Sudbury Accent: Sandbanks bound on bottomless lake

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Rocky’s would be the departure point. Sandy would describe the destination.

That we’re in a canoe makes us a bit unique, if not crazy. Most boats that brave Lake Wanapitei — not only Sudbury’s biggest water body but the largest lake within a city in the world — tend to feature a bit more freeboard and things like steering wheels.

I’m not particularly worried right now, nor is my bowmate Camilla, since it’s such a perfect day — the sky a cornflower blue, the surface of the mighty, meteor-formed lake uncommonly smooth — although it does strike me about a half-kilometre out from Rocky’s docks that the lakeside establishment might not be named merely for a person or the frozen cubes that nestle at the bottom of cocktails.

Things, I know, can get bouncy out here.

It happened the last time I attempted to paddle to Wanapitei’s fabled sandbanks, which are weirdly absent from postcards and tourism pamphlets yet dramatic enough in hue and height that they’re visible from the shore of the Wahnapitae First Nation, miles to the south.

Halfway there a slight chop turned choppier and a native man in a fishing boat pulled alongside my canoe to suggest I reconsider my plan. "Storm coming," he cautioned.

I heeded his warning and doubled back.

Turned out I would have been fine — over the next couple of hours, as I navigated the confusing overland route to the sandbanks via a rabbit’s warren of bush roads — the weather held. I’m sure I bounced around way more in my car on those rutted tracks than I would have if I’d stayed in my canoe.

Still, you don’t want to doubt a local’s advice, or otherwise tempt fate with Wanapitei.

As Peter Recollet, director of sustainable development with the Wahnapitae First Nation, understates, "the lake can change quickly."

The name is sometimes translated as "hollow tooth," which makes some sense given the lake is essentially a huge cavity, but it’s actually a phrase (from the Ojibwe word waanabidebiing) describing Wanapitei’s two-dimensional shape, according to Recollet.

"It means ‘Place where the water is shaped like a molar tooth,’" he says.

If you look at a map, the lake indeed resembles a molar, its bulbous crown anchored by a pair of root-like bays.

That its namers had that perspective on the lake is remarkable, since, as Recollet points out, "we certainly didn’t have aerial photography back then." To him, it speaks to his forbears’ "affinity with the land and intimate knowledge of the shore."

Apart from being big and prone to whitecaps, Wanapitei is exceptionally deep. According to the city, it plunges to 142 metres, or 466 feet, making it one of the deepest lakes in Ontario other than the Great Lakes. Lake Timiskaming (216 metres) and Mazinaw Lake (145 metres), in southeastern Ontario, would seem to be the only rivals.

Recollet says bathymetric maps only tell a partial story, however. His people believed the lake was essentially bottomless, with a hole that allowed a serpent-like spirit to travel to Lake Huron, among other lakes, via a subterranean passage, and even modern instruments, in his view, may have failed to plumb the full extent of the crater.

Depth equals cold, and Wanapitei has claimed quite a few lives over the years. "It’s known as the lake that doesn’t give up its dead," notes Recollet. In the 1960s, a half-dozen RCMP officers drowned during a training exercise, and as far as he knows "they still haven’t found the bodies."

Molar is perhaps an apt descriptor for the lake in another sense. Wanapitei, it strikes me, can bite you. And swallow you, too.

Fortunately, we’re experiencing more of a kiss on this occasion. Even as we round a small island — locally called German Island, owing to the nationality of its owners — and enter a more exposed stretch of water, the lake stays flat, with only the faintest of breezes fanning our backs.

It’s a three-kilometre fetch from here to the sandbanks, but would take much longer if we hugged the shoreline, so we go for the crossing.

At one time, German Island was actually connected to the mainland, says Recollet, which speaks to just how much the lake has risen after damming of its outlet.

Bucky Olivier, a veteran outdoorsman and longtime resident of the lake, says high water flooded out a homestead at the mouth of the North River (technically the northern branch of the Wanapitei River) that was settled by Louis Bonhomme and his native bride.

"They had a farm up there of 60 to 100 acres and there were log cabins and a home, with a lookout on the top like an upper floor where they could watch the steamboats coming," he says. "I remember the stables were still there in my days, in the ’40s and ’50s, when I would go fishing with boy scouts and family."

Capreol resident Bob Bonhomme, who traces roots to the homesteaders (Louis was his grandfather’s uncle), says the family kept horses that were used by Poupore Lumber in the early logging era.

Little remains now of this settlement, although the family name is preserved at Bonhomme Point, Bonhomme Lake and Bonhomme Creek, all in the area of the sandbanks.

There’s also a small graveyard containing members of the Bonhomme clan, which had to be moved back as the banks eroded, as well as an older, native burial ground that is now inundated, according to Recollet. Precursors of the Wahnapitae band camped seasonally at the mouth of the North River and travelled that route often to reach hunting and fishing grounds.

"That was our highway," says Recollet. "It was the gateway to the watershed and James Bay."

After contact, Recollet’s ancestors also harvested furs, delivering them to a Hudson Bay Fort that was established at Bonhomme Point in 1821. It was later moved to Post Creek, which empties into Lake Wanapitei just north of Rocky’s. The foundation of the original fort "would be underwater now," he says.

The Bonhomme home is similarly submerged, but could be visited if one had the equipment, and inclination, to do so. "That house is out there in the lake and down about 20 to 30 feet, half-buried in white sand," says Olivier. "Some divers told me they found it."

Flooding also contributed to the creation of the sandbanks, as the swollen lake ate into the shore. Today it remains a dynamic, changeable environment, with wind and waves sculpting new contours in the powdery cliffs and the occasional uprooted pine crashing down from above.

The area is encompassed by Wanapitei Provincial Park, which must be among the most obscure and under-visited parks in the province. It’s non-operating, meaning there are no facilities, and extremely tricky to find by vehicle.

During my earlier pilgrimage by road I had to consult with a group of treeplanters who were unloading seedlings from a refrigerated trailer — or reefer, as we called them in my treeplanting days — on the edge of the Portelance Road, and then intuit my way to Bonhomme Point via a maddening maze.

Finally a brown sign sprouted on the roadside saying Wanapitei Provincial Park. That was followed by another, smaller brown sign, saying Camping Beyond This Point Prohibited.

People have been camping semi-legally at Bonhomme Point for years, and continue to do so with a few new regulations in place. Most of the sandbanks area, however, has now been closed off to both campers and vehicles.

Recollet says the tract was established in 1950 as a provincial forest reserve, and originally stretched to the edge of the Wahnapitae First Nation. By the 1980s, it had acquired park status and its boundaries had changed, in part to allow for mineral exploration between the native reserve and the North River.

The park now spans 3,400 hectares and includes Bonhomme and Otter lakes, as well as most of the north shore of Wanapitei.

How do I describe this unique stretch of coast?

When I was a kid my family camped on Grand Lake, in the northeastern corner of Algonquin Park. At the east end of the lake there was a sand point topped with jack pines; my sisters and cousins and I would paddle there, scale the banks, and run like sprites through the stand of spindly conifers, which may have been a second-growth monoculture but felt, to us, magical.

The north shore of Wanapitei is like that, but on a grander scale — sand cliffs stretching seemingly forever, jack pines marching out to their edges, straight-trunked and neatly spaced, like a storybook forest.

We beach our canoe on a flat strand below a sloping golden wall and pad around like a pair of castaways in paradise. There’s a sleek driftwood log, a thatch of sheep laurel bushes, and one hole in the cliff face that seems carved by a bird or animal, but may just have occurred through some force of wind, gravity and compression I don’t understand.

The sand is hot beneath our toes, fine as powdered sugar. At the water’s edge, we can see the tracks of a raccoon.

We strip down and stroll into the lake. I warn my swimming buddy we may have to wade a while, because I’m picturing every other sand beach I’ve ever swum from, particularly one on the Ottawa River where you have to walk the length of a football field before it finally drops off.

What I’m forgetting is this is Wanapitei, and Wanapitei is different. It’s a topped-up crater.

We’ve waded scarcely 20 feet when suddenly the bottom gives out. It’s like an underwater sand slide, our heels riding the cushiony slope until we’re up to our necks, happily so, treading water in a cool void.

And who knows how much deeper it gets below.

Read Accent every Saturday in The Sudbury Star.