The Lake Superior Coastal Trail

Rating: Very Difficult.
Time: 5-7 Days
The trail ascends and descends over cliffs and rocky outcrops and it crosses beaches of boulders and driftwood. Use extreme caution when hiking this difficult terrain. The lichen covered rocks can be very slippery, especially when wet with dew, fog or rain. Wind blown trees may obstruct the trail. Blue diamond-shaped symbols mark where the trail enters forested areas. Rock cairns mark exposed coastline sections. Generally the trail hugs the coastline. If you lose the trail, continue along the shore and eventually you will find the trail again.

_Lake Superior Provincial Park Hiking Guide_

Ranger Tim dropped me off at Gargantua, 35km north of my cabin and a further 14 jouncing klicks down a dirt road that might have been in Ecuador. He has walked the Coastal Trail four or five times and I kept asking him if he was sure–sure–I would be okay alone. Eventually, reassured, I swung my pack on and he yanked on the compression straps, tsk-tsking at my overloading.

Tent, sleeping bag and pad. Spare pants, underwear, shirt and socks. Gore-tex jacket, fleece, hat, flip-flops. Cookpot, cup, bowl, spoon. Four packs of noodles, loaf of bread, cheese, Marmite, peanut butter, yoghurt, teabags, oatmeal, home-mixed muesli and GORP. Swiss Army Knife. Torch. Waterproof matches and lighter. Bugspray, toothbrush, Tampax, moisturiser, camp soap. Desert Solitaire and Going After Cacciato. Moleskine notebook. Uniball pens. Excedrin, for coffee sweats. Band-aids. Map. Rope. Water bladder.

Enough to make me stagger slightly until I got used to the burden. Far too much food, it turned out. I eat extremely on a long hike, but can never predict beforehand whether I’ll be ravenous or ascetic.

Superior’s summer is too lovely to last long, but by the middle of August it was finally in full bloom. I left Tim at the car park and set off down a Hansel-and-Gretel path, a deceptively easy 45-minute stroll to an abandoned cottage. A stone hearth and chimney is all that is left in a clearing behind a sandy cove.

At this early stage the Very Difficult trail rating seemed pitched to what Edward Abbey called Industrial Tourists. So far I wasn’t hiking as much as grazing. Wild raspberries and blueberries flanked the path. Mushrooms popped up under every tree. There were snowberries–wintergreen-flavoured Tic-tacs–and wintergreen leaves. I thought of the excuses I would make rushing into a New York conference room: “So sorry I’m late. Unavoidably detained in a raspberry patch.”

This shore is bountiful. It’s a magic trick to drink sweet, cool water straight from the waves on a fine-sand beach, and to see pond frogs jumping in rockpools. There is driftwood and brushwood wherever you look, and smooth cobbles to ring the fire with. Birch paper makes perfect kindling. If you could throw a stone straight you’d brain enough game–hares, squirrels–for a fine stew.

The natural harvest is explosive this season; the best in 25 years, say the old hands. In the backcountry there are whole stands of raspberries unpicked on the beaches, and so many blueberries you soon learn to pass all but the choicest and fattest. There will always be more. ‘Booberries!’ my young friend Aidan calls them, and I wished he were here to set down in a patch to pick until he turned as purple as Veruca Salt.

The woodland stroll didn’t last. The trail spat me out onto a cobbled beach, the first of many. The Coastal Trail, not surprisingly, hugs the shore wherever possible. You cross coves of fine sand, pebbles, small stones, cobbles, jagged rocks and huge boulders. There are smooth sheets of granite, grey streaked with pink like salt-water taffy, jagged rhyolite, quartz and diabase, evil, predatory granite cobbles. I learned to pick my way over rocks and cobbles, pack throwing me off balance from time to time as I searched ahead for trail-marker cairns, cunningly camouflaged in a landscape of rocks. After hours each day my field of vision reduced to next flat rock. Hop. Hop. Brace and hop. It was blessedly dry: Vibram hiking soles are no better than rollerskates on slippery, mossy granite.

I met five other hikers on the trail. The first day I was passed by a Torontonian with a heavy knee-brace and a heavier pack who told me he was fitting in this hike before knee surgery. Might as well get value for the medical fees. We walked for a while, then I stayed behind to pick raspberries and lost him for good. He was nice, but we were glad to see the back of one another; this trail isn’t meant to be shared with strangers. The second day I sat on the beach at Beatty Cove and watched Tom and Jake gallop towards me; a pair of twenty-year-old naturalists who work for Tim, who were trying to fit the Coastal Trail into their two days off. Then I met Ralph and Mike, high school friends who had been doing a camping trip like this every year for twenty years. We shared the camaraderie of the blistered, and I wished I’d packed in Guinness like them. They told me about the innkeeper who had shuttled them to the trailhead: “I sit in a deckchair looking at these guys limping over the sand, and I ask myself, what part of backpacking is supposed to be fun?”

Outdoors, the in-head jukebox plays all day, songs I’d long forgotten that emerge with complete lyrics. Studenty stuff, mostly. I have no control over the dial.

Some days are sleepy
Some days are lazy
Some days you feel like a bit of a baby
Some days take less but most days take more
Some slip through your fingers and onto the floor
Some days you wake up in the army
Some days are better than others

—————

Like a bird
On a wire
Like a drunk
In a midnight choir
I have tried
In my way
To be free

The first night set the pattern: I walked until six and camped in a deserted cove. I stripped and swam off the day’s sweat, then spent twenty minutes throwing a stick tied to my pink bear rope at the branch of white pine. Glad no one was watching me throw like a girl. Eventually I looped it over a branch I wasn’t aiming for and left it dangling, ready to string my food up out of reach of animals once I’d finished my ramen extravaganza.

I sat on a log in front of a small driftwood fire, eating noodles. Ten mergansers crossed the cove, so busy ducking for food I could hardly keep a count straight. The molten sun looked ready for a glassblower. When it got dark I brushed my teeth with lake water, tied up my food bag and crawled into the nylon coffin of my bivvy-sac. The mosquitos puzzled at the net inches above my face: insolently, I blew the carbon dioxide they crave. The full moon rose above the trees. A loon called. I wanted to tell someone, but no one was there. I imagined telling someone later, how I would describe it. I wondered if my friends were watching this same moon. But no one was there. At last I understood it as a secret gift; my private moon.

Next morning I packed up without breakfast, holding out for a good blueberry patch to sweeten the muesli. By eight the sun was warming my back on a huge red rock high above the lake. The water was clear to the bottom, a giant lens for studying grains of sand. I sat with my purple breakfast, a queen surveying her territory, glad to have been deeded this landscape.

4 thoughts on “The Lake Superior Coastal Trail”

  1. I am on the verge of tears reading this. As an Irish/Ojibway mix, you cannot imagine the stirrings in my blood that this post brings. A beautiful evocative picture of my ancestor’s traditional territory, one which I dearly miss despite being happily ensconced on the west coast.

    And then the Irish accents and the Guinness (one of which I partook of last night after I played a set of jigs and reels Lunasa-style on my flute with five of my band mates at our local community fair here on Bowen Island).

    Martin Hayes the Clare fiddler writes about the essence of Irish music hanging in the “lonesome note.” There is such a complex of harmonies resonating in this post for me, that I’m humming at a full on minor seventh chord.

    Thanks for coming to Canada, Dervala.

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  2. You’d mentioned your Ojibway blood before and I wondered whether you were from these parts (and thought of you as I looked at the pictographs at Agawa Point). I’m reading up on the Ojibway heritage around Superior. There are some great books in the park library that you might like if you haven’t read them already:

    Superior: The Haunted Shore, Littlejohn and Drew, 1974. A coffee table book in the wrong format–the prose is luminous.
    Ojibway Ceremonies, Johnston
    Four Way Lodge, Reed, 1924. This one’s a thinly-fictionalised novel about Agawa Lodge.

    The place is extraordinary. I can’t imagine what the 18th/19th century Ojibway felt when they realised they were losing it. And I perfectly understand how the idea of ‘owning’ such a landscape had never occurred to them.

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  3. My family are actually from Cape Croker, down in the southern end of Georgian Bay, but I’ve been to Agawa. Ojibway Ceremonies and its companion, Ojibway Heritage are on the shelf next to me right now, leaning against and Ojibway-English dictionary published in 1903 for Methodist missionaries going into the bush.

    My mom’s family are Johnsons, way back, and I’m certain we are related to Basil. I think my great grandmother went to residential school in Midland with his mom.

    If you enjoyed those pictographs at Agawa, sometime when you pry yourself from the north and get near Peterborough, Ontario, you’ll have to go see the Peterborough Petroglyphs. These are figues carved in rock a few hundred years ago. They cover maybe 600 square feet, and the hundreds of little doodles and figures tell many stories about cosmology, spirituality and history.

    Anyway, I’ll look up the other books you mentioned. Thanks for seeing us in the land up there.

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  4. Hi there,

    My boyfriend Erik and I had the opportunity to experience this beautiful trial in June of 2003. It is comforting to be secluded from society, and to see the views along Superior’s coastline. It was definitely a challenging hike, and was my first camping experience ever. We went for five days, and started at Guargantua. I was definitely a little apprehensive when approaching those pit-privies, but thankfully not many people have used the trial yet that season, so there weren’t any unpleasant surprises. The old shorelines are so beautiful, and the Canadian Shield was amazing. Once in a while we would get lost, but thanks to the rock carns we stayed on tract. This piece rekindled my fond memories of our trip, and I really enjoyed reading it. I remember the old chimney that was left by it’s lonesome! It was really awesome , and made me marvel about its history.

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