I was alone—shouting at the water and the sky. After more than six hours paddling in high winds, I had reached a personal crisis point.
From the moment our party of eight paddleboarders emerged early (-ish) that morning from a bay on the mainland, leaving our vehicles at the end of a chassis-cracking bush road, the wind did everything it could to throw us off course. Our destination—a sand beach on the west side of Big Windswept Island*—was 14 unsheltered kilometres from our launch.
For about half the crossing, a side-wind threatened to push us out into open water—where there was no landfall for hundreds of kilometres. Then when we changed direction alongside Big Windswept Island we found ourselves struggling against a headwind that wanted to push us back to the mainland. My inflatable SUP didn’t cut through the water as nicely as the others’ fibreglass boards and I fell behind the rest of the group, the perceived handicap of my board nagging at me as much as the difficulty of making progress in the face of a 45 kilometre-per-hour wind.
After lurching around a long, forested point as breakers threw off my steering, I stopped paddling and began screaming invectives, my head in my hands. My arms felt rubbery and useless. I didn’t care anymore.
When I looked up, I found myself in a small, relatively sheltered bay. Through the aquarium-clear water I noticed countless smooth, multicoloured rocks that seemed arranged on the lakebed for their complementary beauty, like a huge mosaic.
I slid off my board. As I stood in the waist-deep water—cooly welcoming on this mid-July afternoon—my feet on the rocks felt reassuring after so many hours on the board. With the wind still unceasing, I decided it was easier to unravel my throw rope and pull my board through the shallows.
When I eventually stood up to resume paddling, the wind began pushing me sideways again. But I dug in, meeting the waves and focusing on each stroke rather than on my slow progress. With a feeling of speechless relief I finally arrived at the beach, now adorned with paddleboards, tents and exploded camping gear.
Then, as I carried my gear across the beach to the tent site, I noticed a children’s helium balloon—long-deflated, all multicoloured foil and tassels, wrecked by wave action but still identifiable as a butterfly. Our trip leader Scott Parent spotted it on shore earlier that day and had pulled over to recover it, along with two plastic water bottles. We packed them out—the first of many more pieces of mostly plastic garbage we recovered.
It was depressing to find plastic washed up in this otherwise wild place. The discarded plastic water bottles in particular symbolized the most frustrating aspect of the pollution crisis. That’s because single-use plastic water bottles are unnecessary, except in some emergencies. Drinking tap water in refillable bottles is a simple (not to mention cheaper) alternative to plastic.
A big part of our kit for this trip consisted of Hydro Flask bottles, food jars and coolers. On the long road trip to reach our launch point, we filled up a couple of 64-oz. Hydro Flask Growlers which kept us quenched for the journey and cancelled out the need to buy water in plastic bottles. (Then on our way home, we refilled them from a public drinking-water tap.)
I also used the Hydro Flask 16-oz. Coffee Mug with Flex Sip Lid for road-ready caffeinating. Then during the trip I used a gravity-fed water filter and then transferred water from the bladder into a 32-oz. Wide Mouth Bottle with Flex Cap. We also used this bottle for coffee early one morning when we had to brew-and-paddle to beat some oncoming weather. The Wide Mouth also boasts TempShield Double Wall Vacuum Insulation (same as the Coffee Mug) to keep liquids hot or cold.
Plus: I carried several pre-prepared meal ingredients in three sizes of Insulated Food Jars (8, 12 and 20 oz.)—preferable to plastic containers, which don’t insulate or seal reliably and aren’t durable. Crucially, the leak-proof Food Jars seal like nobody’s business and on a summer trip, will protect the contents from spoiling in hot weather. The ultra-durable 18/8 pro-grade stainless steel ensures pure taste and no flavour transfer. And then after the meal you can reuse the Food Jars to store leftovers.
Finally, the 26 L Day Escape Soft Cooler Tote proved to be well-suited to a paddle trip since the laser-cut welded gear attachment loops provide secure tie-down points for a SUP/kayak deck or canoe thwarts. (These loops are also designed to hold Hydro Flask Dry Storage bags.)
The Cooler Tote lies flatter than most comparable coolers, ensuring you won’t overload your boat. It’s made of tough material (lightweight 600D polyester shell) and keeps the cold in even under all-day sun. And the toothless zipper is watertight, while the Cooler Tote’s welded seams ensure leakproof transport.
5: Splendid Isolation
Over the next few days we endured a tent-flooding all-day rain, paddled through two-metre swells and explored the footprint-free beaches. Every step lent a Robinson Crusoe feeling as we walked for hours, marvelling at the multi-leveled expanse of dunes overgrown with bearberry, creeping juniper, heartleaf willow and sand reedgrass—a primeval, fragile ecosystem which has been all but wiped out across most of the Great Lakes.
The island interior was a tangled maze of old-growth cedar, spruce, birch and pine, each bedecked in lichens and moss and stunted by exposure to constant winds and colder temperatures than the mainland. It felt as though this place hadn’t changed much in thousands of years. Its isolation was, and remains, its salvation.
On the final day of the trip, we took stock of the debris we had collected along the shorelines and scrunched under our decks’ shock cords: the big balloon plus smaller ones, water and detergent bottles, plastic bags, aluminium cans, nylon rope and bobbers. We found no litter associated with camping and no trace of campsites. We kept it this way.
While packing up on the last day, I found an eagle feather on the dunes and took it home to give to my daughter. I’d love to show her the islands someday, but perhaps it’s better if we settle for the feather. People, like balloons and single-use plastic, don’t belong on the Windswept Islands.
*We chose to both use a pseudonym and withhold the location of the uninhabited Great Lakes island group we visited. Too much human visitation to the Windswept Islands—an unstaffed nature reserve where camping is allowed but by no means encouraged—could have a catastrophic impact.