Backpacking Expedition &
A Journey to Pukaskwa National Park:
Backpacking the Rugged Coastal Trail and Canyoneering its Rivers
August 4-15, 2005
By Gail Staisil
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View Gail Staisil's photo album from this trip.
Read Mary Powell's trip journal from this trip.
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Wednesday, August 3
A Travel Day
Pukaskwa - the place intrigued me - I was finally going there after talking about it for a few years. Most literature refers to the park as the "Wild Shore of an Inland Sea," it was certainly referring to the Canadian Shield's rugged coast on Lake Superior's north shore. It is a place of unpredictable weather, rare arctic plants and even caribou. The linear Coastal Trail runs for approximately sixty kilometers through this unique environment.
It was unseasonably hot as we ventured to Canada. This would be a different trip in several ways for me. Most importantly, I had just re-located to my native Upper Peninsula of Michigan after living many years in the Lower Peninsula. It felt weird not having to cross the Mackinac Bridge, which connects the two peninsulas. As we made our way across the U.P., I thought of how nice it was that this trip was finally a reality.
Michael, Charlie, Mary and Cathy would make this a group of five. We all met in Batchawana Bay to stay at the Voyageur's Lodge for the night, eat a leisurely breakfast and then depart for Hattie Cove. Michael had arranged a 28-foot boat to shuttle us from Hattie Cove to the south end of the Coastal Trail at the North Swallow River.
Thursday, August 4
Rough Seas - No Shuttle
Our shuttle wasn't scheduled to depart until 6 P.M. We took our time driving up the coast with a lunch stop in White River before we continued to Hattie Cove. The cove is the northern terminus of the trail and the road leading to it is the only road in to the linear park.
Our permit procedure took a lengthy bit of time as the park staff consisted of one person at that post. We secured our season group permit and individual permits, which are good for one year.
We quickly changed in to our hiking clothes and headed down to the cove to await the arrival of Keith, the boat shuttle operator. After a while, Keith appeared with some disappointing news - we wouldn't be going anywhere tonight, the seas were way too rough and they were predicted to get worse. Keith had tried motoring his boat from Marathon south to pick us up, but had to return and resort to a car in order to inform us of the situation. Although we completely understood the weather conditions, we sat there with questioning faces that expressed "Now what"?
We decided that we would backcountry camp for the night, as the thought of camping in the parks established campground for the night seemed foreboding. We hit the trail and stopped at the end of Hattie Cove to have our dinner. We bushwhacked inland to bivy. It was very thick boreal forest but we finally came to an open ridge that would have to do for the night. We rigged our tarps and soon it would be time for bed.
Friday, August 5
Boat Shuttle and Pukaskwa Pits
Morning arrived. Michael told Mary and I that he would be going down to Hattie Cove to see if Keith was there. Keith had other clients that were scheduled to leave that morning. Michael "ran" back to tell us that the other clients didn't show so we were to pack up and head out quickly, as Keith would take us down the coast. It was no easy feat as we were all in various stages of getting up. We hurried from our bivy site, which was a good twenty-five minutes from the awaiting boat. The other clients did finally show up, but we were all able to go on the boat together. Keith went over the safety instructions and he motored the boat out of the cove in to six footers on Lake Superior.
The boat shuttle was to be about two hours but we luckily made it in less time. We had to hold on tight for the "carnival ride."
Keith dropped us off at the North Shallow River, the southern terminus of the trail. Because there is no dock located there, Keith threw in a moveable narrow plank for us to run down to the beach. It was a bit of a thrill as I wondered if the top part of the plank would fall off of the boat while I was on it...not my favorite part.
Earlier we hadn't taken breakfast as we had departed so quickly. We quickly headed over to Newman's Bay on the opposite side of a small peninsula. We soon noticed some Pukaskwa Pits that were located there. These historic protected mounded pits lend a lot of curiosity. There is no real record as to their use but many speculate that they were used to cache items, shelter people or maybe they had a religious purpose. Because we don't know their actual purpose, that makes it more interesting. Some times these pits are singular, but here there are several in clusters.
It was noon when we departed for a bushwhack up the North Swallow River. The goal was to possibly find some waterfalls. We worked our way over the rocks in the riverbed and found some small falls but nothing grandiose - we crossed the river and climbed up a few contours, and bushwhacked back to the trail. This all took about 2.5 hours or so.
We ate lunch on the shore of a narrow quiet lake surrounded by heavy forest cover. After lunch we would take the Coastal Trail to our campsite. We walked through the boreal forest cladden with arboreal lichens hanging from the fir and spruce branches.
The trail so far is rugged but not anything like the severe conditions of the Coastal Trail in Lake Superior Provincial Park. We passed through historic beach boulder rock fields hundreds of feet above Lake Superior, and many roots and rocks on the trail but the huge, knee-jarring rocks are missing.
We arrived at Hidden Lake campsite. The location is actually between Hidden Lake and Lake Superior so both lakes can be enjoyed. Large outcroppings lie in front of the Lake Superior side. We all went swimming and sat in the heat of the sun. Islands and shoals were visible in the small harbor.
I sat on the outcroppings preparing my dinner with the only sound being the waves lapping on the rocks - a splendid evening. I retired for the night in a campsite that looked like a gigantic sandbox -it will be comfortable.
Saturday, August 6
Strong Winds and Flattened Tarps
I slept well throughout the night and I was awakened by the sound of loons.
Today our plan was to hike the trail to White Spruce Harbor. Shortly after leaving camp, there was a huge escarpment where one could see both Hidden Lake and the Lake Superior cove where we had made camp last night. There was a lot of descending and ascending today but the trail is in great shape though.
When we arrived at White Spruce Harbor, some other group was at the site with a big power boat, that was a bit of a turn-off for our group so Michael suggested heading down the coast. We would travel another klick or more to find another sandy beach that he had plotted on his maps while canoeing several years ago. We scrambled over the rocks on the coast rather than hiking the trail. As soon as we arrived in camp, we were so hot that we went swimming right away. The bottom of the bay was sandy and very shallow.
After a while, Michael and I walked the length of the beach to scout for future campsites. We walked on to a cobble beach as well. When we returned, it was time for another quick swim and then dinner.
We all camped right on the beach facing the water in full view of the sunset. The landscape is dotted with many small islands. We saw the shuttle boat go by and also a helicopter presumably searching for a small aircraft that went down July 24, authorities think it plunged somewhere between the Soo and Marathon.
The mosquitoes at dusk are still abundant but at least they are not a problem during the day. August is always a good month to be in the out of doors.
My tarp blew down early in the night. The winds had picked up significantly and I was very close to the water and waves. I decided to just lay under my tarp with my head sticking out for air. I hoped it wouldn't rain - several hours later I heard a voice in the dark, "What happened here?" It was Michael ready to help me re-rig the tarp. We fortified it with huge mounds of sand anchoring the deadmen, which I already had in place.
The winds at one point were very severe and I thought I was done for again but this time it held. I didn't sleep much all night long, probably just the last hour or two of the night. Charlie's tarp blew down too, he decided to sleep with his tarp at a lower pitch almost on top of him.
Sunday, August 7
Canyoneering the White Gravel River
It was another warm and humid morning. Today we would leave the Coastal Trail to hike up the White Gravel River. The objective again was to find rapids and waterfalls. This could be done in the river at this time of year because the levels were low.
We walked a short distance on the trail, inspected an old trapper's cabin and then checked out the campsite at the river mouth where we would return tomorrow. There were four kayakers there waiting out the storm. The leader of the group was a guide from Black Arrow. They were working the coast from Hattie Cove to Wawa. It is not unusual for kayakers to have to sit out one day for every three as the seas can be violent.
When we stopped at the river's mouth, we got ready to go upstream. We didn't get very far when Michael found an airplane part, which was probably from an old wing of a small aircraft. It was very old and had a lot of numbers on it so we knew that it wasn't a part of the current missing plane. Later someone also found some coaxial wire too. GPS readings were done so that we could later have the park locate these finds if they were interested.
We waded the river in our boots. It made navigating the rocks more manageable. The river rocks are covered with algae so one must carefully work their way through the rocks.
We came to the first real waterfall, it was really cool with many whirlpools and spray beneath it. The rocks surrounding it were ironed smooth by the action of the water.
We all swam complete with boots and then headed on to see if more waterfalls were in the cards. We came to another nice pool and later a high waterfall with deep canyon walls beneath it. We had to scramble with our packs up a steep slope to the upper part of the falls.
There were more indicators on our maps that there would be more rapids and waterfalls. We decided that we would continue working our way up the river tomorrow for sure.
We found a spot to camp along the river's edge in a gravel area. During the spring, this area would have been scoured by water so there was an infinite amount of rocks to re-locate in order to find a place to sleep.
Monday, August 8
I slept in late - I hadn't got to sleep until late so its par for the course. I awoke at 6:30 A.M. and fell back to slumber. The next thing I knew I could hear laughter and it was 8 A.M.
We would continue further up the river today to explore - we came to a huge canyon. Michael tried to find a way through the water. He swam through the deep pool but it butted up against a sheer rock cliff with the water cascading over it. Cathy and Charlie explored other options on land - they found a way through the forest-lined cliffs along the canyon walls.
The river turned in to a long lake at one point and severe bushwhacking was ahead. The shoreline was impossibly choked with alders and debris. We endlessly made our way down the lake and eventually crossed the lake when it became a river once more.
We climbed the steep long draw up to the top and down the drainage on the other side. On the climb, Charlie stepped in to a bee's nest and obtained at least a dozen stings, Cathy had three stings and Michael had one. Luckily Mary was ahead of Charlie and I was behind the whole group so we avoided them on this day (I had been stung on the first day). Only Mary has escaped the wrath of bees so far.
Now covered with bruises and scratches, we emerged in to the south branch of the Gravel River. It was a narrow canyon with steep walls, the river bed where we emerged was dry and filled with large boulders and rough-edge rocks. This would indicate that it probably doesn't get as much water action year round.
There were intermittent pools of water. Travel was slow, we decided to eat dinner in the canyon and knew that it was getting too late to get back to Lake Superior. We eventually made camp in the forest just off the canyon where the canyon walls reduced in size.
We set up our bivy sites scattered around to wherever we could find a sleeping space. There was a significant amount of lightening and thunder, the lightening lasted for hours. It rained, stopped, rained again as various systems rolled through the area. I stayed dry but had to move around a bit on the uneven ground.
Tuesday, August 9
Kayaker Friends and Blueberry Crumble
Michael woke early and soon everyone was packing up and getting ready to roll. We ate a quick breakfast as our second breakfast would be eaten later when we reached our stowed food bags at the point where the river branch rejoined the main river. We had bear-bagged and left a significant amount of food two days prior as we knew we would be making a circuit.
After retrieval of our supplies, we walked the short twenty minutes back to Lake Superior and settled in for a long breakfast break. We lay things out to dry and relaxed before the rain started once more. We scurried, donned our rain gear, and gathered under Michael's tarp, which he had quickly rigged. I think all of us would agree that Michael has to get the award for configuring a tarp quickly and effectively to adapt to any surroundings.
We made our final preparations to depart for the trail. We were to travel 7.1 klicks to Fisherman's Harbor. There was a lot of climbing on this leg of the journey and descending of course. The slick rain covered rocks made the going a bit arduous at times but it was mostly smooth sailing. We noticed a helicopter flying to and from the lake with a bucket. It was apparently dumping water on a forest fire. We later found out that lightening had ignited a few hot spots in the forest.
We stopped and picked a few blueberries, which seemed to prefer the rocky outcroppings for growth. When we arrived at our campsite, the sun had already begun to shine so we awaited the lake for swimming. Due to the humidity and the heat, we were soaked and sweaty - the water felt great.
Kayakers were at the main site and we soon discovered that I knew all four of them. Charlie and I had a mutual acquaintance of Lou and I also knew Ken, Lynne, and Jeff. They were all paddling the coast and had been sidetracked a few days by the weather.
We set up camp at the other site there. The kayakers invited all of us over to the other site for some dessert later. Having experienced Lynne's baking on several occasions, I knew we were in for a real treat. Lynne made a crumble that included blueberries and service berries plus apples that she had dried before the trip. It was incredibly awesome. Lou had also contributed some oatmeal crumble. We were delighted to have some real food and we polished off all that there was.
We watched the sun set and a quarter moon rose in the sky. I bivied back in the woods on the official site. I was alone as the others were set up on the beach except for Michael who was back in the woods.
Wednesday, August 10
Oiseau Bay and Logging Camp
I actually slept the whole night, it felt great. Morning came. I heard talking so I figured I better hurry and pack up, and get down to the beach to eat breakfast.
After breakfast, Mary, Cathy and Charlie went for a re-con to an adjacent cove. When they got back, it was decided that we would leave in a few hours - about 11:30 A.M. or so. I put my clothes back out to dry and spent time watching the sky change and the waves making ripples.
After we left camp, we almost immediately began to climb five or six contours from the lake. The trail here is much like the Minong Ridge on Isle Royale - rough and rocky ridges. This section of trail took us back to the lake many times. We stayed along the lake for quite a stretch of large boulder hopping on outcroppings of rocks. We crossed over a huge diabase dike flowing though pink granite...awesomely pretty. We took many breaks and arrived at Oiseau Bay around 5:30 P.M., actual walk time was only about three hours.
Michael swam several times along the way. The winds cooled us some, but it was a hot day. When we arrived at camp, the long bay surrounded by Jack Pine forest was deserted. Many shoals lay out in the huge bay.
Some of us went for a swim. The waves were big but the water was unusually warm. I took a walk to the end of the beach to the river to see what kind of bridge was in place over Oiseau Creek - it was a removable foot bridge probably put in place each Spring and taken out in the Fall.
Oiseau Bay was once the site of the Eaton Logging Camp established in 1940. All traces of it were washed a way in a flash flood that occurred in 1986. This flood changed the channel of the creek, which was evident by looking at the landscape as we walked along.
Thursday, August 11
It was colder last night - relatively speaking. I'm sure it was no lower than 40F but we are not used to it right now. I slept OK but had to find socks and a hat to keep me warm.
We left camp earlier this morning, we meandered through an open area where the creek used to flow. We decided to travel further today than our original intention - we would go on to Morrison. We met our first backpacker on the trail today - a lone guy from Massachusetts. He was going to Oiseau Bay as his final destination before returning to Hattie Cove as the trail was more difficult for him than expected. We soon met three young guys less than an hour later, they were also going to Oiseau Bay and then backtracking. This is a very common route for people if they don't use a boat shuttle.
We traveled and stopped in Fish Harbor along the way. That was part of our original itinerary to stay there but we would be going further. It was a very pretty small harbor. I took my boots off and walked in the water - that always feels good to give my feet a deserved break. Before leaving, we had lunch and then went on to Morrison. Along the way we traveled the coast for a portion of outcroppings and rocks - extremely pretty.
A long narrow bay awaited us at Morrison Harbor. It was very windy but the water felt good. I lay in the sun to get warm and dry.
During the dinner hour, Charlie talked about his eating lifestyle and Michael looked for suggestions for his. Laughs were shared as well as stories.
Friday, August 12
A Rainy Start
We awoke to a rainy morning. It started out innocently enough but I could tell that we were in for the long haul. It increased to a consistent intensity. We sat under our tarps feasting on breakfast - well I guess instant oatmeal adorned with cashews and instant chai are not exactly decadent but in the bush any thing tastes great. A plate of scrambled eggs and a crisply toasted bagel sound good right now.
We will depart in about two hours and hopefully the rain will mostly abate. In the meantime I will pour over my maps and read and just generally observe the world from under my tarp.
We ventured out - it was slippery and one had to be careful on the moss and lichen covered Canadian Shield rocks. They offer poor traction most of the time but wet conditions are undoubtedly the worst.
The rain stopped after an hour or more on the trail. Our rain gear was soaked but we weren't. We stopped before Willow Creek to have our lunch. Later we would cross the suspension bridge over the river. We crossed it one by one on the narrow plank that was surrounded by wire mesh sides to keep a person from falling in the river. We walked through the Willow Creek campsites - we weren't allowed to stay there because a bear was known to harass campers.
We would bivy some where else a few klicks away. We would have to re-con to find a suitable spot. We headed off trail but in the attempt to find a reachable cove, it took about two hours of difficult travel. We clamored through extremely heavy vegetation - alders and boreal forest - and then the unforgiving rocks. We came to all kinds of crevices, which were extremely deep, we were forced to re-route around them. One of them had a huge chock stone in it so we passed the packs across in two different places and got ourselves across it safely. It was on the scary side and it was very windy to boot. Everyone had enough play by the time we set up camp.
Camp set-up was a huge labor in itself as the strong winds played havoc with setting up the tarps. We were at the end of a narrow deep cove and it truly was a wind tunnel.
Later we climbed out on the rocks to see the sunset and the huge waves, which crashed beneath us. The waves were at least six to seven feet high.
Saturday, August 13
The White River
The winds blew furiously throughout the night. I stayed warm in my sleeping bag. It's a good thing it didn't rain as the wind direction changed constantly - it would have been a battle to keep the water at bay.
We were to bushwhack back out to the trail today. We only had about 400 meters to travel to get there - it didn't take very long, just about thirty-five minutes to get through the brush.
We were heading to the lower White River. There were many areas of large rock outcroppings along the way, tons of climbing availed itself.
We stopped for lunch at the upper falls and then tried out the suspension bridge. We really wouldn't have to cross it until tomorrow but we decided to walk across sans packs and back. The bridge is about 75 feet high and it spans 100 feet across the White River. It causes some people to be very uncomfortable, but I was OK as were the others.
As we stood on the bridge, we heard the first of what would be many helicopters flying with a suspended cargo bag dangling - it landed on the sand bar upstream. After we located our campsite on the lower river, Cathy and Charlie went back to find out what was going on with the helos. It turned out that they were starting a lamprey control project with chemicals diluted in to the river. They were transporting supplies and equipment necessary to start the project tomorrow.
At camp, I decided to go for a quick swim near the base of the lower falls. The water was somewhat warm. The afternoon was spent reading, observing fisherman and just relaxing. This is the only day that we've come in early enough to just hang out.
Another type of helicopter landed on a small outcropping in the river. A person got out, huddled and the helo lifted. After the helo left, the individual took off her helmet and called out that she was looking for a solo canoeist in a red canoe that was missing. No one here had seen the person, so the helo landed again to pick her up from the rocks.
I've seen more helicopters total on this trip than I've seen during my whole life. They've all been engaged in various activities so rather than be distracting, it has been interesting.
There are a lot of cedar waxwings on the White River catching insects - it was like a circus. My tarp is perched on the edge of an outcropping looking over the river. The sounds and view are incredible. After dinner, I quietly rested on the outcropping reading my book.
Sunday, August 14
Today is the final day. I woke up at 7 A.M. and got packed. The walk back to Hattie Cove would be an easy one. After crossing the suspension bridge, there were only some rocky hilly areas to navigate through. We passed through a meadow with many purple asters and a long boardwalk.
When we arrived in Hattie Cove, we stowed our gear and quickly took a refreshing shower. Before we departed, we stopped at the small visitor's center where Michael talked to the head ranger at length about some other ideas that he had for back country travel in the park -traveling to some high peaks like Tip Top Mountain and the like. He also gave the ranger the information and coordinates for the airplane parts. The ranger had been stationed at this park for a very long time and would be retiring next year.
We left the park and drove to Marathon for lunch. It hardly filled us up so we contemplated stopping again soon for dinner - we did!
As with so many journeys, it left us hungry for more. We envisioned other plans for next time. We all agreed we would like to come back soon to this rugged environment that will certainly challenge us again.
View Gail Staisil's photo album from this trip.
Read Mary Powell's trip journal from this trip.
Read another photo-journal.
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