Lake Superior Coastal Trail Adventure
THE TIME HAD COME
Our first through-hike trip on the LaCloche Silhouette Trail in Killarney Provincial Park in Ontario (July 2013; 78 km, 3 days) left us yearning for more adventure. We wanted to plan a more involved trip, test out more gear, and have the opportunity to enjoy a longer time in the beauty of all that is the backcountry of northern Ontario. Fast forward to May 2014. After two additional 3 day trips on the Uplands Trail at Algonquin Provincial Park, and another 3 day trip in Killarney, we felt confident in our abilities, knowledge, skills, and gear.
The time had come for a longer adventure! Our first choice was the Coastal trail at Pukwaska National Park on the rugged beautiful northern shores of Lake Superior. Due to logistic issues and costs (the return boat ride was going to cost $700) and timing, we decided instead to postpone Pukwaska for next season when we could give the demanding trail more research and attention (the average speed on this trail tops out at an exhausting 1.5 km per hour!) Our next choice became the Lake Superior Coastal Trail in Lake Superior Provincial Park, also on the northern shore of Lake Superior but lying slightly more south than Pukwaska.
So we planned our longest trip to date, hoping to do it in 7 days and 6 nights. As luck would have it, the timing of our trip coincided with a First Nations ceremony being held at Gargantua Harbour at the trail’s end where we planned to catch a shuttle ride back to the trail head. The only road into the harbour was closed to vehicles at the time we would arrive there and the campsites at the harbour were also closed to the public. Hoping to take in some of the ceremonies, we called the First Nations band but it seemed to be a private, closed event. Not wanting to give up our dream, we decided on Plan C: hike it through to the end, and find a way out when we got there.
Arising at the ungodly hour known locally as stupid o’clock, we left Toronto early Saturday morning, August 9, 2014 while the city was still sleeping. Sharing the driving, we arrived at Sault Ste. Marie around 1:00 PM after about 10 hours on the road. We explored a bit of the waterfront, the downtown area, and a local Italian restaurant before settling in a hotel for the night. Our plan was to arrive at the trail head early Sunday morning, August 10, which was still an hour and a half north of Sault Ste. Marie. The excitement was building!
One of the most troubling things to see while driving in Ontario’s beautiful north is wild animals killed in collisions with vehicles along the highways. With more than 14,000 highway collisions in Ontario each year involving wildlife, it is a real problem with tragic outcomes for both humans and wildlife. To reduce the risk of collision, Ontario has recently built the province’s first wildlife overpass. The structure was built as part of the expansion of Highway 69 between Parry Sound and Sudbury, in an area where collisions with large animals, including white-tailed deer, moose, elk and black bears, are common. Fencing along the highway guides the animals towards the overpass. Travelling under this overpass along Highway 69 the day before, we marveled at the innovation and concern for wildlife that inspired the project. Later that summer, we were able to see how it came to be from inception to design and completion in an exhibit at Sudbury’s Science North which we had visited one rainy day while camping at Grundy Lake Provincial Park. Unfortunately, we were now hundreds of kilometres further north than this innovative structure, and just after entering the boundary of Lake Superior Provincial Park along Highway 117 we were saddened to see a dead moose calf lying along the side of the road. Just a few hundred metres up the highway, a transport truck was pulled over to the side, pieces of its front end scattered all across the road. Wandering around as if in a daze, the driver was trying to make a phone call. He was not injured. I wondered if he mourned the loss of the moose as profoundly as I did.
Despite our sorrow for the loss of the moose calf, arriving at Lake Superior Provincial Park on Sunday morning filled us with joyful anticipation. As if to balance the sadness, the universe and Mother Nature conspired to give us the most glorious sunrise as we started our journey. “Welcome,” it seemed to say, “wait till you see what we’ve got in store for you!” We knew it was going to be an epic adventure! We deposited the fees in the envelope at the self-serve station, parked the car, grabbed our packs, and left from the trail head just after 8:00 AM.
TIME STOOD STILL
We knew from our research that this trail had some of the most gorgeous breathtaking scenic views and challenging trail conditions following along the shoreline of the largest freshwater lake in the world, Lake Superior. Gitchigumi, as the Anishanabe people called it. Think Gordon Lightfoot’s Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The majesty of this great lake could be felt in every rock and crag along the shore and in its deep waters. The Anishanabe believed that all of these things had a story to tell to those who had ears to listen and eyes to see.
What we discovered was 6 days and 5 nights of one boulder-hopping, rock face scrambling, cliff climbing, coast line hugging, knee knackering, amazing, breathtaking, beautiful Lake Superior Coastal Trail! And in hiking it, we found ourselves at the beginning of time, or the end of time. Or maybe it was that time stood still. And we heard the stories.
The trail took us along the shoreline through cobblestone and sandy beaches, rock faces, and cliff tops. The water was so crystal clear you could see every coloured pebble lying in the bed of the lake. When the trail turned inland, if we were lucky, we found wild raspberries and blueberries to graze on. These berries were smaller than their supermarket counterparts but more intense in their colouring. Sweet and fresh, somehow they just tasted better!
At times, we became slightly lost. Inland, the trail was marked by blue trail markers to follow. Along the shore and over the rocks, the trail was marked by rock cairns or Inukshuks. We were familiar with following trails in this way from our experiences on the LaCloche Silhouette Trail in Killarney Provincial Park.
Inukshuk, in the Inuit language, means “in the likeness of a human” and the actual shape of the rock structure loosely resembles a human body. Originally, the Inuit used the structures for navigation and communication. They were a three-dimensional survival guide, pointing the way to hunting grounds or a food cache. They made the way easier and safer for those who followed. “Someone was here,” they seem to suggest. “You are on the right path; you are not alone.”
The symbolism suggested in these structures is cooperation and connection, reminding us of our interdependent nature and that we all belong to each other. As Canadians, we are known around the world for our friendliness and peacekeeping and so it is fitting that this symbol is used across Canada and on many of our trails to mark the way.
THE SIDE TRAILWe took a small side trail to see the ancient Ojibwe pictographs at Agawa Rock. Here, the Anishanibe people made offerings before they ventured off in their canoes across the lake to Mishi Peshu, a lynx like sea serpent dwelling in the depths of Lake Superior. Hoping to gain the creature’s favour, the Anishanibe left gifts and offerings in exchange for safe passage against the raging squalls and huge waves that the northern gales would whip across Gitchigumi.
The sun sets were always spectacular. The first day’s sunset on the trail was particularly memorable. It hung on the horizon for what seemed like an eternity and refused to lower itself, wrapping us in its warmth and blessing us with its pale soft glow. The gentle words of John Denver’s Starwood in Aspen were ringing in my ears: “It’s a long way from L.A. to Denver; it’s a long time to hang in the sky…” After a while, it became exhausting. The heat was still quite intense, and two weary hikers desperately wanted darkness to descend so that we could drift into dreamland. Too tired to wait any longer, we decided to leave the sun to its procrastinating and slipped into the tent.
Day 3 was the only questionable weather day. Rising early in the morning, we were greeted by an overcast sky and a very fine mist that hung in the air and clung to the rock surfaces, making our footing extremely treacherous. We weren’t sure if it was going to rain or not so we pulled out the pack covers just in case. No rain actually materialized but our pack covers became damp. Setting up camp at the end of the day, we hung our red and orange pack covers to dry on the branches of a nearby tree. All of a sudden we heard a faint yet vigorous humming vibration and turning around, to our surprise, saw a hummingbird gracefully darting in and out of our pack covers, wings beating furiously, looking for sweet red nectar! And as quick as we blinked, it disappeared. A delightful gift from the Universe!
We were told that the intense heat wave experienced at the beginning of the week was unusual for this far north in mid-August. Although the air temperature remained very hot, the water temperature of the lake for the 2014 season was colder than usual, averaging around four degrees Celsius. This was in part due to the excessively cold winter experienced the previous year and the longer than normal time it took the ice to leave the lake. We did try to swim to cool down and wash up, but the water was achingly cold within thirty seconds. To remain in this water even in August without a wetsuit was to invite hypothermia in a very short time.
By midweek the heat wave broke and more seasonal and comfortable temperatures made the hiking more pleasant. The downside was the below zero temperatures overnight and in the early morning. Thanks to Stephen’s inner alarm clock and his disciplined morning routine, by the time I rolled out of my cozy sleeping bag and made it outside, there was a warm fire glowing and a cup of hot coffee waiting. Sitting around the fire in the dark blue dimness that is 5:00 AM, toque and gloves on, wrapping your cold hands around a big ass cup of coffee and watching the sun come up, is one of life’s greatest and simplest pleasures. Sharing it with the one you love is even better.
SMALL PACKS AND OTHER HIKERS
Whenever we met other hikers along the way, we were very flattered by the many comments about how small our packs were. One man suggested if we could just throw a steak in our pack we’d be a lot happier! But really we did just fine with our dehydrated meals and in fact, learned that Pad Thai and Pasta Primavera are exceptional trail meals. Most of the hikers we met did seem to carry very large packs. Some had dogs with them. Parts of the trail included squeezing through narrow crevasses between sharp pointy rock faces, hopping from boulder to boulder the size of small vehicles, and very steep cliffs to climb. We wondered how much more challenging traversing these kinds of trail conditions would be with such heavy burdens, and how a tiny little lap dog would be able to make it over all the rocks.
Most of the time conversation with fellow hikers would turn to how rough the trail was just ahead or behind. “It’s HELL!” was a common refrain. We met up with a family of four including two teenage daughters who did not look impressed with the lack of internet service on the trail. When the girls heard how rough the trail was that we had just come from and to which they were now headed, the eldest looked at her mom and rolled her eyes. “Next year,” she snarled in disgust, “WE get to pick the family vacation!”
Spending a 6 day 5 night vacation with the one you love is easy when you have the usual creature comforts: soft beds, real food, and hot showers. Not so easy, even though the backcountry is our passion and where we want to be more than anywhere else, and even though we really do love each other very much, when you don’t have these things. Sometimes the challenges of 8 or 9 hours of strenuous hiking each day with packs, temperatures hovering around 24 degrees Celsius and terrain so physically challenging that the top speed you manage to maintain is about 1.5 km per hour, conspire to bring out the worst in each other. Hamburger Legs (when your muscles feel like ground beef – disconnected ground up muscle fibres that are no longer functioning together in any meaningful way that would actually resemble a real muscle; also called by some Jell-O legs), hunger, and lack of adequate hydration can radically reduce one’s tolerance for the idiosyncrasies of one’s partner. After grating on each other’s nerves for the last hour or so, we stopped for lunch on one warm day. Gathering some water to be treated, we decided to dress it up with some cherry Kool Aid we had brought along.
“You wouldn’t poison me,” Stephen asked as I handed him the cup with the Kool Aid, “would you?”
“No. Of course not,” I replied. Pause. Normally, I’m not prone to murderous thoughts. But just for a brief moment the Jonestown headlines flew through my mind.…. “Well, I might.”
Some of the most spectacular parts of the trail were the stunning vistas afforded from the tops of the cliffs we had to climb. Some views commanded our gaze outwards across the lake where it seemed to go on forever and never meet up with the sky; and some sights drew our eyes downwards into the harbours and bays that we were soon to stumble into after boulder hopping for hours down along the coast line. Each of the harbours had its own unique character and beauty. Some had beaches of cobblestones the size of apples and pumpkins; some had pristine white sandy beaches and clear water that could rival any Caribbean resort; and still others were orange in hue from the high iron ore content of the rocks, looking like what you might imagine the surface of Mars to be.
Wildlife sightings were few and far between. An eagle soared above us over the beach at Katherine Cove, and at Beatty Cove, sadly, we saw a dead loon washing up with the waves upon the shore. Struck by its beautiful and unique markings, we noticed that the loon didn’t appear to have come to a violent end. Loons don’t have many predators; their greatest threat is the encroachment of humans into their nesting territories. Avid swimmers and fishers, they have been known to dive up to a depth of 200 feet and are one of the few animals that form mate pairs for life. The loon and its expressive cry had come to embody, at least to us in our treks over the last two years, the spirit of Ontario’s north backcountry, perhaps more than any other animal. We heard loons several times along the coast or in the bays but they were always far away. Across the lake their cries were carried to us; the anxious sounding tremolos warning of danger; the soulful wails expressing their longing to be connected to their mate after being separated. Maybe it’s that yearning for connection; to our deepest selves, to each other, and to nature that brings us to the backcountry again and again.
“What do you think it died from?” I asked Stephen, looking at the washed up loon.
“I’m not sure,” he replied. “Maybe just old age?”
“Maybe,” I agreed. Silently, I wondered if the loon had died of a broken heart after losing his mate.
THE PROBLEM AND THE FEAR
Arriving at Gargantua Harbour towards the end of Day 4, we were faced with the problem of the end of the trail and how we were going to get back to the trail head. The remaining trail north of Gargantua was closed for the First Nations ceremony and we could go no further. To turn and go back on the trail, about 68 km, would have taken another 4 or 5 days, more time than we had allotted for this trip. We both had work obligations waiting for us and a 12 hour drive to get back to Toronto. The only road into the harbour was closed to vehicles, also due to the First Nations ceremony, so the shuttle service could not reach us. There was no cell phone service to call for other arrangements. The only thing to do was to head back to the trail head along the highway, about 55 km. With this plan firmly in place, we set up camp close to Gargantua.
We had been asleep for about 3 hours when we were awakened by an ominous sounding, steady, pulsing drum beat. Groggy and half asleep, it seemed to us to be growing stronger and closer, until it was right outside our tent! Inhaling sharply, awe and terror simultaneously hung in the air between us. Just for a moment, time stood still. As we slowly exhaled, we realized the drumming came from across the bay. The beat that seemed so close just seconds ago was only my own fearful heart, in its terror trying to escape the confines of my ribcage. The ceremony had begun!
Stephen hoped they weren’t war drums, preceding a raid on our campsite. I hoped the drums, beating in time to the rhythm of Mother Earth herself, would help all to understand the beauty, mystery, and inter-connectedness of all things, creating a sound wave of healing vibrations and spiritual growth.
The next morning we set out on Gargantua Road leading out of the harbour, walking 13 km until it met up with Highway 117 which would take us back to the trail head, heading south for about 42 km. The panoramic views of the shoreline and lake from the highway were some of the best ones yet. Stephen’s amazing spatial intelligence, memory, and map reading skills directed us back onto the trail at a spot where it came close to the highway for our last overnight on the trail.
Arriving back where we started Friday August 15, just after 12:00 PM, our journey of 110 km and 6 days and 5 nights on the trail had come to an end. A hot shower was our salvation. We could wash away the week’s exertions; the fatigue, the dirt, the sweat. But we knew at the deepest level of our being that no amount of hot water could rinse away what we had experienced. It was indelibly etched into our memory. We had finished the trail, but our footsteps lingered, echoing among the rocks and cliffs. It was time to go home, but a part of our heart would forever belong to the shores of Lake Superior. The trail had become part of us; had taken up residence inside the stillness of our souls.
Man is not himself only… He is all that he sees; all that flows to him from a thousand sources… He is the land, the lift of its mountain lines, the reach of its valleys. Mary Austin