Thunder Bay, Lake Superior – September 13, 2013
The Sleeping Giant is a long, high mountain that looks like a man lying on his back. It guards the entrance to Thunder Bay like a tired colossus. I’ve watched it grow on the horizon for days, transforming from a thin shadow to seven-hundred foot cliffs soaring out of the water.
Across the bay, Pie Island stands round and tall like a pie tin flipped upside down. I turned between them both, rounding Thunder Point and paddling toward the Welcome Islands at the mouth of the Kaministiquia River.
The sun sparkled overhead, the water lay flat and blue over the giant bay, and Superior gave me leave to go.
I glided across, fatigue disappearing, momentum pushing me forward toward the end of the first leg of the fur trade, the end of the Montrealer’s route to Fort Williams. I thought of the St. Lawrence, Ottawa, and Mattawa Rivers, of fighting across Nipissing and down the French, of Huron’s Georgian Bay and the North Shore of Superior, of how rounding the Sleeping Giant must have felt for the Montrealers, a thousand miles from their start.
North Men called them mangeurs de lard, or pork eaters, because of the salted pork they’d provision with out of Montreal. Pork rarely made it this far into the interior. The North Men, at least a thousand miles from farmland and sea ports, with their trading posts stretched across to the Rockies, had to survive on pemmican, a sun-dried, pounded meat made of buffalo, moose, or caribou.
The two groups would meet on the shores of Superior, first in Grand Portage, then, after 1803 and the threat of US taxes, thirty miles north in Thunder Bay. They’d swap goods for furs, hold company meetings, exchange news and messages, then return home, the pork eaters to Montreal laden with furs, the North Men to the interior posts with fresh stocks of trade goods.
I reached the Welcome Islands and imagined Montreal Canoes stopped ashore, the men sharpening up as best they could, brushing away dirt, straightening their clothes, readying to push full strength, shining bright, singing loud, pipes filled with tobacco, flying into Fort Willliams on fresh arms and full of joy.
I looked back at the Sleeping Giant and Pie Island. They rose like turrets at the mouth of the bay. Superior glistened beyond them, blue and wild, Isle Royale nothing but a thin line on the horizon. It looked so beautiful.
“Goodbye, friend,” I said.
The water shifted color underneath me. Superior’s clear blue gave way to the brown swirls of the Kaministiquia River. I slipped up a wide channel, feeling the gentle tug of the river’s current against my hull. Superior disappeared behind a bend, all gone but the bit left swirling in the bottom of my water bottle.