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For days, squalls have marched in from the invisible horizon over the lake and mist shrouded the eastern shore. As the latest downpour moves inland now, I emerge from my car onto the upper beach and look out at the gray-veiled waters of Old Woman Bay. The thunder recedes into the distance and a spell of stillness descends on the land. Wetness saturates the colors of pink and red pebbles and not a blade or leaf quivers on marram grass, evening primrose, or beach pea. I’ve rued the rain, but as the land pauses between cloudbursts now, the mist mutes the surf to a bare whisper and even the trucks that ply the steep hillside to the north seem to have taken a rest. An unexpected balm, the opaque grayness wraps the bay in a unison of amorphous forms and draws me near to the small, visible universe of the shore.

Old Woman Bay lies at the northern end of Lake Superior Provincial Park, a rugged, six-hundred-square-mile preserve of forested hillsides, lakes, capes, and coves that belong to the traditional homelands of Batchewana people. Sheltered to the north by a hilly peninsula, the bay is guarded to the south by a headland that rises to six hundred feet and thrusts a long ridge of forested rock into the water. A series of vertical clefts that mark eroding fault lines in the outer cliffs are said to create the impression of an old woman’s face. Even when not obscured by mist, the face eludes me. 

The beach in the bay arcs gently south from where I stand toward the mouth of the Old Woman River and shadowy bulk of the headland beyond. After approaching the bay on a broad bed of cobbles and sand flats, the river cuts a snaking path across the beach, flowing first north into a long pool and then narrowing and winding south. As I peer in its direction and out across the water, the mist reduces the far beach and headland to a collection of soft, abstract forms that remind me of the rendering of the bay in the park’s logo, and of the artistic style of Lawren Harris and Canada’s famed Group of Seven painters. The park is partly bounded to the east by the Algoma Central Railway and each fall from 1918 to 1922 Harris and a small gathering of Toronto-based artists used a furnished railway car as a base for painting on the eastern shore. As he continued to travel further north along the lake, Harris developed a distinctive style of evoking the expansive spirit of the land, distilling its features to a consonance of simple, bold forms not all that different from the impression created by the spruce-clad knolls that poke up from the mist of the peninsula to my north. 

My plan for the morning is to walk west along the peninsula to a large terraced field of stones, a distance of only half a mile. As I set out across the beach, the damp air clings to my skin and the peninsula’s bare, low-lying tip remains impossible to make out in the mist. Before long, the coastline turns sharply to the west and a strip of mostly granitic cobbles and boulders abruptly takes over from the pebbles and sands. The strip slopes inland for around thirty feet from a band of large, firmly lodged boulders along the water before ending in a line of weathered driftwood at the forest. Every now and then in early summer, I’ve arrived at the bay to find the lower strip strewn with untidy heaps of fresh pebbles and driftwood. By the time of my next visit, however, gentler waves have usually evened out the stones and sorted enough of the driftwood to restore a semblance of order. Even where ragged-looking, the strip this morning has a subtle elegance born of the shifting colors and patterns of its stones.

No two stones look exactly alike. Though some are smooth and polished, most have rough surfaces with slightly angular, waterworn edges. The minerals in granitic rocks cooled slowly underground into visible crystals. Many stones on the strip have a predominantly white or pale pinkish cast, reflecting an abundance of quartz and potassium feldspar. Other stones, however, are coarsely speckled in black and white or red, white, and green. In addition to granites, the strip includes a hodgepodge of volcanic and other rocks. One smooth boulder preserves a slice of a contact zone between a finely textured olive-brown volcanic rock and a reddish granitic rock, the latter peppered with small white crystals. A few gneisses display tightly folded light and dark bands. 

Before long, the strip widens to create a small raised field or platform abutting the forest. I reach the field just in time for another squall. As sheets of rain swallow the bay, I duck under a few spruces to pull a raincoat from my pack. Yet the downpours rarely last long and within five minutes this one abruptly ends. The field emerges from the rain with a piercing crispness and refinement. I slip from my shelter and wander around. Bearberry mats, currants, and layering spruce branches reach out from the forest, their leaves and needles poised in the sudden stillness. Nearby, twinflowers with vivid pink bells poke up from plush tendrils of moss that meander in dips between stones, and tufts of reindeer lichen and rock foam create elegant, swollen cushions. Lower on the field, the trunks of shrub-like birches gleam with dampness. 

The field stretches inland from atop a short ridge of pebbles and cobbles and nearly doubles the depth of the beach. As it crosses the platform, the band of driftwood that had been pushed against the forest in the far inner bay widens and creates an earthy bed of rotting logs and humus for a few birches, spruces, and fir saplings. While the water-tumbled stones below the driftwood band remain largely clean, lichen and black stain cover most of the stones above the band. The wet stones have a nearly uncanny vibrancy, their backs dotted in crystalline drops that create an infinite array of fine rounded shapes. While some drops rest comfortably on the textured bodies of lichen, others pool in shallow dips or follow thin, winding recesses toward the ground.

On a clear day, I might have stood on the field looking around the bay, searching the headland for the elusive face of the old woman and seeing the land as a series of distinct forms: headland, beach, hillside, and bay. Now I slowly circle around the field and eventually kneel down and pick up a lichen-covered cobble and turn it over to reveal its clean, pale red bottom. Cast up by waves, the stone may have rested undisturbed on the beach for centuries, if not more. I carefully return it to its place and let the grayness of the bay hold me close to the field’s rain-sated stones, saplings, and lichen.

 

Before my visit, I consulted a geological survey map to get a better understanding of the complex geology of the regions around the bay.1 The map represents different rock types with colorful abstract swaths and blobs marked by numbers denoting geological epochs. A broad fuchsia swath of granite covers the northern side of the bay and peninsula and then moves inland to the northeast to partially surround a greenstone belt rendered in two distinct shades of green, one for darker rocks such as basalt and the other for lighter rocks such as rhyolite. On the southern side of the bay, in contrast, a larger, paler pink area of gneiss takes in the inner reaches of the headland while a second greenstone belt winds southeast from further out in the bay. Contributing to the region’s geological complexity is the presence of a fault that runs down the valley to the north of the bay and continues under the water toward the outer headland. The fault carried iron-rich fluids that tinted the surrounding granite and, during the Midcontinent Rift period, provided a source of slippage that slowly shifted the lands on its western side by four and a half miles.2

Old Woman Bay provides a meeting place not only for different types of rocks, but also different types of forest. As I look inland through the mist, forested hillsides run like billowing shadows behind the bay, their murky contours grading seamlessly into the gray of the sky. A sign at the head of a trail that loops up the hillside on the other side of Highway 17 reads, “Here the old woman Nokomis, grandmother or elder of the Ojibwa, looks over the merging of the southern Great Lakes-St. Lawrence forest with the northern Boreal forest.” After dipping south around the bay, the boreal forest cedes much of the rest of the park to sugar maples and other northern hardwoods, persisting mainly in coastal regions and lowlands. 

As the sign suggests, in Anishinaabe stories Nokomis is a wise and venerated elder and the grandmother of the spirit-creator Nanabozho. According to one story, she was born a daughter of the moon but fell to the earth as a young woman and later bore a daughter who conceived Nanabozho with the North Wind but died shortly after giving birth, leaving Nokomis to raise her grandson. Through storytelling in the dark months of winter, Indigenous peoples reinforced a shared history and passed knowledge down the generations. A Batchewana First Nation story about the face in the headland tells of a woman named Chikwewiss who was banished from a community to the south for her misdeeds. After breaking a leg while being chased away in winter, Chikwewiss crawled along the shore on the ice until she reached Old Woman Bay and crept onto the rock.3 

Whether they serve as a reminder of a wise elder who guided the spirit-creator or impart a possible lesson in the perils of acting against one’s community, stories of the old woman in the headland reflect a cosmology in which rocks, bays, and natural features are honored as sources of wisdom and guidance and the world is made whole through connections between the land and its people. I finally leave the small field, pondering the reassurance and belonging that such a cosmology seems to hold and the age-old yearning of people around the lake to anchor their lives to deeply-held stretches of the shore and seek, as I do, to draw the universe close around them. 

The bay in the mist feels soothing and empty, devoid of distractions that could otherwise tempt my gaze to wander hither and yonder. I walk slowly across the slick stones, drawn forward by the steadying act of placing one foot in front of the other. In Swedish, cobbles and other small beach stones are called klappersten, the prefix klapper suggesting the light clapping sound the stones make when washed by surf. As I listen to the light scrunching of pebbles under my steps, the stone strip evokes a comforting clarity and simplicity, asking nothing more of me than that I attune to its bare forms and let myself be led forward.

Where the strip angles lightly to the northwest, a creek flows out from a thicket of alder and dogwood. Clear waters thread around low boulders on whose backs I can easily cross, the amiable rippling a mere shadow of the swollen currents that had forced me to turn around in spring. After a brief stretch of larger, smoother stones, the strip abruptly opens up to the terraced field that forms my destination. The field has long captured my imagination. Extending inland for around one hundred and twenty feet and looking to be at least three times as wide as deep, its main terraces are made of a series of broad cobble platforms separated by low east-west trending ridges. When viewed from the right angle, its stones appear to descend like a gently cascading river from the forest to the lake.

A total of three main sets of ridges and platforms can easily be made out, though the presence of a partial fourth ridge and numerous smaller ridges make the actual count a bit unclear. I wander upslope from the water across clean boulders and cobbles until I reach the first low ridge and platform. A jagged band of driftwood with thin logs and branches piled up against larger trunks runs across the platform, creating a nearly fence-like structure that reaches inland for ten to fifteen feet. Sheltering in open spaces amid the driftwood are scattered spruces and a few large shrubby birches, along with fir saplings, blueberries, and starflowers. As I continue inland toward a second, less distinct ridge, lichen spread in a patchy skin across the stones and the muted sound of the surf recedes. 

The field’s allure lies largely in the absence of stark lines and forms, in a quietude that allows my gaze to flow easily across low rolling ridges and dips. A few raspberry shrubs grow in a boulder dip and an island of trees sits near the forest to the east, but elsewhere not enough soil has gathered between the stones to support much vegetation. Instead, it’s mainly the lichen that catch my eye. The lichen give the field an overall lime-green and grayish cast from a distance, but when seen up close dress the stones in an extravagance of colorful rosettes, black-spotted lobes of rock tripe, and small mats of reindeer lichen, rock foam, and pixie cups. Endowed with its own shape, flecks of color, or lichen, each cobble and boulder creates a singular world, which as soon as I step back vanishes into a uniformity of stones and ridges.

While the slope below the field’s lowest ridge is shaped by the current lake level, each of the above sets of ridges and platforms marks a former beach created by early waters in the Superior basin. Once the glaciers retreated north, the waves and currents of meltwater lakes began building up beaches from jumbles of stones and sands carried downstream by rivers. Storm waves sculpted the sediments into ridges while calmer waters sifted lighter stones, gravels, and sands back into the lake until all that remained were the cobbles and boulders that I see on the field. At the same time, the earth’s crust began to rebound after being freed from the glaciers’ immense weight, causing the coast to gradually rise out of the water. As the rebound continued, old beaches were left high and dry as waves and currents dropped new sediments on previously submerged lands. Over time, a steplike sequence of raised beaches emerged. 

The terraced field has formed from the more recent rebound of the land, after the lake stabilized around its current level slightly over two thousand years ago. Additional sets of raised beaches appear higher on the hillsides around the bay, each set corresponding to a level that early glacial meltwaters in the lake temporarily held before abruptly dropping and stabilizing anew.4 The lake’s northern and northeastern shores were freed from the glaciers’ weight later than areas further to the south and still rise out of the water by around a foot a century.5 While this amount is far smaller than that experienced by regions that sat closer to the heavy epicenter of the ice sheet around Hudson Bay,6 it still tilts the lake basin increasingly to the southwest and causes more water to flow toward the regions around Duluth. While rising lands create new beaches on the Canadian shore, rising waters submerge old beaches on the U.S. shore.

 

The world’s highest raised beach, I recently learned, sits in northeastern Sweden along the Gulf of Bothnia, a long inlet of water that extends north from the Baltic Sea. The Swedish High Coast has risen by 935 feet since the ice sheet retreated in the area 9,600 years ago.7 Perhaps not surprisingly, in 1491 the Bothnian coast provided the earliest documented record of glacial rebound when residents of the town of Östhammar petitioned the Swedish government for permission to move their town after their harbor had risen and shifted far enough inland to become unreachable by boat.8 The first calculation of the rate of rebound was made in the 1740s by the Swede Anders Celsius, better known for his invention of the Celsius temperature scale. While Celsius believed the waters of the Bothnian were falling, others speculated that the land was instead rising. 

In 1834, the famed Scottish geologist Charles Lyell visited Sweden and settled the debate by confirming reports that the rate of land change along the Bothnian coast far exceeded that along the Baltic coast to the south; therefore, the land in the former region had to be rising.9 Yet the cause of the uplift remained unknown until 1865, when a few decades after the Swiss geologist Louis Agassiz had discovered that glaciers had once covered large parts of the earth, another Scot, Thomas Jamieson, noted a possible connection between the retreat of the ice sheet and the uplift of the land. Yet Jamieson’s observations remained poorly received and it finally fell to the Swedish geologist Gerard De Geer in 1888 to demonstrate through his study of raised beaches that lands that had experienced the thickest recent ice cover had also experienced the greatest uplift.10

I had never heard of De Geer, Östhammar, or the Swedish High Coast before trying to learn more about the raised beaches at Old Woman Bay. Time and again, it surprises me to discover how frequently my explorations of the Superior shore connect me back to Sweden in ways that reach far beyond my childhood memories and more recent visits to the regions in which my family lived. Gradually my time around the lake has helped me create a sense of place that roots me down fully in one country while also maintaining meaningful connections with the other from afar.

 

A gush of hazy sunshine unexpectedly penetrates a thinning pocket of grayness over the lake. For a few moments the field emanates a radiance that seems to both envelop and come from somewhere deep within its stones. I stand on the upper terrace with warm air sweeping across my face watching the sun-spun mist swaddle the water. The bay is constantly being transformed, slipping in and out of varying degrees of shrouded-ness and light. Before long the sun vanishes as suddenly as it burst forth and as another squall moves in raindrops begin to ricochet off the rocks, landing with discrete thuds that quickly merge into a crescendo of pounding water. As if on cue, the drawn-out rolls of thunder that have been moving back and forth behind the hillside break into loud crackles. I dash for the island of trees near the eastern end of the field and tuck myself under a few branches. In the minute or so it takes for me to reach my refuge, the driftwood band on the lower rock dissolves into reams of liquid light and the field takes on a nearly otherworldly appearance. 

The island has come a long way from the small cluster with a single tall spruce and birch that I briefly described in a notebook during a visit to the bay over fifteen years earlier. Its vegetation today includes a tall birch and two tall spruces, several mountain ashes and pin cherries, an outer skirt of progressively smaller spruces, and in the back a spreading mat of reindeer lichen, blueberry shrubs, and mosses. I’ve often wondered how it got its start, whether the seedlings of its original spruce and birch found a nourishing bed on a rotting trunk that toppled out from the forest or maybe instead in sparse pockets of soil between a few larger boulders. Though a few smaller spruces facing the bay have died, in the island’s core a springy mix of mossy logs, boulders, and saplings creates a lush ecosystem amid the stone-scape of the field. 

To my side, a fringe of pink boulders borders a dense collection of saplings rooted in the island’s mossy outer edge. I bend down, gently lift a corner of moss, and see underneath the stones that the island has gobbled up during its outward growth. Like the island, the dimly visible strip of vegetation around the driftwood band may one day birth a small forest, if its trees and shrubs continue to feed the soils slowly forming atop its stones with decaying leaves and branches. The strip looks securely established, but sits a full twenty feet closer to the water. Despite the shelter offered by the bay, if lake levels rise, the waves of a few unusually fierce storms could perhaps sweep far enough inland to wash away soils and saplings and maybe even uproot trees. A similar fate must have befallen other forests-to-be as the field’s terraces took shape, all trace of their toppled trunks either swept into the lake or mulched into dips between the stones.

Some raised beaches on the Ontario shore contain depressions dug into the stones by Indigenous peoples who lived around the lake before the westward migration of Anishinaabe. Called Pukaskwa Pits, the structures vary in size and shape and are sometimes are sometimes surrounded by low walls. Early studies focused on their possible use in vision quests that connected people to the spirit world, but later archeologists suggested more practical uses. Depending on their size and shape, pits could have served as storage places, temporary refuges from storms while fishing or traveling on the lake, or even seasonal dwellings.11 Though the pits originally sat near the water, as lake levels dropped and the land rebounded they ended up on raised beaches as high as a hundred feet above the present shore, including on the hillside behind Old Woman Bay. More Pukaskwa pits appear on the raised cobble beaches at Brulé Harbour, a deep inlet slightly over a mile and half to the north of where I stand.12 As the drenching rain muffles a clap of thunder now, it’s not hard to imagine the relief early lake travelers must have felt on turning their canoes landward in a brewing storm, knowing that a shelter awaited them on shore.

Once the rain tapers, I leave the field and continue west toward the outer half of the peninsula across steep heaps and ridges of boulders. Soon after I cross a third, smaller and narrower raised beach, the stones abruptly cede the ground to a succession of outcrops and I step onto a low-lying neck of granite. The rock is clad in waterworn humps, splash pools, and dark dikes and ends in a short, coral-pink wall that rises toward the rocky knolls and flats of the lower hillside. Color everywhere saturates the rock. Lichen glow in resplendent brocades of mustard-yellow, orange, lime-green, rust-red, and gray. Bird’s eye primroses with oblong green seed capsules and butterworts with rounder pinkish capsules join shrubby cinquefoils, tufted bulrushes, alders, and sundews around pools and areas of runoff. Small cedars, birches, Labrador teas, and junipers fill in depressions and at the base of a short wall knotted pearlworts hover atop a splash of moss covered in tiny droplets.

 

Down the coast lie more outcrops and a tall wall that drops directly into the water, blocking easy access to the peninsula’s tip. For now, the rain seems to be holding off and the thunder has faded into a distant roll. I decide to go no further and stop to look out at the bay. Though thick drapes of mist waft across the water, the outer headland presses its dark slopes into a patch of lightly clearing air. To my side a bog rosemary bears dimpled berries in a heavenly cast of rose and below a sumptuously smooth slope of pink rock dips toward a lip along the water. For days I’ve yearned for blue skies. Yet as the land settles into another lull between squalls, I want the sun and wind and harshness of light and shadow to hold off for another hour or two, for the mist to keep brushing against the shore, shrouding the bay and joining me to a small world of berries, lichen, and stone.

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1. G.W. Johns and S. McIlraith, Precambrian geology compilation map–Michipicoten sheet, Ontario Geological Survey, Map 2669, 2002, scale 1:250 000, https://www.geologyontario.mndm.gov.on.ca/mndmfiles/pub/data/imaging/M2669//M2669.pdf.

2. E.G. Pye, Geology and Scenery: North Shore of Lake Superior, Ontario Geological Survey, Geological Guide Book No. 2 (Ontario Department of Mines, 1969), 96.

3. Melissa Twance, “It Was Your Ancestors That Put Them There and They Put Them There For You: Exploring Indigenous Connections to Mazinaabikiniganan as Land-Based Education,” (Master’s thesis, Lakehead University, 2017), 61-62.

4. A.P. Coleman, “Wave Beaches on Lake Superior,” in Iron Ranges of Eastern Michipicoten, Report of the Ontario Bureau of Mines, XV, part I (Toronto: L.K. Cameron, 1906), 193-94.

5. “Glacial History and The Development of Lake Superior,” Glacial Lakes History, Lakehead Region Conservation Authority, https://lakeheadca.com/events-education/geology/glacial-lakes-history-1.

6. Andy Lyon, Figure 1, “Ontario: The Geology of Rising Land - Isostatic Rebound,” Canada (Ontario) Beneath Our Feet, accessed February 10, 2024, https://www.ontariobeneathourfeet.com/geological-sites#/rising-land-isostatic-rebound.

7. UNEP-WCMC, High Coast/Kvarken Archipelago, World Heritage Datasheet, Updated May 2011, http://world-heritage-datasheets.unep-wcmc.org/datasheet/output/site/high-coast-kvarken-archipelago/.

8. Martin Ekman, The Changing Level of the Baltic Sea during 300 Years: A Clue to Understanding the Earth (Summer Institute for Historical Geophysics Åland Islands, 2009), 21-22.

9. Ekman, The Changing Level of the Baltic Sea, 29-31.

10. Ekman, The Changing Level of the Baltic Sea, 41-42.

11. Greg Breining, Wild Shore: Exploring Lake Superior by Kayak (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 49; Nancy Champagne, “Pukaskwa Pits: Rethinking the Vision Quest Hypothesis,” Ontario Archaeological Society Arch Notes 12, no 5 (2007), 17-21.

12. Lake Superior Provincial Park Management Plan, Ontario Parks (Toronto: Queen’s Printer for Ontario, 1995).

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