Cross-border collaboration preserves a ‘global gem’ on Lake Superior coast

Miles of untouched wilderness at Big Trout Bay.
Big Trout Bay features 13 miles of pristine Lake Superior shoreline. Once targeted for 300 cottages, it will remain in its natural state in perpetuity. Photo: Victor Chimenti, Costal Productions

Neebing, Ontario — On a rainy summer day in 2017, a group of hikers slogged up a steep trail and endured clouds of swarming mosquitoes to get a bird’s-eye view of a pristine wilderness on the north shore of Lake Superior. They were rewarded with one of the most striking panoramas in all the Great Lakes — a lush, forested peninsula that gives way to a boundless freshwater sea.

The hikers converged on the site, 30 miles southwest of Thunder Bay, Ontario, to celebrate the preservation of a vast woodland known as Big Trout Bay. The 2,500-acre parcel features an old-growth forest, 13 miles of undeveloped shoreline, steep cliffs and rock formations that are more than 1 billion years old.

Big Trout Bay was the last privately owned, undeveloped stretch of Lake Superior shoreline between Thunder Bay and Duluth, Minnesota. The site, which was targeted for 300 lakefront cottages, will remain natural in perpetuity, thanks to determined conservationists on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border.

The Nature Conservancy of Canada acquired Big Trout Bay earlier this year for $6.4 million (U.S.). It was the culmination of a 15-year campaign that involved several organizations in the U.S. and Canada, including a grantee of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

“Protecting Big Trout Bay was a massive international undertaking, and it wouldn’t have happened without support from U.S. donors, foundations and conservation organizations,” said James Duncan, a Nature Conservancy of Canada vice president. “It’s an extraordinary opportunity to make substantive and tangible progress on our overall goal of protecting the north shore of Lake Superior.”

The Conservation Fund, a longtime Mott grantee, helped finance the acquisition with a $1.1 million loan from the Great Lakes Revolving Fund. That fund was established in 2001, with a $4 million grant from Mott, to preserve critical natural habitat and important freshwater resources in the Great Lakes basin. (See related article.)

Big Trout Bay isn’t the largest acquisition in the history of the GLRF, but it is one of the most ecologically significant.

“Lake Superior’s Big Trout Bay, McKellar Point and Pine Point represent the last unsecured Great Lakes wilderness on the continent — truly a global gem,” said Tom Duffus, Midwest vice president for The Conservation Fund. He added that acquiring Big Trout Bay helped stem the tide of development pressure sweeping up the Lake Superior coast from Minnesota.

At Big Trout Bay, dense stands of coniferous and deciduous trees — hallmarks of the northern boreal forest — blanket much of the landscape. A three-mile long peninsula that juts into Lake Superior also features pristine cobble beaches and massive stone cliffs, some as tall as a 40-story building.

The forest is a stopover for migratory birds and supports several iconic species of wildlife, including the Canada lynx, gray wolf, moose, peregrine falcons and bald eagles. Researchers have documented over 500 species of flora and fauna on land and in the waters of Big Trout Bay.

The site lies near the center of the Mid-Continent Rift, a 1,200-mile-long crack in the Earth’s crust — now submerged — that extends north from Detroit, arcs through the Lake Superior basin and ends in Oklahoma.  The rift was formed about 2 billion years ago, when the North American continent nearly split apart.

The continent remained intact, but the rift triggered volcanic activity that brought huge amounts of magma to the surface. Those lava flows laid the foundation of the Lake Superior basin and its rocky shoreline, according to geologists.

“The flattop hills and steep cliffs along the north shore of Superior make for a very unique landscape,” said Gary Davies, a program director at the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

Hikers will eventually be allowed to explore four miles of trails at Big Trout Bay, but some areas will remain off-limits to people. Hiking the property is memorable, but Duncan said the only way to fully appreciate its size and grandeur is to see it from a boat or aircraft.

“People can’t grasp what 13 miles of undeveloped shoreline looks like,” he said. “Put them in a boat and cruise along the coast of Big Trout Bay for an hour and then they get it, the scale of this place.”