Driving, Hiking and Biking the North Superior Shore, 2013

the photos

In the fall of 2012 I went on a trip I'd wanted to make since I was 12: I circumnavigated Lake Superior. It was fantastic: so much so that I wanted to do it again. So in late summer 2013 I went along the north shore of Superior (staying on the Canadian side this time) with a friend. I'm not going to detail the entire trip, just mention miscellaneous stories I enjoyed.

August 26: At 0930 this morning we were at the intersection of Gargantua Road and the TransCanada, inside Lake Superior Provincial Park. The road is closed, but we were told yesterday by park staff the problem is a bad bridge that could easily bear the weight of a person and a bike. So we parked the car, lifted our bikes over the gate in front of the bridge, and went for a 14 km ride down a somewhat hilly dirt road. This may have been unwise on my part: while I'm in reasonably good shape, I haven't ridden a bike more than a kilometre in about three years. We got hit with a little drizzle, but nothing serious. We parked the bikes at the end of the road, which is also the trailhead for the Gargantua Harbour trail. After inspecting the map at the kiosk, we decided to go east along the Coastal Trail, away from Gargantua Harbour. We gained probably forty meters in height along the trail - mostly over rubble rock, some of it quite slippery from the rain. Nice trail, a couple fine look-outs on flat(ish) granite. Lots and lots of wild blueberries: we ate a lot of those, and found quite a few raspberries along the lake shore - a delicious hike. I even ate some deer moss, but there's a reason people don't eat that unless they're really hungry. Not a very appealing taste, horrible dry texture. We even almost answered the question "if a tree falls in the forest and there's no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?" A good-sized birch tree collapsed rather loudly about 30 meters ahead of us on the return trip. If there's no wind to possibly knock the tree over, the person who wasn't there to hear it can get a little jumpy. "Bears! Bears?" Fortunately, no.

August 26: The LSPP trail rating system consists of four diamonds: one indicates an "Easy" trail, two a "Moderate" trail, three a "Demanding" trail, and four a "Very Demanding" trail. Nokomis is rated as "Moderate," and they define Moderate as "Well marked, some steep inclines and uneven footing; less than 4 hours." Pay close attention to that "steep inclines" and "uneven footing," as the Nokomis Trail assuredly had plenty of both. I was a little cool when we started it, but drenched in sweat by the time we finished two hours later. It's a wonderful trail, constantly changing terrain as you hike. There's a section that has big round pebbles that the info board in the area claims are from an ancient former lake shore. There's hanging moss on the trees, and views from 150 metres above the lake (the trail starts at the shoreline).

August 27: We headed back into Lake Superior Provincial Park to go look at the Pictographs. I went partly from a sense of obligation: they were closed last year because I came too late in the season, and for our first two days here they were closed because of the weather. If it's that hard to get to, it must be worth seeing, right? So I was very happy to find that the site itself, the trail and the rocks around it, were really wonderful. The trail goes through a massive cleft in the rock: the passage is perhaps a metre and a half wide, the walls are parallel and ten meters high, covered in moss, and the passage runs uphill for a good 50 metres. For once I could have agreed if someone had compared it to a church or holy place: it's kind of awe-inspiring. The pictographs themselves aren't much, their value is simply in their age. Red paint on granite, mildly interesting figures. But getting there ... that's another story. They're on a cliff face right on the water, and to see them you have to walk along a one metre wide stone shelf that slopes away from the cliff face at an angle of 20 degrees and goes straight into the water. Superior often gets two and three foot waves going, and if that sloping surface were wet ... We spent the last couple days slipping and sliding on smooth wet granite, I believed the warning signs that said injury and death had occurred. They had anchored ropes for pulling yourself out of the lake when you fell in. But today Superior was utterly calm and the stone was dry, so it was relatively easy to get out there. I admired the colour of the water: it's very clear, starting out a very light green and shading to dark blue as the bottom drops away. I hope my pictures do it justice.

August 27: We went to the Sand River Trail and hiked up by the multiple falls. We did the lazy tourist version, not hiking the full trail but just admiring the really lovely falls at the near end of the trail. As we were driving out of the site, we were flagged down by a backpacker couple who wanted a lift to their car at Orphan Lake (about five or six km up the road). Unfortunately the back seat was down and there was no way we could take them and their gear with our two bikes in the back. My friend made the rather obvious suggestion (in hindsight - I certainly didn't think of it) that I could drive one of them up to get the car and he'd stay behind with the other, which is what we did. They're from Michigan and were hiking the Coastal Trail (which runs about 80 or 100 km from one end of the park to the other) until he managed to locate a wasp's nest with his leg and acquired dozens of stings. They decided it was time to be around others in case of medical problems. He was in good spirits despite the setback, and we chatted about the abundance of blueberries and the positive turn of the weather.

August 30: After Nipigon, we headed to Hurkett Cove Conservation Area. These aren't Provincial Parks, but there are a bunch of them around Thunder Bay, and they appear to be held by some local trust. The Conservation Areas are substantially smaller than Provincial Parks, but seem to hold some nice lands and encourage their use. I put this one in the GPS as "Hurkett Cove CA," so the British voice announced our arrival at "Hurkett Cove, California." Impressive American bias, simultaneous with a shocking misunderstanding of geography in a GPS unit. The dirt road in was a flat, but thoroughly potholed. Nearing the end we disturbed a relatively small hawk who flew from one tree to another ahead of us until he gave up in disgust and just gave us the evil eye while I photographed him out the car window. While I'm very fond of the raptors, my identification skills don't reach beyond saying that this wasn't a red-tail hawk (or a bald eagle) - they're about the only ones I'm fairly sure of. This one was too small and had very different markings.

August 31: Our first stop of the day was Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park: no hiking required to see the falls, boardwalks and a few stairs surround it just off the parking lot. The volume of water going over it is three to four times as much as when I visited in late September last year, and it's a surprise to me to say this: I think it looks better with less water. It's certainly impressive this way, and it roars real loud, but one of the things I found utterly fascinating about it was the way the stone that the water flows over broke, in right angles and squares. With less water you could see the weird angularity beneath.

August 31: We went to the Sovereign Room for dinner - I really wanted to go there because A) it's number one ranked on tripadvisor, B) my coworker from Thunder Bay has friends here who tell him it's the place to go, and C) everyone says "it looks terrible outside, go in anyway." They weren't kidding: I said "it looks like the place the local alcoholics go for breakfast!" The interior decor isn't very reassuring, but the house is packed with a predominantly young crowd even at 1830. The food is indeed very good, and very reasonably priced. They also have a very good selection of beer. I had the pasta special - long macaroni with peas, pea shoots, cherry tomatoes, and one of the cured forms of pork in a light cream sauce. I also had a half pint of a Sleeping Giant Brewery beer (local), I think it was the "360," it was pretty good. My friend had the pizza special - tomatoes, bocconcini, mozzarella, balsamic vinegar, a couple meats (sorry, we're going from memory here). Also very good.

September 1 (Sleeping Giant): The first part of our journey turned out to be relatively short (and also involved the last of the day's rain in the form of a very light drizzle): we got on the bikes for a part of Kabeyun Trail and almost immediately found a turn-off to the Superior shore where we ate our sandwiches for lunch. Back on the Kabeyun (which runs 80 km or so all around the end of the peninsula) for 8 km of fairly level but very stoney riding to get to the Talus Lake Trail. The sun started to show its head occasionally, and the temperature settled in at a steady and wonderful 15°C or so. At the intersection of the two trails there's now a bike rack(!), new this year. We locked up the bikes and headed about a kilometre along Talus Lake Trail, to where it met up with the Top of the Giant Trail. Not too far along the trail we came across a strange open grassy space: the ground was kind of dished, a huge triangular space that extended two or three hundred metres. The ground was a bit spongy, and one of the commonest plants other than grass seemed to be mint! The trail gets fairly tough after that: it gains about 290 metres in about a kilometre, so you can imagine there's a lot of scrambling upwards involved. But once you're up you go about another kilometre, first with fantastic views to the east, then south, and then the west to Thunder Bay (fairly distant, but we could make out some features). Really a magnificent trail. And at the very end ... The Chimney. Holy Crap. This is a crevasse with a bottom that climbs from almost down at lake level to right up where we were, 290 metres above the lake - and it did it in less than 290 metres, for a slope of about 55 degrees. And the bottom is littered with loose rubble stone. I began to see why the park staff member had called that way up "old school." I think she was being polite: "insane" would have been a better description. It's magnificent, don't get me wrong: but ascending it would be risking serious injury or death. No wonder they have several signs saying "Chimney NO, Top of the Giant trail YES." Okay, I made it less wordy, but that's pretty much what they say. After admiring the views for a while we decided it was probably time to go as it was getting late in the afternoon. The descent to the bikes took one hour and ten minutes, probably half an hour less than it took us to get up there (partly me wheezing up the slope, but also stops for legitimate photo ops). Another 50 minutes saw us back at the car, including a stop to hike a very short side trail to see the "Sea Lion," a stone arch standing out into the lake. The name came from the former profile of a Lion looking out to the lake: he lost his head to erosion some decades ago, but the name has stuck.

September 5: We drove out of Sudbury this morning to Grundy Lake Provincial Park, where we discovered a truly appalling road (the worst we've seen in a park). After a bumpy ride, we hiked the Beaver Dams Trail. This is not so much a tour of beaver dams as what an area looks like years after the beavers went to town ... and then left town. In a word, boggy. But also rather beautiful - particularly if you can view the beauty from a boardwalk at the muckiest places. I think our favourite thing (certainly mine) was seeing Kingfishers diving for food. They're not as well set up for hovering as hummingbirds, but they do it anyways with a rather more visible effort. They stay in one place about three metres above the water, staring down. Then suddenly they fold up and drop like a stone, beak first into the water. And then jet back out. I don't think we saw any successful catches, but it was very cool to see. It was a really lovely hike overall, and definitely a place I'd like to visit again and do a couple more hikes.

September 5: Our final stop of the trip was the Torrance Barrens. The place was mentioned to me by a co-worker shortly before the trip because it's a "Dark Sky Preserve" - a really good place to go for astronomical observation. But my mother said it's also very interesting during the day. We took the mid-length hiking trail (about 7 km) in a big loop. Not so barren as the name would suggest, but you can see the origins of the name. The entire place is of course on the Canadian Shield, but there's less soil on it than most other places on the Shield. But the rock has dips and corners, and water and soil accumulate over the years. There's one large pond, and several places that feel like a regular forest. Lots of barren rock with scrub brush on it. The trees are predominantly pine and oak. We saw a garter snake, several squirrels, a number of birds (we thought we saw wild turkeys, and my mother, a bird watcher, confirms that this is possible), and three leopard frogs - none particularly near water. I absolutely loved the aesthetic - but you know by now that windswept rock with scrubby trees is my "thing."

September 5: We put 4270 km on the car and used $425 in gas: Toronto to the American border at the west end of Superior and back, with lots of detours. 7.55L/100km, which is pretty good for a Civic SiR (also a very enjoyable car to drive).

125ml of Birch syrup costs $17. It's much darker than Maple syrup, and not as sweet. The taste struck me as being rather like Maple syrup with a touch of molasses added for flavour, although it's not a flavour I'm crazy about. So it's a novelty item at four times the price and half the desirability ... Although I'm glad we tried it: I'm happy to know what it's like.

by giles