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“This Great Lake”

ON Nature, Summer 2008
This feature story describes the creation of the world’s largest freshwater protected area, located in northwestern Lake Superior, and the environmental uncertainty that remains in the area.


When 10,000 square kilometres of Lake Superior became Canada’s first National Marine Conservation area and the world’s largest protected freshwater area, conservationists and paddlers cheered. But with all the exemptions buried in its new status, Lake Superior’s majestic wilderness still remains vulnerable.

By Conor Mihell

WHEN THE HOT, late-afternoon sun beats down on Bowman Island in mid-July, Lake Superior feels like the Mediterranean. Warmth flows from a terracotta shore of cobbles and rises from the lake. Beyond the storm line of driftwood, dwarf white birch and black spruce trees veiled in lichen string out across the carpet of deep green groundcover. I sink knee-deep into the lush sphagnum and fill my mouth with blueberries and know I’m in northern Ontario.

I launched my sea kayak at Silver Islet, a tiny community at the tip of the Sibley Peninsula, planning to spend a week paddling the 125 kilometres of northwestern Lake Superior coastline to Rossport, a village located 200 kilometres east of Thunder Bay. I reach Bowman Island, an Area of Natural and Scientific Interest (ANSI), on day four. Like other islands in the area, Bowman Island is a series of 50-centimetre-high terraces, created by the earth’s ponderous rebound in the wake of retreating ice sheets from the last ice age. Millennia of storms tossed and shifted apple-sized stones into distinct beach levels. Exploring farther inland, I discover that the steplike pattern continues beyond the treeline, hidden beneath the greenery of succession, forming the foundation of the entire 160-hectare island that began its rise from the lake some 10,000 years ago.

Here, the vegetation is sparse, stunted and wind wizened – typical of the sort found in the subarctic or at alpine elevations due to the perennially chilly Lake Superior water, which creates a similarly cool microclimate.

After admiring knotted pearlwort – a wispy, but surprisingly hardy, herb normally found 1,600 kilometres to the north – I return to my campsite and pitch my tent on cobbles just beyond the lake’s grasp. As evening falls, I consider what the future holds for Bowman Island. This part of northwestern Lake Superior has been declared Canada’s first National Marine Conservation Area (NMCA), but because portions of the island are privately owned, it is not included within the protective embrace of the NMCA designation.

As much as the NMCA designation is cause for celebration, there is also some reason for concern. After years of lobbying various ministries to create the world’s largest freshwater protected area, the environmental community now wonders whether the federal government has gone far enough. Many important areas within the NMCA boundaries have been omitted from protection, including the untamed island on which I’ve pitched my tent. Some of these unprotected areas could become prime real estate cottages; others could be logged for pulpwood, mined for uranium or quarried for aggregates. It turns out that even after being awarded NMCA status, the wilderness of northwestern Lake Superior remains vulnerable.

IN OCTOBER 2007, PRIME MINISTER STEPHEN HARPER ended a decade of deliberations and political limbo by announcing the establishment of the Lake Superior NMCA. The diamond-shaped reserve sprawls across approximately 10,000 square kilometres of northwestern Lake Superior – an area nearly half the size of Georgian Bay – from the tip of the Sibley Peninsula at the mouth of Thunder Bay, to Bottle Point, east of the town of Terrace Bay. The southern boundary follows the Canada-U.S. border. Despite its distinction as the world’s largest freshwater marine conservation park, the NMCA protects barely 13 percent of Lake Superior’s 82,100-square-kilometre surface area.

This is the first such protected area to be established under the Canada National Marine Conservation Areas Act, which in 2002 enshrined the importance of protecting “self-regulating marine ecosystems … for the maintenance of biological diversity.” Doug Yurick, Parks Canada’s marine program chief, says that under this act, the flora, fauna and structure of northwestern Lake Superior – including the lakebed, water column and 60 square kilometres of islands and mainland coast – will be safeguarded indefinitely from the exploration for and exploitation of oil and gas, mineral and aggregate resources, as well the dumping of waste products. Similar to a national park, the Lake Superior NMCA must have an interim management plan in place in the next five years, which will be reviewed every five years in Parliament.

Yurick says shipping, pleasure boating and commercial and recreational fishing – all of which are allowed by the act – will be overseen by existing agencies, such as the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) and Transport Canada. He says the overall objective of an NMCA is ultimately to “protect the structure and function of the ecosystem while allowing ecologically sustainable use to continue.” The act also requires zoning to accommodate the “ecologically sustainable use of marine resources.”

The island archipelago and open water of northwestern Lake Superior were identified as a potential federal marine park in 1997 for their unique 250-metre-high sedimentary cliffs, terraced beaches and approximately 25 species of arctic-alpine plant life. According to MNR’s Natural Heritage Information Centre, the area provides habitat for about 70 species of rare or at-risk plants, including devil’s club, a thorny, metre-high plant that typically is found in the Rocky Mountains.

“At first you wonder why many of the plants on these islands aren’t in your guidebook,” says Gail Jackson, the Lake Superior NMCA’s first project manager and now the Parks Canada’s NMCA program advisor. “Then you realize the biting cold water of Lake Superior has perpetuated communities of vegetation typical of the Far North.”

Species of note include cliff-nesting peregrine falcons and coaster brook trout, an anadromous fish that spends most of its life in Lake Superior and reproduces each autumn in a few tributaries with upwelling springs at specific temperatures. According to Rob Swainson, an MNR area biologist in the Nipigon district, coaster brook trout habitat has been altered so extensively by logging, mining and road development that Lake Superior’s only self-sustaining population exists in Nipigon Bay, part of the new NMCA. The reserve also protects Gapen’s Pool on the Nipigon River, which Swainson says is the most prolific spawning area for coaster brook trout in the entire Lake Superior basin. MNR research suggests that the area contains about a dozen species of fauna of rare or at-risk status, while 290 species of birds have been observed at the Thunder Cape Bird Observatory, located at the western terminus of the NMCA.

With Prime Minister Harper’s approval, the federal government is now responsible for working with MNR to finalize boundaries between federal, provincial and private lands and develop a management plan for the NMCA. Yurick says $36 million has been earmarked for capital development, operations and maintenance for the next 10 years. Currently, Parks Canada is working with MNR to develop an interim management plan they hope to be completed in the next 12 months.

The Lake Superior NMCA is not Canada’s only marine park. Fathom Five, which started out as a provincial park and joined the federal suite in 1987, protects a portion of Georgian Bay near the tip of the Bruce Peninsula. But Lake Superior will be the first to put the mettle of the Canada NMCA Act to the test. Revisions to the Fathom Five management plan and guidelines for future NMCAs will follow the blueprint established by the Lake Superior Conservation Area.  As a result, Anne Bell, Ontario Nature’s senior director of conservation and education, stresses the importance of doing it right.

“We know from a long history of experience that development adjacent to a terrestrial protected area can have devastating impacts on its ecological integrity,” says Bell. “I think we can safely assume that this is true of aquatic protected areas as well. It’s obvious that development will need to be carefully managed, but what else will it take to adequately protect the water column and the species and natural communities that inhabit it?”

THE SITUATION OF BOWMAN ISLAND TYPIFIES one of the challenges facing the Lake Superior NMCA. Much of the land that would logically fall within the conservation area is excluded. Of the more than 700 islands contained within its boundaries, around 600 are protected. But most islands larger than 100 hectares are omitted, including St. Ignace Island, which is over 30,000 hectares and home to a remnant herd of woodland caribou. And the vast majority of the mainland does not fall within the jurisdiction of the NMCA.

This means that cottage developers could purchase privately owned land and be subject only to local municipal or provincial regulations. A prime example is a 38-hectare lot on Vert Island, currently for sale, located in Nipigon Bay within a few kilometres of the public marina in Red Rock.

Brian Christie, executive director of the Lake Superior Conservancy and Watershed Council (LSCWC), a nonprofit advocacy group based in Sault Ste. Marie, says he could live with some private land development so long as it is “reasonable and done in a manner that’s consistent with the management principles of the NMCA. But since [cottages] usually include lawns and gardens, there’s an environmental price to pay,” he adds, citing concerns of fertilizer-laced runoff entering Lake Superior. “Plus, it’s somewhat incongruous in a supposedly wilderness area to come around a bend and be faced with a three-storey log home and all that goes with it.”

In theory, Parks Canada can “buy certain private lands if the option becomes available,” says Yurick. But these can be acquired only by a “willing seller and willing buyer.” There have been no confirmed purchases yet.

Bob Hartley, a member of the Lake Superior Binational Forum, an international policy advisory group, says that purchasing additional land is less important than drawing up a plan that controls development on coastal Crown land. “There’s a dynamic and delicate interaction between land and water on Lake Superior,” says Hartley. “If the shoreline land isn’t protected, aquatic habitat will be threatened.” Because of Lake Superior’s depth and cold water, explains Hartley, the nutrient-rich, life-supporting littoral zone is narrower and more fragile than that of other Great Lakes, making the protection of the coastal corridor all the more important.

The Black Bay Peninsula is a boot-shaped, 75-kilometre-long spit stretching into the heart of the Lake Superior NMCA southwest of the town of Red Rock. Undeveloped in its entirety, the peninsula provides the usual mosaic of boreal habitat, including wetlands, recent burns and a dense forest of black spruce.

It takes me nearly two days to paddle the “sole” of the peninsula, from Magnet Point to Fluor Island. Enveloped in a fog bank, I grip my paddle with white knuckles and follow my compass, trying to relate the islands I pass to the dozens I see on my map. I shift my course northeast when I think I’ve reached Shesheeb Bay, a 10-kilometre-deep gulch cutting into the midsection of the peninsula. As if on cue, the fog lifts like a stage curtain and reveals the towering red rock cliffs of Otter Island. I paddle a five-kilometre-long arm of sheltered water to Otter Cove, where I touch down and on foot follow a chattering stream inland. Soon, I’m swimming in a pool beneath a towering cascade. The peninsula supports thriving populations of moose and black bear and the odd woodland caribou, but the NMCA protects precious little of it.

Although loggers first explored the Black Bay Peninsula 60 years ago, companies preferred to exploit more accessible forests closer to the Trans-Canada Highway. Hartley is concerned that, as timber becomes increasingly scarce, forest access roads will soon weave across the Crown lands of the peninsula. Logging in nonprotected areas surrounding the reserve would compromise the NMCA’s mandate of protecting the Lake Superior ecosystem, he argues.

“Crown land along the shoreline and the tributary rivers flowing into Lake Superior need to be protected,” warns Hartley. “If the management plan doesn’t control the use of Crown land, how will it be successful in controlling development on private lands?”

Another potential weak spot in the Lake Superior NMCA is a loophole that exempts two marine and coastal areas with “very high mineral potential” from protection for the next seven years, during which mining exploration and development would be allowed. Operating licence holders will be re-evaluated after the seven-year window.

A 2001 report that the Ontario Ministry of Northern Development and Mines commissioned identified six sites bordering the NMCA as candidate aggregate resource areas. Christie warns that if a pending deepwater port, quarry and processing facility are developed on Lake Superior near Wawa, 250 kilometres east of the NMCA boundary, the entire north shore could become a hot spot for aggregate production.

What’s more, with uranium trading high on the global market, more than 6,000 claims encompassing over 100,000 hectares of land have been staked in mainland areas adjacent to the NMCA in the past two years alone. This particular terrain acts as a 300-kilometre-long wildlife corridor linking the NMCA to northwestern Ontario’s Wabakimi Provincial Park and the James Bay Lowlands beyond. It also drains into Gapen’s Pool on the Nipigon River.

“Mining is one of those activities that has the potential to disrupt recharge areas and groundwater flow, both of which are critical for coaster brook trout,” says Swainson. “The possibility of contamination is huge if there’s any development in the area.”

Making a tactful transition from a fickle regional economy dependent on exploiting forests and minerals to one based on sustainable tourism and responsible resource management is the NMCA’s key to success. Both Hartley and Jackson agree that Parks Canada must interact and cooperate with local communities. “Whether they supported [the NMCA] or not, everyone I spoke to in the task force meetings was really passionate about keeping the area the same,” says Jackson. “As the NMCA evolves, we hope to develop partnerships with local communities and turn passion into stewardship.”

MUCH OF LAKE SUPERIOR’S NORTH SHORE remains pristine wilderness. Along the northeastern portion of the lake, Neys Provincial Park, Pukaskwa National Park, Lake Superior Highlands Conservation Reserve and Lake Superior Provincial Park together protect a near-continuous 400-kilometre-long swath of coast. In the spring and fall, I have sea kayaked in these areas for weeks at a time without seeing a soul, let alone a cottage or private property sign. Having first paddled the Silver Islet to Rossport route in 2003, in later years I was surprised to find cottages sprouting up at some of my favourite campsites.

From Bowman Island, I continue east and set up camp on a steep cobblestone islet at the southeast corner of St. Ignace Island. Twilight blends water and sky into ever-darkening shades of blue. The feeling of mystery is heightened by the metre-deep dugout depressions known as Pukaskwa Pits that dot the rocky beach. It is thought that teenage Ojibwa once held vision quests at rugged, exposed places like this, fasting and patiently peering out from the pits at the same scene, awaiting visions of the supernatural. But the magic is fleeting, diminished by a cottage – modest by Georgian Bay standards but development nonetheless – that now stands on a nearby spit of land.

Thankfully, organizations like the LSCWC are promoting public awareness and working to acquire privately owned land within the Lake Superior NMCA and safeguard it from development. Jackson says this approach to stewardship supports her community-based model of management and, she hopes, will do much to get locals excited about their watery backyard.

“I envision a great synergy here,” says Jackson. “I know we celebrate and share the lake with some great neighbours.”

In good weather it takes only a day to paddle from the east end of St. Ignace Island to the takeout at Rossport. But Lake Superior has a way of mocking the best-made plans. By lunch, gale force winds and a heavy swell leave me stranded on Simpson Island, halfway between St. Ignace and the mainland. Jackson is fond of saying that more than any management plan, Lake Superior’s ice-cold water, volatile temperament and largely uninhabitable coastline are its greatest protectors from the damages wrought on the other Great Lakes. I agree with her. Playing castaway, I comb the agate-laced, black stone beach and scramble atop Beetle Point, where geodes cast toothy grins to the sky and encrusted saxifrage – a diminutive succulent of Arctic descent – clings to bare rock. I tuck into a sheltered cleft above the booming waves and drift off, lulled by the rhythm of the restless lake.

Conor Mihell is an environmental and adventure travel writer based in Wawa. His last feature for ON Nature was “A road runs through it” (Winter 2007/2008).