Tuesday, September 1, 2020
Following Footprints : Terrace Bay to Les Petits Ecrits
Our first day in the community of Terrace Bay started out early in the dark on a cold morning. Our Ontario Northland bus arrived into Marathon at 3:30 am and dropped us off in Terrace Bay at 4:30 am - well before any of the local shops where open, well before anyone should rightfully be awake, and very much well before our motel room would be available at 3 pm that afternoon. Some days are just hard to be excited for and positive about.
Having gotten off our bus we were deposited near the iconic Terrace Bay Lighthouse which was lit up beautifully. As we wandered we also came across a wonderful town mural depicting the local PeeWee Hockey League winners from 1950!
We took the time to admire the portrait before heading over to the nearby Tourism Information Centre which are typically wonderfully secure and clean places to rest and wait. The Tourism building in Terrace Bay was no different - being well lit, providing shelter from the cold wind, and having a picnic table to sit at! It was here under the watchful eye of the local OPP officers sitting in their car, that we waited until 6:30 am at which time the coffee shop opened!
One of the side effects of Covid is the fact that while places are open they are not open such that you can sit and stay in them. As a result, with our warm coffees in hand we were soon back outside in the whistling wind waiting for the sun to come up. By 7 am the motel restaurant opened and we decided that the cost for breakfast was worth it to get inside, and warm up. Both of us ate as slowly as possible and luxuriated in the warmth of the lounge while figuring out what to do in Terrace Bay for the next 8 hours.
While the hostess was very kind letting us stay well beyond any reasonable time, the restaurant was soon busy and we headed back out. Thankfully the sun was up, and the information centre was now open. So we headed over to get material on the Casque Isles Trail system and local highlights. With time on our hands we headed downhill to the Terrace Bay Beach to see the coastline and enjoy the view.
When we arrived down on the beach we were quickly reminded of Gordon Lightfoot's song 'The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald' and the lines 'Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours?'. The skies were slate grey, the waves where often 4-5 feet in height and the sunny warmth we enjoyed last week on the trail seemed like a distant memory. Lake Superior was telling us directly now - winter is coming, the witch of November is near!
Soon frozen to the bone and fighting against the winds, we marched back up the roadway to the top of the Glacial Terraces which give this region its name. We spent a few minutes checking out the latest installation of the Group of Seven art loop.
It was now noon, and on a whim and with hope, I stepped into the hotel to ask if we might be allowed into our room early. Their answer from the lady behind the desk - who had seen us outside since 5 am - and which almost brought tears to my eyes was a pleasant 'yes of course my dear'! While it might sound lazy of us, even though it was still so early in the day, we piled into our room, unpacked our gear, dried out the tent and went to sleep!
The next morning (the day we were set to resume our trek) was sunny and relatively warm, and we decided to indulge in a breakfast of coffee, omelettes, homefries, and toast before setting out on the Casque Isles Trail.
The Casque Isles Trail is 53 km long, stretching from Terrace Bay to Rossport along the north shore of Lake Superior. It is part of the Voyageur Trail, and provides some of the best hiking along the coast outside of the national and provincial parks. We are super excited to be setting out to begin exploring it!
The trailhead was located at the Aguasabon Falls and Gorge, which had a lovely, wooden wheelchair accessible boardwalk out to a platform that provided a view down the narrow gorge with its tall, steep, rocky sides. We could see the end of the chute, where the river emptied into the vast, deep blue waters of Lake Superior. There was also a huge waterfall by the platform, but it was hidden behind rocks and trees, so we had to settle for listening to its roar rather than seeing it.
As we headed out of the parking lot, which had half a dozen or so cars and campers in it, we descended on a sandy, forested track. The sand was still wet from yesterday's rain, and we saw the paw prints of a small bear heading in the same direction we were.
Before heading west on the main trail we took a small detour out to a bridge over the river. We had another lovely view of the lake as we crossed the river, but our main reason for the detour was to sign in to the hiker's log book. As we flipped through the pages, we found Mel Vogel's entry from Nov.16, 2018 and Aiden Beckett's entry from Aug. 6, 2019. Mel has hiked the Great Trail from Newfoundland to the Yukon, and Aiden has hiked and paddled more than 30,000 km of trails across Canada so far. It was very exciting to see evidence of those who have traveled before us on their own epic quests.
As we set off down the main trail to Rossport, we passed a sign telling us we were entering the Terrace Bay Nature Reserve, and that it was a 'Wildlife Safety Zone' in which hiking, photography, and nature studies were permitted, but no motorized vehicles. Sounded like our kind of place!
We followed the footpath through a beautiful sun dappled forest track down to Danny's Cove, where we found ourselves walking along a sandy beach. The sun was out, lighting up the conifers on the far side of the bay, and turning the lake a beautiful blue. We spent quite a bit of time hanging out on the beach, taking photos, and enjoying the view.
As we walked away from the beach and entered the forest, we were amazed as always at how quickly the forest buffers sound. Over the space of only a few small steps the roar of the lake faded to near silence.
The next time we emerged onto the water again we found ourselves on a long curving beach of bright pink boulders. The contrast between the turquoise waters, the bright blue sky with its wispy white clouds, and the reddish rocks was stunning. We again spent quite some time watching the waves break on the offshore rocks and islands in exuberant plumes of sparkling spray, and enjoying the cool breeze coming in off the water.
After leaving the beach we encountered a small field of boulders. Over the course of the day we must have crossed a dozen of these areas, which we were guided across by large rock cairns that served as trail markers. Pinkish rocks ranging from the size of cantaloupes to watermelons covered the ground. They in turn were dappled all over with light grey, light green, orange, and black lichens. The cracks between the rocks were filled with crunchy, fluffy, light green lichen like snow. In the morning, when everything was still wet, these rocks were very slippery, which made for slow going.
At one of these boulder fields we noticed a large, more or less circular pit dug into the cobblestones. We later learned that this was likely one of the Pukaskwa Pits, which were depressions left by the ancestors of the Ojibwa People. It is estimated that these depressions were made at some point between 8,000 BCE and 1600 CE. It is possible they were used as covered lodges, hunting blinds, food storage sites, or spiritual centers.
Finding these pits gave us yet another reminder that we are following in the footsteps of others. There is historical evidence of ancient people all along the coast of Lake Superior, who left messages in the form of pictographs. In the log books at the trailhead we saw the familiar and easily interpreted signatures and comments of hikers who have walked this modern trail before us. All day we have been following a set of fresh shoe prints, left by an unknown person on the trail just ahead of us.
At Lyda Bay we found ourselves on another beautiful sandy beach, and this time we were blessed with a picnic table! As we took a break, a Bald Eagle swooped low over us. It followed the contours of the shore, circling around when it reached the headland. It seemed to be floating effortlessly on the wind. We also spotted a Semipalmated Plover bobbing and running along the sandy shore, just at the edge of the water. Occasionally a wave would break and come halfway up its legs, but it never got swamped!
We then began to climb up to the Lyda Bay lookout, which provided a beautiful, panoramic view out over Lake Superior. It was a bit of a tough climb, but the top was full of blueberry bushes, which provided a tasty snack, and the view was well worth the climb, even with our 50 lbs packs on. We also found a second hiker log book at the top!
As we made our way across the top of the hill Sean nearly stepped on three Ruffed Grouse that were hanging out on the trail. They were sunning themselves when we huffed and puffed up the slope, and seemed very reluctant to move off the trail, even when we were only a few feet away.
The climb down from the lookout was a bit steep, involving a wooden ladder at one point. Navigating the steep, rocky, slope and turning around to descend the ladder was a bit awkward with our large packs and the still slippery conditions, but we managed, and we were grateful for the assistance.
When we reached the end of the Lyda Bay section of the Casque Isles Trail we emerged onto a paved road. This lead us to a power generating station, which had several large trucks parked outside it, and some very noisy work going on at a storage tank on the property. Here we discovered that the trail had been re-routed to go around the facility, instead of through it.
The 500 m re-route began as a very wide trail which had recently been blazed. It still looked kind of raw and ripped up, but the trail itself was easy to walk. This led to a set of very steep switchbacks that took us up to the Trans Canada Highway and reminded us of parts of the Fundy Footpath. We then made a gentle descent on a mossy ATV track.
The next few kilometers were an easy hike along the sunlit track, through beautiful forest. The easier terrain gave us time to see and appreciate the smaller things - like colorful mushrooms, bright yellow caterpillars, and soft hanging tufts of moss.
Eventually we began to see signs that we were entering private property, and we came out to another road which led to a group of private camps. At this point, with some trepidation, we began the Death Valley section of the trail.
The first part of the trail led through more private property, and it was clear that the owners didn't want trespassers. Signs where posted around the site stating "smile you are on hiker cam". At one point the trail led us out onto a small spit before backtracking along a very narrow beach, keeping below the high tide mark, to take us across a bay with someone's home on it. As we walked the waterline someone watched us between the blinds in the front of the cottage. It was a reminder to be grateful to all the landowners that gave their permission for the trail to continue through their properties.
After this we had a few kilometers of pleasant walking through mossy forest. Again, we had a chance to relax and enjoy the beauty of the colourful mushrooms and wildflowers, the delicate ferns, and the deep mossy coverings on the exposed rocks of the shield. The lushness, diversity, and intense, vibrant green of the forest made us feel like we were in a coastal rain forest.
We were passed by two other hikers in this section, both of whom were carrying large backpacks and travelling towards Terrace Bay. The first young man looked very determined and focused, and quietly said 'Have a good night!' as he passed without slowing down or stopping. The second young man passed us about 20 minutes later without a word. He seemed very grim, and made us wonder what lay ahead on the trail.
The next few kilometers helped us understand why the Death Valley section has been rated one of the more technically difficult stretches of this trail. We had two steep ascents and equally daunting descents, which involved scrambling up and down very steep rocky slopes. Unfortunately they were very wet, which made the moss and exposed roots pretty slippery. Small trickles of water ran down the trailbed in places, adding to the challenges.
I'm sure experienced rock climbers would disagree, but not for the first time I felt that being short wasn't doing me any favours with the rock scrambling. There were many ledges and steps that Sean could pull himself up onto that were simply too tall for me to navigate, especially with the extra 50 lbs on my back. Sometimes I could find a workaround, but at more than one point I launched myself up a ledge while Sean reached down and hauled me up by my backpack loop like I was Winnie-the-Pooh. This was after I had tried unsuccessfully to find an alternate route around these large steps. It gave me enormous respect for all the solo female hikers out there who manage these ascents on their own.
In the last section of trail, around kilometer 39, we noticed a marked change in the landscape. Suddenly we were surrounded by towering walls of granite. Large rocks protruded up out of the forest floor, and we found ourselves walking between rocky walls that were covered in soft green moss and delicate little ferns.
Eventually we emerged onto a beautiful sandy beach and found Les Petits Ecrits campsite! We first had to cross a small stream, which had very soft, wet sand around it. Sean's first attempt across the water put him thigh deep into the sand and water. As such, he took his shoes off and waded through before ferrying me and our bags across. So much for being a liberated educated woman! Here I was being carried like a sack of potatoes across the waterway! The campsite was equipped with a picnic table, large metal bear box for food storage, and washroom facilities in the form of a wooden treasure chest. A nice flat area had been cleared out, and we gratefully pitched our tent in the shelter of a large tree, taking care to leave space in case any other campers appeared.
As we were making dinner at the picnic table we heard laughter carried on the wind. Shortly afterwards two hikers, who we had seen in Terrace Bay that morning but not spoken to, emerged onto the beach from the opposite direction we had come. It is not often you get to meet a younger version of yourself, but this young couple were very much us from a decade ago.
Mohammed and Sophie had done lots of day hikes together, but this was their very first multi-day hiking trip. They didn't have much camping equipment, so they decided to take what they had. This turned out to be an eight person stand-up tent, complete with aluminum poles, two sleeping bags that were roughly half the size of their backpacks, and a bear barrel of food, including full jars of mustard and ketchup. They pitched the huge, square tent on the beach because it was too large to fit in the more sheltered cleared area. They were exhausted when they arrived, and very happy to see other people.
Although it seemed crazy to us to carry that much weight, we can remember a time when we did the same thing. Our first long-distance hike was trekking the north portions of the Bruce Trail. Our four-person tent weighed 12 lbs. We had huge sleeping bags. Sean brought separate sets of jeans, t-shirts and dress shirts for each of the seven days of the week while we were on the trail. We brought enough food and fuel for about a month and a half of hiking. We could barely move. I remember walking out of the campsite and crying each night. But we made it, and we learned a lot for the next time.
We shared dinner with the couple, exchanging stories and answering questions about bears and gear. Their determination, enthusiasm, and energy gave us great faith that this will be the first of many outdoor adventures for them. Sophie's comment, that 'What we have to be grateful for today is learning that when we have to do it, we can!' said it all. This trail is hard, and they made it through their first day in good spirits. It was confirmation that you don't need the most expensive equipment to get out there, and you don't have to be a wilderness expert who has nothing left to learn. Lightweight, good quality gear always helps, but it is courage, creativity, imagination, and determination that are some of the most important qualities for success. We wish them all the very best adventures in the future.
As we watched the light fade over the lake a large bat was foraging above the water. It has been a long, challenging, and incredibly beautiful day. Overall, the trail has been very well marked and signed so far, even in the more technically difficult sections. It has been relatively easy to follow, and for the most part it is very well maintained. The first section in particular was a joy to walk.
Lying in the tent, we could alternatively hear the wind picking up outside and the happy giggles of our amorous neighbours. Waves are crashing into the shore only a few feet from the tent, 'almost' drowning out all other sounds. It is slightly uncomfortable to lie here, so close to the water, and with no ability to hear whether there is any wildlife moving about nearby, but we'll see how it goes. We are certainly immersed in a rugged, wild, and beautiful landscape.