Backpacking the Pukaskwa Coastal Trail

Important Stuff:

  • Trail is 60 kilometres long
  • Rocks, rugged bush and sandy beaches
  • A 3-4 hour drive east from Thunder Bay, Ontario
  • Stream crossings

Rugged, isolated, and rocky is a good description of this Canadian National Park east of Thunder Bay, Ontario. In places, pine trees and purple flowers grow out of the most hostile soils and tiny fractures in rocks. Driftwood piles high, scattered like matchsticks on the beach, a tribute to the power of the storms Lake Superior experiences. These daily scenes were typical of what we experienced backpacking along the shoreline of the largest freshwater lake in the world – it’s immense.

The backpacking trail generally hugs the shoreline of Lake Superior in Pukaskwa National Park; a wilderness park that consists of two backcountry routes, the footpath for hikers and a marine trail for paddlers. The Park is over 1878 square kilometres (725 sq. miles), and it is remote, with many rocky vistas and wild boreal forests.

For those familiar with the Group of Seven – artists who captured wild Canadian landscapes working magic with their paintbrush and easel – this area was one of Lawren Harris’s stomping grounds… Google his work, it’s lovely and stark and really captures the essence of Lake Superior.

We chose this footpath because we hoped for a wilderness experience without hundreds of other hiking friends. Compared to several popular trails in Canada, Pukaskwa had only 600 visitors in all of 2016.

Meeting with Parks Staff, we listened to a mandatory orientation on the day we arrived at Hattie Cove, the main campground just inside the Park boundary. The debrief lasted less than half an hour and consisted of Park staff reviewing a binder depicting the ins and outs of bears and wildlife, campsites, river crossings and how long it would take to find help should you require it.

Backpacking offers two options – booking a boat shuttle to the start along the shore, or you can hike out as far as you like and turn around and return. There are pros and cons to both, including the cost of the boat shuttle to be factored in (be warned it’s not cheap).

Ferry pulling away….

Keith, an operator with McCuaig Marine, picked us up bright and early on a Monday morning mid-August at 7:15, at the docks. The boat cruised over the quiet swells of less than ½ a metre high. Keith shared advice on where to stop for lunches, best campsites, and other things to consider.

Cloudy, with a 30 % chance of rain, we disembarked from the boat, and Keith pointed us towards the trailhead. Two bright red Adirondack style chairs perched on the beach, part of the Parks Canada project to encourage people to “slow down and enjoy the view” moment, called to us, but we decided to start the hike. We felt very alone once the boat pulled away in this immense wilderness. A large sign installed to the right of the Bay indicated the start of the trailhead, and after a few false starts, we crossed the rocky stream to the left of the sign and launched our adventure.

Start of the Trail

A mere kilometre or so into the hike, the rain started. Not a full out pelting rain, but steady drizzle. The footpath meandered inland, up and down for at least five kilometres and we experienced the thick bush, with little light poking through the soaked and shiny green canopy. Rotting trees that had long fallen over, moss and decay permeated our noses while we climbed over stumps, rocks and roots and in a few places, soft black soil willing to devour your foot up to the edge of your boot.

End of the first day…

It drizzled until we reached our campsite many hours later. As for the views of Lake Superior, there were few on the first day. We camped at White Spruce Harbour and had a fire while we ate dehydrated coconut Thai soup with lentils. And of course, some decadent chocolate and a sliver of cheap boxed red wine that tasted heavenly. We packed our food in the provided bear lockers before falling asleep almost immediately.

The second day started out decaffeinated. Turns out, the coffee sat on its usual shelf at home. According to the map, the second day involved numerous elevation changes, which didn’t improve anyone’s mood at this point. I think it’s best to describe the terrain as lumpy, a 16-kilometre lumpy trek to our next campsite. We started out by 8:00 am not entirely sure how long it would take to hike. We made good time for the first few kilometres and then we slowed significantly when we arrived at the rocky shores of Lake Superior. Jumping from rock to rock, we hoisted our packs up over steep ledges, and our muscles tensed with the full body workout.

Hiking along the shoreline
River Crossing

Then the path would meander back into the boreal forest. We arrived at our campsite in Oiseau Bay, a swampy mosquito infested area with a large beautiful sandy beach. After a few dives into the cold water to clean off the sweat and grime of a hot sunny day, we cooked shrimp rice curry. The conversation over dinner focused on the trail – not yet laughing about a few of the day’s mishaps – a slightly sprained ankle, a tumble into a murky, muddy creek and a few navigational errors. Today, we felt like amateurs… but optimistic tomorrow would be better. We blamed the coffee. Or lack thereof.

To this point, we had not seen anyone for two full days.

The next day we trekked through an ancient riverbed of sand and rock to start the day. The path meandered back inland and then rejoined the shoreline again with another sunny, hot day of 17 kilometres. We trudged along the footpath that offered diverse views and some hilly terrain, making consistent, steady time.

Fisherman’s Cove

Resting at Fisherman’s Cove, we enjoyed a leisurely lunch after a stream crossing to land at this magical spot. The Cove is a sandy oasis that quieted our minds and lulled us into a warm nap on the beach. Leaving the Cove almost an hour later, we hiked to the White Sands River camping location after crossing the suspension bridge and enjoying the sounds of the roaring falls that tumbled aggressively down the river. Perching our sleeping mats on the sand, we basked in the sunshine, encouraging our toes to dry out, and our minds to drift like the waves rolling up on the beach. Our days had become a triathlon of sleep, eat, hike, repeat.

We swam, chilled and chatted with a father and son about their trip. We counted seven other backpackers camping at the sites, a crowd compared to what we had experienced to date.

As we enjoyed the campfire after eating hummus, pita and a bowl of hearty soup, a lynx quietly scampered through the back of our site. That stopped the conversation.

Speaking of wildlife, bear prints and some kind of canine prints (wolf or coyote) were visible in the mud, and one hiker in front of us saw a moose. Seeing the lynx reminded us of the remoteness of this trail. And that is part of the allure, it is quiet, not well known and one of the best “get away from people” experiences to date for hiking.

Sign Post
Field of rocks to hike…

Early the next day, we discussed pushing through to the end of the path – 16 kilometres away – a decision easily made as the skies darkened and the grey clouds hung low. We left at 7:30 am, and the trail started out flat but quickly changed into a gnarly rocky and rooty section that once it started to rain, required careful footing to avoid the slick and waterlogged ground. Mud was the magic word – a suck-your-boot-off-your-foot type of mud. At least our packs seemed lighter.

We ran low on water as we marched onwards. A long boardwalk, floating like a lily pad in a marshy area reassured us that the end of the trail was nearby. Despite our eagerness to shower, we snapped a few photos to celebrate the success of the adventure. We checked out with Park staff, showered and loaded the car with muddy boots and stinky clothes. A late afternoon lunch of fish and chips – the beer battered pickerel kind, was just what the hiking gods had ordered as we watched the rain dump from the sky.

Sunset Last Evening….

Things to consider:

  • Over 15km each day was ambitious for this trail if you want to enjoy the area. 15-17kilometres a day meant hiking for a good portion of the day. Next time, we would be less ambitious and enjoy the scenery.
  • A satellite phone would be a good option as there are so few people, if something seriously goes sideways, there is no one around to advise or to send for help.
  • Be proficient at river/stream crossings, there are several that can be deeper than advertised.

 

End of the Trail….

Lesley – Summer 2017

1 thought on “Backpacking the Pukaskwa Coastal Trail

  1. Sounds like a really nice trip!
    Did you have to speed things up when you realized you forgot the coffee?

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