Northern Wilds Magazine
Gary and Joanie McGuffin
Points North

Points North Canadian Couple has a Passion for Conservation

By Shawn Perich

Gary and Joanie McGuffin
Gary and Joanie McGuffin

Gary and Joanie McGuffin can be described with one word: energy. In the 1980s, as newlyweds, the couple paddled 6,000 miles across Canada, an epic journey they later described with words and stunning photography in the best-selling book, Where Rivers Run. Thus began an adventurous career.

I first met them in the late 80s, when they stopped in Grand Marais on their way to becoming the first modern paddlers to circumnavigate Lake Superior. The trip became the basis for their book Superior: Journeys on an Inland Sea. Our paths crossed again last week when the McGuffins stopped by my office in Grand Marais to talk about their latest project, an effort to create a paddlers’ water trail along Ontario’s rugged North Shore of Lake Superior. The trail would link with the Lake Superior Water Trail in Minnesota and similar trails Wisconsin and Michigan.

As anyone who has heard Gordon Lightfoot’s Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald knows, Lake Superior challenges boats of any size. While power cruisers can dock at the widely separated marinas around the lake or seek shelter in remote bays, paddlers face a different challenge. Because they are limited by the distance they can paddle, access points and campsites must be located at more frequent intervals along the route. Private lands, inhospitable shorelines and the vastness of the lake make the creation of paddling infrastructure difficult to accomplish.

The McGuffins are up to the task. Joanie pulled up a laptop loaded with maps and aerial photography to explain where the route will go among the North Shore’s many islands and bays. With rapid-fire commentary she talked about how they’ve met with small towns and native communities to rally their support for the trail. Inevitably, the talk turned to conservation and the need to protect some of Superior’s unspoiled places.

The closure of nearly all paper and wood products mills in the small communities along the North Shore, long the region’s economic mainstay, has opened a window of opportunity for Ontario conservationists. As small towns struggle to adapt to a changed economy, the McGuffins say they “turning to face the lake.” In the past, small town waterfronts were devoted to industrial use. Now communities are beginning to see the lake as a valuable resource.

Duluth, which lost many waterfront industries during the recession of the 1970s, was the first Lake Superior community to successfully redevelop it waterfront. Grand Marais, once a frontier port for logging and commercial fishing, became an artist’s haven. Thunder Bay has embarked on a multi-phase harbor project that has already transformed the waterfront into an inviting public space. Now smaller Ontario towns are looking at these communities as models for their own futures. No one, including the McGuffins, thinks that creating a handful of new jobs for kayak guides and outfitters will transform the North Shore economy. What they are hoping is that the water trail will fuel further community efforts to make better use of the world’s greatest lake.

The McGuffins’ work on the water trail is enmeshed with their ongoing conservation efforts through the Lake Superior Watershed Conservancy, an organization they helped establish. When it comes to conservation, the McGuffins walk the walk. Over the years, they’ve been deeply involved in efforts to protect wild lands in Ontario. Joanie showed me aerial photographs of lands on the northeastern side of Superior the organization has acquired for conservation, including 20 pristine islands off the shore of Lake Superior Provincial Park and a cranberry bog on the shore of Goulais Bay.

Their passion for protecting special places has resulted in collaboration with other organizations. A few years ago, a developer was interested in building a highway truck stop on the bank of the Nipigon River at Gapen’s Pool, a location known to be an important spawning area for coaster brook trout. Conservationists rallied to purchase the land and protect the river and its fish, including the Canadian offices of the Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited. As a result, the river bank remains undeveloped and the brook trout still spawn there.

As we talked, I started to think about many, similar conversations I’ve had in the past with folks who are trying to save a piece of prairie, a trout stream or an expanse of forest. Nearly always, the effort is led by folks who, through their enjoyment of the outdoors, have come to love a place and want to protect it. Rarely, if ever, are they driven by selfish desire to save a wild place simply for their own enjoyment. As a rule, they want their favorite places to remain wild so future generations can enjoy it, too.

In conservation, success is always based upon local acceptance of the project. Big organizations may have the deep pockets and political pull necessary to make a project happen, but the real work occurs at the community level. Someone must meet with landowners, attend town meetings and convince local folks that the wild place in their “backyard” really is special and deserves protection. Nearly always, that “someone” is a committed volunteer with a passion for the outdoors.

Along Lake Superior’s North Shore, the McGuffins and a handful of outdoor lovers and community leaders meet that definition. But in the course of writing about conservation, I’ve met folks just like them everywhere I’ve travelled. They come from all walks of life and many points on the political spectrum, but what they hold in common is a passion for the outdoors. And I know this: our modern world would truly be a lesser place without them.

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