Three Canoemen Take On the Pukaskwa Coastal Trail
By Gary Storr
Three Canoemen Take On the Pukaskwa Coastal Trail
“Are you having fun?” Old Mr. Dunn’s greeting always made me smile and I always answered in the affirmative.
“Good,” he said, nodding his head. “I like to see the young fellas have fun.”
Mr. Dunn had been incarcerated in a prisoner of war camp for more than 1,000 days during the Second World War. If anyone knew what fun wasn’t, it was he.
When he passed away I decided to pick up the ball and run with it. Now I ask the young people around me, “Are you having fun?” The response is usually a quizzical smile followed quickly by a genuine one. They get it, and now I enjoy the same payoff as Mr. Dunn for inspiring a light-hearted moment.
The trip to Pukaskwa was Iori’s brainchild. A sometime canoeing partner, I had invited him to attend the last of our pre-pandemic chili-dog-beer-walks, an annual gathering of our paddling tribe, the Canoeing Legends. The event itself was designed to fill the post-holiday void and was simply a New Year’s romp in the snow with our dogs followed by a banquet of chili, beer and wine. Iori was there to present a slideshow about a river trip I’d set my sights on. I needed him to help me enlist a crew. Later, as our friends departed, Iori made his pitch. Would I be interested in backpacking the 60-kilometre Pukaskwa Coastal Trail on the northeast shore of Lake Superior in Pukaskwa National Park?
I was gobsmacked. “Look at me,” I protested. I was well into my seventh decade, a featherweight even when fished dripping wet from a rapid, and I wobbled under the weight of a fanny pack. Bullies kicked sand on me. I was better suited to life in a canoe…or holding down a bar stool.
“Would it be enjoyable? It doesn’t sound enjoyable,” I worried. As a seeker of instant gratification, I couldn’t commit to an outing that to me, was the singular definition of hell. We might as well go backpacking across red hot coals in our bare feet. There had to be a fun factor.
Iori let it go…for now.
Eighteen pages fluttered off the calendar before I met fellow Legends Dan Bell and Graham Bryan at the campground in Pukaskwa National Park. They had glommed onto the idea when it was scarcely out of my mouth. I couldn’t renege now. Dan’s husky malamute, Nikita, was there too. Iori wasn’t. Iori’s new team was fitter and faster. We agreed to go our separate ways for this challenge.
Our Pukaskwa visitor services rep, Serafina, contacted Doug of North Shore Adventures to confirm that the boat shuttle to North Swallow Harbour would leave as scheduled. Gale force winds had whipped up along the coast putting our departure in doubt. Word came. The winds were offshore: it was a go.
Serafina sat us down outside the office for the orientation lecture – mandatory for everyone hiking the coastal trail.
“There’s a bear at Hook Falls..”
“There’s a bear at Hook Falls. Are you camping there? Yes, I see you are,” she affirmed, checking our reservation. “There’s a dead moose lodged in the waterfall – its head is missing – and there are signs of bear activity on it. There’s scat in the vicinity, too.
“If the moose is still in reasonable condition in a few days, there might be some human activity on it,” I speculated. Freeze-dried food stays “fresh” forever in a package but a slab of moose meat might pair well with, say, a three-cheese lasagna. Serafina smiled patiently.
Dan asked if there had been any serious incidents, bear or otherwise.
“No,” she responded. “The only injury happened to me…and that was during a rescue.”
“That’s not reassuring,” I said.
“What hours do you work?” demanded Graham.
“Yes, I know,” laughed Serafina. “Stay away from me!”
The hull of our shuttle slammed over rollers while I stared at the most rugged coastline I had ever seen: deep coves backed variously by beaches of fine sand, smooth boulders and jagged rock; steep forested inclines leading to Precambrian outlooks that promised inspiring views…should we reach them. The descents warned of strained knees. Serafina had impressed on us that Pukaskwa demanded the same tenacity as the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island. Was this her adroit manner, having eyeballed me, of compelling me to second-guess my machismo? I puffed out my chest a little, more for me than her.
We beached at North Swallow Harbour and Doug jumped out to steady the boat. We lowered our packs onto the sand and climbed down after them. A waiting group of weary backpackers nodded and lifted their packs onto the boat for the return trip. They had hiked the trail in the opposite direction, erasing any doubt in our minds about its feasibility. It was 6:30 p.m. We waved as the boat shrank from sight, then hoisted our packs and set out.
In the first half hour we lost the trail twice. Graham and I tramped through a campsite before realizing our path would get us no farther than the outhouse. Dan shouted from the beach and pointed to a large information board marking the trailhead. How had we missed that? Soon it became necessary to ford our first river. Missing the cutoff, we backtracked down to North Swallow River and devised a route. Here we performed ably…if without dignity. Opting not to remove our boots, we crawled on all fours over slippery boulders, straining to keep our packs centred above us like chimps carrying their young. No one toppled in.
Our first campsite was fronted by Lake Superior, backed by Hideaway Lake and already occupied. Two young women had claimed the best real estate for their tent.
The older of the two stepped forward, apologizing profusely. “We’re sorry, we’re sorry. Do you want us to leave?”
“The first rule of trail etiquette is to be accommodating.”
The first rule of trail etiquette is to be accommodating. Stuff happens. Being new to this gig, it was, in fact, the only rule I knew of. “No, no, stay.” It was well past eight and getting dark. “Where would you go?”
“Thank you so much. We took the shuttle yesterday and got lost. We followed the wrong cairn and came to a rise at the edge of the water. We heard the trail was rough so we thought we were okay but when we tried to go around, my sister fell in the lake.”
Lake Superior rarely warms above 16°C. The icy dunking had stunned her like a body slam and the will to carry on whooshed out. Dry now, she stood glumly and uttered not a sound. Her complete persona radiated defeat. My immediate inclination was to keep all sharp objects out of reach.
We pitched our tents in the surrounding trenches, inhaled a quick supper and called it a day. The sisters had already retired.
In the morning they were gone.
Along the trail, vibrant green mosses cascaded over moist rocks like spring freshets. Mushrooms bloomed: white, brown, yellow and red. As we stood on the highest reaches of shield, eagles soared below. The waves of Gitche Gumee crashed onto beaches and exploded against cliffs. Superior wielded unfathomable power; she heaved like an ocean, vast, cold and deep. Some 550 known shipwrecks lie on the bottom, the Edmund Fitzgerald and its crew of 29, the last to join them.
We emerged from the forest onto a sprawling granite shelf at water’s edge. It was strewn with rock debris, as if flung there by a giant hand. We would have to do some scrambling here. Ahead we could see the sisters, one giving the other a boost onto a ledge. They turned and waved, then disappeared into the woods.
Wide swaths of smooth boulders hindered our progress on the high plateaus. Down below, while treading an earthen path in the woods, two young fellows approached us from the north. One sported a kilt. Cheerful but succinct, they paused long enough to report that they were hiking the trail both ways in eight days from Hattie Cove and had to make North Swallow Harbour by nightfall. I did a quick cipher. “We’ll see you again on Saturday when you pass us going the other way.” I sighed, suddenly feeling my age.
“See you then,” they smiled and they were gone.
Three women were huddled on the beach at White Gravel River when we arrived. We saluted, recognizing the younger two. Negotiating the shifting cobblestones underfoot, we accessed a short path into the woods. There, in the clearing, stood a tent surrounded by scattered miscellany. My shoulders drooped a little. Again? Then she was there, apologizing, collapsing her tent and scooping up clothing as if tidying a room for guests. She had been deposited at White Gravel River by Doug to wait for her daughters to arrive from the south. When they failed to show up she had grown concerned.
She was the mother of the sisters with whom we’d shared our camp the night before. I heard their story again but now it was unabridged, peppered with anecdotes about great aunts and cousins who were not even there. Each breath carried with it a torrent of words; she discoursed as though it were the sustenance of life. I nodded meekly whenever it seemed appropriate. Dan, meanwhile, had wisely reclined on the beach with Niki, who snoozed unperturbed on the rocks.
After a while Graham appeared and gallantly offered to carry the woman’s shopping bags to her new digs. My ears had been soundly boxed.
“…author Kelly Cordes discusses the Fun Scale…”
On his website, mountaineer and author Kelly Cordes discusses the Fun Scale: “Type 1 Fun is true fun, enjoyable while it’s happening.” Through the lens of the Canoeing Legends, this could be an evening of camaraderie at a campfire or shooting an easy set of rapids. “Type 2 Fun,” Mr. Cordes continues, is “fun only in retrospect, hateful while it’s happening.” Things like portaging the dreaded Threenarrows “pig” in Killarney Provincial Park, or prying your bent canoe off a rock in a rapid you had no business running in the first place. “Type 3 Fun – not fun at all, not even in retrospect. As in, ‘What the hell was I thinking? If I ever even consider doing that again, somebody slap some sense into me.’”
The third day was the hardest. As we willed ourselves onward I knew that philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, himself an avid walker, had gotten it wrong. His famous adage ought to have read: “That which does not kill us makes us candy-ass,” not stronger. We climbed to the highest elevation on the trail and near the peak encountered a woman of ethereal temperament. She sat blissfully, allowing the grandeur of her universe to waft over her, seemingly unaware of time and place. She was accompanied by a dog and carried minimal gear. She had a smashed lip. She told us of places she’d seen: the Appalachian Trail, the West Coast Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail. As if trying to leave behind an unwanted truth, she walked and walked, never stopping and always alone. She, too, was crossing the trail both ways and her destination for today seemed impossibly far. We bade her farewell and left her to her meditations.
Taking a break on a sandy beach, we were joined by a couple of female twenty-somethings who settled in for lunch. The raven-haired girl pulled sporkfuls of tuna from a pouch and masticated contentedly. We exchanged dehydrated food recipes with them and then lifted on our packs. They were having a short day followed by a long one. “This is adios then,” I said. “We won’t cross paths again…unless I fall down.”
“I’ll carry you,” promised the raven-haired girl, taking another bite of tuna. “I’m strong.”
Suppertime came and went and we still hadn’t reached our campsite. Emerging from the trail onto a broad, sandy sweep we determined to set up camp whether or not this was Oiseau Bay. An onshore gale bent the sedges, pointing them inland. The surf pounded the beach. The landscape was primal and desolate and our small group left a trail of smudges across the sand.
Soon a signpost appeared at the back of the beach where the sand met the tree line. “OB1,” it read. Oiseau Bay. We were home. We poured boiling water into our food pouches, watched a crimson sunset, and then fell into our tents.
“…a feeling that we may have bitten off more than we could chew.”
Dan later observed: “We’ve done some pretty grueling trips throughout our years of paddling together but I don’t believe we ever reached the level of exhaustion that we did on that day. Staggering like extras from a Walking Dead set I sensed a previously unknown feeling among us – a feeling that we may have bitten off more than we could chew.”
We had inadvertently expanded the fun scale to embrace a new type of pleasure: Type 4 Fun, as in, “Kneecap me now. Please.”
After that the days became easier. Cobblestone beaches housed Pukaskwa pits – man-made depressions in the rocks whose purpose remains a mystery. Estimated to be anywhere from 500 to 10,000 years old, they are thought to be either vision pits, food storage units or hunting blinds. The largest of them, called lodges, may have been roofed dwellings. Pukaskwa National Park was established in 1978, in part, to protect these pits.
That night we camped at Morrison Harbour. The long, sandy beach seduced us with its tropical allure. In the lee of an island, it was shielded from Superior’s histrionics. We swam in the shallow water and, at dusk, waved as two Asian backpackers passed by on the main trail. Before long, two more floated by. Where could they be going this late in the evening? Minutes later a lone hiker nodded and evaporated into the forest like a ghost. The nearest campsite was a day’s trek to the south. I had a creeping suspicion that we’d somehow hiked into Aokigahara, the Suicide Forest below Mount Fuji in Japan. “It was twilight-zoney weird,” agreed Graham.
Later the next day, we traipsed past Hook Falls. The path to our campsite was presaged by a sign on a tree – a bear warning. Farther along I noticed a second sign facing the other way. I trotted ahead to have a look. Sure enough, the identical warning. So…only our campsite. Serafina had warned us.
There were two tent pads, one adjacent to the fire ring, the other beside the bear-proof food locker. Dan blanched when he saw the pad’s proximity to the bin so I manned up and claimed it for myself. Dan and Graham pitched their tents side by side on what was, to their reckoning, safe ground. The brute would have to nosh through me to get to them.
Before dinner an elderly backpacker found his way down the path to our campsite. “Have you seen a group of 15 or 20 young people?” he asked. “I’m their chaperone.”
We shook our heads.
“Oh dear,” he said. “I’ve been searching high and low. Where could they be?”
He climbed back up the path and we didn’t see him again.
A short time later, a boisterous band of young men and women called down to ask if they could visit our campsite. They wanted to see the dead moose.
“There’s no dead moose here,” we assured them.
They wandered back to the pool below the waterfall and stripped down to their swimsuits. There the boys swaggered, performing backflips and cannonballs to the girls’ feigned amazement. Then they pulled on their shorts and T-shirts and headed off in a different direction from their chaperone.
We had neither the trail savvy nor the logistical tools in our belts to make sense of any of it so we sat down to eat.
“…I spied movement among the trees…”
During dinner, I spied movement among the trees. I jumped up and crept toward the tents, bowl in hand. On seeing me, the bear started and about-faced, springing back up the hill. I lay in my sleeping bag next to our food that night, eyes wide, while my “buds” slept like babies. Soon after leaving Hook Falls we approached the new and much ballyhooed White River suspension bridge. The prospect of crossing suspension bridges had haunted Dan. There were two, one over Willow River and this longer, higher bridge spanning White River at Chigamiwinigum Falls. Dan was a self-professed Luddite whose fear of flying stemmed from his refusal to accept the laws of aerodynamics. He put his faith in the law of gravity. He simply couldn’t see how so many tonnes of metal could stay aloft without plummeting back to earth. He also possessed a similar reticence when it came to negotiating suspension bridges although, in defense of bridges, neither end actually left the ground. His trepidation on this front may have been rooted in acrophobia.
Dan had asked Serafina during our orientation if she knew of any dogs that liked suspension bridges. “No,” she had responded.
“None,” she stated unequivocally.
Dan joked that his only solution was to blindfold himself and carry Niki across.
When the time came, Dan marched smartly over the Willow River bridge glancing down only once. Niki followed reluctantly. Now, at White River, Niki trailed her master part way and then turned back, fearful of the raging waters below. Quickly I blocked her way and slowly herded her across, coaxing her gently. Dan encouraged her from the other side. When we were all safely across, Graham signed the guest register and Niki turned to go back, wagging her tail. Often, anticipation looms large and becomes more terrifying than the act itself.
The trail now bustled with activity as day-trippers from Hattie Cove hiked out to the bridge and back. Spandex-clad ironmen and women clutching trekking poles zipped past, eyes front, focused solely on their objective. They never turned their heads and rarely acknowledged us in passing. Families with children and dogs stampeded by, curious smiles directed our way. This crowd stood in stark contrast to the mystics, hobos and multifarious misfits we’d encountered in the backcountry. We counted ourselves among the latter.
An hour later the young fellows of skirt notoriety caught up to us. It was our final morning on the trail. Now they stopped to address Graham’s curiosity about the garment. Not only did it offer greater freedom of movement, extolled its wearer, but it was easier to pee. Unfortunately it had to be removed to poop. I privately wondered if it might be cooler too, allowing an occasional, startling updraft.
Our young friends had a hunger for grease and were anxious to go to Marathon for burgers. Our craving was identical but wider reaching. There would also be a stop for beer.
After the trip Graham and Dan enthused of having tried something new. Graham admitted that bragging rights were nonexistent: “It seems few people have heard of the trail, let alone the huge national park it’s in. It means there isn’t really anyone to brag to about completing the trail – you gotta go for yourself cuz no one else is gonna care you did it. I won’t be able to name-drop Pukaskwa Coastal Trail like when people talk about the West Coast Trail. And no one can pronounce or spell Pukaskwa anyway.”
Graham offered this insight in the context of having had Type 2 Fun. Pukaskwa was a bitch, but one he remembered fondly. Type 3, I corrected him. My attitude toward Puk was still firmly mired in the spectrum of meh. I hadn’t had fun yet. But I’m slowly coming around, tightroping the scale from Type 3 to 2. What’s next, I find myself musing? The West Coast Trail?
But there are a lot of ladders there. And I’m afraid of heights.