Hike the Giant : Marie Louise Lake to Sawyer Bay
Over the course of the night the wind died down and the temperature came back up. We awoke to a crystal clear, cool, sunny morning. A Common Loon called out on the lake, and closer by the campsite was filled with the soft chips, calls, and twittering of dozens of birds. Apparently the high winds and cold temperatures forced a lot of the migratory birds down last night, before they attempted to cross Lake Superior on their way south!
When we crawled out of the tent we were in for a treat. It felt like we were standing in the middle of a living, moving, river of birds! Every bush and tree was hopping with little feathered bodies that moved in a continuous stream, and small groups continually flew past overhead. It was one of those moments were you don't know were to look because too much is happening and you want to take it all in. At least that is how I felt, Sean was unimpressed at being pulled out of his warm sleeping bag at 6 am and set about steadily and stubbornly ignoring any bird activity until his morning tea had been brewed and consumed.
In the Mountain Ash tree at the corner of our campsite we saw dozens of juvenile Cedar Waxwings, American Robins, and Swainsons Thrush feasting on the plump clusters of bright orange berries. Loads of White-throated and Song Sparrows moved through the undergrowth, feeding voraciously and occasionally emitting a half-song. Golden-crowned Kinglets, Red-eyed Vireos, American Redstarts, Northern Parulas, Black-throated Green Warblers, Palm Warblers, and Yellow-rumped Warblers also flew through. A pair of American Crows landed in the tree, also intent on eating berries, only to be buzzed several times by an indignant Sharp-shinned Hawk.
All the bird activity was very distracting, and we didn't end up getting packed up until nearly 9 am. On the way through the campsite we passed several other birders with binoculars and notebooks, clearly enjoying the bird bonanza as much as we were.
We were feeling energized and good as we made our way to the Sleeping Giant Provincial Park campground office to get our permits for the back country sites. This feeling somewhat deflated when the young lady in the office looked me straight in the eye and asked whether either of us qualified for a senior's discount. Really??
When we asked details about the trail such as the distances between various points, the estimated to trek, and certain obstacles we faced. This young lady doubled down on her commentary giving us the necessary information before pausing and adding 'but for older people we would advise you to take more time.' Sigh... we both know this trip has increased the number of grey hairs we have, but is it really that bad?
Permits in hand and egos firmly in check we retraced our steps from yesterday, walking down the road to the Sawbill Lake Trail, and then picking up the Sawyer Bay Trail. By the time we rejoined with the Kabeyun Trail we'd already walked 5.3 km, and it was a bit after 11 am, because the river of birds was still going strong!
The Kabeyun Trail began as a wide, flat, relatively smooth trail that could easily be biked or hiked. We were walking in a forested corridor of balsam fir, white birch, spruce, and trembling aspen. The sunlight filtered through the leaves, lighting up the moss and ferns below. Although we were walking along the edge of Lake Superior, for much of the trail we could neither see nor hear it. Periodically we approached the shore, or a small footpath would lead us to a pebble beach with stunning views of the turquoise lake.
Around 5 km in we came to the Tee Harbour campsite. This was a large open area on the edge of a crescent-shaped sandy beach. There was a large fire pit, a bear box for food storage, a toilet facility, and several sheltered campsites. The Harbour was smooth and calm, and a group of six Common Loons was fishing on the far side.
About 1.5 km later we came to the campsites at Lehtinen's Bay. There were three separate sites, stretched out about 50 m apart along the shore. They were also very nice looking, although much closer to the trail. One was occupied.
Around this point we also passed the Top of the Giant Trail, which is one of the more popular trails. It is a very steep 2.7 km hike up to the top of the Sleeping Giant's Head, and it apparently provides panoramic views out over Lake Superior. Before this junction we'd seen quite a few other hikers on the trail, and we'd been passed by several bicycles. While we were tempted to venture to the top of the this land formation it seemed that to do so would be an act of hubris on our part. Whether it would be too challenging with 50 lb backpacks on, whether it would be because of our 'age', or whether we just felt that one should not trod upon a God - we decided that it was enough to be welcome onto these lands to walk and enjoy, and so we continued on.
After the turnoff for the Top of the Giant Trail the Kabeyun Trail, clearly became a less utilized footpath and as such quickly became much narrower and rockier as traffic decreased considerably. We continued on happily, enjoying the beautiful trail, and the periodic views of the water. As we approached the tip of the Peninsula the trail changed somewhat, but just before it did we ran into a couple hiking towards us. They looked pretty freaked out, pausing to mutter that the trail got tougher up ahead, and that they'd had to turn back. That didn't sound too encouraging. We continued on, wondering what was in store. About 5 minutes later a very polite young man came up behind us asked if he could pass, and when he disappeared ahead of us, we realized he was running the trail. That made us feel slightly better, although like we were receiving seriously mixed signals.
Soon we discovered what changes were in store. All of a sudden we found ourselves scrambling over boulders. These were huge grey rocks, many with lichen clinging to the sides and a thick layer of ferns growing on top like hair. Some were loners, standing scattered among the eastern white cedars and lichen draped aspens. Others seemed to be part of an ancient rock slide, that was now part of the hillside. The trail wove among them, often requiring us to scramble up, over, and between. It would seem that the challenges we faced on the Casque Isles Trail was to be our warm up and training for Sleeping Giant.
Although that 100 m section of trail was tough, it was incredible beautiful, and to add to the magical feeling, we were walking along the base of the Sleeping Giant. It rose straight up beside us in an unimaginably tall, rocky cliff. The Giant was bathed in warm golden sunshine, and we could feel its presence above us like a living being. Our favourite part of Science Fiction and Fantasy adventures is often the scene when the hero or heroine meets a God. Today it felt like we met a God, or at least a Giant.
As suddenly as the rock scrambling began it ended, and we were back on the relatively level earth footpath. We trucked along contentedly for a few minutes, and then came to a very steep ascent. Apparently this giant has very large toes!
We took a break at the bottom, and made our way up an incredibly steep incline. A series of earth steps had been built into the hillside, but they were very large steps, and some of them were washed out. It didn't feel like a dangerous or technically difficult climb, but it was long and steep, and we were glad to be ascending and not descending!
When we reached the top we found ourselves very high up above the water, in a deciduous forest of white birch, aspen, and smaller shrubs. The sun was still shining, and it was a warm afternoon, so the breeze at the top felt nice.
As we crossed the top of the Giant's toes we passed the junction with a trail leading down to the Thunder Cape Bird Observatory. This bird banding station is part of the Canadian Migration Monitoring Network, which tracks trends in bird populations across North America. The TCBO has been monitoring migratory birds in spring and fall since 1992. Over 300 species of birds have been observed at the station, and over 200 species have been banded there.
We had a long standing invitation to visit and had intended to stop at the banding station on our way past. However, when we reached the trail junction it was just after 3:30 pm, and we thought we were still more than 5 km of rock-climbing / scrambling from the closest campsite. We decided that adding 2.2 km and a visit so late in the afternoon would mean we'd arrive at the campsite after dark, which we didn't want to do. We also figured the banders would be overwhelmingly busy today, and we didn't have any cell service to ask if they'd even accept visitors.
As it turned out, the climb down from the Giant's toes was much gentler and less steep than the climb up, and there was a lovely, sheltered campsite about 1 km after the descent. At this point we were seriously regretting not making the detour to the banding lab!
As we made our way north along the western edge of the Sibley Peninsula we continued along a lovely and easy to navigate dirt footpath. Much of the trail was buffered from the lake by a band of trees, but periodically we emerged onto small pebble beaches with views of the lake. It was a relatively clear, sunny day and we could see the tall, white buildings of Thunder Bay across the water.
As we made our way along the body of the Sleeping Giant we also got some fantastic views of the tall cliffs along its sides. Particularly impressive was "the chimney" which is a rounded shaft running up the side of the Giant. One thing that was slightly disconcerting was that we could hear voices on the wind as we walked. We assumed they were coming from people above us, who had climbed the popular "Top of the Giant Trail" or "The Head Trail".
Another disconcerting thing was finding more piles of feathers along the trail from birds that had presumably been killed by raptors. Peregrine Falcons nest on the tall cliffs that border the northern shore of Lake Superior, and they could have been responsible for the periodic feather piles along the trail. Sharp-shinned Hawks, Northern Goshawks, and Merlins have also been reported in the park, and could just as easily have been the culprits.
We passed two other sets of campsites as we made our way down the peninsula, both with sites stretched out along the shore. It would have been possible to stop at either one, but the sites were very close to the trail, and somehow didn't look too flat or inviting.
Eventually we made it to the Sawyer Bay campsites. This group of sites was located on the shores of a protected bay, and when we arrived the waters were calm. There was a huge fire pit, a picnic table, and washroom facilities. We later learned that there was also a bear box for food storage at a second set of campsites about 50 m further down the trail.
We set up the tent and sat on the pebble beach enjoying the view over the mirror like water of the bay. There was a yacht anchored on the far shore, and at one point in the evening we heard the low chugging of an outboard motor on a dinghy. A man and his dog chugged past, with the dog emitting excited 'woos', leaning on the front of the boat, and wagging his tail enthusiastically.
Dinner consisted of another new meal - Happy Yak's Bengali Rice, with apple crisp and hot chocolate for dessert. As we collected driftwood from the beach for a campfire we heard the eerie calls of Common Loons out on the bay. We also watched a small group of Common Mergansers fishing offshore as the sun set in a blaze of pink and yellow.
A campfire is a rare treat for us, and we enjoyed it until well after dark. As we fall asleep it is very late, and the forest is dark and silent on this peaceful bay.
See you on the trail!
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