Navigating a sea kayak on Lake Superior is usually pretty simple: Keep the land on one side, water on the other. But not here. Along Ontario’s rugged, serrated shore, just two hours northeast of Grand Portage, MN, the coast dissolves into an archipelago of hundreds of piney islands scattered north and east across Superior’s crown. And here is where you’ll paddle one of the wildest, craggiest, most isolated shorelines of the world’s largest freshwater lake. You’ll have to keep a sharp eye on your map and GPS (and pray for kind weather) to negotiate the winding passages from island to island during this experience-required, three-day, 75-mile trip. But the payoff is a solitude even Boundary Waters cognoscenti can’t find.
Begin in tiny Silver Islet, at the tip of the Sibley Peninsula. Park at the general store, pick up last-minute supplies (an extra day’s worth of grub is wise), and launch at the public ramp. Take a bearing on the gray-green, lichen-encrusted cliffs of Edward Island, and set out on the open water. Then slip between Edward and Porphyry Islands and cross a channel to Magnet Island. Pay attention, especially if it’s foggy; this island owes its name to the magnetic disturbances that can foul a compass by as much as 20 degrees.
Start scouting for campsites along Black Bay Peninsula if you’re getting gassed. Nearly all shoreline is public “Crown land” open to camping, but good sites can be tough to find in the impenetrable spruce. Look where waves and ice have bulldozed a level gravel beach.
If you’re not tired, push on behind Emmerson and the Barclay Islands and cross to Swede Island; a narrow passage up its east side leads to a protected bay where a sauna house awaits. Seriously. Built by boaters on provincial land, it’s open for public use, and campsites are nearby. Finally, in sauna-induced calm, settle in for perhaps your best sleep of the entire year.
The next day, paddle north into the narrows between Spain and Borden Islands to Loon Harbor, protected from Superior’s winds on all sides. If it’s slow going, tuck into a campsite in a long notch in Shesheeb Point. Otherwise, head past spectacular hills and points in Shesheeb Bay to Spar Island.
At Spar, check the marine forecast on your shortwave. If strong southerlies are coming, veer north into Nipigon Strait and continue your trip along the north side of St. Ignace Island. In fair weather, follow the waveworn south shore. Sneak behind Dunmore Island on Simpson Island’s Grebe Point and set your tent in Woodbine Harbor. In the morning, round Morn Point and paddle between dreamy Vein and Harry Islands. Keep an eye out for playful otters and head south past the imposing cliff of Quarry Island to your takeout at the village of Rossport, where homemade pie at the Rossport Inn will go down faster than the Edmund Fitzgerald.
From Thunder Bay, head east on ON 17 to the turnoff for Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, then south to Silver Islet.
Outfitting Superior Outfitters (superioroutfitters.on.ca) has boats ($30-40/week), guides ($1,250), and shuttle service back to Silver Islet for you and your boats ($175).
You’ll need a Crown land permit to camp (CDN $10 per night); the Thunder Bay District of Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources (807-475-1471) can mail it. You can also pick one up at the district office or at Cloud River Trading Post, just north of the Pigeon River border crossing.
Canadian topos 52A and 42D, in 1:250,000 ($11.45 each); Guide to Sea Kayaking on Lakes Superior & Michigan, by Bill Newman, Sarah Ohmann, and Don Dimond ($16; Globe Pequot).