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      May 16, 1667: Embarking on a Perilous Journey

      Lake Nipigon in Ontario northwest of Lake Superior was still ice covered as of this morning.

      Jesuit missionaries traveled the Lake Superior region during the latter portion of the 17th century. Occasionally in their writings, a weather event would be noted. The harvesting of souls was the main concern of these missionaries and not the weather. The weather would be noted only 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 in the Apostle Islands for Lake Nipigon. On the 17th, me and his native guides 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. As of this morning, there was still an ice cover on that lake. By recent 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. I suspect that Lake Nipigonâ??s ice will not make it until May 25 like in Allouezâ??s day. Judging by recent temperatures up there, it should be gone within the next couple of days.

      The year 1667 was in the coldest part of the Little Ice Age, the coldest period in at least the last thousand years. However, just like these days, the weather exhibited lots of variability including warm periods. Father 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. By the mid-1700s, the French-Indian War brought the Upper Great Lakes under control of the British. Political boundaries in this isolated wilderness were not well defined. The British established one military outpost at Michilimackinac, at the present site of Mackinac City, otherwise, the area for the most part, was ignored. It was not until well after the Americans took control of what is now Upper Michigan that some of the old Jesuit missions were reestablished. In 1835, Father Frederic Baraga set up a mission on Madeline Island that Allouez started about 170 years earlier.