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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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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The power of Gi chi Gamiing – Lake Superior in every way

We drive around another bend on Highway 17 and my heart cracks open: framed by the green hills, a canvas of the brightest blue stretches all the way to the horizon until it merges with the sky. This is not our first trip to Lake Superior, yet every time we come here, its power strikes me in new, unexpected ways. Every time I feel my brain, my eyes, my heart are too ill-equipped to embrace the immense beauty of Gi chi Gamiing. Everything is exaggerated here: dramatic views, overwhelming rage, fiery sunsets, deep calm painted in cotton candy colours, sudden mood swings. More than anything, Lake Superior is a study in extremes.

dramatic sunset on Agawa Bay on stormy Lake Superior

Lake Superior is a study in extremes: the rage, the calm, the immense beauty – everything is exaggerated here. Continue reading

The trip that almost didn’t happen: Canoeing in north-west Algonquin

Some trips are meticulously planned several months in advance; others are quickly thrown together at the last minute. And while the final enjoyment of the trip usually doesn’t depend on the length of the planning period, the lead-up to it is a different story.

early morning on Manitou lake in Algonquin

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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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Searching for stillness in a shifting world: Our first backcountry trip on the year

Time stands still during the last few moments before sunrise; the world holds its breath awaiting the sun’s big entrance. It is my favourite time of the day. I steer my canoe into the middle of the lake and just sit there watching dark silhouettes of the hills framed by the soft glow of the sky above and the lake below. Over the past few months of being homebound and unable to leave the city, I’ve been craving this silence – the absence of that permanent urban hum that even COVID hasn’t been able to extinguish. Here, in the middle of Nellie Lake, everything is quiet, so quiet that I can hear blood rushing through my head. Or is it the heartbeat of the Universe? I listen to its rhythmic beat punctuated by a bird song bouncing between the hills.

sunrise on Nellie Lake

Waiting for a sunrise on Nellie Lake Continue reading

Our romantic getaway in Killarney: 8 days, 90+ kilometres, countless memories

A canoe trip can make or break a relationship, or at least seriously test it. It also makes for an excellent romantic getaway. Sure, all that paddling is tiring, portages are exhausting, and you are drenched in sweat by the end of the day. But then there are awe-inspiring views, sunrise paddles and cuddles by the moon, fine dining by the lake (Backpacker’s Pantry and AlpineAire offer some deliciously fancy meals like Pad Thai and Triple Berry Crumble) and leisurely coffee by the campfire, relaxing swims in the clearest water, loon serenades, and, with no people for miles, as much privacy as you could ever wish for, making you truly feel like you are the only people in the world. I watch romantic comedies. I know what it takes.

eating by the lake at campsite 143 at Nellie lake in Killarney

Canoe trips feature fine dining by the lake

sitting by the campfire at campsite 52 on Three Narrows Lake in Killarney

There are also beautiful evenings by the campfire

selfie from the cliff with Three Narrows Lake in the background

And don’t forget breathtaking views enjoyed together

On top of all this romance 101, canoe trips lend themselves to moments, which, while not often featured in love stories, are arguably even more romantic. For instance, when my husband volunteers to get into knee-deep mud to push the canoe or does all the camp set-up so that I can take advantage of the evening light to take photos. My favourite part, however, is an opportunity to share an experience that is uniquely our own and create an endless supply of “remember when” stories and references that no one but us will understand.

kissing under a canoe

My favourite part is creating special memories and “remember when” stories to bring back

This August, my husband and I set out on our second backcountry trip as a couple and our longest canoe trip yet. After visiting Grace and Nellie Lakes in western Killarney last year, we decided to continue exploring this less travelled and considerably less crowded part of the park. Our route started at Widgawa Lodge on Highway 6, traversed Murray, Howry, Fish, Great and Little Mountain Lakes, Three Narrows, McGregor Bay, Low and Helen, Nellie, and finally Grace Lake, plus endless creeks and swamps, and finished back at Widgawa. Eight days and more than 90 kilometers later, we emerged with 1,645 photos and even more special memories.

Here are some of the highlights. Continue reading

My canoe trip to Killarney: The magic of being alone (in two parts)

“…when I am alone I can become invisible. I can sit
on the top of a dune as motionless as an uprise of weeds,
until the foxes run by unconcerned. I can hear the almost
unhearable sound of the roses singing.”

Mary Oliver “How I go to the woods”

I spot two loons gliding across the lake as I push my canoe off the shore. The sun made a grand entrance about half an hour ago but then slipped behind the clouds. The lake is so smooth I am almost hesitant to break its surface with my paddle. I follow the trail left by the birds, and as I turn around the bend I drift into what looks like a loon party.

“One, two, three…,” I start counting under my breath. “Eleven?!” A camping trip is never complete without seeing loons, and their calls are a perfect accompaniment for a backcountry experience. They, however, usually show up in pairs, occasionally there are three. Last year, we ran into a family with two chicks. Eleven seems like a minor miracle. I am bursting to shout, “Do you see this?” But I am by myself and no one around can share my excitement.

eleven loons on Killarney Lake

Waking up early has its perks: getting to see a crowd of loons is one of them

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