Taking a Kayak from the Soo Locks to Lime Island is an epic trip following a major freighter route, the St. Mary’s River. The St. Mary’s is a very slow river and we seldom found any benefit from the flow – more often than not, the headwinds would push us back upstream against the weak current. Eleven kayakers paddled 40 miles in two days, went through the Canadian Locks, Encountered rain, headwinds and waves.
Day 1: Ashmun Bay to Sand Island
After an early wake-up to spot cars down river at Raber, we were all anxious to get on the water and start knocking off the miles. But we got only a couple hundred yards before we were introduced to the local water traffic. We paused to watch the tour boat Nokomis head upstream and then waited while the 740’ freighter Assiniboine passed down-bound into the locks. The freighter was impressive in size and was deceptively fast on the water – a reminder that we need to keep alert in the days to come.
As the traffic cleared we paddled forward to the Canadian side of the river. We approached the Canadian Canal Locks and then pulled behind the Nokomis, which had detoured to the Canadian shores. We continued in its wake, passing by the sprawling infrastructure of the locks – the International Bridge, dams, railroad bridges, gates and canals.
Finally we passed through the open lock gates and pulled up along the East side of the canal, opposite the Nokomis. On the tour boat they had announced to the passengers that there were a group of kayaks on the port, so we spent the next few minutes taking pictures of each other, exchanging good natured greetings, and talking about our trip plans with the passengers.
These are always memorable moments on FBET trips – when we encounter vacationers who take a tamer route into the wild. Whether it’s meeting a tour train in the Canadian wilderness or a ferry full of vacationers in the Soo – it’s reminder that we’re doing things a bit different. That “we go farther.”
The difference between Superior and Huron is about 21 feet. A loose grip on rubber covered ropes kept us at the wall while the water swirled into a drain pipe at the bottom of the canal. When the water mark was high above and the door swung open, we left the Canal ahead of the ferry, and then surfed its waves as it passed. After pausing for some of us to pass through the spray of a fountain, we entered the main channel where we found that the wind and the multiple inlets to the river made for a choppy passage. Waves crashed on our decks as we cautiously made our way back to the U.S. side.
We headed down the passage between Sugar Island and the Mainland. With a late start and 13 miles to go, we had to keep a steady pace. This was a pleasant paddle with smooth water – the shores dotted with summer cottages. At Lake Nicolet, We made a short crossing to the East side of the channel to the top of Neebish Island. After a short search, we found a short piece of beach on Sand Island to land the kayaks.
Everyone quickly dispersed to take care of their own needs – changing into dry clothes, setting tents, cooking. We made a small fire for cooking, but no-one stayed up very late that night – a combination of weariness and the buzzing mosquitos made for an early retreat into the tents.
Day 2: Sand Island to Lime Island
The second day would be busy – passage through the rock-cut, a 3 mile open water crossing and the final crossing to Lime Island. However, before we even hit the rock-cut, we gave our Expedition Watch a small test.
There’s a lot of training and support that go into an FBET trip. Besides training in First Aide, Navigation and other skills, we also have the Expedition Watch back home. We can contact them at any time with a SPOT device or Satellite phone – whether for emergencies or just an update – or in this case, a drill. This particular drill involved sending an SOS message to our Watch giving our current location and the vague instruction to have someone meet us downstream as we continue our trip.
We sent our message and continued into the Rock Cut just two miles from our camp at Sand Island. The Rock-Cut is a passage less than 100 yards wide and carries the down-bound freighter traffic – it’s marked by shear vertical walls on either side. The sides aren’t tall, but they’re enough of an obstacle that a kayak cannot be landed. Here we started to hit the choppy water, headwind and rain which would dog us through most of the day’s journey
We traveled the channel uneventfully, if uncomfortably in the rain. We passed marine beacons and quarrying operations along the shore. Upon exiting the Rock Cut, our radios squawked and we made contact with Pathfinder. Pathfinder had been camping on the mainland and followed the Expedition Watch instructions to meet up. We arranged a landing further downstream as a proof that safety systems were functioning.
We continued to meet a headwind down the river between Nebbish Island and the mainland – at times, our travel speed was less than 1.5 miles per hour. Towards the bottom of Neebish Island, we enjoyed the spectacle of a flock of seagulls who had taken over a small island. Swarm might be a better word. . they took off in large groups as we approached and swirled around us. Understandably, most of the wildlife we spotted on this strip was avian – seagulls, herons and once a formation of pelicans.
Next stop was Moon Island at the entry to Munuscong Lake. Adjacent to the shipping the lanes, Moon Island is surrounded by stone break walls against the wave action. We found a small sandy spot to beach at the south end of the island, enjoyed our lunch and scouted the Munuscong Lake crossing.
The crossing was 3.5 miles from Moon Island to Rocky Point – into the headwind and continuing chop. It was vigorous paddle and we were thankful for our sprayskirts. Once we hit the point, we turned slightly to the east and sighted in Pointe Aux Frenes five miles away. The wind and waves were decreasing but we needed to use our compasses here as the distant point occasionally disappeared into the mist.
We hit the point and turned south to find Raber Bay smooth and Lime Island clear in the distance. The smooth water and mild breeze were a welcome relief that put everyone in a better mood. We enthusiastically ate up the final stretch – crossing to Round Island (the Island and Light house currently for sale at a cool $2 Million) then on to Lime Island. Ducking under a short bridge we gratefully pulled into a sheltered bay.
Day3: Exploring Lime Island
We spent the better part of our day on Lime Island exploring its trails in groups – a welcome chance to spread our legs. Lime Island was an important part of the Great Lakes Shipping History and we explored its schoolhouse, kilns, and the other buildings.
We also spent time relaxing under the shade of trees, watching the freighters pass in the shipping lane right off the island. Some Expeditioners took the opportunity to swim in the cold bay and some explored a visiting tugboat.
We were fortunate on this trip in that we had an opportunity to resupply with an FBET family who was taking a weeklong vacation in one of the cottages. It was a welcome respite to enjoy their company and indulge ourselves in the Gumbo, the Strawberry shortcake, and the cold beverages that they transported to the island. The mosquitoes left us alone that night and we had a fine celebration to cap off our trip.
Day 4: To Raber Dock
Sunday we woke up bright and early to prepare for our final crossing. We packed our tents and bags, enjoyed a last cup of coffee with the volunteer host and then set off from the island. We were again greeted by choppy waves and wind, but at this point on our journey we were ready for them. We quickly completed the three mile crossing to the Raber Docks. We spent a half hour on the docks, moving gear from kayaks to cars, loading the kayaks and saying goodbye to new and old friends.
The Expedition was a success. The journey turned out to be a challenging paddle for both new and experienced paddlers. Best of all, friends were made, comfort zones were expanded, and new sights were seen.
~Rich “Dinty” Kipke
Apprentice Expedition Leader
About Rich “Dinty” Kipke:
I grew up in a family of eight kids and every vacation we took involved camping. I never became tired of it and the urge to explore only grew. I spend my free time hiking skiing, biking, kayaking and canoeing. I am a husband, a father of two great boys, a Special Olympics Coach, a Boy Scout Leader, and a Structural Engineer.