Monday, June 15, 2015

Sailing to Thunder Bay? Bring a Chainsaw

Considering I have lived 15 years of my life within 3 hours of the Canadian border, I have only BEEN to Canada a handful of times, and two of those times were by sailboat.  My first trip into Canada was to Thunder Bay, Ontario, by car in 1999.  Thunder Bay
The 'Sleeping Giant' seen from Thunder Bay. Note the silhouette of head and arms crossed over chest, feet at far right.
is the closest Canadian city to Duluth, MN.  I was already 42 years old at the time.  Lest you think I had been 
opposed to leaving the country, I certainly was not.  I had been to Colombia, South America where I accompanied my uncle on horseback high into the Andes Mountains to visit his missionary posts.  I had spent time in the Soviet Union..… Leningrad, the “Venice of the North” where everyone walked arm in arm through the streets and over its' canals; Riga, where I sang American folk songs with Russian students riding the night train, witnessed a Latvian wedding on the shore of the Baltic Sea, as well as a man swimming in between ice floes; Moscow, where I was twice offered 50 American dollars for the homemade denim jumper on my back, where I met a young English speaking Russian woman on the street, and was invited to her home.  Because the family feared that their home was bugged by the KGB, they kept a faucet running to distort vocal sounds as we talked.  I had visited windswept areas of Ireland, explored castles in Wales and England, too.  But Canada?  I guess my attitude about travel to Canada had frankly heretofore been "Eh--why?" 


Nevertheless, to Canada we went that April and we visited the neighborhood of Thunder Bay where Finnish is still heard spoken on the streets.  At the Hoito, we had lunch and could have ordered the clabbered milk but did not.  I heard a story, though, about where clabbered milk came from and it went kinda like this.  Clabbered milk was accidentally "discovered" by a gangly (<--my own embellishment to the story) youth who had been told by his mother to put a little jug of fresh milk in their cold place (whatever that might have been) but who became distracted by those twin neighbor girls wearing new dresses (<--again, my embellishment) and did NOT do as he was told.  The jug of milk was discovered sometime later, just where he had left it by the door, where he had been when he noticed the two young ladies lift their skirts to walk down the muddy path in front of his home.  By then, the milk had taken on a "different" appearance.   In spite of its' appearance, the milk was included with the evening meal, perhaps to teach the boy a lesson about doing as he was told, or respecting his elders, some such thing (<---I'm pretty sure sure about that detail of the story.)  When the milk was found to be palatable in an "interesting" sort of way, his mother decided to try leaving some milk on the floor herself, one evening.  It was then that she noticed that the twin neighbor girls seemed to parade back and forth in front of their home a little more frequently than seemed warranted.  Hmmm...

There were other observations that I mentally tucked away about Canada, too.  One of the apparently necessary businesses of the Thunder Bay Finnish neighborhood was the family sauna.  Of course, I had already discovered while living and working in Duluth that there were many rural Finnish homes with little
This is the sauna we found tucked away on an island
outbuildings that contained a sauna just for that family's own use.  I had learned that sauna should be pronounced "SOW-nah".  AND, as a medical social worker in a rehab unit at that time in my life, I had learned that some Finlanders would never dream of putting a toe in bath water.  One of my patients, an elderly bachelor (whom some folks might describe as crotchety) vented his disgust at the thought of sitting down in "filthy bathtub water" after his nurse had innocently asked him whether he was ready for his bath.  I, as the rehab social worker, of course responded only with a slight nod of my head and a certain knowing and conspiratorial look.   He then proceeded to bemoan the "loss" of his brother to a woman who had "tricked him" into the institution of matrimony and therefore away from the home he and the brother had shared well into their middle age years.  "That woman" then swayed his brother into a bathtub and he had heard all about that after the deed was done.  He shook his head in utter disdain of his brother's fall from appropriate hygiene practices.  But I digress.

In the U.S. the standard neighborhood stores would probably include your grocery, barber, hardware store, pharmacy and restaurant.  In Thunder Bay, the family sauna seems to belong to that standard group of neighborhood businesses.  It was unclear to me though (and still is) whether 'family sauna' means that the entire neighborhood's families all use the sauna together?  Do they separate themselves by male and female?  By certain times of the day for different ages?  Are they all nude?  And if so, does this include the pastor of the congregation and his family?  Or do they all wear towels?   What would be appropriate etiquette for those awkward moments when your towel has fallen to the floor quite unexpectedly?  Are the Finnish people inherently less modest than, say, Norwegian Lutherans?  Are they afraid of showers?  Do any of them really WANT to jump into a cold lake after the sauna, or was that a tradition that accidentally began after a Finlander of some importance burned his touche by bumping against the hot rocks of the sauna?  These are questions I have but have never found just the right person to ask.

My most vivid memory of crossing over the border into Canada in 1999 is what I did NOT see......no Canadian Mounties.  Not a one.  I scoured the evergreen forests and hills between Grand Portage, MN and Thunder Bay—not a single handsome, red-jacketed law enforcement person on horseback.  But I do remember that as we approached the outskirts of Thunder Bay, I was pleased to announce to my husband, “Look, Canadian children!”  I guess I was expecting something more, though.   I’m sure they were very nice children, but they were just so.......well, so........ordinary.  I wouldn't have been able to pick out a group of Canadian children from their U.S. counterparts for anything.   In spite of that shortcoming, I found Thunder Bay to be historically interesting and a pleasant place to visit.

By the summer of 2011, we had been sailing the west end o Lake Superior for 9 years and were now on our second sailboat, SweetWater.  We were eager to sail to Canada for our two week vacation.  We knew from previous sailing trips that sailing as far as
Lake Superior depth just south of Isle Royale
Isle Royale (which belongs to Michigan, but is much closer to Minnesota) took us approximately 23 hours.  Since Thunder Bay was hours beyond that it was simply too far for a long weekend or even a week's vacation.  Our two week summer vacation would be the perfect window of time for such a trip. We wanted to sail someplace new and explore.  Another sailing couple who had become good friends were also planning a trip that summer, to the actual North Shore of Lake Superior in their boat, Ranger. We decided we would sail with them, or at the very least meet up with them and spend some of our time in Canadian waters together.  


We thought that sailing the North Shore of Lake Superior would likely be the closest to wilderness sailing that we would ever embark upon.  We would be beyond cell phone reception much of the time.   There are very few opportunities to buy groceries or
One of many lighthouses on the western shore of Lake Superior
diesel between Duluth and Thunder Bay, and those opportunities would become nonexistent somewhere beyond Thunder Bay. We provisioned accordingly and also prepared a rather extensive First Aid kit since we could be days from medical care as well.   We stocked up on limes for Gin and Tonics, my summertime treat.  We shared stories between the four of us about sailing the North Shore. Some of the stories sounded to me somewhat like old legends that could not possibly be true.  One story was that Canadians bring chainsaws with them when they sail.  Really?  A chainsaw on a sailboat?   Preposterous.  There were some places that we obviously had to visit, such as the Witching Tree, Thompson Island outside the bay that was called by the same name as the city, Thunder Bay.  We wanted to go as far as Rossport, Ontario if our two weeks was enough time for that.  We had heard too about some private little places that only sailors would know about--places tucked between some islands.   In one place we'd heard there was a sauna built by Canadian sailors in a very remote location. We wanted to find it.  


We chose the last week of July and the first week of August for our adventure, as those weeks had proven themselves to be the most reliable for finding good weather on cold Lake Superior.  We were right.  The weather was wonderful for the entire time.  We sailed
Approaching the breakwater, Grand Marais, MN
SweetWater straight through to Grand Marais, MN in one long overnight passage and then rested up there for a full day before heading on further up the shore.  We found the Witching Tree on the shore on the Grand Portage reservation
Voyageur/native canoe near the Witching Tree
land and saw a native style canoe traversing the area.  We continued on north to a protected anchorage enroute to Thunder Bay.  There we joined our friends and found that two other boats also selected that spot for their night's anchorage as well.   This anchorage was behind a small horseshoe island some distance from the mainland.  To our east there was nothing by water.  We had seen no sign of human habitation since we left Grand Marais, several hours earlier.  It was beautiful!  Enroute we hauled up buckets of water from the lake which was our drinking water and I would argue, the best tasting water that can be found anywhere in the world.  


We anchored in about 20' feet of water using our Bruce anchor and put out 50 feet of chain and another 70 feet of rope.  As would
Amy Brooks and Dale Hedtke, friends who sail on Ranger
become our pattern, we enjoyed the evening's happy hour on our friend's boat or maybe they dinghied over to our cockpit-- I don't remember exactly.  Dinner would come later in the evening--maybe we shared our dinner--maybe not. Regardless, the entire evening was spent in pleasant conversation and drinking in the beauty of the wilderness as darkness fell.  That evening marked the first evening that was truly spent relaxing on our summer vacation.  Ah, glorious!  The next morning, still basking in the sense of being on a wilderness sailing vacation, we were the last boat to pull up anchor to leave the anchorage.  Two of the boats must have left quite early in the morning.  My husband and I enjoyed our typical "boat breakfast"
SweetWater "boat breakfast"
which consists of coffee, of course and slow cooked oatmeal with various other grains and to which I add raisins and dates at the end of the cooking.  At the table in the cockpit, we add a little butter, some brown sugar and pecans. My mouth waters describing it.  It's not a breakfast that should be rushed.  Our friends departed while we waved to them over our hot cereal.  We were all alone.  It felt absolutely glorious!  We reveled in the feeling.  Why rush away from that experience?  We chose not to.


Eventually, we were motivated to pull anchor and head out toward the next destination which was Thompson Island.  As much as we enjoyed this anchorage, we anticipated another kind of special experience at Thompson Island.  We had been told that Thompson



Island had been "developed" by various Canadian sailors over the years.  It was a naturally occurring well protected inlet with deep water.  We had heard that the Canadians, without any government support or organizational backing, had built structures there, including a boardwalk sort of dock somehow clinging to a sheer cliff face which would be where we would tie up.  There was supposedly a sauna there, built only with whatever materials persistent sailors had carried with them on their sailboats to the site.  And even a steep set of steps one could climb with the aid of ropes attached to trees.  The climb would reward one with seating at the edge of the cliff and an overlook of the entire site.  Armed with this information, we anticipated another wonderful evening with our friends and other sailors that we would encounter there.  

When we pull up anchor, my husband goes to the bow while I handle the helm.  He gives me hand signals to direct me to slowly move the boat over the anchor, break it free and then he manually pulls it up.   An electric windlass would have made the process much easier, but this routine was certainly effective.  When SweetWater was directly over the anchor, my husband gave his full attention to hoisting the anchor.  The anchor did not want to come up.  "It's heavier than it should be.  It's not wedged in rock or anything--I can feel it move, but it just doesn't want to come."  He put every bit of energy into raising the anchor and yelled to me, "Ardys, come up here."  "Oh no....."  Instead of our anchor, we saw what

would be called 'slash' by Lake Superiorites.   One end of an extremely long log was visible at the waterline--the other end apparently still resting on the bottom of the lake at a 45 degree angle, some 30-40 feet away from the boat.  The log was quite securely lodged within the crook of the anchor.  SweetWater was effectively attached to the floor of the lake.

"What do we do now?"  We knew immediately that the simplest solution would be quite costly--cutting the rode where the chain attached to the rope.  We would lose not only a 35# anchor but 50' of chain rode.  Our remaining anchor was more of a lunch hook and had never been used as a primary anchor.  Without this anchor that had now become one with the log, we may be forced to abandon the remainder of our sailing vacation.  The Captain - "We could call to Ranger, but even if they are close enough to hear our transmission, what are they going to do about this?"  More ruminating between us.  He - "We are on our own here."  She - "Eventually someone else will come here to anchor."  (Ya, maybe today, maybe next week).  He - "And when they do--again, what are they going to do about it?"  Together - "If only we had a chainsaw."  A chainsaw!

"Maybe a Canadian with a chainsaw will come here to anchor," I said.  "Do you think they really all carry chainsaws," he questioned.  I thought back to one of anchorage mates from the night before.  A person can hope, right?  This is

where my wiseness in marrying my husband becomes evident.  He lassoed the end of the log and put that line on a winch.  He then raised the log, which theoretically would leave the anchor free to come loose.  Theoretically, is the key word in that sentence.  The anchor was firmly dug into that log.  We cast about to find something on the boat that was heavy enough that we could use as a sledge hammer to break the anchor away from the log.  Nothing.  Nada.  Zilch.  Sad to say, besides NOT bringing a chainsaw, neither did we carry a sledge hammer onboard. What kind of sailors were we anyhow....sailing into the wilderness without power tools or major destructive equipment?  After some casting about, my husband settled upon the boat pole and used it to push at the log and anchor until ultimately the anchor was jogged free so that it could be pulled aboard.  Now to get rid of the wooden "anchor" that was holding the boat in place.   We DID have heavy duty knives for cutting away rigging onboard.  And with that we were loose.    Note to self:  Chainsaw--bring a chainsaw when we sail the Canadian shore.