Saturday, September 12, 2020

Soaked Through : Sawyer Bay to the Thunder Bay Lookout

Last night was very peaceful, with the exception of one large, klutzy visitor that crashed rather unceremoniously through our campsite. When we turned on the light to see who it was, our visitor hastily retreated into the darkness, so their identity will remain a mystery.

This morning was cloudy and overcast when a pair of dueting Common Loons woke us up around 7:00 am. A few minutes later it started raining. For the next hour or so a light but steady rain fell, so we stayed tucked into the warmth of the mostly dry tent.

The rain finally stopped and we made our breakfast. As we were boiling water for tea, and mixing our granola a Ruby-throated Hummingbird buzzed around the campsite, checking out our bright red stuff sac. Finally we packed everything up, trying to keep the soggy tent and soaking tarp segregated from our mostly dry stuff. Around 10 am we bid our beautiful campsite a fond farewell, and set off down the trail.


A little farther on, at the East Sawyer Bay Trail Junction there was another cluster of unoccupied campsites tucked into the trees along the shore. They had a bear box for food storage, and an enclosed outhouse! This looked like a very nice spot to camp too.


As we followed the shoreline around Sawyer Bay the forest was silent except for the sound of dripping water. The waves hardly made any sound as they lapped the shore. The wet moss and vegetation seemed to glow in the dim light. Bright yellow, red, orange, and white mushrooms of all shapes and sizes provided spots of colour along the forest floor. Even the brown mushrooms stood out, some highly glossy and almost sticky looking, and others velvety and soft.


Mostly we walked among spruce, silver maple, balsam fir, and white and yellow birch. Periodically, we passed through dense stands of eastern white cedar which seemed like a dark, protected cocoon, sheltering us from any wind or sound outside. Then we would emerge from the other side into the light.  It was wonderful, beautiful and magical all at once.  It was also, unfortunately, all wet.  The ground was wet soaking our shoes within minutes, the overgrown trail was wet soaking us to our knees, and the dense trees were wet, drenching the rest of us.



On the opposite site of the bay from where we camped we came to the remains of an old cabin. A few meters down the shore there was an old boat house as well. With its rusty tools outside it looked very romantic in the misty morning. As we approached a man and his dog got into their dingy and motored out into the bay. The larger yacht we had seen moored across the bay was just offshore.


Looking back across the bay the trees disappeared into the mist. The Sleeping Giant was tucked up in a blanket of fog, and completely invisible. For the past two days we had been given the gift of seeing the Giant from across the harbour in Thunder Bay, we had seen the giant from our campsite, and seen the sheer cliffs from the trail.  Today we were shown the world in a new light, the same imposing landscape that dominated the region, was gone.  It's place was a quiet treed peninsula through which we could see the subtle markings of smoke from the campfires throughout the park.   As we stood there in the quiet, misty morning the drumming of a Pileated Woodpecker rang our across the still, mirror like bay. The dry, primeval calls of a Common Raven came across the hills behind us. Then all was still and silent again.


As we made our way along the coast towards Hoorigan Bay the trail became somewhat overgrown. We were soon soaked from head to toe from brushing through dense balsam firs and wading through sodden ground cover. By this point we were grateful for each stand of cedars we passed which provided some shelter from the spitting rain and a more open under-story.  Far too late to stop our hiking clothes from getting wet we both decided to strip and put on our rain gear over our undergarments to fend off the chill of the rain and constant coastal winds.  Had anyone come down the trail int hat moment they would have found two people dancing quickly struggling to pull of soaked clothing and extract their rain gear without pouring more water into their backpacks.  We must have looked quite odd, regardless, we were now warm and somewhat protected from getting wetter as we continued on.


As we made our way along we kept an eye open for the campsite marked on our map, but we never found it. There was a lot of downed trees in this area, some very recent and some older, so it is possible that the campsite was buried under fallen brush and vegetation. We could see evidence of trail maintenance in this section, but it looked like a recent storm had wreaked havoc making any trail work look random and incomplete.

As we made our way around Hoorigan Bay we noticed quite a bit of plastic, styrofoam, buoys, and beach balls washed up on the shore. This must be an area where the current deposited things, but we couldn't imagine where so much styrofoam would have come from. Around this time we also began to hear the deep, resonating, repeated calls of a fog horn.

As we rounded the head of Hoorigan Bay, we came to another stretch of severe blowdowns. It made us very thankful for the calm weather today, although we were decidedly soaked by this point in our adventures. To make matters more interesting, we came to a very marshy stretch of trail at this point. Thankfully, a set of double planks had been laid to guide us over the worst of the mud and water. Unfortunately, some of these planks were broken and wobbly, and all of them were very slippery from the moss laden over them.


As we passed the junction with the Twin Pine Lake Trail we came to another set of campsites. There was a large firepit with a huge wind break created from wooden boards on two sides. Yet another sign that this Peninsula gets hit with high winds and harsh weather.

From the Twin Pine Lake Trail to the northern trailhead of the Kabeyun Trail it was 8.2 km. During these last kilometers the trail got quite a bit more rugged, and for the first three of those kilometers the trail seemed to be more theoretical than actual in places. The only trail markers we saw in this section for northbound hikers were attached to fallen white birches.


Right after the campsite we had a gentle but quick climb up to a treed rocky ridge and then an incredibly steep descent. On a dry day, without heavy packs it might not have been too difficult, but today the rocks and roots were extremely slippery. Thankfully we made it down safely.


After this the trail wove along the shore, which in places was quite eroded. At times we would follow the trail to the edge, and suddenly find the pathway on the pebble beach, or under water because the soil had eroded. In other sections we were higher up, and after Sean's right leg pushed through the trail - sinking his right leg to his thigh we began to notice more holes in the mossy trailbed through which we could see the waters of Lake Superior several meters below.

 Sometimes we could hear the waves sloshing below us, and see the rocky caverns along the shore. It was wild and rugged and beautiful but tough going in sections.


At other times the trail veered inland a little, and we found ourselves bushwhacking around serious blowdowns.  At times we had to venture into the cold shallows of Lake Superior in sections were the trail had eroded away and no other means to proceed existed.  In a couple places we lost the trail after we'd skirted around three or four downed trees and missed a curve that went up or down a hill. In this small section the trail was also very overgrown, making it difficult to see.


About 6 km from the end of the trail conditions improved again. Most of the downed trees had been removed, and the trail widened a little, making it easier to follow. Here the landscape also seemed to change again. The trees were suddenly very tall, and many were covered in old man's beard lichen. Mossy boulders covered the ground, with the trail weaving between them.

As we came out to the shore briefly, we had a view of of the rocky and almost bare looking shore on Clavet's Point. As we looked out on the soft, grey, misty landscape we heard the unmistakable keening of two Bald Eagles. A few moments later a majestic looking adult swooped out of a nearby tree and flew low over us before disappearing across the water.

In the last few kilometers of the trail, although we were following the shoreline, we were mostly above the water. This was concerning us, because we had planned to fill our water bottles up before making the final ascent to the trailhead at the top of the Thunder Bay Lookout and camping for the night. We saw a Creek on the map, but shortly before reaching it we were able to access Lake Superior to fill them up. This was the last opportunity to do so as the trail soon pulled inland, so it turned out we were lucky to have seized it.


It is good thing we didn't wait to fill our bottles at the creek, because it turned out to be more of a marsh. It would have been possible to do, but unpleasant and difficult. We crossed a rather large area of wet, muddy, marsh. Some of it had double-planked boardwalks, and some did not.

As we approached the northern trail-head we had a few larger climbs and descents, up and down rocky slopes. They weren't too technically difficult, just slippery and a bit tiring. The caves and overhanging cliffs we passed alongside and underneath were quite interesting and picturesque.


We had been thinking we would stop at the bottom of the trail to camp for the night, close to water. However, as we approached the foot of the ascent the ground was very uneven and mossy, and the spruce trees were extremely dense. It reminded us of being in Newfoundland.


In the end we made the final push up to the lookout. It was an ascent of 300 m in 1 km, and it was steep! Going up wasn't too difficult, as it was a dirt and shale track, which had switchbacks at the steepest places. The trail was firm, and it had rocky ledges like steps, which helped. Nonetheless, we were both extremely glad to be going up, rather than down!

When we finally reached the top we wove through spruce forest over lichen covered shield. It was a bit difficult to see where to go without trail markers, but finally we made it to the trail-head. After all that climbing there was a short wooden staircase to take us the final 10 m! And we arrived - not into a crowd of people watching as two muddy individuals scrambled up the vertical slope - but to a parking lot which has unceremoniously been cut into the exposed rock and landscape.

When we got to the lookout we found a metal platform extending way out over the edge of the cliff, very high above the water. We could see down through the metal slates to the forest and the water far, far below. It was quite vertigo inducing!


From the lookout we could just barely see Thunder Bay through the fog and mist. We could see the mainland, and several small islands, floating among the slate grey water. It was a vast, open landscape, and from that height seemed ancient and timeless. All day we had been feeling like we visitors in a much older, larger landscape that had begun long before we arrived and would continue long after we'd passed into history. As my mother would say 'this landscape is just more present here and one just has to acknowledge it.'

It is striking to be in the landscapes and wilds of Northern Ontario, especially in comparison to the manufactured landscapes and city-scapes of some of the other regions we have spent time in.  In Northern Ontario, much like Newfoundland and British Columbia, you have the sense that we need to work with the environment.  You can't conquer it, you can't over come it or out tough it.  You have to work with it or be undone by its vastness.  Here the land is on a bigger scale, it is more present and it dominates the region.  Here you live in the environment not on it.  You go with the flow or get washed away by the current. These sorts of landscapes stand in contrast to those of the larger cities in Canada where we have shaped our environments, our streets, and neighbourhoods.  In many of our cities we strive to control the conditions, while in places like North around Superior you come to see very quickly that there is no controlling the forces here.  It is hard, it is rugged, and despite its challenges it holds a deep appeal once you spend time in it.  I suspect that our provincial and national discourses would be improved if more people and more politicians came to experience these types of environments, get some of the soil under their feet, breath in the Boreal air, and chat with some of the peoples here.

My thoughts have wandered again.  This region, does that, a hike in the woods here both drains and energizes you as you trek.  The effort required strips your mind of all the garbage we think we need to be dealing with and has a way of focusing it on the moment and the essentials.

Tonight our immediate essential is drying out!  We found a spot to camp for the evening, and set up the wet tent. It felt good to take off our wet clothes and have something hot to eat. As we lay in the pitch dark we can hear the sound of a bird calling and the rain continues to drizzle. We're glad it is a calm night, because we are still very high above the water, and the tent isn't pegged down on the solid rock.  Some nights you have to be happy that you have gotten through the day and have a warm dry place to sleep.  All other concerns are for tomorrow.

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