18th Annual (Fall) Canadian Backpacking Expedition
Kwagama Mountain Expedition
An early fall backpacking trip
By Mary Powell
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In retrospect this trip had much in common with previous off-trail Canadian trips: it was an opportunity to become intimately acquainted with black flies, tag alder thickets, 60 degree slopes and swimming in cold water. The ratio of hardship to fun and awesome scenery, however, was very good! But let me start at the beginning.....
Breakfast at the Voyageur's Cookhouse
The first day of the trip began, as a number of Canadian trips have, with breakfast at the Voyageur's Cookhouse in Batchawana Bay where we met our morning nutritional needs and dispensed with the pre-trip paperwork. Six of us were going on this trip: myself, Dan Soper of Flint, Gail Staisil of Midland, Cathy Susan of Ann Arbor, John Clarke of Allen Park, and Michael Neiger of Marquette.
After driving further north, we purchased the necessary camping permits and did a careful car shuttle up Frater Road, leaving the packs at the Towab Trailhead where we would start and most of the vehicles at the ACR Frater Station where we would end.
Beginning on the Towab
Though I had hiked the Towab Trail before, it was in a very different season so, as we started out, the trail seemed fresh and new. Named after a Native American who guided trappers in the area, the trail descends in a gradually deepening V-shaped valley to the Agawa River which it meets at Burnt Rock Pool. We walked under a mostly maple canopy along the path lined with jewelweed.
There were a couple of other hikers hanging out by the pool, tossing sticks into the water for their dogs to retrieve. We settled on the rocky shore to have lunch, enjoying the river scene and the panoramic view of the bluffs on the opposite shore. After the break we continued along the trail, stopping at a campsite not too much farther along for a brief swim in a deep pool.
We lost Gail for a while there as she was acting as the sweep and swept on by without seeing us on the hidden sandbar--our mistake. We came upon her again near the end of a climb up a steep escarpment where we also took a short break. The trail continued, descending from the escarpment over steps made of roots and rock that were greased with moss and mud. Shortly after the trail leveled out again we found our intended campsite and it was unoccupied.
The river flows around an island just above this spot and the two branches rejoin in front of the site. There are rapids creating a soothing water sound and a place to swim just below them. We had a good time getting cooled off in the current there. We then set up our shelters and had a leisurely dinner. The late evening was spent on the cobblestone shore of the river, watching the changing light on the escarpment opposite us and the deepening colors of the sunset beyond it.
The next morning I awakened to the sound of the rapids and lay there a few minutes just enjoying the knowledge that we were out in the bush and looking forward to a day of exploration. I then got up and retrieved our food bags and set my stove up on the cobble beach near the river to make coffee and enjoy the sunrise. It looked like another beautiful day.
After breakfast we continued along the trail toward Agawa Falls. On the way we looked for exposed rock ledges along the cliffs on the opposite side of the river hoping to identify one that was accessible to have lunch or possibly to bivouac on to take in the view it would give us of the valley. We found one such place-a reasonably flat outcrop with a huge boulder perched atop it. We dubbed it Erratic Ledge. As we hiked, we shot a couple azimuths to the ledge so we could triangulate its location on our topographic maps for tomorrow's climb up the north wall of the canyon.
Close to noon, at a campsite just below the falls, we came upon three young hikers who had started out ahead of us the day before. They still looked sleepy and were just pulling up their food bags to make breakfast. We inquired if they had had problems or stayed up late and they indicated they hadn't. Must be nice to be young enough to sleep soundly for more than twelve hours on those rocks!
Agawa Falls are magnificent, dropping more than 75 feet over a ledge into a rocky gorge. We left the trail for awhile to scramble out on the rocks, enjoying the thundering power and beauty of the falls and taking numerous pictures. Getting back on the trail, we climbed to the top of the falls where we planned to have lunch overlooking the gorge.
There was a pleasant breeze and mist by the falls and a beautiful rainbow below it. We took a full hour to enjoy it.
Beyond the End of the Trail
Shortly beyond the falls, the Towab Trail ends. We took a few snapshots at the sign that notes this and Michael announced that now the real trip could begin. It started off easily enough with a bushwhack through the fairly open forest along the river. Cathy spotted some bottle gentian among the rocks by the water, one of the few wildflowers we would find still in bloom. We saw the ceramic insulators we had noted on a previous trip, mounted high on tree trunks to carry telegraph wire to the site of an old lumber camp farther upstream.
We followed the river to a pool where it made a turn below a rapid-filled gorge. We located the portage trail around this gorge and followed it to a campsite above it. We had stayed there on a previous trip and remembered the sandy shore and large pond. After getting set up, we revisited the remnants of the lumber camp we had also seen before. We showed the new trippers the huge boom logs strung together with giant chains and secured to trees on the bank with equally giant cables. There were also in the woods many artifacts of camp life that we took the time to re examine.
We then turned our attention to considering our options for fording the river in the morning. We looked at places upstream of camp to put a little more distance between us and the rapids, but by dinner time, after swimming a bit in the pool in front of camp, we were leaning toward crossing there. We had a pleasant meal and afterward Michael worked on the crossing plan, swimming across to place a rope for ferrying the packs. We watched the stars come out, saw the space station sail across the sky then moved to our shelters or put our pads out on the beach to sleep under the stars.
Fording the Agawa
After breakfast on the beach in the morning, Michael gave us a chance to vote by secret ballot on the crossing of the river just to make sure that everyone was comfortable with the idea. As no one dissented, he then swam across and we ferried the packs over, one by one, with the rope placed the evening before.
When the packs were safely across, we divided into "swimmers" and "pendulum people" according to our preference for fording. The swimmers would do the traditional crossing while the pendulum people would experiment with ferrying over on the rope, a technique not absolutely necessary here, but very useful in dealing with stronger current situations in the future.
The crossing went smoothly. We changed, repacked our gear and began climbing. We passed an escarpment, reached an intermediate saddle and soon came upon a cleft in the rock filled with a shower of water from a small stream falling into it from above. It was an irresistible opportunity to cool off. We climbed the cleft into the shower and got a few pictures. We then went on, climbing to a higher ridge and having lunch there.
After the meal we climbed some more--into a small valley with a creek running through it. Here we hung our food and stashed our packs. Taking only some snacks, water and emergency gear, we climbed another 300 feet and angled west in search of the open rock ledge--Erratic Overlook--we'd seen from the valley floor the day before. After a bit of searching we found it and the view was all we had hoped for. Spread out below was the Agawa valley.
The river was visible winding through it and we could even see the boom logs on the shore above our campsite. There was a cleft in the forest along a far ridge that we identified as the ACR tracks. A haze of moisture hung in the air below, but there was a nice breeze on the ledge. We sat awhile and enjoyed the view. We then returned to our packs and climbed over yet another saddle to Howling Wolf Lake.
Howling Wolf Lake
As we traveled, it began to sprinkle intermittently. We crossed a swampy area where Gail spotted some pink daisy-like flowers that may have been New England asters. At Howling Wolf we checked out a point that showed on the map, hoping that it might be rocky with open area beneath the trees. It proved, however, to be densely forested. So we settled for camping in an area of spaghnum moss and ferns that was pretty moist but offered some semi flat spots to lie on.
Michael, Gail and Cathy set up their tarps with a communal, ridgeline rope. Dan and I pitched a single tarp and John was down by the water's edge with the highest concentration of black flies. They seemed to find him irresistible. It was a warm evening, the bugs were a bit of a nuisance and every breath of breeze felt great. Fortunately the breeze increased through the night. I awoke several times to see thin clouds skimming past the half moon.
Conquering Kwagama Mountain
Morning dawned gray and foggy with a gusty breeze and heavy clouds moving across the sky. We were up before 7AM, but ate and packed in no particular hurry. When everyone was ready we started for Kwagama with Cathy doing the azimuths to get some experience. She led us away from the lake and then to the northwest.
The plan was to use small lakes and creeks along the way as intermediate goals rather than cut one long azimuth. She did very well and we found things just as they showed on the map. The unexpected finding of a flagged trail, possibly from a trapper at one of the camps on Black Beaver Lake, gave us a break from pure bushwhacking, though she still watched its direction closely.
When it veered too far to the NE, we went back to following our own calculated azimuths again. We took a break at an attractive unnamed lake and after that Dan took a turn at leading the group. He came upon some more flagged trail, which we followed to a small lake at the foot of Kwagama.
The clouds had grown more threatening through the morning and it began to rain. We set up a couple of tarps and ate lunch. By the end of the meal the rain had almost stopped. We each picked up 4 liters of water (weighing 8 pounds) from a nearby creek to see us through the night and started up Kwagama with Gail cutting the azimuth this time. We had only gone a little way when the rain began in earnest and fog drifted down through the trees.
As the hill leveled off near the top, there was a roll of thunder. We followed the calculated azimuth until it started down the far side of the hill without seeing the bare rock we knew should be on the summit of the highest peak. Michael did a bit of what he called "controlled wandering" before he decided to move to the highest point on the hill we were on and if it wasn't bare, calculate and follow the azimuth to the other peak of the mountain.
When we reached the highest point in our vicinity, it wasn't bare, just shrouded in fog and windswept. It seemed prudent to check our position with the GPS before figuring another azimuth and heading for another peak. Despite the altitude, the unit had a bit of trouble acquiring a signal, but finally gave us some coordinates, confirming that we were exactly where Michael suspected: on the wrong peak with a short saddle between us and where we wanted to be. We just could not see it due to the thick fog.
He figured the azimuth, we crossed a fern covered saddle and fought our way through some thick brush, emerging finally on the bare rock of the other peak. The remains of a fire tower lay nearby. The rain had slowed to a sprinkle, but the usual panoramic view was shrouded in fog and it was extremely windy.
Chilly and wet we descended to a wooded ledge and began to set up camp. Once the shelters were up, everyone hunkered down and put on some dry clothes. We could feel that it wasn't really very cold, perhaps low 60's, but the dampness was very penetrating and it was hard to stay warm. It rained off and on. We read and ate dinner.
When the sky lightened a bit Michael went up to check the view, though there was still fog hanging in the trees around us. After a few moments there was a series of whoops followed by an exclamation: "WOW--You guys have got to come up here!"
View from the top
We hustled to the summit. The view was awesome. The sun was low in the western sky which was clear of clouds though a dark band still hung overhead. Wisps of fog rose from the darkened valleys far below like smoke from a myriad of small fires. At varying heights small clouds rushed across the sky.
The Superior shoreline and the lake itself were brightly lit by the evening sun. We walked back and forth in the open area viewing all directions. Over the next hour we made some quick trips down to camp to take care of food hanging and other chores, but despite a chilling wind, no one wanted to miss the sunset.
As the sun sank into the lake, the dark clouds overhead glowed briefly crimson. The sky was largely clear and velvety black. The Milky Way was bright.
Some of us decided to sleep on the summit and went down to get our gear. It was a glorious night to be up there. I saw a couple of small shooting stars and the shifting ribbons of northern lights. Toward morning the moon came out too. The gusty wind made sleeping a bit of a challenge though.
By daybreak it was kind of a relief to descend to the quiet of the camp for breakfast.
Damp and dripping
After breakfast we packed our gear which was in varying degrees of wetness from damp to dripping. Going back to the summit for one last look, we found the wind still gusty, the clouds still hanging overhead and the view still spectacular. The cloud bank seemed to end at the shoreline. The lake was brightly sunlit and whitecaps were visible despite the great distance.
On the way down...
Returning to camp, we hoisted our packs and started down the mountain. We took turns again cutting the azimuths. Michael planned the route, gave instruction, counted pace where needed and led in tricky spots. Getting down was nearly as much work as getting to the top.
At least it wasn't raining. There was one particularly memorable view as we descended into a large bowl shaped valley toward a small lake near its center. Spread out far below was a panorama of forested hills with the lake nestled in the middle. The deep green of the conifers contrasted with the first splashes of yellow, red and orange for this fall.
We found our way down the precipitous ridge and had lunch in an open area of woods where a small stream tumbled over a huge slab of rock creating a picturesque waterfall.
Soon after lunch it became apparent that we would be camping somewhere short of our objective as we had not yet made it to the overgrown road that runs along Wizard Creek. When we did find it, some stretches were washed out and others were flooded due to beaver activity.
Still we made good progress and ended up camping around 6PM in a small abandoned gravel pit that we had bivouacked in on several past trips. There was just enough sun left to chase some of the dampness from our sleeping bags and other gear.
There was a fire ring that had seen some use and after dinner we enjoyed a small fire as the evening was cool. There was a brief period of sock drying and stargazing but we were tired from the day and found our way to our bags before 11PM.
A Plan for the Day
Next morning we all seemed to be awake early: half an inch of closed cell foam over compacted gravel makes a pretty firm bed. While we ate breakfast Michael came up with a plan for the day. We would hike one of the overgrown back roads that more or less parallels the canyon until it intersected a power line service road. We would then take that to the top of a hill, giving us an unobstructed view of the cleared area beneath the line as it dropped several hundred feet to the Agawa River.
Addition to the Plan
Before lifting our packs we decided to walk a few hundred meters up the road that went by our " Gravel Pit Hilton" to see what the Sand River Road looked like now that a lumbering operation from British Columbia was moving into the area. We had heard trucks on the road several times in the past evening.
Over the hill behind our camp we found a sizeable clear cut area and the road had been broadened and graded. We heard a truck approaching and stepped to the side of the road. The driver waved then slowed to a stop. He turned out to be a local resident who had invited our group to swim from the dock at his camp on a sweltering August day several years before.
He chatted with us at some length and Michael gathered information about the extent of the logging and about winter conditions in the area. He also inquired about the location of a radio tower we had seen from Kwagama but had been unable to pinpoint on the map. We learned that there was an access trail to it which started nearby.
That was too good to pass up: we decided to hike up there and have lunch before heading out toward our evening's objective. As it was an uphill side trip, we stashed our gear and hung our food taking only lunch and emergency gear along. The trail was rough but well marked and we traveled rather quickly to the top of one hill and across a saddle to a slightly higher peak. Along the way we found a stone with "BOB" inscribed in the moss that covered it and we later decided to call the cabin and tower "Bob's Place."
At the top of the second peak the trail ended at a radio repeater station that consisted of the tower we had seen from Kwagama, a small corrugated metal building and several tiny outbuildings that seemed too be mostly for storage. The electrical equipment was powered by solar panels mounted on a shorter tower. The hill was topped with bare rock and low bushes so we were afforded an impressive view of the surrounding countryside, though it couldn't compete with the one from Kwagama.
After looking over the installation, we made ourselves comfortable on the rocky summit for lunch. As we ate we took turns with John's binoculars viewing and identifying distant landmarks with particular attention to rocky escarpments that had bivouac potential for future trips.
When lunch was over and our eyes were sated with distant scenery, we headed down the hill. Back on the road along Wizard Creek, we turned left and headed for our planned encampment on the power line. Soon after we got onto the service road it began to climb to the top of an intermediate ridge.
It went up and up and up. As we climbed the soggy, freshly bulldozed soil swallowed our boots repeatedly and coated our pants with mud. Just when I thought we would never reach the top, we did. Our goal could be seen rising above us in the distance with several smaller ridges in between....
A Change of Plan
I was having serious doubts about being able to make it up an even higher muddy hill. I mentioned this to Michael, noting that I could camp cheerfully at the bottom and watch for chipmunks, frogs and foxes instead of moose, wolves and bear. He said there was a good spot to do that at Black Beaver Lake if I chose to, and that I could meet them when they came back down to Black Beaver Trail in the morning.
We continued with Michael, John and Cathy in the advance group and the rest of us, including Gail who was pausing to take pictures, catching up when they paused. When we reached Black Beaver Trail, I expected to bid the others adieu for the night, but Michael had decided to save the high bivouac for another trip and to have the group keep "old Mary" company at the lake.
Black Beaver Lake
A short walk along a well used ATV track brought us to a grassy clearing on the shore of the lake. We set up our shelters and, having more than an hour's sunshine left, we took a brief dip in the cool water. We were definitely getting close to civilization again as a couple of cabins were visible across the lake. There was no sign of human activity though.
The evening unfolded peacefully concluding with a nice sunset over the water. We savored our last night in the bush, continuing to chat as the sky darkened and the full display of stars came out. When our food had been hung and conversation dwindled, we moved to comfortable spots in the soft grass beneath our tarps to sleep.
I awoke next morning to a pearl gray sky beyond my tarp. It was early--there were still a few stars. I sat up to look out over the lake and saw that it had a cover of dense fog like a cotton ball setting on the water. I lay back down enjoying not having to get up right away. As the sky got brighter the fog was infused with a pink glow. I reached for my camera.
As the sun rose I got several shots of the lake and distant hills softened by the mist in varying colors. John came and stood on the rocks of the shore transfixed by the beauty of the scene. After a long while he said, "It doesn't get any better than this." Gail came down with her camera too, and we watched as the fog was dissipated by the sun.
A flock of mergansers paddled quietly along the shore then took off across the lake. From behind us came the clink of pots: coffee was being brewed....
It was time to attend to the business of leaving paradise.
Into the Canyon
When we were packed we followed the Black Beaver Trail down the canyon wall, assisted in the steep places by the ropes tied along the side. Coming out on the ACR tracks, we walked down to look at Bridal Veil Falls. Then we strolled back to Canyon Station to wait for the southbound train. No one seemed to feel thee need to climb to the observation platform...
We had a pleasant visit with Kevin who is in charge of the station crew and is a long time acquaintance of Michael's. When the tour train arrived dumping 500 people into the park, we had thoughts of having lunch in the dining car, but found it had a waiting line. We satisfied ourselves with sandwiches from the concession. Soon the whistle blew and the crowd was vacuumed up and whisked away by the train, leaving the canyon in peace again.
All-aboard for Frater!
We lounged on the porch of the first aid station until a distant rumble announced our train. We hoisted our packs aboard and climbed into the boxcar behind them. Enjoying the familiar scenery on the way back to Frater, we talked of where we would hike on our next trip to the canyon.
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