Pukaskwa. The name conjured up exciting images for us of a rugged, under-explored shore on a vast freshwater sea. For two years, we had gathered information from the internet and print sources about this obscure Canadian National Park and its highly regarded sixty kilometer coastal hiking trail. Everything we learned fuelled our desire to take on “Puk’s” undisguised challenges. And so it was with great anticipation that Janine, my brother Matthew and I left Toronto for an eight-day walk in this relatively unknown Canadian wonder.Pukaskwa National Park is located about 1500 km northwest from Toronto on the north shore of Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world. The closest town to the park is Marathon, about 20 minutes drive from the Park’s gate.

We left Toronto on 23 August and drove for most of the day until we reached Pancake Bay Provincial Park on Superior’s eastern shore. The park occupies a beautiful stretch of white sand beach where we gleefully dipped our feet for the first time in Lake Superior’s cool waters (we soon realized that protected bays like Pancake are among the few spots where swimming in the Lake is a healthy possibility – and even then only on really warm days – and even then only on really really warm days for Matt).

The Bay’s name came from its location as the last stopping off point for hungry voyageurs on their way to Sault Ste. Marie. By the time they reached here, there were usually just enough supplies left for a precious last breakfast of pancakes before pushing on to the Sault. After a full dusty day on the construction plagued highways, we could relate to the gratitude they must have felt on seeing the place.

August 24th

We were up early to break camp and get back on the road. In order to gain time, we skipped a camp breakfast and decided to grab some morning grub in Wawa, about an hour and a half’s drive from the park. In addition to breakfast, we also picked up some lunch groceries for the road and a cup of worms for the big fish we were sure awaited us in the park.

The drive from Pancake Bay to Pukaskwa took us about 5 hours and compensated us with more spectacular views of the Lake and its mountainous coastline on the way. While Janine and I had previously done some strenuous hiking in the Rockies, we were still impressed by the steep, thickly-forested hills that rolled above the lake and followed its shores to the horizon. The trail guide’s description of the terrain as “obstinate Canadian Shield” was quite accurate.

Giving ourselves two days to drive to the Park turned out to be a great plan. On the 24th, we arrived at Pukaskwa early enough in the day to set up camp in the Hattie Cove campground and go to the mandatory orientation required of all hikers venturing into the backcountry. The afternoon was spent on some of the various “day-hiking” trails that spread from campground. The most picturesque of these – the Southern Headlands trail – afforded us some beautiful views of Pic Island, a favourite subject of Group of 7 artist, Laurence Harris. While the short interpretive trails were nice, however, none of them would take a healthy hiker more than 2 hours to meander. Pukaskwa’s real magnificence is reserved for the backcountry paddler and hiker.

In the evening, we celebrated our arrival at Hattie Cove with an early 25th Birthday party for me including a roaring campfire and our latest unsuccessful attempt at open flame Jiffy Pop. We crawled into the tent late, despite our objectives to the contrary – we were just too excited to get going the next day.

August 25th

The best way to hike the Coastal Trail is from its bottom to its top. We hired Bruce McQuaig to take us down the shore to North Swallow Cove. While Bruce was nice enough, his hygienically dubious vessel was not for the faint of heart (Janine summed it up pretty well upon her first view of The Century’s Pepsi-can-and-cigarrette-carton-laden interior: “This guy can’t be married.”), or, given the 1.5 meter waves that greeted our trip down Superior, the faint of stomach. Still, The Century held up well enough despite the choppy conditions (Bruce told us half-way into the trip that he had almost turned back a couple of times) and the near loss of the little ten-foot dory ferried behind her that Bruce uses to take passengers from ship to shore. I have to admit though that the voyage left me a little green around the gills and, after a trip to Bruce’s “interesting” on-boat toilet facilities, Janine joined me at the back of the boat in the fine past-time of keeping a steady eye on the horizon. Matt, our self-proclaimed “sea-dog”, acquitted himself quite well (and made sure we knew it).

Four and a half hours later, we arrived at the beautifulbeach of North Swallow Cove. It still amazed us how shores this far north could be so pristinely white, sandy and bordered by clear Mediterranean-blue waters. On a sunny day (of which there were plenty on this trip) one could easily mistake this for a tropical scene. Of course, the evergreens and moose might eventually give it away.Unfortunately for us, a sunny afternoon on North Swallow beach was not in the cards. Our first stop that night was 4km up shore on Hideaway Lake. After a few He-Man poses for the camera at the trail’s starting point, we shouldered our packs and headed into the bush.

There’s really nothing like the first day of a multi-day hike to remind you just how fat and out of shape you really are. Even though we were hiking Pukaskwa at the end of the hiking season, it was a tough 4 km over rolling hills, across boulder beaches and through dense bush. The bottom 30k of the Coastal Trail is described as the more rugged half and this is certainly true. The trail is hardly maintained by Park staff (cut-backs, not negligence) and is easily lost in favour of game trails. Fortunately, the Lake provides an easy orientation point and if you’re willing to backtrack and admit you’re lost once in a while, finding your way isn’t usually a problem.

Hideaway Lake is something of a misnomer for this campground, which we arrived at under ominous skies after about 2.5 hours of hiking. While the name-sake body of water is just a few minutes walk from your tent, the site actually sits in a rocky Superior cove. While pretty in it’s own way, Hideaway is certainly more severe than North Swallow and more exposed than its southerly neighbor to wind coming directly off the lake. Matt and I set up our tarp as a windbreak (we love you tarp) while Janine fired up dinner. After my Birthday feast we roasted some marshmallows and threw a few worms in the lake. The fish, however, were not interested. That night I slept like a log while Janine and Matt were kept awake by the noisy inquiries of the local porcupine crew, who seemed either very anxious to meet us or very annoyed by our intrusion on their neighborhood.

August 26th We began our day with an easy morning in camp – a few more worms thrown to the still-disinterested fish and a round of pancakes courtesy of Aunts Janine and Jemima. When we finally left camp at 10am we hiked uphill for only 15 minutes before arriving on a bare plateau which afforded us an amazing 360 degree view of the park. Bruce had told us that there was a great spot for picture taking not far from Hideaway Lake and he was right. Even though we felt a twinge of guilt at our less-than-blistering pace we gladly sloughed off our packs in favour of a camera break.

Following our photo shoot, we were treated to more beautiful views of Superior as the Coastal Trail gained altitude. The sun shone brightly all day – with one notable exception. While taking a break on a cliff face near Simon’s Cove, we noticed a rapidly thickening grey line on the horizon. Having been told about Superior’s ability to generate quick storms, we initially thought we might be in for bad weather. However, within the space of 5 minutes, it became apparent that the front was coming towards us too quickly to be cloud cover – it was fog. In moments, our view, our sunshine and ourselves were enveloped in the misty bank. It was a harmless but arresting reminder of Superior’s moodiness. It was also brief. The bank passed over us and onto further mischief overland, allowing us to continue on the trail.

Our next stop was the gorgeous White Spruce Cove. This tucked away inlet was about a kilometer in diameter. The sunny weather, the time of day and the cove’s shallow, sandy bottom created irresistible conditions for a mid-day swim. A better writer is required to do justice to just how beautiful this place is. Picture bright yellow sunshine, crystal-clear sparkling blue green water and soft, fine white sand encompassing the entire shoreline.

While Janine and I jumped in for a dip, cold-averse Matt explored the beach. Here he met the acquaintance of a small green frog resting near the shore. For the next few minutes, Matt happily played with this little frog, picking him up, wading about ten feet out into the cove, releasing him and watching him make his way back to the shore. After ten or so repetitions of this exercise, we began to worry about local cruelty to animal laws and let our amphibious friend, dubbed “Little Swimmer”, go free.

An hour of relaxation and swimming in White Spruce Cove is not enough. Spend an entire day here if you have the time and the weather. The trail was not easy to find after our little sojourn (go the far north end of the cove) but once we found it, it proved to be clear and flat most of the way to White Gravel, our campsite for the evening.

White Gravel is an enormous beach of, you guessed it, white sand and gravel, stretching over two km. Being more open to the Lake than any of our previous campsites, this site also afforded us a better view of Superior’s might. Through the remainder of the day and into the evening, crashing rollers provided a pleasant backdrop to our conversations. Storms past provided us with plenty of driftwood. A few armloads later, Matt had the makings of a massive bonfire. Anxious to spend the remaining daylight hours on the beach, we sped through our camp chores – setting up the tent, airing out the sleeping bags and getting supper ready.

We camped on the far North end of White Gravel. Our site overlooked theWhite Gravel River but was far enough off the beach to be well sheltered from the winds that picked up later that evening. Twilight brought us two treats – a spectacular sunset and most importantly, an introduction to Janine’s latest trailside treat, bannock. Cooked on sticks over an open flame, coated in butter and homemade rasberry jam, this delightful tea-bun-like bread easily earned Janine camper of the day/week/year.

While stargazing that night, it struck us again, that we had still not seen another person on this trail. This entire beach was our own.

August 27th

In the morning, Janine met a shuffling porcupine on the way to the outhouse who ambled to within 5 feet of her before a friendly “good morning” sent him scrambling off into the bush.

But after pleasantries with wildlife, this day was defined by hard work. The trail climbed and descended steeply over Superior’s shoreline. An added level of difficulty came from the overgrown character of the trail itself in this segment. Be prepared for bushwacking and losing the path frequently on what we called “red leg trail.” In an unfortunate sequel to the “Little Swimmer” incident, on this day Matt met “Little Squisher” a toad on the wrong trail at the wrong time. Enough said.

The trail from White Gravel to Fisherman’s Cove is entirely inland. However, this segment of the trip still managed to treat us to some wonderful wildlife views of quail and intricately engineered beaver dams. A few hours hiking landed us in Fisherman’s Cove, another beautiful secluded white sand enclave. Once again, the hot sun and shallow clear water made for irresistible swim and laundry conditions. We arrived at the site around mid-day and had plenty of time to explore the many fingers of the cove for blueberries and fish (no fish).

This was also a day of lost and found. While preparing lunch, I realized that I had left our spoons at White Gravel River. But while beach-combing, Matt found a pair of brand new Teeva sandals that fit him perfectly. See, in nature, everything balances out.

The lake was calm, the weather warm and the stars blazing that night as we set our campfire on Fisherman’s Cove. The sun had set beautifully and we were enjoying our first round of hot chocolate, bannock and shooting stars when we were joined at the campfire by two canoeists, Mike and Elizabeth, who were making their way up the coast by canoe. A great couple, these two had paddled all over Ontario and had many great stories to tell us.

Having watched the Superior shoreline for a few days now, we were secretly impressed by their bravery in tackling its frequently choppy waters in an open canoe. While the water warms up enough for some brisk swimming in the shallow bays and coves, Superior’s open water is as frigid as any sea. Without a wet suit, it’s unlikely that a dumped paddler would survive the swim back to shore.

August 28th

The blueberries from the previous day’s foraging made for some great pancakes at the beginning of yet another beautiful day. It was not easy to say good-bye to Fisherman’s Cove – easily one of the most beautiful campsites on the trip – but the good weather helped.

Today’s section of the trail treated us to some beautiful views of Superior particularly on the section between Fisherman’s Cove and Nicols Cove. Generally speaking, however, the trail was more difficult than the map indicated and it was more than 4 hours before we reached Oiseau Bay – the halfway mark on our journey. Where it dipped into the woods, the trail quickly became overgrown with spruce and various other conifers. Combined with the maze of game trails, we lost the main drag more than once.

A few km short of Oiseau, we met our first group hikers since those that accompanied us on The Century. As they were headed in the opposite direction to us, the meeting was brief and we shared some trail talk. To our relief, it sounded like the trail really did get better after Oiseau.

Oiseau is a large beach that faces Superior directly. As its name indicates, it’s home to plenty of birds, whose tracks litter the sandy beach. Many hikers with pressing time tables will start or end their hike here, but, true to form, we were absolutely alone on the beach that day. While Janine and I rested our legs, Matt explored the beach for flammable materials. Feeling rested and refreshed from my siesta, I promptly got into a really good wrestling match with Matt, easily defeating him and making him eat sand. This was soon followed by Matt’s first (grudging) swim in Lake Superior. As the water is a little colder in Oiseau’s more exposed harbour, I felt a little guilt at first watching him inch his way into the water. But he was starting to smell bad anyway.

By mid-afternoon, camp was established and we hauled all necessary gear to the beach for supper and an evening campfire. The spectacular panoramic sunset that night cost us half a roll of film and we contentedly watched the end of day with mugs of hot chocolate and maple-syrup-drenched bannock. I began my efforts to convert Janine and Matt to Jack London fans by reading them the short story “To Build a Fire” by the flickering light of our own. The night was cold but there was no wind and plenty of stars to compensate.

August 29th

We started our day a little earlier than normal in order to get a look at some waterfalls we’d heard about up the Oiseau River. Unfortunately, we didn’t find them and settled for a few handfuls of wild raspberries instead. A large clearing to the north of the Bay (likely the site of the old logging camp in the area) marked the beginning of a flat, easy trail for most of the way toCave Harbour, our midway point. Once past this site, however, the difficulty level went up significantly and the hike to Morrison Harbour took us a total of just over 4 hours – longer than the guidebook had indicated.

This “harbour” is more like a stretch of sandy shoreline which derives its protected status from the several large islands that block for it against Superior. It looks more like a channel than a harbour. The evening was blustery, though not cold, so we kept our campfire and hot chocolate routine short in order to get moving early the next day.

On the way to our last trip to the outhouse, we were startled to find a porcupine perched at the top of the door, contentedly chewing away at the salty wood. Despite our numerous pleas, it became obvious that he was in no hurry to leave. Maybe it was because he startled us as much as we startled him or maybe it was just because I’m not that bright, but I thought that a tree branch thrown at the opposite side of the outhouse might shake off our friend’s inertia. Instead, we were treated to a bristling display of what a pissed-off, puffed-up porcupine looks like (prickly). We decided to secure our food in the bear box and give the porcupine time to come down on his own. By the time we got back, he had finished his chew for the evening and was rambling off into the woods.

August 30th

The brisk winds in Morrison Harbour had been the heralds of a storm front which blew in in the middle of the night. Thunder and lightning kept us company until dawn, which gave way to light rain. Luckily, we had a short day planned from here to theWillow River campsite. The trail took us along an increasingly-slick shoreline that stretched grey-slabbed fingers into the churning Lake. The slippery terrain slowed our pace. But we didn’t mind taking our time thanks to the blueberries that clogged the trail. Step-stoop-pick, step-stoop-pick. Given the fresh moose and bear tracks, the locals also enjoyed the cuisine along this part of the shore.A couple of km fromWillow River, the trail forks, giving hikers the option to take a Lakeshore or Inland route. Due to the weather, we opted for the briefer, inland route. However, if you get a sunny day, take the extra hour and enjoy the Superior path.

Our luck with the weather held, and just before reaching theWillow River campsite over a sweeping suspension bridge, the blue sky beat back the grey. In a sandy clearing we set about drying our gear while admiring the big rollers that pounded the sandy shore. Despite the rapidly-clearing horizon and bright sunshine, the large waves told us that somewhere out there, Superior was still angry. The beach dips steeply into the Lake here, complementing a stiff undertow. Trying to get a wash was an experience and swimming was out of the question. Hiking in the rain will always tire you out. We grabbed a quick nap on the beach and then began to explore today’s home.

 

 

Matt and I tried our (lack of) luck fishing in the Willow River. We didn’t catch anything except views of a circling bald eagle and a young bull moose, who was sampling the river-bottom buffet a little downstream of us. After lunch, we hiked out to the mouth of the bay to watch huge breakers crash on the craggy bluffs.

Our friends from Fisherman’s Cove, Mike and Elizabeth were wind-bound here for two days. Watching the pounding surf from our vantage point, it was easy to understand why they’d decided to stay put.

The rain returned that evening but gave us enough warning that we were safely under our tarp shelter by the time it arrived. We let the weather do its worst as we played cards and drank hot chocolate by the fire in our little blue topped oasis. Did we mention that we love you tarp?

August 31st

Our last full day on the trail began in sloth – fresh blueberry pancakes and two cups of tea consumed under a bright blue sky. The Lake was calm once more and we stood on the beach wishing Mike and Liz well as they made an early break for it. As in previous trips, the realization that this one was nearing its close did nothing to help us overcome inertia. Would we really have to leave soon? Grudgingly as the day neared noon, we left our last shoreline campsite and headed inland for the White River.

Although the guidebook had us psyched for a hard day’s work, the walk from the Willow to the White River turned out to be relatively easy and was completed in just over 3 hours. It might have taken 4, but Matt stepped in a hornet’s nest concealed on the trail, making the last kilometers go by at a spritely pace. We arrived at the coveted site “C” right next to the rapids just as the sky clouded over and set up our tent and tarp quickly. But the rain never materialized and we spent the rest of the afternoon in glorious idleness. I made lunch and read some Jack London next to the fire while Janine and Matt plied the river for hungry fish.

After 8 days on the trail and much to Matt’s chagrin, Janine finally struck gold for us by landing a beautiful fat Walleye that was big enough to make a great stew for the three of us. I caught two more fish but released them as they were too small. Matt caught no fish. I repeat, Matt caught no fish. Sorry Matt.

Our last evening in Pukaskwa was cold and clear, the night sounds dimmed by the gushing White. A full moon beamed like a floodlight down on the milky rapids and the stars shone brightly. We knew we were in a special place. Our last bannock and hot chocolates were consumed slowly as we tried to stretch this last evening out for as long as possible.

September 1st

It seemed appropriate that the weather on our last night in the park would remind us that summer, like our trip to Pukaskwa, was approaching its end. The mercury dipped to just above freezing and we dipped to just below. Inevitably around 3am I had an uncontrollable urge to answer the call of nature. Following this bone-chilling experience, I am now a convert to the concept of the “pee bottle.” Our tent pad’s sandy bottom had eroded on one side, leaving our tent on a 15 degree angle and resulting in a morning jumble on the lowered side that definitely disfavoured Matt. Only Janine’s threats and actual perpetration of physical violence got Matt and I out of our sleeping bags that day. Even then, we had to build a small fire to get the chill out.

 

We weren’t in a huge hurry to leave and so once again spent a leisure morning fishing and consuming the remaining foodstuffs. Just before afternoon, we bid farewell to our last campsite of the trip and headed for the White River suspension bridge and the route home. Since the bridge is a popular day hike for car camping visitors to the park, we started meeting people as the day went on. The bridge itself afforded a great view of the river gorge, though not one for the faint of heart. Our mom’s would not be impressed.

The trail from the bridge to Playter Cove is easy forest walking. However, the last 3 km are quite rugged. Still, in about 3 and a half hours we were back at the Visitor’s Station parking lot chugging our long dreamed of victory Cokes, which had chilled nicely overnight in the trunk of the car. Before long, we were on the road out of the park headed for, sigh, Toronto.

Our walk on the wild shore was over. But memories of this trip will never leave us. So many things made it special.

From a technical perspective, the trail was highly challenging even in the good weather with which we were blessed. While we had the luxury of setting a leisurely pace, certain sections of the trail, particularly the lower 30 km were quite difficult. A trekking pole is highly recommended here for those who value their ankles and nerves, and is essential in rainy conditions on the shoreline’s many rocky, rugged sections. The continuous presence of the lake means that orientation skills aren’t a great concern. However, patience and a level head are necessary, again particularly in the lower 30, when the path is lost amidst the maze of game trails.

One of the greatest rewards for anyone who makes the trip to Pukaskwa will be the solitude. With the exception of Mike and Liz and the party of hikers we met briefly at Oiseau Bay, we saw no one on this trip until the White River. In contrast to other multi-day hiking trails in Ontario like Killarney and Algonquin, Pukaskwa is largely unknown to the hiking world and we were certainly the beneficiaries of that ignorance.

Expect to see lots of wildlife on a trip to this park. While we didn’t see any bears, sightings are common (the day after we left Willow River, a bear made a picnic inside one unlucky hiker’s unoccupied tent). Moose, beaver, porcupine, fish, amphibians, eagles and birds of all kinds are plentiful.

Best of all, however, was the company. A trip like this just isn’t the same unless you have someone to ooh and ahh with, someone to fish with, commiserate with, sit by the fire with, read stories with, laugh with and wrestle with. My crew is custom made for all of these things and I wouldn’t leave home without them. They are as vital as my boots and pack.

So long for now Pukaskwa. We’ll be back.