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Rewind to Friday, launch time, and nothing hints at the liquid pandemonium that would block our way on Saturday. A slight southerly breeze sighs across the sand as we load our boats with food and gear. We change into swimsuits and wetsuits at the bathroom building and push off into the shallow bay. The only sounds are the tinkle of water drops returning from paddle to lake and the slurping at the bows as we knife east toward the point.
Less than a mile from the beach the shore becomes more rugged, torn and gouged from geologic forces. No surface is left unmarked. Numerous small caves pock the surface of the low cliffs. We hug the land, paddling just feet from shore, trying to conceive of the eons needed to carve the filigree before us.
The lake surface remains undisturbed and the water nearly invisible as we glide over Buick-sized boulders on the lake bottom, which rises and falls like a submerged mountain range. We are so captivated by the show below that we’re surprised to look up and see a sea stack—a tower of rock rising from the depths to well above the lake surface. We slip between it and the shore, circling and gawking 30-feet up at a pair of gulls. The spire is their personal high-rise this nesting season, and they circle and squawk to make it clear we don’t belong in the neighborhood.
When we round a corner and see a white speck on the shore in the distance, we pick up the pace to investigate. As we get nearer, the sound of rushing water tells us it’s the frothy mouth of the Montreal River, plunging through a series of rapids as it spills into the lake.
A fisherman in red flannel stands knee-deep at the mouth of the river, casting spinning gear toward a rock structure offshore. He’s driven in to the dead end of a rugged two-track and hiked a couple of miles to the river, because the Montreal mouth is considered one of the local hotspots for species like salmon, steelhead and even the occasional coaster brook trout, monster fish that spawn in the rivers and live their lives in the big lake.
“How’s the fishing?” I ask.
He looks us over, eyes lingering on our bright yellow PFDs and running the length of our boats. “Beats working,” he replies with a grin. He cocks his head and releases a long streak of tobacco juice the color of the tannin-stained river, then returns to his fishing.
We land our boats on a small gravel beach and head upstream to look for the river’s upper falls, marked on our map. After a half-mile trek on a well-worn path, we hear the thundering of falling water and know we’re close. A break in the trees reveals the river being squeezed and dumped 15 feet into a large pool. Tufts of foam drift in the air, held aloft by cool updrafts from the pounding water.
The mouth of the Montreal alone is worthy of a final destination, but we’ve only paddled about six miles from the Bete Grise beach where we put in, and we have three days of adventure reserved on our calendar. The pull of the point and its islands lead us back to the water and up the coast.
The shoreline after the mouth of the Montreal becomes even more dramatic and exposed. Ancient forces have gnawed points of land into improbable shapes. A series of pocket beaches piled with smooth red stones interrupt the shore. No roads intrude this wild country, and few people willingly stop on this exposed Lake Superior coast.
During our break at the Montreal, the wind from the south increased. It now grabs at our paddles, nearly tugging them from our hands with each stroke. The closer we get to the tip, the more exposed and vulnerable we become. The weathered shore of the Keweenaw is a constant reminder of what the water and wind can do, and we are in no hurry to share the fate of the stones and driftwood, rolling rounded and smooth in the breaking waves.
Shortly before dark on Friday evening we surf into a small, ruddy-stoned harbor about five miles short of Keweenaw Point. It will offer some protection from the worst of the waves that have now built to frightening proportions, driven across 50 miles of open water from the Huron Mountains in the south.
We drag the boats up from the clutches of curling waves and unpack the tent, stove and other gear we’ll need for the night. The woods are so tangled with spruce, birch and cedar that we’ll have to pitch the tent on the narrow margin of stones between the trees and water. Most of the shoreline from the Montreal River to Keweenaw Point was recently put under protection by the state and The Nature Conservancy with the promise of always being open to primitive, leave-no-trace camping like we’re doing.