Alan & James Hike the Pukaskwa Coastal Trail

Introduction

In the middle of June 2002 James and I took a trip north from our current homes in Ann Arbor, Michigan to Pukaskwa National Park in Canada. Pukaskwa is on the northeast coast of Lake Superior. It is a fairly large park containing little but wilderness. There is one nice campground at Hattie Cove (pronounced Hate-ee) and one major trail, the Coastal Hiking Trail. The Coastal Trail travels 60km south along the coast of Lake Superior, ending roughly in the middle of the park's coast.

Obviously, a trip on foot requires a round trip of 120km, a not so trivial task given the condition of the trail, especially near it's end. In June when we visited trail maintainance had reached only to Fisherman's Cove, which leaves almost half of the trail uncleared. In addition, even with maintenance the trail is said to become increasingly difficult to follow beyond Oiseau Bay. Our trip out and back only covered the first half of the trail, about 30km out to Oiseau Bay, and it comfortably took five days. For the whole trail I would allot at the very least 10 days, and probably something more like two weeks if you want to take your time and enjoy the scenery.

In the past there was the option of hiking the trail one-way. A water taxi was available that could drop you off anywhere along the trail, leaving you to hike home. Sadly, we were informed that the man who once offered this service died the winter before our trip. Other charter boats may be available from more distant ports and the water taxi may be resurrected in the future, so you should contact the park for more current information. You will want to call the park ahead of time anyway to reserve backcountry camps along your itinerary. I have heard seven days is a reasonable amount of time to allot for the whole one-way hike, and given our experience this sounds about right.

This document details our five day hike in Pukaskwa. My friend and fellow hiker, James, has collected photos of his own from the journey as well as many other photos. Where appropriate I have linked to specific photos from James' collection. Except for these photos and the data from which the maps are derived, all information on these pages is © Alan Wilson, All Rights Reserved.

coastal trail overview map

Click on the map to access the full size, annotated version

Map

To the right is a map of the entire Coastal Trail. Details from our trip, including notes about the trail and photographs, can be found via a larger version of this map. Clicking on any waypoint or camp along our route in the full sized map yields information and/or a photograph from that area. A key for the map follows.

key to the map

Waypoints are points of interest which I have designated and have no official significance. In most cases there are multiple nearby camps for each camp symbol. Side trails are relatively rare, they only occur where they are necessary to connect the camps to the main trail. Nevertheless, wandering off trail is as easy as staying on the trail in some spots, especially when clambering over rocks. Adventure is always just a few lost cairns away!

The overview map at right is based on satellite imagery, but the larger versions on the following pages are topographic. I added the trail, camps, and some names by hand by referring to the maps found in the pocket sized Coastal Hiking Trail guide sold at the park office. This guide is a wonderful set of fairly detailed topographic maps (which we purchased for $1 CAN) as well as delightful commentary by the original user of the trail (purchased at an additional cost, which includes a small binder). The maps include details of all the camps up to Oiseau Bay, show altitude profiles for the whole trail, and render the whole trail in segments at 1:50000. I recommended you purchase the additional commentary and binder (if you just get the map be aware that the mysterious numbers along the trail refer to the commentary, not distances as we first thought). Unless you plan to go off trail this should be all you need in the way of maps, and they are so cheap everyone in your party can get one.

The underlying topographic and satellite image data that I have used is graciously offered for free by the Canadian government. You can find the images via Toporama. The images are © Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, Department of Natural Resources. All rights reserved. (For even snazzier maps I really wish I had a good DEM (digital elevation model) of the area with which to create a shaded relief, but it looks like there is no 1:50000 data for this area.)

Timeline

Below I provide a timeline of our trip to give you a rough idea of the time we spent on each segment. Even though this trail never gains a great amount of net elevation (at least compared to the trails I'm familiar with back in the mountains of Washington State) there are many ups and downs. This, along with the difficulty of scrambling over rocks all sizes and the delays caused by losing the trail, make the hike more time and energy consuming than one would expect from the distances involved.

You will note that we are are fairly lazy hikers. Rising fairly late, dallying for pictures, and stopping early to enjoy dinner. Except for the last day, when we made a push to return a half day early so we would have time to stop at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on our way home, all our days involved leisurely hiking.

Day Time Description Hiking Time
Day 1 12:30pm We left the trailhead. Some people, who I would guess are memebers of the Pic River First Nation, were constructing birch bark buildings in the picnic area at the trailhead. They were leaving for lunch just as we passed through. It took a few moments to find the trail (the key is to stay left). It was a very nice day. 4 ½ hours
1:30pm Spent an hour at the Playter Harbour camp. James wadded into the water and we ate lunch. There was a family sitting on the rocks. It turns out that these would be the last people we would see on the hike.
4:30pm I noticed the trail register, which is just before the White River Bridge, but I didn't realized what it was until I checked it out on our return. We hung out on the bridge for a short while. Around the falls upriver of the bridge we stopped a number of times to explore and get water.
6pm Arrived at the upper White River camps. We chose the campsite right next to the waterfall but had trouble setting up our tent because most of the sand was gone from the tent pad leaving only the canvas liner. We backtracked to the first camp which has a wonderful view of the falls and the wide river.
Day 2 11:30am Left Upper White River camp and headed south to Morrison Harbour via the longer portion of the loop. We had a long break at the Willow River for lunch. 8 hours
3:30pm We turned right when we hit the Willow River beach and spent an hour eating lunch on the rocks next to one of the camps. The view was wonderful. There was heavy cloud cover, but we had no problems with rain.
5pm Shortly after crossing the Willow River bridge there is a decision to be made. We decided to take the longer, more scenic part of the loop. It took us two hours to connect back up with the main trail, but there were some delays. We stopped to filter water, add insect repellent, and watch the ducks. We were also slightly stalled because a couple cairns had fallen over. It was not clear that we were supposed to climb down a large rock slope and continue on the coast or head inland. After not finding a trail we pressed ahead and found the fallen cairns.
9pm Arrived at Morrison Harbour and chose the first camp. The sunset and moon across harbour was beautiful.
Day 3 1pm A late start. We left Morrison Harbour camp and planned to travel to Oiseau Bay. 2 ½ hours
2pm We lost our way on the rocks north of Fish Harbour. The cairns had spread out and disappeared except for a few suspicious rocks here and there. We spent some time eating lunch and wasted an hour searching for the trail. I was almost certain the trail went inland before it hit Fish Bay, but had no clue where. Eventually we decided to just continue around on the rocky coast. The route was a little slow going but really not much trouble. We were never forced to go inland. At one point we had to remove our packs and lower them down to navigate a ledge, but I'm amazed at how those rocks somehow always have nice hand and foot holds even away from the trail.
5pm Finally arrived at the Fish Harbour camps. Fearful that we might have further problems finding our way and a little demoralized we decided to just stop here for the night. This left us plenty of time to enjoy the beach and build a nice fire. I tried out a peach cobbler recipe which I found online. It was edible, but not a success. The crust got too chewy and the peaches didn't rehydrate as much as I would like. (I need to find a source for dehydrated peaches, the ones I had were just plain dried peaches not meant to be rehydrated.)
Day 4 10:30am We left our overnight equipment at the Fish Harbour camp and took a day hike to Oiseau bay. 6 ½ hours
1pm We arrived at Oiseau Bay, navigating some troublesome water (a stream with no bridge but some useful fallen logs and a pond encroaching on the trail just as it hits the beach). We spent about 50 minutes having lunch and exploring the beach. Before leaving I wandered over to the rocks and a small stream near the end of the beach, and this was the farthest south we traveled.
4pm Arrived at the Fish Harbour camps and spent 40 minutes collecting our packs. It had started raining fairly heavily on our way from Oiseau Bay and we were quite wet. The rain began to subside just as we were leaving, but it never completely stopped until the next day.
6:35pm We arrived at Morrison Harbour and selected the other camp, just for a little variety.
Day 5 10:35am We get going reasonably early (for us) hoping to make it to the trailhead tonight (instead of tomorrow as we planned) so we would have some time to stop at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on our way home. 9 hours
12:40pm We arrive at the southern junction with the loop and take the direct route. It takes us 25 minutes to get to the northern loop junction. The route is quite damp, the trail turning to a creek at one point. This is probably aggravated by the rain from the previous day.
1:20pm We spend an hour and fifteen minutes having lunch, climbing on the rocks, and taking pictures at Willow River.
4:15pm We pass the small lake and waterfall where the trail turns inland and begins the climb up and over the rocky hills to the White River.
6:10pm We stop for a 20 minute break along the White River just shy of the bridge. After crossing the bridge we discovered the trail register. We spend 10 minutes writing in the register. James writes his own part below mine. A little way down the trail James realizes he used "dido" instead of "ditto" and is almost embarrassed enough to turn around go back to correct it.
8pm ? Spent a few minutes at the Playter Harbour camp, on the rocks where we saw our last humans five days ago. James announces that there is a bear visiting the camp. We watch the bear from across a tiny bay as he strolls along the beach. He walks into the camp, cutting us off from land for a short while, and pushes over one of the logs around the tent pad. Finding nothing under the log he heads into the trees and down the trail. Thankfully we knew a way to get on the trail cutting off the section the bear was on and we left the area quickly.
9:30pm We arrive at the trailhead, exhausted and with very sore feet. The waterproofing of my boots had given out the day before and I believe the moisture was especially hard on our feet. Passing through the picnic area we stopped to chat with a woman just arriving to do some fishing. She said she had hiked the trail many years ago. This was the first person we had seen since Playter Harbour on the first day.

Links

For more information on Pukaskwa National Park and hiking the Coastal Trail you can consult these resources.

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this page. This is only a preliminary version, this sentence will disappear when my revision is nearly complete. Please check back for updates.