By: Josh Spina Follow his families adventures at CanYak Family Adventures Blog
A New Year, A New Adventure: Each year, since we began this annual tradition (brothers weeklong backcountry kayak-camping trip), I think to myself there is just no possible way we can top the previous year’s location. We have been very fortunate to have already visited so many fantastic paddling destinations throughout Georgian Bay (Philip Edward, McCoys, Mink, Franklin, French River/Bustards, & Benjamin Islands) and of course last year's amazing coastal paddling route of Lake Superior Provincial Park. How do you top that? Well this year we decided to check-off another location from our growing bucket list that was actually supposed to be last season's trip but was changed last minute due to an unruly Lake Superior. The Slate Islands are located approximately 13kms off Lake Superior's beautiful and rugged north shore directly across from the quaint little town of Terrace Bay Ontario. This cluster of two large islands (& several smaller ones) are designated as a natural environment Provincial Park.
There are no provincially marked campsites or services but there are several areas that have been established by locals over the years. The Islands are chocked full of amazing human and natural history. Most notably is the fact that the islands were created by a meteorite impact, and are home to a herd of endangered woodland caribou. Unfortunately we were unable to see any caribou on our circumnavigation of the islands. We have been told the population has declined due to wolves crossing to the islands over an ice bridge and that some caribou may have crossed back to the mainland.
In recent news, the Canadian Government has relocated woodland caribou from another Lake Superior Island (Michipicoten), facing the same challenges, over to the Slates with hope of saving the region’s dwindling population.
Getting There: The North Shore Our scheduled 10.5 hour drive from Windsor Ontario cutting up through Michigan and back across at Sault St. Marie on our way to Terrace Bay would actually take us closer to 14 hours when including food breaks, multiple border crossings, traffic and numerous road/bridge construction projects along I-75 and the Trans Canada Highway. We would end up putting over 2,400 kms on the odometer before making it home over a week later.
Road trips often become a big part of the adventure, and we tackled this one by leaving at 4am on a Saturday with hopes of making it up there in time to paddle across to the islands before sunset. We lucked out with zero issues at either border crossing and the drive up I-75 through Michigan is actually very wooded and peaceful. The real fun begins after passing through the city of Sault St. Marie Ontario and traveling West on the Trans-Canada Highway. This section follows the shore of Lake Superior providing stunning views and glorious winding mountainous roads through thick forests that are speckled with beautiful inland lakes. This is rugged, wild land with limited locations to fill the tank or grab a bite to eat. Be sure to stop in some of the small towns/communities such as Batchawana Bay, Wawa or White River.
As we rolled into Terrace Bay we came to the sad realization that due to our late arrival and the soon to be setting sun, it might be wiser to just stay at a local motel and tackle the 13km open water crossing bright and early the next morning. We both ended up passing out around 9pm with an alarm set for 5am the next morning.
The Crossing And Exploration Of The Islands: We woke up early and double checked several weather apps/forecasts before setting out to the public beach. We had both agreed that we would not attempt the crossing unless weather and waves were near perfect and if Superior chose not to cooperate we'd continue our journey west along the coast.
http://www.terracebay.ca/visiting/attractions/slate-islands/Most people that venture across to the Slate Islands hire a local shuttle to bring them, their gear, and canoe/kayak across. Prices and contact info can be found on the Town of Terrace Bay website. Luckily for us, Superior was smooth as glass. Our only challenge would be the extremely dense fog. We took a bearing, relying on our deck compass and Garmin GPS to point us in the right direction for our 2 hour paddle across the lake to the islands. Within a couple minutes of leaving the public beach the shore disappeared into the fog. It was eerie paddling for 2 hours straight and not seeing anything from either direction. The entire time the sun was attempting to penetrate the fog but failed until about 1/2 km off the shore of Mortimer Island. We planned to land in the middle of the north island (Slates consist of 2 large islands, Mortimer and Patterson to the south along with dozens of small islands) and work our way into the interior bay/channel created by the 2 large islands.
Most visitors spend the majority of their trip exploring the sheltered natural bay between the 2 islands, with some making their way around the outer exposed portions. We had hoped to completely circumnavigate both islands if the weather permitted as well as explore the interior to do some fishing (known for fantastic lake trout).
We decided that we would break camp each and every day, not establishing a set base camp in an effort to see more of the island(s). Our first day's camp would be at the "Come n’ Rest" cabin located on one of the smaller interior islands (McColl). The MNR has locked the two buildings and we found the site appeared to be falling into a state of disrepair. We explored the grounds finding all sorts of interesting artifacts before setting up our tent on the cabin’s porch. We would continue to move around each day establishing a new camp as we progressed around the islands. Each site was completely different in appearance and feel. From dense wooded sites to fine sandy beaches to grey unearthly rock to cobblestone bays to black (almost volcanic) rock to sharp edged slate beaches.
Each campsite was absolutely beautiful and unique. Along our travels we enjoyed fishing, hiking up to inland lakes, exploring mazes of shoals speckled along the shoreline, crawling into an old mine shaft, rock jumping into Superior's chilly waters, watching bald eagles soar above, beautiful sunsets with loons calling and warm nightly driftwood fueled bonfires. A personal highlight was paddling into Sunday Harbour on Paterson's south side and hiking up 250+ feet to see the 36ft tall Slate Island Light House that was built in 1903.
It is my understanding that it is the highest lighthouse on the Great Lakes. The view of the island was amazing from that vantage point and worth all the bug bites (black flies). In the end we made camp in 6 different locations, and circumnavigated 90% of both islands.
Our scheduled return trip ended up being delayed one day due to a wind advisory calling for 2-3 metre high waves. Overall the weather on this trip was fantastic except for our second last day where we were trapped under a tarp with torrential downpour for the entire day/night. Not bad for a week on the big lake. Thick fog would once again engulf us on our return paddle, but would be accompanied by almost glass like water conditions, so we couldn't complain. The Slate Islands definitely lived up to our expectations with their remote, rugged and diverse beauty. With another adventure in the books, where to next?