Living Further Up North (see end of post for pictures of this adventure!)
George and I live in that part of Michigan that most people refer to as Up North.
But apparently, it’s not far enough north for us, so as the August heat hits, we’re headed to Georgian Bay, Bruce Peninsula, Lake Huron and Lake Superior, all on the Canadian side of the Great Lakes. Seems like an especially prime time to do so, what with the US headed into a cesspool of racially-driven hate, ignorance and violence.
On the way, we drove the Thumb of Michigan Huron coast because we’ve never seen the waterfront there. How very different it is from Lake Michigan’s shoreline! Rocky, windy and rough, with clear water because there is no sand or silt to get mixed into the water (and the zebra mussels have eaten all the organic matter!). Seems to explain why Detroiters don’t want to vacation on Lake Huron — the swimming is tough and the water is COLD!!
Crossing into Canada at Port Huron/Sarnia, we realized this is the only place on the itinerary we’ve been before, probably 37 years ago. It puts us on Queen’s Highway 21 up toward Bruce, with the first stop being Goderich, a lovely town that reminds us of Scotland’s west coast. The town has lovely architecture from the turn of the 19th century and a waterfront that seems to have always struck a balance between work and leisure, with its saltworks and railroad right next to the sand, waves, pretty train station and beachhouse.
Friends had warned us that although Bruce Peninsula National Park was gorgeous, Tobermory was thoroughly overrun with half of Ontario’s urban residents, overcrowded and not a great stop. We must have picked exactly the right week to come, since it was not all that packed, and even though it smelled like fish and chips everywhere, that fish smelled good! Sweet little harbor downtown — called the Little Tub — had many private and public boats bobbing in it, the latter running tourists non-stop around the Fathom Five National Marine Park to see shipwrecks and the islands.
On the first morning here, we woke at 6am to scramble to the signup at the National Park gate. Since this is Canada’s 150th anniversary as a nation, all tourists get into the parks for free. And boy, are they coming!! Bruce National Park had to institute a 4-hour maximum timeslot for hikers wanting to see its most popular shoreline attraction: the Grotto. We got a spot from 7am to 11am, and hiked out to see the craggy cliffs, deep cave, aquamarine and turquoise waters…absolutely chock-full of morning hikers, swimmers and sun-worshippers! So, Leann and Roger, you were right about the mobs, but for us they were all at the Grotto!
This sea feature was still lovely to look at, and I photo-shopped away all the people on the shore so that you could imagine it in a pristine and natural state. We continued hiking along the Bruce Trail for a couple miles, stopping at the Overhang Point ( a deeply carved horizontal shelf over the lake), and to a couple of bluff clearings with clear views of the Bear’s Rump and Flowerpot Islands, and then turned back to scramble over dolostone (magnesium-rich limestone) rocks in a large cove. Lucky we didn’t twist an ankle!!
In the evening, we came back to the park for a couple of hours of Anishinaabe storytelling and hot cocoa around the campfire. Our Ojibwe storyteller, Lenore, has been a ranger for 18 years here and is an outstanding guide on all things natural, supernatural and historical. From her people’s folk legends, we heard how children learned to stand on two legs by reaching for butterflies, how the fisher (Odjiik) was turned into a constellation (the North Star/Big Dipper), how the baby rattlesnake won and lost his rattler tale, and how Squirrel was turned into a bat. We also heard yet another creation myth about how Turtle Island (the North American continent) came to be.
Ranger Lenore led our hike the following morning, as well, to discover local plants and their medicinal uses in the National Park. In the drizzle, we hiked for a couple of miles through conifer and hardwood forests, along paths used by the local bears, moose, deer and Ojibwe medicinal plant-collectors. We learned about Labrador tea, red osier dogwood, cattails, pearly everlasting, tamarack, eastern white cedar, balsam fir, hemlock, bull rushes, striped maple, sugar maple, squaw root, birch, beech, bear berry (George gamely tried a berry), Indian hemp, milkweed, various ashes, plantain, and their uses.
Lenore showed us ropes she had made from cattails, hemp and milkweed, baskets from ash splints and spruce, brooches from porcupine and birch, a beautiful totem and a dreamcatcher made of tamarack branches. Then she served us a delicious tea made from the rhizomes of the wild ginger plant. We learned a great deal about how and when to harvest these renewable resources, and how to prepare them. We also learned a lot of new vocabulary and Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) customs, which were fascinating and inspiring.
Tonight it’s raining pretty heavily, but we are snug and warm in our little motor home. Awaiting tomorrow’s weather to see whether we’ll be on land or water for the next day’s exploring.
Enjoying Daily Forest Baths in a Sea of Green
It is primeval green and verdant up here on Bruce Peninsula, so much that it almost hurts the eyes. Abundant rain has kept the millions of 700+ year old (!) cedar trees an electric avocado green, along with other bright emerald, malachite and olive hues found in the area’s balsam and hemlock trees, huge yews and vibrant dogwood bushes, ferns, spruces, thick mosses and white pines.
The smell is just stunning. The balsams waft their resins, smelling of Christmas trees and orange peels. Brisk air off the Georgian Bay is crisp and clean.
We had a slow start to the day, as power was out from a storm last night and everything in the campground was muddy to the max. Ambled over to the park’s visitor center for a climb up the 150-foot lookout tower (see where the analogy to a sea of green comes from?). George is successfully battling his fear of heights, making it all the way up to enjoy the view.
Lunch of homemade sourdough rye bread and smoked whitefish spread was awesome, and the right fuel for the long-awaited ferry ride out to Flowerpot Island. Winds had settled down to allow the ferries to start running again, so we got to the island and trailhead for a 3 km hike up the island’s “mountain” and along the coast to see the flowerpots (eroded limestone cliffs that eventually separated from the island to form upside-down triangular columns resembling (vaguely) flowerpots). More luscious smells of the forest ensued!
Neyaashiinigmiing Anishinaabekiing Pow Wow
What good luck to be here for this summer’s 33rd annual Pow Wow of the Nawash Ojibwe at Cape Croker!! It was a blast, even in the pouring rain. Natives from all over Canada and the USA came to celebrate and dance, and we were able to stay for 3 dances and a sumptuous lunch of venison sausage on frybread.
For anyone unfamiliar with the Pow Wow order of business, the action starts with a Drum and Song accompanying the Grass Dancers, who bless the grounds and “tamp down” the grass upon which all successive dancers will dance. The ceremonial ground has at its center the drummers under a canopy. This Pow Wow featured lush cedar boughs hanging from the canopy roof.
After this, an elder from the tribe says an opening prayer in the native language, and then the Grand Entry starts, with the colors at the head of the parade. The military flags and all available veterans march in uniform and/or tribal ceremonial dress. Next come young girls, followed by the female elders, followed by the men and boys. Much dancing is done as the entourage circles around the canopy and the drummers and singers play the opening music. In the Grand Entry, all dancers are included, and the crowd gets its first look at those who will eventually compete for recognition in various categories, such as best fancy dancer (in highly decorated regalia, dancing with acrobatic and exaggerated moves and choreography).
It is awe-inspiring to see the clothing, the bead and jingle work, the ornamentation, animal skins, back and headdresses on the dancers. We learned a new term, porky-roach, describing a flattish feathered headdress decorated with long porcupine guard hairs that quiver with every dance step. Magnificent. Many eagle feathers were featured on the garments, a sign of tribal honor and respect. We also saw massive bear claws used in necklaces, feathered fans, ornate shawls with long fringes that swirled like ribbons during the dancing. The fringes are to sway in a circular motion to reflect the women dancers’ gracefulness (like a butterfly) and their connection with Mother Earth.
We were unable to stay for the Fancy Dancing competition, but it is said that the fancy dancers evolved directly out of the historical dancing the Ojibwe warriors did prior to going to war. Nor did we see the jingle dancers, although we would have loved to, as this Pow Wow featured some amazing regalia with more jingles per inch than we’ve ever seen! We don’t believe there was any hoop dancing at this event, but they certainly had the Tiny Tots category of dancers populated, with some eager participants standing by.
Learning the History, Meaning and Technique of Ojibwe Drumming and Songs
One of our adventure goals this time out was to get to Manitoulin Island, ancestral home to at least 6 Ojibwa-Odawa-Potawatomi tribal bands. It’s a magical place, and we were able to participate in several wonderful activities while there.
From Tobermory you can take the Chi-Cheemaun Ferry, operated by the provincial government of Ontario, to the island in about 1 hour 45 minutes. Lovely roll on-roll off ferry.
We signed up for an orientation to native drumming and singing in the Wikwemikong Tribal Reserve, and found it to be a spectacular session featuring Craig Fox, a 40-year-old Ojibwe drummer who has been cultivating his talents for the past 18 years. He graciously taught us how the Ojibwe learned to utilize drumming as a sacred component of their ceremonies and celebrations, what the various beats and strokes mean, how the drums are made, and how the singing accompaniment is done (and who does it) during the drumming. Everyone in our group was invited to learn how to drum and how to keep in step with the lead drummer-singer. It was quite spine-tingling, and we loved every minute. Craig graciously answered all questions, and we were offered hot tea and chat after the session. Such outstanding hospitality.
We also toured a native crafts museum (including antique porcupine quill and birchbark boxes) and drove to other noteworthy spots on the island, including the villages of Sheguindah, Mindemoya, M’Chigeeng, Manitowaning and Aundeck Omnikaning.
Shoot, not Chutes!!
A three-day visit to lovely Chutes Provincial Park turned into a one-day chase to find new RV batteries, when we discovered that we had not been assigned an electricity-equipped site and (to our horror!!!) our RV batteries had been burned up by our rooftop solar unit. RATS!!!! So we rushed to a new campground in the area, where we could also get the needed amps until the new batteries were delivered at the nearby NAPA store.
The Moho now has all the proper settings for solar trickle-charging of our batteries, needed when we don’t have what is known as “shore power” (electrical hookup from the campground). It’s amazing that the battery compartment wasn’t glowing orange from the heat of overcharging that it’s been under for the past year. Won’t make that mistake again!!
On the way out of town we stopped at a gem of a café, the Backyard Bistro, because it got such high ratings from TripAdvisor. A peak experience for sure!! A woman and her two daughters run this breakfast-lunch spot out of love for food, and it’s truly a scene out of Babette’s Feast. Such splendid entrees and sides, artful garnishes and loving service were completely shocking in the middle of the lonesome north, and for that, they do pull in the crowds. We wish there were such a place every 500 miles!! We had sumptuous breakfasts and took carryout portions of desserts (pumpkin cake with brown butter frosting, dulce de leche banana cream pie, and macaroon cookie with chocolate glaze) – satisfies my bakery craving for at least a week!
Pebble Beaches and Hiking on the TRUE NORTH SHORE of Lake Superior
Today we turned our faces away from Lake Huron and toward Lake Superior. What a massive change. The water went from Huron’s calm and clear conditions, with deep bays the colors of turquoise and aquamarine, to a sand-churned light brown agitated ocean, with tall whitecaps and rolling waves. The big lake the Ojibwe call Gchee Gami (Superior) is often angry, riled up and stormy. Not sure we want to be here on shore to see the Gales of November. The wind drives such violent conditions into the water.
The drive up from Blind River to our present location in Marathon, Ontario is gorgeous, just as many had told us it would be. The tall church spires on the black spruce fir trees are magnificent, and any scrap of land that isn’t bedrock, water, road or swamp has these trees as well as tamaracks, aspen and white pines on it. We’ve never seen this density of trees on land anywhere!!
Lakes and rivers up here are like Eden. Inland water is the color of root beer, from all the tannin in it. No sign of humans. Superb. Still haven’t seen any moose yet, but we’re keeping eyes peeled for them. The road cuts made to fit the Trans-Canada Highway through this land when it was wilderness have my geologist eyes popping: so many variations of granite, gneiss, diabase, schist, basalt and gabbro, in colors ranging from petal pink to kidney bean red to ebony black and moss green. Plenty of pebble beaches yet to come, so for us rock-hunters, fun awaits!!
Fun in Puck (Pukaskwa National Park, which is pronounced Puck-a-saw. Go figure.)
The coastal portion of this gorgeous park – in fact, just a small part of the coast – is the only area accessible to day hikers and campers, and there are 7 main hikes that most visitors focus on. We hiked six of those trails over the past five days, steadily building up distance and terrain challenges as the week proceeded. It’s probably because so much of the park is unpopulated and pristine that the air up here smells magnificent. That, and the fact that the huge Boreal Forest is Canada’s oxygen factory!
Every trail was superb, offering views of the basalt and granite whalebacks that dominate the area’s shoreline, or densely moss-carpeted fir forests. These glacier-smoothed rocks are a constant reminder that we are traveling over the Canadian Shield, i.e., the bedrock left by the Pleistocene-era glaciers after they shoved all of Ontario’s topsoil into Michigan and Wisconsin.
The idyllic coves, bays and harbors here are so serene and inviting on a calm, warm day. But within 24 hours they remind you of why Lake Superior has a killing reputation: even in August, the waters are cold, the submerged rocks perilous and just add wind for high waves, treacherous currents and whitecaps. Still gorgeous, just foreboding and mysterious.
Up here we see vegetation not present in other areas of North America: Touch-me-not, bunch berry, blue bead lily, Labrador tea and fireweed are all displaying beautiful fall colors. Great groves of black ash, tamarack, ground cedar, black spruce (looking like a giant bonsai with its miniature needless). The amount of red osier dogwood, cedar and balsam up here is mind-boggling. Provincial Tourism Board photos attest to how stunning the park’s fall leaves will be in October.
Still no moose sitings, but we have seen grouse, long-billed dowitchers (like a sandpiper), loons, eagles, LOTS of gulls, rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels and some snakes. And as always, we’ve heard tons of woodland birds.
On a rainy day, we drove up to the latitude where there are more no roads, Highway 11 across Northern Ontario. From that point, all rivers flow north to Hudson Bay and all transport is via boat or plane. It focuses the mind to know that up here, gas stations are 100 miles apart. The rock outcroppings along the way were just as impressive as those we had seen in Colorado. And only 7 cars per hour on the road. We stopped at John’s Restaurant in Hearst, the area’s best-rated restaurant, to hear mostly French Canadian spoken and eat food mostly of Greek descent. George pigged out on souvlaki, Greek salad and, what else? Poutine. One the way home we started noticing how prominent aspens are in the landscape and along the ridgeline. Up here they grow to fifty feet in height.
Next day was the Seven Grandfathers’ Hike in Pukaskwa, a self-guided interpretive trail around a whaleback-surrounded lake. Stunning views. And each of the Ojibwe teachings (7 virtues) was explained on individual plaques along the trail, as dictated by an elder of the tribe. This First Nation believes every person should carry these 7 virtues, to lead a worthy life beneficial to others and to Mother Earth: Respect, Wisdom, Trust, Honesty, Courage, Humility and Love. Good counsel for all of us today.
Saving the best hike for our last one in Puck, yesterday we hiked the 12-mile round trip Coastal Trail to Hook Falls, which included crossing the 35-foot high see-through metal mesh suspension bridge over Chimaniwinigum Falls (it’s not that hard to say. Just separate the piece parts: Chi mani wini gum). George is bravely working on getting rid of his paralyzing fear of heights, and he crossed it with no problems. Yay George!! Just as before, there were many whalebacks and moss-carpeted forests, as well as a boardwalk stretch through marshland and numerous beautiful beaches and portage/put-in points for kayaks and canoes. We met a few through-hikers on this path, as usually happens with long trails like the Appalachian, North Country, Continental Divide Trail and the like. It’s a pleasure to encounter them on their way, and they always have inspiring details about where they stayed, how long they’ve been out, etc. Now back to the moho to soak our feet!
Roots and Shoots and Rocks, Oh My!
We’re on the very top of Lake Superior now, about 200 km east of Thunder Bay, in Rossport.
Just a tiny village, it is the terminus of the Casques Isles Canadian Shield Coastal Hiking Trail. 53 km of scrambling through wet forest (it’s been raining here a LOT), sandy beaches, boulder beaches, driftwood strewn beaches, whaleback beaches, and rocky glacial till fields. The path is challenging, to say the least.
There are so many wild blueberry bushes along the forest path, it’s amazing. George snacked on berries whenever he saw them. The bears up here have been busy, as there were typically only 2 – 3 berries per stem when we found them. They are tiny and seedy, but their flavor is far, far superior to cultivated ones. Sweet and tart, very complex, with a wild finish.
We hiked only 12 km of this coastal trail (~7 miles), and that was enough for us. Once again, the views are spectacular but it rained twice along the way, making the rocks and driftwood very slick. This is not a combo (daunting trail and iffy weather) we will choose again, just a bit too treacherous.
Tonight we’re going out to dinner at a lovely little restaurant nestled along the quiet bay in Rossport. We’ve waited a week to celebrate my birthday, as fine dining is very scarce up here. I think trout is on the menu!! Update: trout and rice pilaf were amazing, but the real topper was blueberry shortcake made with wild Ontario blueberries and whipped crème – out of this world!!
Ouimet Canyon and the Amethyst Mines – spellbinding
Getting closer all the time to Thunder Bay. This afternoon we drove to Ouimet Canyon to dodge the rain….little did we know the majesty of nature awaiting. This little-known (to US travelers) slit in the earth is akin to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, only smaller and no river at its base.
The rock is diabase (an intermediate igneous rock between Gabbro and Basalt, for those who want to know). That means it’s very dark and columnar (think Devil’s Postpile, CA). We drove out there not expecting too much, and were floored to discover the gorgeous views down the canyon, and to know that the climate at the top of the canyon is boreal (basically the same as where we are now) while at the bottom it is sub-arctic tundra because so little light gets down there. Basically, permafrost and arctic plants. Fascinating. We could see all the way to Lake Superior, some 25 km away.
Also visited one of the area’s half-dozen or so amethyst mines, again not expecting too much. But to our surprise we found a type of amethyst that exists nowhere else, a beautiful rose-colored stone. The mines are chock-full of every color of amethyst from this lovely rose to the typical rich purple to black. We chose not to dig, as it is cold and damp today and they had so many wonderful specimens at reasonable prices to choose from. But a dig-your-own-stones mine trip is definitely in our granddaughter’s future! She will explode from excitement!!
Ruby Lake and Beyond
Each hike up here on the northern edge of Lake Superior has been so gratifying and such a great learning experience.
While camping 100 km east of Thunder Bay we hiked the Nipigon River Trail from Red Rock Marina to the Eagle Ridge (about 4 miles round trip), and it was amazing. From three separate vantage points, we saw the Nipigon Harbor/Delta, its basalt escarpments on the eastern shore, the islands where the river meets Lake Superior and even raptors in the sky. Trail designers gave us outlooks at 100, 200 and 300+ feet above the water. Ethereal.
They call this area the Canyonlands because of the similarity of the topography to what one sees out west. It’s true – you can see many uplifted sections that look like mesas, buttes and bluffs, canyons created by glaciers (think Yosemite), and dramatic vertical walls that rise hundreds of feet from the floor.
Promontories, Points and Palisades
Exploration of the Ontario Canyonlands continued for three (make that nine, as Canyonlands extends to west of Thunder Bay!) more days, encompassing a gorgeous hike in Ruby Falls Provincial Park (site of a now-defunct marble quarry), around the “buttes” of Deer Lake Mountain, and 50 km north of Nipigon in the Orient Bay area.
It is so wonderful to follow a trail upslope, knowing that there are 5 lookouts at elevation ahead on the path, and you might see anything from otters (we did today) to bald eagles (yup), ruffed grouse (unh-huh), partridge (check), moose (still not yet), beaver (dams and slides, but no critters yet) or any manner of other interesting wildlife. To say nothing of the overlooks and what you can see in the distance.
We’ve seen so many uninhabited lakes up here, many with the vertical diabase cliffs described earlier. Many lakes with loons, whose melancholy calls echo off the rocks. The lakes are unpopulated and untouched by human hands. The quiet is magnificent. Again, inland lake water like root beer, from the profusion of cedars, black spruce, balsam, white pine and hemlock. And the cedars – two to three foot diameters, which you NEVER see in Michigan, and 40 feet high. Breathtaking.
The smell in the air is one of the best parts of hiking in this northern paradise. The airborne resins from the pines and firs gives such a heady mixture, it just compels you to stop and draw a big breath every couple hundred feet. Surely must be addictive, as we miss the endorphins and intoxicating smells when we take a day’s rest off of the trails.
We are learning to mention the trails we’ve enjoyed when we’re shopping or just chatting with locals, as people are proud of their natural attractions and are inclined to mention other trails to be enjoyed, once they know what we’ve hiked. Great to learn about paths not in the brochures!!
Reaching the Sleeping Giant (Provincial Park)
Now we’re up to Thunder Bay (100,000+ inhabitants), at long last! It’s quite a nice city, and looks to be booming economically. Quite diverse, which is great to see. There are more Finns in TB than anywhere outside of Finland, and quite a few Ojibwe and Metís (mixed Ojibwe or Cree and Anglo-heritage people).
We stopped in town on what was to have been a rainy day, but the weather turned nice, giving us a lovely, sunny look at TB’s botanical gardens, waterfront park, one of its heritage cow cheese farms, a Finnish bakery and a fabulous restaurant on the west side of town (the Caribou). This all as a run-up to one of Ontario’s most beloved provincial parks, the mighty Sleeping Giant, across, well, what else but Thunder Bay (the city as well as the watery bay).
The Sleeping Giant park campground is quite superb, located on the east shore of Marie Louise Lake, where the loons call every night. Yesterday we tackled the Kabeyun North Trail (rhymes with Savion, as in Glover). Cliffside views over the uplifted diorite columns were beautiful, as we’ve come to expect on Superior’s northwest shore. Eight and a half kilometers, some ups and downs, with one concentrated section of rock climbing.
Today we did three trails in a row for a total of 14.5 kilometers (9 miles). Lunched at a beautiful slate-beach cove where a Superior Sailing charter boat had anchored, waiting for its passengers to return from hiking. The first two trails (Sawbill and Sawyer) were easy to moderate (some 7% grades), but the final trail (Head of the Giant) was extreme for nearly a kilometer, with 20% grade climbs. It kicked our butts, but in the best way. The entire stretch gave us a five-hundred-meter elevation gain, and we hope you can tell from the photos how spectacular the view was from atop the Giant’s Head. It was a breakthrough hike in distance + extreme physical challenge. Felt good. Very few hikers now on trails, as it’s after Labor Day, but we did get our first sighting of a Canadian whitetail deer on the drive back to camp. They are not plentiful up here, as there are few farms and thus much less for them to eat, other than forest browse.
Today’s hike took us to Middlebrun Bay and Finlay Bay (5.2km), along the southeastern coast of Sleeping Giant park. An easy hike at the shore level, it finished at a black sand beach filled with microscopic fragments of magnetite. I used the magnetized clip of my water pack’s bite valve to verify what the park ranger described as the magnetic nature of the sand, then spent several minutes trying to extract all the metallic sand particles from the valve. Plan ahead, Jill!
This was way-cool nature, but not yet enough of a workout, so we trudged on to see the park’s Sea Lion rock feature out on Silver Islet point. Another 2.6km round trip, also an easy hike with several moderately challenging rock slopes on the way. The Sea Lion is an igneous dike which formed at least 1.1 billion years ago (remember, the Canadian Shield is among the oldest rocks on earth, at 3.3 billion years). A dike is sort of like a hard rock sand casting in the surrounding sandstone. Once the sandstone erodes away, you are left with this vertical slab of irregularly shaped, hard diabase, which (if you use your imagination) just happens to look like a male sea lion. Given the fury of Lake Superior slapping at the lion, it will probably be gone entirely, eroded to nothing, in another 100 – 150 years.
We’ve enjoyed Sleeping Giant Provincial Park a lot, but because we’re in shoulder season (mid-September), not all the hiking trails in this park are accessible. So instead of staying eight days in the area, we’re moving on in just four days. Gotta stay flexible!!
It’s a rainy, cold day outside Thunder Bay, so we opted for another long drive up to where the roadless frontier begins. Drove up to Armstrong Station, a tiny village connected to hundreds of other small whistle-stops via the northern Canadian Pacific rail line. The road up here is just a spur, so your destination better be Armstrong or the giant fly-in-only Wabakimi Wilderness, otherwise what are you doing up here?!
The drive was gorgeous, because it showed us fall colors arriving, two grey wolves crossing the road (YAY!), lots of wood thrushes in flight, a partridge just sitting by the side of the road, and another remote Anishinaabe community (the Kiashke Zaaging). Just outside the Armstrong village limits sits an enclave of long abandoned buildings. Come to find out, they are the remains of an old Cold War-era US Air Force base for monitoring long-range radar (!!!) The base was built close to the site of an old WWII German officers’ prisoner of war camp. How crazy is that?
One of the most dramatic road cut rocks encountered on this trip was along the highway to Armstrong, and there we collected a few specimens including deep peach/black granite and George’s all-time favorite: metamorphic diabase with veins and phenocrysts of sodium plagioclase. Translation: a coal-black sparkly base stone with large black crystals, shot through with large streaks of translucent and bright white rock crystals. Looks like nothing else we’ve ever seen. Nature is too cool for words.
On to Kakabeka Falls today, our next-to-last Ontario Provincial Park for this trip. This park is memorable for the history that accompanies it. Kakabeka Falls is near a major colonial outpost, Fort William, that long stood on the Canadian/British frontier, but more than that, its river (the Kaministiquia) was used as a prominent trade route by the First Nations (who named it Thundering Waters in their language) and by fur traders as early as 1678. Just imagine trying to canoe upstream on this fast-moving river, carrying hundreds of pounds of blankets and metal for trade, portaging long, rough trails to avoid the 50-foot falls. A grueling line of work, no wonder their lives were so short.
We hiked 10 km worth of trails here to see both the Main Falls and a shorter set called Little Falls. Both beautiful. Along the main Kakabeka Falls basin an eagle flew out along the shore, just beneath us on an elevated trail. We watched this splendid bird for 10 minutes as he/she perched in multiple trees scanning for fish in the water, then swooped down multiple times onto the water and river rocks. Stunning. Then s/he was joined by three more (1) baldies for some soaring hundreds of feet above the river. Wow!
Also surprised a sharp-shinned hawk who had just caught a ground squirrel and was having lunch. He flew up into a tree and waited for us to pass. We waited and walked backwards on the path ahead to see if he would return to his booty. He scolded us from above, so we moved on to leave him in peace, as he would not fly down again until we were out of sight.
Again and again we are reminded of how much more nature we see and experience in the state and national parks. Every once in awhile we cannot avoid the commercial campgrounds, but staying there is so often a sardine-like existence – give us the public parks instead!!
Quetico Provincial Park, the Last of our Ontario Park Experiences (this time!)
We reached Quetico, the Canadian counterpart to Minnesota’s famed Boundary Waters Canoe Area/Voyagers National Park, in the rain today, but by the time the hiking boots were laced up, it was gorgeous weather for a 12.5-km outing…which is what we did. Teaching Trail, Whiskey Jack and the Pines Trail all run along French and Pickerel Lakes, so we got a good look at what canoers and kayakers see in the park, while still on solid ground. More hawks and pileated woodpeckers. George also heard wolf howls in the night.
There is an old Voyageurs’ Canoe replica in Quetico, which gives visitors a sense of scale compared to today’s modern canoes. It’s also an indication of what has priority in this park: canoeing, not hiking!
This huge beast of a paddle boat on display is 24’ long and at least 4.5’ wide, with room for five men to paddle. We’re guessing that voyageurs of yore dedicated themselves to not tipping over or leaving their boats under any circumstances. The boats must have been very laborious to construct (out of birchbark), and they were loaded with irreplaceable valuables that sustained these men and their livelihoods.
Worth mentioning is that we saw another large wolf just loping across the highway minutes before arriving at Quetico. Also saw moose tracks on the hiking trail, deep impressions in black mud, but alas, still no live moose sighted. It has been raining so steadily all summer up here, the parks and hotels complain of significant loss of business. But for us, rain’s not really gotten in the way except for the ravenous and plague-like mosquitos, who are loving the wet conditions.
Random thoughts about visiting Ontario
This is lovely country. The Great Lakes portion of Ontario has overwhelmingly friendly people, both in and out of the camps, and the landscapes are so very breathtaking. The landscape is largely free of all litter, and the air is very clean. The culture up here seems not nearly as mass-marketing saturated as in the states (i.e., fewer billboards, less pressure to consume things because they are trendy/cool) – this also means that in some ways, Canada is like the US was 20 years ago. This observation is not meant condescendingly, in so many ways I wish we were not as jaded, polarized, cynical and socially networked-to-death as we are now. It is refreshing to see people and the personality of their communities less programmed by Wall Street, Hollywood and Facebook. Eh?
Curling is a BIG sport up here. Every town has a curling club, and from the size of the club buildings, it’s going strong. Could be as popular as hockey.
LOTS of solar panels out in fields. Canada’s efforts to bolster their hydro energy with wind and sun are still going great guns, as far as we can tell.
Canada has gone from paper to coins for their one and two-dollar denominations. One-dollar coins are called loonies, and two-dollar coins, toonies (or two-nies). It grows on you.
Canadians are more subtle than the US about road signs for their public attractions. Many’s the time we have missed a turnoff because the signage indicating an upcoming park turnoff or lookout was too small and only indicated right at the point of the turn.
Tim Horton eateries continue to be wildly popular, as ubiquitous as McDonald’s in the US. Any town larger than 5,000 has at least one. We went once. It’s like Dunkin Donuts + Subway +soup. No substantial presence of US fast food, except for A&W (weird!). Refreshing! And of course, Chips stands (Poutineries) are also everywhere!
Back in the US of A
Just across the border from Thunder Lake lies the Grand Portage National Memorial, operated by the National Park Service.
A fantastic recreation of the 18th century fur trading post at the mouth of the Pigeon River, this post is the terminus of north-central waterways, all the way to the northwestern Great Slave Lake in the Yukon. It acted as the safe marketplace for natives of various nations to bring beaver, otter, mink, fox and other skins to the Northwest and Hudson Bay Company traders in exchange for cloth, blankets, guns, ammunition, tobacco and other valued goods. Ojibwe, Cree, Assiniboine and other tribes would paddle their goods thousands of miles in birchbark canoes. Red-capped French Canadian laborers, called Voyageurs, would then load the furs into 24 to 38-foot transport canoes to carry them across Lakes Superior and Huron, and down the St. Lawrence seaway to Montreal.
Two trails captivated us here. The Mount Rose trail climbed 300 feet above the trading post, allowing a view of it and the bay in which it sits. The Mount Josephine trail, made harder by recent rains and mountain drainage which created streams over many sections, gave us multiple views at 600 feet above the bay, islands and forests.
Isle Royale National Park has been on our “to-visit” checklist for a long time. Now we can say that we’ve been there, via the 2-hour ferry from Grand Portage. Given all the fantastic geology, botanical wonders and great scenery/vistas already experienced along Canada’s north shore of Superior, Isle Royale was a bit of a let-down, but the fault lies in the shortness of our visit, which was only 2.5 hours due to the fall ferry schedule. You just cannot experience the special qualities of this place which attracts so many repeat visitors to the Back Country in such a short window of time.
Coming down the North Shore of MN, we are reminded of the many things we love about Minnesota: its embrace of the great outdoors, with ample opportunities to beachcomb, hike, bike, camp, nature-walk, sit on the shoreline in an Adirondack chair; the entrepreneurial spirit that compels cooks, bakers and brewers to try their luck satisfying these hungry outdoorspeople with delicious temptations; and the love of MN residents for any season, including winter, that gives them a reason to BE outdoors! The North Shore and Arrowhead are still full of visitors in late September, unlike other areas starting to empty out after the hectic summer season.
Tackled three hikes along the Gunflint Trail today, just for old times’ sake as former MN residents, saw the Arrowhead Region in its fall glory. Don’t remember so many quaking aspen up here before, but we were probably not as focused on flora and fauna as now. Now that we also know what Black Spruce look like, seems MN has them as well as Ontario! Loving Grand Marais, which has only increased in lovability since the last time we were here.
On the way south from Grand Marais we stopped at the Beaver Bay Agate Shop to have the experts take a look at the “could be agates” we’d collected at Paradise Beach. They confirmed a slew of them, along with a ton of chert and one bona fide artifact, a knapped agate tool that a native had worked thousands of years ago, either to be a hide scraper or a small cutting knife. The knap marks are obvious, which means it was not a flake off a tool — it was intended to BE a tool. The point broke, thus the tool-to-be was discarded. Very exciting. Could be between 2,000 and 10,000 years old!
Passed through Ely and had to stop at the International Wolf Center, first visited at least 25 years ago. They do good work there, educating the public on the facts surrounding these magnificent animals. Did you know that wolves are responsible for far less lifestock predation than they are accused of, and that most of it happens when farmers allow their livestock to graze in the woods? I can’t blame the wolf if his territory is invaded by a prey animal. Ever heard of fences?
We stopped in Bemidji at the Fish Locker to pick up a 10-pound box of walleye fillets, then on to Walker, MN for the night. Here we hiked 4 miles along the Heartland and Paul Bunyan trails, which are repurposed Burlington Northern rail beds. It is definitely autumn in MN! And here ends Adventure Four! Tomorrow we stop at the kids’ house in the Twin Cities for six days of fun and then home to the Farm to close up the gardens for the winter!
A quick list of northern MN/Lake Superior plants and their First Nations uses:
Labrador Tea (a northern-hardy type of azalea) – beverage
Red Osier Dogwood – source of aspirin
Cat tails – mats for weaving, edible roots, boil for tea; spike on top is male, pollen, used for flour
Pearly everlasting – ward evil spirits away
Tamarack – branches are used for duck decoys, roots harvested for binding ropes
Eastern white cedar – use bark, seeds, wood, roots – vitamin c, good for moistening mouth, bark can be twirled into twine or yarn; wood is strong and lightweight, holds fire; cedar bath for post-illness rejuvenation; branches make tea, expectorant, promotes positive energy
Balsam fir resin is good for bug bites
Wild sarsaparilla – root beer, root is astringent
Hemlock is hardwood, resists decay
Sugar maple is a hard wood, sweet sap
Hemlock has short, alternating needles with rounded tips, balsam needles are straight across from one another
Squaw root for fertility
Birch is sacred tree – wigwa, for wigwam
Birch is a hardwood, nice grain, strong, used for bows
Beech tree called bear tree because they climb up to get beech nuts; bear is considered the healer animal
Bear berry – medicinal bath
Plaintain leaves, when crushed are used for bug bites and to reduce swelling
Four sacred Foods: berries, wild rice, game, corn
Four sacred plants: sweet grass, cedar, tobacco and sage
Flowerpot Island, Bruce Peninsula:
Tobermory, Medicinal Herbs Hike, Lagoon View:
Pow Wow on Bruce Peninsula
Manitoulin Island Drum Ceremony Instruction, Sites
Chutes Provincial Park
Pukaskwa National Park
Casques Isles Trail, Hearst
Rossport and Canyonlands
Nipigon River Hikes
Sleeping Giant National Park
Thunder Bay and Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park
Quetico National Park