I spent roughly 16 years of my life living in Ontario, so I thought I knew the province pretty well – that is, until I experienced the 8th leg of our trip as Woods Explorers in the summer of 2015.
To recap, Cedric and I (along with another couple, Melba and Adam) had been selected to hike, paddle, and bike across our great nation, hitting 14 predetermined spots along the Trans Canada Trail. To date, we’d tackled parts of PEI, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Quebec (twice) – and we’d spent a week reuniting with Adam and Melba, who had been doing the journey in reverse – and now, we were in Thunder Bay, getting ready to check out the Coastal Hiking Trail a few hours away in Pukaskwa National Park.
Prior to the Woods Explorer trip, I had never heard of Pukaskwa National Park (which, best as I can tell, is pronounced “Puck-a-saw”). Never in a million years would I have planned a trip to visit it – and that would have been a real shame, because it ended up being one of my absolute favourite destinations.
The Coastal Hiking Trail is a 60 k one-way trek along the shores of Lake Superior. Typically, one would approach this hike with the same level of planning and preparation as, say, the West Coast Trail. Cedric and I only had a couple of days to get our bearings, check out the route, and learn about camping options – it was trip planning on triple fast forward. Before we knew it, we were hitching a one-way ride on a boat to take us to the trail head.
I haven’t done many multi-day backpacking trips, but I (and many others) have done the WCT. Here’s how I compare the two:
- Well, first of all, you absolutely cannot compare the two. They are both so vastly different and incredible in their own ways. I cannot pick a favourite between the two. The experiences are incomparable but equally fantastic.
- Whereas the WCT is quite busy (with permits limiting access), the Coastal Hiking Trail is utterly, fabulously quiet. We did it in the middle of summer, and we saw: 1 father-son duo on our first day (hiking the opposite way); nobody for about 3 days after that; then one guy, a couple, and a few day hikers on the last day-and-a-half (some people do day hikes, or one-nighters, from the car-accessible trail head, where we ended our trip). If you’re looking for peace and tranquility, the Coastal Hiking Trail is a good bet.
- Both are situated in climates where anything can happen. Just a few weeks prior, Melba and Adam had been in the same area, though they had explored it via kayak. Their trip had been postponed due to torrential downpour, whereas we mostly had lovely, sunny days. My experience suggests that the Coastal Hiking Trail is less damp than the WCT, but I know that we just had a lucky week.
- The terrain is tough to compare. I would argue that the terrain on the Coastal Hiking Trail is more difficult. The WCT is muddy, wet, and mucky. Though the Coastal Hiking Trail doesn’t take you up mountains, it consistently winds up and down, up and down, rarely flattening out until the very last bit. Much of the terrain is on rocky outcroppings, which is covered in green mossy algae stuff. When this is wet, it becomes incredibly slick and hiking through it is quite perilous (so I’m told – we didn’t have to contend with this too much).
- The WCT is a breeze to navigate, but the Coastal Hiking Trail requires a little more ingenuity. There are no traditional trail markers – hikers have to rely on following what appears to be the path most taken, and rock cairns guide the way on the extensive rocky sections. Having said that, we didn’t have much difficulty staying on the right path.
- The WCT is longer (75 k vs 60 k). We did the Coastal Hiking Trail is 5 days/4 nights, whereas we did the WCT in 7 days/6 nights. In Pukaskwa, we typically started hiking around 9 AM and arrived at our campsite around 2:30 or 3 PM. The days weren’t terribly long, but we were bagged when we arrived at our campsites.
Which leads me to the story of our Pukaskwa ornament.
The campsites along the Coastal Hiking Trail are stunning. Except for the very last night, we always had the entire campsites to ourselves. It felt like we were in the middle of nowhere, but the sites were actually very well set up with bear bins (that you didn’t have to fight over for a little real estate, unlike the WCT!), “pit privies” (camping toilets), and a fire bin. All of the sites we stayed at were directly on the water with gorgeous sandy private beaches. The water was super clear – if you squinted a little, you could almost pretend that you were in the Caribbean or something.
Upon arriving at our campsite every night, our ritual was as follows: drop our packs, peel off our sweaty clothes, and run into the crystal blue – BUT INSANELY FRIGID – waters of Lake Superior. How long we lasted in the water varied; Cedric was typically able to brave it a little longer than I could. Emerging from the ice cold water was like a hiking baptism – it washed away our sweat, cooled us down, and somehow made us invisible to the bugs. We would hang out in the buff on the sand letting the sun – which we were pretty much seeing for the first time the entire trip – dry us off. It was total bliss.
Our last night, we camped at a campsite about 16 km from the end of the trail. A note here – the distances are extremely misleading. While we sped through those final, relatively easy 16 k, a seemingly shorter 10 k day could be twice as difficult and nearly twice as long. As always, we arrived at our campsite and performed our habitual skinny dip. Cedric went to start the fire or something, but I hung out on the beach a little while and went back into the water. I came out and took my time drying off – when I noticed two people walking along the shore towards us.
I was suddenly very aware that I wasn’t wearing any clothes, so I zipped quickly over to the outfit I’d worn every day for the better part of a week and threw it back on. Close call. We later talked with the couple, who were staying a few tent sites over from us – they swore they hadn’t noticed anything, but I feeling like they may just have said that to make us feel better.
We actually didn’t have time to pick up ornaments in Ontario (the places we stayed didn’t have the most touristy gift shops), but we found this guy two legs later in Manitoba – and we knew he was perfect.
We call him Moosey, and he’s more of a figurine than an ornament, so we keep him out year ’round on our shelves. There’s something about the way he’s lounging – the way there’s a leaf covering his private parts even though he’s a moose and they’re always in the buff – that makes it perfect.
Pukaskwa opened my eyes to how incredible northwest Ontario really is and how I’d completely underestimated this part of my home province. Luckily, our next leg – what would end up being my favourite of the entire trip – would take place nearby, so we’d get to enjoy it a little longer.