The journey these rocks had been on – dwelling deep underground, beneath seas and parts of continents that then formed, broke away and travelled from pole to pole – is scarcely imaginable. But the story of the Great Lakes themselves is no less dramatic.
In geologist’s terms they were created yesterday. The lakes were formed towards the end of the last Ice Age and what more exacting scientists call the Pleistocene glaciation, an era that ended a mere 11,700 years ago. Back then, instead of coasting along on these deep blue waters, we would have been buried under the huge slabs of ice that had slid down from the Gulf of St Lawrence, scouring deep gouges in the land where they met the least resistance.
As the glaciers retreated, the lakes filled and became some of the largest reservoirs of fresh water on the planet. The hard rock, which stood firm against the incredible energy of the ice flow, survived in the 35,000 islands we saw dotted throughout the region. These became home to black bears, white tailed deer, beavers, and now cruise passengers.
We moored back at the quay, removed our life jackets and baseball caps and mopped our brows. You tend to think of Canada as a land of snow, but in a list of the world’s cities by latitude, Toronto is paired with Central Italy at 43.7 degrees north. The sun was positively Florentine.
However, as our journey neared its end, the Great Lakes finally became the dark, brooding expanse I’d imagined. After days of clear blue skies, we awoke to some proper northern meteorology: dense fog, clumps of firs, hints of islands looming beyond our prow. Superior it was, but eerie it seemed.
We anchored at Silver Islet and the mist dissipated a little. A rainbow of light encircled the fleet of kayaks that were towed out to meet us, and as I paddled my way to the shore, it felt like a gateway to the north proper. Thus far, the pine woods and cliffs along the coast had not risen higher than 20m or so; now we were looking up at 50m bluffs and towering firs.
Silver Islet is a wonderful place, yet its air of remoteness is deceptive. In 1868, a rich vein of silver was discovered here. Victorian-era engineers descended on the area and swiftly increased the island to many times its natural size using crushed rock. They then built a town and a general store and extracted over $3 million-worth of precious metals.