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      Embarking on a Perilous Journey: May 16, 1667

      Five days ago, Lake Nipigon north of Lake Superior still had a solid ice cover.

      The early Jesuit Missionaries in â??New Franceâ?? (North America) left us some weather and climate tidbits during their early years in the Lake Superior region. The harvesting of souls was the main concern of these missionaries and not the weather. However, the weather would be noted if it was really unique or it hampered or aided travel.

      Father Allouez recounted such an event in May 1667. On the 16th, Allouez left Madeline Island for Lake Nipigon. He left in a canoe with two native guides. On the 17th, they set out on a very dangerous twelve-hour paddle across the open lake. Allouez later recalled how â??God assistedâ?| [him]â?| very sensiblyâ?? in paddling with all his strength. He kept up with his Indian guides, paddling without stopping from morning until night. The â??time of the calmâ?? could give way to mountainous swells in a short period of time. If they did not reach the other shore before the waves started to build, the trioâ??s canoe would be swamped and they would be doomed. The three made it across the lake safely and then retired for the night without eating.

      The next day a forty-mile excursion across the open water of Lake Superior would have been impossible. A windswept rainstorm struck and the famished travelers had to be content with a â??meager repast of Indian-corn and waterâ?? instead of fish. The wind and rain kept the guides from casting their nets. The following day the weather turned for the better and the voyagers made â??eighteen leagues [around forty miles], rowing from daybreak until after sunset without stopping or disembarkingâ??.

      They got word that Nipigon was still covered with ice so they did not leave Lake Superior until they got word that Nipigonâ??s ice left on May 25. By modern climate standards, ice on Lake Nipigon in late May is unusual but not unprecedented. In 2003, after the coldest, longest winter in years, visible satellite pictures still showed ice on Lake Nipigon until May 16. This year, there has not been a clear day to get a satellite image of the Lake Nipigon area. The last clear day was last Sunday. The image (above) showed the lake still ice covered.

      Father Jacques Marquette recalls how mild it was at Mackinac when he led a large group to the east in 1671. He spent the winter convincing four hundred to five hundred Indians to travel with him to Mackinac Island, where his superior, Father Dablon had set up the Mission of St. Ignatius. They left La Pointe on the west end of Lake Superior in a flotilla of 200 canoes, reaching Mackinac in the spring of 1671. The next winter did not truly set in at that location until after Christmas and then spring arrived in the middle of March.

      Mild weather in the latter part of the winter of 1661 may have saved the life of Father Menard. He was staying as a guest of an Indian chief at the head of Keweenaw Bay near what is now Lâ??Anse. As winter wore on, Menard felt compelled to criticize the chief for his intemperate habits. The chief did not appreciate Menardâ??s counseling and banished him from the tribe. The unfortunate priest had to spend the remainder of the winter in a crude shelter made of branches and skins. Mild weather and the charity of a few women of the village helped him to survive the ordeal. In the summer of the same year he met his end under mysterious circumstances while bound for a mission on the north shore of Lake Michigan.

      French Jesuit missionary activity in the Lake Superior region declined during the eighteenth century. The French-Indian War eventually brought the territory under British Rule and many of the Jesuit Missions were abandoned. In fact, it took over 150 years before the mission Allouez established on the west end of Lake Superior at Madeline Island was reestablished. Father Frederic Baraga opened a mission there in 1835.