Dance with me
Across the sea
And we can feel the motion
Of a thousand dreams.
–“Doctor! Doctor!” by The Thompson Twins
The First Thompson
We approached Thompson Island midafternoon with Julie at the helm. I stood bow watch as we entered the mouth to the harbor, searching for any underwater obstructions. The water was crystal clear, which magnifies rocks and other potential obstructions beneath the surface. It also makes potential hull biters seem disconcertingly closer than they really are. We wore our “marriage saver” wi-fi headsets for communication. We glided by the rocky island standing guard and into the middle of a gorgeous, peaceful cove with high cliffs to port and dense conifer forest in front of us: Wray Bay. To our left a peninsula with a scruff of trees growing out of rock obscured Lake Superior. We could also see boats tied up along the entirety of the 200-foot dock that grew out of the rocky peninsula. The dock hugged the rocky shoreline around it ended at our 11:00.
Traffic Management – Thompson Style
We slowed to a stop mid-harbor to assess our options. Foremost among our possibilities was rafting up to one of boats already docked. Rafting up, also known as stacking, is a common practice in this harbor according to harbor reports and friends familiar with Thompson Island traditions. Except for the power boats tied up at each end of the dock, Gaviidae was by far the biggest boat present. The cruiser closest to the harbor opening was Always Sunday. Our friends from Minnesota had left Porphyry well before us that morning.
People quickly gathered on the dock to discuss how to get us tied up. Shouting to us to sit tight, they sorted out the options. It was a repeat of the welcome we got when we pulled into the far-smaller CPR Slip docks just a couple weeks earlier. About that time the cruiser at the innermost end of the dock shouted that they were heading out and that we could pull into the spot they were leaving. With a large complement of young men aboard who had obviously been partying, the cruiser’s twin engines promptly fired up and the boat cast off. As they passed between us and the dock, I yelled over the engine noise about the depth of the water where they had been. The skipper and a shipmate both assured us it was plenty deep.
I was still on the foredeck and asked Julie over our wi-fi to see if she could verify the depth along the dock in the GLCC harbor report. As she scanned the printed document for depth details, one of the parties on the dock got my attention. The plan was to move a couple smaller boats into the newly vacated dock space. Turns out it was too shallow to accommodate our five-and-a-half-foot draft. Got to love local knowledge.
We were to slip in between the boats mid dock. Boats were juggled and after Julie and I briefly discussed logistics, she swung Gaviidae around to face the entrance to the harbor and pulled alongside a couple of sailboats tied to the dock. She then slowly backed our boat into the space that had been cleared, deftly working the rudder and occasionally firing our forward bow thruster to adjust the angle of approach. The maneuvering was further complicated by the arc of the dock. Gaviidae slipped into the space, just clearing the bow of the sailboat behind us with our dinghy. The dinghy hangs six feet above the waterline thanks to the new, higher dinghy davits we had installed last winter. With one last blast of the bow thruster, the nose of our boat swung in toward the dock a few feet behind the sailboat in front of us. Success!
While we passed dock lines to people ashore, some of the crowd that had gathered broke into applause. They hadn’t seen a large sailboat parallel park in such a tight space before without being tugged in sideways by a gang on the dock. They were further impressed that the person at the wheel was a woman. That last fact would be a topic of conversation well into the evening. I don’t think I have ever been more proud of Julie.
Hike to the Top
Having secured Gaviidae we expressed our appreciation to the folks who helped us land. We already knew some of the people there, including a sister of our friend, Dave Wray—whose father was the namesake for Wray Bay. We made acquaintances with a dozen more. Our friends from Always Sunday and some others were about to set off on a hike around the island. We already knew that the hike to the top of the ridge across the harbor was not to be missed. They were setting off right away, but we needed to secure the boat and change into clothes and shoes more appropriate to a strenuous walkabout.
Hiking trails from the harbor include a frequently steep path to a lookout on the bluff across from the docks. Thoughtful locals provided knotted lengths of rope on a couple sections of the trail to help hikers climb—or descend– steep, slippery inclines of moss-covered granite. There are rocky scrambles to negotiate. The effort is rewarded with a magnificent overhead view of the bay. Twelve nautical miles off to the east we could see Isle Royale, the legendary island that is said to be the least-visited national park in all the United States.
Visionary behind Thompson Island
A shrine of sorts at the lookout includes a flagpole with a Canadian flag, a park bench and a memorial marker for Al Wray. Al Wray, who passed away in 1985, was largely responsible for the discovery and development—against all odds—of Thompson Island as a haven for Thunder Bay sailors and bucket-list destination for the rest of us. His ashes are said to be buried under the marker. Another small plaque nearby celebrates another local sailor.
As we approached the lookout, I got a glimpse of the hikers who had left the dock before us. I had called out but was unheard as they disappeared behind some boulders and into the trees. Julie and I considered whether to follow them after a brief sojourn at the lookout, but decided a nice hot sauna was more appealing. It was after 4 p.m. when we set off down the same trail we had just climbed.
On our way back to the boat we checked out the sauna and the outhouse a little farther back in the woods. By north Superior standards, this sauna was a deluxe model. Located just a few feet from the shoreline, a well-worn path led from the sauna to the water’s edge. There was also a small dinghy dock meant to facilitate a quick plunge into–and escape from–the icy cold water after a sweat-inducing session of deep heating in the sauna.
When we got back to the dock where Gaviidae was tethered, the catamaran that had followed us out of Porphyry Harbour earlier was getting tied to the sailboat behind us. Once secure, our new Canadian friends decided it was time to celebrate the arrival and successful raft-up of the catamaran and Happy Hour was declared. Everybody gathered in the picnic area adjacent to where Gaviidae was parked. Julie and I joined in the revelry, expecting to have a refreshment and head to the sauna.
Not long after the party kicked in, the hikers returned from their trek. Julie and I fully expected that they would be ready for a little heat and a splash in the best Finnish sauna tradition, and we would join in. Didn’t happen. They decided to join the happy hour. The next thing we knew, the party was breaking up and people were repairing to their boats for dinner. We did the same, figuring the sauna would get fired up after dinner.
The only thing that got fired up after dinner was the pile of logs in the firepit in the picnic area. We then learned that Thompson Island tradition—at least among this faction–is to sauna during the day! Julie and I could have sneaked off for our own little session of nose tickling heat, but everybody was settled in around the blazing fire trading stories and jokes and drinking more booze. It was just too convivial an evening to miss.
It turned into a late night. By the time we dragged ourselves out of our giant sleep sack the next morning, it was time to head for Isle Royale. Our time on Thompson Island was limited because we wanted to hit Bayfield, WI for the Lake Superior Rally, August 18-20. We were to meet up with our Twin Cities friends, Kevin and Kathy, who were exploring Isle Royale in their new-to-them Tartan 40, Legacy. The plan was to meet them at the south end of Isle Royale Wednesday, August 15, then set off for the Apostle Islands.
Julie and I set out from Wray Bay just after noon—without getting a sauna. Between the untried sauna and the Pukwaskwa pit we belatedly learned about, we’re going to have to revisit Thompson Island. Next time with a more leisurely timetable. The last time we came through this corner of Lake Superior we were in such a rush we missed Thompson Island and Porphyry Island altogether. It seems that for all the lip service we give to the importance of the journey over the destination—we still find ourselves in an all-fired hurry to get somewhere all too often. We should know better.
The Second Thompson
We found 14-plus knot winds sweeping down from the northeast and clear skies as we entered Lake Superior from Wray Bay, but encountered a lot of swells and high chop in the water. Our 18 nm passage ended up taking nearly four hours channel in roiling seas and contrary winds. Everything calmed down as we transited North Gap, the channel between Isle Royale and another Thompson Island. To the south of this Thompson Island is Johnson Island.
The two islands define the west side of Washington Harbor—all part of Isle Royale National Park. Johnson Island offers a protective anchorage from south or west winds, while Thompson Island shelters from west and northerly winds, while it is open to the south and east. We began hailing Legacy as we cruised down Washington Harbor but got no response. As we rounded the southeast corner of Thompson Island and our destination came into view, we could see it was empty.
Beyond the dense coverage of trees, this Thompson Island bears little resemblance to its Canadian counterpart. No deep, well-protected harbor. No high, dramatic cliffs. No wilderness saunas—that we knew or know about. It offered a sand or small stone beach and a crystal-clear anchorage. Pleasant enough, but nothing to compel a hike or further exploration.
We entered the bay and dropped an anchor to await the arrival of our friends.
August 15, 2018 Thompson Island-Isle Royale 47°53.334’N 89°14.128’W 782.52 Nautical Miles