My life has been influenced by where I live; by the temperamental yet stunningly beautiful Lake Superior, by the boreal forests and the creatures that call them home, by the ancient worn ridges of the Nor’Wester Mountains, and the myriad of lakes and rivers that are flung like a jewels across the vast unpopulated stretches of northern Ontario. And so, this place seeps into my stories, affecting plot, defining character, and molding themes. And in some cases, becoming a character itself.
As a child, I spent many summers sailing on Lake Superior. My parents owned a sequence of sailboats, starting with a sixteen-foot daysailer and eventually graduating to a thirty-two foot sloop that that allowed us to venture farther. Our weekends and summer vacations were spent on the boat exploring the islands and anchorages of the north shore.
Sailing on Superior is unique. The Lake is cold and deep – the largest freshwater lake in the world by volume and the third largest by surface area. It is, in reality, a sea. It is bordered by Ontario on the Canadian side, and by Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan along the US shore. Connected by river systems, and eventually the Saint Lawrence Seaway, Gitche Gumee has been an integral part of a water network used by Indigenous people for thousands of years, by fur traders and explorers like du Lhut who first mapped its shores, and by shipping companies that send ocean-going freighters into the heart of the continent to pick up cargoes of grain and coal. It is prone to fog, known for squalls and early winter storms. It is not a lake for casual boaters or the faint-hearted. The bottom is littered with shipwrecks, from the earliest Northwest Company schooner, ironically named Invincible, which succumbed to ice in 1816 near Whitefish Point, Michigan, to the Edmund Fitzgerald that broke into three pieces and sank with all hands during a November gale in the 1970’s.
I can remember a story I heard whispered as a child. A boat had been found, I heard, wrecked. A boat not unlike ours, washed ashore in Tee Harbour on Sibley Peninsula, close to Silver Islet. The sails were torn, there was blood on the deck and the rudder had been smashed. It was abandoned and no one was on board. Who had been on the boat? Where were they going? What had happened?
And how was the Lake involved?
In the words of Gordon Lightfoot, “The Lake it is said, never gives up her dead…”
I was grateful she was willing to share her stories with me. Stories of lighthouse keepers and their families, of freighters carrying cargo to the ports of Duluth, Fort William, and Port Arthur, of commercial fisheries and cottagers at Silver Islet. And a boat washed ashore, abandoned, with blood on the deck.
The seed of inspiration began to sprout.