I OPEN MY EYES AND, instantly, find myself puzzled. I’m lying in a triangular bed that tapers to a point just beyond my toes; morning light streams through a rectangular opening directly above my head, through which I can see two slender poles, stretching 20 metres straight up into a blue sky. A moment later, it clicks: masts. That’s it: I’m on a boat.
In the main cabin behind me, two of my trip-mates are beginning to stir when a head pokes through the curtain from the deck above. “Anybody interested in a little shore exploration before breakfast?” whispers Greg, our captain. The three of us are quickly on our feet, pulling on long pants and sweaters and then piling into a dinghy to explore the craggy shores of Tee Harbour, with the cliffs of the famous Sleeping Giant rock formation looming over us.
It’s the first morning of a two-night, three-day sailing trip east from Thunder Bay, Ont., through the island-dotted waters of the Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area, a 10,000-square-kilometre swath given Parks Canada protection in 2007. Our destination is Red Rock, a tiny former mill town that boasts a newly dredged marina and a historic lodge, once the exclusive preserve of the region’s lumber barons but now rechristened as a B&B. By day, we sail past sites such as Silver Islet, a flood-prone outcropping just 25 metres across that yielded more than $3 million of silver between 1868 and 1884; by night, our party’s sailboats, the 12-metre Frodo and 11-metre Varua, raft together and drop anchor in placid bays and inlets, and we eat gourmet meals before retiring to our oddly shaped berths.
It’s mid-June, sunny and a little too hot onshore when we push off from the docks in Thunder Bay. By the time we’ve finished introductions — there are seven of us plus the two captains, brothers Greg and Cameron Héroux — the brisk Lake Superior air has us all in long sleeves. Greg has been leading sailing tours of the area since 2000, when he settled back in his native Thunder Bay. His previous adventures include an international modelling career that took him to cities such as Milan and Helsinki, a couple of trans- Atlantic voyages in the Frodo and a star turn as the dashing villain in a Turkish movie — a role we have no trouble imagining when he takes the helm wearing a skull-and-crossbones toque.
Late on our first day, we stop at tiny, rocky Trowbridge Island to see the 86-year-old lighthouse and visit Maureen Robertson, who has been living part of each year in the old keeper’s house since 1996 (the lighthouse was automated in 1988). The sun is setting as we arrive and, captive to diurnal rhythms on the electricity-free island, Robertson has already retired for the night. After scolding Greg good-naturedly, she accepts a peace offering of fresh fruit and bread and gives us an intimate tour of the meticulously maintained and idiosyncratically decorated house.
We dine that night on steaks, grilled to perfection on a gas barbecue that clings incongruously to the Frodo’s stern. It’s the first of a series of mouth-watering meals, culminating in our final breakfast when Greg unveils a bag of Persians, an icingtopped sweet bun that has been a Thunder Bay icon since the 1930s. Cut in half and inverted so that the icing stays in the middle while they’re fried up on the stove, Greg’s “toasted Persians” are vaguely reminiscent of French toast, only a lot pinker.
Fuelled by this injection of sugar, I graduate later that day from releasing and hauling in ropes when we change direction to taking the wheel of the Varua. “It’s just like a car,” Cameron assures me as I pilot a two-handed, white-knuckled course as close to straight ahead as I can manage in the choppy waters. When I pass the wheel back an hour later (after posing for several gigapixels worth of evidence), we’re still afloat and I feel the weight of my former landlubberness drifting away in our wake.
Upon arrival in Red Rock, we head straight for the Quebec Lodge, built from local logs in 1937 to house visiting magnates from the Montréal head office of the Lake Sulphite Pulp and Paper Company. Stepping into the main atrium, we’re immediately engulfed in a calming oasis of dark wood that stretches from the floor to the towering ceiling two storeys above. The lodge was faithfully preserved until the mill’s closing in 2006 — and, lounging by the enormous stone fireplace that evening, we agree that they really knew how to pamper their bigwigs back in the 1930s.
The next morning, we follow a footpath behind the lodge that joins the wellmaintained hiking trail leading, via several spectacular lookouts, to the mouth of the Nipigon River 10 kilometres to the east. Later, we drive up the river to the defunct log chute at the Alexander Generating Station, where a pool below the dam attracts dozens of bald eagles looking for a meal. (This is the river, after all, that produced the still-standing world record speckled trout in 1915, a 6.5-kilogram monster.)
From the pool, we’re told, it’s a pleasant day-trip downstream by kayak back toward the lodge. But not for us — our time is up, and we’re driving back to Thunder Bay to fly home. Greg and Cameron, meanwhile, have picked up another passenger for the sail back to Thunder Bay. Our trip will take less than an hour and theirs will take two days, but we envy them.
For more information, go to www.sailsuperior.com.