Gear Review: Outbound Expedition Backpack

I went into the summer of 2015 saying I was going to try my hand – or my back – at backpacking. I had the ambitious goal of tackling the entire Coastal Trail in Lake Superior Provincial Park this summer. That’s a grueling 65 kilometre trail, which on average, takes experienced hikers five to seven days to complete. Yup, like I said, ambitious. Luckily for me, I have a very reasonable husband who managed to talk some sense into me, and convinced me to scale down my unrealistic goal to avoid disappointment. Instead of completing the entire Coastal Trail, I would work on seasoning my back and legs to backpacking, and complete sections of the Coastal Trail. And that in itself was hard enough.

Since I had never done backpacking before, I had to purchase some equipment before I could set out on my first overnight excursion in July. The two items of equipment I couldn’t survive without were a backpack and hiking shoes (yes, somehow I’ve managed to survive 25 years of hiking and outdoor adventures without hiking shoes). Now that I’ve had amble time breaking in both pieces of equipment, I give you, my first official gear review. Stay tuned for more.

But before I get right into the nitty gritty, let me preface this review and future reviews with this note: these aren’t going to be your typical gear reviews. Yes, I’ll give you the breakdown on the gear and my overall impression, but for the most part, these reviews are geared for people like me, who are budget conscious and are interested in breaking into the sport and activity. They’re essentially novices like me and are interested in trying their hand at something new, and therefore, don’t want to break the bank. For all of my expert hiker readers, please feel free to leave your feedback in the comment section and suggest your personal favourite equipment so I can try in the future.

Outbound Expedition Backpack, 75 Litres:

Outbound Expedition Backpack, 75 L. Photo courtesy of www.canadiantire.ca.

Outbound Expedition Backpack, 75 L. Photo courtesy of http://www.canadiantire.ca.

My first-ever backpack comes from Canadian Tire. Before you begin criticising my choice in pack, I should start by saying, I am a newlywed and a new homeowner, so my budget is tight and my options limited. I had a very strict budget in mind for my pack, and knew I could be shelling out over $300.00 for a decent pack. However, my finances wouldn’t stretch that far for the time being. Plus, not knowing at the time whether or not I would enjoy the adventure, I didn’t want to splurge just yet.

Anyways, at the time, I spent $85.00 on my pack. I ended up getting the Outbound Expedition Backpack on sale from its regular price of $139.99. I’m a sucker for a good deal. The Expedition Backpack is a very large pack – it can hold 75 litres. At the time, I thought that was a good thing; however, I know now that it’s a little bigger than needed for a one- or two-night camping trip. For a longer trek, like the entire Coastal Trail, it is much more appropriate and suitable.

The pack is sturdy, durable, and water resistant. Everything you want, right? Plus it’s red, which for me, is a bonus (it’s one of my favourite colours). The pack comes with a large dry cell component with drawstring enclosure, big enough to fit a heavy insulated sleeping bag and then some. When gearing up for a trip, I can fit my -20 degree Celsius sleeping bag, two small dog blankets, a change of clothing plus rain gear, and a pair of Crocs to change into. And trust me, it can fit plenty more since it has two zippers that unzip to allow for an additional eight inches of expansion.

In addition to the dry cell compartment, the pack consists of two side zippered compartments, two side pockets, a top compartment – or lid or brain – with three zippered pouches, and a bottom sleeping bag compartment that I prefer to use for heavy duty items like a pot and water. Underneath that bottom compartment is a small section which holds a rain hood to cover the entire contents of the bag. My husband was jealous of this feature since his older pack doesn’t have this necessary feature. The zippers on all of the compartments are thick and strong and can definitely handle some weight.

Aside from holding everything but the kitchen sink, the pack does have great shoulder straps and back support coupled with extensive padding for added comfort. The shoulder straps and load lifters are heavily reinforced and stitched to the pack well to ensure they will not rip or fray from the pack and fit comfortably around the shoulders and under the armpits. Metal bars are found within the back panel underneath padding, allowing hikers to mould the bars to the contour of their back – a bonus for lumbar support and comfort. The hip belt stabilizer was a bonus for me, since it adjusts to fit someone with wider hips and extra weight around the midsection. The hip belt stabilizer is also heavily padded. The smaller sternum straps fit properly across the chest. However, for someone with a larger chest, the straps don’t expand that much. Someone with a C cup and more than 40 inches around would struggle to fit in the sternum straps comfortably.

The pack also comes equipped with two daisy chains and two ice pick loops.

What’s the biggest flaw of this bag? It’s the clips. There are upwards of 20 clips on this pack and other than the clips found on the hip stabilizer strap, the rest are very poorly made and are not meant to support excessive weight or to be pulled extremely tight. They’re constantly moving and never stay completely locked. While I have yet to have one break on me, I know it will only be a matter of time. Had the makers put more heavy duty clips on this pack, I would definitely be giving this pack a five-star rating for its price.

In addition to the poor make of the clips, the clip system and compression straps found at the bottom of the bag which is often used to attach a sleeping mattress or sleeping pad, does not expand enough to fit most sleeping  pads. I always dread packing up in the mornings when backpacking since I know I can never successfully clip my sleeping pad into my pack on the first try. I always have to unroll and try again (sometimes three times). Had the makers given an extra two inches on each strap, this would solve this problem.

As I’ve already mentioned, this pack is massive, holding an impressive 75 litres. Due to its size, there is some considerable weight to the pack. In fact, it weighs just under 15 pounds when completely empty. Considering that backpacking is all about carrying the weight on your back, carrying 15 pounds just in material is a little silly. However, you get what you pay for – the more money you put into a pack, the lighter weight the material.

Lastly, this pack is long. The more I got into backpacking this year, the more I noticed the length of this pack. I’m 5 feet 8 inches tall and found this pack slightly too long for me. Anyone shorter than me would struggle with this pack since it would stick either too high above the shoulders and head or hang too low below the waist.

Overall grade: B/B+

Would I recommend: Yes

Ideal for beginners? Yes

The Duke of Edinburgh Hike: Korah Colts on the Coastal Trail

Husband and wife duo Marko and Ruth Koskenoja are no strangers to backpacking and Lake Superior Provincial Park. Together, the two have been leading the Duke of Edinburgh Hike with Sault Ste. Marie high school students from Korah Collegiate and Vocational School for seven years. Each year, the Koskenojas lead a dynamic group of Korah’s best and brightest into the wilderness for five-days of intense backpacking to fulfill the adventurous journey requirements of the prestigious Duke of Edinburgh Award. This year, they guided one of three teams from Korah through a portion of the rugged and agonizing Coastal Trail.

The Duke of Edinburgh Award, a prestigious award created by Britain’s Prince Philip in 1965, encourages personal development and community involvement amongst youth. Those interested in obtaining the award must pass all three levels, Bronze, Silver, and Gold, complete a volunteer and physical challenge, have a skill and, also endure an expedition component. Youth must be between 14 and 25 years of age and complete all components within two and a half years. Recipients of the Silver award usually receive the honour in Toronto, Ontario from the Governor General of Canada. Gold award winners receive the honour from a member of the Royal Family.

The view from the first mountain scaled by the Gold Duke of Edinburgh hikers.

The view from the first mountain scaled by the Gold Duke of Edinburgh hikers.

This year, the Koskenojas headed the Gold team, designated for youth 16 years and up. This year’s Gold squad included nine Grade 12 students. The team, including the Koskenoja’s dog Linkon, rendezvoused at 9:00am on Wednesday, September 23rd 2015 at the old, rundown Esso on the corner of Highway 17 North and 556 before heading north to Lake Superior Provincial Park, specifically to the Gargantua Harbour trailhead, the most northern access point to the Coastal Trail. The group hiked south from Gargantua Harbour over the most difficult of terrain, scaling a mountain, scrambling across rock faces, crossing rivers, and hoping from boulder to boulder before reaching Rhyolite Cove, one of the best kept secrets in Lake Superior Provincial Park. Though the temperature hovered around 16 degrees Celsius – the perfect temperature for backpacking – the group still risked a brisk swim in Lake Superior, cleaning themselves from the over seven kilometres worth of gruelling hiking endured earlier.

Duke of Edinburgh Hike

The view from the Gold group’s campsite at Rhyolite Cove. Photo courtesy of Marko Koskenoja.

After spending the night beneath the stars at Rhyolite Cove, the group broke camp at 9:00am in 10 degree Celsius weather, aiming to reach Beatty Cove by nightfall. The Korah squad, led by their two certified wilderness guides, endured eight kilometres of technical backpacking over mountains, rocks, exposed roots, and sandy and boulder beaches before reaching Beatty Cove. The five hours of hiking, carrying between 35-45 pounds worth of kit, made the team exhausted, but not too exhausted for another dip in the surprisingly still warm Superior.

The Gold team's kit. Each pack was between 35-45 pounds.

The Gold team’s kit. Each pack was between 35-45 pounds.

On day three of their hike, the Korah group had a much more leisure hike ahead – only four kilometres, and covering less physically strenuous terrain. The group made camp just one kilometre north of the Baldhead River, nearing Lake Superior Provincial Park’s Orphan Lake Trail, where they had planned to meet the Silver and Bronze Korah-led teams later on in the week. That day, the seven-member Silver squad, made up of Grade 11 students, led by Christa Prophet (a Korah teacher) and Dean Williams (a volunteer and Korah parent), rendezvoused with the Gold team, after hiking four kilometres in via the moderately-difficult Orphan Lake Trail. The Silver team slept at the mouth of the Baldhead River, and members from each team visited with one another.

The Gold team was treated to their easiest day of hiking on day four, travelling only one kilometre to the Baldhead River, where they would stay overnight at the Silver encampment. The Silver and Gold squads were joined by the Bronze team, who was only spending one night in the Provincial Park, and backpacked via the Orphan Lake Trail to the large meeting point. Specific members of the Gold team were responsible for setting up tents, sleeping arrangements, and hoisting food bags in the trees, safeguarding it from potential wildlife. The remainder of the Korah groups hiked north on the Orphan Lake Trail with empty packs to meet with the novice Bronze team, which consisted of 18 Grade 10 students and their team leads, Cam Wilson and Jason Lane. The teams were met with treats from the Bronze squad, who came with hamburgers, buns, and marshmallows – a real luxury after already spending many nights backcountry camping, eating dehydrated food stuffs.

Some of the Duke of Edinburgh hikers taking in Saturday's sunset at the Baldhead River.

Some of the Duke of Edinburgh hikers taking in Saturday’s sunset at the Baldhead River. Photo courtesy of Marko Koskenoja.

After setting up camp for the large contingent of students, the group spent Saturday relishing in the above normal temperatures and in the beauty of the park. Some waded in the Baldhead River, others swam in Lake Superior, some fished, and more sunbathed on the polished rocks. In the evening, they enjoyed a roaring campfire on a west facing beach, which rewarded the group for their tiresome journey with a beautiful sunset.

On Sunday, the group had packed up their Korah Colt encampment by 9:30am, hiking four kilometres on the Orphan Lake Trail to meet their school bus that would take them back to Sault Ste. Marie for much needed rest and relaxation.

Korah has been successfully graduating students through the Duke of Edinburgh program since 2002 under the leadership of Jannick Harvey and Patti Merelaid. The 2015 expedition was the first year in which the weather fully cooperated and the group didn’t endure torrential downpours – in fact, it didn’t rain at all. In other years, severe weather has hindered expeditions, slowing down the progress of the Gold team. On other expeditions, the Duke of Edinburgh hikers have gotten up close and personal with the local wildlife, including a black bear, which rummaged through their campsite and ate food that had been hidden in a tree.

The Agawa Rock Pictographs: The Symbols of Gi chi Gamiing

The sheer cliff in which the Agawa Rock Pictographs are painted on, as seen in May 2015 during a late ice thaw.

The sheer cliff in which the Agawa Rock Pictographs are painted on, as seen in May 2015 during a late ice thaw.

My love for history runs deep. I fell in love with history when I was in high school, taking the mandatory Canadian history course in Grade 10. Afterward, I pursued history with great passion and vigour throughout my post-secondary career, earning an undergraduate and graduate degree in the subject. When I wasn’t taking traditional courses in classrooms, I was spending my time brushing up on oral histories, passed down generation after generation from great Elders within my local community in Sault Ste. Marie and the surrounding area.  I also travelled around beloved Northern Ontario, seeing firsthand how history unfolded on land, creating the topography and landscapes which today have become my permanent stomping grounds. In my first year of my undergraduate degree, I stumbled upon the Agawa Rock Pictographs, a treasured landmark in North America. For me, the pictographs became a rare place where both oral traditions and the changing of landscapes merged together, creating a symbolic meeting place for the great history of Lake Superior, but also the cultural history of Canada, to be told.

The Agawa Rock Pictographs were first discovered by Selwyn Dewdney (1909 – 1979) in 1958, who is considered to be the father of rock art research in Canada. The historic locale had already been reported by ethnologist Henry Schoolcraft (1793 – 1864), who learned of the rare artwork from legendary Chief Shingwaukonse (1774 – 1854). Using only his memory, Shingwaukonse drew for Schoolcraft on a sliver of birch bark many of the symbolic pictographs. Schoolcraft never made it to see the pictographs for himself. Over 100 years later, Dewdney used these sketches to find the mysterious painted images, which were hidden deep within rugged terrain, unnavigable by road.  His expedition took over 14 months to just simply locate the images. Facing defeat, exhaustion, and hunger, Dewdney happened upon the pictographs suddenly, and today, remains one of his greatest discoveries:

“At Agawa, even in the calm the water was restless beside the sloping ledge under the sheer cliff… We commandeered a leaky punt from the fish camp on a nearby island and paddled ashore with one oar, a piece of plank, and a bailing can. Then, I stared. A huge animal with crested back and horned head, there was no mistaking him. And there, a man on a horse – and there four suns – and there, canoes… My fourteen months’ search was over.” [Plaque at Agawa Rock Pictographs, taken from Dewdney’s Indian Rock Paintings of the Great Lakes.]

To this day, Dewdney is responsible for the majority of the research ever completed on the Agawa Rock Pictographs. His commitment to telling the history of First Nations peoples through their “images of forgotten dreams” has earned him great esteem within First Nations populations across Canada. Wanting to be laid to rest close to his greatest discovery, his ashes were scattered by his family members in 1980 near the site.

The pictographs at Agawa Rock, not to be confused with petroglyphs (carved or etched impressions), are painted on crystalline granite in red ochre. The ochre was made by grinding iron-rich hematite into powder or by using hydrated iron oxide. These ingredients were then mixed with animal and fish oil, creating a paste which made the ochre bondable and sticky enough to adhere to the rock face.  The pictographs are located on a rock ledge which juts out into Gi chi Gamiing (Lake Superior), and are protected by a 100 foot cliff, which is often home to a lively wolf population.

The date of the actual pictographs is unknown and proposed dates are often contended. However, historians and Anishinaabe peoples estimate they were originally painted sometime in the 17th and 18th centuries, placing them at approximately 400 years old. Some of these images are still visible today and have withstood hundreds of years of harsh climate change and weathering. However, vegetation including lichen, as well as graffiti, have defaced some of the symbolic images. According to Thor Conway, author of Spirits on Stone, there was at one point 117 identifiable pictographs. However, the majority cannot be seen to the novice hiker or accessed without a boat. Many have also faded from extreme sun exposure, wind, and water, making them almost invisible to an onlooker or an untrained eye. Most hikers today can only view a handful of the original pictographs.

There are believed to be 117 pictographs at the Agawa Rock Pictographs. Some include images of horses (top), suns (middle), canoes, and serpents (bottom).

Much like the date of the actual painting of the pictographs, the meaning behind each of the symbols is also contentious and heavily debated. There are no written records about the Agawa Rock Pictographs prior to 1851. And the first written record comes from Schoolcraft, who was not of First Nations heritage and had never viewed the pictographs up close. His record is brief and his credibility is often questioned. Plus, since Ojibwe peoples pass their histories from generation to generation through oral storytelling, it is virtually impossible to tell the true meaning of each symbolic pictograph. As more Elders pass into the Spirit World, they take with them great knowledge and wisdom of the past, including the stories and legends of Lake Superior. Adding to the difficulty, it is believed that each pictograph tells its own individual story, and many pictographs are painted in panels. We are left asking ourselves what does each pictograph mean and what is the significance of the entire pictograph to the grouping in each panel? Luckily, some meanings of specific symbols have stayed constant throughout Anishinaabe history, allowing historians, with the help of Anishinaabe people, to piece together the meaning of Mazhenaubikiniguning Augawong (Inscription Rock), which today is commonly known as Agawa Rock.

The symbols that have been analyzed and interpreted tell a vast story and encompass years upon years of cultural history. From the multiple canoes, to the spirit of the Thunderbird, to the legendary and most famous pictographs of the horned head monster, referred to by the Objibwe as Mishipeshu (the great lynx or water panther), each tells a vast story from a pivotal point in Anishinaabe history. As the paintings co-exist together on Agawa Rock, they tell a powerful story about the invasion of the Iroquois, power and authority within clans, hunting and gathering, among others. Other symbols include those of bears, turtles, snakes, suns, serpents, and a horse, which is believed to be the last painted image on Agawa Rock. Many of these images are still left uninterpreted, adding to the sense of mystery that is the Agawa Rock Pictographs.

Agawa Rock Pictographs - Mishipeshu

The horned head monster, referred to by the Objibwe as Mishipeshu (the great lynx or water panther), is considered to be a Lake Superior monster. Mishipeshu has become the most famous of the Agawa Rock Pictographs, and the official symbol of Lake Superior Provincial Park and Agawa Rock.

There are multiple images of Mishipeshu. He has become the iconic symbol of Lake Superior Provincial Park and the Agawa Rock Pictographs. Unfortunately, one of the images of Mishipeshu was defaced with black pen at the turn of the twentieth century. But unlike the pictographs, thankfully, the vandal’s marks did not stand the test of time. One of the panels that contain Mishipeshu is believed to have been painted by Shingwaukonse. Prior to his death, Shingwaukonse led an expedition to revolt against copper miners who were encroaching upon Lake Superior. To show the success of his expedition and his ability to thwart the miner’s attempts, he depicted the expedition in ochre on Agawa Rock. He chose to paint Mishipeshu (who many Ojibwe consider to be an aquatic Lake Superior monster), symbolizing that Mishipeshu had become the protector of copper on Lake Superior. It was said that when Mishipeshu angered, he would thrash his tail, creating large, dangerous waves, making Lake Superior impassible, and the extraction of copper impossible.

Mazinaubikiniguning (the adorned rock on Agawa Lake), contains some of the most spectacular and most accessible pictographs in Canada. Other pictograph sites are difficult to view, requiring canoe or boat access. The Agawa Rock Pictographs, however, can be accessed via a 500-metre trail. Though short, it can take some over an hour to complete. The trail is moderately difficult and can often be impassible. The trail is lined with steep descents comprised of boulders and rock stairs, as well as steep slanted rock slabs. This makes for treacherous footing during heavy rain. The ledge itself in which the pictographs reside, also can be quite treacherous – in fact, unfortunately, visitors have died trying to view the ancient paintings. Mighty Superior, in all of her glory, crashes onto the rock ledge, sometimes 10 feet high. The water must be perfectly still in order to attempt to shuffle along the slanted rock ledge to view the pictographs. In more recent years, a safety hook and rope have been added by Ontario Parks’ staff to help anyone who struggles or falls off the ledge into the depths of Superior. Considering that Lake Superior is rarely calm and at rest, one must ask, how were the Ojibwe able to paint such impressive feats when danger was almost always imminent?

One of two chasms on the Agawa Rock Pictographs trail. This chasm clings onto a larger than life boulder, which has sunk closer and closer to Lake Superior throughout the passing of time.

One of two chasms on the Agawa Rock Pictographs trail. This chasm clings onto a larger than life boulder, which has sunk closer and closer to Lake Superior throughout the passing of time.

Aside from the actual pictographs, the Agawa Rock Trail is stunning and provides a unique look into the past. The trail is a geologist’s and a nature enthusiast’s dream. The trail demonstrates the making of the Canadian Shield through the last Ice Age, and also highlights that volcanic activity was once present in the region. Trail highlights include a series of rock stairs located in a chasm or vast depression or crevice, created naturally out of pink granite. The chasm is approximately one person’s arm span wide, and is always cooler in temperature than the remainder of the trail due to the shadows cast by the tall walls of the crevice. Another chasm exists, though hikers cannot travel through, since it protrudes directly into Lake Superior. Both chasms are extremely impressive, though the latter holds onto a mighty boulder, which has slowly dropped closer to the water with the passing of time. After passing the hanging bouldered-chasm, hikers descend further toward Lake Superior, before reaching the pictographs, which are located on a slanted sheer rock cliff and a fracture surface. A large slab from the cliff broke away, exposing crystalline granite, the perfect canvas for the pictographs. The slab which broke away, remains today in the depths of Superior, which can be easily seen from above, as the water, though extremely deep, is crystal clear in perfect hues of blue and green. The trail is truly remarkable and demonstrates nature’s ability to metamorphose throughout history.

The pictographs are located 150 kilometres north of Sault Ste. Marie within Lake Superior Provincial Park and require a day-use or hourly park pass to view. Although the park is only open from mid-May until mid-October, hikers can enjoy the pictographs in the winter months as well. However, the road leading to the trail head is not plowed. Hikers will be forced to endure an additional six-kilometres of hiking to reach the trail head. Snowshoes are necessary to navigate through immense snow drifts.

The Agawa Rock Pictographs in March of 2013. Snowshoes are necessary to view the pictographs and navigate through immense snow.

Writer’s Note: I would like to highlight that my knowledge of the Agawa Rock Pictographs is in no way absolute or complete. Much of the history and meaning behind the Agawa Rock Pictographs is contentious and constantly being re-evaluated amongst First Nations communities. If you have any questions, comments, and/or further knowledge that can add to this piece, please contact me at thenorthjunction@hotmail.com or leave me a comment on this post. I appreciate all feedback and in no way mean to misrepresent the wonders left by Ojibwe peoples hundreds of years ago.

This article was written in consultation with Anishinaabe peoples residing in the Algoma region.

The Agawa Rock Pictographs

Top 10 Places to See the Fall Colours in Algoma Country

Leaves are beginning to change colours in Northern Ontario.

Leaves are beginning to change colours in Northern Ontario.

While September might be a student’s nightmare due to the dreaded back to school blues, for me, it stands as one of my absolute favourite months. September brings warm days and cool nights, perfect for camping and sleeping out under the stars. The waters in the Great Lakes are still warm enough to enjoy a dip, and summer tourists have returned back to their homes, leaving trails and popular destination spots quieter. Most impressively, the Maple trees transition from their evergreen colours to brilliant shades of orange, red, yellow, and even purple by mid-September. Northern Ontario becomes a sea of bright shades and hues, a colour chaser’s paradise.

Across Ontario, there are plenty of places to see the changing of the leaves. However, Northern Ontario promises spectacular views against the backdrop of great bodies of water, including Lake Superior. Below is a list of some of the top 10 places (in no particular order) that colour chasers can view the changing of the Maple trees in the Algoma region while also enjoying breathtaking views of Northern Ontario water. This list is not exhaustive, but instead, a list of my personal favourite hotspots.

Before heading out on the trails, be sure to check out Ontario Park’s weekly Fall Colour Report, which highlights optimal viewing for colour chasers across the Province of Ontario.

  1. The Pancake Bay Lookout Trail.

Located only 45 minutes north of Sault Ste. Marie, the Pancake Bay Lookout Trail is an easy six-kilometre trail which boasts a scenic lookout over mighty Lake Superior, the white sands of Pancake Bay, and the graveyard of the Great Lakes, where the historic Edmund Fitzgerald met her demise on 10 November 1975.  After climbing metal and wooden stairs to reach the worn platforms which dot the top of a cliffed mountain, the lookout is always worth the hike – no matter the season and the weather. Once at the lookout, viewers can see for miles. To the left stretches the Boreal Forest and continues onto the right.  In front, down below, lies the TransCanada Highway, and a body of freshwater encompasses the horizon. In the fall months, the trees adorn their fall colours, appearing as a sea of bright hues jarring out of the Canadian Shield, stopping abruptly for the pure white sand which meets the cool, blue waters. The Lookout Trail truly is the perfect fall hike.

  1. Robertson Cliffs Trail

Located only 15 minutes outside of Sault Ste. Marie exists the Robertson Cliffs and King Mountain. Jutting out of the lowlands in Goulais (pronounced “Goo-lee”) stands these picturesque mountains, which offer panoramic views of the boreal forest, the Trans Canadian Highway, and mighty Lake Superior. Many label the Robertson Cliffs trail as difficult. However, the trail is rather simple, except for the first kilometre, in which hikers climb approximately 180 metres (or 600 feet) in elevation to reach the top of the mountain, where they are greeted with five impressive lookouts, perfect for viewing the fall colours. The Robertson Cliffs Trail also offers up a small waterfall viewing opportunity. This is a great hike for those looking to escape the city for a few hours without wanting to venture far.

  1. Nokomis Trail

Located across from Old Woman Bay at the northern boundary of Lake Superior Provincial Park (approximately 20 minutes south of Wawa, Ontario), the Nokomis Trail is a moderately difficult five-kilometre trail system that provides five stunning lookouts, sky high above Old Woman Bay, one of the most popular stops within Lake Superior Provincial Park. Viewers can enjoy breathtaking views of the Old Woman River, Old Woman Bay, and the rolling glacial mountains, which appear as a sea of bright colour in the fall months. On a windy day, hikers can experience first hand the legacy of mighty Superior, as waves crash 10 feet high at Old Woman Bay. (Stay tuned for a detailed trail report on the Nokomis Trail!)

  1. Highway 129 to Chapleau

As much as I love hiking, I also love taking fall drives. Consider taking a drive along Highway 129 from Thessalon, Ontario to Chapleau, Ontario. Over two hours in length one way, the drive offers views of uninterrupted Northern Ontario. Drivers get close – sometimes too close – to the edge of the Mississaugi River, as the highway hugs the river, as well as other lakes and tributaries. As you drive along, enjoy the winding and rolling of the highway, as well as the never-ending rolling of the mountains. Onlookers can also enjoy glimpses of the remains of a devastating forest fire, Pig Pen Chutes, and the Chapleau Game Preserve, the largest game preserve in Ontario. With few towns and communities on this solitary highway, your chance of seeing wildlife as well as the fall colours is extremely high. Be sure to get gas before leaving Thessalon, Ontario, however; there are very few opportunities to gas up along the way!

St. Joseph Island Bridge

Fall colours at Hiawatha Highlands.

  1. Hiawatha Highlands

Located within the City of Sault Ste. Marie, off of Fifth Line, Hiawatha Highlands is one of my favourite year-round stomping grounds. With amazing trails for biking, hiking, and running in the spring, summer, and fall, and strenuous cross-country ski tracks and snowshoe paths in the winter, Hiawatha is every Saulite’s favourite recreational place within the city limits. Trails range from one-kilometre in length to over 15-kilometres, and can be anything from easy to moderately difficult. The Crystal Falls, a gorge, and various lookout vantage points also provide trail users with a great views of the city and vast wilderness. To me, Hiawatha is perhaps one of the best places to view the fall colours, since the majority of the trails are lined with thousands of Maple trees. Trail users can spend anywhere from an hour to a full day exploring the Hiawatha Highlands.

  1. St. Joseph Island

    P10305732

    Fall colours at the St. Joseph Island bridge.

No matter the season, you can’t go wrong visiting St. Joseph Island. The majority of St. Joseph’s Island’s tree population consists of Maple trees, so a visit in the fall is sure to impress. Take a drive around the entire island on Highway 548, take in the shipping channel at Sailors’ Encampment, visit a quaint store in Richards Landing, or hike the Mountainview Centennial Grounds’ trails in Jocelyn Township. You can stay for an hour, a day, or overnight. And there’s no better home-cooked meal than on St. Joseph Island.

The Chippewa Falls in the fall season, as season from Highway 17, travelling to Wawa, Ontario.

The Chippewa Falls in the fall season, as season from Highway 17, travelling to Wawa, Ontario.

  1. Highway 17 North to Wawa

Did you know that the Lake Superior Circle Tour is considered one of the top 10 drives in Canada? The trip around Lake Superior is absolutely spectacular. However, not everyone has the time to make a 16-hour or more drive around Lake Superior. If you do, however, I highly recommend it. For those of us who can’t spare that much time, consider the drive from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario to Wawa, Ontario.  Approximately 220 kilometres (137 miles), this two-hour drive will not disappoint and will deliver spectacular views of the Boreal Forest, the Canadian Shield, and the rugged coastline of Lake Superior. Two waterfalls – the Chippewa Falls and Pinguisibi (Sand River) Falls will also highlight the trip. And for food lovers, there are plenty of options for a good home-cooked meal along the trip. And did I mention there are some good arts and crafts stores as well? The drive to Wawa is also a great alternative to the Agawa Canyon Tour Train, for those on a tighter budget. Onlookers will enjoy similar views that they would see on the Tour Train, except for the view of the Agawa Canyon itself; however, they will get to enjoy Lake Superior. If you do take this drive, be sure to have a full tank of gas – there are no gas opportunities between Batchewana Bay and Wawa, Ontario.

  1. Agawa Canyon Tour Train

The Agawa Canyon Tour Train is the most popular tourist stop within Sault Ste. Marie. Every year, thousands from around the globe visit the Sault to climb aboard the Algoma Central Railway (ACR) and head to the Agawa Canyon. Visitors can enjoy a full day onboard the train in refurbished cabins, taking in the sites along the rails, including rivers and streams, windfarms, bridges and trusses, and vast mountainous landscapes.  Once at the canyon, train travellers have just under two hours to explore the Agawa Canyon, enjoy lunch, hike over 300 steps to the lookout, or visit two impressive waterfalls. The Agawa Canyon Tour Train is truly impressive and promises views nature enthusiasts can see no other way. The Agawa Canyon is visible only via the Agawa Canyon Tour Train. For extreme backcountry hikers, an almost non-existent trail can also be hiked to the Canyon. Warning: not many people have successfully hiked this extremely difficult trek. For more information, please visit the Agawa Canyon Tour Train website. 

  1. Awausee Trail

Unlike the Nokomis Trail in Lake Superior Provincial Park, the Awausee Trail is difficult and demands a higher level of expertise and physical ability. 10 kilometres long, the trail is located only minutes from the Agawa River and Agawa Bay Visitor Centre at the south entrance of Lake Superior Provincial Park. For the first two kilometres of the trail, hikers climb to an elevation greater than 300 metres above Lake Superior. The hike up the mountain is agonizing, but the views are unlike anything you’ve ever seen – I promise. Few trails in the Algoma region reach the same elevation as the Awausee Trail. Therefore, before heading out for this hike, check the weather carefully: schedule your hike on a clear, sunny day. I hiked this trail in a thunderstorm and couldn’t see through the clouds at three of the five lookout posts.

  1. Pinguisibi River

Next to the wonder that is Old Woman Bay, Pinguisibi River within Lake Superior Provincial Park sparks within me an incredible sense of awe and inspiration. It is undoubtedly, my most cherished spot within Ontario. More commonly known as the Sand River due to its English translation from Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwa language), the Pinguisibi River provides access to the most reachable waterfall and its three chutes within Lake Superior Provincial Park. So accessible in fact, that it can be seen from the Trans-Canada Highway, making it one of the most popular stops within the park, but also the most popular hiking trail. Although it is considered a moderately difficult trail by the park’s standards, this six-kilometre linear hike is an easy trek, perfect for families, adventure enthusiasts, and those both young and old. Well maintained by the interior provincial park staff, equipped with a well-trodden trail, bridges, and wooden steps, the Pinguisibi River is a must-see stop for those travelling along Highway 17. Plus, if you’re an angler, this river never disappoints.

What’s your favourite place to see the fall colours?

Want to know more about any of these locations or to see pictures from my past travels to these places? Contact me directly at thenorthjunction@hotmail.com or comment on this post.

‘St. Joseph Island Gave Me Peace’: The Four Seasons Resting Place

Kim Kent

Kim Kent

Writer’s Note: One year ago today, the Kent family scattered the ashes of my dear Mother-in-Law off of the stern of Second Home on the St. Mary’s River, in front of her home on St. Joseph Island. This latest entry was written in loving memory of my dearest Mother-in-Law, Mrs. Kimberley Anne Kent, who unfortunately lost her brave battle against cancer in mid-March of 2014. After sitting down to talk to her about her life over a warm cup of hot chocolate in her home on Riverside Drive on St. Joseph Island, she told me her secret to happiness, and how she found everlasting peace. Despite her illness, her stress, and her time coming to an abrupt end, Kim wanted to share with others her secret and her wisdom on living life to the fullest, on finding happiness in the simplest of things, and finding peace in life no matter the prognosis. With her soul full of life and light, passion and compassion, enthusiasm and happiness, may she rest in her paradise forever more. This story was first published on The Northern Portal, and was one of the top five posts of 2014.

* * *

How many people travel great distances to find extreme relaxation? How many look for a place to lose themselves in thoughts of serenity and tranquility? For those lucky enough to call St. Joseph Island home, they must not look anywhere except their own back and front yards, and bask in nature’s glory, a true Garden of Eden anytime of the year.

Recently, someone near and dear to my heart was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. When she was given the news, she told me she wanted to spend her time on St. Joseph Island, a place she had called home for more than 30 years. For her, St. Joseph Island had been a great place to raise a family, own a successful store (Kentvale Home Hardware), and bring her peace. And she continued to find peace on the Island in her final days.

I had never thought of the Island in this light until she said those words to me. For me, Lake Superior has been that place. That place that has boasted an unmasked calm no matter the season and no matter the weather. However, her simple words have made me think about the Island, nestled in the warm waters of Lake Huron, in a new light.

Over the past four years, I have spent countless days on the Island, visiting every crevice, beach, and tiny, quaint store which lines the old streets of Richards Landing and Hilton Beach. I have set sail from the marinas, and cast anchor over the bow of great ships and sailboats. I have dipped my feet in the calm, deep waters, and even jumped from great heights at Whiskey Rock. I have even eaten a record amount of pancakes drowned in the finest of Maple syrup. I have come to call the Island my second home.

But in all these great memories, I only have ever considered the Island a quick getaway from the daily bustle of the city. Never did I imagine it an everlasting home, where cottage life meets permanence, pure bliss and joy. I take for granted those past three years, and now I find myself green with envy and after rethinking that Islanders perhaps may have just found the secret to sustaining happiness and peace.

* * *

With the closing of September comes the picturesque display of colour on the maple trees. Bright reds, yellows, oranges, and even some purple burst through the once-greened forest. A four-wheeled expedition on any wilderness trail or road reveals the fall exhibition. But a slow walk through a downtrodden trail appeals to the senses, heightening the experience. The crackling of downed leaves, the smell of early-morning dew and last night’s light rain, create the atmosphere of paradise amidst a wilderness of conifers. The slight movement of the wet ground and the anticipation of seeing nature’s creatures — a bear foraging for berries or a runaway fawn — elate the senses. Any trail will do just fine to escape the to-do list for just an hour or two. Just slip away for a moment’s break, and melt into the fall surroundings and landscape. One foot in front of the other, the leaves continue to crackle and shuffle. And with each crackle, and each leaf that continues to fall onto the nearly-covered ground, that to-do list melts away and tranquillity flourishes.

Fall colours St. Joseph Island

The bridge to St. Joseph Island in the fall.

In the winter, blue cables line the forests, promising a delectable treat for the coming spring when the winter begins to warm. But until that time, the always tranquil Island comes to a rip-roaring start with the first snowfall and first press of the throttle of the snow machine. Even with the loud revving of the choked engine, it’s easy to lose oneself. Enclosed in the warmth of a snow machine helmet, the never-ending scenery mimicking that of an enchanted Narnia plays out in front of the rider. And dancing along the treeline, white-tailed fawns and fluffy short hares dare to play with the machines. In those moments, gliding along the snow-packed and freshly groomed trails in the white forest and chilly sub-zero temperature, is tranquillity and simplicity.

RiversideDrive BackPorch stjosephisland

The view of St. Mary’s River from Riverside Drive.

In the springtime, maple syrup runs rampant, overflowing the boilers, and filing the stomachs and souls of those who come from far away to taste the sweet and woody flavoured indulgence. With the thawing of the ice comes the opening of the shipping channel and the blossoming of the thousands of crocuses, tulips, and beautiful pink and blue wild lupines. The magnificence of the Island’s spirit blooms wild and free along the winding Highway of 548 and along the M and N Lines. But even with the windows down, breathing in the rich air and taking in the awe-inspiring forestry while whisking through the countryside, the true essence of the Island in the spring months is found on the shoreline of Riverside Drive, a real hidden gem. Relaxing porch-side with an iced-cold beverage, while gliding in an ever-slightly squeaking rocking chair and listening to the long drawn-out sighs of the freighters carrying cargo to the busy cities, the cries of the ships can lull one to sleep. One, two, four, five, seven ships pass by in five hours, with their carefree workers waving frivolously to the natives bathing in the warm sun’s rays beneath the crystal blue sky. The United States seems close enough to leap to, but who would dare leave the comfort of this scene and that rocking chair that never ceases. With another beverage comes the passing of another hour and thousands more tiny waves crashing gently on the pebbled shoreline. Paradise is not tropical, but rather the simplest of moments passed without a worry and without concern.

Whiskey Rock st joseph island

The view of Lake Huron from Second Home.

From June till late September, the Island shows her true vivacity. Vacationers travel from far away — the United States, Germany, and many other foreign places — just to experience a taste of what the Island has to offer. With the marinas full of power boats and tall-mast ships, and the aroma of pan-seared fresh caught fish and charbroiled cobbed corn bathed in melted butter, the Island delights all its lodgers. But peace comes not from any of these luxuries, but instead from the tranquillity found on the water. Whether on the vessels of Second Wind, Winding Down, Murphy’s Law,or Teapot — just to name a few — an anchor line over starboard is the true treasure. The sound of absolute quietness, except the song of an overhead gull, and the lapping of water against the hull of the floating vessel, is peace, the absolute best that the Island has to bid its inhabitants and guests. With toes hanging off of the stern’s platform, dangling into the surprisingly warm and gently calm water, a slight breeze ruffles one’s hair and sends a chill of peaceful exhilaration throughout the body. Tick tock. Time goes on as each minute passes, but nothing in this serene moment matters. Nothing but the gentle rock of the boat, the wind, and the water. Just peace. No spa, no resort, no chalet can afford the price of relaxation that Lake Huron boasts.

* * *

It is these precious secrets recently shared with me that have made me come to understand the true nature of the Island. No longer a vacation destination, or a weekend getaway, the tiny Island in the heart of Lake Huron is a four seasons resting place. A place of tranquillity, serenity, and comfort. A place where those who listen to the wisdom bestowed on me, will too find the greatest gift in life — peace.

Releasing paper lanterns from Second Home in honour of my late Mother-in-Law.

Releasing paper lanterns from Second Home in honour of my late Mother-in-Law.

The Coastal Trail in 14 Hours

A gruelling 65-kilometre hike in one day? No problem. At least, not for Viktoria Koskenoja and her husband Sam Holcomb, who hiked – or ran – the legendary Lake Superior Provincial Park Coastal Trail in only 14 hours. The Coastal Trail, infamously known for its rugged terrain, boulder beaches, vast mountains, rock crevices, and slippery slopes, provides access to some of Lake Superior’s most rugged but also most pristine beaches. Access to such hidden gems, however, is no easy hike through the woods, but rather requires great skill and preparation. Rated extremely difficult, and often impassible due to adverse weather, the Coastal Trail takes the average experienced hiker five to seven days to complete. However, the dynamic duo of Koskenoja and Holcomb now have bragging rights after having completed the arduous trek in less than one day, one of the fastest treks recorded in Lake Superior Provincial Park history!

Koskenoja and Holcomb are seasoned athletes. Koskenoja, originally from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, and her husband Holcomb, from Homer, Michigan, are currently residing in Boston, Massachusetts, while she is working at Massachusetts General Hospital in the Harvard-Affiliated Emergency Medical Residency program. As athletes, Koskenoja is best known for her speed on both cross-country running tracks and on Nordic skis. Holcomb, is a former Green Beret with the United States Army. He is currently employed as a carpenter. Both are frequent marathoners.

Together, they first conceptualized the idea of running the Coastal Trail after watching a YouTube video of a trio hike the rugged trail in one shot, completing the course in 27 hours, 47 minutes. It took them three attempts to master what they considered to be a “monster” hike.

Viktoria Koskenoja and Sam Holcomb race the clock to complete the Coastal Trail in less than one day.

Viktoria Koskenoja and Sam Holcomb race the clock to complete the Coastal Trail in less than one day. Image supplied by Marko Koskenoja.

The duo were able to successfully complete their goal on their first attempt with the help of a support services team, comprised of Koskenoja’s father (Ari Koskenoja), Holcomb’s parents (Alice and Brent Holcomb), as well as Koskenoja’s aunt and uncle (Marko and Ruth Koskenoja). They met the runners at various checkpoints throughout the trail, including at the Baldhead River, Katherine Cove, the Barrett River, and finally Sinclair Cove – where I first saw them and took interest in their amazing feat – before crossing the finish line and enjoying an evening under the stars and Milky Way at Agawa Bay.

The 14-hour journey got underway at 4:30am. Koskenoja’s aunt and uncle secured interior backcountry campsites for the adventure enthusiasts at Chalfant Cove, the most northern tip of the Coastal Trail, seven kilometres north of Gargantua. The group slept at Chalfant Cove on Friday evening (September 4th), waking up at 4:00am, prior to sunrise, to begin their agonizing trip southward. The two sailed through the most difficult portion of the trail, the stretch south of Gargantua, which requires plenty of rock scaling and scrambling. Luckily, Lake Superior lay calm for their journey on Saturday, leaving the rocks untouched by water and not enveloped by high tides. Had this not been the case, the duo would have made much slower time, or their trek may have had to have been rescheduled. While the wind and Superior cooperated, the sun did beat down relentlessly, and temperatures reached a scorching 29 degrees Celsius, with humidex values rising to a balmy 35 degrees.

Koskenoja and Holcomb reached their first checkpoint at 27 kilometres in at the Baldhead River, accessible via the Orphan Lake Trail. They were greeted by two members of their support group, Holcomb’s parents, who were informed that Koskenoja had pulled her hamstring muscle, causing their pace to slow. Once they reached Katherine Cove, where they were reunited for the first time with their entire support group, Koskenoja was given trekking poles to aid her injury and relieve some of the pain caused in her upper leg. At Katherine Cove, the duo refuelled, eating high-energy and high-protein snacks, and drank lemonade. They also refilled their Camelbacks, the only item the two carried with them.

Viktoria Koskenoja and Sam Holcomb embrace after completing the Coastal Trail in 14 hours.

Viktoria Koskenoja and Sam Holcomb embrace after completing the Coastal Trail in 14 hours. Image supplied by Marko Koskenoja.

Impressively, Koskenoja endured the pain, and the two crossed the finish line at the Agawa Bay Visitor’s Centre at 6:30pm, almost two full hours ahead of sunset. They enjoyed an evening of celebration and rest. Their family support group had prepared a mighty Pickerel fish fry with fresh cut fries, home grown vegetables, hummus, corn bread muffins, and apply butter. Unfortunately, in addition to her pulled hamstring, Koskenoja was now also nursing painful blisters from non-stop foot usage.

The two travelled back to Boston first thing Sunday morning. Although their time in Lake Superior Provincial Park was short lived – just over 48 hours – they left an impact on all those they met along their journey on the Coastal Trail. Other hikers and onlookers couldn’t help but celebrate their success as they passed by, checkpoint after checkpoint.

In June, the husband and wife duo will be relocating to Marquette, Michigan, where they will continue to explore the great outdoors.

The North Junction would like to congratulate both Koskenoja and Holcomb on their successful journey on the Coastal Trail!

Writer’s note: Please do not attempt the Coastal Trail in one shot without a proper support group, supervision, and unless you are a seasoned hiker in top physical shape.

Echoes from the Orphan Lake Trail: A Nature Enthusiast’s Paradise

Orphan Lake remains one of the most popular trails within Lake Superior Provincial Park. With panoramic lookouts, great fishing holes, views of a raging waterfall, shaded walks through a heavily ferned forest, an isolated pebbled beach on Lake Superior, as well as a trek around the remains of a forest fire, the Orphan Lake Trail offers a taste of just about everything that Lake Superior Provincial Park has to offer its visitors. For this reason alone, the Orphan Lake Trail is a must-trek hike when travelling through the large Ontario Park, and one that nature enthusiasts visit again and again, year round. For myself, the Orphan Lake Trail appeals to more than just my inner explorer, but also to my senses, awakening my sense of sound and smell.

Rated moderately difficult by Ontario Parks, the Orphan Lake Trail is eight-kilometres long (approximately five miles), and takes approximately two to four hours to hike. The trail itself is circular: hikers leave the parking lot, located just steps from the TransCanada Highway, travelling four kilometres towards Lake Superior, then walk along the beach for a few hundred metres, before returning into the forest to hike the remainder of the trail back to the parking lot. As simple as the hike sounds, fast and fancy footing is required, making the journey at times challenging.

Orphan Lake Lookout

Perhaps the most photographed post on the route – dare I see even in the park – this lookout provides observers with a stunning view of Orphan Lake, and in the far distance, their first glimpse of Lake Superior on a clear day. Listen carefully, as you can often hear wildlife below, enjoying a drink at the water’s edge, or fishermen celebrating their latest catch

For the first two kilometres, the trail offers a leisurely stroll through the bush, heavily shaded by a thick forest canopy. Hikers can enjoy a break at the first lookout approximately 400 feet above Lake Superior. Perhaps the most photographed post on the route – dare I say even in the park – this lookout provides observers with a stunning view of Orphan Lake, and in the far distance, their first glimpse of Lake Superior on a clear day. Listen carefully, as you can often hear wildlife below, enjoying a drink at the water’s edge, or fishermen celebrating their latest catch, where the catch of the day ranges from Whitefish, Lake Trout, Perch, and Pyke. One of my favourite things about the Orphan Lake Trail is the echo that permeates from the lake and infiltrates throughout, creating a heightened awareness of your surroundings. You become aware of everything and everyone on the trail, whether in the company of other hikers or wildlife, including bears, deer, wolves, birds, and more.

From the first lookout, the trail begins its steady descend to Lake Superior while travelling simultaneously around the calm shoreline of Orphan Lake. Moss, lichen, mud, small streams, rocks, and boulders, make footing uneasy. In heavy rainfall, the trail is extremely slick and becomes lined with a thick gooey coating of mud, making this path also a mosquito’s paradise. (Yes, unfortunately, this trail gets overridden in the spring months with insects, so come prepared with bug repellant and even netting.)  Another lookout provides hikers with the opportunity to gaze at mighty Superior and the rugged coastline, before passing around burned down brush from a forest fire in May of 1998. Blackened maple and pine trees tower above hikers, limbless, creating a gothic and ghostly atmosphere. The smell of the charred wood still lingers.

Finally, two steep descends places hikers on the coast of Lake Superior. As already mentioned, the echo around Orphan Lake is perhaps my favourite memory from the hike. Noise travels for miles around the pond, creating a mystical atmosphere. The same rings true for Lake Superior. Prior to reaching these two final steep stretches, hikers can hear wild waves ricocheting on the shore. The sound makes one think you’re just steps from Lake Superior, when in reality, you’re miles away. The sound gets louder as the smell of freshwater becomes prominent, hinting at your proximity to Superior.

On an overcast day, the trail is dark and dreary due to the thick canopy of the forest. However, a burst light can be seen up ahead, through the tunnel of trees, signalling you’ve reached the edge of the unstable shores of Superior. The water becomes deafening, pounding the shoreline, moving the millions of fist-sized pebbles that line the water’s edge. The pebbles create the illusion of water, rolling into uneven piles, mimicking the powerful waves that caused these vast formations. During a storm, the shoreline becomes engulfed by high tides and the surf.

The mouth of the Baldhead River as seen from the Coastal Trail.

The mouth of the Baldhead River as seen from the Coastal Trail.

Hikers travel right upon reaching Lake Superior. The Baldhead River becomes the centre of attention, and a new noise becomes clear over the sound of the crashing waves and the bubbling river – the Baldhead Falls in the distance. The trail continues through the forest at the mouth of the Baldhead River, running alongside the tributary, gradually climbing until reaching the falls. The view of the falls is obstructed by the trees, but hikers can make out several drops, each scaling 10-15 feet in height, before the trail leaves the river completely and begins its vertical ascent.

Similar to the trek toward Lake Superior, the trek back to the parking lot is hindered by thick moss coverage as well as dark brown mud. After heavy rainfall, the trail becomes overrun with mud, making for a messy expedition. Coming to the aid of trail users, park staff have created small wooden bridges and trusses to travel across extremely muddy areas; however, these wooden crutches, too, often become consumed by the mud. Be prepared to be welcomed by mosquitoes through this section of the trail.

After climbing over 400 feet, hikers reach the western shore of Orphan Lake, and once again can listen for the echo of other travellers, wildlife, and fishermen. After wandering around the lake and enduring an agonizing climb, hikers can once again enjoy a leisurely stroll through the forest before returning to their car to take them to their next stop in Lake Superior Provincial Park, be it Katherine Cove to the south, or Old Woman Bay, heading north.

The Orphan Lake Trail provides access to the Coastal Trail. Hikers heading north of the Baldhead River and the Orphan Lake Trail will face gruelling hiking conditions on rugged Lake Superior.

The Orphan Lake Trail provides access to the Coastal Trail. Hikers heading north of the Baldhead River and the Orphan Lake Trail will face gruelling hiking conditions on rugged Lake Superior.

Though the Orphan Lake Trail is often described as a day hiker’s paradise, it is more than just that. It is also a backpacker’s utopia, providing access to interior of Lake Superior Provincial Park. The Orphan Lake Trail also provides access to the rugged Coastal Trail, where some of the most pristine beaches can be found. Hikers can access the Coastal Trail via the Orphan Lake Trail once they reach the pebbled beach of Lake Superior. Hikers have the option of turning either right or left upon reaching Superior. To the right, following the Orphan Lake Trail, hikers cross the Baldhead River, bypassing the Baldhead Falls, via wooden bridges constructed by staff, where they will reach one of the largest interior campsite opportunities on the trail (there are five campsites) and be greeted with rugged coastline. By turning right and heading north on the Coastal Trail, hikers will have to endure the hardest portion of the Coastal Trail, south of Gargantua, since Orphan Lake is the last access point for the Coastal Trail until Gargantau Harbour. However, with great pain comes great reward: hikers will also enjoy some of the most spectacular beaches, including Rhyolite Cove. If hikers turn left and hike south toward Agawa Bay, the trail will be difficult, climbing Baldhead Mountain before reaching the sandy beaches of Katherine Cove.

The Ghosts of St. Joseph Island’s Past

In 1814, Fort St. Joseph was burned to the ground by American soldiers from Detroit, Michigan. Today, the remnants of large stone and wooden buildings and hollowed fortresses stand as the only reminder of the significance of the trading post which lay strategically positioned on the edge of Upper Canada. Footpaths, which were once heavily trodden by First Nations peoples, Voyageurs, clerks, and soldiers, who settled the post, are now dormant, telling a story of desertion and loneliness, a tale the original inhabitants knew all too well in the early 1800s. Now owned by Canadian Heritage Parks Canada, and dubbed a National Historic Site, Fort St. Joseph is frequented by visitors in the summer months, but also by the ghosts of the original settlers.

A birch bark canoe made by the Voyageurs filled with pelts and furs from the Fur Trade.

A birch bark canoe made by the Voyageurs filled with pelts and furs from the Fur Trade.

For several years, Parks Canada has been putting on an elaborate evening Ghost Walk, occurring on the third weekend of August. With three performances an evening, each running just over an hour in length, visitors are treated to a dark trek through the old trading post, where they are greeted by a Wayfaring Spirit who serves as their guide and converses with ghosts from the past. Guests gather in the robust Visitor Centre, which proudly displays artefacts of the past, before being escorted by Scottish bagpipes and the Town Crier through a tunnel of trees to the old fortification. Aided by the light of hundreds of kerosene lanterns, small cozy fires, the crescent moon, and thousands of stars, the dark fur trading post comes to life. While meandering through the hilled promontory, which overlooks St. Mary’s River, guests listen to the stories, tales, and even rumours of the garrisons, cooks, Voyageurs, and Ojibwe people before enjoying a traditional snack of hot cocoa (without the sugar since it was a rare commodity in Upper Canada) and bannock filled with currants.

The ghosts, who communicate only with the Wayfaring Spirit, and are ‘blind’ to their audience, reveal their hardships endured in settling the most westerly frontier outpost in British North America (BNA). Deemed “the Military Siberia of Upper Canada” by an early soldier, Fort St. Joseph presented little excitement and enjoyment for settlers: brutishly cold and long winters, little sustenance, dangerously strong winds, the presence of Poison Oak, and the constant threat of invasion from the Americans and First Nations population. The only way to access the fort was via canoe, since no roads were created to the enclosure until after World War II. As guests make their way around portions of the 372 acres of history, they are constantly reminded of the presence of death, as banshees howl in the distance. Their blood curdling yelps never go unnoticed, hinting at the loss of life, including those who froze to death or died from unruly and unsanitary conditions at the outpost. It is no surprise that a cemetery lay west of the compound.

Dressed in period traditional garb, the ghosts tell tales of early settlement through to the declaration of war in 1812. Construction began on Fort St. Joseph in the summer of 1797 after the British were forced to concede Fort Michilimackinac back to the Americans in 1796, years after the ending of the American Revolution and the signing of the Treaty of Paris. The enclosure was built quickly following the orders of Lord Dorchester, Military Governor of Canada, who feared the Americans would also occupy the territory. Needing a post to control the Great Lakes, major trade routes, and the fur trade, but also wanting to be in close proximity to Fort Michilimackinac, Fort St. Joseph was constructed, which included an old bake house (which burned down in 1802), kitchen, block house, stores building, guardhouse, lime kiln, among other structures. A 13-foot tall wall or palisade surrounded the fort, which was destroyed in a strong wind storm in 1811.

When the Americans declared war on the British on 18 June 1812, Captain Charles Roberts, who controlled the garrison on Fort St. Joseph, received confusing messaging from Major-General Sir Isaac Brock, who ordered a defensive strategy but also an offensive attack on Fort Michilimackinac. Knowing Fort St. Joseph could not hold her own in war defensively, Captain Roberts decided to attack offensively. The offensive attack on 17 July 1812, which included 40 soldiers, approximately 150 British, and 300 First Nations peoples, was a surprise to the Americans, allowing the cohort to successfully capture Fort Michilimackinac without a single shot being fired. Being only one day’s canoe away from Fort St. Joseph, settlers moved their supplies back to Fort Michilimackinac, abandoning Fort St. Joseph, leaving her available for the taking and an attack.

In 1814, an American group burned all of Fort St. Joseph, except for one civilian structure, which is assumed to have belonged to the South West Company, an American establishment. When the War of 1812 ended, all land was returned back to its original conqueror; however, the British decided not to rebuild Fort St. Joseph. Rather, settlers built a new enclosure on neighbouring island Drummond Island and remaining supplies and useable provisions from the original fort were dragged across the frozen St. Mary’s River to Drummond Island.

The dark and solemn tour of the compound is ended on a high note, one of celebration and laugher. The Wayfaring Spirit delivers her guests to the Great Orator Assinginack, who guides his audience throughout the remainder of the expedition. Guests are treated to traditional singing and drumming by the Healing Lodge Singers, who sing in Anishinaabemowin (Objibwe language) around a roaring fire before being presented with an offering of bannock and hot cocoa. Relations with First Nations peoples in Fort. St. Joseph were most often friendly. They lived just outside of the palisade walls and often bartered and traded goods. The British enjoyed maple sugar and syrup while the First Nations peoples enjoyed the comforts of blankets and tools.

St. Joseph Island Bridge

St. Joseph Island Bridge

Fort St. Joseph is located on the southern tip of St. Joseph Island, approximately 50 kilometres from the St. Joseph Island bridge, and almost 75 kilometres east of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. In the daylight and during regular summer hours of operation, visitors can enjoy exploring the ruins as well as various trails around Fort St. Joseph. The fort is also home to many different animal and bird species, perfect for a nature enthusiast. For more information, please visit Parks Canada’s Fort St. Joseph’s website.

Tales from the Pancake Bay Lookout Trail: The Perfect Fall Hike

Growing up, I always loved summer, and cherished my time at the beach and in the warm waters of Old Mill Bay.  However, in recent years, I have a new fondness for fall.  Warm days, cool nights, coloured trees and crispy fallen leaves, hot chocolate, wearing scarves, mittens, and toques, and hiking my preferred trails, makes the fall months of September and October two of my favourites, and has me longing for them in the humid months of July and August.

Fall happens to be one of my most active seasons, where I venture north and east of Sault Ste. Marie to explore the Algoma region.  Free from the rising temperatures of the summer days and the mosquito season, I can be found in the backwoods of the Superior north shore, or with my feet buried in the sand and a book in my hands at one of my favourite secret beaches.  While fall continues to be a popular tourist season in the Algoma area due to peoples’ interest in chasing the changing colours on our proud Maple trees, the hiking trails and beaches fall secluded, and give way to time to reflect and be alone with nature.

Every year, I make it a habit to venture along one of my favourite hiking trails on Highway 17.  This year, I decided to take the trek earlier, wanting to enjoy the luscious greenery that encompasses the forest floor, and enjoy the warm summer breeze from great heights. Just north of Pancake Bay Provincial Park lays an easy six-kilometre trail which boasts a scenic lookout over mighty Lake Superior, the white sands of Pancake Bay, and the graveyard of the Great Lakes, where the historic Edmund Fitzgerald met her demise on 10 November 1975.  I always try to venture up the highway during the final week of September, usually when the colours on the deciduous trees have reached their optimal peak, showing off vibrant colours of yellow, red, and orange, just before they begin to turn brown and make their descent to the forest floor.  With the close companion of a friend, and my favourite spaniel at my feet, a 45-minute drive north of Sault Ste. Marie places us hikers at the Ontario Park entrance, and another two-minute jaunt up the highway takes us to the trail head of the Lookout Trail.  Located on the right-hand side of Highway 17 when heading northward, the trail is marked by a green sign which reads “Lookout Trail”.

The Lookout Trail provides for spectacular views of luscious forest. Towering Maple trees shelter the trail, providing adequate shade to the forest floor and hikers.

The Lookout Trail provides for spectacular views of luscious forest. Towering Maple trees shelter the trail, providing adequate shade to the forest floor and hikers on hot summer days.

A relatively simple trail, which takes less than two hours in its entirety, it is highlighted by the occasional freshwater spring and rock face. It has few inclines, making the trek a relaxing and leisurely stroll through a heavily-ferned forest.  A hidden gem, few people know of the route, making the option of sighting nature’s majestic creatures in their element a definite possibility.  Having seen many deer, birds, and the occasional black bear roam the trail and forage for food, including wild berries and insects, the hike promises remarkable sites.  Perhaps even more remarkable than the wildlife that makes the trail their home, are the breathtaking views which mark the path, three kilometres in.

After climbing metal and wooden stairs to reach the worn platforms which dot the top of a cliffed mountain, the lookout is always worth the hike – no matter the season and the weather.  To the left stretches the Boreal forest for as far as I can see, and continues onto the right.  In front, down below, lies the Trans Canada Highway, and a body of freshwater encompasses the horizon. In the fall months, the trees adorn their fall colours, appearing as a sea of bright hues jarring out of the Canadian Shield, stopping abruptly for the pure white sand which meets the cool, blue waters. The Lookout Trail truly is the perfect fall hike.

After hiking three kilometres, hikers are greeted with this spectacular view, which looks over the Boreal forest and the beautiful white sand beach of Pancake Bay on Lake Superior.

After hiking three kilometres, hikers are greeted with this spectacular view, which looks over the Boreal forest and the beautiful white sand beach of Pancake Bay on Lake Superior.

The Pancake Bay Lookout Trail overlooks the graveyard of the Great Lakes, where the Edmund Fitzgerald met her demise on 10 November 1975.

It is in these moments of taking in the amazing panoramic views – which never cease to amaze me, despite having hiked the trail upwards of 10 times – I am always reminded of my studies in History, and how much has taken place in this region, which is now on display before me.  As already mentioned, in 1975, the Edmund Fitzgerald along with her unfortunate crew, were rendered helpless to a November gale-force storm, sinking her remnants to the Superior floor, and forever entrenching her and mighty Lake Superior’s legacy. Her grave site lay in the distance before me, miles and miles off shore near the Township of Whitefish, Michigan. With binoculars, I can spot the lighthouse at Whitefish.

But perhaps even more remarkable, and most often forgotten about, were the brave souls of the French Canadians, the Voyageurs, who paddled the open waters in birch bark canoes with no protection from such storms and forces, which destroyed the likes of the Edmund Fitzgerald.  In their 36-foot handmade canoes, the Voyageurs would make the trek back from remote trading posts in Northwestern Ontario, like those in Thunder Bay, back through to Sault Ste. Marie.  Having made the treacherous voyage across the north shore, through tumultuous areas like Old Woman Bay, where wide open Superior gusts in all of her glory, the Voyageurs were treated to the calmer, placid waters of sheltered Superior, including Pancake Bay and Batchewana Bay.  Plus, only being a mere 75 kilometres from Sault Ste. Marie, a locale where they could replenish much needed supplies, legends state that the Voyageurs would feast at the sandy shores on the remainder of their food, which included flour.  Using their flour, they would marvel in a feast of pancakes and then continue their trek – hence the name Pancake Bay.

For the Voyageurs, Pancake Bay was a place of celebration, having endured and survived yet another dangerous journey across open waters.  For myself, the hike at Pancake Bay is also one of celebration.  I am reminded of how lucky I am to live in an area of such grandiose and untainted beauty; how fortunate I am to not have a skyline jarred by skyscrapers; how wonderful it is to be able to breathe the fresh air made clean by the millions of trees that surround me; and how precious the feeling of the warm breeze made cool by the lake air truly is.

After marvelling in the glory of the scenery and the spectacular views, we descend back down the stairs, and return on the same trail originally taken.  Upon returning to the vehicle, like the Voyageurs, we are treated to a celebration, a quick stop at either the Agawa Indian Crafts and Canadian Carver or the Voyageurs Lodge and Cookhouse, where we enjoy a delicious treat before returning back to our busy lives in the city.

The Coastal Trail: South of the Pictographs & Sinclair Cove

Due to the intensity of this section of the Coastal Trail, man-made assists, including ladders, once helped backpackers and hikers scale large rock formations and steep cliffs. Now deteriorated, hikers are forced to endure the trail without any help.

Due to the intensity of this section of the Coastal Trail, man-made assists, including ladders, once helped backpackers and hikers scale large rock formations and steep cliffs. Now deteriorated, hikers are forced to endure the trail without any help.

As part of my continued journey to explore all of Lake Superior Provincial Park, I have set out to tackle the always difficult Coastal Trail, chunk by chunk. Earlier this summer, I survived my first stint on the Coastal Trail, hiking north of Sinclair Cove. This past weekend, I endured the hardest hike of my life, tackling the second toughest portion of the Coastal Trail, south of Sinclair Cove and the Agawa Rock pictographs. Unable to spend more than one night out under the stars this past weekend, my husband and I decided to trek to the first interior campsite south of the pictographs, only a mere two-kilometres away, spend the night, and return on Sunday via the same trail. However, this two-kilometre trek turned into a gruelling and exhausting backpacking excursion, definitely not for the faint hearted or the novice hiker.

The trip started off on a sour note, unfortunately. After our previous hike on the Coastal Trail, Jason’s pack gave out. Unable to purchase a new one in time for this weekend getaway, he was forced to use his ruck sack issued by the Canadian Armed Forces. Weighing in over 15 pounds empty, and oversized in every way possible, Jason was not all too excited about the gruelling terrain.  Plus, before we even arrived at the trail head, our beloved Springer Spaniel, Mister, who celebrated his fourth birthday the day before, decided he would experience his second bout of car sickness ever. Dog vomit on a hot summer day in a car is not ideal (especially for someone like me who also has a weak stomach). On top of all that, the weather man was horribly wrong. We had monitored the weather closely the week prior, including the day of the hike; however, being on Lake Superior, the weather is often unpredictable. Instead of the rainy, cool, overcast weather as predicted, including at 10:00am that morning when we left for the park, we instead were greeted with hot, sticky, sunny weather. The mercury hit a balmy 31 degrees Celsius by the afternoon, and the temperature continued to climb as the evening pressed on. Needless to say, we were overdressed for our hike, since we expected the temperature to hover at a comfortable 12 degrees Celsius. Thus, we began our hike not in the best situation.

After stopping at the Visitor Centre at the Agawa Bay campground in Lake Superior Provincial Park to purchase our interior camping park pass, we set out for the Agawa Rock pictographs, approximately five minutes further north on the Trans-Canada Highway. We parked the car, packed a few extra bottles of water after discovering the less than anticipated hot weather, and set out for the Coastal Trail.

Again, our bad luck continued. The Coastal Trail verges off from the Pictograph Trail, which is only a 400-metre trek. The terrain can be difficult and extremely slippery due to rocks and thick moss coverage. Having hiked the trail well over 10 times, I was certain I knew where the Coastal Trail left the popular Pictograph Trail. Apparently not. We ended up hiking half of the Pictograph Trail, which included having to ascend a serious rock staircase. Plus, Jason’s frustration with his ruck sack had already begun. For future reference, the Coastal Trail starts right near the very end of the Pictograph Trail.

The beginning of the trek on the Coastal Trail was simple, a nice jaunt through the Boreal Forest, watching our footing for the ever present tree roots. To our left stood the back side of the sky high cliff which guards the pictographs. A known habitat for Timberwolves in the area, we listened carefully for any creatures that might be stirring as we made our way around the cliff. Unlike the portion of the trail that lies north, glimpses of Lake Superior were few. On the trail northward, we spent the majority of our time rock hopping on the coast, only occasionally leaving the shoreline to avoid extreme terrain. With the south portion, we only enjoyed the immediate breeze of Lake Superior at the end of our trek, when we finally reached our campsite.

The first view of Lake Superior on the Coastal Trail, south of the Agawa Rock pictographs. To the right, the backview of the pictographs.

The first view of Lake Superior on the Coastal Trail, south of the Agawa Rock pictographs. To the right, the backview of the pictographs.

Our first glimpse of Lake Superior afforded us a stunning view of the Agawa Islands and a corner view of the Agawa Rock pictographs. A few houses dotted the Agawa Islands – I’ve always been jealous of their inhabitants as their view is spectacular and it is impossible now to purchase such slices of heavenly property. The view for both hikers on the Coastal Trail and these homeowners is truly one-of-a-kind: crystal clear, turquoise blue water, laps up against the coastline. The water, despite being so clear, shows its true depth, revealing jagged boulders and fallen trees a hundred feet below. The water is still frigid since the ice didn’t leave the area until early June this year due to thicker ice coverage. A few clouds wisp by, and their reflections are cast perfectly beneath them on mighty Superior.

Large caves and caverns, created by glacial retreat during the Ice Age, are infamous on the Coastal Trail, south of the pictographs.

Large caves and caverns, created by glacial retreat during the Ice Age, are infamous on the Coastal Trail, south of the pictographs.

After leaving our tranquil view, we are greeted with large boulder-like rock formations, which have created vast caverns and caves. The caves provide welcomed shade for us, who are already growing exhausted from the heat, as well a cool and damp sensation. The trail goes directly through the caves, some of which have an opening larger than six feet tall, others which afford barely half a foot of wiggle room. We treaded carefully, watching our steps, noting deep holes and caverns in the ground, some looking as if they were bottom-less. The caves are spectacular: they are gothicly eerie, something straight out of a graphic novel or a horror movie. Formed thousands of years ago during the last Ice Age, these caves took their shape when glaciers were retreating and melting, leaving large stones and boulders behind. The bottoms of the caves are smooth, from years and years of heavy rain flowing through them, and thick ice coverage in the winter. They are most definitely the perfect habitat for bears, who look to hibernate during the chilly winter months.

In the peak of their season, the Coastal Trail is lined with millions of blueberries, ripe for the eating. The provided us with a refreshing and nourishing snack. Beware, however, these are also a favourite snack of black bears during the season.

The Coastal Trail is lined with millions of blueberries, ripe for the eating. They provided us with a refreshing and nourishing snack. Beware, however, these are also a favourite snack of black bears during the season.

Leaving the caves, the trail continued through the forest. Yet, surprisingly, there was very little shade. Lichen, fallen pine needles, and an endless supply of blueberries lined the trail. Until we reached the shoreline, which was also where we set up camp, the Coastal Trail ascended, reaching great heights, allowing for the odd panoramic view of the Agawa Islands and Lake Superior. In the heat, the trek was utterly exhausting, and unable to catch our breaths, our stamina faltered. It wasn’t until we could finally hear Lake Superior lapping lazily against the shoreline that we were greeted with a much-welcomed descend – and breeze – to the shore and our campsite. But first, we had to scale boulders, hopping from rock to rock for 200 metres until we saw the much anticipated campsite sign, nailed to a tree. Despite being only a mere two kilometres, the hike took us an exasperated three hours.

Unlike our previous stint on the Coastal Trail, the water in the sheltered cove where we spent the night had warmed, allowing us the opportunity to cool off, and relax our tired muscles. As the heat continued to climb, we stayed in the water, enjoying the beautiful white sand that lay not even 10 steps from the shore.

Reaching the coast for the first time since heading south of the Pictographs, you are forced to boulder hop for approximately 200 metres.

Reaching the coast for the first time since heading south of the pictographs, you are forced to boulder hop for approximately 200 metres.

Our bad luck persevered come dinner. Having rushed to pack the night before, I carelessly forgot the lid to our pot to heat up our homemade chili. That wasn’t too much of an issue, until I realized I was short on water, having drank more than half of my supply for the entire weekend in the few hours we had hiked. Having to boil water in a pot without a lid is also not ideal – you’re left with a smoky flavoured liquid, full of ash and carcinogens. It’s very refreshing.

And in the morning, after falling asleep extremely early from heat exhaustion, we were welcomed by a black bear, who was also enjoying his morning drink while I ate my breakfast. With bears becoming more and more of an issue within Lake Superior Provincial Park each year, we never enter the park without protection, including bear spear, a bear whistler, and a bear banger. The banger did the trick, frightening the poor creature, who took to the dense forest for protection. Our beloved dog, also wanted to take off with the bear…

With the sun still hot in the morning, we packed up camp early and made our way back to the trail head. The hike was much easier heading north: we were constantly descending. Plus, we relied on very little upper body strength, the complete opposite of the day prior, which had my hands, shoulders, and arms in great pain. We managed to shave a solid hour off of our time, completing the trek in only two hours. This time, we were not utterly exhausted when finished

The return trek was much easier than hiking to our campsite. Rather than scaling large rock formations and slanted cliffs like the one pictured, we instead were able to descend them, requiring less upper body strength, making us less fatigued.

The return trek was much easier than hiking to our campsite. Rather than scaling large rock formations and slanted cliffs like the one pictured, we instead were able to descend them, requiring less upper body strength, making us less fatigued.

For myself, I personally enjoyed our first experience on the Coastal Trail (north of Sinclair Cove) better. As a lover of water, I enjoyed the views and endless exploring of the shoreline more than staying within the trees and forest. However, had we hiked further than just the first campsite, we would have enjoyed plenty of scenic sights on Lake Superior, as the Coastal Trail continues to hug the coastline of this large body of water.

For those interested in hiking the portion of the Coastal Trail which runs south of the Agawa Rock pictographs to the Agawa Bay campground Visitor Centre, the average hiking time for the seven-kilometre trek is six hours, and is rated extremely difficult.