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Ann Marie Mershon
That Old Boulder-Jumper, Finn
A couple of the Old Fogies group members, Jim Gulstrand and Dick Swanson, discuss their paddling route with Ontario kayak veteran Torfinn “Finn” Hansen as Jini Danfelt listens in.
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Ann Marie Mershon
That Old Boulder-Jumper, Finn
Finn shows his lightweight Greenland paddle to Jerry Wilkes.
Sunshine and exhilarating waves on Lake Superior have called like siren songs for the last nine years to my group of kayaking friends, the Old Fogies, all of us in our 60s and 70s, all from Grand Marais, Minnesota.
We’ve explored some of the most picturesque stretches of Lake Superior in deep summer (no cold-weather paddles for us), but last year was the trip of trips when we spent 12 days along the Pukaskwa Peninsula on the Lake’s eastern Ontario shore.
This section is reputed among kayakers to be the Lake’s most beautiful, and most difficult, to paddle. Massive shore-pounding waves are roiled by prevailing west winds pushing across the longest open stretch of the Lake. You must plan for the unscheduled. During our orientation at the Pukaskwa National Park campground, we learned about a recent group windbound at their first campsite for 10 days – and they’d only scheduled a seven-day trip.
We had our share of time adjustments, but basically we lucked out with calm weather (only one day of rain) and mostly manageable waves. We did navigate 7-foot swells one day, but turned tail in the 8-foot breakers the next. You don’t get to be Old Fogies, after all, by taking crazy risks.
Camping on the rocky shore, we were thrilled to find the occasional blueberry patch or raspberry bush to enhance breakfast. But unlike most of our trips, this one lacked wildlife viewing, save for lots of prints left by moose and bear on the beaches. We saw a few eagles and a plethora of gulls, but no creatures great or small – virtually “skunked” for wildlife, without even a skunk showing up.
We did, however, on Day 9 of our 12-day trip, discover the most delightful local fauna – a kayaker extraordinaire by the name of Torfinn Hansen.
Feeling a bit battered after battling waves all morning and seeing few other kayakers, we decided to head into a tiny protected cove that day.
As we approached, I spotted a lone man hopping around on the boulders like a mountain goat. Getting closer, I was astonished to realize that what I’d thought to be a man in his 20s actually turned out to be a grey-bearded, wiry fellow of significantly more years. As he helped us land on the cobbled beach, Finn introduced himself warmly, as though welcoming us to his home. He explained that he was celebrating his 70th birthday with a paddle along the Ontario coasts of Lake Superior and Lake Huron, expecting to pass through Georgian Bay and then head near Toronto.
Finn paddled a hardy red Valley brand sea kayak, using a feather-light Greenland paddle with a balsawood core. It was less than 4 inches wide, yet he could paddle circles around us with our broad blades. He’d already circumnavigated Lake Superior twice, as had his wife who paddled solo in a kayak that she’d built herself. (A well-matched couple!)
Averaging 40 miles a day, Finn planned to cover nearly 1,000 miles in a month. And we thought ourselves challenged with 12 miles a day on a 140-mile paddle. Blush.
This spritelike fellow left us charmed, abashed and amazed. He had grown up in the Faroe Islands, a tiny country 200 miles north of Scotland and situated between Norway and Iceland. He regaled us with tales of his youth, his solo emigration to Canada as a teen, his greatly adored Canadian wife and his cabin in Michipicoten, which was also our destination.
We told him about the trapping cabins we’d discovered and asked about a massive granite boulder at Les Petits Morts Rocks with “FRANK KUSHICK, NOV 7th 1920” carved into its side, the Ns backward. We’d assumed it was a fisherman who had died there, but Finn said Frank was a prospector who liked to carve his name everywhere. Not as dramatic, but interesting nonetheless.
The waves didn’t appear to be diminishing, so we dove into our lunches. We Old Fogies chuckle every time we unearth the embarrassing bulk of our noon “feed bags” replete with veggies, fresh fruit, sausage, cheese, peanut butter, tortillas, chocolate and so much more. Heck, weight isn’t an issue in a kayak, and we choose to eat well.
Finn, meanwhile, pulled out a tiny sack of mixed grains, nuts and dried fruit, his basic diet for the entire trip. Not even beef jerky. Amazing, though that may explain his youthful fitness.
After our bulk-up lunches, the next order of business for the Old Fogies usually is to stretch out, preferably on the sand, for a quick nap in the sun. On this shore, we rearranged boulders instead for maximum comfort.
Not one for a nap, Finn told us about the best campsites coming up and then paddled away.
That night we took advantage of Finn’s advice, camping at the far end of a pristine sand beach. The wind had died down, and we had time for a leisurely swim, thanks to a temperature inversion that made Lake Superior swimmably warm much of that summer.
Finn had set up camp on the opposite end of the 200-yard beach and paddled over to join us after dinner. Actually, we were still eating, but he said he’d already finished (nuts and berries, no doubt).
Though I’m sure he traveled without alcohol, he cheerfully accepted a shot of bourbon.
We shared the magic of a campfire, retiring to our sleeping bags just after dark. As promised, the next morning at 6 a.m. Finn paddled by our site, blasting a horn to wake us.
“Wind’s on the water already!” he called. “Time to get up!”
For the last three days of our trip, we heeded boulder-jumper Finn’s advice, rising early to beat the wind and thus enjoyed an even better Pukaskwa adventure.
Who says you can’t teach Old Fogies new tricks?
Ann Marie Mershon loves to kayak Lake Superior from her home in Grand Marais, Minnesota. A retired English teacher, she’s published numerous columns and articles as well as two books: Britta’s Journey, a children’s historical novel, and Istanbul’s Bazaar Quarter, a guidebook of walking tours. She is currently working on a memoir about five years she spent teaching in Turkey.