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Shortly after half past six in the morning I set out on the southern arm of the Kabeyun trail to reach the top of the Sleeping Giant, a massive altar of stone at the tip of Ontario’s Sibley Peninsula. Hours of walking and lingering on shingle beaches with sweeping vistas of mesas, islands, and bays await me. The Giant’s towering form rises nearly twelve hundred and fifty feet above the lake and evokes a grandeur rarely seen on shores further south. Born of the erosive power of ice and water, it stands as a monument to the scars of geological time, perpetually shedding stones that feed the small, precarious beaches on which I’ll rest.

After cutting a fairly straight northeasterly path in Minnesota, north of the Canadian border at the Pigeon River the Superior shore begins to weave tight sinews around peninsulas, bays, and islands. The Sibley Peninsula projects slightly southwest into the lake between Thunder Bay and Black Bay, thirty-two miles long but never more than six miles wide. Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, or Sleepy Gee as it’s also known, takes in over sixty thousand acres on the peninsula’s southern and western sides. From its start at a large parking area inland of the village of Silver Islet, the Kabeyun trail extends for almost forty miles around the escarpment of the Giant to a lookout over Thunder Bay. I follow a stony dirt road downslope from the trailhead into the forest to begin the nearly seven-mile trek to a gorge on the Giant’s western rim.

Stones bulge under my soles, mossy boulders and fallen trunks litter the understory, and a few oxeye daisies and buttercups dapple flecks of sunshine along the trail. Soon the air turns fragrant with the scents of damp fir and while a creek briefly purls to my right, to my left the land rises to a steep hillside that within half a mile descends abruptly to Perry Bay. “Sea Lion, 500 meters” reads a wooden sign near a footbridge across a second creek that flows into the bay from a marshy eye of open water. From the bridge I take in an expansive view of the inland forests and hillsides of the southern peninsula, the low cliffs that rim the bay, and the slender chain of islands that parallels the coast in the open water beyond. Then I backtrack to the sign and turn onto a spur trail that runs south atop the bayside cliffs. 

After climbing a short, steep outcrop, the trail meets a footpath that leads downslope to a small beach of gray shingles. The beach is bounded on both sides by jet-black boulders and large lichen-encrusted blocks and forms a noticeably narrower strip than when I first saw it two decades ago. By month’s end, the average lake level for July of this summer will reach a full one and a half foot higher than it did during my earliest visits to the park. Rising and falling lake levels mainly reflect changes in precipitation, snow melt, and surface evaporation, and my first hikes along the Kabeyun trail took place during several years when the lake remained well below its longterm annual average. 

I sit down on a driftwood log and watch a loon skim the mirrored surface of the bay. To my right a short wall frames the mouth of the creek and the coast begins its southwesterly journey toward Tee Harbour three miles down the trail. To my left lies the chain of islands while straight ahead a few islets create small rocky domes in the water. A larger islet has a light signal, but the smallest islet consists of a mere stub of rock with a forested hat at one end and appears nearly as vulnerable to rising lake levels and storm waves as the shrinking beach on which I sit. The islets and islands, boulders and meandering coastal cliffs wrap a sheltering presence around the beach, and as I watch the loon dive, surface, and swim I slip easily into the stillness of the bay. Finally the loon surfaces not far from the mouth of the creek and I reluctantly rise and hike on.

Gray shingles poke up from the earth of the trail and occasionally gather between the trees. Old shingle beaches appear on hillsides throughout the park, elevated above their original levels by the gradual rebound of the land after being freed from the immense weight of the glaciers.1 After less than a third of a mile, the trail reaches a clearing atop a steep shingle-clad slope that descends toward the bayside cliffs. “The Sea Lion’s Mystique Revealed” reads the caption on an interpretive sign affixed to a guardrail atop the slope. In the water below, a thin vertical slab of rock juts fifty feet into the bay to end in a wave-cut arch with a pillar, its sturdy black base tapering as it rises to an uneven ridge around the arch. The sign explains that the slab used to resemble a sea lion resting on its haunches and includes a photograph of the figure before its oversized head tumbled into the bay in the early 1900s. While entirely clean closer to the water, the slab’s upper surface is covered in gray and orange lichen and rock tripe, and on its northern side supports a few pockets of moss and fern. 

A second sign affixed to the guardrail explains the Sea Lion’s geological origins. Most of the coastal lands of the southern Sibley Peninsula are underlain by beds of mud-derived shales and sandstones that formed from eroded sediments deposited in a large basin around 1.8 billion years ago.2 Some three hundred million years after the basin filled, a new basin developed as the land subsided along a series of regional faults and the beds became buried under younger sedimentary rocks.3 By the time the Midcontinent Rift opened up slightly over a billion years ago, rivers had cut deep into these rocks and horizontal fractures developed between different sediment beds. As an illustration on the sign shows, diabase from the rift flowed into these empty spaces and cooled into long vertical dikes and vast flat sheets called sills. The Sea Lion is made of a diabase dike. 

 

Since sedimentary rocks erode more easily than do their volcanic counterparts, glaciers, rivers, and waves later disproportionately ate into the former while leaving more of the diabase intact. In the case of the Sea Lion, as waves cut deeper into the shale cliffs around Perry Bay the coastline receded and the slab extended further and further into the water. But diabase too erodes, if only more slowly, and the figure has an uncertain future. Additional illustrations on the sign suggest that the arch at its tip will eventually collapse and leave behind only a freestanding pillar of rock. At some point, the entire Sea Lion will crumble into the bay, adding to the scores of boulders that already litter the bottom. 

While the Sea Lion is made of a diabase dike, the Sleeping Giant is made of a thick, broken-up diabase sill that caps layers of sedimentary rock. From where I stand, across the water I can see it rising up from the distant forest to the west, a three-mile long figure with a small oval head and long body with bulging feet. All along the western edge of the park, stately diabase-capped cliffs tower over valleys and lowlands of eroded sedimentary rock, creating a bold contrast in scale that magnifies the precariousness of the coastal lands on which I walk.  

 

From the parking lot, the Kabeyun trail follows a dirt road inland of the shore for five miles past Tee Harbour to Lehtinen’s Bay. Sleeping Giant Provincial Park is popular with both tourists and residents of Thunder Bay and tents and RVs fill the campground at Lake Marie Louise during my visit. The level road is used by both hikers and bicyclists headed for the top of the Giant, but this early in the morning I have it to myself. The road makes for leisurely walking and, once back on the main trail, I settle into an easy pace for the walk to Tee Harbour. Every now and then the need to circumvent a muddy puddle or swat at mosquitos around my head disrupts the rhythm of my steps. But for long moments between the disruptions, all thoughts of reaching the harbor fade and one step flows effortlessly into the next, carrying me forward in an air of suspended time, a primal trust in the steadiness of the earth under my soles.

Eventually, I turn my attention to the trailside vegetation and the reverie of my steps is broken by repeated stops and starts. Shortly after crossing the bridge I pass a towering wall with mossy ledges and a steep lower slope down which matchstick-like firs have slid and landed in a jumble on the boulder-strewn forest floor below. A red squirrel with a cone in its mouth scurries across the fallen trunks, leaping from one to the next with a confounding certainty of direction. Balsam fir, Abies balsamea, continues to dominate the forest along the trail, though scattered birch, balsam poplar, and cedar also appear, as do stands of spruce. A shade-tolerant northern tree, fir is common in mixed woods in the upper Great Lakes region and central and eastern Canada, but gradually tapers in the boreal forests to the north, which favor more cold-tolerant spruces.

Fir isn’t native to Scandinavia but the silver fir, Abies alba, grows further south in Europe and has become naturalized in southern Sweden over the past century after being planted for timber and in parks and gardens. The spruce found in Swedish forests, meanwhile, is the European or Norway spruce, a tall, stylish tree that can be distinguished from the white and black spruce native to North America by its large cones, the largest of any spruce, and long, drooping branches with gracefully upward arcing tips. When the 18th century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus was creating the modern binomial system for naming and classifying plants, both fir and spruce were often called “spruce fir.”4 Linnaeus placed the two trees in the Pinus or pine genus in 1753, but a year later the Scottish botanist Philip Miller moved them into his newly created Abies or fir genus, where they both remained until the spruce was given its own genus seventy years later.5

A fir in Swedish is called an ädelgran, gran being the common name for spruce and ädel denoting a nobler or more precious species. Not surprisingly given the taxonomic history, the terminology is a bit muddled and the English word fir can also be translated into Swedish to mean spruce, or even pine or conifer more generally. The same prefix ädel that suggests a more precious spruce when added to the word gran can also be added to the word for a deciduous tree or lövträd to distinguish ash, beech, oak, and other long-lived species with significant biological value in forest ecosystems from more common shorter-lived trees such as aspen and birch. When added to the word for stone, the prefix signifies a precious stone or gem. 

While many trailside firs have plain, stick-like trunks with dead lower branches, the word ädelgran seems fitting for the occasional elegant tree with smooth grayish or reddish-brown bark with delicate blends of lavender and mauve. Long ovalish strips of pale gray crustose lichen with tiny black buttons sometimes accent the bark, as do leafier sage-green or more rarely mustard-yellow shield lichen with lightly wrinkled lobes. Here and there a drop of milky white or mint-blue resin has even leaked out from a blister on the trunk. Much of the trail is lined with wild ginger, or nearly bare earth with a light cover of wild sarsaparilla or duff. Yet each time I think the trailside is growing uniform and dull, I pass a fir with a filigree of muted hues, or I pass a birch with large peeling sheets of bark and gleaming tints of yellow, pink, and peach.

The morning breeze has begun to reach down through the canopy, stirring the low branches of the firs and the petals of twin flowers, pink pyrolas, and pipsissewas that lurk in the shady mosses of scattered earthen banks along the trail. Each time the ground cover unexpectedly grows lush and intricate, the forest feels not vast but tender and close. The nodding white flowers in a colony of one-flowered wintergreens barely rise above wispy plumes of moss. On their undersides, the flowers shelter round green ovaries with sturdy styles and stamens with tubelike yellowish anthers. The anthers eject pollen when shaken by a high frequency vibration produced by the wings of visiting bees, which carry the pollen back to their nests to feed to their larvae. The nectarless flowers produce large amounts of pollen, which they help bees orient toward with added scents in their stamens.6 To help them receive pollen, meanwhile, the stigma at the tip of their styles ends in five prominent prongs that pluck pollen from the backs of bees.

Except for where it skirts a campsite and shingle beach, the trail sticks to the forest and one soaring trunk, mossy patch, or colony of wild ginger looks largely like another. I rarely check a GPS or cellphone while hiking, other than if possibly lost, and stop often enough that knowing how long I’ve spent on a trail provides only a partial indication of how far I’ve gone. Without markers that tempt me to track my progress, I surrender easily to the filtered light and stillness. By the time I reach the short cutoff to Tee Harbour, the forest and its shifting arrangements of mosses, saplings, and herbs have wrapped their greenery serenely around me. 

Tee Harbour takes its name from a T-shaped spit that juts into the lake to the west of its beach. As I stand in the grassy clearing above the beach looking toward the spit, my thoughts shift to the stories of human life on this stretch of shore. In the park visitor center at Lake Marie Louise, I had seen a model of the wooden houses, docks, and sheds used by a squatter community of Finland-Swedes or Swedish-speaking Finnish fishermen who worked out of the harbor in the late 1920s and 1930s. Having recently emigrated to Canada, the fishermen set up fishing stations at Tee Harbour and Camp Bay, the latter at the far edge of Silver Islet three and half miles to the east.8 They had apparently earlier worked from fishing stations further north on the shore, but interviews with a few longtime residents of Silver Islet also suggest that early Europeans in the area may have learned how to fish the lake from Anishinaabe.9

The community at Tee Harbour consisted of at most ten homes, with some men staying year-round and others returning each winter with their families to nearby Fort William or Port Arthur, today the city of Thunder Bay. Twice a week, the men traveled by boat or in winter by dog team or kick sled to Silver Islet to deliver their catch and pick up groceries, mail, and supplies.10 By the time the community sprung up, Silver Islet was long past its prime as a bustling mining village that at its height had boasted over five hundred residents, a general store, school, library, and hotel.11 The village got its name from a nearby islet from which silver was mined between 1870 and 1884. The silver appeared in veins on the islet and surrounding lakebed, deposited by hot, mineral-rich fluids that flowed along fault zones and fractures toward the end of the Midcontinent Rift period.12 Originally no more than ninety feet long and six feet high, the islet from which it was mined was expanded tenfold and reinforced with crushed rock and breakwaters to support boarding houses, loading docks, machine shops, a railroad, and even a library and bar.13 Its mine was worked by Cornish, Norwegian, Swedish, Italian, Anishinaabe, and other miners and sank shafts up to 1250 feet under the surface, a depth equivalent to the height by which the Sleeping Giant towers over the lake. 

Isolated on a speck of rock on the rugged northern flank of Lake Superior, the mine became the world’s richest silver mine and acquired a mystique that made it a popular tourist destination. By 1882, however, it was largely exhausted, though mining continued for another two years until the shafts flooded, reportedly after a shipment of coal needed to run its steam-driven pumps failed to arrive before the lake froze over for the winter. The islet’s fortifications and buildings were soon reclaimed by the lake and the village transformed into a summer cottage community. Yet the mine’s legacy remains not only in legend, but in several park trails that originated as logging roads for hauling timber to build the mine and village. Alexander Sibley, the president of the company that developed the mine, also lent his name both to the Sibley Peninsula and initially also to Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, which from its establishment in 1944 until 1988 was known as Sibley Provincial Park. 

A year before the park’s establishment, the fishermen at Tee Harbour purchased plots around Camp Bay and moved east.14 I slowly wander around the beach, imagining the comings and goings of not only Finnish fishermen and their families but generations of Anishinaabe who may have fished from the harbor’s quiet waters. No matter how remote the shore, everywhere around the lake human stories inhere in the natural splendor of the land, untold memories of hope and toil, connection and loss. 

From the beach, a path leads west past a few backcountry campsites and onto the long crossbar of the T-shaped spit. The bar ends in a broad, low-lying platform of heavily lichenated diabase that stretches along the lake for around two-thirds of a mile and points its tapering tail directly at the feet of the Giant. Large angular blocks and boulders join cedars and birches toward the platform’s forested inner edge while long parallel grooves, fissures, and short walls give the rock an overall blocky, linear appearance. Some grooves are partially filled with water and fringed by bird’s eye primrose, butterwort, and tufted bulrush. Others remain dry and harbor shrubby or three-toothed cinquefoil, or if deeper and wider shrubs of ninebark, alder, and sweet gale. I watch a lone yellowlegs wade in a large, shallow pool and stalk the vegetated margins of a few grooves. I’m drawn to the unexpected companionship the bird offers and follow it with my gaze until it disappears behind a few boulders.  

To the west of the platform, the land moves up a grassy slope while to the east it winds around a broad, shallow cove bounded by short cliffs. The cove is one of my favorite places around the lake. Black boulders line its far side and its cliffs end in a blunt point topped by a few jack pines and other trees, offering an appealing mix of vegetation and bedrock without the daunting scale of the Giant’s escarpment. Birch saplings cling to ledges and fissures but leave it to junipers and bearberries to creep along small inclines and dips, while closer to the water the rock turns coal-black and damp, sprayed with lichen in a gripping shade of orange-red.  

Against the vast blue vault of water and sky that surrounds me, the cove parses the land down to a manageable scale, conforming to my preference for secure, contained spaces. I climb onto a tall block at its far end and look out at the open lake. A few islets create ragged blips off the tip of the Giant and roughly a mile and a half straight across the water Trowbridge Island hunkers low on the horizon, the southern-most island in the chain of rocky islands that parallels the shore. As shipping traffic on the lake increased in the late 1800s, the island posed a threat to vessels bound for the narrow entrance to Thunder Bay and in 1924 a light tower was built on its central summit. The white tower stands a full 114 feet above the lake, but measures only thirty-nine feet tall and from where I sit looks both puny and out of place.15 

Leaving my perch, I eventually walk west across the platform toward the grassy slope that rises onto the spit’s forested tail. The lower slope has a light, airy feel with small outcrops and sparing mats of reindeer lichen and moss, three-toothed cinquefoil and bearberry. A few hooded ladies’ tresses hug a patch of damp earth, each plant’s short stem ending in a spike with spiraling rows of tubular flowers. While the flowers on the lower spikes have shriveled and turned auburn, those at the tops still sport white hoods and long lips with ruffled tips. A bumblebee crawls across a few hoods, but doesn’t try to venture onto the lips. Its lazy probing done, it soon flies off, leaving me to continue upslope between spreading clusters of juniper and scattered low aspen and spruce.

A path leads from the upper grasses through the forest onto the rocky spine of the spit’s tail, where a tall neck of eroding blocks separates a sheer drop-off into the lake from a nearly equally precipitous descent into the forest. From atop the neck, I can see between the trees across Lehtinen’s Bay to the escarpment of the Giant’s legs, which form the Sibley Peninsula’s narrow tip. A thick sill of vertically jointed orange-brown diabase descends from the escarpment’s rim toward a darker, underlying band of horizontally layered gray shale, which in turn ends with a talus slope that reaches down toward the bay. Diabase sills similar to the one that caps the Giant once covered large areas of the surrounding landscape, buried under layers of shale and sandstone that later eroded away. Once exposed, the sills were gradually undercut by the erosion of softer underlying sedimentary rocks. Columns and blocks of diabase gave way and the cliffs fractured and retreated until only broken-up mesas such as those that form the Giant remained.16 

The Giant never reaches more than half a mile wide and, as freezing and thawing waters pry loose rocks along joints, its escarpment gradually moves inland. Toward the southern tip of the peninsula, the escarpment descends across a series of broad, steplike platforms that end in a low-lying tongue of land called Thunder Cape. Glacial meltwaters initially submerged much of the Sibley Peninsula and left shingle and cobble beaches over two hundred feet above the present shore on inland hillsides, where Paleo-Indian hunters and gatherers who migrated in from the Great Plains once fashioned their lives to the demands of a thawing land.17 As the glaciers retreated and the meltwaters in the Superior basin breached new outlets, the lake level dropped in stages and each new stage left a wave-cut slope and beach terrace, creating the sequence of broad steps that descends to Thunder Cape at the Giant’s far tip. 

The area of highlands that take in Thunder Cape and Animikii waajiw or Mount McKay on the western side of Thunder Bay is known to Anishinaabe as Thunder Mountain after the legendary, eagle-like thunderbirds that produce thunder by beating their wings and returned to raise their young on Thunder Mountain.18 Thunder Cape lies outside the boundaries of Sleeping Giant Provincial Park and was once the site of a lighthouse that marked the northern side of the main entrance to Thunder Bay, but now hosts a bird observatory that can be reached by trail from Lehtinen’s Bay. The Sibley Peninsula forms an important stopover on the long migrations of birds that cross the lake or travel along its shores to breed in Ontario’s boreal forests and overwinter in the southern United States or Latin America.19 In only a few short months, eagles and other birds headed south for the winter will soar off the Giant’s cliffs.

 

Lehtinen’s Bay sits immediately at the base of the Giant and can be easily reached by following the trail a mile past Tee Harbour. I instead walk west along the water on a shingle strip that looks narrow enough to be swallowed up by a single indolent swell. After detouring a short stretch through the forest, I arrive in the bay and once again find the beach a slimmed-down version of the tidy, broad bed of blue-gray shingles that I encountered many years ago. As elsewhere around the lake, my implicit expectations for what the beach should look like are shaped not mainly by my most recent visits, but by how the place looked the first few times I saw it, when my impressions were open and unformed. Though the change in the appearance of the beach jars me, the implicit comparison I make to the place as it once looked also reminds me of past visits, affirming the connection I’ve built up over time with this small, evolving stretch of shore. 

The beach is sheltered to the west by the Giant and to the east by a bulge in the coastline toward Tee Harbour and even in its reduced form offers a generous sense of seclusion. Its clanking stones mostly consist of flat, palm-sized shales in an array of waterworn square, rectangular, and rounded shapes, along with scattered diabases, sandstones, granites, and other rocks. The narrower beach encourages me to walk closer to the water, where it’s mostly the small, flat pebbles that draw my attention. Many pebbles form nickel or quarter-sized buttons in pale or dark gray, but some come in ochre, orange, mauve, or brown. Occasionally I even spot a perfectly polished ebony-black stone with a lightly lustrous surface unmarred by a single scratch. The stone, I suspect, eroded from the outer margin of a diabase flow, a place where the hot magma came into contact with already solid rock and quickly cooled to an exceptionally fine texture. 

Drawn to the colorful wet stones under the water, I take off my boots, roll up my pants, and step barefoot into the bay. I pick up a charcoal-tinged shale with a swirl of peach, a brick-red sandstone specked in tan, and a pink granite flecked in yellow and white. But the water quickly chills my hands and feet and after barely five minutes I get out, dry my feet in the sun, and step back into my boots. The languid curvature of the beach as it tapers toward the birch-clad lower talus slope draws me steadily forward. After narrowing and turning southwest to parallel the escarpment, the beach broadens into a band of boulders. Birds eye primroses occupy clumps of soil closer to the water while sweet gales, sedges, and ninebarks appear further inland before giving way to shingles and driftwood at the edge of the forest. A leafy mop of shrubby cinquefoil sprigs caps a mass of silvery stems that must have been shorn off by surging winter ice floes. The mop contains not a single bud, blossom, or fruit. Made entirely of young sprigs, it looks tender and tenacious all at once.

I wander into the forest in hopes of reaching the base of the talus slope and sidling up as I close as I can to the Giant, but the ground is strewn with toppled firs and I soon turn back. When I instead look straight up at the escarpment, leafy tree crowns conceal the talus slope and make the clifftop seem deceptively near, drawn even closer by a few sauntering clouds that appear to press down on its rim. South beyond the crowns, however, I can see trees ascending in diagonal patches up the talus slope, needling onto ledges in the cliffs, and trimming the rim above. The immensity of the escarpment distorts my perspective and when I return my gaze to the bay, the shingle beach appears surprisingly far away. Trowbridge Island and the spit at Tee Harbour look smaller than warranted. Not until I sit down on a boulder with my back to the Giant do I regain a familiar sense of scale. 

I have the bay entirely to myself and unpack an early lunch. Though the bay lies over two-thirds of the distance to the Gorge at the Giant’s top, the slow, strenuous uphill climb remains. With its more limited stretches of public land along the lake, the Minnesota shore rarely confronts me with the need to choose whether to linger on a beach or ledge or hike on to reach a destination. Instead, I usually have time to do both at the unhurried pace that makes it easy to notice the trailside vegetation and stop regularly to photograph and take notes. I still have ample time to reach the Gorge, but stayed longer than expected at both Perry Bay and Tee Harbour. Though I want to reach the top before the trail becomes too crowded, packing up my lunch and leaving the coast takes a willful effort.

From the bay, I follow the dirt road inland to a small clearing with bicycle racks and turn onto a foot trail that winds northwest toward the Giant’s torso. The trail is narrow and stony and for a while moves up and down a series of scraggy, forested hillsides. Before long, however, it descends into a lush lowland and the air turns sweet with damp earthen scents. Ostrich ferns brush large fronds against my legs and I soon approach a grove of large cedars and a picturesque crescent-shaped lake lined with alder and Joe-pye weed. The lake sits in a triangular valley between the rising cliffs and talus slope of the Giant and a second escarpment to the northeast. When I had passed it last summer, shallow waters had arced partway across its bottom. Now the bottom is dry enough for me to follow a channel through a rippling sea of fern, wild mint, and sedge. Determined to enjoy a final respite before the long climb up the Giant, I linger in the middle of the lakebed looking across a field of blue flags at the salmon-tinted cliffs that run north toward a vanishing point up the valley. 

Once past the lake, the trail begins a steep uphill slog across roots, stones, and log-supported steps. I pin my eyes to the ground, heave myself up the undercut steps, and put one foot in front of the other until I arrive breathless in a clearing by a stream that drops through a cleft in the rock. A wooden sign in the clearing gives the distance to the Gorge as the kilometer equivalent of slightly over one-and-a-quarter mile. The sign recently replaced a larger, graffiti-etched metal sign that had also warned hikers to stay away from cliff edges. I’m reminded of the warning when after a gentler uphill stretch the trail skirts a horizontal slab of rock that reaches out from the forest into the bare air above the cliffs. I step onto the slab and take in a dizzying view of the cliff face to my right, steep talus slope, and distant coast. Though the slab may have held its place in the air for millennia, I barely manage to take a photograph before retreating to firm ground. 

Having largely completed its climb, the trail winds up and down between large aspen and birch before finally reaching an overlook on the broad, level stretch of rim behind Lehtinen’s Bay. Flushed from exertion, I stop and lift my face to the light breeze. The overlook sits a thousand feet above the lake and offers a spectacular view of the spit at Tee Harbour and meandering coastline and islands beyond. I had arrived on the rim the previous summer to skies roiling with thunder. Deciding to go no further, I had stood at the edge of the forest watching flashes of lightning skid across the sky, astounded by the beauty of the cliffs that ran toward the cape and reached their bright, aspen-clad tops into the dark heart of the approaching storm. With only a few stray clouds in sight now, I soon continue south along the rim.

Islands of greenery wind between flats of rock and thin patches of orangish earth. Pin cherry, serviceberry, and juniper anchor the islands, but are joined by an impressive mix of vegetation that includes honeysuckle, wild ginger, gooseberry, bearberry, tall and three-toothed cinquefoil, yarrow, pussy toe, and more. While many of these plants are well adapted to marginal soils, others survive on the wind-swept rim largely thanks to the richer soils and shelter created by the surrounding vegetation. Reluctant to reenter the forest to continue the trail to the Gorge on the Giant’s western side, I dawdle around the islands and decide to follow a footpath a short distance south along the rim. 

The path dips into a forested ravine and skirts a deep cleft that frames a tight view of the sunlit talus slope and water far below, then makes a short climb onto a broad grassy slope high above the bay. The slope inclines steeply enough that I instinctively lean my body uphill while walking and after a few dozen steps remain too daunted by the drop into thin air from the rim below to continue. Sinking onto the grass, I take off my pack and look around at scattered clusters of young aspen and shrubs and flowers. Slightly downslope to my left, two tall, pillar-like stacks rise up from the talus slope to mark the opening to the cleft in the ravine, their tops clad in jack pine, juniper, and birch. As light shadows sculpt the outer wall of the near stack, the sun pokes around the shady far side of the cleft and grazes a young birch on a small ledge. The ledge is tucked into the cleft and the birch has yet to grow tall enough to extend its crown above the rim. But with only meager soils to cling to and the base of the ledge eroding along cracks, the young tree faces an uncertain future.

From where I sit high above the lake, the beach in Lehtinen’s Bay looks utterly marginal and ephemeral. Though forested along its rising back, the spit at Tee Harbour looks only slightly more substantial, revealing just how precarious the places that ground me around the lake actually are. I look back and forth between the towering stacks, forested valleys, spit, and undulating coast beyond, once again struck by the contrast between fortress-like cliffs and highlands and eroded beaches and lowlands. Yet no matter how insubstantial it may actually look, the land as viewed from above also seems reassuringly solid and inviting, a blend of tiny islands, bays, and harbors folded into a soft canvas of billowing forests and shimmering waters. 

__________

1. Sleeping Giant Park Management Plan, Ontario Parks (Ontario: Queen’s Printer for Ontario, 2007), 5.

2. Philip Fralick, Mark Smyk, and Riku Metsaranta, “Field Trip 2, Geology of the Sibley Peninsula,” 58th Institute on Lake Superior Geology Proceedings, v. 58, Part 2. Field Trip Guidebook, Pete Hollings, Al MacTavish, Bill Addison, eds. (2012): 28; Sleeping Giant: Background Information (Ontario: Queen’s Printer for Ontario, 2003), 13.

3. Mark Puumala, email communication, April, 19, 2024.

4. Picea Abies, The Gymnosperm Database, Christopher J. Earle, ed., last modified November 3, 2023, https://www.conifers.org/pi/Picea_abies.php.

5. Picea Abies, The Gymnosperm Database.

6. J.T. Knudsen and J.M. Olesen, “Buzz-Pollination and Patterns in Sexual Traits in North European Pyrolaceae,” American Journal of Botany 80, no. 8 (1993): 900-913. https://doi.org/10.2307/2445510; J.T. Knudsen and L. Tollsten, L., “Floral scent and intrafloral scent differentiation in Moneses and Pyrola (Pyrolaceae),” Plant Systematics and Evolution, 177, no. 1/2 (1991): 81-91.

7. Walter Fertig, “Plant of the Week: Wood Nymph (Moneses uniflora),” U.S. Forest Service. Accessed December 29, 2021, https://www.fs.usda.gov/wildflowers/plant-of-the-week/moneses_uniflora.shtml.

8. Mike Roinila, “Finnish Commercial Fishermen of Lake Superior: The Rise and Fall of an Ethnic Fishery,” Middle States Geographer 36 (2003): 28.

9. Harvey Lemelin, Jason E.E. Dampier, Darrell Makin, and James Cross, “Aboriginal Erasure or Aboriginal Historical Exclusion? Using Video Interviews to Recognize the Role of Aboriginal Peoples on Kitchi-Gami (Lake Superior),” The Journal of Rural and Community Development 9, no. 3 (2014): 180-81.

10. Carl H. Westerback, Tee Harbour: A Memoir of Life in a Fishing Village in the 1930s (Thunder Bay: Bay Historical Museum Society Papers & Records, XLIII, 2015), 42-56.

11. Elle Andra-Warner, “Silver Islet: The World's Richest Silver Mine, Northern Wilds, October 31, 2018, https://northernwilds.com/silver-islet-worlds-richest-silver-mine/; Will Oades, “Celebrating 75 Years at Sleeping Giant Provincial Park,” Ontario Parks Blog, October 3, 2019, https://www.ontarioparks.ca/parksblog/75-years-at-sleeping-giant/

12. Mark Puumala, “Geological Highlights of the Thunder Bay Area,” Field Trip for the Geological Society of Minnesota, July 20-21, 2018, pp. 4 and 20.

13. Scott McWilliam, The Island Mines (Silver Islet General Store, 1999), 24-25. Silver Islet Mine, Visitor Center Display, Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, Ontario; Peter Unwin, The Wolf’s Head: Writing Lake Superior (Toronto: Viking Canada, 2003), 109; Thomas F. Waters, The Superior North Shore: A Natural History of Lake Superior’s Northern Lands and Waters (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 89-90.

14. Barbara Chisholm and Andrea Gutschie, Superior: Under the Shadow of the Gods (Toronto: Lynx Images, Inc., 1999), 233.

15. “Trowbridge Island Lighthouse,” Lighthouse Friends, accessed December 16, 2020, https://www.lighthousefriends.com/light.asp?ID=1117.

16. “Nipigon: Palisades and Red Rocks on Lake Superior’s Dramatic Northwest Shore,” GeoTours Northern Ontario series (Natural Resources Canada and Ontario Geological Survey, 2015), https://files.ontario.ca/ndmnrf-geotours-2/ndmnrf-geotours-nipigon-en-2021-12-13.pdf; Sleeping Giant: Background Information, 13.

17. Sleeping Giant Background Information, 26; The Earliest Visitors in the Park, Visitor Center Display, Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, Ontario. 

18. Ella Andra-Warner, “Ojibwe Thunderbird Mythology: Powerful Spirits of the Sky,” January 29, 2018, Northern Wilds, https://northernwilds.com/thunderbirds-powerful-spirits-sky/; Raynald H. Lemelin and Michel S. Beaulieu, “The Lore of the Lake: A Call for the (Re)-Envisioning of the Legends and Myths from Kitchi Gami (Lake Superior),“ in Lake tourism Research: Towards Sustaining Communities and Lake Environments, edited by Norman McIntyre, Ronda Koster, and Harvey Lemelin (Thunder Bay: Lakehead University Centre for Tourism & Community Development Research, 2010), 31; Chisholm and Gutschie, Superior, 235.

19. Rinchen Boardman, “At the Foot of the Giant,” Sleeping Giant: 2018 Information Guide, 2018. Ontario Parks.

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