Three Waters Pilgrimage: A Father-Daughter Tandem SUP Mission

Mornings are for coffee and contemplation. Misery Bay.

words & photos :: Scott Parent. 

Growing up in Penetanguishene, I learned about Drummond Island through family stories. Once belonging to Upper Canada, the island at the top of Lake Huron was occupied by the United States following the War of 1812. The British granted land titles in Penetanguishene to the Metis living there, including my ancestors on my mother’s side: Jean Baptiste Trudeau and his wife, Papanaatyhianencoe. In 1828, along with their son and 75 or so other families, they made the nearly 500-kilometre voyage by bateau or canoe.

I had imagined paddling this ancestral route for some time, and last summer I set out to do just that, taking my nine-year-old daughter Acadia with me, on a Blu Wave Catalina 14’ Expedition touring SUP.

The Blood Line: Drummond Island to Penetanguishene. The yellow dots indicate water sample locations.

Turning nine at our house calls for celebration in the form of a backcountry epic. For Acadia that meant spending a month on water on a wayfinding “summer camp” across Lake Huron. It was Acadia’s idea to take water samples to be analyzed for microplastics research, something she learned about through the assistance of The Lake Huron Coastal Centre for Conservation in Goderich. To support this, we would take the scenic route and paddle across all three bodies of Huron: the North Channel, Lake Huron proper and Georgian Bay. We took a deep-water sampler with us, to collect samples at depth along the remote channels we’d have to cross.

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After launching into Potagannissing Bay we began the crossing of the North Channel, attuning ourselves to daily distance-paddling while working out all the kinks and settling into our isolation. We were on our own for many miles without a soul in sight. Until we crossed the border—then it was kilometres. For Acadia this meant inescapable hours of dad humour.

Rock dock on East Fox Island, Georgian Bay.

The moods of the lake clashed with our ambitions for each day and we had to pivot ourselves at a moment’s notice. In this water world, the wind is ruler. Slowly we adjusted to moving in accordance with the wind.

Crossing the False Detour Channel and the U.S.–Canada border felt mysteriously quiet. No border guards, no boats. No one but us. We conducted our first deep-water sample in the middle of the Channel on the border line. Between the wind pushing us off position and the sampler not always triggering properly, there was a juggling act of adjustments to be made.

We shared a rousing holler as we entered Canada via the back door, arriving at Cockburn Island—Lake Huron’s last large wilderness island and home to Tolsmaville, now mostly a ghost town apart from a dock and a handful of cottages. We explored on foot and discovered an old cemetery, most of the graves belonging to young children. At the dock on our way out, someone told us Tolsmaville had suffered an epidemic long ago—possibly the Spanish Flu.

Pan-fried pike on East Fox.

The second leg of our journey involved a long traverse across the widely exposed south shore of Manitoulin Island. We needed calm waters to assail the lengthy corridor. I put trust in my observations and kept us offshore as much as possible. There were sections where we couldn’t stop for up to 15 km or more. In many instances, the rolling swell was more dangerous on the inside where waves broke over the shallows.

Travelling through the Owen Channel—the gateway into Georgian Bay—was a big moment. At South Baymouth, Acadia was feeling the weight of detachment after our second rendezvous with our family, watching them sail toward home on the Chi-Cheemaun ferry while we paddled on toward the most challenging leg of the expedition. Conditions demanded our full game that day, with frigid rollers conveying out of the west.

The moods of the lake clashed with our ambitions for each day and we had to pivot ourselves at a moment’s notice. In this water world, the wind is ruler.

Our planned camp that night was at Owen Island, but we found it overwhelmed with the high water and made the call to press on. It was on that stretch of coast that the eagle appeared. This impressive bird guided us for the remainder of that day. We laboured over waves until finding calm refuge at Tamarack Harbour, where the eagle also turned in for the night. Acadia found something uplifting in following that bird of prey, and while investigating the campsite, she found an eagle feather.

The next morning we woke up, broke camp and loaded the Catalina X for the day’s paddle. Just as we set off, the eagle took lead and guided us for the next couple days to the northernmost tip of Manitoulin.

Sampling on the U.S./ Canada border, False Detour Channel.

We left Manitoulin behind and entered the granite realm of Killarney and the north shore. Conditions levelled up on us, with half-metre waves out of the south and curtains of heavy fog. It was a game of cat and mouse as we island-hopped between gusts.

The days to follow were the most transformative long-form series of paddle strokes I’ve shared, navigating through the labyrinth of the 30,000 islands between us and Penetanguishene.

At Killbear Provincial Park my old friend Jenn Lachapelle and her daughter Violet—also descendants of the Drummond Metis islanders—joined us and we paddled together to Twelve Mile Bay. We visited the island where my grandparents had lived year-round and places I hadn’t been back to since my childhood. There were noticeable changes. High water covered old beaches I once knew, while bits of dock foam befouled the marshy inlet waters.

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The analysis of our samples is underway—slightly derailed due to COVID-19. I can say this: We found microplastics. In almost every one of the 45 samples analyzed, plastics were present—mostly in the form of fibres, but also fragments and film. Those arduous deep-water samples proved the presence of microplastics at depths of 50 feet in some channels. And we found garbage, styrofoam or plastic at every single stop we made from our first launch at Drummond Island to our arrival at Penetanguishene.

But we experienced a lot out there and learned a great deal—including how many people care about the Great Lakes region. Acadia and I felt this first-hand in sharing our story. Lake Huron is well-loved, and that’s a good thing.

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