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Pukaskaw National Park

Well, when I left off with my last report, I was camped out just past the town of Marathon Ontario, not too far from Pukaskaw National Park.

This section will likely be the highlight of the entire paddling trip for me. Normally, this section might take me a week at the most as it is only 180 kilometers. Doesn’t sound like that big a deal at all! That all changes pretty quick though when you add in about a half dozen days of being windbound and then take an additional 7 days off at the local sea kayak outfitters at Micipicoten River!

It started out the morning I awoke, camped out near Marathon. When I woke up, I was greeted by the sound of crashing surf pounding in on the cobblestone beach just outside my tent. It seems that things picked up a notch or two on Superior overnight! A quick check on my VHF radio foretold of high winds and a small craft advisory…..hmmm, interesting that!

After breakfast, dressed in my neoprene paddling gear from Whites Paddlesports, one of my sponsors on this expedition, I slipped the canoe out into the water, timing my launch between the bigger sets of waves. Once in the canoe, I quickly paddled out hard, crashing through the breakers and the 4 to 5 foot surf. Once in deep water, out of the surf zone, it was a nice change of pace to have some decent waves to paddle in instead of the relatively calm conditions I’ve encountered thus far out on Lake Superior.

As I paddled towards Hattie Cove, the headquarters for the National Park, the wind continued to increase and the waves kept on building. At this point, out of habit, I started making mental notes of possible take-out locations along the lake in the event of things getting crazy and forcing me ashore early. Rounding the many headlands and high cliffs was particularly interesting, by now the waves were in the area of 6 to 8 feet or so, gradually becoming steeper, add in the refracting waves off the cliff faces and it made for a fun little bit of paddling. Of particular interest was the beach at Pic River, just before entering the park’s northwestern boundary. There is a long sandy beach here, how to the largest active sand dunes on the north shore of Lake Superior. The water in the bay is also pretty shallow. When the wind is right, this is a hotspot for the local play-boaters as a fantastic surf spot with surf of 10 to 15 feet! Fortunately for me it was not quite that big today. Big enough though, I had to keep alert paddling along in my 17’9″ Clipper Sea 1 touring canoe as I paddled along the beach. There were a couple of times when I get really nailed by some large breakers, resulting in a very wet bit of sidesurfing towards the beach before regaining control and heading for deeper waters. Yeah, that’s what I get for paddling in the shallows with 6-8 foot waves rolling in….yup. Joe’s an idiot sometimes! Nothing but fun though and the canoe handled it all exceptionally well. The expedition spray cover certainly earned it’s keep during the side surfs I’ll tell you!

Now, finally entering into the National Park just past the mouth of the Pic River, was the start of a 180 kilometer section of prime wilderness paddling. No roads, no towns or villages, just an undeveloped paddling paradise. The first 90 kilometers is along Pukaskaw National Park, the second 90 kilometers extends from the far tip of the park at the Pukaskaw River down to Michipicoten River

After stopping by at Park Headquarters in Hattie Cove, I climbed back into the canoe and set off, leaving the protected waters behind as I made for Campbell Point, a rather large headland with a rugged section of sheer cliffs. The water here was pretty crazy, large waves crashing in, breaking here and there at random, refracting waves coming right back off the cliffs creating some pretty stupid waters really. Some caution paddling, staying alert in all directions, a few quick bracing strokes here and there….yeah, this is fun…kind of like rodeo paddling but on the lake….you got to like it! Once I was past the cliff section and out into more or less open water again though, it was not too bad, just big swells and lots of wind. Having crossed the open stretch of water, I figured there was no sense in pushing my luck too far so I thought I’d start watching for a place to camp for the night. The first place I saw was Picture Rock Harbour with its nice sandy beach in a protected bit of water behind some rocky islands. Looked perfect. Perfect except for the little fact that it was literally covered with fresh bear tracks! Yeah, bear tracks everywhere and very clear and distinct, could have been made…well…5 minutes ago for all I know! Suddenly I figured the lake does not look THAT bad yet!

Well, it was not that good either. The wind was if anything still increasing as were the waves. Steeper waves, bigger and getting pretty silly. Yeah, time for Joe to find someplace to camp, it is time to get my butt off this lake. There are campsites just off the lake along the White River, the thing I did not know however was that, going in the direction I was paddling, it was VERY easy to pass right by the mouth of the river and never even see it. From the opposite direction it is easy to spot but from my direction, the mouth is pretty much hidden from view for all but a few seconds. Yeah…I went right by! A few hundred meters further there is a rocky point of land, a “Tombolo” island actually. I stopped here to climb up on the rocks to check out what was around the corner……not a good sight! Breakers everywhere and just exposed rocky beaches and cliffs. This is not good! The waves breaking off the point must be 10 feet and things do not look promising for as far as I can see. Turning around though, I was very happy to suddenly see….the mouth of the White River! All right! Back in the canoe once again, I started paddling back. Just a short paddle but an interesting one for sure! Large following waves, breaking at will. At the mouth of the river, the incoming waves colliding with the outgoing current created some, oh shall we say…:Interesting” conditions? Paddle, paddle….BRACE…paddle some more….ohhh…look out…Brace!! Okay, paddle hard….okay, back-addle…..brace…paddle……ahhhh…..breathe again, I’m safely inside the mouth of the river and into calmer waters with just moderate current and a good tailwind. Well, THAT was interesting!

I ended up sharing a campsite tonight with a family from Toronto Ontario, Bryan, Pat and their 2 kids, Nicholas and Robin. Bumping into these people was one of the unexpected little things that makes a trip like this so memorable. They were paddling a pair of tandem canoes, Bryan and Pat have been canoe tripping for years and they are now working on getting the kids, 7 and 8 if I remember correctly, hooked on it as well. They’ve had their share of windbound days here in Pukaskaw already but seemed to be having a great time. They made me feel like one of the family, sharing their evening meal with me before swapping stories around the campfire before we all called it a night, retiring to our respective tents.

The next morning the wind was still up and you could see the whitecaps rolling by out on the lake from our campsite, looks like this will be the first windbound day of my trip this year. Too break up the day, I paddled a few kilometers up the White River to Chigamiwinigum Falls and then up a 1 kilometer hiking trial to a 20 meter (about 65 feet) suspension bridge, crossing the river over a chaotic gorge of cascading whitewater. It was a pretty interesting feeling, walking across this narrow bridge, feeling it sway back & forth as I looked down between the narrow slats I was walking across, at the tumultous water far below….yeah, this was worthwhile…very nice!

The rest of the day was spent back in camp reading and writing, snacking, drinking coffee and chatting with my neighbours. Bryan and Pat were on their way back out of Pukaskaw whereas I was going all the way through. They had a guidebook with them, covering the entrance to Pukaskaw all the way down to Michipicoten River. After showing it to me, they insisted I keep it, taking it with me, this even though it was a brand new book they’d just bought for this trip. I tried to turn them down but they would hear nothing of it. Finally I agreed to take it, promising to mail it back to them upon completion of my trip this fall. I’ve been saying all along that one of the main highlights of the trip has not been the paddling itself but has been some of the people I’ve met along the way. These folks are the most recent example. I hope they know I appreciate their kindness.

The weather forecast on my VHF radio was good for the next day so we were all up early, breaking camp and preparing to go our separate ways under an overcast sky with just light winds. After saying our goodbyes, I was off and anxious to see what the day has in store. The winds remained light for most of the day with showers off and on throughout the afternoon. Small swells of up to 3 feet or so, nothing of any concern though. Certainly much calmer than the last couple of days had been. I passed so many great looking beaches and campsites today it was hard to keep track of them all. The Coastal Backpacking Trail follows along the shores of Superior through much of Pukaskaw National Park and there are numerous great looking campsites developed along the way for both backpackers and paddlers alike. Places like Morrison Harbour, Shot Watch Cove, Fish Harbour and Oisseau Beach were all beautiful spots as were many others. Rocky islands, rugged cliffs, sandy beaches…pretty much everything. With the day starting to wind down, I paddled into Fisherman’s Cove to stop for the night. This is a nice protected little spot, out of the prevailing winds and consists of two small sandy beaches separated by a narrow outcrop of granite. The Coastal Trail also comes through here and it is a popular spot with the backpackers as I was to find out.

AS it turned out, there were backpackers camped out on both sides, Kevin & Lisa from Detroit Michigan on one side. Kevin is an avid canoeist himself and when he test paddled my Clipper Sea 1 canoe, he was very impressed with it and said it is just what he needs as his next canoe, something that can handle the big waters of places such as Lake Superior and Lake Michigan. On the other side, there was Jean, Sharon and Pat, all from Sault Ste. Marie Ontario. They, as well as Kevin & Lisa, were all dropped off at the end of the Coastal Trail by boat and were backpacking their way back to Hattie Cove.

As I was setting up my tent, one of the girls, Sharon, asked me if I was hungry…they’d just finished their supper and had plenty of leftovers! Well, this was a bonus! Even had a delightful desert and cup of coffee afterwards! Soon, Jean came over to my tent and told me they have a place in Sand Bay, not far from Sault Ste, Marie, and it was right on the lake and I was welcome to stop by and spend the night when I got to that part of the lake. As has been the story from day one, the people along the way continue to be the highlight of my trip. It seems every place I go, I wind up meeting some truly great people!

The next morning I awoke to the sound of waves pummeling the beach. Sure enough, the surf was up and the VHF radio told me of even higher winds and waves on the way and that a small craft advisory had been issued. Looks like this will be my second wind day of the trip.

Soon, the girls were ready to head out so we said our goodbyes and took some photos. I told Jean I’d be sure to drop by. A short while later, Kevin & Lisa were ready to head off and we exchanged email addresses, took mutual photos etc. and they too were set to go. Myself, I settled in for the day, setting up my tarp…the forecast was also calling for rain…and got a campfire going. Being windbound in a place like this is really not all that bad when you think about it. I spent the next few hours sipping hot coffee, snacking on the blueberries that grow in abundance along the Superior coast, reading, writing in my journal..pretty relaxing day overall.

In the afternoon, a couple of backpackers arrived, Gabe and Jacie, a couple from Toronto who were hiking in from Hattie Cove. They were going to cover a good portion of the trail and then head back out. It seems they knew who I was before we even spoke…they called out “You must be Joe”! I replied….” I must be”! It seems the girls from Sault Ste. Marie told them about the guy who was canoeing across Canada, told them to be sure and say hello! Originally, they had only planned on stopping for a lunch break. During their break however, the skies opened up and suddenly we were all in the midst of a thunder and lightning storm, the rain was coming down like mad! Faced with the prospect of hiking on in a torrential downpour, they decided instead to set up camp next door where Kevin & Lisa had been last night. As they were setting up, a short while later, I looked around and saw two more backpackers arrive, both soaking wet. Kristie and Karen, from Michigan, were also here to hike in for a few days and then back out. This would be their turnaround spot. It turns out they were happy to see I had a tarp up and a good campfire going. They were without a tarp and their stove had went “KAPUT” on day one!

The rest of the day was pretty much spent around the campfire. The rain soon stopped, the winds picked up even more and we all went out to watch a beautiful sunset along with checking out the now huge waves pounding the shoreline. The wind had picked up in the early evening and the waves outside the cove had to be 15 feet! I was glad to be camped out in this little cove with all these backpackers rather than out there facing the fury of Superior I’ll tell you!

Soon Gabe and Jacie went over to their campsite and Karen retired to her’s and Krisitie’s tent, wanting to write on her journal for awhile. Kristie and I hung out around the campfire, talking about backpacking, paddling, cycling, you name it. We talked until our fire had burned down to just embers and we then both called it a night, retiring to our respective tents.

For a full day of being windbound, it was certainly a good day! Gabe & Jacie…Karen, Krisite…if any of you are reading this, I’m glad that we all met, it was fun hanging out around camp with you all. Oh and Kristie…the day you and Karen headed out….that night when I was sitting around my campfire, watching it burn down to ashes….well, it was more fun last night when you were here too!

The following morning the lake was still acting up. Very windy, big waves and an ominous forecast coming through on the marine radio. Looks like another day of being windbound! Oh well, both of the wind days I’ve had thus far have turned out great, it’ll be interesting to see if anybody else shows up today. I said my goodbyes to Krisite and Karen as they got ready to head off. A little while later Gabe and Jacie were heading off as well. They were heading in for one more day and would start heading back tomorrow. Krisitie and Karen were already on their way out. Nobody else showed up today but I busied myself with some equipment repairs as well as lots of reading time. Hopefully tomorrow I’ll be back on the water again.

Well, the next day arrived and the winds were as strong as ever. Nope, not going anywhere today! In the afternoon however I did dress up in my paddling great from Whites, lowered the seat in my Clipper canoe and headed out to play in the surf a bit. Well, I only got about 75% of the way out of my “Protected Cove”, the waves there were plenty big to play in. Out at the entrance to the cove they were just huge. These in turn were dwarfed by what I saw rolling by just outside the cove. The lake was a frothy, white-capped mess! The lake was just stupid today, far too big to be out tripping.

As I was heading back in after a little playtime in the surf, Gabe and Jacie arrived back and would be spending another night here. Both of them were smiling ear to ear as Jacie told me that, as of last night, they were now engaged! Awesome, I felt so happy for them. Just before they headed off yesterday, Gabe had told me that he was proposing that night. I guess it turned out the way he had hoped. I thought that this was really awesome and I wish them both the very best!

Finally! Woke up the following morning to a somewhat calmer lake. Yes! Time for Joe to go paddling! Today turned out to be a beautiful day, sunny, warm, moderate winds…perfect for getting in some paddling. Now I SHOULD go for a long paddle today, kind of make up for lost time and such…but my plan was for a rather short paddle of only about 35 kilometers or so, to Cascade Falls, one of the only waterfalls of Superior where the water literally cascades directly into the lake itself. This is a place made famous by the work of the late Bill Mason, a well known Canadian canoeist, known well for his painting, writing and his true love of canoeing. Cascade Falls was said to be one of his favorite spots along Lake Superior and I can see why. It is a spectacular waterfall, a 3-fingered falls actually, with a great little beach just off to one side. This is where I camped for the night. The view from the top of the 100 foot falls was nearly as impressive as the view from below. Also, just behind where I set up my tent for the night, there are the remains of a very old trappers log cabin, just off the beach and into the forest. Makes you wonder about the person who built it and the life they lead here so long ago. I went to sleep tonight, serenaded by the sound of the waterfall just a stones throw form the vestibule of my 3-season tent.

Rain! That’s what I awoke to the next morning. Rain and wind. Oh, did I forget to mention the waves? Yeah, they were getting bigger and bigger once again. I headed off anyways, hoping for the best. I paddled down the lake in the protection of Otter Island at first. Past the island however, the prospects soon looked bleak. I went past another small group of islands before attempting to venture out onto open waters. From here on it was open water, exposed coastlines, rugged cliffs and limited take-out opportunities for several kilometers. This and the 8-10 foot waves, many of them breaking, convinced me to head back, maybe go over to Otter Island and check it out.

CascadeFallsCampfireTentWell, you know what? The old saying that everything happens for a reason? I ended up paddling back to the tip of Otter Island, just a mere 3 kilometer crossing from where I camped last night in fact! Here, at the old lighthouse, it is just such an amazing location! The lighthouse was automated years ago…sadly…but surprisingly, the old lighthouse keeper’s house and assistant lighthouse keeper’s house were both still open. Somewhat maintained and open to boaters passing by, complete with a logbook for guests to sign in. It was here that I stayed tonight, at the house down by the boat landing. Less than a 10 minute hike away was the lighthouse itself, complete with a gorgeous view out over Lake Superior. On a windy night such as this, you want to believe that the view was spectacular! So was the sunset! I know that the next time I return here, to again paddle Superior, I’ll plan on spending a few days right here, reading, writing, maybe enjoying a nice bottle of red wine while taking in the sunsets. Just reading the guest books was more than worthwhile. If you are ever paddling through here, plan to spend at least a night here at the Otter Island lighthouse, you will not regret it!

The next morning came out bright and sunny, and a calmer looking lake with nice gentle swells, a perfect day for paddling. My plan today is to reach the park boundary at the Pukaskaw River and to explore that area a little bit before paddling off tomorrow to begin the stretch from the end of the National Park down to Michipicoten River, home of Naturally Superior Adventures, another canoe & kayak outfitter with a great reputation.

I paddled out along the outside coast of Otter Island, getting a good look at the lighthouse from the water as I paddled past. I’m pretty sure that I’ll be back here again next summer fo0r a few days, this is an incredibly beautiful spot. Down towards the far end of the island, on an ancient cobblestone beach, is the site of the largest known concentration of Pukaskaw pits on the entire lake. These shallow depressions in the cobblestones are so old even the native peoples of the area do not know who built them or how long ago. It is thought that they were used by aboriginal peoples for purposes of vision quests but nobody really knows for sure.

Past the island, I passed places such as Richardson’s Island, Bonamie Bay etc. Next was Pointe Le Canadienne, a headland noted for its often times chaotic waters. Today though, with only moderate winds, it was a piece of cake with waves only of about 4 feet at the most and only a few of them breaking, making for an easy passage. As usual in these places, I tend to enjoy paddling in very close to the cliffs, relishing the feel of the boat being rocked side to side in the confused waters caused by the incoming waves crashing into the refracting waves coming back off the cliff face, nothing but fun!

When I arrived at the mouth of the Pukaskaw River, I paddled up to the first rapid and checked out the area a bit before paddling back about 1 kilometer to a beautiful sandy beach campsite at Imogene Cove, setting up camp on the sand right in front of a couple of low cliffs. This will be my last night in Pukaskaw National Park, tomorrow is the start of the 90 kilometer stretch which will take me into Michipicoten River.

I’ve decided to break this up into two trip reports so I’ll leave off here and will begin writing the next one. Some highlights of the next few days include rescuing a pair of stranded Russian kayakers who became stranded in a very bad place with a tandem sea kayak literally broke into pieces! I was the first person they saw in 3 days! I also met one of the top canoe racers of the Pre Serge Corbin era. I’ll have it finished and posted hopefully in the next week at my next stop.

As the saying goes….That’s All For Now!

Cheers…Joe O’Blenis