Majestic Lake Superior, our summer of sailing

“Come up to Thunder Bay and go sailing with us.” It was the summer of 2009 and that was the invitation from Joy and Rudy Warkentin, our friends up north. Beth had never sailed on Lake  Superior, and I assured her that, with Rudy at the helm, she was going to be in capable hands, and she would have the time of her life. I had sailed with Rudy the year before and we had enjoyed every moment of it. The spectacular northern shoreline is truly something to behold. Traveling close to shore gives one the opportunity to see the land in all of its true glory. Cliffs that rise skyward out of crystal clear water, inviting shore-lines, and protected harbours, make this massive lake a very special place.

The  ‘Arctic Fantasy’ is a 32-foot sailboat that Rudy built over the period of 7 years. It is a boat whose hull is constructed entirely of concrete, making it heavy, rugged and very safe. Over many years of hard labour and loving care, Rudy has created a very beautiful and capable craft. While she may lack some of the modern amenities, she is well equipped with the necessities required for performance and safety. There are no shortcuts available to operate this boat; the crew must know what to do and how to do it competently with basic ‘sheets’, pulleys, and navigation devices. (She is equipped with depth gauge and Radar, a must on this vast body of fresh water)

On the trip out we hugged the shoreline where we were treated to some of the most spectacular scenery imaginable. Cliffs rising hundreds of feet out of the water, scarred by ancient and recent rock-falls. Bald eagles soaring high above the cliffs, coasting lazily on the uprising air currents, and silence that is broken only by the reassuring rhythmic rumbling of the trusty inboard engine. Moving along under sail is only possible when there is suitable wind, the rest of the time you count on a strong, reliable, engine to take you to your planned destination.

Our trip took us to an island that has been lovingly developed into a luxurious, rustic, resort away from the hectic distractions of everyday life in the city.

The harbour is well protected by a snug entrance, making it safe in most storms that can suddenly blow up on Superior.

We tied up, along with three other visitors, and prepared to do what everyone does when they come here, sweat out all the accumulated tensions of our stressed lives in a sauna constructed by the people who know saunas best, the Finns. We had brought our own supply of seasoned wood and were soon stoking the boiler located in the change room of the structure.  The sweating part was comforting and peaceful, what followed is an archaic leftover from a time when men had to prove that they were indestructible. Superior’s waters are deep, clear and c.c.cold. Custom dictates that one is required to smartly burst out of the hot sauna and fearlessly perform a long and enthusiastic run down a very short pier, landing in the icy water. I have never been given a convincing explanation for this form of ancient torture, other than ‘it’s good for you’ and it seems to be a rite of passage. The initial nano-second when you hit the water is quite pleasant until you realize that you have just jumped into really cold, I mean icy cold, water. In a split second you rise to the surface gasping for air realizing that you, and everything that amounts to you, has just shrunk into a mere knot. Only one solution, get back into the comfort and safety of the sauna as quickly as possible. Ahh, it must be good for you.

Long, lazy afternoons, several hearty drinks, and a good book, best describe the atmosphere of this bucolic setting. Even ‘Princess’, the Warkentin’s Siamese cat, took advantage of the safety provided by the bench on the dock.

To avoid being labeled ‘lazy slugs’, Rudy, Beth and I hiked to the top of the island and enjoyed the panoramic view, a view that included the ‘Arctic Fantasy’ snugged up to the pier.

After two days in paradise, we started the engine and slowly and confidently left the safety of our harbour, heading for the next destination, Key Harbour, at the foot of the Friendly Giant.

Superior, while being majestic and beautiful, can also be a very moody and dangerous mistress, as we were soon to find out. Our bearing to the island we had visited was west of Thunder Bay; Key Harbour is to the east of Thunder Bay. The onboard marine radio had warned us of some strong winds from the west, along with traces of severe fog. For now the sky was clear, the air was still, the water flat as a mirror. We set our compass to due east, and expected clear sailing. To reassure myself I turned to the west to see if I could spot the impending fog bank, and was immediately shocked by what loomed in the distance. Out of a clear blue sky and unperturbed water appeared what I can only describe as an avalanche of threatening, heavy, black air. The promised fog bank was rolling upon us with a determination, purpose and speed that spoke of imminent and clear danger. Within minutes the winds in advance of the fog, forced us to drop our sails and tie down everything that was loose on deck. Beth and Joy went below and took care of loose bits and pieces there, while Rudy and I made certain that we would get through this rough spot safely.

The violent rocking of our boat and the turbulent seas surrounding us made certain that Beth would be properly inducted into the ranks of ‘Brave Sailors of Superior’. In other words, she became sea sick. Both Beth and Princess took refuge inside one of the rumpled sleeping bags, while the rest of us hung on for dear life…or so it seemed…

On the radio we heard two disturbing announcements. A sailboat had overturned in the storm and the sailor could not be located. The other emergency concerned a kayaker who sought refuge on a small island, had slipped on the rocks and cracked some ribs. He wanted to be picked up by a coastguard helicopter and was told to………..

After an unsettling hour of chaos the storm  abated and the fog dissipated. Beth lifted her head out of the pail, “is it over?”, she whispered as the colour returned to her smiling face. Arctic Fantasy slipped into Key harbour for a two day stay and some more relaxation.

The trip back to Thunder Bay was relaxing and pleasant. Once more Superior afforded us its majestic, warm and spectacular personality. Our sailing adventure had been a huge success. Even Beth held no grudge for the initiation she received at the hands of this, the greatest of all freshwater lakes, Superior.

Thank you Joy and Rudy.

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