We’re leaving out the name of these islands to protect them from overuse—and from the threat of even more plastic garbage than we recovered from the remote shores. Words :: Ned Morgan. Sponsored by Blu Wave SUP.
I was alone—shouting at the water and the sky. After more than six hours paddling into relentless wind, I had reached a 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 Windy Island*—was about 14 unsheltered kilometres from our launch. When the wind really stiffened by late morning, pulling over would have made sense. But the rocky shorelines of two smaller islands we passed were too exposed; if we stopped, we could get marooned if the wind came up even higher.
For about half the crossing, a side wind threatened to push us out into open water, with no landfall for hundreds of kilometres. Then, alongside Big Windy, we changed direction and found ourselves struggling against an insane headwind that wanted to push us back where we’d started.
I decided to crouch on my knees as I paddled, in an effort to duck the wind. It seemed to help, though my progress was still torturously slow. 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 deliberately arranged on the lakebed for their complementary beauty, like a huge, sun-streaked 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. I wasn’t in a rush anymore; it was still only mid-afternoon and I knew our beach destination was less than two more kilometres away. Everyone else was already there.
I realized the splendour of this place was due to what it lacked. In the absence of people, the biosphere thrived all around me. I watched an Arctic tern skim the churning water, crying out keenly. As it scooped up a small fish I admired the bird’s consummate skill, using the wind and water to influence and guide its every move. I felt I could learn from a creature that, instead of struggling against its environment, simply observed closely and adapted continuously without over-analysis.
When I stood up to paddle, the wind began pushing me sideways. But I dug in, 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 and exploded camping gear. Someone handed me a cold (-ish) can of beer. Everything was good now.
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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. We packed it out—the first of many pieces of mostly plastic garbage we recovered.
It was jarring and a little depressing to find the balloon washed up in this otherwise wild place. I reflected glumly that earlier in the summer I purchased a similar balloon for my five-year-old daughter; I wasn’t blameless in the mounting pollution crisis we’re all living through but don’t want to confront.
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 that has been all but wiped out across 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. During the rain day, a few guys in our group followed the remnants of a trail into the interior, probably used many years ago as a passage between the east (lee) and west (windward) sides of the island. 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, aluminum 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. It was a small gift I hoped she’d treasure much longer than a helium balloon. I’d love to show her the islands someday, but perhaps it’s better if we settle for the feather. People, like balloons, don’t really belong on the Windy Islands.
*We chose to both use a pseudonym and withhold the location of the remote island group we visited. Too much human visitation to the Windy Islands (an unstaffed nature reserve) could have a catastrophic impact. Camping is permitted here under provincial law but by no means encouraged. The islands lie far from any marina, and the presence of encircling shoals further dissuades power boats. In summer a handful of intrepid sailors may navigate the shallows to stop in the single safe (-ish) anchorage and the odd kayak party may land on the Windy Islands, but we saw no sign of anyone, past or present.
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