Thunder Bay, Lake Superior – September 15-16, 2013
“So I think I took a wrong turn off Isle Royale,” I told Dan and Wim. “I know Thunder Bay looked a lot closer on the map.”
They laughed. Wim had showed me the way in a ranger station a year ago. I’d just arrived on Isle Royale and he, Dan, and two other friends, Peter and Jean, had just finished kayaking around it. The rangers told me to talk to them, so I did, and we sat around a pavilion near the dock sharing stories and looking over maps of the island. The conversation drifted to the Canadian coast.
“There’s Pie Island, there’s Sleeping Giant, and there’s Thunder Bay,” Wim had told me, pointing at the map. “It’s a big bay, so if you decide to come in you have to be carful with the wind crossing it.”
They gave me their extra food and a box of wine they had left over from the trip.
“Take it, take it,” they said. “We can’t bring it back across the border anyway.”
I can still taste the coconut curry dinner they gave me with careful instructions on which packets to mix together and when. I remember drinking the wine with Gunner, Kenny, and Keith, the strangers from Two Harbors who became my friends after three days of being windbound on Belle Isle together.
“Look us up if you make it to Thunder Bay,” Dan said. “You’d love the Canadian shore.”
I laughed. I told them I was already going a hundred and fifty miles in the wrong direction around Isle Royale.
“But you never know,” I said. “Maybe I’ll cut across to Sleeping Giant from the north end of the island.”
I circled Isle Royale, saw the Sleeping Giant’s distant shadow, crossed back to Grand Portage, and headed south to race winter down the Mississippi.
But I didn’t forget about Thunder Bay. I didn’t forget about those stories they told of the north shore’s cliffs and islands, or the group of friends I’d met. And they didn’t forget about me. I took the long way around, but Dan picked me up when I arrived even though I was a year late.
You become friends fast in the wilderness. I met Dan and Wim for only a few minutes, maybe half an hour, on Isle Royale, but it felt like a reunion when Dan waved at me from a bridge over the Kaministiquia River.
Dan and Wim are neighbors and I spent the next three days in one or the other’s house organizing supplies, packing provisions, drying tarps, repairing gear, and researching the Kaministiquia-Dog River Fur Route into the interior.
Wim and Dan pulled out all their maps and spent hours going over them with me piece by piece, moving our fingers over dozens of lakes, rivers, and portages between Thunder Bay and International Falls. We looked at aerial photos and talked to friends who might know something about the old route and forgotten portages. We read books and guides and guessed at the missing pieces.
Dan gave me a pair of wool gloves and a vest to help ward off the growing cold. Wim gave me a hunk of summer sausage to eat when the trail grew tough.
We ate Jean’s restaurant, Bistro One, a light-speed upgrade from mac and cheese over an alcohol stove. Dan and his wife Sally cooked steaks. Wim and his wife Harriet cooked BBQ ribs. Dan made a huge pot of risotto for Sally’s parent’s sunday dinner and Wim made dutch apple tarts with fresh whipped cream. We ate breakfast poutine smothered in hollandaise sauce instead of gravy and Swedish pancakes soaked in syrup. The whole time Dan told me to eat more, that I’d need the calories soon, and he put on five pounds in sympathy weight.
The weariness of Superior faded. I feel strong again, my muscles are back, my mind is sharp. I’m ready to set off, to face rapids and portages and forgotten paths, to stare down the last four-hundred miles of this trip as winter races toward me.
The voyageurs had Fort Williams to regroup and organize. I had Dan and Wim. I’d take them every time.