Building a Water Trail for the Lake Superior Community

lake superior kayakers water trail
Lake Superior kayakers near Rossport, Ontario. Building the Lake Superior Water Trail is about creating a recreational corridor and a constituency of Lake Superior users that can act as stewards for the lake. Credit: Gary McGuffin

By Joanie McGuffin, Lake Superior Watershed Conservancy

Editor’s Note: The author will be one of the presenters at a March 2 public input session in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, on the governments’ Progress Report of the Parties, the IJC Triennial Assessment of Progress and the public’s concerns about the lakes.

The Lake Superior Water Trail encircles the greatest expanse of freshwater on Earth. It is an ancient heritage highway in existence since the glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago, and in use from the first time people first set watercraft afloat to travel, trade and hunt. People living around Superior have a common bond – the physical and spiritual presence of freshwater so vast that it reaches to the horizon just as an ocean does. It is only in recent times that people have thought about paddling the Lake Superior Water Trail as a recreational pursuit.

The Lake Superior Watershed Conservancy (LSWC) is an international charitable organization in Canada and the United States that represents the health and well-being of the Lake Superior watershed. The organization’s mission to protect the lake’s ecosystem begins with the understanding that the water is all connected and what you do in one place affects another. LSWC understands that we need to talk and share ideas and solutions through science, education, culture and recreation. But that is easier said than done. What common bond could connect a lakewide community in a collaborative, cooperative, loving way? LSWC could think of no better thread than the Lake Superior Water Trail.

In 1989 when my husband Gary and I paddled around Lake Superior, we met only a handful of paddlers in Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands. Paddling had not yet become the activity it is today even in beautiful national parks like Pukaskwa and Pictured Rocks. The Inland Sea Society convened an informal paddler’s gathering to discuss a lake-wide trail that fall. In subsequent years, different initiatives evolved into a number of sections like the Minnesota Lake Superior Water Trail, the Wisconsin Lake Superior Water Trail, the Keweenaw Water Trail and the Hiawatha Water Trail. But there was a lack of connectivity around the lake and a huge gap on the Canadian side that had no water trail designation at all. So in 2014, when Trans Canada Trail  approached LSWC about helping to complete the Lake Superior gap in a nationwide trail building effort, LSWC jumped at the chance.

peninsula harbor marathon ontario
Peninsula Harbour, Marathon, Ontario. The community is re-inventing itself after the pulp and paper mill was dismantled. Credit: Gary McGuffin

Building the Lake Superior Water Trail  between Gros Cap Harbour and Thunder Bay will create a 1,000-km/600-mile link in a 24,000-km/15,000-mile nationwide Great Trail and serve as a critical link in an international “Appalachian Trail of Water Trails” encircling the circumference of the greatest freshwater lake on Earth. In so doing, this common thread would have the potential to knit together a lake-wide community of small villages, First Nations and Tribes, and local, state, provincial and national parks.

The strategy developed by LSWC in partnership with Trans Canada Trail Ontario led to 16 priority access points with varied partners including two Ontario parks, Pukaskwa National Park, two lighthouses, the First Nations community of Biigtigong and Lake Superior municipalities from Gros Cap to Thunder Bay. Funding provided by the Trillium Foundation enabled LSWC to hire a Lake Superior Water Trail coordinator, and Trans Canada Trail National secured funding for the installation of universal access docks, washrooms and other amenities to support the development of the water trail and engage with the paddling community. Although the Lake Superior Water Trail on the Canadian side officially opens this year as part of Canada’s 150th birthday, it is an ongoing legacy project.

For the Lake Superior Watershed Conservancy, this is just the starting point in a lakewide connection of all the water trails on Lake Superior. Possibilities such as developing a lake-wide water quality monitoring program through the paddling community is one such project. What better group? Paddlers are everywhere. They come from all ages and walks of life. They travel close to the water. They move slowly, following the detail of shorelines as well as the rivers and lakes that feed Superior. They are sensitive to the look, the smell, the taste of the water, and instinctively know by direct contact that what goes into the water affects their own health. They notice changes over time.

Harnessing the observational powers of these Lake Superior citizens as lake stewards can build an invaluable coordinated database over time. Once people have the information, they will champion the changes necessary for their own well-being.

Lake Superior’s communities all need the economic diversity that the long-distance Water Trail can bring. The trail is a catalyst for story-telling, providing a necessary cultural shift to reconnect with Lake Superior and Mother Nature. This lakewide community can grow, providing instruction and guiding services, cultural appreciation and interpretation, as well as the necessary education and actions to preserve the Lake Superior ecosystem.

Joanie McGuffin is the Lake Superior Water Trail coordinator for the Lake Superior Watershed Conservancy and the author of eight books with her husband Gary including “Superior: Journeys on an Inland Sea” and “Paddle Your Own Kayak: An Illustrated Guide to the Art of Sea Kayaking.”