As had been prearranged, we met up with local commercial fisherman Jim Dyson, who was taking us out to one of the western islands of the archipelago located east off the point of Sleeping Giant Provincial Park . About 4 kilometres across mostly open water, on the right day one could cross it by canoe or kayak. But were not even going to consider it with our immense load of gear, an open canoe, two little ones, and the amount of wind that had been blowing around! So we loaded our gear onto Jim’s 40 foot boat and headed out for the hour long crossing. What a treat it turned out to be. Not only did we get to our destination, Porphyry Island , but Jim also took us close to Silver Islet, where we could see the opening of the mine shafts just below the surface. The history there still fascinates me. As we travelled, we learned even more through our conversations with Jim, whose knowledge of the region shared through enjoyable chat adding to our experience en route.
The plan was to use the island as a jumping off spot to explore other islands in the area by canoe for the next several days and move campsites around. But as with any endeavour in Lake Superior, our ideas where quickly changed by the mood of the lake. Scratch canoeing off the list. The winds blew, and the rains came. It felt like fall. Then halfway through the day, the sky would clear, and the sun would be back out, of course still with the wind. The only swimming we managed to get in was during a heavy rain when all four of us donned our wetsuits and took the plunge. It was actually great fun, until the cold water worked it’s way down to the bone, with no sun to warm you back up. The saving grace was that there was a lot of hiking to be done, and a really unique environment to explore. Black sand abounded along the shores, no doubt ground down from the volcanic rock which surfaced in fabulous forms in between. A lighthouse was only a 15 minute walk away, and the descendant of the lighthouse house keepers happened to be visiting. Again more rich history to be uncovered. As well, I was able to begin a painting from the top of the lighthouse, from where I was spoiled with a great view of the coast.
In addition to the incredible geology on Porphyry, is some incredibly rare plant life. The Devil’s Club plant, apparently found in only three places in Canada, grows there in a couple of small patches. Huge leaves give it a tropical look, while thorny stalks help to explain its name.
Riding back through some 6 foot swells with Jim left me really desiring a return visit, in calmer weather, when I could truly explore and paint further into the reaches of the alluring region of Canada.
THE GHOST TOWN OF JACKFISH
We opted to make some ground that evening and headed down the highway toward our next destination, Wawa. By the time we left I knew full well that we wouldn’t make it by evening, but just headed out all the same, and see where we would wind up. Sometimes, the best plan is no plan (not always, I know), but in this case it was. With Jan and I running out of steam at the wheel, we figured it was time to start looking for a motel. We checked out the offerings in Terrace Bay, but decided to push further to gain a little more ground. Ten minutes later we found ourselves at Jackfish Motel/Cottages . The name rang a bell and it was a nice quiet spot, so we pulled in. My memory was jogged by the owner and in fact out on the lake and around the corner was the ghost town of Jackfish that I had seen on a video back in the winter, and that I had hoped to visit at some point during our travels. In addition to that, I could put the canoe in across the road, paddle through the small Jackfish lake, and be on Lake Superior in short order. The worst part about staying in a motel on such a trip, is that it usually means the loss of an evening and a morning for painting. Along this stretch, there is little access to the water, so I went to bed excited at the prospect of getting out in the morning while Jan and the girls relaxed for a bit in the cabin.
Sure enough, the next morning I canoed through the tunnel that the owner of the motel had told me about (it goes under the CPR tracks and right into Lake Superior), and the water was actually quiet. After a couple of hours paddling around Jackfish Bay, I saw an old building on shore. Closer inspection revealed an old sign that said “Jackfish”. This was it. Further confirmation came when a fellow at his camp nearby yelled out an invitation for coffee from his balcony, during which time we chatted about it all. I also found out that we could drive in to the beach there and camp, allowing us access to the area by water and foot. So after the northern hospitality, I paddled back to gather up the clan and head for the beach. After some more painting, an invitation to a fish fry and a bonfire on the sand, we were set for the night. A hike through the forest revealed remnants of numerous homes and other buildings that were left behind when the town died back in the 1960’s. Jackfish had become a community because of the need for the train to refuel with coal for years. Ships would deliver the coal there, and for three days straight it would be unloaded by hand. Just across the bay the last spike was driven into the tracks joining Canada from the east to the west, and to this day is marked by a small monument alongside. They even had a hockey team that traveled around. When the diesel train arrived, the primary purpose of the town withered as well, and Jackfish emptied out. Being there in person, and sharing this with our children, brings our vivid history to life, and has been a real enriching experience.