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Lake Superior is the largest of all the Great Lakes – whether by surface area or by volume. It is simply vast. It alone could hold all the water of the Great Lakes PLUS two more the size of Lake Erie. It's the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area and 3rd largest by volume. If you do the math, Superior could cover the continents of North and South America to depth of 1 ft / .3 m. In mid-summer, the sun sets 35 minutes later on the west shore than on the southeast coast!
Here are some facts about this magnificent lake:
Like the other lakes, Superior has had more than one name over its history. However, the early French explorers referred to it a 'lac Superieur' meaning 'upper' or 'above' as in above the other lakes to the south. As the territory changed hands from the French to the British, the name was simply anglicized to Lake Superior.
Lake Superior is bounded by the province of Ontario and the states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Its wild and remote coastlines offer a cruising sailor the experience of a lifetime. Yet, its not all rocks and trees! There are several large and growing cities and many small communities dotting its coast. All rely on a resource-based economy. Mining is booming, the forestry industry is everywhere and the big lake freighters ply their routes with holds full of grain, minerals and paper products.
For all of the adventures that Lake Superior offers a cruising sailor, care and prudence are the watchwords. Like all of the other Great Lakes, Lake Superior is truly an inland sea. Distances are much greater, locations for supplies, (especially fuel) and maintenance are fewer and much further apart and the range of weather and sea conditions much greater. It is a prudent sailor who looks carefully to the condition of his/her vessel and equipment before setting out on this vast lake.
Lake Superior is a very cold lake. Average water temperature is 40° F / 4° C. I remember going swimming one July afternoon off a north shore beach and preparations included building a fire to warm up after a freezing dip! This large body of very cold water has implications for a sailor. To begin with, because of its size, there tends to be a relatively constant high pressure area that sits over it. As we know, a high pressure zone in the northern hemisphere has winds that clock or move in a clockwise fashion. Thus, a sailor can generally expect good sailing winds on a clockwise route around the lake and winds on the nose if sailing counter-clockwise.
This cold water also poses a very real threat to personal safety. Hypothermia is a clear danger to anyone who goes overboard. On-board safety measures are an essential routine for competent sailors. Use of PDF's and safety harnesses are a must. Intense chilling from immersion coupled with few close-at-hand medical facilities can combine to create a life-threatening situation.
And, a sailor doesn't need to go overboard to experience hypothermia. Long hours at the helm, exposed to continual cold water spray and constant cold wind can lead to the onset of hypothermia.
Because of its size and location, weather is an important consideration for a cruising sailor. Fog in the early and late parts of the sailing season is frequent and is a common experience for most Lake Superior sailors. It is a hallmark of competent sailors that s/he has a decent grasp of weather basics and has appropriate weather information and sources available before setting out.
So what lies in store for the sailor who wants to explore this magnificent lake? The south coast is dotted with small towns, a number of harbors of refuge and many excellent anchorages. Cities like Marquette, Ashland, Bayfield and Superior can meet all of the needs of a cruising sailor. Harbors of refuge such as Whitefish Point, Big Bay Harbor and Port Wing provide protected refuges when the weather deteriorates. In between are many anchorages surrounded by breathtaking scenery.
The west and north coasts follow the Minnesota and Ontario shorelines. Major cities are very few and far between – Duluth, Thunder Bay and Sault Sainte Marie. Duluth to Thunder Bay has several harbors of refuge such as Silver Bay and Taconite Harbor. Between Thunder Bay and Sault Ste Marie, there are small villages dotted along the coast such as Rossport, Terrace Bay and Wawa. And interspersed are snug harbours, hidden anchorages and isolated coves where you can savour silence, star-studded skies and simply stunning scenery. You would not be wrong if you guessed that this is one of my favourite coastlines along the Great Lakes.
No overview of Superior would be complete without talking about its island groups. The Apostle Islands are a group of 21 islands located in the northwest corner of lake Superior, off the Wisconsin coast. Twenty of these comprise the Apostle Island National Lakeshore Park. While there are no communities within the park system, docks and anchorages are easy to find in this popular cruising ground. Needed services can be found in nearby communities such as Bayfield and La Point on nearby Madeline Island, outside the park.
Isle Royale is the largest island in Lake Superior and the 2nd largest in the Great Lakes. Located approximately 20 mi / 32 km / 17 nm from the Canadian coastline, the entire island and numerous surrounding smaller islands make up Isle Royale National Park, established in 1940. There are no permanent communities on the island. However, there are a number of anchorages in snug, beautiful coves and inlets. There is about 160 mi / 258 km of walking trails and a number of wilderness camping sites. There are two harbors where minimal services are available – Rock Harbor and Windigo/Washington Harbor.
Lying far to the northeast is Michipicotin Island and south of it, Caribou Island. Michipicotin is part of the Ontario Provincial Parks system and there are no communities on it. However Quebec Harbour is a popular stop-over for cruising sailors. Caribou Island, 22 mi / 36 km / 19 nm south is an uninhabited, privately-owned island with no docking or anchorage facilities.
Here is a list of ports reviews for harbors around Lake Superior that you can explore on a fabulous sailing adventure.
Bayfield, WI (Apostle Is.)|
Copper Harbor, MI)
Duluth, MN | Superior, WI
Grand Marais, MN
Houghton, MI | Hancock, MI
Michipicoten River, ON
Silver Bay, MN
Sault Ste Marie, MI
Sault Ste Marie, ON
Thunder Bay, ON
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