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Hiking the Coastal Trail in Pukaskwa National Park: Part I

I’m just back from five days of hiking the 60 kilometre coastal trail in Pukaskwa National Park in northwestern Ontario.

My feet, shoulders, hips and even my arms are thanking me that it’s over. My friends and their dog are talking to me again. Actually they’re feeling pretty darned pleased with themselves now – but unfortunately that wasn’t always the case.

"Three clean,organized backpacks at the start of the trip"

Three clean, organized backpacks at the start of the trip

The Coastal Trail in Pukaskwa is one tough trail. The trail weaves along the shore of Lake Superior – a lake that behaves like a teenager on hormones. One minute it’s glassy calm and the next it’s thrown a temper tantrum and kicked up waves that swallow ships. It’s a lake you can’t help but respect – especially when you realize that it’s the largest lake in the world by surface area. It’s also bloody cold – averaging 4.4 C (40 F) at the surface.

Our trip begins the day before we start hiking. We drive seven hours to Pukaskwa National Park from Espanola – the town my friends live in five hours north of Toronto. You have to really want to go this park as it’s in the middle of nowhere. The closest big city is Thunder Bay – and it’s about 350 kilometres away. We arrive at the park by 3:30 – enough time to undergo the required backcountry orientation. (We’d made backcountry camping reservations months earlier.) Then we stretch our legs and check out one of the easy nearby hiking trails before heading to a B&B in Pic River – just five minutes outside the park. We had decided the day before that we wanted one last night of comfort though we could have camped in the park.

"Looking out at the rugged Lake Superior coastline"

Looking out at the rugged Lake Superior coastline

"Waves are pounding the shores of the beach - and I'm thankful I'm not in a kayak"

Waves are pounding the shores of the beach – and I’m thankful I’m not in a kayak

The next morning I check in with Melissa of McCuaig Marine Services (807-229-0193). Her husband Keith will be taking the three of us and a dog along with another group of six and their dog to the far end of the trail. But Lake Superior isn’t behaving. So we postpone our launch time to 9:30 am. In my mind I’m happy we’re able to even get away but I’m not so happy about how little time we’ll have to hike on the first day. You’ll see what I mean later in the post.

"boat ride on Lake Superior"

It’s not a good day on the water if you’re prone to seasickness

The boat ride is normally about two hours in length but today we take three hours. And they’re a tough three hours, especially early on in the trip when we’re rolling and pitching. The dogs aren’t too thrilled either.

"Keeper the dog is less than impressed with the boat ride"

Keeper the dog is less than impressed with the boat ride

At 1:15 we finally pull up to the beach, unload and watch the boat pull away with a group that’s just finished the trail.

"The boat on the beach at North Swallow Harbour"

The boat on the beach at North Swallow Harbour

We figure we’ll eat lunch around a fire with the other group from Caledon before heading off. Interestingly and by sheer coincidence two of the other group are good friends of my sister-in-law. What a small world it is!

"Fantastic picnic lunch the other group is having"

Fantastic picnic lunch the Caledon Hills group is having – and yes we’re jealous

"The group from Caledon Hills"

The group from Caledon Hills

We finally hit the trail at 1:30 …..and head towards the bear locker instead of Swallow River – another 15 minutes of lost time. It’s 2 pm by the time we’ve taken our shoes off, waded through the Swallow River and actually started on the right trail.

"I'm the stooped one on the left"

I’m the stooped one on the left

Our goal for the first night is White Spruce Harbour – 10 kilometres away. There’s only one small problem. The trail is tougher than we figured and the rocks are sickeningly slick. So our pace is slow – way too slow in my mind to get to our campsite. In fact by 5 pm we are just at the Hideaway Lake campsite – and it looks like slow going ahead.

"Slow travel on very slippery rocks"

Slow travel on very slippery rocks

"The inland scenery is beautiful"

The inland scenery is beautiful

"It's warm, humid & buggy - yes buggy - on day one"

It’s warm, humid & buggy – yes buggy in late September – on day one

"Slow going over slippery lichen covered lake bottom"

Slow going over slippery lichen covered rocks that were formerly on a lake bottom

"We spent a lot of time on our rears sliding down rocks on the first few days"

We spent a lot of time on our rears sliding down rocks on the first few days

"All manner of fungi and mushrooms to be seen"

All manner of fungi and mushrooms to be seen

"Keeper the dog"

Keeper keeps a close eye on all of us –  on the first day

"Some stiff climbing provides expansive views even under overcast skies"

Some stiff climbing provides expansive views even under overcast skies

"I've never seen moss blobs like this before"

I’ve never seen moss blobs like this before

"Rainforest like growth on parts of the trail"

Rainforest like growth on parts of the trail

"There is lots of hiking along granite ridges"

There is lots of hiking along granite ridges

After we pass the Hideaway Lake campsite – and the other group who has caught up to us – we are  left pondering if we’ll make it all the way to our intended goal. We as a group decide to continue. The hours march on. I spend a lot of time looking at the map wondering where we might find some flat ground to pitch the tents. I spy a lake but when we reach it I’m disappointed. There’s no flat ground.

So we continue – with headlamps now – and ever more slowly. Stomachs rumble but we ignore them. When we reach the coast I can’t find the cairns in the dark and the rock is so slippery that I’m scared of falling and breaking something. Jo says she can go no further which is fine by me. Somehow we find two sort of flatish sections of ground and pitch our tents in the dark.  We have a quick snack and fall into bed at 10 pm. Never have I been so happy to be in a tent.

As I lay in my tent waiting for sleep to overtake me I lay wondering what can possibly lie ahead after a start like this.

Stay tuned for more.

"The best we could do for a campsite at 9:30 pm in the pitch dark"

Guerrilla camping – the best we could do at 9:30 pm in the pitch dark

"Lake Superior rocky coastline"

We stopped here when I couldn’t make out the cairns in the dark – about a km from our intended campsite

Have you ever backpacked unintentionally in the dark??

Other posts related to this trip you  might enjoy:

Leigh McAdam

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Author Leigh

Avid world traveler. Craves adventure - & the odd wildly epic day. Gardener. Reader. Wine lover. Next big project - a book on 100 Canadian outdoor adventures.

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Join the discussion 28 Comments

  • Gillian @GlobalBookshelf says:

    Oh dear. I am hanging on the edge of my seat to hear how it goes tomorrow. Post soon Leigh!

  • Jennifer says:

    Oh geez! It’s rough when you don’t get off to the best start. Obviously you lived to tell the tale. ;) Can’t wait to hear how the rest goes.

  • Muza-chan says:

    Great photos, so colorful…

  • Welcome back, Leigh! This already looks like a great first day despite a late start and some of the surprises along the way. You’ve shown us another beautiful part of Canada. Those moss blobs are awesome! Looking forward to the rest of the photos and tales of adventure.

  • Loic Ransom says:

    My friend Moses Fisher and I hiked the entire length of this trail in 15hrs 1min 36secs. We did it packing as little as possible, however we’ve both taken the more leisurely place with full tripping packs and believe me… it is no less arduous. Hope your trip was enjoyable despite the rough start. Sept is a rough month to be doing that trip.

    • @Loic I read about you in the pamphlet. I have done loads of backpacking this summer so feel in very good shape but my friends were new to backpacking so this trip was a hard one to start with. Despite our inauspicious start we finished when we planned to though the days were long. At least we always made it to a campsite after the first day.

  • Nancie says:

    Hi Leigh, Your photos are beautiful! What a rough trip, so far! Even doggy lookks like he’s saying…”You really mean we’re doing this!” :)

    Good to see that you’ve made it back safe and sound!

    • @Nancie I’d have to say that the trip really never got easier – but we did manage to camp at a real campsite every night – and those were gorgeous!! The dog thought we were off our rocker by day three.

  • A good reminder of why I don’t backpack. But your photos are gorgeous – that inland lake shot is absolutely magical! Glad the big lake didn’t do you in.

  • Jess says:

    I love the Not Impressed dog. He just remains so steadfastly Not Impressed by what the humans have gotten him into.

    I’m lucky, the benefit to doing most of my outdoors adventures in the far north summer and early fall is that it’s hard to get yourself stranded in a true dark. The downside is that when it is dark, it’s very, very dark.

    • @Jess The Not Impressed dog grew more and more unimpressed with each passing day. The day after we finished he slept the entire day. In the summer you’d have really long days for this hike – but then you’d probably have to wear a bug net.

  • Those green moss blobs are gorgeous as is the rest of the scenery. As I was reading, I wondered how Keeper held up during the hike, but from the looks of his picture, he was just fine. Looking forward to reading the rest of this…

  • One of my first hikes as a kid with my parents in the Great Smoky Mountains we had a 13 mile first day hike up to the top of the Appalachian Ridge. About a mile into the hike the trail crossed a river. The bridge was out and the river was quite deep. It took us two hours to find a crossing as my dad went up and down the river looking for a safer crossing. We finally ended up crossing right there.

    This delay made us walk the final 2 miles in the pitch dark going up a mountain with lame flashlights. It sucked, so I can feel your pain here. It is a tough way to start of a hike.

    • @Ted Backpacking in the dark is not an experience I want to repeat any time soon though if we hadn’t done it we most definitely would have had to spend an extra night on the trail – with reduced provisions.
      Your trip doesn’t sound like any fun – but at least it didn’t ruin your love of the outdoors.

  • jennyj says:

    How well I remember that trail! We too started in the rain and were surprised at the difficulty. Aren’t you so glad to have done it though! Such an amazing, remote and gorgeous trail. I can’t wait to read the rest of your tale :)

    • @Jenny We read a lot of your information on the parks website. I’m so glad we did it and I’d do it again in September when the bugs are at a minimum. I’ll take cold nights over bugs – plus the beaches were deserted. Just a gorgeous part of the world and kudos to you for getting your kids out there on the trail.

  • Wayne says:

    hello: thanks for the great shots and stories. i know this trail very well, i worked at pukaskwa for 23 years and hiked the entire trail at least 5 times. 2 times on my own. it takes 4 days…that’s about 16km (10 miles) a day. 5 days would be more ideal.

  • budget jan says:

    Sounds awful :) Love the dog’s backpack!

    • @Jan It was awful at first but then you put some distance from the trip and it feels pretty cool that we were able to backpack as far as we did in the dark. The trip ended up being fantastic with incredible scenery every day.

  • Dan says:

    Great trip blog! I am considering doing either this or the coastal trail in the Lake Superior Provincial Park. How do you feel the parks compare? I’ve yet to experience either.

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