Lake Superior is the largest of the five Great Lakes and its coastline stretches for 2,726 miles. The Coastal Trail however stretches for a mere 40 miles, along part of the section that is in Ontario – not far north of Sault Ste Marie. Easy-peasy, we thought…
My parents had lived in Ontario for quite some years and in 2001 their home was a small town called Elliot Lake, about 2 hours drive east of Sault Ste Marie. In the October of that year we paid them a visit for a couple of weeks and decided that we would do a bit of backpacking while we were there. This Lake Superior Coastal Trail seemed to fit the bill. We had a four day window when nothing else was happening, so we made plans.
The trail is rated as ‘very difficult’ or ‘very demanding’. We took very little notice of this – after all, how difficult could it be? – but paid lip service to the information and decided that we would take it easy and only do a 28 mile section in the time we had available. The weather was very autumnal, with some snow showers forecast, so we wouldn’t rush.
My parents offered to drive us over and drop us off at a point on the trail known as Gargantua, then we would walk southwards and they would meet us 4 days later at Sinclair Cove.
Anyone who’s been to this part of Canada will know that distances between towns and cities are huge, and measured in hours or even days. It was a 2 hour drive from their house across to Soo (local speak for Sault Ste Marie), and then another hour north from there before we got to the turning up an un-made road, that would take us the 10 miles west to Gargantua Bay.
Problem no.1 – the track across to the bay was closed to public traffic. We had no alternative then, but to walk those 10 miles before we could even start on the trail proper!
I seem to remember having a row – quite why I don’t know, it was nobody’s fault – but we were soon laden up and on our way. It was easy enough walking and we were making reasonable progress, when a vehicle appeared from behind. A Ranger in a pick-up! A very kind Ranger in a pick-up! Were we doing the trail? Did we want a lift to the bay? Did we need asking twice…?
So, about 20 minutes later, we were deposited at Gargantua and set off south on our short trek.
We’d planned an easy stretch for this first afternoon. 3.6 miles to our first overnight spot at Rhyolite Cove.
The countryside around here is not mountainous, just rolling hills covered in all sorts of trees. However, we soon realised just how dense those trees can be. Sounds a bit dramatic I know, but many times over the next few days I wondered if we were doing something similar to soldiers bushwacking through the jungles of Borneo…
The trail stays as close to the shore as possible. The shore is extremely rocky, with lichen everywhere and has the potential to be unbelievably slippy. In retrospect we likened it to Grade 1 scrambling, only horizontally! When an occasional insurmountable cliff or bluff did come along, the trail would dive back into the interior of the forest, where it was nigh on impossible to see and follow, and we began to wish we were carrying machetes. On at least one occasion we lost the trail altogether for about an hour – a very weird, nerve-wracking experience.
All these delights were still to come though.
All we had to do this first afternoon was walk 3.6 miles. It took us 3 and a 1/2 hours.
Rhyolite Cove was a pleasant enough spot, and we found a place to pitch the tent.
It was getting both dusk and chilly by the time we got there, and we decided to light a fire. Now neither of us seem to have the skill of Ray Mears when it comes to lighting fires, so we’d taken a packet of firelighters with us. Foolproof! We went through the whole packet, plus oodles of twigs and Silver Birch bark, but all to no avail. How Ray Mears does it, I’ll never know…
The ensuing night was pretty cold – almost down to freezing – and we woke the next morning to rain and strong winds.
Luckily the rain turned to intermittent showers, but it did make the rocks absolutely treacherous.
There were also times when the trail was so close to the lake, that when large waves started crashing over the rocks we began to wonder just how long it would be before one of was swept into the freezing cold water.
It took us all day to do about 5 miles.
We finally got to a camp spot.
It wasn’t essential that you camped at one of the marked sites, but in practice it was just about impossible not to. The foliage and undergrowth was so dense that – unless you were carrying an axe or two – you needed a place that had already been artificially cleared.
Our spot for the night was next to another small cove.
By this time, we were starting to get a little concerned. Over the previous two days we hadn’t even covered half of our intended distance. There was no way we were going to get to Sinclair Cove on time to meet my parents. I could just imagine my mother’s reaction if we weren’t there when they arrived…
But we’d forgotten about Trail Magic! It turned up later that evening in the form of two guys from Michigan – Rick and Will. They were doing the trail in the opposite direction to us and had only been on it for one day, but had already had enough. They were contemplating heading back home.
They managed to pitch up near us for the night and said that if we hiked out to where their pick-up was the next day, they’d take us down to Sinclair Cove. Fantastic!
So, the next morning we walked a further couple of miles to a spot known as Baldhead River. From here, a side trail would take us out on a much easier trail for about 3 miles, to the car park where we were going to meet up with Rick and Will again.
We still weren’t going to be let off that easily though! The first mile along the coast that morning took us an incredible 2 and 1/2 hours to complete.
I will freely admit it was a relief when Baldhead River finally came into view. Time for lunch and a bit of a chill-out.
The side trail out to the car park was known as The Orphan Trail. It was heaven! It was normal! You could walk upright without resorting to all-fours!
I did have one screaming moment though when I nearly stood on a snake. I’m not really that keen on snakes…
And so, by late afternoon we were being whisked off at high speed, down to Sinclair Cove. It was still another 24 hours before my mum and dad were due to meet us though, so we went down to the beach to look for a likely spot to camp up for the night. There was nowhere – and I mean nowhere – where you could have possibly put a tent up in the trees, but hey, the beach itself made a super atmospheric spot.
We weren’t far from the spot where the freighter the SS Edmund Fitzgerald had sunk back in 1975, and I found myself gazing out at the lake, quietly humming the song that Gordon Lightfoot wrote about the tragedy.
It was a peaceful end to our trek – one that had proved more of a challenge than we ever imagined, but had nevertheless given us great memories.
And as for the official ‘trail rating’ – we gave it a new one. We rated it ‘bastard’.