, opened ahead, and in a chill rain I tied up to the dock at Windigo Ranger Station. I stepped ashore feeling like Columbus—at last I’d reached my goal.
Isle Royale, the least visited of our national parks, is a world apart from the busy mainland. With no cell phones and virtually no electricity, running water or roads, the island is accessible only by boat or seaplane. The only year-round residents are moose and wolves. The silence is complete, broken only by the haunting call of a far-off loon, by wind moaning softly in the pines, and by the low rumble of surf breaking on the distant rocky shore.
I hiked the island’s steep trails by day and, in the long twilight evenings, listened to lectures by park naturalists. There are dozens of beautiful anchorages on the island, but the best is Chippewa Harbor. On the south shore, its two protected fjords lead back to a secluded pool surrounded by pines growing thick to the water’s edge. Here is what cruising is all about—quiet, seclusion, peace and beauty. It was a place of pure magic, the highlight of my trip.
With strong westerlies forecast, I decided to catch a quick ride 180 miles back to Whitefish Point. I picked my way out of Chippewa, with surf breaking on rocky islets around me, and set sail in the strong breeze. By mid-day I was under a reefed main and yankee in 30 knots. Ocean-like swells were rising astern, and the boat surged down their steep faces.
I was forward checking the rig when Antares suddenly rounded up. Looking aft, I saw the Aries windvane on the transom swaying lifelessly, like a bird with a broken wing. In the big seas one of the lines from the servo-pendulum gear to the tiller had parted. I could hand-steer 60 miles to Marquette or try to replace the line.
Harness on, hanging on by my toenails over the stern, I removed the little pulleys in the Aries and fed a wire snake up for the new line. The wind whistled through the rigging and the boat rolled wildly. Fighting to hang on as I carefully reassembled the vane, it occurred to me that Lake Superior is a place for mature audiences only. Out here, things can go really wrong, really fast. Fixing the Aries without any of the parts (or me) going overboard took all my years of sailing experience, and I was mighty pleased to get back into the cockpit and be safely on my way.
All night the wind blew hard and the following afternoon, as I eyed the huge waves pounding the sandy shore on Whitefish Point, I could see why it’s called the Shipwreck Coast.
That evening I tied up in the Whitefish Point Harbor of Refuge. The nearby Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum pays tribute to the thousands of sailors lost in these cold waters over the centuries. Most poignant is the memorial to the crew of the 729-foot ore carrier Edmund Fitzgerald. In 1975 she took 29 souls to the bottom in a fierce November gale just 17 miles from here.
It was time to head back to the lower lakes. On a gray morning I sailed out of the little harbor and turned south. I glanced back for a final look, but fog had formed and Whitefish Point lay hidden in the mist. I turned my gaze toward the warmer waters of home, but now I was hooked by the lure of the lake and had fallen under its powerful spell. Already Superior was calling me back, and I promised one day I’d return to her remote and rocky shores.