How to Cruise Superior's Northern Arc
Marlin Bree


Left: Secure in the jewel-like harbor of Thompson Cove, at the mouth of Canada's Thunder Bay, Persistence rests in clear waters alongside other boats. (Doug Irwin photo). Right: In beautiful CPR harbor, beside Agate Island and not far from the Island of Doom, Persistence is deep into the wilderness archipelago of islands that will soon become the world's largest marine freshwater conservation area.


In the northern arc of the Big Lake lies a wilderness stretch of islands and water that may be sailing's best-kept secrets.
Verdant islands rise up majestically from blue waters, and, wonder of wonders, there are island harbors into which you can wriggle your boat for the night. In some of the better-known anchorages, such as Loon Harbor, you might actually see another boat. But in an entire day of cruising, seeing another boater out on the water is a rarity, rather than commonplace.
The area stretches from the tip of the Sibley Peninsula, overlooking Thunder Bay, Ontario, to the incredible Slate Islands. It's so special that the Canadian government plans to make 11,000 square kilometers (about one-seventh of the lake) into the Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area (NMCA). This will be the largest marine conservation area in the world.
In 1999, I sailed this area from west to east. For one remarkable month, I piloted my 20-foot centerboard sloop, Persistence, through tiny island chains, quiet channels, and out onto the open waters of mighty Superior.
It was a prime wilderness cruising experience that is open to most serious boaters. The wonder is that more adventurous sailors don't try it.
Getting the northern mindset: The area I'm talking about - the northern arc of Lake Superior - lies in Canadian waters. It's a different kind of cruising up there, and, for the most part, both challenging and enjoyable.
It is for the experienced cruiser, who has blue water or Superior storm experience, and who has a well-found boat that is well prepared and in top operating condition.
It's different than, say sailing the Apostle Islands, or, the Duluth - Superior harbor. Where you are going you will be on the open waters of Lake Superior, and, into a wilderness island area. You will need to be dependent upon your own resources. If something breaks, or if you run low on gas or drinking water, there 's no handy marina to pull into. You will be on your own.
Will your boat take it? In general, your boat should be larger than 20 feet LOA and have a self-bailing cockpit. Ideally, it should be a well-built keelboat, which the manufacturer has designated as a coastal or blue water cruiser. Lightly built sloops are not for Superior, which more resembles an inland ocean than a lake, nor for wilderness exploring, since there are some reefs to bump into from time to time. In my own northern arc passage, I ran aground once at Swede Harbor, touched bottom going up Nipigon straight, hit my centerboard hard coming into a private dock in Rossport Harbor, and went fully up on rocks and had to be pulled off trying to enter CPR harbor. The boat suffered no major damage.
I saw a variety of sailboats in the wilderness - not many, but a variety-ranging from a massive full keel 35-foot Baba cutter to a bright finished 45-foot Vic Carpenter Orenda, with deep fin keel. From my own personal observations, my own boat was the smallest sailboat out on the big lake: a well-built 20-foot custom epoxy wood veneer centerboard sloop.
It goes without saying that your boat should be in its top operating order, with no weaknesses, and, fully equipped with all the water, stores, supplies and food that you will need for the duration of your wilderness cruise, with about a 50 percent reserve.
Canadian, eh? You are entering Canada and you will need to observe the formalities of this friendly neighbor to the north in which you are a guest. For sailors, they've made it fairly easy.
If you are sailing across the border into Canada, it's useful to apply to Canadian Customs in advance for a Remote Area Border Crossing Permit, (sometimes called a Canpass) to go cruising. This Permit allows you enter Canadian waters without first reporting to an official port of entry (Sault Ste Marie and Thunder Bay).
It's a good idea to check in with the helpful Thunder Bay Coast Guard (TBCG.) Before you set sail each morning, contact the TBCG via your VHF to file your daily Sail Plan. In the wilderness, this is your lifeline. If you are wondering how your VHF can reach Thunder Bay, you should know that the TGCG has radio repeaters all along the rugged, high bluffs of the northern coastline.
I recommend full-power VHF with a high antenna mount to get the range you'll need for this vital lifeline.
Getting up there: From the east, big boats can enter Superior through the Sault Ste Marie Locks and set sail westward. I've passed through these locks myself in a 35-foot catamaran, Tulamore Dew (owned by Joe Boland and with Northern Breeze's Thom Burns onboard) and, it's not a big deal. Bring long lines to handle the boat as the water level is changed.
Boats on other areas of Superior can simply sail over. You should have a Remote Area Border Crossing Permit to do this so you don't have to report to a port of entry.
Smaller boats can be trailered up, and, launched at several different locations:

*A few miles south of the border, you can launch at Grand Portage, MN (home of an old voyageur fur fort). I launched at the old Voyageur Marina, on the eastern side of bay, near Hat Point. But not all sailboats can navigate this rock-strewn harbor.
*Across the border, you can launch at the well-equipped Prince Albert Marina in Thunder Bay. From here you head southward on Thunder Bay to the tip of the Sleeping Giant Mountain and then voyage eastward.
* Further east, you can launch in Rossport, Ontario, a sleepy little fishing village nestled beside one of the mainland's most beautiful harbors. From there you can head out Schreiber Channel, past the wreck of the Guinilda (one of the best preserved millionaire's yachts in the world, Jean Michelle Cousteau once told me) and, out to the Slate Islands. From there, you can work your way westward, ending up at Thunder Bay.
Bring warm gear: This is the North Country. On the 4th of July, in Grand Portage harbor, I was shivering and I could see my breath inside my cabin. I was cold despite the fact that I was wearing heavy winter long johns, wool socks, and fleece. For my feet I had an old sheepskin to put on my wood floorboards.
In addition to chilly nights, you can expect other wilderness weather: thick fog - I mean thick fog - driving rain, wild winds, and, in my case an unpredicted windstorm. The water you're boating in is always cold - around 46 degrees at the surface, and, just a few degrees above freezing year at the thermo cline.
But also look for picture postcard days with bright sun and fleecy clouds in bright blue skies. In other words, the weather changes. A lot.
Weather forecasts: On Superior's northernmost arc, where the weather is always a battleground, you can't entirely rely on the accuracy of the radio forecasts, often made many miles away. As one Canadian boater told me in CPR harbor: "If you listen to them (the Canadian weather service), they'll scare you to death - and you'll never go anywhere." I listened to him, and, ran into horrific fog and sloppy waves that sloshed up through my open centerboard trunk and into my cabin.
Navigation: Up-to-date Canadian charts are a must (see suggested list.) It's wise to keep a full set because, frankly, you never know when you'll encounter heavy weather and need to duck into that out of the way harbor, or, behind that little island.
You'll need a cruising guide and for my money, Bonnie Dahl's, the Superior Way (3rd edition) is indispensable. This former schoolteacher is a devoted Superior cruiser and her book shows the way into many little harbors not shown in official Canadian charts, has a number of useful drawings, and important GPS waypoints. It also tells where some of the rocks are, and, ways around most of them.

A GPS is mandatory, as well as the ability to use it well and swiftly. The hand-held is especially useful since you'll want to keep it close - very close - when you encounter fog or bad weather.
Compasses are essential but you should know that some rocks up there are magnetic and can throw you off as much as 20 degrees. I mostly used my GPS, with the compass as a backup. A depth sounder is useful, also, for finding your way through rock-strewn areas before your built in depth sounder (your keel) is called into play. Radar becomes valuable when you get caught out in cotton-wool fog - as I did. I did not have a radar set, and, I began laying in GPS waypoints like crazy, charting my way through sudden fog and high waves off the open waters and up Simpson Channel toward Nipigon Bay, heading toward Rossport. My trusty hand-held GPS, with accurate Canadian charts, saved the day.
Highlights: Guarding the mouth of Thunder Bay, Thompson Island is blessed with a large bluff overlooking a small harbor, which is favored by Thunder Bay boaters. I was surprised when I first pulled into this harbor, for though it is officially designated as "Crown Land" it had a wonderful rustic dock, with patios overlooking the harbor, and a nice sauna (After a day on chill waters, you'll come to love saunas as much as the canny Canadians.) Some boaters rate Thompson Cove as a must-see.
In the shadows of Sleeping Giant Mountain, off the Sibley Peninsula, lies the sleeping little hamlet of Silver Islet. The docks are scoured and worn from ages of ice, but I fixed myself a camel to protect my hull. Up on shore is a refurbished General Store, and beyond, rusting mining machinery. This was once a boomtown based on the incredible discovery of silver at an island just a few clicks out on Superior - and once the world's richest silver mine. Watch the weather, for if you are caught - as I was - by winds from the east, you can have long rollers coming right through the breakwaters and bumping your boat against the dock. It was a rough night.
Shoving off from Silver Islet, you are in the proposed Lake Superior NMCA, and you'll be entering a gorgeous chain of islands to the east. Accurate charting, and use of GPS waypoints is a must, however, to find the entrance to the little natural harbors. One of the beautiful harbors along this route, and a fitting ending to a day's sail, is beautiful Loon Harbor. You'll find good anchorage here. I double-anchored (always wise on Superior) in the eastern end.


You are now in an archipelago of islands covered with spruce and firs, probably as untouched as when the voyageurs made their way across the northern arc centuries ago. In fact, on some of the islands are "pits," which may have been created by voyageurs and by the Native Americans who canoed this area. Glance northward to the rugged Ontario shoreline - some bluffs soar a thousand feet high.
Heading eastward again, there are many little islets and harbors to choose from. Here you can easily spend days settling down to enjoy the clear waters and the fresh air. Don't look for many of these little anchorages to be shown on the Canadian charts, however - they're too small. To find them, you need a cruising guide that shows wilderness anchorages and GPS waypoints to get into them.

Along the way, there are lighthouses, including the Island of Doom, Talbot Island, the site of Canada's first lighthouse on Superior and the place of haunted tales. Pass by on a foggy day, and, legends say you still may hear shrieks (though I did not).
A favorite harbor inside the archipelago is CPR harbor, where I finally tied up at a small dock. Here I found other boaters, which was lucky, for on my way past Agate Island (yes, there are agates), I ran aground on some rocks. After failing to get myself off, including kedging, I made a call on my VHF and made contact with a boat in CPR harbor, which came out and pulled me off.
Old Rossport, with its beautiful harbor, is worth a visit and gives you a chance to catch up on civilization. Though the town is tiny, it has a few really fine restaurants, including the Rossport Inn, run by my friend, Ned Basher. Here you can tie up on a good dock and replenish your gas and even take a shower (for a price).
Shoving off from Rossport through the beautiful islands, you can head out to the Slate Islands. These were formed millions of years ago by meteorites striking the earth, and, from afar they rise up like something out of the movie, South Pacific. There are several good harbors inside the Slates for you to spend some pleasant nights.
That's a quickie tour of some of the highlights of the northern arc. I ended my own cruise at the end of the archipelago chain, the Slates, and then headed back to Rossport, where my wife, Loris met me and we trailered our boat back to our home in Shoreview, MN.
One thought: in these days of uncertain foreign travel overseas, it's splendid to have a cruising ground so near, yet foreign and different, and still so interesting.
Canadian, eh? If you are wondering what it's like to go across the border in your boat and meet Canadians first hand, be prepared for the most part to be pleasantly surprised. The Canadian boaters I met in the islands were some of the most hospitable I've ever met while traveling or voyaging - outgoing, friendly, and often with a rugged Canadian sense of humor. For example, when I was weather-bound on one island, the captain and crew of a large ferro-cement ketch practically adopted me and fed me fish chowder. A cruising couple invited me to come back to live with them until a weather window passed (I declined that very generous offer, and, decided to play Robinson Crusoe on an island).

At an anchorage or in a small island harbor, Canadians regard boating as a fine social activity. Don't be standoffish, or, on the other hand, overly brash. Regard yourself not as a stranger, but as a part of a small tribe of wandering sailors within an overwhelming wilderness, and, assume that wilderness social rules apply. Join campfire groups, go up to other boaters, with your cap in hand, to politely introduce yourself or inquire about your route or the weather. Be prepared to offer generous hospitality - and this can be very enjoyable. If they like the cut of your jib, you might be offered a beer or to share a meal. (Hint: take along a goodly supply of things to socialize with - the Canadian sailors I met regarded beer as a national beverage. Bud Light was among the preferred labels from south of the border.)
A good mindset to have is to politely assume friendliness and cooperation from your fellow boaters. In this northern arc's wilderness, you should be able to rely on them - and they on you. Up there, one never knows, do one?

Other helpful stuff: To obtain a Remote Area Border Crossing Permit (sometimes called a CANPASS), write to Immigration, 221 Archibald St. N., Thunder Bay, Ontario P7C 343, or call 1-807 964 2093.
To file a Sail Plan either before or as you depart, call the Thunder Bay Coast Guard by telephone (1-807) 345 4618 or on your boat's VHF. They'll take down information about you, your boat, and, your passengers as well as ask you specific sail plan questions. You should know in advance your destination and your estimated ETA. You should file a Sail Plan daily.
To obtain charts for your voyage into the northern arc of the lake, you can call various chart services, including West Marine at 1-800-262-8464. They carry the Canadian Hydrographic charts at about $20 per chart, plus shipping & handling.
If you are heading out of Grand Portage, MN, you'll need U.S. chart 14968, Grand Portage Bay, Minnesota, to Shesheeb Point, Ontario. This chart shows the island chains along the U.S. border from Grand Portage to the mouth of Thunder Bay. Like Canadian chart 2301, it also covers the Superior area eastward to Brodeur Island.
Canadian Chart 2301, Passage Island to Thunder Bay, shows the Thunder Bay area, including the Sibley Peninsula, with Silver Islet. Spar and Thompson Island are at the westernmost section of the chart; on the easternmost is Brodeur Island.
Canadian Chart 2311, Thunder Cape to Pigeon River, is a larger scale map of the mouth of Thunder Bay, giving detail of Thompson Island and Pie Island.
Canadian Chart 2302, St Ignance Island to Passage Island, moves the voyageur eastward again, out of the Shagahash Island area (westernmost) past Spain and Lasher Islands with Loon Harbor, toward St. Ignance Island. Included in these island chains are Puff Island, Fluor Island as well as Talbot Island (home of the Lighthouse of Doom). Directly across from Agate Island is CPR Harbor.
Canadian Chart 2312, Nipigon Bay and Approaches, takes a sailor from Spar Island (on the east), past the Nipigon Strait and St. Ignance Island, as far east as Wilson Island. This includes a section of the Schreiber Channel and Rossport Harbor.
Canadian Chart 2303, Jackfish Bay to St. Ignance Island, includes the Rossport harbor, detail on the Schreiber Channel, and the Slate Islands on the east.
U.S. Chart 14960 is a comprehensive chart (scale 1:600,000) of Lake Superior.
Maptech has a digital chart, ND1 N1, for Lake Superior (Canada).
Bonnie Dahl's Superior Way (3rd Edition) is the preferred cruising guide and has detailed drawings of various island harbors as well as GPS waypoints. It may be ordered from a marine bookseller, from an Internet bookseller, or directly from the publisher, Lake Superior Port Cities, Inc., at 1-888-BIG LAKE (244-5253). Cost is $39.95.
For information on the proposed Lake Superior National Marine Conservation area, and color photography of the northern arc, go to (click on Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area)
To read about a day-by-day account of a voyage through the proposed Lake Superior NMCA, read Marlin Bree's Wake of the Green Storm (Marlor Press $13.95) or visit the author's web site, An autographed copy of the book is available by calling 1-651-484-4600.
For an on-line marina guide to the northern arc marinas, check out This web site shows dock facilities in major areas, such as Silver Islet government docks and Rossport, and tells what services are available at the docks and in the nearby towns. It does not show the island archipelagoes or anchorages, but is very helpful guide to specific communities, harbors and marinas along the route.
A color brochure as well as a 28-page Marina Guide is also available from the North of Superior Travel Association (1-800-265-3951).
You can usually convert U.S. dollars into Canadian dollar at most banks as well as at various border offices. In a pinch, most Canadians will take U.S. dollars, but you probably won't get as good a rate. Incidentally, the rate is wonderful right now: for every $1 U.S., you get back nearly $1.50 in Canadian money.

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Marlin Bree is a veteran Superior cruiser and the author of three Lake Superior books: In the Teeth of the Northeaster, Call of the North Wind, and, Wake of the Green Storm. He built his own boat, the Persistence.