Coastal Trail Backpacking Trip
Exploration and Thru-Hike of
July 1-11, 2004
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After several days of packing and travel I found the relaxed pace of the first day of this hike very enjoyable. The group was relatively small, Gail Staisil of Midland, trip leader Michael Neiger of Marquette, my husband Dan and myself. We began with breakfast at the Voyageur Cookhouse next door to the lodge where we had spent the night. As usual at such pre-trip meals, the fees and paperwork were dispensed with and we talked of the plan for this trek.
On the way to the trailhead we dropped off our canoes for the next trip to be stored while we were hiking. We also paused at the Agawa Indian Trader to pick up some books and souvenirs for the grandkids. At Agawa Campground we spent time perusing the Visitor Center before departing to shuttle the cars. Dan kept an eye on our packs at the trailhead while we placed one car at Coldwater Creek to serve as a food cache and the other at Gargantua Bay where we would be finishing. Finally getting on the trail around 3:30PM, we ended up only hiking till about 6:00PM!
The trail started on the beach but led us almost immediately away from the shore and via a couple of boardwalks across a series of interdunal wetlands. The weather was sunny and cool--ideal for hiking. We crossed the Agawa River on the steel bridge that carries Hwy 17 too. On the far side, Michael and Gail spotted a fox near the edge of the woods. It provided her a rather extended photo op by adopting several appealing poses.
Spring is still in progress here as evidenced by the profusion of woodland wildflowers that have long since finished blooming back in Michigan. Along the trail were bunchberries, twinflowers, blue bead lilies and pipsissewa. Also in bloom though are daises and hawkweed, so the meadows are decorated too.
In the woods not far from the bridge we came upon a well preserved log and stone building that Michael said was the old Agawa Lodge. Going nearer to look around, we found the doors open and went in. A big stone fireplace stood at one end of a large living room. Windows were boarded up but still intact. At the far end of the living room broad stairs led up to a kitchen and beyond that was a glassed-in porch. Gail and I went upstairs to explore the loft area which overlooked the living room and found 5 small sleeping rooms.
There was also a cellar and some storage areas--13 rooms in all. Returning to the downstairs we pictured what it must have been like in its heyday and we took some pictures. On a shelf in the living room and on a bench outside were some smooth stones painted yellow and numbered--possibly remnants of a game. Outside we found several smaller buildings in varying states of decay, none as interesting as the main one.
After the lodge the trail returned to the shoreline and we began to think of camping. Our original objective, Agawa Point was at least another hour's walk and this beach along the trail, strewn with driftwood from the spring flooding of the Agawa River, was calling us to stop and enjoy it. We stopped at the first designated campsite toward the end of the bay.
A stretch of Hwy 17 was visible across the water climbing toward Agawa Point but its noise was muted by the sound of the waves. Directly offshore to the west was a large island, flat as a pancake, that we determined from the map was Montreal Island. We set up our shelters and hung out on the beach.
After supper I walked down it examining the debris that was strewn about. There were the remains of trees of every size type and age, some mostly intact, others stripped of bark and branches by the rocks along their journey down the flooded river. Several huge snags were aground offshore too. Small pieces of a red wooden boat were scattered all along the beach too. I also saw several kinds of floats from fishing nets, some scat that may have been from otters, and juxtaposed in the sand were a shelf fungus and a clam shell of very similar form and color.
As I returned to the camp area, I noticed the outline of Agawa Point backlit by the sunset. Its shape suggested a slain dragon with its head lying in the water and body extending inland. About the time I got settled comfortably on my sleeping pad leaning against a piece of driftwood overlooking the bay, Gail exclaimed, "Oh! How Beautiful!" and I turned to see that the full moon had come up behind some shreds of cloud at the end of the bay from which we'd come. Pale peach against the deepening blue of the sky and crossed by pearl and gray clouds, it was indeed beautiful.
Gail and Michael spent the remainder of the evening experimenting with her new Canon Eos camera hoping to get just the right exposure. It was a scene worthy of National Geographic.
I slept well all night on the sand and awoke just in time to see the moon set over Montreal Island. It was another gorgeous day--clear and sunny. Loons were calling far out on the lake and the water was calm. The waves made a soft shooshing sound. Mosquitoes were out in abundance though...
The trail from Agawa Bay to Sinclair Cove is moderately strenuous with a lot of up and down. The weather held and by noon we were sweating. We added a number of wildflowers to our list: starflower, many ladyslippers, cinquefoil and ginseng. We had lunch on the trail across from Gainey Island. We could see a large group of island residents relaxing in their yard, coming and going on a small boat.
Soon after lunch the trail wound through several huge scree caves: massive chunks of rock had fallen/been pushed by glaciers so that they lay in a jumbled heap with the spaces in between creating caves. As we were leaving this fascinating formation, Dan's foot slipped on a mossy rock and he fell striking the side of his chest hard. When he was able to get up and continue it was apparent that he was too uncomfortable to go very far...
We soon came to the Agawa Pictograph area. Leaving Dan near the parking area to rest, we went down the trail to view them. The trail itself is interesting here: it goes through some eroded dikes--giant clefts in the bedrock. On a rock face on the shoreline are figures painted hundreds of years ago by the Ojibwa. Their techniques (fish oil and hematite?) and their purposes (religious? historical?) are largely unknown. The red figures are very distinct, amazingly intact considering their age and exposure.
When we returned to the parking lot Dan had decided to try and get a ride to our car at Coldwater Creek and to wait for us there. A family with two young boys willingly acceded to our request for assistance and gave him a ride. When he had gone, we still had several klicks to cover to get to our goal for the day, Sinclair Cove. The trail here was pretty, climbing and descending over the many rocky ridges that form the shoreline.
By the time we reached the cove area though, I was definitely feeling that one more climb would be one too many.... We went out on a small peninsula at the cove's end and found the area's only designated campsite occupied. We decided to continue out the peninsula and there we found adequate accommodations near the tip. We had a wide view of the lake which was sprinkled with small islands.
The island immediately across from us, which we identified as Barrett Island, was apparently a gull rookery. Flocks could be seen circling above it and their cries were audible over the sound of waves on the rocks. We took a quick swim from the smooth rocks of the point and then sat down to fix dinner. Afterward we had just enough time to set up our shelters and snap some pictures of the sunset.
The morning dawned sunny with light clouds. We had a leisurely breakfast and packed to go. The curve in the road where Dan should be camped was barely visible at the far end of the shoreline. The day's hike was moderate: we covered a lot more of those rocky ridges. It seemed to take forever to get past Barrett Island and it remained visible to the south even as we were looking for a campsite. We settled in a small cove just south of the Sand River. We went swimming soon after arriving to get cooled off, then explored the beach, napped and read.
There was a crow's nest in a tall pine nearby and the fledglings made a tremendous racket when the parents arrived with food. Frogs peeped in the woods behind us and a white throated sparrow called repeatedly. A pair of diving ducks combed the bottom just off shore. More wildflowers could be added to the list: harebells, sarsparilla and sundew. As the evening wound down it began to look like it might rain.
The day's hike covered a wide variety of terrain: forested paths lined with roots and bordered by bunchberry, ladyslipper and blue bead lillies.... rocky bluffs carpeted with lichens and hugged by trees bonsaied by the winds ....cobblestone beaches with rocks of every size and color worn round by the elements....broad sandy beaches edged by grassy dunes. Across all of these rivers and creeks ran into Superior. The sky was overcast and there were intermittent showers. It was warm though, perhaps in the 70's, and for the most part we hiked without raingear.
It was raining at lunch time so Michael put up his tarp and we ate overlooking the dunes and the lake north of the Sand River. The afternoon's hiking was slow as the trail meandered over jumbles of rock along the shore that were made "glissant" by the rain.
Each day brings more wildflowers to enjoy. There was a profusion of hawkweed, daises and meadowsweet by the river, blue flags around some of the shoreline pools, beach peas and roses on the dunes.
We reached our planned campsite at Robertson's Cove in the late afternoon and got our shelters set up just before the rain began in earnest. The rain slowed and finally stopped, allowing us to explore a bit and take some pictures.
The evening finished with a blustery wind that made me lower the pitch of my tarp before turning in.
Rain fell intermittently during the night, pattering on the tarp and dripping from the edges. In the morning it was calm, overcast and much cooler--in the 40's. A couple hours hiking in the woods and along the shore brought us to Coldwater Creek where Dan was camped. On a bluff above the beach we paused to check out the remnants of an old tower. From this high vantage point we could also see Dan's bright yellow tarp at the far end of a curving beach.
When we got there we found him bored but otherwise in good spirits. His ribs were better but still too sore to enjoy hiking and he had decided to drive up and meet us at Gargantua. We had lunch and chatted awhile before picking up our cached food from the car. With much heavier packs we bid him adieu and headed toward the Baldhead River.
The sky had cleared and the sun was hot especially on those stretches where the trail was out on the rocks. We were spared major suffering by a cool breeze. The trail finally turned inland and twisted up the side of Baldhead Mountain. Rocky clearings afforded us beautiful views of the lake and offshore islands. We chatted with a couple from Ontario who were day hiking from their camp at Coldwater Creek. At the foot of the mountain was our chosen campsite. We found it unoccupied, set up our shelters and settled in for a peaceful evening finally away from the highway sounds. But things did not entirely go that way...
While we were down at the lakeshore getting refreshed, an entourage of teenage girls in the company of a couple of camp counselors hiked down the beach toward us. Seems our campsite was in their plans too.... As it was late afternoon and the next site was several hours away, Michael invited them to join us. The once spacious campsite was suddenly crowded. They turned out to be pretty pleasant company though--well organized and relatively quiet for so large a group. Michael shared info with the leaders on the campsites we had seen in the past days as that was where they were heading.
The morning's hike brought more wildflowers for our list; cow parsnip, potentilla, buttercups, fly honeysuckle, and two kinds of meadow rue. There were berries too: a few raspberries, blueberries, and the earliest thimbleberries. The hike from Baldhead to Beatty Cove was not difficult until I got lost. Probably should have been paying less attention to the berries and more to the trail. We were each going along at our own pace, sometimes in sight of each other, sometimes not, catching up every 45 minutes or so as Michael took a break.
After one of these breaks I started of last and must have missed one of the places where the trail goes inland from the rocks. I was going along scrambling over rocky ridges and jumbled boulders, thinking that I hadn't seen a cairn marking the trail in a while, when I came to a spot where there were three choices and none of them were good. I could scale a vertical wall or I could travel about 15 feet on rocks that were several inches underwater (think slippery) or I could backtrack.
I have a strong aversion to backtracking and had no equipment to deal with the wall, so I stepped gingerly out onto the mossy rocks and managed to make it across without mishap. That was not the end of my problems though. Several times I had to take off my pack to squeeze through tight spots or lift it first onto high ledges. I knew eventually the trail should come back out to the coast if I could just get to that point....
When I finally spotted one of the familiar blue diamonds it was cause for rejoicing. I arrived at Beatty Cove considerably after Michael and Gail and found them gathering materials for a communal tarp setup. One of them had found a long piece of rope left in the campsite and they had tied it between two trees. The plan was for us to set up our tarps side-by-side along it overlooking the bay and the long shoreline we had just traversed. The project took a little longer than planned but turned out very well and we had a comfortable spot to relax and chat for the afternoon. Just in time too: as we settled under our roofs a light rain began to fall.
After lunch, despite an intermittent drizzle I went for a walk to check out the neighboring peninsula. It contained more rocky shoreline, lots of cedar forest and no hidden stellar campsites. I returned just as Gail was preparing to share some salsa and crackers and Michael had hot water for tea. We settled in for a leisurely evening of dinner and reading.
This day's hike could only be described as arduous. Between Beatty and Rhyolite coves the trail is on the rocks along the lake. The cliffs and rock formations are beautiful, awesome. Ridges of red marble and black basalt run out into the lake or stand as cliffs and bluffs above it. The clefts and coves between are filled with fragments of those rocks pried off by sun and ice. The elements continue to erode the rocks after they fall and so the older ones are rounded, the newer ones jagged. There are beaches of sand gravel or basketball sized boulders, many of which are strewn with driftwood worn smooth by the water and bleached by the sun.
In good weather this section can be done in about 4 hours. It took us nine.
It was raining intermittently and the jumbles of rock and tilted slabs were as slippery as if they had been greased. Each of us slipped many times and fell at least once, fortunately without doing any serious damage. Getting an injured person off those rocks would be problematic to say the least.
By the time we reached Rhyolite Cove we were too tired to really appreciate its beauty. Rhyolite is kind of dusky pink and crumbles easily. The sandy beach that eroded from it is gray-pink. The cove is closed in by rocky points and the quiet water is dotted with rocks reminiscent of an Oriental garden--especially when shrouded in fog as it was when we arrived.
We set up our shelters quickly, hung our bear ropes in the dripping trees and gathered an assortment of wet firewood. We'd had Gore-Tex on since morning and were wet from rain and sweating. We were also very hungry.
Michael gathered sand to protect the ground and I built a small fire for warmth and drying. The boots were hopeless, but everything else responded well. In a couple of hours we had full stomachs and dry bodies. We slept soundly, awakening at intervals to listen to the rain that fell through the night.
Another day of difficult hiking over mega rocks. It went better than the one before though because the rocks were drier and there were longer forest segments. The sky was cloudy and the temperature in the low 60's at the start, but by afternoon we were getting too warm. We lunched at a rather nondescript cleft in the rock along the way and we (particularly our knees abused by too many downward steps) were glad to reach the forested trail that led down to Gargantua Bay.
Just before reaching the campsites are the remains of an old cabin including a stone fireplace and some crumbling outbuildings. We paused but didn't stop for pictures.... Passing the first two sites we stopped at the most spacious one, dropped our packs on the rocky beach and reclined beside them. Dan was supposed to be camped here somewhere but there was no sign that we could see.
After a while I walked down the beach and found his camp in the sandy section. We joined him there with Michael selecting some view property down the beach a bit. We spent the evening getting cleaned up, integrating our supplies from the second food cache and relaxing. Gargantua is a popular site, but there seemed to be only one other party there, an older couple who arrived via canoe at about the same time we did.
Dan rejoined us for a hike that was easy but longer--through Warp Bay to Chalfant Cove. Michael adopted this section of trail and diligently cleared it of brush and fallen trees--a project which made the next day's hike out considerably easier still. With many days of hiking behind us we were satisfied to be entertained in the evening by timing the variations in water level due to the seiche and by watching the ducks come and go. Around dinner time another hiker arrived at the adjoining site and we went to visit her.
The night was peaceful and the sky clear. During waking intervals I heard a woodcock's ritual flight repeated many times and saw a satellite sail between the stars. We awoke to sunshine with a cloudbank in the distance over the lake.
The temperature was in the lower fifties--pretty cool for July. We made ourselves comfortable on the beach for breakfast. The view across the cove was very pretty, the enclosed water mirror smooth. Beyond the points enclosing the cove is a short chain of islands with Chalfant Island nearly centered. The sun lit its pines and sharpened the contrast between the black and white rocks on its shore. A loon landed not too far out and, seeing us, gave his alarm call. As we finished breakfast the clouds moved in and we packed to go.
The morning was spent hiking from Chalfant to Devil's Chair, an unusual cove of black rock, black sand and a black offshore island centered in the view from there. This island was sacred to the Ojibwa as the place where legend had it that the lake god Nanabohzo rested after jumping over the lake. Like Nanabohzo, we rested most of the afternoon. The water of the cove did not invite swimming as the rocks were covered with algae. Though it was chilly when we arrived the cove became very warm in the sun.
I went for a short recon of the neighboring cove, not really expecting to find much. It turned out to be an enjoyable trip though. The cove had a broad black sand beach across which ran a small stream that was the outlet of a sizeable inland lake. There was a small marsh behind the beach with many blue flags and water lilies.
A moose trail (designated by moose tracks in the mud) led past a cozy bivy spot under a large cedar to the inland lake. There were remnants of an old beaver dam on which I crossed the stream and found a ladder of cedar roots up a bluff where I climbed to overlook the lake. When I got back down to the beach I could smell smoke from Michael's hobo stove wafting over from our camp and went back to fix dinner with the others. The evening was brought to a close by a sunset of pink and lavender that silhouetted Devil's Chair.
Our final day's hiking brought us back to Gargantua Bay where we took a very welcome dip in Superior and changed into traveling clothes. Conversation at our post trip meal covered the highlights and difficulties of this trip for each of us and touched on a few thoughts for future trips to the Coastal trail.
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View Gail Staisil's photo album no. 1 from this trip
View Gail Staisil's photo album no. 2 from this trip
View Gail Staisil's journal from this trip
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