The Poetry and Prose of Backpacking the Coastal Hiking Trail in Pukaskwa

“This trail has been described as challenging,” says the park ranger flipping through her orientation binder. We stifle a nervous laugh, still trying to embrace the enormity of what we are about to undertake – backpacking the entire 60-kilometre Coastal Hiking Trail in Pukaskwa National Park on the north shore of Lake Superior. There and back, plus a detour to Picture Rock Harbour – totalling 130 kilometres over nine days. A significant distance even on the flattest of terrains, let alone what has been rated as one of the most challenging trails in Canada.

Map of Pukaskwa National Park and Garmin InReach
The Coastal Hiking Trail in Pukakswa National Park is no walk in the park.
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Celebrating my birthday in Killarney: a 45-year-long journey to Silver Peak

At 543 metres, Silver Peak isn’t the highest of mountains. Even the word “mountain” sounds like a bit of stretch. But it is the highest point in Killarney Provincial Park and offers breathtaking panoramic views of the La Cloche range, the closest we get to mountains here in Ontario.

Silver Peak is the highest point in Killarney and offers breathtaking views of La Cloche Mountains in Killarney.
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Love to the end of the trail and back: Hiking at McCrae Lake Conservation Reserve

A cozy cabin in the woods, a wood stove or at the very least a gas fireplace, days filled with snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, evenings filled with board games and reading – for many years these have been our Family Day weekend staples. In 2021, they have become distant memories. With the province in lockdown, our Family Day activities required rethinking. I knew that many of my thoughts over those few days would start with “We could be somewhere in the woods right now…” So I decided that the only way to prevent or at least minimize all the brooding was to throw at it as much hiking, and snow, as I could.

hiking at McCrae Lake Conservation Reserve
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All the time in the world: Celebrating New Year among mountains and cows

Celebrating New Year in the woods is always an interesting experience. Marking the change of arbitrary numbers among trees, hills and lakes that are oblivious to what year it is always feels weird, if not downright silly. In the woods, emptied of everyday routines and obligations, time stops being an accounting exercise where hours, days, years march by in a quick succession and becomes more of a space that you inhabit, an extended present moment that contains both past memories and future dreams at the same time. Standing in the presence of trees, hills and lakes as we exchange “Happy New Year!” is always a reminder that time isn’t linear, that it doesn’t pass by us but rather through us, that we can’t just put a year, not matter how bad, behind us because it inevitably becomes a part of us, like another ring in a tree trunk or a deepening crevice on the side of a mountain.

Writing 2021 with sparklers
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A look back: 2020 in pictures and words

Early morning is my favourite time of the day. As I lie in bed, eyes still closed, I savour the silence, interrupted only by deep breathing and an occasional snore from my husband and kids. I finally open my eyes and look through the window – craggy silhouettes of Green Mountains slowly come into focus. It takes me a few minutes to remember it’s January 1st. Which means 2021 is here. And even though in this tiny cabin in southern Quebec, in the presence of eons-old peaks, time units like years seem ridiculously arbitrary and inconsequential, even though I am fully aware that pandemics and other global crises don’t follow a calendar, I still can’t help that growing sense of relief. 2020 is finally over.    

view of Green Mountains at AU Diable Vert in Quebec in the winter
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Backpacking in Pukaskwa: Superior Adventure or Why Leave the Comforts of Indoors

“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.

sunrise on Lake Superior in Pukaskwa National Park
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Killarney, canoe and me: Another birthday, another incredible solo trip

I lower my canoe into the water at the end of a short portage from Ruth-Roy Lake into Johnnie, and it takes me a few minutes to register how smooth the water is. Every time I paddled Johnnie Lake in the last couple of days, it was choppy with a generous helping of a strong side wind. This unexpected calmness looks like a minor miracle; I do a quick happy dance. The night before I passed beautiful cliffs but couldn’t pause for photos for fear of being turned back or, worse, flipped over. With waters finally calm, I decide to take a quick detour from my trip back to the parking lot and make a stop by those cliffs for a few shots. The sky doesn’t look particularly supportive of this endeavour. Dark and heavy with copious amount of tears, it is threatening to unleash its pent-up sadness at any moment. I know rain is inevitable; I just hope it will hold off for another 30 minutes or so.

paddling solo canoe with dark clouds in the background

My attempt to ‘outpaddle’ rain to get a few photos of the cliffs on Johnnie Lake fails spectacularly.

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The Best of 2019

Here we are again: another year, another “best of” post. 2019 didn’t feature any big road trips but it doesn’t mean there were no memorable adventures – they were just shorter and close to home. The only exception was our trip to Ukraine with my younger son. The trip didn’t involve any camping so didn’t make it into this blog but it did bring some interesting insights. It was a disconcerting experience at first – I felt like a tourist in my home country. Everything looked familiar, yet unrecognizable, as if I lost the key and could no longer decipher the code.

Near Kyiv sign in Ukraine

My trip to Ukraine was a little disorienting at first – I felt like a tourist in my home country

One afternoon we took a break from sightseeing and decided to hike down to the River Prut that runs through my home town of Chernivtsi. I’d walked that path so many times before with my older son, back then still a baby, but it was as if I landed in a new place. What used to be open fields was now a tightly woven jungle of trees and grasses. Yet, in this disorienting landscape, I felt less lost and confused than when I was twenty or so years ago when the surroundings were open and clear. That twenty-year-old person didn’t feel like me; she was more of a faint memory, someone I once knew. We all change as we grow up but usually that transformation is slow and gradual and not immediately apparent. It is only when we return to the places that knew us when we were younger, that we are confronted with those distant versions of ourselves.

walking through the grass

The trail I often walked with my older son when he was still a baby looked completely different this time around

It wasn’t until we reached the river that I started to feel at home again. And I thought that home for me doesn’t have exact geographical coordinates. It’s wherever there is water and hills and trees – be it the river of my childhood, the lakes of Algonquin, the forest behind my grandparents’ house, Killarney’s white cliffs or the Carpathian Mountains where I hiked with my classmates. Every camping trip for me is not just an adventure or escape from the city. It is about coming home.

River Prut in Chernivtsi in Ukraine

Once I got to the river of my childhood, I finally started to feel at home

And with that preamble, here is a list of the best “coming home” experiences of 2019.

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In the Tall Grass: Microadventuring in Windsor

The sound of waves slowly fills up the space around me to the point where nothing else can fit in. I feel my eyelids get heavy under the sun’s gentle kisses. My body sinks into a tree trunk, slowly adjusting to bumps and cracks like a memory-foam mattress, until it merges with the driftwood, polished and white like a bone of a giant prehistoric animal. The sound of waves seeps into my skin, fills up my brain, overflows my body. I imagine myself one of the sand grains tucked into cracks in the wood. After what feels like eternity, I finally open my eyes. Gulls pierce the air with their impossible screeches, clouds of birds covering the sky. I sit up and notice a woman watching me intently not too far away.

driftwood on the beach

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Lakeshore Trail at last: hiking at Silent Lake Provincial Park

Some trails sneak into your life effortlessly, quietly, without much fanfare. One day you turn around and there it is, lying on the ground behind you like an unspooled thread. Other trails take years to complete. Not because they are so long but because every time you attempt to hike them, something comes up between you and the trail: lack of time, bad weather, non-hiking mood, other laziness-inspired excuses. Lakeshore Trail in Silent Lake Provincial Park is one of the latter.

sign for Lakeshore trail at Silent Lake Provincial Park Continue reading