Pukaskwa National Park Coastal Trail Adventure
DAY 1: THE ADVENTURE BEGINS
“YOU ARE HERE!” the map at Hattie’s Cove Visitors Centre told us. “Here” being the trail head of the Coastal Trail at Pukaskwa National Park and the end result of 13 hours of driving from Toronto spread over two days, and a year’s worth of plans, training, dreams, and excitement. A trip in the making since we completed the Coastal Trail at Lake Superior Provincial Park last season, our dream was to travel once again to the majestic Lake Superior region and experience the ethereal beauty of the world’s largest freshwater lake, this time, in the National Park, four hours further north than last year’s trek. Parks Canada is the federal body responsible for Pukaskwa, the only wilderness national park in Ontario. The park protects over 1,878 square kilometres of ecosystems that include boreal forest and the Lake Superior shoreline. Falling within the traditional territory of the Anishinaabe people, Parks Canada works collaboratively with local First Nations to protect and preserve the land and educate the public. By reputation, the Coastal Trail at Pukaskwa was even more wild, remote, challenging, rugged, and beautiful than its Provincial Park counterpart. We had to find out for ourselves!
The Trip Planner told us hiking times were based on a hiker averaging 1.5 km/hr over rugged and slippery terrain with a 35lb pack. All hikers, we were advised, should be experienced backcountry hikers. The one-way trail had no road access at the end; the only way out was to take a shuttle boat back up the coast, or to turn around and hike back. The cost of the boat was prohibitive; and so our plan was to hike the trail to the end and back again, a total of 120 km, allowing ourselves 9 days to complete it.
After a brief orientation session with park staff and a final quick trip to the washroom, we were ready to begin. Every fibre of our being was twitching to get on the trail. It was time to make our dream come true!
Leaving Hattie’s Cove, the trail first traversed through the park’s successful 2012 prescribed burn site, with signs telling us of the plan and illuminating the cycle of life, death and rebirth of the northern boreal forest. Turning inland, the trail became a wooden boardwalk wandering through a boggy wetland. Leisurely meandering its way back into the forest, the trail caressed our feet with a carpet of thick green spongy moss. Small inland lakes or waterfalls seemed to greet us around every bend. Crossing through a beach strewn with enormous driftwood timbers, we learned to step lightly as the log drivers of long ago must have done. And finally, as we approached the coast, the trail reluctantly surrendered to the ancient, rugged geology of the Canadian Shield and the tenacious Jackpine.
If there is one tree that reflects the spirit of the wilderness and the rugged beauty of Northern Ontario more than any other, it would have to be the resilient Jackpine. One of the hardiest of the pines, its long needles, flexible branches, rough bark, and long stringy roots can withstand freezing winds, blowing ice and snow, drought, and even forest fires. It can grow in hilly, rocky terrain and sandy soil. It has learned to adapt and survive in its harsh environment. It is a true Canadian! It has become our favourite tree and a symbol of our adventures in Ontario’s north backcountry.
Around mid-morning, we arrived at the White River Suspension Bridge, an engineering marvel of wires and cables, swaying and swinging 23 metres above the powerful Chigaamiwinigum Falls. Crossing the bridge, our eyes widened with both excitement and trepidation as we beheld the beauty of the raging river below us and the canyon walls lined with trees.
Later, we were joined for lunch near Hook Falls by a cow moose and her calf quietly grazing in the grasses near the water’s edge across the river. Completely undisturbed by our presence as we sat on some flat rocks and ate our lunch, they foraged for catkins and reeds, utterly unaware of any concept called time. We were glad to have found that land also.
In the afternoon, we passed a young man named Paul from British Columbia who was meeting up with his brother. Although this was Paul’s first time on the trail, his brother had done it several times. We wondered if we would meet up with them again and hoped Paul would find his brother soon!
Arriving at Willow River, our campsite for the night, we were pleasantly surprised to see two things we had never before seen on backcountry campsites: an enclosed privy, and a bear locker! Such luxury! Hard to say which one was appreciated more: privacy when we peed, or quick, easy, and safe storage of our food!
Daylight was fading as we finished dinner. Grabbing our cameras, we scrambled up the rocks to the point to take in the sunset. Lake Superior sunsets are unique in the province; the sun seems to hang in the heavens for what seems like an eternity, sending rays of pinks and oranges and reds across the sky, procrastinating until the last possible moment until it has to drop behind the horizon. We were not disappointed by this evening’s display!
Settling in for the night, the twinkling stars and warm wind blowing through our tent was a gentle soothing lullaby, easing us into sleep.
DAY 2: LOVING US SOME LAKE SUPERIOR
We rose in the morning to oppressive humidity and a layer of fine mist covering everything. We picked up the trail at the far end of the beach and spent most of the day right along the coast, travelling from bay to bay, and in between, boulder hopping, rock face scrambling, and cliff climbing as the Canadian Shield showed us no mercy. The cool breeze atop the high rock faces was a welcome relief from the heat and humidity.
Most of the beaches were covered with a fine, soft, white sand, a pleasant reprieve from the punishing rock faces. Some of them were vast expanses of cobblestone and driftwood. As we crossed through the cobblestone, we searched for the archeological sites known as the Pukaskwa Pits, but did not see any. Dug by early inhabitants of the area and ancestors of the Objibwa many hundreds of years ago, the pits are large rock-lined openings in the cobblestone. The precise purpose of the pits is unknown, but suggestions range from hunting blinds, to food storage caches, spiritual sights, or even shelters. They are sensitive areas of historical significance to the First Nations people.
Throughout the afternoon, we were delighted to find an abundance of wild blueberries as we crossed the craggy rock faces. Their plump, juicy sweetness was a treat we couldn’t resist! Stephen was like a hungry bear preparing for hibernation; he couldn’t get his paws on them fast enough!
When the trail turned inland, we journeyed through some wet, boggy sections. Looking down at our feet along the forest trail, we were astonished to see mushrooms of almost every colour surrounding us. Rounded bell-shaped caps of white, brown, purple, red, yellow and blue peeked up at us from the ground as our feet passed.
Crossing a wide riverbed of sand, we knew we had arrived at Oiseau Bay, our campsite for the night. The signage indicating the campsite was difficult to spot, and we wandered up and down the beach for about half an hour before we found it.
The extra walking and delay in finding our campsite at the end of a long day left us both a little irritable as we set up our tent and prepared dinner. An equally perturbed squirrel began nattering incessantly in a tree above us, upset that we had disturbed his peaceful home and refused to share any of our food. In a bold display of indignance, he began dropping pinecones on our tent and into the eating area. We tried to reason with the squirrel, politely asking him to stop and go away, but he was determined to get his message across and continued the barrage of pinecone projectiles for a full hour. Despite our annoyance, we had to smile at his persistence. This was no shock and awe campaign; this was a war of attrition at its best. Tipping our hats to such a worthy adversary, we fell asleep to the gentle whack and roll of pinecones falling on the tent.
DAY 3: THE FOG
Early morning greeted us with the lonely sound of a loon in the distance and fog rolling in off the lake. As we finished breakfast and cleaned up, we discovered that Stephen’s travel toothbrush had somehow become jammed in the handle by some inexplicable mystery of physics, and we couldn’t get it out. Realizing he would have to use mine for the duration of the trip, he helpfully offered, “Well, we could just share one toothbrush on every trip. That’s going really ultra-light!”
“Umm, no,” I disagreed in disgust. “That’s just ultra-gross.”
We packed up and set off into the fog. Fog is common on Lake Superior and can last for days. It creeps in from across the lake, its ghost-like tendrils curling around you, surrounding you in dampness, and shrouding the landscape in a thick white veil. Landmarks become difficult to see, making it challenging to navigate. The rocks along the shoreline become as slippery as ice from the mist, requiring your focused attention as you carefully plan each foot fall. Progress in these conditions is arduous and slow at best and absolutely treacherous at worst. Most of the morning was spent along the shoreline, boulder hopping. Although the fog was difficult to travel through, it did allow for some very beautiful pictures with depth of emotion and drama that you don’t normally get in sunny blue skies.
We passed several groups of people today: Miko and Kaitlin from Thunder Bay who were heading to St. Catherine’s for a wedding on Saturday; a group of three couples from Kitchener-Waterloo; a group of ten students and two professors from Lakehead University in Thunder Bay who were studying the geography of the Canadian Shield; and Cynthia and George from Oakville who had very large packs and satellite phones and told us the score of the Blue Jays game.
As we stopped for lunch at a spectacular beach with clean, clear, blue-green water, the fog began to recede and a glorious blue sky with puffy white clouds revealed itself. We stripped off our wet clothes and tried to dry them in the sun as we had our lunch.
The afternoon included a long seven kilometre inland stretch with no access to water. The forest was damp and humid, with more colourful mushrooms and a beautiful pheasant that crossed our path. The trail then took us back along the shore, for a final few kilometres of gruelling rolling rock faces and cliffs, before reaching our campsite for the night at White Gravel River. It had been a long tough day.
After dinner, we were happy to relax and walk along the beach in the warm sunshine. Strolling close to the water’s edge, we saw two large birds cross the sky in front of us and head out over the lake. They were full of a playful energy, dipping low and shooting back up high, coming close together mid-flight and breaking apart. We could make out a white crown on their head, and with mounting excitement, realized they were bald eagles, either playing or performing some kind of mating ritual. With awe, we watched the majestic birds dance in the sky until they were out of sight.
We fell asleep that night to a bright moon shining on the beach, the soulful wail of loons in the distance, a warm wind lulling us into dreamland, and the gentle whoo whoo of an owl calling in the trees.
DAY 4: RED CHAIRS
The sun was already hot as we started down the beach toward the trail. Another challenging day of cliffs, rock faces, and ups and downs awaited us.
Turning slightly inland once more, we made our way up one of the highest climbs in the park. Our efforts were rewarded with one of the best scenes of the trip yet; the vista was stunning. Row upon row of trees clinging to the cliffs covered the landscape in a rich dark green carpet as far as our eyes could see; a high level inland lake shimmered dark blue with diamonds in the sunshine; and of course the mighty Lake Superior in the distance filled our gaze with beauty in every direction. I stood transfixed; I couldn’t turn my eyes away. Time seemed to stand still for a moment and a voice inside commanded me: “Take this in, all of it. Don’t look away too soon. This beauty before you is also inside you. Remember this moment.” I knew then that all the hard work that brought us to this moment in time was worth every sore muscle in our aching shoulders and tired feet.
We stopped for lunch in a small cove on some rocks surrounded with crystal clear blue-green waters that looked like some kind of Caribbean paradise. Back on the trail, we stopped to talk with Al and Michael from Toronto who asked us how we were able to fit everything into such small packs, and Bob and Doreen and Gary and Leslie, two couples from Calgary, who had enormously large packs, and, as we were to learn over the next couple of days, enormously large hearts. They, too were astounded at our small packs and asked us how we fit everything in. We told them about the philosophy of backpacking light, and even mentioned the website. They had done some canoe tripping over the years at Quetico Provincial Park and were accustomed to packing heavier loads that the canoe would bear most of the time.
I was reminded in the afternoon why one should never look down at one’s feet too long on the trail, as I walked into a fallen tree across the trail just at head level. The air was blue and tears sprung to my eyes. Later, Stephen slipped on some wet moss and almost tumbled head over heels but luckily was prevented from completely flipping over by his pack. I watched him as if in suspended animation, wondering if he was going to go completely over and thinking, I hope he doesn’t break his neck if he does! We both survived these mini trials and tribulations, and arriving at North Swallow River, were so happy to see the Red Chairs!
The Red Chairs are a marketing campaign by Parks Canada in several of the National Parks across the country. The red Muskoka chairs are placed in strategic locations on hiking trails and campgrounds and are meant to encourage Canadians to connect with nature in some of the country’s most unique and beautiful places. The red chairs offer a place to sit and relax after a strenuous hike, or take in some scenery and discover the best that Parks Canada has to offer. Visitors are encouraged to share pictures of the red chairs on social media with the hashtag #sharethechair.
Spotting the red chairs as we approached the beach at North Swallow River, we raced the last few hundred metres to reach them and take a load off. We took some pictures as we celebrated the arrival at the half-way, turn around point of our 120 kilometer journey! We took a short refreshing dip in the frigid lake to cool off and clean up and then set up camp.
After dinner, we walked back to the rushing North Swallow River to replenish our water supply. Watching us curiously, a Kingfisher hopped from branch to branch in the trees along the river, chattering at us and expressing his annoyance at this outrageous intrusion into his fishing territory. A beautiful sunset rounded out the evening and another blissful night was spent in the company of hooting owls and laughing loons.
DAY 5: LIFE’S A BEACH
We arose with the happiness of knowing that we had planned the next couple of days to be shorter in terms of distance covered. We had decided a couple of easy days were well-deserved! Packing up camp and setting off down the beach, we were joined by four loons flying into the harbour and watching us from afar.
Around mid-morning we came upon Bob and Doreen and Gary and Leslie. We played leap frog with them, passing each other on the trail multiple times as each of us stopped at different times. They joked with us that they were starting a new website of their own: heavybackpacking.com. If we saw any gear on the trail, they said, pick it up, it was probably theirs! We talked about the balance of weight vs. creature comforts, but when they offered us a fresh apple, we experienced a moment of regret at only carrying simple dehydrated meals. And that apple was the best tasting apple in the history of mankind, ever!
Shortly after lunch we arrived at White Spruce Harbour, our campsite for the evening. Earlier we had run into Paul and his brother (from Day 1) and they too were staying at White Spruce for the evening. We weren’t sure if it was them or us who had mixed up the itinerary, but there was room for all so we set up our tent right on the beach. It turned out that they were gone until almost nightfall so the site was ours to explore.
The beach was, again, breathtaking, like something out of a travel magazine. As long as I live, I will never, ever tire of this view, I thought, looking out at the crystal clear waters framed by windblown jack pines and smooth pink whale like rock formations, committing the scene to memory. Stephen napped in the afternoon and I walked in the water along the shoreline, taking pictures and feeling the cold water massaging my achy calves with icy fingers.
Later, Stephen explored an adjoining beach but quickly came back after reporting very fresh bear scat and tracks at the far end near the forest. Walking back to our tent, we saw a jackrabbit hopping around, apparently tasting salt on the tent lines as he appeared to be licking them. How cute, we thought, as he posed for some pictures. I picked up my hiking poles which I had left beside the tent and discovered that the foam on the handles had several bite marks and large chunks missing! Very quickly the cute rabbit morphed into demon rabbit and we shooed him away.
In the evening, the wind picked up as we crawled into the tent. The stars were brilliant and radiant and filled the space right above our noses it seemed as we fell asleep with the vestibule open. Around two in the morning, the wind had strengthened considerably and we awoke to powerful gusts blowing through the tent and the feeling as though we would be carried out into the middle of Lake Superior. Stephen got up to look for rocks and logs to brace the pegs in the fine granular sand. A half hour later, Stephen had secured the tent and we drifted back into slumber.
DAY 6: BEAUTY AND THE BEACH/THANKSGIVING
With another short day ahead of us, we had a spring in our step as we headed down the trail in the morning. Before long, we passed Bob and Doreen and Leslie and Gary again. We discovered that we were all camping overnight at Fisherman’s Cove that night, and with big welcoming smiles, they invited us to join them for Thanksgiving dinner! Not sure what they meant but certain it couldn’t really be Thanksgiving, we gratefully accepted.
Arriving at Fisherman’s Cove around lunch time, we decided to camp on the canoe site just around the bend and leave the hikers’ site to our friends. The beach at Fisherman’s was the best yet. It truly felt like we were in the Blue Lagoon or some secluded private beach with fine white sand and shimmering turquoise water. We set up camp and then chopped some wood and got the fire ready at the other site to welcome our friends when they arrived.
A few hours later, we were summoned to their site. We were delighted to discover that the menu consisted of freeze dried turkey, powdered mashed potatoes, gravy, freeze dried cranberries and vegetables, and chocolate pudding with marshmallows for dessert! It truly was thanksgiving, back country style! And to start it all off, we had margaritas, replete with triple sec and a splash of fresh lime juice! We drank a toast to the beautiful trail and new friends as the meal commenced.
We learned that Gary and Leslie were cattle ranchers outside of Calgary. They spoke of the problems of grizzlies and their free range cattle and living in the foothills of the Rockies. Bob was a paramedic and Doreen a nurse, and we laughed at the irony of such good company to keep in the backcountry.
With much gratitude, promises to keep in touch, and email addresses exchanged, we headed back to our site for the night. Walking through the trail that joined the sites, Stephen and I contemplated the miracle that transforms smiles and small moments of kindness on the trail into blossoming friendships. We realized that backpacking light can and should have room for small little pleasures. And most of all, we realized that there are good people in this world. A lot of them are thru-hikers.
DAY 7: LAKE SUPERIOR’S A MOODY BITCH!
We woke up to a light rain and knew that we were in for a wet day. Quickly packing up, we marvelled at the moodiness of Lake Superior. One day, she’s happy and sunny and full of blue skies and fluffy clouds, and the next day, without warning, she’s sullen and withdrawn, miserable and rainy. We walked over to say goodbye to our friends, thanked them once again for their hospitality the night before, and set off down the trail.
The light rain soon turned into a torrential downpour with exceptionally high winds. Walking across the open rock faces and boulders along the shore, we felt very vulnerable. The angry crashing waves and high winds threatened to knock us off the rocks and sweep us out to sea, suffering the same wretched fate as the sailors of the Edmund Fitzgerald. We were relieved to finally turn inland and get off the coast. The rain stopped just before lunch.
Arriving at Morrison’s Harbour in the late afternoon, the sky was still overcast as we hung our wet clothes to dry. I walked a short path to the beach and was intrigued to see a blue flag waving in the wind and heading towards the harbour, just the other side of a tree covered island in the cove. I called Stephen to come look and as it drew closer, it appeared to be a catamaran. We were shocked to see it because it was still extremely windy, and we were literally out in the middle of nowhere. We did not see any cottages or boat launches anywhere, and the only way in or out was via the trail. As the catamaran sailed across the harbour, we waved but could not clearly see the person navigating it. It passed behind the island but did not emerge from the other side. We waited several minutes, searching the harbour, expecting to see it somewhere, but it never materialized. With the hairs standing up on the back of my neck and arms, we walked back to the campsite.
There are more than three centuries of recorded shipwreck history on Lake Superior; many ghosts, sunken ships, and mysterious disappearances if you believe in that sort of thing. We hoped we weren’t sharing our campsite with one of them!
The wind continued through the night. With a sudden start, I woke up around 2:00 a.m. at the sound of a gunshot. Shaking Stephen’s shoulder, I asked him if he heard it.
“Hear what?” he said, sleepily.
“The gunshot. Did you hear it? Who would be hunting at this time of night in the dark?”
“No one would be hunting at this hour,” he replied. “Go back to sleep. Maybe you were dreaming.” Maybe. It sure sounded real to me, but I fell back asleep.
DAY 8: MISTY MOUNTAIN HOP
Although we had originally planned to complete the out and back trip in nine days, we had decided that we would like to finish one day early and complete the remaining 25 kilometers on the eighth day. It would be a long and challenging, but it was time to go home!
We packed up our still-wet gear and hit the trails. It was misting as we left, a term that is familiar to anyone who spends time around Lake Superior. Not quite rain, misting refers to a fine layer of dampness that blows off the lake and hangs in the air. The rocks, cobblestone, and driftwood were coated with this mist, rendering them as greasy as if they had been sprayed with WD40. The sun valiantly tried to burn through the mist as the day progressed, with varying degrees of success. The humidity was almost unbearable.
We once again met up with the group of students and professors from Lakehead University and stopped to chat. They told us of a terrifying encounter the previous night that had left them all quite frightened. They were awakened in the early morning hours by an ear-piercing screeching right outside of one of their tents. The professor shot out of his tent with a flashlight and to his surprise saw two lynx shrieking at each other. He tried to scare them away but the wild cats wouldn’t move, and continued with their squabble. Finally, he grabbed his flare gun and pointing it upwards, fired. The noise and the light from the shot startled them and they scampered off into the forest. Instantly, I knew that this was the shot I had heard the night before. There was no sleep for the group after that experience.
Retracing our steps back towards Hattie’s Cove, we trekked through some of the familiar sights from the beginning of our trip: beaches full of driftwood, suspension bridges, boardwalks, and finally, flat trail! Just starting out on the trail a couple of kilometers from Hattie’s Cove was a young man named Brad from Duluth who explained to us that this was his “Wild” journey, his time to do some soul-searching. He was just concluding a divorce and needed some time alone to think, he told us. He then pulled out a copy of Cheryl Strayed’s book he had brought with him to read for inspiration. It seemed like such a cliché! But we wished him safe travels on his journey back to himself.
Our own journey in Pukaskwa National Park was almost ended, and as we followed the path right back to where we started, we saw the sign. “YOU ARE HERE,” it said. Except “Here” for us was different now. We wake up and fall in love with the earth all over again with every trek we take into the wilderness. We open our hearts and receive just a little more, become just a little better than we were before. The journey, we have come to realize, is everything.
See our TRIP VIDEO on Youtube here: