Driving and Hiking Around Lake Superior, 14 Days

You can also look at: the best photos -- the main photos -- second rate photos -- documentary photos -- Superior main page.

If you're reading this, you may want to follow along with the sequential set of images.

Superior Day 0: Preview photos

When I was 18, I had a very large and thin photo book full of glossy photos of the Superior shoreline. That book inspired this trip - but sadly, the book itself is long gone. I've moved a lot, and a couple times I moved a very long way. You get rid of a lot of stuff when you move.  These are very much the flavour of the photos in the book that inspired me, and the kind of thing I hope I can manage while I'm out on this trip:

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

I may not make it to Pictured Rocks - it depends on my time. I'm doing the Canadian side first.

Superior Day 1: Sudbury

[Saturday September 29, 2012]

The day began in classic style: panicked packing and preparation, followed by staring down a six person line-up at a car rental agency with two employees.  Travel is always "hurry up and wait."  I did eventually get on the road in my Toyota Matrix, taking the 400 north to Barrie.  I have always - hundreds of times - taken Highway 11 north of Barrie to my parent's cottage.  For the first time ever, I stayed on 400 to Parry Sound and Sudbury.  The trees are spectacular (and this isn't even supposed to be "a good year," go figure).  More and more granite kept sticking out of the dirt amongst the trees, and I mused (you have a lot of time to muse on a five hour drive) about the "rightness" of scenery.  The forest in Georgia always looked subtly wrong to me because I grew up looking at Muskoka.  Georgia and Muskoka share many species, but that made it worse as I was jarred out of my complacency by a Magnolia or pecan tree.  Southeast Asia was actually better because it was totally different.  To me, the landscape approaching Sudbury is a lot like Muskoka ... but MORE.  More rock, more moss, more yellowing reeds, more windswept.  It looks extraordinarily beautiful, but I imagine to someone from southeast Asia - or even Georgia - it would look staggeringly barren.  Sure, there's lots of plants, but they're often short and stunted, and it being fall, they're all dying.  What's that about?

I love it.

I left the city too late for a visit to Killarney Provincial Park to be workable, so I drove on to Sudbury and a leisurely dinner at the Hardrock 42 Gastropub (no connection with the "Hard Rock" chain).  Downtown Sudbury can be found right next to the rail yard.  There are a few cars but hardly any people at 1830 on a Saturday night.  There are two young women (30?) in the corner booth, drinking their pitcher of beer and knitting.  One of them occasionally consults her iPad.  Sudbury appears to have its own brewery, but this rather good pub picks up all its beer in Toronto ... <sigh>  Those who've followed my travels previously know that I'm all about sampling the local booze - sadly not possible here.  The food was good though.

What tomorrow holds is unclear: I may go to Killarney, but I have to be in the Soo in the evening as I'm on the Agawa Canyon train Monday morning at 0800.

Superior Day 2: Day of the Giant Coins

I started the day with a quick drive over to Dynamic Earth, one of Sudbury's two science museums, where I visited the Big Nickel.  As gigantic monuments go, this one is rather nice: it's an accurate representation of the coin, and very large indeed - and it's old enough to have a George head on it.  Neat.

I then backtracked some 100 or more kilometers from Sudbury to Killarney Provincial Park, where I hiked the Cranberry Bog Trail and the Granite Ridge Trail, both recommended by Lonely Planet.  What they failed to mention is that there are only three trails, and the third trail takes 7-10 days.  The Cranberry Bog trail was spectacular, going around the outside of a bog with just amazing views at every turn.  Parks Ontario referred to that trail as "moderate" difficulty, which is making me rethink both my fitness and the use of the word "moderate" - 3.5km took me two hours (which is their listed time).  About half an hour of that was simply admiring the views and taking photos, but the rest was spent in ferocious scrambling up lumps of granite and down steep hills.  But I'd recommend it and I'd do it again - I'd just take a few seconds to reflect on their use of the word "moderate" before I started and recognize what it means.  Granite Ridge was shorter and easier, and had more classically beautiful views, with a high panorama over several kilometers of forest, and another looking out over Georgian Bay - but I think I liked the bog better.

The road to Sault Ste. Marie was littered with warnings about the "Night Danger," an animal that looks variously like a moose or a deer on its yellow diamond warning sign.  I particularly liked the deer-like one that had been decorated with its own bright red prosthetic nose.

I passed through the town of "Tarbutt and Tarbutt Additional - Pop. 400".  You can look it up if you like.  It sounds like a lawyer's firm that ran amuck, had children and founded a town.  And there's just something intrinsically humorous about the name "Tarbutt."  Or maybe I was on the road too long - 390km, well over 5 hours as I'm far outside the 100km/h zone (plus the Killarney backtrack).  I also stopped in the tiny town of Echo Bay (population 500?) to visit the giant Loonie - apparently one of the designers of the coin lives quite near Echo Bay.  So two giant coins in one day.

Tomorrow is the Agawa Canyon train.  I'll probably stay in the Soo another day to check out the immediate area (and not have to drive as much), as the train is an all day event.

Superior Day 3: Agawa Canyon

I started the day with a meal at the Husky truck stop, which was recommended by my motel owners.  I needed something that was open at 0630 and was filling, as I was passing on lunch.  The Breakfast of Death was actually fairly good, just not exactly artery-friendly: 2 eggs, 2 bacon strips, 2 sausage links, 1 slice of ham, 1 sausage pattie [sic], home fries and toast (pre-slathered in butter).  They call that the "Convoy" breakfast, it's my city sensibilities that renamed it.

At 0730 I boarded the Agawa Canyon train.  This had been recommended by several people, but I found it kind of disappointing.  Four hours of enforced inactivity (surrounded by the Rowdy Retirees), followed by a mad one and a half hour scramble around the canyon to see the sights, and another four hours of replaying the same rugged scenery backwards.  Sure, the views from the train are lovely, but not eight hours of lovely - the track was put in for commerce, not tourism.  I want to be doing things, and be in control of how long I stay in a place.  I could have been in a provincial park - where a train didn't just disgorge 689 people (I asked) all trying to do the same very limited set of trails at once.  There are of course redeeming features: the scenery on the ride consisted of the granite rocks I love, lakes, streams, and beautiful leaves on many of the trees.  The canyon has a gorgeous lookout - 300 steps to the top, and I was the third person there. I learned to be very glad of that, as 50 people tried to ascend the stairs at once as I was leaving.  And there were two lovely waterfalls to see.  So a pleasant enough day, but it won't be the highlight of the trip.  I can say that with some surety as I was at Killarney yesterday.  But all my griping is moot: I would have regretted not going, as I never would have known what I missed (or didn't miss).

I visited the Sault Ste. Marie main library branch in the evening, then spent an hour biking around the waterfront and watching the sun go down over the International Bridge.  On the way back to the motel a fox ran across the road - early in the evening, and not out in the boonies.

Contrary to what I said yesterday, I won't be staying in the Soo another day: the only remaining thing I want to see is the Art Gallery of Algoma, which opens at 0900 tomorrow.  And after that, it's off up the coast of Superior, where I hope to hike Pancake Bay Provincial Park.  Tomorrow will be the first time I've actually seen Lake Superior up close - all I've seen previously were distant glimpses from the train.

Favourite overheard line of the day: "In the dark, with a rooster ..."  I didn't hear any more, but why would I want to?  That statement stands on its own.

Superior Day 4: Lake Superior Impresses

I got out of bed too early today - that doesn't happen too often. Breakfast at Subway (this trip hasn't been a culinary mecca - but then, I didn't expect it to be) followed by a visit to the Soo tourist information building, which had the temerity to not open until 0830. They were incredibly helpful, providing maps for nearly every Provincial Park I'm planning on visiting, including the relatively obscure and possibly closed or demoted "Potholes Provincial Park." Then to the Art Gallery of Algoma, a very small Art Gallery with huge potential implied in its name. To any fan of the Group of Seven, "Algoma" says a whole lot. But, being an art gallery, most of their limited space has to be given over to rotating local exhibits so their permanent exhibition was limited to one wall of about ten meters. Several A.Y. Jacksons, a Casson, a J.E.H. McDonald (the only one I really liked), an Emily Carr, etc., all small. Nice to see the Group of Seven and associated artists - wish there'd been a few more. The gallery also have a marvelous totem pole outside made out of hub caps, old tires, and various other car parts - that's a favourite of the trip, hope the photos turn out.

And then off for the adventure of the day: the Edmund Fitzgerald Lookout Trail at Pancake Bay Provincial Park. My car was the only one in the small lot at the trail head. There was a covered stand, and in a box was a book hikers were supposed to sign in to - so I can tell you that the trail is hiked perhaps twice a day. I wanted solitude after the over-abundance of people at Agawa ... But there's always a price. I signed in, and read the little poster about how to handle bears. Stay still, back away slowly, make yourself appear larger, etc. At the bottom, it mentioned "Predatory Bears," ones that are going to attack you no matter what you do. They're "very rare." And here I was carrying a hunk of delicious-smelling smoked lake trout for lunch that I'd just picked up at a store along the highway. (Bears have bad eyes, but very good noses.) My hiking pole was meant for whacking coyotes (and taking pictures - it's also a monopod), not sure it'd do much against a bear. About half an hour into the hike, just when I was starting to think less about bears and more about scenery, I came across an extraordinarily clear imprint of a bear paw in a mud patch on the path (either that or someone just happened to be walking their Great Dane on an infrequently used hiking trail - I wouldn't know the difference). From the depth of the impression, I assumed the bear was about my weight - not that that was very reassuring. It was hours later that I realized that a bear walks on four feet, not two, so his one foot impression is probably only an indicator of about half his weight ...

Postscript: with a photo and some time after the trip, it would appear the footprint in question was probably a wolf: whatever it was, it wasn't a bear. Which suggests I was more than a little off on the weight: in my own defense, it did leave a remarkably deep imprint.

The Edmund Fitzgerald Lookout Trail - or at least the part of it that I followed - goes through mostly maple forest. The hike to the Lookout is the shortest of three possible routes, the other two being a big loop and a huge loop. Between the bear(s), the gray skies, and the fact that the trail seemed to be a one trick pony (the lookout - it's a REALLY GOOD trick), I only went to the lookout and back - 6 km return, about three hours with a long stop for lunch and photos at the Lookout. The stairs up to the lookout are mostly wood, and show a lot more wear from weather than from humans: the wood is gray, and the steps are edged in moss. After a good climb, you come to the top of a steep hill with a truly spectacular view over a very colourful forest to Lake Superior.

I carry a water bottle when I'm hiking. When Soo tap water tastes good, you know you're really thirsty. (Same goes for Sudbury water.)

After hiking back down and not being eaten by a bear, I drove towards Lake Superior P.P. The shoreline reminds me a great deal of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia - craggy rock jutting out into the waves, incredible views everywhere. Every big hill offered a jaw-dropping vista, leaving me cursing in reverence. I think my least coherent outburst - on topping a 200 meter hill with a 10 km view of dappled forest and gorgeous rocky shoreline - was "fucking -- fuck!" After a while I stopped cursing: I'm not sure I got used to it, but vocalizing disbelief repeatedly just seemed a bit pointless.

I stopped at a lookout along the highway where I encountered a young couple in their ancient and battered SUV. He was drinking a beer, and she (and her impressive collection of tattoos) was carving something into the bench. He immediately started chatting with me, explaining that he was from Cape Breton(!), and she was from P.E.I. She looked up from her vandalism and gave me a bright "hello!" He popped the tab on another beer and offered me one, which I declined. He went to dispose of the old one in the designated "bottles and cans" bin. "Looks like someone didn't get the idea!" He started grubbing garbage out of the recycling and throwing it in the trash container. They're headed from the Maritimes to Calgary. When they heard I was from Toronto, she said "We were there yesterday. If I never see it again it'll be too soon! 'Course, it's different if you're from there." And so we admired the gorgeous light of the setting sun over the lake.

There's nowhere to stay the night in the park (unless of course you're camping), so I headed to Wawa - although I think I'm technically in Michipicoten. I settled in to my motel, and headed directly across the highway (crossing the TransCanada isn't dangerous - I'd say it averages a couple cars a minute even during the day) to the Kinniwabi Pines Restaurant, which had advertised itself for many kilometers on various billboards as being able to provide "Canadian, Chinese, Carribean and European food." I figured they deserved a try for sheer bravado - and it was really convenient. Relatively small and very popular, service was very slow. But the local whitefish was really nice (and huge), and the mixed vegetables, which I dismissed initially as the second class citizens they usually are, tasted really good because someone in the kitchen has a really good hand with Chinese spices and stir frying.

Tomorrow morning it's back to Tim Hortons, and then back into the park to hike four or five trails.

Wawa's last mosquito of the season seems to have found its way into my room - how very annoying. Hah - nailed the bugger.

Superior Day 5: Hike 'til you drop

The day started with an early and delicious breakfast at Tim Hortons - lots of pick-up trucks, often towing ATVs.  Then a drive down into the park: I was planning to do four hikes in one day - ambitious perhaps, but I succeeded.  I flipped my hike order even before I started, going to "Trappers" first because A) it's a bog, and mist was still rising off every body of water I passed, and B) the last staff moose sighting was there, and I figured they'd be more likely to be active early rather than later.  No moose, but good photo opportunities.  That was 1.5km, and I've concluded I just like swamps (or fens, bogs, marshes, whatever they want to call them).  Second hike of the day was Awausee, recommended by a park staff member for the colours.  She also recommended only going to the first look-out, as the rest of the trail was ... strenous.  I was having a bad navigation day, so I missed the turn-off for the look-out and did another half hour / one kilometer - and let me assure you, she wasn't kidding.  Most of it was going upwards at 30 degrees over rubble rock - very, very slow going, and exhausting.  I eventually figured out my error and returned.  The look-out was very, very pretty.  That was probably about 2.5km in total.

In the afternoon I did Orphan Lake, which the park brochure calls a "moderate" trail.  It wasn't as tough as Awausee, but it had plenty of up and down, and lots of rubble rock to struggle over.  The trail transitioned between a high view over Orphan Lake and Lake Superior, then along the shore of Orphan Lake, down to the Superior shore, up a river past a big (and nearly unphotographable) falls, up a stream, and finally through the woods back to the trail head.  I started my final trail, Nokomis, around 1700 - with only two hours to sunset and a claimed time of 1.5-3 hours.  I did Orphan Lake in 2h40m when they said it took 2-4 hours for 8km, so I figured I'd make it back in time ...  Nokomis was probably the most beautiful of the lot, with the most interesting scenery.  The first 800m or so is populated by hemlocks covered in dangling moss - and the path consists of big beach pebbles that weren't put there by park staff - the area used to be a beach before the water subsided.   Up you climb, over more rubble rock, huge boulders, roots - to incredible views of Old Woman Bay on Lake Superior.  And then back down the 40 degree descent at the end of the trail.  That was a 5km loop.  And finally, exhausted, watch the sun set on a beach on Lake Superior.  Not a hardship, really.

I had dinner at Kinniwabi again - if you find a good place in a town this small, might as well stick with it.  I had the Lake Trout (also quite good).  Despite being less busy, service was equally as liesurely: plan on spending the entire evening there if you visit.

I've seen a lot of animals:
red squirrels, chipmunks, and crows: lost track
bears: 1
Ruffed Grouse: 4
foxes: 2
garter snake: 1
mosquitos: 1
moose: 0

The bear deserves explanation.  I was driving from one hike to another today when this 25 kg bear shot across the highway in front of the truck ahead of me.  She made it across the road, but must have scared the crap out of both herself and the driver.  Wondered where the mother was.  And Ruffed Grouse, if you didn't know, are dumb as stumps.  Act like them too: sit on the floor of the forest and wait for people to almost step on them. 

Tomorrow: the Wawa goose, Potholes Provincial, on to Marathon.

Superior Day 6: Pukaskwa - Rossport

The first venture of yesterday was to visit the Wawa geese.  You may have heard of "The Wawa Goose," but that's only half of the truth.  The first Wawa Goose was made of wire and plaster.  When it began to fall into disrepair, it was replaced with a steel goose, with the odd effect from the assembly that the bird appears to have scales (and is also rusting).  But the original goose has been repaired, and stands outside Young's General Store while the new goose stands by the Tourist Information centre, threatening the TransCanada - which, after all, bypassed Wawa.

If you're in the Michipicoten/Wawa area, stay at the White Fang Motel (I didn't name it).  Cheap and exceptionally well kept up, it's been the best place on the trip so far.  Although tonight's accomodations are quite entertaining: I'm in one of the "Rossport Cabins" cabins, which is exactly what it says: a cabin that consists of a bedroom and bathroom, all contained in 9x16 feet.  It looks like it was appointed in 1950, but it's beautifully kept up.  No wireless (first place without it), so sending this will wait until tomorrow.  Holy crap - the train is going by 20 meters away and the cabin is literally shaking.  Huh - that'll be a real sleep-ender.  Especially with the whistle.  Wow.  Half an hour later, another.  And also at 2230, 0100, and 0500 - yeah, it woke me up, but I went right back to sleep.

Back to the morning: fifty kilometers northeast of Wawa, on a highway that makes the TransCanada look busy, is Potholes Provincial Park.  As expected, mine was the only car in the parking lot.  To my surprise, a couple did show up later.  I carefully read the verbiage on the little guide panel about how the rocks are silppery when wet, etc., etc., and to be careful on this 300m hiking trail.  300m?!  A bit shorter than the others I've tackled recently.  Apparently a huge volume of glacial meltwater started spinning a boulder around and around until it ground out a hole for itself - and was eventually battered to bits, leaving only a massive pothole in the granite.  Two and a half potholes, to be precise.  With a river running through them. Beautiful.

Back in the car.  Past White River was 30 or so km of devastation, on one side of the highway only.  It looked to me like the forest had been stripped flat to feed our voracious paper mills about ten years ago, and is just starting to grow back.  It was fairly unsettling.

White Lake Provincial Park is closed for the season, so I was denied the opportunity to walk among the carniverous plants.  They have a bog with sundew and pitcher plants that I really wanted to see; I considered parking at the gate and walking in, but it was about 6km from the gate to the start of the hike, and that seemed a bit much.

To get to Pukaskwa (pronounced "Puck-a-saw") Provincial Park, you have to go to the far northern end of its massive bulk.  It's several hundred square kilometers, and 99% of it is totally inaccessible to day use people like myself.  No roads, nothing.  You want to see it?  Get in a canoe or start walking - and take food, water, and camping gear.  But they do have four day-use trails around Hattie's Cove at the north end, and the two I hiked were brilliant.  I was going to do three (they're all relatively short), but the weather turned.

Each park has its own method of measuring trails: Lake Superior P.P. gives a distance, an expected time (very useful), and a difficulty level.  Pukaskwa gives a distance but doesn't give an expected time, and their difficulty levels are noticably exagerated by comparison to those at Lake Superior.  I mean, the Manito Miikana trail is "moderate" but it's got stairs?!  Pah!  It is to scoff.  The beach trail was awesome, through a very mossy forest to a beach with more driftwood than beach - I don't know if this is fallout from logging half a century ago or this cove just happens to be where all the dead trees end up ...  And Manito Miikana has more fantastic forest, and views to die for.  Big granite cliff, wind-twisted pines (no wonder - the wind never stopped for the whole time I was hiking the edge), views of stone islands and the beach and the sun sparkling on the water.  But the clouds moved in, and I chose to not do the Southern Headland Trail, getting back in my car and heading further west.

Because the rain is expected to stay in the area for a couple days I rather reluctantly gave up on Neys Provincial Park.  It's closed for the season, but was highly recommended by Do-Ming's friend Rob, and was apparently a great inspiration for the Group of Seven so it was a disappointment to miss.

As I've driven north the colours have shifted as the maples lost their leaves, and then the maples went away entirely: everything is painted in evergreen and poplar yellow.  But the ground cover is fascinating: vivid green moss, flat gray deer moss (which I've always loved, for reasons I'd have trouble explaining), multi-hued other mosses, small plants with leaves that have gone totally red ...

Brought to you today courtesy of Tim Hortons Nipigon.

Superior Day 7: Snow at Ouimet Canyon

Today was mostly a driving day.  That wouldn't have been my choice, but the weather has gone from 19C to 5C - which I was fully prepared for - and turned to drizzle - which I wasn't ready for.  Let's face it: when your whole trip is about being outdoors, rain is a bit of a drag.

The first stop of the day was Ouimet Canyon Provincial Park.  It was raining as I drove the last 50km, but it changed to snow at the canyon - if I had a choice, I would have taken the snow anyway as it doesn't stick as much.  Oddly, there were no other cars in the lot.  The strange caveat to Ouimet Canyon is that you can look at the canyon, but you can't actually enter it.  A visit consists of a short loop walk along one side of the canyon rim, with a couple of look-outs.  The canyon is fairly deep, and oriented in such a way that it gets almost zero sun, staying at arctic temperatures down the bottom.  There are plants down there (which I doubt could be identified from the rim even if I knew what I was doing) that can't be found until you get 1000 km north of here.  But, whether I could identify plants or not, the views are good.

Next stop was a commercial venture called Amethyst Mine Panorama, which proudly advertises its open strip mining and invites you to mine your own amethyst.  Both of these statements are misleading: as all their mining is done by hand (amethyst is a crystal and is mined for appearance rather than raw material), 45 years of mining has produced a "pit" about 15 meters wide, 60 meters long, and 6 to 8 meters deep.  Not beautiful, but hardly the offense I expected from their phraseology.  As for "mine your own," it's an active mine and they don't let you in to it.  You get to root about in their tailings for an $8 fee, and pay $3/lb if you find stuff you like.  There's some interesting stuff in the tailings, but I doubt anyone is going to find crystals of any significant size (especially given the prices they were charging for blocks of any quality).  I was fascinated by rocks and minerals as a kid, so I spent quite a while poking about in the cold and occasional drizzle.  I left with 5.5 pounds of rock-stuff.

I drove into Sleeping Giant P.P. and talked to one of the park staff for a while, finding out what hikes are good - in case the weather is better tomorrow (although the reports aren't particularly promising).  She also reminded me that not all parks are "Provincial" parks: Pukaskwa is a National park.  Although the practical difference is ... what, exactly?  Stepping out of the park office, the guide said "oh look, deer."  And then walked off to do her thing.  Two deer had just wandered into the parking lot - apparently that happens a lot.

And on to Thunder Bay.  My strangest destination of the day was "C&Y Chopsticks," the Chinese restaurant formerly owned by the family of my co-worker Norm.  I've taken pictures of it for posterity: yes, they've cleaned it up (it looks much better in real life than it does in Google Maps), and it's busy.  at 1800 there were eight cars parked out front - quite a few for such as small place.

I had dinner at Hoito, which Lonely Planet plays up as a very Finnish place: in fact, their main business is burgers, fries, and sandwiches for old folks.  They do a small business in the Finnish stuff that used to be their raison d'etre.  I had Karjalan Piirakka (not as exotic as it sounds) with Egg Salad, Salt Fish sandwich, and cherry pie.  The salt fish is essentially lox - a cured salmon that's quite similar to smoked salmon ... but without the smoke.  The salt fish was also topped with chopped onion and green onion, to ensure optimal social interactions.  (Since I came back to my hotel room to write this, I guess it didn't work.)

I'm still thrashing out plans for the morrow: we'll see what comes.

Postscript from Sandra: "I've only been up north in Ontario a couple of times. My dad worked in a pulp mill in Red Rock (near Thunder Bay) for a few years, and I went to visit him there once. (That pulp mill may have been responsible for the clearcut you mentioned having seen, although by the time my dad was working there, it had converted to using recycled paper as its raw material.) In your first email from the road, you talked about the 'rightness' of scenery. I know exactly what you mean, because the scenery around Red Rock did not feel 'right' to me at all. I'm used to B.C., where the trees are huge and every inch of terrain is carpeted in greenery. The bare rock and (to my mind) stubby little trees seemed like an alien landscape, albeit a very beautiful one."

Postscript 2 from Liza: "... the difference between provincial parks and national parks is not just their designations. National parks are set up as representatives of ecosystems of the country, many aren't really accessible, and the mandate is preserve and protect, although some, such as Pelee and Bruce Peninsula, are used for recreational purposes. Provincial parks have somewhat of the ecosystem preservation for the province, but most of those are nature reserves. The other designations, which include Superior, are natural environment parks and have a large educational and recreational component. Recreation P.P., such as Bronte, serve more toward the recreational side."

Superior Day 8: Thunder Bay Unorganized, A Comedy of Weather

"Thunder Bay Unorganized" is the name of the area around Thunder Bay that's not incorporated into the city itself.  And note that we have a "comedy" of weather - much better than a "tragedy."

The morning's first stop was Kakabeka Falls P.P.  The eponymous falls are quite nice, but what made my day was seeing a soaring bald eagle while I was out hiking (on their perfectly flat, groomed gravel loop trail).  I talked to the park staff member, who said the eagle had been seen before - I asked as I was less than certain I'd correctly identified the bird, mostly because I wasn't sure this was in their range ... although it's a very distinctive bird.  The park staff member asked where was I from?  Where in Toronto?  From '92 to '94 she lived in a townhouse about 100 meters from where I currently live.  Bizarre.

Next stop was Thunder Oaks Cheese Farm - kind of speculative, given that their main product is Gouda.  Prize-winning or not, I don't usually like Gouda.  But the woman at Tourist Info mentioned really good curds, and I'm always up for good curds ...  They had plenty of samples out on the counter, and guess what?  I found a Gouda I like.  Rather less surprising: it's smoked.  So I bought a small piece of that, and a package of the delicious "Cajun" cheese curds.

Next destination was on the other side of Thunder Bay, Sleeping Giant P.P.  Rob (who lives in T.Bay) had recommended a particular lookout at the park: what he didn't mention was the 9km lease-voiding dirt road that's the only way to the lookout ...  I particularly liked the last 100-200 meters, which is over solid (but not overly smooth) granite.  The lookout itself is indeed spectacular.  I was mostly okay with the open-work flooring that allowed you to see the 100 meter drop below, but the wind coming off the lake was so strong and so persistent that on my first attempt I retreated without even taking a picture.  It was about 6C at the time, and that wind - which I've encountered on cliff's edges around the lake before - will turn you into a block of ice almost as fast as Medusa's gaze.

From there, I took the Kabeyun trail (which runs 30-50km around much of the Giant) down to the lakeshore.  I probably only went about 1km before returning, but keep in mind that that included a 100m vertical drop.  Parts of that trail are more akin to rock climbing than hiking.  And there are a couple sections that are at 45 degrees, and on loose shale: those bits were "fun" (where "fun"  = "dangerous").  After I struggled back up to the lookout, I was warm enough to get out on the lookout and take several pictures.

After that, I drove back a ways along the dirt road and parked at the "Piney Woods Hills Nature Trail."  As I was looking over my various papers, the sky - which had been switching between great swaths of blue with clouds and totally gray regularly on the half hour - unleashed its greatest joke of the day: a 90 second baby hail storm.  The pellets were about 2mm in diameter.  And then it was done, and we all got on with our lives.

The Piney Woods trail was more interesting than pleasurable: the area was logged flat around 1940, and is still recovering.  I would have thought you wouldn't be able to tell at this remove - but I would have been wrong.

After I finished that hike I kind of felt like I was done, so I headed back into town to "Madhouse."  Just type "best Thunder Bay brew pub" into Google, and up comes Madhouse.  The layout is essentially a big box with a square open bar in the middle, and no one will be writing home about the decor.  But they have a good selection of beer, the food is good (and the portions huge), and you can actually hear the people you're talking to over the music.  I tried the local 360 Pale Ale, which was fairly good, and had a pleasant dinner.

Tomorrow is cross-the-border day.  I'll shave and be on my best behaviour.  Reports of the stretch of Superior shore from the border to Duluth are just glowing - I look forward to it.

Superior Day 9: The Crossing, and how to induce labour

Thunder Bay update: a friend emailed and said "You didn't go see the Terry Fox memorial?!"  I assured him that I did go see it: I meant to mention it but failed to do so in my previous updates.  The memorial is hard to miss, standing as it does overlooking the TransCanada at T.Bay's main Tourist Info stop, but I would have sought it out anyway as Terry Fox is something of a hero of mine.  He changed things, and it takes a lot to do that.

After leaving T.Bay this morning my GPS, which found Kakabeka P.P. yesterday with no trouble, abandoned me in the middle of a back road this morning happily declaring that I had arrived at Pigeon River P.P.  Not only had I not arrived at the park, I'd seen no signage at all to indicate I was on the right path and as it was a relatively low priority, I simply dropped the idea and headed for the border.  The American border guards were much more polite and easier to deal with at this very low traffic crossing - much better than Detroit or Sarnia.  Having said that, I was immediately pulled over and searched, as that's the default behaviour for rental cars.  I guess rental cars are the preferred tool of terrorists - remind me again just how many terrorists the DHS has caught?  But I was on my way in about fifteen minutes.

Immediately on the other side of the border is Grand Portage State Park, where I walked ("hiked" would be overstating the case on their flat groomed trail) to "High Falls," the highest falls in Minnesota.  Interestingly, the river in question is the Pigeon River, and the other side of the river is Canada: so if I'd found the Canadian park, I guess I would have been looking at the same falls from the other side ...

I took the advice of the park staff member and sought out the Mount Josephine trail.  We were discussing relative difficulty ratings, and how would I know if I could do this etc., etc., and she said that although Mount Josephine was difficult, I would complete it easily as she did it nine months pregnant - in the hope of inducing labour.  Which of course indelibly changed the name of the trail for me: "Labour-Inducing Trail."  She didn't tell me the outcome of that little medical experiment.

Mount Josephine is more what I expected in the Canadian parks: a challenge.  Some rubble rock to work over, but none of this up-and-down crap: this one is all business, and just goes up and up.  When you're done, you have views over Lake Superior on both sides of the spine of Mount Josephine.  And also the remains of a pillbox house, and a fallen radio antenna.

Next up after lunch was Judge Magney S.P., where I hiked (well groomed gravel trails again, complete with stairs - but so many stairs that it was a legitimate work-out) to Devil's Kettle Falls.  That one's a bit of a conundrum: the river flow splits in two equal halves, one half of which falls down and flows off as you'd expect.  But the other half ... it goes into a pothole and vanishes.  We're talking several hundred gallons a second here.  I thought I'd look it up tonight, solve the mystery:  but they don't actually know where the water comes out.  They've tried to find out, with no luck. Wikipedia on the subject.

I booked a room at the Cascades Lodge, a rather nice hunting lodge type place that's got a hiking trail directly into Cascades S.P.  Cascades has a trail along each side of a river that has roughly a dozen falls in under a mile on its way down to Superior: it's really lovely.  Unfortunately, it's also intensely popular.  I was particularly interested in the newly engaged couple and all their friends: when they weren't posing for photos in front of the falls (that I wanted to photograph without people), the guy was on his phone.  He's in a State Park, with his new fiancee, and he's on his damn phone.  I see trouble ahead.

I may be in Duluth tomorrow.  I'll let you know.

Superior Day 10: Waterfalls in the rain

I was out at the lake shore at 0650 this morning (CST - I'm very temporarily in a different time zone) to take pictures of the sunrise.  The sunrise shots are fairly standard (they're not bad, but you've seen it before), but what really paid off was the shots of water on rocks - with purple and pink lighting.  Those look very promising.

The first stop of the day was Temperance River S.P., which has a spectacular (are you tired of my superlatives?) gorge with multiple waterfalls and dozens of partial and some smaller complete potholes.  I made my way up the gorge, gawping and taking photos at every step.  My favourite find at the top end of the gorge was a dry pothole about two feet in diameter - with the boulder that had made it still in it.  How cool is that?  I wonder if it spins in spring flood.

I wasn't too pleased with the Moon guidebook I took with me to the Maritimes, but the Minnesota Moon is actually really good on hiking.  So I took their advice, and drove nine miles of dirt road to get to the almost entirely ignored Sidney Crosby Manitou S.P.  They had no loose maps (no staff at the booth, serve yourself), and the map on the stand was old and didn't have any names on the trails.  So I ended up taking a trail Moon hadn't recommended.  At one point the poorly marked but well-worn trail entered a boulder field, and I couldn't figure out where the hell the trail exited that field.  I tromped back and forth rather nervously for a good ten minutes, until I decided to duck under a dead tree and found that that was where it went.  That was the Humpback Trail - it went over a bunch of huge lumps of granite, and was generally quite pretty.  But the sky was getting grayer.  Humpback joined the Cascades trail, and the Cascades were indeed quite nice.  And there were people!  A group of four.  I was very surprised, mine was the only car in the lot when I started.  I reached the Middle/Yellow Birch Trail intersection, and rather than follow the Moon-recommended Yellow Birch, my cowardice (oh - did I say that out loud? I meant "prudence") drove me down Middle Trail back to the parking lot.  As it turned out, a good choice: drizzle started within a few minutes, and continued for the rest of the day.

Game counts: Ruffed Grouse has now moved into the "too many to count" category (and they're still dumb as stumps).  I saw another bald eagle (from the car - does that only count half?).  I sent a deer sprinting in Crosby Manitou.  And I saw a kingfisher. 

I had hoped to hike Shovel Point and Palisade Head at Tettegouche S.P., but wasn't interested in doing so in the rain.  But being in the U.S. has occasional advantages: you don't so much "hike" Palisade Head as drive right up on it and get out to admire.  60 or 80 meter high granite cliff (sorry for mixing units: I'm in the U.S., and I spent so much time living here that I revert easily ... and yet I'm guessing heights in meters) plunging into the lake.  With almost-tame chipmunks that come and beg for food.  I won't feed wild animals (it's bad for them), but others did ... and they are terribly cute.  And maybe the rain wasn't such a bad thing: I discovered when I got out of the car that my hiking in Crosby Manitou had left my feet so badly bruised they were no longer on speaking terms with me.

Next was the Split Rock Lighthouse, a very stubby lighthouse on another very, very tall cliff.  It is, as the guide put it, "functional but not operational."  They run it once or twice a month, but it's no longer required for its old purpose as all the boats have GPS.  It's a lovely place, and the staff are well educated - a plus for me, as they actually knew a bit about the mercury float-bearing on which the fresnel lens rotates.  That's an interesting arrangement: a 3/4 ton light and double fresnel lens, floating on 7.5 quarts of mercury, and turned by a clockwork mechanism.  Evidently the mercury is topped by oil to prevent it evaporating.  I felt better on hearing that, as I'd been in the same room with the bearing.  I wish it'd been warmer and not raining: it's one hell of a setting, and I didn't really get outside at all.

My last stop of the day before Duluth was Gooseberry Falls S.P.  This I did in the rain, with only one other very determined family making the trek.  I only stopped because Moon said it was Minnesota's single most popular park.  I realize I was wet and irritated, but I definitely didn't "get it:" the state is riddled with falls, and Gooseberry Falls wouldn't hold a candle to Temperance River, wet or dry.

I've just had a wonderful lasagna at Pizza Luce in Duluth, and the rain has mostly stopped.  I'm afraid I didn't appreciate the highly touted "Surly Furious" (a local beer), but the not-quite-so-local Deschutes Obsidian Stout from Oregon is going down well.

I asked the woman at the hotel about the perpetual (hey, when you're new in town, 2.5 hours between entering and exiting Pizza Luce seems like a long time, and the rest of downtown is dead) crowd outside "Last Place on Earth" in downtown Duluth.  They have a big neon sign in the window that says "Urine Cleaner."  Took me a while to get that one: it's for those of you who need to pass a drug test.  As for the crowd: the woman at the hotel laughed and said that it was all the time in the evenings - and they're waiting around to buy a fake marijuana blend!

I don't know what happens now: if it's raining tomorrow, I'll probably get in my car and put in 1000km straight toward Toronto.  If it's not ... who knows.  There's less I want to see now that I've done the Minnesota portion of the Superior shore: the one thing I really want to see is Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore - which you saw pictures of in my very first update.  I'll happily visit Porcupine Mountain S.P. and Tahquamenon Falls S.P. as well - if it's not raining.

I'm now at the most westerly point in my journey, and I've put 2400km on the car - more than I expected.  I could tell you what I've paid for gas, but you wouldn't care and I'd be depressed.  I've also taken 1130 pictures.  And I have six days to get back to Toronto.

Superior Day 11: Cursing at the crevasse

I started the day at "Takk for matten," right next door to Pizza Luce in Duluth, both recommended by Moon Minnesota.  Takk is somewhat Scandinavian, but seem to have become at least 50% coffee shop.  I had Swedish pancakes with lingonberries and whipped cream - nice way to start your day.

A weird note about downtown Duluth: it's on an extremely steep angle.  So steep that I drove my car up the street beside my motel, and parked on top of the second floor so I could walk into my third floor room without using stairs - it's very strange.

From the motel I headed to the University of Minnesota Duluth Tweed Museum of Art - a rather decent art museum, although blatantly a teaching facility with its notes about what influences this or that painting was showing, and its broad range of materials across several centuries with no particular concentrations.  Except for one thing: they have a lot of paintings of Mounties by Arnold Friberg.  I'm afraid that Dudley Do-Right came to mind: these guys are more anatomically correct, but they have the same square jaw and moral rectitude as Dudley.  It was both appalling and hilarious.

I stopped by Northern Waters Smokehaus - again at the recommendation of Moon - to pick up some smoked lake trout.  I went by Glensheen, a multi-millionaire's house-turned-museum.  It looked really lovely, but I got there at 1120 and their first available tour was at 1240.  I didn't want to wait that long, so off I went through the somewhat unappealing looking town of Superior, WI and on to the southern coast of Lake Superior.

The feel of the land is radically different.  Woodlots, contained and controlled, boxed in by cottager's driveways and farmer's fields, they've forgotten they were once wild forest.  But some of the maples still have their leaves, so the colour has improved.  And the coast itself is also very different: sandstone, or sand beaches.  It's a huge change from the north shore.

I had given up on the idea of seeing the Apostle Island "sea caves" because this is generally done from a sea kayak.  I have no interest in that - especially at the current temperatures.  Not to mention that it doesn't mix well with my non-waterproof camera.  But I stuck fairly close to the shoreline, and came across a sign for the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.  I needed a break from driving anyway.  I broke out the smoked lake trout sitting in the car in the parking lot ... really good, very much better than the last lot I got (which was nothing to scoff at).  Slightly sweet, I think they honey-glazed it.  In fact, it's suspiciously like fish-ham.  Yum.

Looking at the park display board, I see they have a 1.8 mile hike to a sea cave lookout.  Sounds good.  Sky check?  Not too cloudy.  Bear check?  Commoner in the area than I like, but not a big problem.  Out I go.  The trail is mostly flat except for the occasional dip through several dry(-ish) stream beds.  It tracks the lake shore, always in hearing but out of sight, nothing of note to see.  By mile 1.2 it was getting a bit dull, and I was thinking "this had better be good."  So North American - it's not about the voyage, it's all about the destination.  Around mile 1.5 the trail starts to draw nearer to the lake.  And at mile 1.8 - do you remember how I said I stopped swearing?  I kind of fell off the wagon again.  As I said, sandstone: unlike the granite on the other side of the lake, this stuff is easily eroded.  So when you have a 20-30 meter high cliff, and those Lake Superior winds I've talked about drive waves into the soft stone year after year, you get erosion.  Spectacular erosion, like a two meter wide, 40 meter long crevasse that cuts right into the forest floor you were just walking on.  And there are wild waves thrashing around down the bottom.  You can't always see them - unless you lean out on the soft edge, clutching a tree and just generally endangering your life ...  The result being that I'm a little dissatisfied with the pictures I took because I wasn't actually eager to endanger my life.  Not that there was really any hope of doing this thing justice - you gotta see it.

The rest of the day was somewhat anti-climactic after that adventure, but I'll give a quick run-down: I drove through Bayfield, where I had just missed their yearly Apple festival, and picked up some Honey Crisp apples at one of the several orchards in the area.  I decided that the day would end in Ashland, perhaps as a tribute to my friend Tim, whose alma mater it is.  Population 8519 (I think that's what it said on the sign), and it has its own brew pub.  So I had dinner at the Deep Water Grille, and had the sampler set of all seven beers from the attached South Shore Brewery.  That was interesting, and the Jambalaya was quite good.  Also bloody enormous, so I brought half of it back to my hotel with me - I have a kitchenette at my room at the River Rock Inn and Bait Shop.  I think they revel in that name - but search for Ashland, and it comes up near the top of the list of best hotels.  And they really do have a good Bait Shop out front.  My greater concern was the rooms - and they're lovely too.

Superior Day 12: Potholes at the Porkies

In Ashland this morning I had to borrow a windshield scraper from a hotel staff member, because of course a Toronto rental car isn't equipped this early in the season.  No snow, just heavy frost.

I spent the morning and early afternoon in Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, commonly known as "the Porkies."  It feels different again from the other parks I've visited as it's old growth hardwood, very little evergreen, and almost zero undergrowth.  I went to Presque Isle, which is translated as "Almost an Island."  Every spring when the Presque Isle River is in flood, the small island at the river exit to Lake Superior is, for a few weeks, an island.  The rest of the year it's a bump with a river on one side and a dry river bed and a puddle on the other side.  I found my way to this hike at this park because of photos online.  In this case, potholes in the river - although at the time I was planning the trip and saw the photos, I didn't know how the potholes were formed.  They looked cool, and that was enough.  The Presque Isle area can be reached from multiple parking lots, with many short hikes making this area very accessible (or one mid-sized loop if you prefer, which I did).  I've come to consider that access something of a pain as it means more company, and working around other people to try to get pictures.  But the day started out looking horrible and even after it cleared the temperature in the Porkies was around 2C, so I didn't have a huge crowd to contend with.  I liked the weather: I was dressed for it, and the sun was in and out.  South of the almost island the river goes over a series of falls, all over shale - I don't know if that means much to most of you, but it's a soft rock that forms, and breaks, in layers.  The water flowing over multiple broken layers of stone made for some lovely images.  And then of course there were the potholes.  I imagine they form more easily in soft rock, but they probably also collapse and flake away more easily too.  Fun stuff.

I also hiked the "Summit Peak Side Trail," probably the only other short trail in the park (0.5 miles): most of their trails are 4-10 miles.  My reading suggested they have some really good trails, but I didn't feel like I had the time having spent something like three hours at Presque Isle.  Climbing up to the summit there was still snow on the ground in places.  I was amused to notice that the trees all had a narrow skunk stripe of snow up one side: apparently the prevailing wind off the lake is both very strong and very consistent.

The rest of the day was spent driving east - and losing an hour as I somewhere along the line crossed from CST to EST again.  The drive through the Porkies was nice, but once out on Michigan's highway system, things got pretty damn dull.  The lake shore, when I saw it, was just sand beaches.  I find I love the rocks, the barren look that (brace yourself for it) the Group of Seven painted.  And that's all on the north side of the lake.  Although I do love hardwood forests too - I love the smell and the look, so that was a treat (but also uncommon around here).

I'm in Munising, MI.  It was a point of interest to me, how exactly do you pronounce that?  Fortunately, I didn't have to ask in the town as the woman at the Michigan Welcome Center right across the WI-MI border pointed it out as the place to go for a boat tour of the Pictured Rocks (not sure I'm going to do that).  It's pronounced "MEW-niss-ing."

Superior Day 13: "Snowshoes and Furniture"

After a breakfast spent staring out at the rain, I headed to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. After all the noise I've made about that park, I was going to hike it in anything short of gale force winds. Happily, the rain stopped before I arrived. Cool-looking cliffs of sandstone, carved up by the waves and wind, done in several shades of brown. While I can see that a boat cruise would get you better views of the cliffs, the idea of spending two and a half hours at 5 Celsius sitting still on the deck of a boat in a stiff Superior breeze was surprisingly unappealing. And that's if it didn't rain. Yes, they have a cabin out of the wind, but I'm a photographer - I'd be out on deck most of the time. I took a 1.5 mile hike down from the "Miner's Castle" lookout (it's a rock formation) to a beach: the trail was a bit squishy from the rain, but actually quite lovely. Some combination of dressing well and developing hardiness meant that while others fled the breezes coming off the lake, I stood and took photos with equanimity. I admit to being kind of proud of that.

The second and last stop for the day was Tahquamenon Falls. I drove through over an hour of rain to get there, but the weather calmed again 15 minutes before I arrived. Sadly, it wasn't to stay calm: sun, wind, rain, clouds, no wind, small hail ... A little bit of everything, for your entertainment. Slippery walking on the boardwalks, but the Upper Falls are quite lovely - I was less inspired by the Lower Falls.

Something I've been enjoying on the trip is non sequitur businesses. The "inn and bait shop" I stayed at in Ashland is a fine example, but the first I noticed was around Espanola, Ontario: "fudge and moccasins." And today in Iverson, MI (blink-and-you-miss-it) there was "snowshoes and furniture."

This evening I'm in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan - which makes the Canadian Soo look like a booming metropolis. Population 15,000 - apparently it's the second biggest city in the U.P. (Upper Penninsula). Marquette, pop. 21,000 is the largest. I'd heard the term "Yoopers" before I arrived - that's anyone who lives in the U.P. If I were to head south from here (rather than crossing into Canada before doing so), I'd have to cross the Mackinac Bridge. One of the state parks had a panel on Yoopers: it claimed that their generic term for anyone from the rest of Michigan is a "troll" - after all, they're from under the bridge ...

The last few miles to the Soo were on I-75, which terminates in the bridge to Canada - the temptation to stay on that road was strong. I want to be HOME. And if I can't be home, then at least in my own country. But the truth is, gas-food-lodging are all cheaper here, and there are a couple things that I want to see on this side before I go - namely the locks (the views are reported to be much better on this side) and the "Tower of History." After that ... I suspect I'm going to pull a ten hour shift behind the wheel, and head right back to Toronto. I could do the drive on this side of the border and go through Sarnia, but I've seen those roads enough and they're not fun to drive on - a combination of poor scenery and nasty road surfaces. I enjoyed the drive up on the Canadian side, I'll assume that doing it in reverse will be alright.

After dinner tonight I walked to the Soo Brewing Company, right in the middle of downtown. I would have had dinner there, but the only food they offer (contrary to the normal brew pub tradition) is reheated pizza - which appears to be a Thursday night (only) special. It's a weird and interesting place: huge clear windows up front so anyone outside can look into the almost cafeteria-like interior, with its heavy wood benches and tables. One corner has couches - the university students had claimed those. When I arrived there was a family with kids. There's another clump of university kids, or perhaps recent grads. There were the four mixed-gender retirees, a substantial group of thirty-somethings, and then there were the regulars at the bar, all in the 25-45 range. Regulars have their own personalized steins. A very strange mix of people. The music was set quite low, which was nice - and they make a really good stout.

I think I'll go to the McMichael Collection on Saturday while I still have the car. For those of you not in Toronto or unfamiliar with the McMichael, it's a collection of paintings primarily by the Group of Seven. So I'm going to go look at paintings of the same scenery I just saw.

Superior Day 14: Best In Show

I woke up this morning in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan to 4cm of snow, this time borrowing a car brush from the people in the next room over at the motel.

My first stop of the day was the Soo Locks - fascinating from a mechanical point of view, but watching one of the iron ore carriers lock through is about as exciting as watching grass grow (it's very slow). Those are damn big locks: from Wikipedia, the Poe Lock (the one I saw in use) "is 1,200 feet (366 m) long, 110 feet (34 m) wide, and 32 feet (10 m) deep."

I also visited the very wonky looking "Tower of History," which has its own unusual story. It was completed in 1968 to be the bell tower of a modernist Catholic church celebrating the various pioneering priests and missionaries in the area. For whatever reason (I have to suspect the mad idea of having such a thing in the U.P., and in a town of 15,000 might have something to do with it), the church simply abandoned the project and donated the tower to the state. The old church stands right next to the tower, and yesterday the tower had ten visitors - the whole day. I was the first today - and given the weather, possibly the last. I got several decent shots of the tower itself, sunshine and all: by the time I got to the top of the tower, it had started to snow. I thought "I'll look at the displays until the snow stops." No such luck: it turned into big fat flakes instead. I really like the thing: good views, and it's one of the concrete brutalist pieces that I actually appreciate.

Then into the car for the border crossing, which was much, much easier than the crossing into the States: perhaps three questions and "have a nice day."

I stopped for a short hike at the French River Provincial Park where it intersects the TransCanada, but otherwise from about 1300 to 2130 when I arrived in Toronto, I drove.

Summing up:

14 days
4249 km (avg. 303 km/day)
1593 photos

So here are some thoughts for anyone contemplating attempting the circumnavigation of our largest lake:

Best of the trip:

What I missed:

On the drive home, I was once again reminded by signs, repeatedly, that deer are a hazard on the roads at night. And I must admit I wondered why the deer don't wear reflector vests when they go out.


http://www.gilesorr.com/travels/Superior2012/story.html ( 61Kb)
Last modified 20121027 by giles