It’s lonely at the top…of Lake Superior

Here’s a little secret. There is a place where you can go on Lake Superior’s North Shore and have a lovely sand beach all to yourself. In fact, you can have your choice of beaches.

“Sand?” you ask. “Where can you find a sand beach on the North Shore?”

The short answer is, “Not in Minnesota.”

Last week, three of us stood on a sand beach in Terrace Bay, Ontario, listening to Dean Main, the town’s community development supervisor, explain some of the town’s recreation projects. The public beach stretched eastward from where we were standing for at least a half mile to a distant rocky point. It was a sunny summer afternoon. Just one couple was on the beach. We could see someone else’s tent pitched down near the rocky point. That was it.

Main explained plans to extend a sidewalk the length of the beach and construct a bath house. The intent is to make the easily accessible beach more user friendly. Similar work had already occurred at a nearby boat launch, including a specially designed dock to allow people with disabilities to board and launch kayaks and canoes. This was just part of a nearly two-hour tour around the small town, which included a soon-to-open craft brewery, a new art gallery and beaches, lots of beaches.

Terrace Bay is located at the very top of Lake Superior, a little more than two hours beyond Thunder Bay. It is best known to adventurers as the launch point to the Slate Islands, a Lake Superior archipelago formed by an ancient meteor strike. The Slate Islands support the southernmost population of woodland caribou in North America.

The town’s primary economic engine is a pulp mill, one of the last ones operating on the North Shore. Since it is located on the Lake Superior Circle Tour and near the Slate Islands, Terrace Bay attracts travelers, adventurers and anglers. (Great fishing is available for lake trout, salmon and trophy brook trout.) In spite of stunning scenery and outstanding recreational opportunities, Terrace Bay remains a place with unlimited elbow room.

The following day, we talked with Paul Turpin, who operates Discovery Charters from Terrace Bay and nearby Rossport. He said he rarely encounters other boats while out on the water. Once, he and his wife, en route to Thunder Bay, spent 12 days on Lake Superior without seeing anyone. Another time, he took a travel writer from a Toronto newspaper on a tour of the Slate Islands. When they reached the Slate Islands, the writer asked, “Where is everyone?” “We’re it,” Turpin replied, “We’re everyone.”

The loneliness of the North Shore is due in part to its remoteness; it’s a nine-hour drive from the Twin Cities. The human population is found in isolated communities; most of which are in declines caused by mill closures. Most of Lake Superior’s shorelines and islands are undeveloped other than a few summer cottages. Aside from roadside motels, there are very few resorts or outpost camps. Aside from a handful of nature-based provincial parks, there is little development to attract tourists.

Canada is taking steps to protect the wild character of the area through the ongoing establishment of the Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area, which will extend across the top of Lake Superior from Thunder Cape at the foot of the Sleeping Giant all the way to Bottle Point just east of Terrace Bay, and south to the Canada-United States border. Once established, it will be one of the largest freshwater protected areas in the world; approximately 10,880 square kilometers in size, occupying almost 13 percent of the surface area of the largest freshwater lake in the world. The conservation area will be protected from harmful activities, including mining, dredging and dumping. It will be administered by Parks Canada.

Locals we met are hopeful the presence (and investments) of Parks Canada will spur new interest in tourism and help the North Shore pivot into a new future. The Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area has the potential to become a landmark similar to Isle Royale National Park. Since it is accessible (at least in part) by automobile, it will certainly attract some new visitors. But, lacking upscale accommodations and related development, it is unlikely it will become a destination rivaling Minnesota’s North Shore. But that’s OK, because it offers a far wilder experience.

“I don’t know why my husband and I are driving all the way to Montana when we have all of this so close to home,” remarked one of my traveling companions when she saw the high, flat-topped mountains surrounding the town of Nipigon.

“I like the North Shore better than Montana,” I replied, “because there’s nobody around.”

In my experience, the best of Montana is often overcrowded during the tourist season. Annual visitations to Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks number in the millions. Dozens of fishing guides ply the well-known trout streams. Parking lots for wilderness trails are often packed with vehicles. While Montana is big and beautiful, it takes effort to get away from it all.

In contrast, you can pull off the highway beside Lake Superior and easily find solitude. When you go fishing, it isn’t unusual to have the water to yourself. With an abundance of sheltered areas provided by innumerable bays and islands, the Lake Superior boating potential is nearly unlimited. When you add in fishery resources such as the mighty Nipigon River, the North Shore stands out as a world-class outdoor destination.

So why doesn’t it attract more people? Speaking as a Minnesotan, one reason is that most Gopher State anglers seek walleyes, for which there is better fishing west of Lake Superior. The North Shore’s wildness falls outside of many urbanites’ comfort zone, both in terms of creature comfort and a sense of “safe” adventure. Another reason is that the North Shore is far enough from population centers to preclude a weekend visit.

But there are people who appreciate lonely places like this. If you are one of them and you’ve never ventured to the top of Lake Superior, by all means go there. You won’t be disappointed.



By Shawn Perich