“Humans have spent centuries perfecting the indoors,” notes my older son as he moves closer to the campfire. “Only for you to drag us all the way here to battle the elements.”
I know he’s only half-joking. This is the first night of our backpacking trip at Pukaskwa. We’ve just spent half a day hiking in the pouring rain, at times through ankle deep water and a good portion of the trail over slippery rocks. So I can see why our kids are not particularly excited about the whole endeavour. And while our younger son simmers quietly by the fire waiting for food, the older one launches into one of his philosophical arguments.
Once we get some chili into them and dry clothes on them, the mood improves considerably. But I can still feel spoken and unspoken doubts floating around under our green tarp, getting trapped in the criss-cross of clothing lines that spot everything from t-shirts to socks to underwear, wrapped in a dense coat of smoke courtesy of wet firewood. Eventually, we pack our edible stuff into the food locker and retreat into our tents. Maybe not the type of indoors our older son had in mind, but the best shelter for this particular moment. As I fall asleep to the fading beat of raindrops against the nylon, I start wondering what we are searching for on the wildest of Lake Superior’s shores.
Not a Very Promising Start
This backpacking trip was a bit of a last minute decision. Back in May, when one of my only entertainments was dreaming up future trips, I stumbled into the Ontario Parks reservation site and booked a week-long backpacking trip along Killarney’s La Cloche Silhouette Trail for the end of August-beginning of September. It has been on our bucket list since the first time we visited Killarney more than 10 years ago. Now that out of the country trips were no longer possible, it seemed like the time to do it. As I carefully planned the route and picked sites, I could imagine the lines on the map turn into steep climbs over Killarney’s white cliffs, a zigzagging path through the woods and around the bluest of lakes. I could feel the cooling morning breeze and the warm kiss of afternoon sun.
My dreams came crushing when the Toronto District School Board announced that teachers had to be back at work on September 1st. That took my husband out of the running or, in this case, hiking. For a bit I entertained the idea of doing the trail with one or both of my kids but eventually gave up on it. Not because I thought I wouldn’t be able to do it without my husband, but because it defied the idea of a family trip. So I changed my vacation plans and we started looking for alternatives. A week before our departure we threw together a week-long road trip to Lake Superior with a few nights at Pancake Bay, Neys and Agawa Bay. As a consolation prize for having to let go of the La Cloche Silhouette trip, I squeezed in a four-day hike at Pukaskwa National Park. Our older son, who’s not a big fan of lugging heavy stuff over long distances, needed a bit of convincing but eventually agreed to tug along.
And that’s how I found myself on an early Wednesday afternoon huddling by the registration office at Pukaskwa while a park ranger explained all the possible dangers of our hike, his voice partially drowned by the downpour. As I picked random words – slippery rocks, bears, broken limbs – I tried to ensure my face projected confidence, while the last bits of it were getting washed away in the torrent.
The Coastal Hiking Trail in Pukaskwa is touted as a true wilderness experience and is considered one of the five most challenging hikes in Canada. The trail is 60 kilometres long. You can either hitch a water taxi ride to the end of the trail and make your way back or do it both ways doubling the distance – for tough hikers out there.
We chose neither – that seemed like too many elements to battle for the inexperienced hikers in our group. Instead we opted for a new side trail called Mdaabii Miikna, which means ‘go to the shore trail’ in Anishinaabemowin, offering all the delights of the Coastal Trail – from rugged rocky shores to sandy beaches to boreal forest – in a compressed format, in other words cliff (pun intended) notes to the full trail. With a short detour to the Chigamiwinigum Falls, we only had about 30 kilometres to cover with a big portion of that hike, almost 11 kilometres to be exact, on the first day. Weather gods obviously thought that distance wasn’t challenging enough and decided to throw in a heavy dose of rain into the mix.
After a twenty-minute orientation session, I left the registration booth clutching a permit and a map, my confident smile lasting all the way to the car. As we arrived at the parking lot, I half-heartedly suggested we should get a site at the Hattie Cove (Bii to bii gong, the Anishinaabe name for Hattie Cove, which means water between two rocks) campground and set out on our hike the next day when the weather improved. My husband parried with: “We didn’t drive all the way here to bail on our plans.” So we finished some last minute packing, wrapped our backpacks in rain covers and off we went. Many of our body parts were wet by the time we crossed the parking lot and got to the map at the trailhead.
The Ups and Downs of Mdaabii Miikna Trail
The first portion of the trail was easy enough or at least it would have been if it wasn’t hiding under ankle-deep water so required some balancing along the edges. It was in our best interests to keep our feet dry for as long as possible. Once we got across the wetland boardwalk, it started going up and down, through moss covered rock crevices, every descent more challenging than the climb before as it required extra caution and precision – falls and sprains weren’t part of our plans.
We met a few people coming back from their day hike to the Chigamiwinigum Falls. Here and there, we could spot backpackers finishing the Coastal Trail, their status betrayed by bigger backpacks and better hiking shoes. Most greeted us with the same question: How much further? It was pointless for us to ask the same since our hike was just starting. Eventually the Mdaabii Miikna veered to the right and that’s where the real fun began with climbs and lots of exposed rock, often nothing but rock cairns pointing the way – the ranger wasn’t kidding about them being slippery. One part of the trail was completely flooded and required some serious parkour while clinging to roots and trees and balancing on hiking poles.
And that’s when magic started to happen. All the pain and aches, even wet feet were no longer a nuisance but rather a reminder that I had a beautiful, strong body capable of amazing things: legs that could carry me over long distances, jump from rock to rock, climb up hills; shoulders that could hold the weight of everything I needed to survive; my core that kept me moving forward and helped maintain my balance through slippery bits. Day after day, my work keeps me stuck inside my head: thinking, reading, writing, developing strategies, making them a reality. Somewhere along that trail, I was shoved back inside my body, feeling the world press against me, with all its wetness, but also its beauty and uncontrollable urgency of being. I stopped worrying, planning, anticipating and could finally just be.
Campsite at Last: Our Home for Night One
To cap the afternoon of trekking, sliding, skipping and trudging, the final stretch of the trail took us through a hole under the rock. After that it was a quick walk to our campsite at Picture Rock Harbour (Ga oname kwa) North with a narrow brook acting as our guide.
As far as campsites go, there was nothing extraordinary about this one. If I had a choice, I’d much rather stay at Playter Harbour (Gaginoo wiikweddowooga) South: site PH3 sitting on a rocky outcrop looked pretty spectacular from a distance. But the important thing was that we had a spot to camp. And while site PRH1 lacked a certain oomph factor, it had everything we needed that night: lots of space for our tents, a few logs around the campfire, trees to put up our tarp and a large island sheltering it from the Lake – Gi chi Gaaming wasn’t in a good mood that night. And unlike the other site at Playter Harbour PH2, which was stuck right by the side of the trail separated with a log wall to create a semblance of privacy, ours was a few dozen metres away from the main trail offering some seclusion.
Backcountry sites in Pukaskwa are a bit fancier than what we’ve come across at Ontario Parks. There is an actual fire ring, not just a pile of rocks. Each site has access to an outhouse. Unlike the usual thunder boxes, these come with a roof, a nice touch when it’s raining. There are also food lockers, usually shared between two or three sites. A canoe site right next to ours was unoccupied so we had the locker all to ourselves. Not that we had enough food to fill all of it – they are pretty roomy.
After all the usual chores were done and we finally crawled into our sleeping bags, it was the best feeling in the world: our bodies melting into a sleeping pad, one sore muscle at a time. Peeling those muscles off the ground the next morning was a bit harder but after an injection of coffee and a few stretches, we were ready for day 2, which was also the easiest one of the entire trip.
Picture Perfect Campsite
Our goal for the day was Picture Rock Harbour South less than four kilometres away. I know it seems like a weird way to plan the trip, but we had to go with whatever was available when we got to booking the sites.
As you can imagine, it didn’t take us long to get there. There was more scrambling over rocks – a task significantly easier in the absence of rain; more spectacular views of Lake Superior; more cozy coves and driftwood beaches.
Needless to say, no one complained about a short hike, especially once we got to our next campsite. Where do I even begin describing this beauty of a site? More than two months later, it is still my go-to spot when I feel stressed. I close my eyes and imagine a sandy beach running to one side, sloping rocks rising to the other. Amidst the milky green waters of the harbour there sat an island with a quartz dyke running through it like a sparkling white river. The scene had an almost tropical feel to it. That is until we jumped into the lake for a swim.
It wasn’t just the view that made the spot special. The site itself had a log bench skillfully built by one of our predecessors. Someone left behind two folding stools too so the sitting situation was far superior to a regular backcountry site where a log is the best you can hope for.
There were two other sites right next to ours but at a reasonable distance so everyone was afforded enough privacy. The only time we could see our neighbours was when we all spilled out onto the beach and rocks to watch the mesmerizing spectacle of Lake Superior transforming throughout the day, a show superior to any Netflix offering. We exchanged hardly any words but there was a shared feeling of awe as we watched the sun dip into the cool waters of Gi chi Gamiing, spilling orange paint across the horizon.
The next morning I kept delaying our departure, taking my time drinking coffee and making breakfast, packing, wandering along the beach, taking photos, as if trying to etch every little detail into my brain so that I could pull this place out of my memory storage on days when the world felt gloomy and grey.
Camping at Chigamiwinigum Falls: Between a Rock and a Smelly Place
Eventually, we hoisted our backpacks and were on our way to the next stop – the Chigamiwinigum Falls on White River. We had a little over six kilometres to cover so not a particularly strenuous hike. The trail moved inland, meandering through gnarly woods, cutting through soft mounds of moss. The roar of Lake Superior became less distinct with every step we took, eventually fading away completely and giving way to forest sounds, chipping and chirping, a whisper of the wind, the crackling of branches. It was a different kind of experience: relaxing, soothing, almost meditative.
Until we arrived at the Chigamiwinigum Falls, where the power of water hit us with renewed force. We could hear them before we could see them – a powerful rumble ripping through the soothing hum of the forest, just like it ripped through layers of rock, splitting it in half and carving out a 30-metre canyon. Standing atop a suspension bridge and staring down the gaping chasm, it was impossible not to be overcome by reverence and realization of our own smallness.
As if to further hammer across the point that she was in charge, Mother Nature sent down more rain. It wasn’t as strong as on the first day, but by the time we got to our campsite, it was clear our tarp would get more use during this trip than all the other trips of the year combined.
There are two campsites at the Chigamiwinigum Falls. One is located right at the tip of a bend overlooking White River, with rapids to one side and a calm pool to the other. It backs onto a beautiful sloping rock polished by rushing water to sleek perfection. It wasn’t our site. Ours, site CHF1, was on the way to a perfect site, close to a food locker and a washroom. I could try to convince you that it was a plus having a shorter washroom run, especially in the rain. But that would be a hard sell. People who stayed there sometime in the past knew it too: why else would they swap the site numbers if not to claim the other site as their own? We couldn’t pull off the same trick; it just didn’t feel right. Plus, someone was already on the other site.
I guess getting a perfect spot the night before had a price – being stuck between a washroom and a great site the next night. Not that our site was bad. There was lots of room and nice benches around the fire pit, access to the river and ample driftwood for burning. But sitting right next to that other site that was so effortlessly great it had no chance of impressing anyone.
It rained for the rest of the day so we played card games and ate delicious foods. Our neighbour showed up half way through the evening to drop off her food in the food locker so we had a nice chat. She said we were welcome to walk through her site any time and enjoy that beautiful rock, which we did.
The Final Stretch
When we woke up the next morning, the weather looked promising. There were even patches of blue sky peeking through the clouds. Our itinerary that day included a nine-kilometre hike back to the trailhead along the now familiar stretch of the Coastal Trail.
The weather kept switching between sunshine and showers. By then, we didn’t bother with rain jackets so when we arrived at the parking lot, we were completely soaked in rain and sweat but also drenched in happiness and glee (and I fully recognize that for some of us that elated feeling was spurred by the fact that the hike was finally over).
Even though only three days had passed since we set out from that same spot to the drumbeat of the rain, it felt like decades worth of memories and experiences managed to squeeze into those three days, pushing against the boundaries of time and space, filling our bodies and souls with the beauty and power of Gi chi Gamiing.