Devils Cove: The Most Beautiful Place on Earth

Lake Superior. Photo by Layne Kennedy.
Lake Superior, photo by Layne Kennedy.

By Greg Breining

Imagine the Coldwell Peninsula—a dark fist jutting from the Ontario shore of Lake Superior, five miles across, with rocky knuckles. Poised on one knuckle, like the stone of an outsized ring, was Foster Island. I sat between the fist and the stone, as the wind whipped the lake into a frenzy of whitecaps.

I was partway through a two-year project—to take a series of kayak trips around Lake Superior. It was late September. I had hoped to squeeze in one last trip before autumn storms ended my kayaking for the year.

I had set out that morning, paddling to the knobby contours of Pic Island. As the wind rose, I returned to the mainland, taking shelter in the tiny bay behind Foster, and waited for the wind to drop—it usually did in the afternoon—before returning to my car. Instead, the wind blew harder. I sat in perfect calm, but to the right and left, waves pounded the cliffs. I dared not paddle through such seas. Especially alone. I hated the idea of dying anonymously.

With hills and cliffs on three sides, I could tune in the Thunder Bay marine station only by walking around the beach, holding the radio high and tilting it just so. According to the 4 p.m. report, the wind would stay in the south and build through the night and tomorrow, with waves growing to more than 6 feet.

Not far from where I anxiously paced the shore, German prisoners of war had been held at three camps. On my beach, I realized I, too, was a prisoner. With the highway several miles inland, with the wind churning Superior into a froth, where could I go? I set up my tent.

Day Two. The morning broke sunny and windy. Whitecaps beat the reefs beyond Foster Island. Still, I could hope. I ate breakfast, struck the tent and packed the boat with the intention of sneaking east through Devils Gap. I could reach the highway at Coldwell.

I wedged into my kayak and stretched the spray skirt over the cockpit. I trembled, remembering how tense I had been in the waves yesterday. I’d feel better, I thought, if I practiced an Eskimo roll.

I pushed off into the sheltered bay. Without another thought, I hit the cold water face-first and a second later hung upside-down, staring upward in disbelief through the clear water at the deck of my boat and the silver sky.

What had I done? Screw up now—then what would happen to my confidence? It annoyed me I was this afraid. I had almost never failed to roll a kayak, even in turbulent waves. But I had not been alone. That was the difference.

I reached my paddle toward the surface, swept slowly, snapped my hips, and popped to the surface. It was that easy. Now I was ready. But as I paddled from behind Foster Island, a swell rolled beneath the boat. The horizon disappeared behind a wall of water. I looked out on a lake in pandemonium and retreated to the bay.

I set my tent again and made lunch. I brewed tea. I read. I paced from one end of my beach to the other. It was 160 yards long; five laps equaled a mile. I made a habit of walking a mile, counting each lap. If I felt anxious, I walked another mile. I cooked sausage, rice and black beans. I smoked a cigar. I listened to the 8 p.m. forecast. Bad news. The wind would continue through tomorrow, with waves of 6 to 10 feet.

As a teenager, I fancied myself a rugged loner. I imagined myself exploring wild country for weeks on end. Then one summer, after a weekend at the lake cabin, my parents drove home to work, leaving me to fend for myself for the week. Almost immediately, a black anxiety descended, betraying my sense of myself. I remembered that so well because I felt something so very similar now.

Day Three. The next morning, a switchy wind cut through my bay. The radio report: waves 6 to 10 feet. Wind still from the south. Thunderstorms likely. There was no decision to be made—no decision except what to have for breakfast.

I began walking the beach early. I talked to myself, at length and with vigor. I made lunch, boiled tea and read travel stories. The 4 p.m. report: more bad news. A gale warning had been issued for western Lake Superior; winds of 40 knots or more. I dragged my kayak nearer the tent. I guyed one peak of the tent to a tree and the other to the boat. The physical preparation was easier than the mental. When would this end?

I decided to walk a mile. Then I walked a second mile. Then a third. And a fourth and a fifth. My wife would be worried. But she would be fine. Worry is not fatal. But I had to keep my mind on the tasks at hand. Don’t get hurt. Keep food safe from rain and bears. And look for an opportunity. A good opportunity. That was the greatest danger: to give in to anxiety. Nothing, after all, was wrong.

Day Four. The 8 o’clock forecast: Gale warnings for all Great Lakes. Winds ran to 40 knots and waves to more than 13 feet. But something was different. I ran to the end of my beach and looked to the gap between Foster and Pic islands. The wind seemed to have switched toward the southwest. If so, I might be able to sneak into Devils Gap. I decided to paddle out and look.

My hands trembled as I struck the tent. Gusts blew across the beach—but it came from the west. Yes. Blow, blow all you want. The wester the better.

I loaded the boat. I looked around camp—fondly, I would say, but my fondness depended on not returning anytime soon. I hopped into the kayak and pushed off. Rounding the point, mere swells surfed my kayak toward Devils Gap. The more dangerous waves ran far out on the lake, a long way off. As I passed between the mainland and Detention Island, the seas fell and the wind died.

Gray fog draped the black rocks and soaring hills. Devils Cove seemed not the least bit devilish, but a paradise of gorgeous wet rocks and the solid colors of creation. I had escaped from the shadows of my own loneliness and emerged, as an eagle flew overhead, into what seemed to me the most beautiful place on earth.

Greg Breining writes about travel, science and nature for many Minnesota and national publications. He is the author of Wild Shore, Paddling Minnesota, Paddle North and  other books.


This article appeared in Wilderness News Spring 2011

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