18th Annual (Fall) Canadian Backpacking Expedition
Kwagama Mountain Expedition
An early fall backpacking trip
By Gail Staisil
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September 2, Thursday
It was a rather warm day when I left Midland this morning - almost 80 degrees. Weather predictions were similar for the Algoma District in Canada, where I was headed to backpack. I would meet the rest of the crew for dinner at Batchawana Bay. Mary, Dan, Cathy and Michael would be arriving today and John would meet us tomorrow morning, just in time for breakfast.
Soon after I arrived, it started to rain. It rained quite heavily for awhile and we were all surprised as no rain was forecast.
We had dinner at the Voyageur's Cookhouse, a favorite place of ours. Frank and Gail, the owners, are very hospitable and always inquire about our trips in their home territory.
We all chatted about recent trips and other events that have occurred in our lives since the last trip together. After dinner we visited further in Mary and Dan's Lodge room. Cathy was busy making final cuts to her pack belongings, to keep the weight reasonable. Everyone turned in for the night and I drove down the highway to find a spot to bivy in the bush...it was much quieter away from the traffic along H17.
September 3, Friday
Morning arrived, so I headed back to town :) to meet the others for breakfast. As I turned south on H17, I was greeted with a brilliant red sunrise that rose over the treetops near the bay.
After breakfast, we made final preparations for the start of our trip to the Agawa Canyon. We would have to stop to pick up permits for the first two days of our journey as we would be in the confines of Lake Superior Provincial Park. Michael already made legal arrangements for hiking through the other townships. We drove all of our cars to Frater where we would return after our journey. The Algoma Central Railway Train would return us to the parking lot there. We all loaded into Mary's car to get back to our start point.
At the Towab Trail head, we encountered three young men who were also getting ready to head out. They had their gear spread out everywhere, and were dividing their food rations amongst themselves. They were curious as to why we had such a caravan of cars but we explained that we had all gathered here from different cities throughout Upper and Lower Michigan making carpooling not efficient.
The young men left before us and we doubted that we would see them again today, as they would definitely be traveling much quicker than us...they were only out for two nights and their load was light.
We had lunch at Burnt Rock Pool, we relaxed awhile and then returned to the rooty trail. I was behind the group as I wanted to take pictures along the way. I hiked on thinking that I would catch the others when they stopped for a break...it was no big deal, as we were on a trail:) After awhile, I realized that the rest of the group must of stopped somewhere unbeknown to me...apparently off-trail. I decided that I better take a break and wait, so that I would not be miles away.
After about 25 minutes the rest of the group showed up...they had been swimming, as they exited the trail to a camp site along the way. Because I had stayed on the trail, I had missed them...the roar of the river negated me noticing any of their voices. We joined forces again and hiked to the next camp site where we would spend the night.
The camp site was literally right on the trail, not far from the river. Good thing the trail doesn't get much use or we would be having lots of visitors.
We spent the early evening immersing ourselves in the river and sitting in the sun to dry. We spent the later part of the evening on the rocks lining the river, they were surprisingly comfortable.
September 4, Saturday
Rainbow at Agawa Falls
I had a mostly restful night. I woke up occasionally but was perfectly warm. The moon could be directly viewed from the edge of my tarp - it was so brilliant in a clear sky. Everyone got up by around 7 AM. We took down our tarps and sat by the river to have our breakfast. By 8:30 AM, everyone was ready to hit the trail. The trail is rugged but very negotiable. I took the sweep position so I sauntered along enjoying the river as much as I could.
We came to the first view of Agawa Falls where the river took a sharp turn. We took a break and then continued on our way...there is quite a climb that routes you to a higher position to get around a smaller set of falls along the way. It allows you to step over the top end and then descend once again on the other side of it.
We were almost to the main falls. We would get a closer look at Agawa Falls by taking a little side cut off the trail. From there we clamored out on the rocks lining the gorge surrounding the falls. The spray was very powerful where some of the group inched closer to the falls. We then ascended the rocks and inched our way along the cliff edge to get our final view of the front of the falls.
We checked out the cliffs on the opposite side of the river and noticed one that looked particularly enticing...it had a white granite glacial erratic perched on the ledge of it...we wondered if this would make a destination for tomorrow.
We passed through the last camp site and headed to the area back of the falls, where we spent time having lunch and enjoying the roar of the falls. A rainbow was evident below the falls which I hoped to capture on film.
After lunch, our real adventure began, as that is where the trail ended. We posed for the obligatory pic and then hand railed the river. Bushwhacking this section was quite easy and probably made a good transition between trail and off-trail adventure. We were headed up the river to the top side of another gorge. There is a canoe camp site there, which we were aiming to camp at because it had a great sandy beach, neat rocks and nice pools.
The camp site was ours, so we all went for a swim as the water was quite nice and the sun felt great. We used the portage trail to hike up the river a bit, to see where the old logging dam was, and to check out areas where we might swim across tomorrow to get to the north side. On a previous trip, we remembered that we found many pieces of logging chains plus many artifacts from a logging camp. We viewed those again and found more cables that were wrapped around trees and more huge chains that were used to hold the log boom together. In many places along the bank, gentian was the sole blooming plant left at this late season.
We did find a suitable place to cross upstream but as we headed back for dinner, we talked about the option of crossing right at our campsite.
After dinner, Michael swam across the river current, to set up ropes as an option for tomorrow. He wanted to check out the current and give us a choice to ferry our packs across without having to keep contact with them.
I sat down on the beach while it slowly got dark. I witnessed a shooting star in the clear night. John, Dan and Mary bivied on the beach while the rest of us were just back of the shore enjoying the night.
September 5, Sunday
GOAL: The Granite Erratic
We all gathered for breakfast lined up against a huge log that lay on the beach...it was a great backrest. Michael elected to have us vote on the choice of crossing the river at this spot, he wanted to make sure everyone was comfortable with it. There were rapids above and below the area we were to cross, so there were a few safety concerns to consider that were adequately covered.
We scurried to get our packs ready for the crossing...Michael swam across to get ready for the ferry. The ropes were used to ferry the packs across and then we started crossing the river. John, Dan and I decided to try the "pendulum" rope where we would flow along with the river and inch our way up the rope to the opposite shore. It worked great. There were a lot of huge boulders under the surface so we slowly made progress as we neared the opposite shore.
We all ended up on a neat outcropping where we took some time re-arranging our gear and changing clothes before we headed off to the cliffs. We soon found the draw that we wanted to follow...it was filled with huge slippery rocks making travel difficult. We only took it a short ways before deciding that an adjacent razorback ridge might be better. We came across a neat rock crevice that was being fed by a stream. It was filled with spray, that was not to be missed by our already hot condition. We took turns enjoying the mist.
We continued climbing steadily and then took a break closer to the top to have lunch. After lunch, we hung our food bags and gear in a box-like canyon, and then ascended the cliff to see if we could locate the granite boulder on the ledge, that we had viewed from Agawa Falls. Michael located it very quickly with his earlier triangulation efforts and we all enjoyed outstanding views of the Agawa River and Lake Superior in the distance.
Although it would of been a nice place to bivy, we would of had to descend again to retrieve our gear and we thought it was best to move on to another location. We decided to make that destination Howling Wolf Lake before it got too dark. We descended to pick up our stuff and then after a few short ascents, the terrain wasn't too rough in reaching our destination. Along the way, in a bog area, I saw the prettiest pink flowers which I will try to identify later. The flowers were daisy-like and the stem had many small whorls of leaves evenly spaced.
We located our camp site in a mostly mossy forest along Howling Wolf Lake. It has been a mostly hot day with a lot of black flies so we were all looking for a little water to wash off. Black flies have been particularly hideous today...at least we thought so, because after all it is September.
Evening came too quick. By the time we had dinner, it was time for sleep.
September 6, Monday
A return to Kwagama Hill
I had a very restless night...maybe I was overtired or maybe I just didn't want to sleep yet. I laid awake until after midnight and then fell in and out of sleep throughout the night. In the morning we discussed our plans to go to Kwagama Hill. I had been there before but was anxious to go back again. We took turns cutting azimuths with me doing the final leg which was actually the ascent from our last water stop at a pond. There were many contours to climb...the rain had just set in prior to this when we were having lunch. Dan and Michael had set up their tarps so that we would have a drier environment but then it was time to move on.
The rain continued relentlessly during the climb and became a enveloping downpour. We were soon soaked. The fog also set in making it difficult to find the actual bivy spot we had in mind. There are two high points at Kwagama and we reached the east peak first but it was visually hard to find the saddle in between. The other peak was indistinguishable to the eye. We did some "controlled wandering" and finally found the west peak where we wanted to set up camp. We set the camp up below the summit. We all made hot drinks which was quite the contrast to the desire for a cold drink earlier in the day.
On the summit of Kwagama, lay the remains of an old fire tower that had been demolished by wind some time ago. After the skies cleared, we all watched the wisps of condensation rising off the distant forest and lakes. Lake Superior was once again in view and a pink horizon was evident before sunset. It was a wonderful way to end the "Labor Day" holiday today.
Most of us decided to abandon our tarps and spend the night on the summit in our bivies. It would be a rare treat to spend the night in full view of the stars and moon. The winds were still quite brisk but we tried to find a few little nooks in the rock that were lower. The winds really picked up more but we were able to hang tight. It did make things rather cool as the winds penetrated the surface of our sleeping bags through our scant bug bivies, but we were content to remain there.
September 7, Tuesday
The Long Descent
We got up around 6 AM and returned to camp to have breakfast, as the winds were still an issue. After breakfast, we took an occasional excursion to the top but we decided it was still not the place to hang out.
We packed up and headed down the mountain following several azimuths. Although it was mostly a downhill course, it wasn't without difficulties. We had to descend a particularly treacherous cliff which took some effort and later we traveled through a draw which had a lot of slippery rocks.
We later came out to an old logging road which was way overgrown. Many alders and thickets made travel difficult. Beaver dams also caused spillage onto the road which had us traveling in dense spruce and alders. This was all a new experience for Cathy, and she commented that she now has a different definition of what the word "road" means. She had envisioned an open two-track and a lot of these roads are barely discernible as having ever been that :)
We originally planned for a different bivy site than the one we decided to head to. It was already 5:30 PM, so Michael suggested one of the old gravel pits that lay along Wizard Creek Road. Some of us had been there before, so we now dubbed it the Wizard Hilton. The road is only passable in certain sections because it has been totally blown out as a result of flooding caused by exploding beaver dams. Many of the crossings were over boot height so we either tried to hop existing rocks or in the case of one crossing, John placed big rocks in the creek for us to hop on.
After arriving at the Hilton, we quickly set out our sleeping gear and bivies which still contained last night's condensation. There wasn't a lot of sun left but it did the trick. We ate dinner late and then Mary had a fire which was the first fire for this trip. Staying in an old gravel pit and being near a water source, it was a safe place to have one.
I went down to sit by the creek to listen to the water and view the stars. The combination plus the solitude were very enjoyable.
September 8, Wednesday
A climb to the radio tower
We arose to a slow morning. We didn't have far to travel today so we packed up lazily. We decided to take a short walk to the Sand River Road which was nearby. That would allow us to view changes made by the logging company that was operating in the area. We soon heard a truck and it was one of the local cabin owners who we had met before...John. He now worked for the logging operation part time.
Most of the camp owners were now on leases through the logging company as they had purchased several of the townships from the railroad. John was heavily involved in the political aspect of what was going on between LSPP and the logging operation. He invited us to their operation where they had an employee store filled with goodies. Although it was tempting, we didn't take him up on the offer. Twenty men were employed by the operation so they had their bunkhouse a short distance away.
Michael asked John about the tower that we had viewed from Kwagama Hill. He told us about a small trail that went to the tower so we immediately decided to make a side trip there. He estimated it would take about two hours to go there because it was so steep. We looked at our topo sheet and saw that it might only be a klick and a half away...it only took us 45 minutes. We saw the tower and metal clad cabin that the caretaker went to twice a year. We viewed Kwagama from there as well as sections of the canyon. We lunched at the top and then descended to the old Wizard Creek Rd. to the power lines where we would walk several klicks to our next campsite.
Helicopter activity had been rampant the last few days as they were replacing the old power line in the canyon. We occasionally stopped to watch the activity as they flew by with old poles dangling from cables.
We maneuvered though thick heavy mud and stream crossings of Black Beaver Creek. Michael found a big bear track in the mud.
Michael decided that we would spend the night at Black Beaver Lake instead of the previous idea of climbing another 23 contours to a high viewing spot above the Agawa River.
Black Beaver Lake has neat rock outcroppings which we all swam off of. We stayed up late and chatted a lot of nonsense which I suppose is appropriate for the last night.
September 9, Thursday
Descent into the canyon
Today is our last day in the canyon. When we awoke, the horizon was bathed in a pink fog. It rapidly changed as the sun rose - the fog became yellow and finally white. An eagle perched on a tree completed the perfect picture.
We hesitantly packed up and headed out on the rustic track along Black Beaver Lake. We decided to check if there was anything left of the lodge that once stood near a small bay on the lake. Michael had seen the lodge many years back before it was burned down. We hoped that the fireplace might of remained. We followed Michael to the location but the fireplace was unfortunately crumbled, probably by the effects of frost. It had been made of solid brick and field rock mortared together. An old kettle, glass, lumber and stove pieces lay in the rubble. We sat at the edge of the lake pondering what it would of been like to live there.
A few cabins still exist on the lake. We remembered the picture that was shown to us by the Canadian fellow John who we talked with yesterday. He showed us a picture of three men with their bounty of lake trout that they had caught while ice fishing on Black Beaver Lake.
We were now ready to descend down to the canyon. There is a short trail that leads from the power line to the canyon proper. We had used it before...although it starts innocently enough at the top end, it quickly descends rapidly. There are a variety of ropes to use which have been permanently placed to help the hiker. Although they are totally not necessary, they do make the descent much easier and safer. Last time we had used the rope route, the ropes were in poor shape and couldn't be relied on...many were old pieces of jute but now they have been replaced by climbing rope. A steel cable remained in one portion and an old wooden ladder route also remained.
We dropped to the canyon floor and went to view all the immediate falls in the area - Bridal Veil where some of us bivied at the top of over two years ago and Upper and Lower Beaver Falls.
We packed up to the station and immediately saw Kevin, the station manager. Several of us met him in the past. The tour train would soon be arriving so Kevin was getting ready for the daily two hour visit of tour people. There would be 500 people arriving today. He told us to stow our packs in the back porch of the First Aid Building so that they would be safe.
We sat on the front porch and watched the train come in. I think most folks were curious as to our presence, some thought we were park personnel but others probably wondered about our state of being a little dirty. A pleasant Amish man and his three young sons approached some of us later, and asked about our journey. He and his sons loved to camp. We had lunch among the crowd but they quickly departed as their train stop was over. It was quiet instantly.
We talked to Kevin again and waited for our train. We would be dropped at Frater Road to reclaim our cars. We quickly changed into clean duds and headed back to the Voyageur's Cookhouse to have some fine food and contemplate our next trip in October...we talked about a change of venue...perhaps we would be coming back to the canyon or make a return to the McCormick Tract in the Upper Peninsula...there was time to decide.
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