The Coastal Hiking Trail in Pukaskwa National Park ("Puck-a-saw") is reputed to be one of the finer hikes in Ontario. It runs 57km (38 miles) of coastline in the NE corner of lake Superior from the north entrance of the park down to an arbitrary ending in the middle of nowhere. The common way to hike this trail is via a water taxi shuttle to the remote southern terminus, but to me this lacked the purity (and frugalness) of an entirely self propelled journey. I contemplated a yo-yo, but the project went on the backburner.
A couple years later I began dabbling in packrafting and my interest was rekindled when I realized that the floatable Pukaskwa River enters Lake Superior just 33km (20 miles) south of the trails southern terminus. Covering the 20 miles of terra incognita with the tools of foot and raft seemed feasible, and so a plan was hatched: Float 65km down the Pukaskwa river (3 days), spend 2-3 days traversing the unknown 33km of shoreline and then another 2-3 days on the Coastal Trail.
Thin red line is logging rd, then it's raft (blue), off-trail (red) and hike (green)
A better look at the route plan. Park boundary in thin bright green
Rob from BPL contacted me this past winter eager for some ambitious adventure, so we decided to team up for the Pukaskwa and plans fell into place for an early May trip. Spring is the only time of year to float the Pukaskwa, but this year winter was dilatory and snow and ice persisted as our spring time slot neared. Finally in the last 2 weeks before the trip the ice broke on the river and levels shot up. Our timing offered sporty water and a low chance of bugs in exchange for persistent snowpack in the woods and a cold initial forecast.
Day One: Pukaskwa River Headwaters to Fox River
We converged on the park on May 10, 2013 after much pre-trip help and guidance from Parks Canada's Lyn Elliot. We picked up our passes and completed the car shuttle by noon.
Water levels were high at 5.3m on the gauge and it was snowing lightly with temperatures hovering below freezing. We put in at 12:30pm, hoping to make it 18km to Fox River that day.
Show up and blow up
Crossing a pond before the fun starts
By any measure, day one was tough. Cold & snowing with splashy water and deep snow on the portages. This is about the least snow we found anywhere, as we commonly post holed thigh deep.
Thing got even colder when Rob took a swim attempting a gauntlet of cedars. A little too keen and not sure if Rob swam, I followed suit and joined him in the drink. Shivering ensued as we paddled hard to get less cold.
There's not many pictures from day one, as the camera's tend to disappear when you're more concerned with avoiding hypothermia. That became an increasing thought as Rob enjoyed his second swim - this time a lengthy and rowdy dip that added a new ventilation hole to his paddling pants.
Rob warming up after swim #2
After some jumping jacks, we carried on and enjoyed more of the coldest packrafting I've ever done.
Despite challenges from frigid weather, multiple swims and losing his hat in the river, Rob maintained his unwaveringly positive attitude, which is exactly what you need when the going is tough. We stuck with it and monitored each other to made sure no one was getting too cold. We arrived at our island campsite destination at the Fox River confluence at 7pm and we happily discovered the only significant snow free patch we'd seen all day.
Rob after day 1
I wanted to collapse into my sleeping quilt, but Rob was ambitious enough to be thinking about a fire despite everything being cold and wet. Purely on his own, Rob performed the impossible and started a blaze (shown below).
We didn't spend too much time around the fire as it was precipitating too much to dry anything, but Rob had the wise thought to tuck away some dry charred logs to get an easy fire going in the morning.
Day Two: Fox River the end of Pukaskwa Rapids
We awoke to frozen everything, but thanks to Rob's foresight we quickly got a blaze going and spent 2 hours drying everything before venturing on the river at 10:30am.
The morning was cold, but we warmed up with some paddling and eventually the sun came out. The great thing with a super tough first day is that whatever comes after is an improvement and you're extremely thankful for it. We made good time on day 2, as the snowpack thinned in the woods as we drew closer to the lake.
Day two on the river
At one point in day 2 we unintentionally got split off the main river into a narrow creek that didn't join up for miles. It was really cool floating through the fast windy creek. Rob enjoyed it, while I worried it would get choked with wood. Thankfully we had just enough water to float over countless beaver dams, and Rob deemed it a high point of the trip.
Hydro incognita - Our diversion from the main river
Almost nothing left of Lafleur's Dam
Searching for the perfect sleep spot
Day Three: Pukaskwa Rapids to Imogene Cove
The sun that appeared on day 2 stuck around to great us on the morning of day 3. We savoured the warm energy and "garage saled" our frozen gear from the cold night, again beginning our float after 10am.
Day three was just awesome boating. We portaged Ringham's Gorge and enjoyed some great swifts and white water including the excellent Class III Gorge rapid.
The scenery kept getting better
Arriving at the mouth of the Pukaskwa River
We arrived around 5pm at Superior to calm water and light winds. We didn't know what weather tomorrow would bring, so we opted to paddle an extra 3km to Imogene cove instead of fishing at the mouth of the river.
Out on the big water
Despite choosing to make miles over fishing, we had camp set up by 7 and had some extra daylight. Rob and I went fishing and on my third cast I pulled in dinner on my ultralight rod. Rob came over to lend me his expertise at landing fish and taking fish pics.
We had a great time on day 3. Fast water, beautiful scenery, joy inducing weather and good fortune. At the same time, the uncertainty of the miles ahead tempered any celebrations as we had completed leg one on an excellent note, but now had to focus on the ambiguities of the second leg.
Day Four: Imogene Cove to Swallow River
After months of wondering, today we would get our first taste of the unknown lands south of the hiking trail. We set off down Imogene beach and planned a 1.5km bushwack across a pennisula to the next cove (Bonamie).
Getting started on day 4 with more gorgeous weather
At the end of the beach we entered the bush. I knew most of this area had been logged early in the 1900's, so I expected thick wood and it didn't disappoint.
Thankfully we found the remains of a trail which allowed reasonable travel. It was rarely this good, but it protected us from the brunt of the thick bush
Blowing up at Bonamie Cove
The wind picked up a lot on day four - thankfully it was a perfect tailwind. It blew us right out of Bonamie cove and we landed on a pennisula just shy of the scary big water. The floating was easy but landing was getting challenging as the waves grew bigger and began breaking.
We stared across the next bay, thrilled at the easy distance we had just covered and wondering if we should tempt fate with a second more exposed crossing. The wind was stiff, but from the perfect direction. Option B was hours of bushwacking around the cove. One more exposed float would land us on the southern pennisula gaurding Otter Cove, which we could bushwack into and then paddle safely within.
We monitored the wind for a bit and it was stiff but steady. The direction was consistent enough that we felt confident we'd head for the right spot, but the waves were getting big enough that landing would be tricky with the crashing waves. We spotted a beach as our destination and a few other beaches as bail options. We asked ourselves what Hig and Erin would do and then decided to go for it.
We set out as the wind continued to grow stronger and the waves grew bigger. The float was several miles across a big bay. We flew, with the wind blowing us at 4km (2.5mph) + whatever effort we put in.
Pictures will never show it, but a tense windy crossing
Soon we neared our destination beach. I knew we would hit our target, but I wasn't sure I could make it past the break. I'd tried packraft surfing before and I knew it's really tough to stay straight (and avoid flipping) without a keel. Thankfully the water wasn't deep at the shore break. I went first and tried to sneak to shore between crashing waves. Alas it wasn't meant to be, as a big one caught me and gave the spin & dump. I stood up in waist deep water and hauled my boat into shore, wet but glad to be on firm ground. Rob had better fortune as he nailed the timing and made a big wave landing look easy.
To get across the pennisula into the protected waters of Otter Cove, we negotiated a short bushwack to Buchanan lake, paddled across and then bushwacked again into Otter Cove. It was relatively good walking and quite scenic.
Our route for the 33km of no trail shoreline
In the protected confines of Otter Cove the wind was gentler, so we blew up in mid afternoon and enjoyed easy miles with a tail wind out of the cove. We chatted about the big water ahead and deferred a decision, as we both agreed the last crossing was at the upper limit of sketchy. By the time we got to exposed waters, the wind had slowed enough that we felt okay heading out on the main lake. We were still nervous, but it was definitely less sketchy.
Easy miles on Superior
The wind faded to an excellent and relatively low-stress tailwind as we hauled down the coast line. The easy travel felt like cheating after months of mentally preparing myself for days of thick brush. The miles flew past as we paddled lightly and chatted. Our daily goal had been Otter Cove, but we revised it to Cascade Falls, and then Triangle Harbour and then to Swallow River. We were at Swallow River just after dinner and we decided to pull in despite knowing all to well that that we could make it the last 5 km to the hiking trail with just another hour on the water. We figured leaving those last 5km for tomorrow would let us get a short taste of the bush we had mostly floated past.
Rob taking the lead in the fishing derby with 3 more trout
Winding down at the end of day 4
Day Five: Swallow River to North Swallow River
If day four was cheating, then day five was self inflicted punishment. Those 4.8kms of easy lake floating we had casually declined yesterday would consume a 7 hours of tough slogging today. Day five was hard, but we finished with no regrets and a better appreciation for the woods and navigation.
The winds weren't too bad as we awoke (slight headwind), but we never seriously considered asking more from the lake after all it did for us yesterday. We headed inland to the bridge across the Sparrow river. Parks Canada had installed this bridge years ago (90's) when the original plan was to extend the hiking trail all the way to the Pukaskwa River. The bridge went in but the trail never did. Still, we were determined to hike the trail that hadn't been built.
Swallow River bridge to nowhere
The going was thick and slow. It was mostly crashing through dense young forests of balsam fir and spruce that were replacing the dying popular and birch trees that had grown post-logging.
Finding our position in a rare open spot
Triangulation with Rob's ultralight navigation kit (not our only map/compass)
Typical day 5 terrain
Mountain man Rob
After about 5 hours and 4km (2.5mi) we made it out onto a walkable beach a few bays south of our goal: the southern trail terminus.
Even still, the going wasn't all easy.
The trail lies just over that peninsula
Finally, we rolled into the cushy facilities at North Swallow which included a lovely new outhouse and a proper fire pit. We enjoyed our first intentional dips and washed our clothes. We had just arrived at the trail, but it felt like we had completed our trip.
Rob decided he needed a hat to replace the cap he lost on the river. He sewed this lovely crown to impress anyone we might meet on the trail.
Day Six: North Swallow to Oiseau Bay
We set off down the trail around 8am. An anthropogenic trail was a welcome and stark change from the previous days walking.
Rob puts on a river crossing clinic at North Swallow
Such nice walking
We rolled into Oiseau Bay around dinner and enjoyed another fire and down time. It was amazing how the good weather stuck around after day one, giving us sunshine and virtually no bugs. Rob and I combined for a total of 6 mosquito sightings over the first 6 days.
Day Seven: Oiseau Bay to Hattie Cove
Again we got on the trail around 8am and made good time with nice weather and almost no snow.
Rob stares down a moose
Wonderful sections of trail
Awesome sections of beach walking
We had planned to camp along the White River and finish in the morning, but we got thinking about soft beds and hot food so we pushed on to finish at Hattie Cove. We rolled in around 7pm and had a nice chat with the parks staff.
Overall it was an excellent trip. It's always uncertain to head out on a big trip with someone you've never met, but Rob was awesome trip partner both in skills and psyche. His ability to stay upbeat and positive was awesome during the frigid first day and the never ending bushwack on day 5.
Rob and myself at the finish