by Julian Holenstein
When I received a call from Michael Meade asking if I might want to join a group of fellow sea kayakers for a weekend exploring the islands of Neys Provincial Park, I responded with a cautious, “Sounds interesting”. When Michael then cautioned me not to forget my fishing gear, I was hooked (pun intended). It had been exactly three years since the birth of my son; for obvious reasons the canoe had become my vessel of choice while my single seat kayak was collecting dust in the garage. I had never previously paddled with Michael but knew we shared a passion for sea kayaking among Lake Superior’s many islands. Now we finally we had a reason to connect: lake trout fishing!
Neys Provincial Park is a premier destination along Superior’s north shore and is located between the towns of Marathon and Terrace Bay. First established in 1965, the park is best known for its spectacular 1.5km sand beach, where the shallow waters are a main attraction for visiting families. While many people visit its tremendous beach front and stay in its mainland campgrounds, fewer people are aware that an additional 1,939 hectares of offshore islands near the Coldwell Peninsula were added to the park through Ontario’s “Living Legacy” conservation initiative. These Lake Superior island additions are a sea kayaker’s paradise and, as I soon found out, are home to bountiful natural strains of lake trout.
By the time I had attempted to find all of my buried and lost kayaking accessories it was time for a follow-up call to the trip leader: “I’m running a bit late… I’ll paddle out solo tomorrow and meet you there – I’m sure it won’t be a problem finding you”. Early the next morning the sunrise found me hucking gear from the car to the unloaded sea kayak parked on the Neys beach front. The lake was calm, free of fog, and the western most tip of Pic Island was prominent and beckoning on the horizon less than five kilometres away.
Smooth Precambrian rock.
Pic Island is a wondrous sloped and shapely island that first caught the eye of “Group of Seven” painter Lawren Harris in 1924. It is believed that Harris painted the now iconic and often-reproduced image of Pic Island from a nearby railway siding. As I rounded the dramatic, steep-sided shore of Guse Point on approach to Pic Island it was easy to see how the island’s wild character and distinct shape had captured the artist’s heart and imagination.
After about an hour’s paddle out into the open waters, the vastness of this great lake penetrated my being. My 17-foot sea kayak had seemed large and unwieldy when I was attaching it to the car roof early that morning; it now felt quite dwarfed and insignificant. Paddling solo in this setting of huge cliffs, barren wave-washed shorelines and vast horizon lines, brings a sense of humility and humbleness to both paddler and vessel. Lake Superior’s impressive landscape had very quickly induced feelings of being a flea on the back of an elephant.
After a shore lunch on Pic Island, I started to entertain thoughts of uncertainty due to do the vast scale of this archipelago. Perhaps it might not be so easy to find a group of six kayakers out here. Many orange-colored lichen rocks created the illusion of a shored kayak, only to disappoint on closer inspection. Fortunately one of the group had the foresight to mark their site with a fluorescent orange life jacket hanging from a tree – easily discernible with pocket binoculars. I continued paddling and soon discovered that a comfortable camp had been made. Connecting with the group provided a sense of security that I’d been missing during my solo paddle across the water.
It being mid-afternoon, most of the group was napping while some explored flowering plant life along the shore. Others had discovered that the smooth Precambrian rock formations offered just the right amount of support and curvature to make comfortable reading chairs. Formed approximately 1.108 billion years ago; subjected 10,000 years later to glacial ice that carved its grooves and striations; and finally polished to its modern day smoothness by wave and water – these are reading chairs whose age and natural design process boggle the imagination.
Neys Provincial Park, the Port Coldwell Peninsula and the accompanying offshore islands are all defined and characterized by a rich geological history. Downfaulting during continental rifting resulted in the variable, high relief landscape that distinguishes the Superior shoreline and the rugged physiography of the park. It is a landscape that invites the sea kayaker to explore faulted valleys, natural harbours, and some of the highest hilltop elevations in Ontario.
From a distance these wave-washed shorelines appear stark, but on closer inspection they offer a wondrous explosion of color and plant life.
An explosion of colour.
Surrounded by Superior’s ice-cold waters, the meager soils offer an extremely short growing season. By the time limited warmth arrives in mid-July there is an unspoken urgency for plant life to flower, pollinate, and prepare to seed. Bright purple flowers signal locations of Butterwort, a carnivorous plant that uses sticky leaves to capture small insects needed to supplement its nutritional diet. Soft green mosses are covered with bright legions of red sporophytes, their capsules ready to launch spores into the wind.
At sunrise the next morning there came a flurry of activity as we packed lunches, checked fishing gear and prepared boats. It was becoming apparent that I had not just joined a friendly group of sea kayakers; I was part of a group with an ambitious goal. Our task that day was clear – catch lake trout for our evening meal.
Lake trout populations in Lake Superior suffered devastating collapses during the 1950’s from a combination of commercial over-fishing and the introduction of the sea lamprey. Eventually government reduction of commercial fishing quotas, increased stocking efforts, and the chemical control of lampreys led to a recovery for many management zones in the lake. It is believed that surviving stocks of native lake trout persist and are naturally reproducing in this area and the nearby Slate Islands. New fisheries knowledge has also forced a shift from fish stocking programs to the more successful focus on better management of existing wild lake trout stocks. In this area of Lake Superior, lake trout populations now appear to be flourishing.
We departed from the safety of our natural harbour and I paddled alongside Michael, who has been guiding his friends and fellow paddlers on Lake Superior for over 15 years. I learned the fine art of fishing from a sea kayak as I watched Michael land fish after fish. Having a suitable fishing rod holder to keep both hands free for paddling is essential. Our fellow paddlers had various adaptations of commercially sold rod holders mounted on their kayak decks but they employed the same method: cast the deep diving plug; close the bail; put the rod in the holder; and start paddling – simple. It’s once a fish is hooked that the real challenges take hold.
With a fish on the line, one has to at some point put down the paddle and pick up the reel. This is where a paddle leash is a very nice accessory. It tethers your paddle close-by while freeing both hands to reel in your fish. You should also position your boat prior to reeling in, so that you are pointing into the wind or downwind and waves are not hitting the boat broad side, which could cause you to be unstable. Once the fish is alongside the boat, call to your fellow paddlers to “raft up” and create a more stable environment for the fish landing procedure.
I studied Michael’s method of handling fish and watched as he placed one hand over the fish’s head and put firm pressure on the gills – this seemed to put the fish into some type of “sleeper hold” which allowed time for the delicate job of removing hooks. Michael also carried a small net in case a lunker fish presented itself. A “deck bag” mounted in front of the kayak hatch proved to be indispensable and provided a place to quickly access lures and pliers if needed. The final part of the process was dispatching the fish. For this messy job some people carried a small bat or a heavy stick on their deck. Once the fish was knocked unconscious it was wrapped in a plastic bag, the spray skirt was popped, and fish placed onto the cockpit floor to stay cool until dinner preparations.
By mid-afternoon we had captured enough fresh trout to prepare a wonderful evening feast. Heavy cast iron pans were pre-heated with oil and loaded with garlic, then the fish fillets were added – some a rich orange with others being more pallid and white in colour. All fillets were from the same lake trout species, however different strains and perhaps a variety in diet are the reasons for this diversity in colour.
After a wonderful meal of lake trout, the red wine flowed freely and so did the claims as to who had caught the most fish that day. We watched a magnificent sunset and I reflected on the joy of spending the day paddling and getting reacquainted with my sea kayak. It was a great opportunity to participate in and witness how the sea kayak can be safely used for fishing on this big lake. The ancient shape and shallow draft of the sea kayak permits fishing over shallow shoals and narrow passages where prop boats could never travel. Simple by design, no fussing with gas, no noise, no fumes, they silently pass through this island wilderness that remains much as it did when the voyageurs passed through during the fur-trading era.
While fishing the Neys Provincial Park archipelago became the motivation and focus of the group, it was clear that the wildness of this island wilderness was what everyone had come to experience. We wanted to remind ourselves that we are part of this vast Lake Superior ecosystem; we had a desire to wash off the comforts of our daily urban lives, to live more deliberately, and to enjoy the gift of self-reliance in catching our own dinners.