The north shore of Lake Superior is one of Canada's scenic treasures. The lake is so vast and the hills of ancient rock surrounding this remote coast are so high that the shoreline easily could be mistaken as lying along an ocean, rather than a lake near the centre of North America.
But this idyllic area, promoted internationally by the Ontario government as a major tourist draw, soon could be the site of one of the country's largest gravel pits.
A U.S.-owned company, Superior Aggregates Ltd., is clearing the site, about 220 kilometres northwest of Sault Ste. Marie, near Wawa, for a quarry that will have more than one million tonnes of material removed annually. The company aims to supply growing U.S. demand for extremely hard crushed stone used in building superhighways.
The project has prompted a storm of criticism among those who fear it will ruin a special part of Lake Superior, where verdant slopes decked with trees of the boreal forest meet the pristine, cold waters of the world's largest lake by surface area.
"To our minds, this is a national treasure, if not a planetary treasure," said Mary Jo Cullen, who lives near the proposed quarry and wants the project stopped. "It's just wrong to blast it up and send it to the U.S."
The quarry would be just 75 metres from Lake Superior at its closest, and will take a slice out of the hills overlooking the lake during the several decades it likely will operate.
The site is centred in the midst of world-renowned nature reserves, such as Pukaskwa National Park and Lake Superior Provincial Park. Ontario recently recognized the area for its tourism and ecological value by naming it a part of the province's Great Lakes Heritage Coast.
The company said it will minimize the environmental impacts that often go hand in hand with aggregate extraction, such as noise from blasting and rock-crushing equipment and clouds of dust. It said it hopes to hide the quarry behind a buffer zone of trees and hillsides.
Because of government cost containment, Ontario's environmental legislation controlling quarries, the Aggregate Resources Act, will not apply to the project. To save money on quarry inspectors' salaries, the government has not declared the act in force on private land in sparsely populated northern areas.
The company said it will run the quarry in the spirit of the act and is eager to show critics that the operation will not harm the environment or destroy the dramatic visual landscapes provided by the lake.
"We're going to prove to them that their fears are unfounded," said Harold Cheley, an aggregates specialist at DST Consulting Engineers, which is developing the quarry for Superior Aggregates.
Mr. Cheley said people living near quarries can grow used to the blasting if they are notified in advance of the explosions and if the blasting is conducted at regular times. "After a while, it gets to be not too bad."
Critics of the quarry petitioned Environment Minister Jim Wilson for an assessment. The government is mulling over the request.
Superior Aggregates is owned by the Carlo Companies, a Michigan-based construction conglomerate that bought the approximately 400-hectare site for $725,000 (U.S.) in 2000. The property, consisting mainly of hills overlooking Lake Superior, had been used to ship ore mined near Wawa to Sault Ste. Marie's steel mills.
Superior's shoreline is an attractive location for quarries because the geological formations in this part of the Canadian Shield contain some of the planet's oldest and hardest rocks. These formations, while common in Canada, are rare elsewhere in North America.
The material slated for quarrying at Michipicoten is more than 2.5 billion years old, a testament to its durability.
The hardness that has allowed these rocks to resist billions of years of weathering makes them highly valued when crushed to pebble-sized stones for use in highways. The material commands prices as much as 150 per cent higher than the $10-a-tonne cost of other aggregates. The proximity of the site to the lake means the gravel can go to markets by ship rather than by more expensive trucks.
The quarry has supporters in this township of 3,500 people. They said its jobs would be a welcome boost, counteracting layoffs caused by the softwood-lumber dispute.
"Here is an opportunity for a business to come in, and granted it may be only employing 18, 20 people, but they're high-paid people," Michipicoten Reeve Doug Woods said.
"If we refused it and said no, I mean that looks like we're not looking for development . . . which we are and need."
Mr. Cheley said that at the first community meeting he held to explain the project, the first three people to arrive did not want to protest against the quarry; they demanded job applications.
At the most recent meeting, Mr. Cheley said he was told by a resident: " 'The sound of unemployment is greater than any that industry is going to make.' And I thought she summed it up."
But economic arguments cut both ways. David Wells runs a tourist-outfitting business, Naturally Superior Adventures, for sea kayakers who roam the waters of the lake in search of Superior's impressive scenery. He employs almost as many people as the quarry will.
He predicted that the most valuable resource over the next few decades will not be found in the export of rocks but in delivering untouched wilderness to tourists who want to see North America's remaining places that appear much as they did before their settlement by Europeans.
"This sense of wilderness - they can't recreate it in the States."
Mr. Wells said his customers are attracted by water so pure that paddlers can dip a cup into the lake and drink it, a night sky undiminished by light pollution, and wildlife, such as Canada's dwindling herds of caribou that make the area their home.
"We're not going to sell tourism if that's a quarry."