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Trekking the wild shores of Lake Superior in Pukaskwa National Park

Jan 04, 2018 09:12AM ● Published by Editor

Writer Daniel Otis snaps a selfie in the rain over the White River in Pukaskawa National Park.  Photo from Daniel Otis.

By Daniel Otis of The Toronto Star - January 4, 2018

PUKASKWA NATIONAL PARK, ONT.—The landing craft bounces over emerald water, jet-pumps humming, waves hitting a shore of jagged granite cloaked in boreal forest, waves pouring into wild beaches littered with driftwood. Then I look out at the inland sea that fills our horizon and ask the captain what Lake Superior is capable of. 

“Well, I’ve taken some four metre waves,” Brian Gionet says from the helm. I see that all the windows and doors of the nine-metre boat can be sealed. 

“It gets a little sporting.”

Gionet puts us in, packs and all, at Playter Harbour to begin a three-day hike on the Mdaabii Miikna Trail, a new 24-kilometre loop that forms part of the epic 60-kilometre Coastal Hiking Trail in Pukaskwa National Park, an 1,878-square-kilometre swath of wilderness that sprawls from the northeastern shore of Lake Superior. 

“This is the largest undeveloped coastline in the Great Lakes region,” our Parks Canada guide, Lyn Elliott, says. “There’s something about Lake Superior and Pukaskwa that will get under your skin.”

We adjust our packs and take to the freshly cut trail with Elliott in the lead, through a rocky forest carpeted thick in moss, birches bright against the pines. We scramble up and down little slopes and the only sounds are waves, wind, birds, the scrape of my trekking poles on the rock underneath the moss, my own breathing. 

Elliott tells me that First Nations people still trap and fish on this land.

“I don’t quite see it as wilderness anymore,” Elliott says of Pukaskwa. “I see it as a place where people have been living for thousands of years and they’re now sharing these places with us.”

Before we had set out, we met the park’s cultural interpreter, Joshua LeClair, at its Anishinaabe Camp.

“One of the seven teachings is wisdom and it’s represented by the beaver,” he said from a large canvass teepee. “And wisdom and knowledge is never about acquisition for oneself . . . for Indigenous culture, knowledge is about sharing.”

A bald eagle had circled overhead as we entered the area, and inside LeClair led us through a smudge. Born and raised at the adjacent Ojibways of the Pic River First Nation, LeClair says he feels like he exists in two separate worlds.

“There’s this concept of having your feet in two canoes — one canoe being the Canadian world and the other canoe being the Native world . . . And that’s been my own personal struggle — how to balance both worlds?”

We camp that night on a promontory jutting into the clear, cold lake. The night is wildly bright with stars. There’s the glowing band of the Milky Way, our driftwood fire, the lean silhouettes of balsam firs huddled under the purple night, then late, the silver shine of a waning moon. 

The next morning, a languid beaver watches us breakfast and break camp.

“Today might be the longest three kilometres of your life,” Elliott warns. “This is not a beginner’s backpacking route.”

We’re soon climbing to heights of exposed igneous bedrock, the Canadian Shield, forged nearly four billion years ago; the remnants of mountains now scarred by glaciers and sparkling with quartz intrusions, its surface a kaleidoscope of lichens. 

When those glaciers receded some 10,000 years ago, shaping this land, filling the inland sea, bringing its first people and animals like the caribou, Pukaskwa was tundra before the forest took root. Today, arctic plants like the tiny encrusted saxifrage still cling to its rocks. 

We step over fissures that run into deep unknown darkness. Gnarled jack pines twist from the stone. Elliott leads us down again and then there’s a collapsed cavern of boulders on the trail.

“We call it tall man’s misery,” she says, looking up at me, “and short woman’s glory.”

After I squeeze myself through and we’re hiking again, I ask how much time it’ll take to reach camp. Elliott grins. 

“Three hours.”

We descend the rock face into forest, then skip between little coves choked with sun-bleached logs lost by faraway loggers. We balance across the wood, dip back into the forest and soon emerge at a crescent beach overlooking the rugged islets of Picture Rock Harbour.

“Home sweet home,” Elliott says.

“Wow,” I say. “We made it only two hours.”

Elliott laughs.

“I lied about the time,” she says. “It’s a guiding trick to keep you from running out of steam.”

“Then keep lying to me.”

That night as we sit around the campfire, the northern lights faintly illuminate the horizon, as if there were a city glowing across hundreds of kilometres of water. 

The next morning, the Mdaabii Miikna Trail reconnects with the Coastal Hiking Trail and we’re soon in a mossy forest, scant light barely slipping through. I hear the rumble of thunder.

Elliott had warned me that in Pukaskwa, you should always be prepared for anything: sun, wind, rain or cold. 

We can hear the Chigamiwinigum Falls well before they’re in sight: a long, fierce cascade cutting a deep gorge along the White River. Spanning its breadth, a 30-metre suspension bridge sways 24 metres above the tumultuous water. It’s already started to rain. 

I carefully cross the bridge and that’s when the sky really opens up, rain in torrents, the crack of thunder, the flash of lightening. I think that had it started just a few minutes earlier, I never would have crossed that metal bridge. I pull my rain cover over my rucksack and ask Elliott how much farther we have to hike, and when she says, “about 800 metres,” I hope this time that she’s telling the truth. 

We scramble into the forest, up and down a trail of slick mud. I soon catch a glimpse of a boat’s running lights through the trees and I slide towards the shore where Gionet’s running the engine against the waves. I climb the boat’s nose ladder and dash inside. My glasses immediately fog up. 

“Captain Brian,” I say. “I could kiss you.”

He smiles and says, “Don’t.”

On the ride back, Pukaskwa disappears into a shroud of fog.

“It’s got this distinct otherworldly feel,” Elliott had said earlier of the park. “It’s unlike any place else in the country.”

Daniel Otis was hosted by Parks Canada, the City of Thunder Bay and Tourism Ontario, which did not review or approve this story.

When you go:

Reserve: Online reservations for Pukaskwa National Park begin at 8 a.m. on Jan. 16 at pc.gc.ca

Get there: It takes about 12 hours to drive to Pukaskwa National Park from Toronto. Alternatively, fly into Thunder Bay on Air Canada, Porter Airlines or WestJet (2 hours), then rent a car for the nearly four-hour drive. Thunder Bay-based Animiki Tours can also arrange transfers. 

Get around: Explore the park’s backcountry by trekking or paddling. Canoes and kayaks can be rented in Thunder Bay (wildernesssupply.ca) or in the nearby towns of Rossport (kayakrossport.ca) or Wawa (naturallysuperior.com). Marathon, Ont.-based McCuaig Marine (facebook.com/McCuaig-Marine-119073098173885) can arrange boat shuttles if you’d like to be dropped off or picked up along the trail. 

Stay: Reserve frontcountry (May 15 to Thanksgiving Monday) and backcountry (May 1 to Sept. 30) campsites at reservation.pc.gc.ca. You’ll need to bring your own tent and gear. In Marathon, the closest town to the park, the Marathon Harbour Inn (marathon.ca/visiting-marathon/accommodations) offers well-equipped rooms. The sprawling Valhalla Inn (valhallainn.com) is conveniently located near Thunder Bay’s airport. 

Eat: If trekking in the park’s backcountry, bring dehydrated meals from Toronto. In Marathon, Station Four (facebook.com/stationsalongthenorthshore) is a good place to fill up on wings, burgers or pizza before or after heading into the wilderness. Thunder Bay also has a surprisingly vibrant dining and drinking scene. Highlights include:

  • Bight Restaurant & Bar (bightrestaurant.ca) offers gourmet dining overlooking the waterfront.

  • The Sovereign Room (sovereignroom.com) is a hipster gastropub with an inventive menu and regular DJs. 

  • Hoito Restaurant (thehoito.ca) is a century-old staple famous for its Finnish pancakes. 

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Lake Superior Ice Coverage Map. Click on map to enlarge. [GLERL Ice Concentration for Lake Superior]

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