ROSSPORT, ONTARIO – I arrived in this small village on the shores of Lake Superior on Monday at 4:30 p.m.. I had notes to pull together from the day’s touring. It was raining lightly. I had a pounding headache. And a 6 p.m. appointment to go out on the lake in a zodiac boat, one of those ones with the rubber-ish bumpers they use on whale watching tours.
I did not feel like a zodiac tour and mentioned to Dawn, who runs the tidy Willows B and B in Rossport and my home for the night, that I might skip the boat ride. She looked aghast. Not to mention upset.
“Oh, you don’t want to do that,” she said. “You should go.”
Memo to self: always listen to Dawn. I slept a half hour, banged out some notes and walked down to the dock at 5:55 just as the sun came out. I didn’t get back on dry land until 8:15, a half hour late for my dinner appointment at the Serendipity Cafe. The trip with Discovery Charters and Paul Turpin was one of the best tours I’ve had on the planet.
He was funny, engaging and so enthusiastically in love with this part of the world that it would’ve been impossible not to have a good time. Toss in lovely weather; about 17 degrees and sunny with hardly a wave to be found (more later on that stuff you hear about Lake Superior not giving up her dead and the gales of November and other Gordon Lightfoot lyrics) and some of the most beautiful islands and bays you’ll see anywhere and you’ve got a gobsmackingly wonderful way to spend an evening here in a way-too-unsung part of Ontario.
Paul showed me awesome islands with bizarre blocks of rocked stacked up like ancient sugar cubes, dead quiet bays with towering pines and mirror glass smooth surfaces reflecting pale blue sky, a giant nest for a bald eagle, complete with a young eagle on guard, high and rocky cliffs topped with thick forests of deep green trees and old, ceremonial pits dug by native Indians. He also pointed out goofy names like Skinpecker Point, a bay called Old Man’s Pocket and a small bay off that called The Thumb, which made me think I was back in Newfoundland.
The islands are stunning; high and green and mighty. And the water, though cold, is achingly clear; often visible down to 40 feet. We often would sidle up to an island and be spitting distance from the shore and Paul would say, “Guess what, it’s 63 feet deep here,” or words to that effect. He’s been touring out here for years (every Monday to Thursday in season at 6 p.m. and on weekends “whenever anyone wants me”) and he still retains a childlike wonder about the place, which reminds me of the islands in the passageway from Vancouver to Victoria, but more rugged.
We saw two other boats in two and-a-half hours, plus two kayakers. We saw exactly two cottages; one abandoned and another on Harry’s Island, a tiny, beat-up, one-room shack that serves as a safe harbour for when the weather DOES act up and is known as “Harry’s Hilton,” complete with bunk beds, a wood stove and an outhouse, which Paul calls a “thunder box.”
There are, I believe, 18 islands in the archipelago offshore from Rossport, such a vast sweep that you can travel the equivalent of an intracoastal route and not ever hit the open waters of Lake Superior. Which brings me to Lightfoot. We all know the lyrics about the icewater mansions (I think) and the biig lake they call Gitchee Goomee and the gales of November. Those often happen, but Turpin said days like I had are quite common.
Some folks like to play up wild and woolly Lake Superior but it can be very gentle. For sure, any lake the size of this one – hundreds of miles across in some points – has to be respected. Change can come whipping down on a boater mighty quick out here, and you have to be prepared. But it’s often a gentle giant, and I can’t help thinking the B and B’s up here might be a bit busier and Paul might be the only tour operator giving boat rides out of Rossport if the real Lake Superior was revealed to folks from Toronto and Ottawa and Chicago and Windsor.
One of the best things you can see on his tour is the Battle Island lighthouse, a red and white painted beauty that sits on a tiny sliver of rock on a point. It’s breathtakingly beautiful to see and Paul will regale you with stories about the two lighthouse keepers who stayed out there for years, one a slob and the other a neat freak.
“Bert was a great old guy,” Paul told me of one of the keepers. “He had a really tough storm out here one year and I asked him if he had called for help.” “Are you kidding,” he replied.”Whoda come and got me?”
Following my tour, I had a lovely dinner at the Serendipity Café in town (in village, I guess you’d say). There’s a beautiful garden with colourful Muskoka chairs out front, although the owner apologized for not having time to tend the garden and for it looking “a little blouzy.” It’s a cozy room with lots of local art and good tunes on the stereo, and there are fine views out to Rossport harbour and one of the nearby islands. I had good chicken in a crème sauce with rice and slightly overcooked carrots and broccoli, plus a Caesar Salad, bread and spicy olives, for $25. Dawn has a pretty garden of her own down the road a few steps at the Willows B and B. The trains going by can get noisy at times but I didn’t near one overnight and my room was large and tidy with a good desk and a couple of chairs for relaxing. She makes a good breakfast and strong coffee, too. Which you need as, believe it or not, there’s not a Tim Hortons to be found from just outside Thunder Bay to the town of Wawa.
I had my last Tims coffee on Sunday and it’s now Wednesday and I’ve been driving in Canada for three days AND IT’S JUST NOT RIGHT!!! Lots more to come from this great trip on Friday, as I skip down the coast to see some fine Lake Superior beaches and check out Sault Ste. Marie for the first time….