“You know the Pukaskwa is really difficult right?” Those were the words our guide Leslie said to me as we trekked 100km across the frozen Arctic Headwaters of the Missinaibi River. For 10 days we pulled our own sleds in -30 degree weather over frozen lakes and rivers while lugging our gear up steep and overgrown portages. The snow was deep and we could not step anywhere without wearing snowshoes. We were nowhere near civilization and we had to fend for ourselves chopping down trees for firewood and chipping through 3 feet of ice for water. This was difficult. But she’s telling me the hike I had planned for the summer is tougher?
The Pukaskwa Coastal Hiking Trail is Ontario’s answer to British Columbia’s West Coast Trail. We hadn’t done a lot of backcountry hiking and unlike the Missinaibi where we pulled our sleds behind us; all our gear would be on our backs for 6 days as we hiked the 60 km route. For some reason, that seemed more intimidating.
We had our doubts, but we were determined to conquer this epic trail on the north shore of Lake Superior.
Our trip began at the beautiful Rock Island Lodge at Naturally Superior Adventures just outside of Wawa Ontario. We spent a night in the cozy lodge, sipping wine by the fireplace and listening to stories by owner David Wells and his friends. These are the true adventurers of Northern Ontario and we were inspired and motivated by their dedication to the outdoors.style="text-align: left;"
Our guide Brendan went over our gear with us and divvied up all our supplies between backpacks. We had to carry everything to last the 6-day hike (that we turned into 7 days to gather photos and video footage) but we didn’t want to bring anything extraneous as the heavy packs feel like lead bricks once you’ve been on the trail for 8-hours. After scaling down supplies and going over the checklist, we turned in for an early evening excited and nervous with anticipation.
The day started early and we hit the road at 6:30 am to begin the 2-½ hour drive north to the park entrance at Hattie Cove. Here we caught a shuttle boat that took us 60 km along the shore of Lake Superior to the start of the trail at North Swallow. The seas were rough that day. Lake Superior is the most treacherous of the Great Lakes, but our captain was skilled and we braced ourselves for the 3-hour ride slamming against the waves in the thick fog. Miraculously, the fog lifted as we pulled into shore and our trek started off on a secluded beach under the blazing sun and clear skies.
Within the first step of walking along the deep sand, I nearly fell down. We’d done a lot of treks in our lives, but never with a fully stocked backpack plus camera gear strapped to our fronts. I was immediately grateful for the trekking poles Brendan added to our gear at the last minute. It’s impossible to trek over such terrain without them. It took about a half hour, but we soon felt comfortable walking with the packs and settled into the rhythm of the day.
It wasn’t long before the challenges began.
The north coast of Lake Superior is magnificent but that makes it a challenge. It’s known for its rocky shoreline and high elevation gains. Soon we were scrambling up rock faces and hopping over jagged boulders. We balanced over log jammed riverbeds from winter tree falls and jostled along masses of cobblestones left by glacial rivers. Luckily, the weather held for us making it easier to navigate over the uneven terrain. I remember Dave saying “could you imagine how slippery this would be if it was wet?”
What we love about the Pukaskwa Trail was how diverse the landscape is. Unlike other coastal routes, the Pukaskwa ventures deep into the wilderness. We walked through the boreal forest marveling at the vivid greens of the mossy ground. We picked fresh berries from the endless blueberry patches along the trail and we waded through shallow ponds that led to high limestone cliffs in the middle of the woods.
It was unlike any other trail we’ve ever hiked. One minute we’d be traipsing across long sandy beaches, and the next we’d find ourselves standing on a high sea cliff overlooking the vast forest leading out to the world’s largest freshwater lake.
It was exhausting and difficult, but our spirits were constantly high due to the unrivaled beauty of Ontario’s north. Nowhere else in the world had we trekked through such epic scenery in complete seclusion. Normally when something is this beautiful, hordes of hikers fight for space on the trail. During our seven days on the Pukaskwa, we saw only two other parties, a local guy that hikes the trail each season with his dog, and a family from the UK who seemed completely comfortable in this wild environment.
You can hike the Pukaskwa independently, but we chose to hire a guide. David told us that once you turn your party of two into a party of three, the chances of a bear attack goes down greatly. We did see fresh bear tracks on a muddy trail one day and we came face to face with a mother moose and her calf. Luckily it was at a narrow and rocky spot on the trail because she felt vulnerable enough to turn around and run the other way. Never had we come face to face with a moose. We had seen them from the safety of a canoe, but to stand just a few metres from one is alarming. They are enormous and powerful and if spooked, can be very dangerous. With the three of us together though, we felt safe and slowly backed away into the trees to let her turn around.
During our seven days on the trail, we were fortunate to have only one night of pouring rain. We had just gotten into camp and rushed to put up our tents when the downpour began. Tucked away in our sleeping bags, I thought about how lucky we are to be able to experience this epic trail. Throughout the trip we had witnessed sensational sunsets, clear starry skies, endless vistas of boreal forest, and unsurpassed views of Lake Superior.
When I think back to the words of our guide Leslie from the Missinaibe headwaters, I agree, the Pukaskwa is really difficult. But it’s also one of the most fulfilling and rewarding trips we have ever taken in our lives. Yes, we were tired and our feet ached and yes the packs were heavy and our backs hurt, but I don’t think I have ever hiked for seven days with a constant smile on my face. Our guide Brendan kept us entertained, the cold waters of Lake Superior soothed our tender feet ,and the feeling of accomplishment when reaching the park headquarters rivaled the feeling of summiting Mount Kilimanjaro or reaching Mount Everest Base Camp. In short, hiking the Pukaskwa Coastal Trail was one of the greatest adventures of our lives.
About the authors: Dave and Deb are well-known travel personalities in both online and mainstream media. Their highly acclaimed website, The Planet D, won the 2014 Gold Medal for Best Travel Blog by the Society of American Travel Writers. Dave and Deb founded ThePlanetD in 2008 after cycling the continent of Africa and since then they’ve travelled to more than 100 countries on all 7 continents. Follow The Planet D on Twitter /// Instagram /// Facebook.
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