WILDERNESS TRAILS – Notes from Lake Superior’s Coastal Trail

Ten months of anticipation and preparation was released as we stepped through the dunes onto the beach at Agawa Bay on a warm, sunny August morning. With an endless supply of optimism, we bolted down the sandy shoreline, revelling in the fact that we were finally here. Now before you get the wrong idea, this is not a story about a leisurely afternoon at the beach. In fact there was not much leisure happening on this expedition at all. That sandy beach would shortly change into the most difficult and beautiful trail I had ever hiked.

It had been 17 years since the first time I witnessed the beauty of Lake Superior’s east coast – 8 years since I was there last. Both of those instances I was there as a camper, staying at the Agawa Bay Campground in Lake Superior Provincial Park.  While spending the day with my wife kayaking in Sinclair Cove, I noticed a sign posted on a large tree with a symbol of a tent. I knew of a trail in the park but had no knowledge of its location. Seeing that campsite had sparked in me a desire to kayak or hike the coast, in order to access these remote campsites.

Scott didn’t hesitate when I asked if he was interested in hiking up in Superior Country. This was a brand new landscape for him. Ever since we had completed the La Cloche Silhouette Trail (2016), the Coastal Trail had come up in conversations as the next short film in our Wilderness Trails Series. For both of us, exploring this part of the country represented a major commitment because of the 10 hour drive to get there and the related expenses for a trip like this. With assistance from MEC and Naturally Superior Adventures, we were able to make this project happen. For anyone considering hiking the trail, it is worth the investment to get there.

We were warned that this trail was not for novice hikers. The beauty of this landscape was possibly only equalled by the ruggedness of the terrain. I suppose that part of the reason it is so spectacular is because of how remote and rugged it is. What I hadn’t anticipated was how diverse the trail would be.

The mostly sandy beach (that we had started from) had changed to mostly small stones after we crossed the Agawa River. From Agawa Point to Sinclair Cove we hiked under the shade of trees, high above the vertical cliffs, periodically coming to sun filled openings with stunning views looking out to the Agawa Islands, Gainly Island, Rock Island and Sinclair Island. There were times that we encountered no one on the trail and moments we felt like the side show at the beach, as we hiked past the herds of tourists spending the afternoon at Katharine Cove. It was very difficult walking past all the picnic baskets and coolers overflowing with fresh food and a plethora of cold drinks. There were sections of trail that we longed for the shade of the inland forest, while other times longing to be out of the forest, to feel the cool lake breeze blow across our sweat soaked shirts and smell the fresh lake air. Many portions of the trail we alternated between a flat forest trail and sections of trail that saw us testing how quick our hand, foot and eye coordination was as we navigated long stretches across the tops of boulders, 3 – 6 feet in diameter. The slope was in constant flux as we traversed the landscape. Bald Head was intensely steep in places, often requiring climbing up on hands and knees and sometimes requiring pack removal and scaling down sections backwards. Even the beach sections could not be considered truly flat because of the sideways slope caused by the waves creating a terraced like effect with the many sizes of loosely packed stones.

Each campsite had its own unique flavour. Most sites were structured in much the same way – tent pad and fire pit nestled just inside the trees with some sort of beach area. Our last night on Gargantua Bay had a generous view (from our fire pit) of the lake while most others had no view to speak of. Beaches were comprised of small pebbles, large rocks or sand.  Our site where the Bald Head River flows into Lake Superior had a south facing lake access as well as a west facing. Most sites had a view to the south-west. Our favourite site, at Robertson Cove, was unlike all other sites. It was a sandy spit of land that was just high enough to provide dry access to the small island located just off shore. It was, by far, the largest site.

I’ve seen many of the moods Lake Superior has to display (only in the summer though). While on this hike of the Coastal Trail, we witnessed a tranquil lake – mostly. One of the days the waves finally produced small whitecaps and a cool breeze. I have, in previous visits, kayaked in large Superior swells and swam in pounding, deafening beach waves.  During our hike the weather was very stable and we experienced mostly vast, cloudless, blue skies. Most sunsets were simple – large red sun illuminating a blank canvas of sky and water in subtle shades of pink. We rarely felt the morning sun on us while at camp. Even with a 6:00AM sunrise, we only saw the effects of the sun by mid morning because of the hills and tree cover to the east of our campsites.

If you aren’t enjoying the trail at any given moment, it won’t be long until it changes. Hiking the Coastal Trail is a diverse experience – you will witness steep granite rock faces plunging into the lake, long expanses of coastal beaches, the most beautiful assortment of white pine, cedar, aspen, hemlock and jack pine I have ever seen, boulder beaches, gently sloping rock terraces and water flowing from inland hills into the largest freshwater lake (by surface area) in the world. Hiking the trail is comparable to a sensory overload. The smells are more intense, the sights are glorious and the sounds are both subtle and loud.  Diversity is to be expected while you traverse this rugged and beautiful landscape. Sometimes it is welcomed while other times it seems that you can never get enough of the present moment – whether it be the calm lake you’re swimming in or a flat section of forest trail that is helping to reduce a high core body temperature. Regardless of the constant change in trail conditions, some things will remain the same and that is an appreciation of the beauty of this place and a healthy respect for the ruggedness of the trail.

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NEW FILM PROJECT – Lake Superior’s Coastal Trail

This will be the second film in the Wilderness Trails series.  If you missed the first one you can view it at this link.

We intend to hike the trail and document the beauty of and experience of hiking a 65 km section of the rugged Lake Superior coastline in a visually creative and professional manner.  The Coastal Trail has been described as rugged and demanding.  This is a wilderness trail that has few encounters with civilization – the trail heads back inland for a few river crossings (Agawa, Barrett & Sand Rivers) utilizing Trans Canada Hwy bridges.  We travel light on the trail with minimal impact and follow the ‘leave no trace’ philosophy of hiking.  We have successfully hiked 100 km on the La Cloche Silhouette Trail in 2016 and continue training for a hike of the Coastal Trail in 2018 and the John Muir Trail in 2019.  We also have many years and experiences on canoe trips in the backcountry in Algonquin and Killarney.

We have received financial and product support from M.E.C. and Naturally Superior Adventures.  We are excited to have the opportunity to partner with these businesses!  A short documentary film and a photographic portfolio will be made documenting the beauty and experience of hiking a 65km section of the rugged Lake Superior shoreline.  As in the first film, Scott Jordan will be creating the musical soundscape once again.  Film screenings will be planned, with interested organizations, for the beginning of 2019.