Tuesday, August 25, 2020
Logistical Nightmares and Diminishing Possibilities
Famed Yankees catcher Yogi Berra, notorious for his unique sayings, once commented that “Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.”
Trekking the Great Trail is somewhat similar, in that it is an undertaking that is about 50% mental, 40% physical and 90% logistical.
This week we are met with all three aspects of venturing from coast to coast to coast along the world’s longest recreational trail. We have overcome and become used to the physical demands of the trail, we regularly deal with the mental challenges and isolation which this type of venture brings, but it is the logistical problems that we meet along the way which pose the largest hurdles for us on a daily basis.
Knowing where you can resupply, guessing where you can camp, estimating where water is available, timing resupply boxes, etc, etc, etc. All of these things are knowns, they are expected, anticipated, planned for, and mapped out each winter. When we set out each spring, we know what we know and we know what we don’t know and then we pray that those unexpected things which we haven’t anticipated aren’t big enough to wipe us out or fundamentally undermine the trek.
Near injury on the local roadways and the destruction of the camera a week ago are the types of freak and unexpected events which terrify us. You never know what you don’t know and learning to expect the unexpected becomes exhausting.
Northern Ontario in particular has proved to be the largest logistical hurdle for us to plan and undertake.
The nature of our trek means that until we are about 4 days away from a town or park that we cannot with any accuracy plan or reserve a room or campsite in advance. This means that while we are prepared with resupply packages, gear, and faith in our own ability to trek across the northern shores of Lake Superior we are nonetheless reliant upon the local availability of campsites, backcountry sites, and shuttles to complete our journey. This reliance on availability is particularly taxing given that the land sections of The Great Trail around Lake Superior exist, not as a single connected linear pathway across the region, but instead as fragments which are scattered across various provincial parks, national parks, and communities along the northern shoreline. These pathways are only accessible by either paddling to them (an option which we do not have open to us), trekking to them along the Trans Canada Highway (something which after 300-500 km of roadways we wish to avoid), or by Ontario Northland bus (which only runs 3 days a week now).
Simply put, we have arrived into Northern Ontario during the final weeks of the summer before school returns and at the outset of the fall colours which means that these parks are filled with families travelling and hiking. It also means that campgrounds are filled to capacity, back-country sites necessary to undertake these sections of trail have been reserved for weeks, and costs involved have risen dramatically.
For the first time in 2 years, our timing is off and we aren’t sure what to do. In short, we were prepared, and are capable, but at this moment we have encountered the perfect storm of the unexpected.
What follows is a description of our current situation and viable options for us to either trek, partially explore, or entirely circumvent Lake Superior’s Northern Shore line and its trail sections.
Lake Superior’s Water Route
Two years ago when we announced that we were trekking from the Atlantic to the Pacific to the Arctic we stated that we intended to paddle Lake Superior, the Path of the Paddle from Thunder Bay to the Manitoba Border and from Alberta to the Arctic. Since then however a great deal has changed, and so too must our plans change with the circumstances.
Simply stated, our funding, sponsorship and offers of help traverse Lake Superior disappeared with the outbreak of Covid19. As a result, in May of 2020 we suspected that our opportunity and ability to paddle Superior’s water route was passed.
As such, our goal since May has been to venture along the land trail sections that spread across Northern Superior between Sault Ste Marie to Thunder Bay and westward to Kenora and the Manitoba border. The land route of The Great Trail across the northern shoreline of Lake Superior comprises a number of amazing segments of trail including Lake Superior Provincial Park’s coastal Trail, the city of Wawa’s regional trails, the famed Pukaskwa National Park coastal trail, the Casque Isles section of the Voyageur Trail, local trails in the community of Nipigon, the coastal trail through Sleeping Giant Provincial Park and Thunder Bay’s urban trails.
Our initial plan throughout this year’s hike had us utilizing Ontario Northland buses between each of these sections. It would give us the most amount of time to enjoy each area without rushing, overcome the hundreds of kilometers of trekking along the Trans Canada Highway and allow us to complete as much of the Trans Canada Trail as was manageable.
Unfortunately getting to each park, being allowed onto their various trails, and (as we just discovered) being able to afford access to these trails has led us to believe that many of these trail sections are not viable for us to undertake now.
Lake Superior Provincial Park’s Coastal Trail
The coastal footpath which takes hikers 62 km from Agawa to Gargantua follows the eastern shoreline of Lake Superior. The nature of the path along rocky beaches, fording rivers, and traversing the challenging landscape means that it takes about 5 to 6 days to successfully complete. The logistics of this trail therefore require that we carry 6 or 7 days of food with us, get permits to back country camp, and arrange for pick up at the northern edge of the pathway in Gargantua.
In the past two weeks we have been trying to put all of the parts necessary into place to hike this trail, however as of the writing of this post all campground and backcountry sites are full until September 13th. This means that we would have to wait at least 2 weeks until being able to undertake this section. This is a delay that would give us great trouble later in the year, given that it is already fall.
The second problem comes in the costs of taking the shuttle bus at the conclusion of the trail. This shuttle is offered by a local company who has quoted us that it will be $269 per person to be taken from Gargantua to Wawa. This means that we would have to pay $520 to leave the trail and resume our journey. Given this cost prohibitive issue, we simply cannot undertake to use the local shuttle service.
This means that we would either have to walk the trail out and back requiring that we would have to carry 10-12 days worth of food, which is too much weight for us to manage or only trek part of it and return to Agawa Bay to get the local bus transport onward to Wawa. However given the lack of backcountry and regular campsites even this option is unavailable to us.
What all of this means is that we simply cannot afford to undertake Lake Superior’s Coastal Trail as it would present both a delay that we cannot afford in terms of time and a financial obligation that we cannot afford in terms of cost.
The end result is that we have been fortunate to get a campsite for spent a single day in Lake Superior Provincial Park to get a chance to see the historically important Pictographs.
Stunningly this is only the beginning to the logistical nightmares that have arisen in our attempt to arrange the northern sections of the Trans Canada Trail.
Pukaskwa National Park
Our next unexpected challenge came in attempting to arrange our trek across Pukaskwa National Park’s coastal trail. Once again on our estimated dates for arrival and hiking have hit the reality that all of the backcountry sites are reserved throughout the period we would need to be there. Like Lake Superior PP, Pukaskwa NP is full until late September.
Added to this, however is the unexpected reality that utilizing the water taxi for this park is astronomically cost prohibitive. Given the nature of the trek across Pukaskwa the majority of hikers are shuttled to the eastern edge of the trail and walk for 4-6 days back to the visitor’s centre. We have used National Park water shuttles in the past in places like Georgian Bay National Park and anticipated a $30-$50 dollar fee per person. As such we were stunned when we were emailed our estimate to be $711.90 per person to take us via water taxi to the North Swallow beach site. That means that for us to just get to the start of the Pukaskwa Coastal Trail we would have to pay $1423.00 on top of the cost of an estimated $40.00 per night (or 300+ dollars in total) for our campsites.
Obviously, this to us is beyond cost prohibitive and impossible for us to consider undertaking at this price. Interestingly when chatting with local outfitters, regional outdoors people online, and the Ontario Tourism office the sentiment was reiterated that the realities and costs set up by Pukaskwa NP and the Water Taxi service means that many Northern Ontarians, families and starting hikers cannot afford to go to this park or this trail which is in their own backyard.
"You Lack the Experience"
Adding to the frustration of attempting to figure out how it might be possible to at least trek part of Pukaskwa NP Coastal Trail was a blunt phone call with a Parks Canada ranger. While chatting with this ranger we were unceremoniously and directly informed that “from their perspective [we] lacked the hiking experience to undertake Packaskwa” and that it was likely “we would not be allowed to hike the trail when we arrived”. This comment came after we detailed that we have completed Ontario’s Bruce Trail and Rideau Trail, Newfoundland’s East Coast Trail, New Brunswick’s challenging Fundy Footpath, the 800 km of the Camino de Santiago, 775 km of France’s Via Podiensis, and 700+km of the Camino Portuguese and Camino Finisterre as well as covering over 5500 km of the Tran Canada Trail. Despite these ‘credentials’ however the Park ranger was unimpressed and unhelpful. It makes us wonder what skills we lack or what pathway validates trekkers to go on the Pukaskwa Coastal Trail?
Barriers to Connecting to Nature
While frustrating to us, the fact seems to be that that the final weeks of August and first few weeks of September have led almost every campsite and motel throughout Superior country to be full. Perhaps it is simply the week before school begins, or the fall colours are due soon and we have run into high season, or perhaps it is the result of Covid and people are returning to nature. Certainly we are excited that so many people are connecting to nature in this uncertain time.
At the same time however, we are finding the entire situation deeply frustrating given the limitations to access which the two park systems have put upon access to the local trails as well as the inherent cost barriers which limit the access to these amazing trail systems to visitors.
The reality of us striving to undertake these two trails which equal 120 km of pathway in the Trans Canada Trail system would require us to wait until almost October and would cost us more than $2000.00.
In this light we feel that we are now presented with no real choices for trekking either Lake Superior Provincial Park or Pukaskwa National Park. For us they are inaccessible by circumstance, timing, and vast additional costs. To wait and pay for them would mean that we would have to give up on returning to Quebec or being able to afford new supplies which we will need in the future.
These are the realities of our current situation which have led us to the decision to undertake hiking the sections of trail which are available to us. In the coming two weeks we will therefore strive to :
(1) Visit Agawa Bay as we have campsite for one night
(2) Visit Wawa Ontario and trek its local trails as we have a motel room for one night
(3) Trek the 53 km long Casque Isle section of the Voyageur Trail and Great Trail system
(4) Trek Sleeping Giant Provincial Park
(5) Trek and explore Thunder Bay’s urban trails
(6) Venture to Dryden and Kenora to explore their trail sections
(7) Trek down the Trans Canada Highway for 51 km to the Ontario-Manitoba Border
Connected not Completed
As we consider our future options and make heart breaking decisions comments we overheard last year about the Trans Canada Trail being ‘Connected not Completed’ come to mind. Many of the challenges we currently face in traversing Northern Ontario highlight the need to keep funding and developing local and provincial trail sections in order that these segmented sections are one day fully connected and no longer reliant upon local tour groups limiting access to the regions.
We also strive to keep in mind the saying, that it is the ‘voyage not the destination’ and while it would be possible to trek the 1100 km from Sault Ste Marie to Thunder Bay and onward to the Manitoba border on the Trans Canada Highway neither of us believe that is a safe, responsible, or enjoyable route.
We have never claimed to be purists, suggesting that we will do the entire Great Trail, or all of the land pathways it has to offer in Canada. With that said, our goal has always been to cover as much of the Trans Canada Trail that is possible, practical and safe to undertake while sharing the natural beauty of the pathway and nation. In May of this year we believed that trekking these sections was a viable possibility, and today with the business of parks, huge implied financial costs, and the lack of availability of campsites we are left shut out of most of Northern Ontario along Lake Superior’s northern coastlines.
Despite these challenges we are nonetheless continuing on the best way we see how.
For as Mr. Berra once keenly observed “When you come to a fork in the road, take it”. And so we stand at a fork in the road. Down one direction are impractical delays and impossible costs while down the other stands the realities of passing over sections of the Great Trail and continuing on to Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, Thunder Bay, Dryden, Kenora and our next province…. Manitoba.