Woodland Caribou - Ghosts of the Slate Islands
Part IV - The Push to the Lighthouse
Despite more than a little trepidation, we were all looking forward to exploring the eastern and southern-most reach of Patterson Island and the prospect of visiting the lighthouse and station there. We all knew that the lake would be reasonably calm on the leeward side of the island, but we expected things to change once we approached the southern tip, where we'd be exposed to the open lake and unpredictable winds.
Here is what our planned route looked like starting from the campsite. The total distance to and from the lighthouse was about 18 miles. We had plenty of time, but wished to get a reasonably early start in case any unforeseen circumstances arose.
And there was another concern. With all the photos I'd taken, my camera was almost out of juice and I had no spare battery. Lori and Diane had also been collecting photos - but both of them were suffering the same low battery fate as I. Yet it was really important for me to capture the days events and what I knew would be an important and meaningful part of our adventure. Still - there was good news. The day promised clear skies and the sun was shining bright. This was essential if my plan to charge my phone had any chance of working. I had all of my hopes resting on the shoulders of my Suntastics sCharger-5 solar panel. If it couldn't at least supply some
charge to re-energize my camera's battery - then all the photo taking would stop here. My expectations were running high as I connected the panel to my camera and waited. The moment of truth came when I turned on the camera two hours later and discovered that it now read fully charged. Did I mention how much I love this charger? We ended up charging Lori's phone too (we discovered early on that we couldn't make any calls from the island, even though we could text) but her iphone would stop charging when the sun became obscured periodically by cloud cover. Suntastics does make a newer panel that addresses this issue though (see here: http://www.amazon.com/Suntactics-sCharg ... XG90F9FT87
We figured that the return trip would take us about 5 or 6 hours including food breaks and a visitation to the lighthouse if we were lucky enough to make it that far. From my previous trip to White Otter Castle that saw some pretty rough conditions - I knew the Hobie Adventures would be up for the challenge.
We planned to stick together and hug the shoreline as close as practical. Once around the point to the right, we'd be turning more and more southward. Brimming with confidence - partly stemming from favourable weather - Diane "The Fearless" had taken the lead by some distance and was startingly oblivious to the "stick together" memo that I had sent out only moments earlier. Yelling out to her numerous times made little difference. I suspected things would change once we reached the south part of the island. Oh yes - later on there'd be no need to plead.
The Hobies generally tend to cruise pretty comfortably at 4 mph under good conditions with the turbo fins. A reasonably fit person could maintain this pace for considerable periods of time. I had upgraded early to the sailing rudder and the extra turning response it lends to the kayak makes a world of difference. The point we were navigating toward seemed far off in the distance and as we drew nearer, the views of the mainland became more prominent.
Before long, we were approaching the point and all of us were curious to know what lay ahead.
The first thing we discovered was that the rugged shoreline of Patterson Island featured some stunning geological formations that contributed to the illusion below of Chris and Lori engaging in some dry land training. It seemed incredible that they hadn't hit rock bottom yet.
On the beach of this expansive bay were several canoes. They belonged to a large group of women who were camped between our site and the point. They managed to grab a magnificent spot with a long sandy beach. They too were taking advantage of a perfect day to be exploring out on the water. The fact that they didn't stray any further south suggests they may have had a better sense of self-preservation than we did.
Here we see the stunning changes in the lake water. These weren't photographic anomalies or post-processing stylistic tricks - this is exactly how the water appeared at times.
We heard some sounds of rushing water nearby and spotted a small stream cascading down a rock face. You can see it in the centre of the frame below. While the surrounding water near the shoreline was deeper than it appears in the photos - Diane did get hung up briefly on some rocks. I think it was because she became too entranced by the scenery unfolding before her - and around every corner. She knew to "flutter" the fins so they wouldn't sweep too deeply, and managed to free herself with little drama.
Each time I paused to capture a few photos - the others quickly slipped away in the distance. I had to kick it up a notch to catch the rest of the group. What happened again to the "stick together" message?
Here is Diane still in the lead and not letting up one bit. Any faster and I was worried that she might get up on step and we'd never see her again.
And here is Chris and Lori right behind. As far as I knew - it wasn't a race. Yet when facing a headwind - it appeared the Adventures had a big advantage in speed. At other times however, we were all pretty evenly matched.
We had planned to stop at least once on the way in - and when we noticed a picturesque little sheltered, rocky bay - we all agreed to stop, rest, and eat some lunch.
The view from across to the mainland from our log perch was nicely captured in this photo. With the brilliant sunshine - everything looked so vivid and vibrant. Everything popped out at you just like in this image.
There was a startlingly clear stream flowing down through this sheltered cove. We took advantage of this by wading and washing our feet in it, followed by some obligatory "couples" photos. Many movies feature some kind of customary romantic sub-plot to maintain the viewer's interest. I decided to spare you from such sugar-coated distractions.
Everyone looked to be in good spirits. The calories we were consuming would come in handy for the more challenging sections up ahead.
I like to think of this photo as the calm before the storm. How do I know? Because I took only 3 photos in the span of the next 30 minutes. Why? Because it started to get rough with the kayaks being hit by winds and currents from what seemed like every direction. Taking out the camera meant lifting one hand off the rudder and removing one from the side of the kayak for bracing. Constant rudder use in these conditions helped smooth out the ride and maintain stability. I knew at some point that I should risk taking a photo if the lighthouse came into view. We were now getting more antsy with the rougher water and the lighthouse couldn't arrive soon enough. But eventually we would see it. And despite the rough ride - we all knew that we'd be off the water again soon.
And I would eventually get my shot. But it took several tries that resulted in a collage of separate sky and water scenes. It was clearly difficult to hold the camera steady. I was trying to time each shot with the severe up and down rocking motion of the kayak. Thank goodness for Sony's excellent optical stabilization. These few photos were probably composed more quickly than any shots I have taken previously.
When I finally captured the image below I knew better to just leave good enough - alone. My next task was to negotiate the criss-crossing waves around the point that would threaten to upset the kayak. I noticed a dog at the lighthouse keeper's home and eventually saw someone on the grounds. We were seeking the shelter in the bay around the corner - but even if we intended on landing here - I really don't think it would have been possible. This made the few minutes that it took us to round the corner feel even riskier. Some might say that the conditions don't really look that
rough in the images. But it wasn't just the wind, waves, and currents that made this stretch particularly nerve wracking. More importantly, it was the threat of extremely cold water - if you suffered the misfortune of being immersed in it. I recall filling up a water bottle in Lake Superior in early July some years ago. I was in up to my knees for only about 20 seconds to fill the container and the pain I experienced due to the cold felt like someone was tightening my shins in a vice. It was unbearable. We started making bets on who could enter the water and return: 1. With a full bottle, and 2. Without crying out in pain at any time. Nobody could do it in one shot.
At no point did I feel in over my head. However, I remember looking at Diane a few times and wondering if she felt the same way that I did about this section. If she was equally wary. If she did - it certainly wasn't portrayed in her facial expression. She looked as cool as Pinky Tuscadero. Later I would find out that she was indeed "bricking it". But we never spoke of it until we were back at the campsite. Nobody wanted to discuss the elephant in the room. I recall the most challenging part being the rounding of the point - navigating through the turbulent water there. It was like the Slate Islands equivalent of Cape Horn. I was being drawn in every direction until I covered enough distance to free myself from its pull.
The house in the distance used to be the lighthouse keeper's home before it was replaced by the buildings seen below the lighthouse in one of the photos above. The conditions improved greatly as we made our way deeper into Sunday Harbour.
It was a relief to be on solid ground again. I don't think any of us were looking forward to the return trip around the point. The biggest surprise was that Lori and Chris were drenched. Diane was completely dry and I had a sopping wet rear end. I would have never expected such a comparatively dry ride from a sit-on-top.
When we arrived on shore we were greeted by Jim Bryson who owns the lease to the house. He and his family share a long history of lighthouse keeping here. We wanted to be respectful and were concerned about imposing on him and his family - but he was incredibly friendly, gracious, and interesting to talk with. We chatted for some time about the history of the area and the lighthouse. We even talked about the weather. Our summer really hadn't been a warm one. He mentioned that dips in the bay were common in a typical summer. However, the water this year was just too cold.
We were pretty eager to see the lighthouse and he enthusiastically pointed the way to the trail and we swiftly began our ascent. The lighthouse itself is over 200 ft above the lake and is the highest elevated one on Lake Superior.
Here we are excitedly climbing the trail. The route was in good shape and a relatively easy climb. Before too long we were at the top.
The views from above were even more stunning than we had anticipated. When you look out onto the water and toward the horizon - you really gain an appreciation for how enormous the lake really is.
In this photo you can see the newer lighthouse station below.
Of course - the lighthouse itself was locked - and we understood why. But that didn't dampen our curiosity for what interesting things we might find inside. I was surprised to see a large helicopter landing pad located a short distance away. I snapped a quick photo of Diane and Lori in front of the main structure.
I also captured an image of Sunday Harbour where we came in.
After descending the trail and returning to the beach, we quickly prepared for the voyage back. We didn't want to waste too much time in case mother nature pulled the shades down on our weather window. While it was just as daunting the second time around, we took some comfort in knowing that we had already made it through once. Kind of like my similarly traumatic second ride on Top Thrill Dragster at Cedar Point amusement park a few years ago. Nevertheless, the feeling of relief was noticeable when we made it far enough around the island - to again secure protection from the wind and waves.
We wanted to rest at some new spots on the return trip.
This beach was interesting because it featured a stream that according to our map, flowed from a lake some distance away. Chris and I - being the intrepid explorers that we are - decided to follow the stream to its source.
Our dreams were dashed when after 20 minutes of challenging terrain, much bush whacking, and several twisted ankles later - we came across this swamp. That was all that was left of what might have been a small lake at some point. I'm not sure what we were expecting - but this certainly wasn't it (my apologies to all those fans of swamp ecosystems that I will acknowledge, typically teem with an incredibly vital and diverse array of organisms - who might be reading this).
When we arrived back at the beach - we communicated our disappointment to Diane and Lori and then prepared for our final leg back to camp. Not without one hitch though. Sometimes the pedal drive becomes demonically possessed and doesn't want to follow the laws of physics and the natural world and click into the drive-well. This was one of those times. It took a few tries to get it right. The others at least seemed
relatively patient........though I thought it strange that they were pointed in the wrong direction......
As we continued onward - we spotted a caribou along the shoreline and I quickly zoomed in for a shot. This would be one of three caribou we'd see on the trip - aside from Clarence. Were sightings and encounters really so rare that they merited the title of "Ghosts of the Slate Islands"? Apparently at one time - during the early 1990's this was certainly not the case, when their numbers were as high as 600 in this area. But current estimates suggest the herd may have dwindled to only 100 or so members. If this is correct, glimpses of these unique animals (with the exception of our friend back at camp) on these islands would be more rare than it once was.
We finally made it back to our site and all of us joined in and celebrated our success with some food and drinks. It was an incredible adventure that we will remember and discuss for years. The challenge just made it all the more satisfying. To cap off the perfect day, Clarence entertained us with a cameo appearance - that was once again timed perfectly - coinciding with our evening hunt for firewood.
We were now getting used to the following scene at our site.
Tomorrow would be our last day at the Slates. We intended to do more exploring in the morning before being picked up by Come. There was still plenty of adventure left in this trip, as we would soon find out.
Stay tuned for Part V.