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A Day From Hell On The Coastal Trail In Pukaskwa National Park

A Day From Hell on the Coastal Trail in Pukaskwa National Park

I thought after guerrilla camping on the Coastal trail and backpacking in the dark that the worst would be behind us. But that wasn’t to be the case. Our group of three and a dog are on day three of a five day backpacking trip in Pukaskwa National Park in northwestern Ontario. It turns out to be our day from hell.

The plan for the day was to backpack from Fisherman’s Cove to Morrison Harbour – a distance of 15.7 kilometres. According to the downloadable information off the Pukaskwa National Park website it should take us approximately six hours.

"dog watching his owners hiking"

By day 3 the dog would rather watch than run

Don’t get me wrong about the day from hell. The scenery for most of the day is superlative – a 9/10 in my books. It’s the trail that is the problem and it’s a twofold one. Finding the trail on occasion takes some time. And it’s particularly treacherous along the coast. Wet, slippery rocks lie in wait to derail the unsuspecting hiker. Take your eyes off your footing for a second at your peril. I have the bruises to prove it.

"You must wade this pond through thigh deep water"

You must wade this pond through thigh deep water

We start the day by going down a beach looking for a trail and taking tracks through the woods in error. By the time we’ve finally located the real trail – and waded a pond we’re already thirty minutes into the day and we’ve gone all of about 200 metres.

Next is a stiff climb up a stream bed laced with large, mossy boulders. I’m already feeling anxious about our pace by the time we get to the top of the hill but it still takes us another hour of walking through the woods before we reach the lake again. We haven’t even gone a kilometre.

"VERY slippery rocks"

VERY slippery rocks

When we arrive at Lake Superior again we look in dismay at the rocks. They’re full of fractures – and easily capable of causing a leg break or sprain. It’s excruciatingly slow going to get through the rocks and another hour slips by.

I look repeatedly at the map figuring the map must be wrong. (You do need map reading skills out here!) But that’s just wishful thinking on my part.

"Beautiful ponds on a ledge above Lake Superior"

Beautiful ponds on a ledge above Lake Superior

"Not even a ripple"

Not even a ripple

By the time we stop for lunch we’ve hiked for 3.5 hours and covered all of about two kilometres. Even the dog seemed disheartened.

"By lunch time Keeper can barely keep his eyes open"

By lunch time Keeper can barely keep his eyes open

"Hard to even recognize this as a tree stump"

Hard to even recognize this as a tree stump

After lunch we enter the woods so for a while we make up some lost time. It seems we have an ongoing love/hate affair with the woods when it came to hiking the Coastal Trail. Today with the coast so rugged we were happy to be in the woods – and other times we’re begging for a beach.

These woods are lusher and greener than I ever would have expected.

"Red moss was a first for me"

Red moss was a first for me

The afternoon wears on and we decide by 3 pm that there is no way we can make Morrison Harbour. Even Fish Harbour – 3.4 kilometres closer – doesn’t seem possible.

We set our sights instead on making it to Oiseau Bay

"Rugged coast broken by beautiful beaches"

Rugged coast broken by beautiful beaches

"Dampier Cove perhaps"

Dampier Cove perhaps

"Close-up of the rocks"

Close-up of Lake Superior rocks

We struggle on in the afternoon – alternating between hiking across slippery rocks, getting down on our rear ends with a heavy pack and sliding down rocks and enjoying the odd easy stretch in the woods.

"This would be easy hiking if it wasn't slick"

This would be easy hiking if it wasn’t slick

"Eyes down - and full concentration while hiking"

Eyes down – and full concentration while hiking

"Loads of interesting & colourful mosses and lichens"

Loads of interesting & colourful mosses and lichens

"The plants were this bright without a flash"

The plants were this bright without a flash

It’s 5:15 PM when we reach Oiseau Bay – and what a wonderful sight it is. It boasts a huge, deserted beach – suitable in places for camping – though the official campsites are in the woods and closer to outhouses and bear lockers. We decide to camp on the beach figuring we could dry out our clothes in the wind and enjoy the scenery from our tents. It’s definitely more of a hike to the bear lockers but I’d always take a beach over the woods for camping.

"My one man Eureka tent at sunset"

My one man Eureka tent at sunset

"Dramatic skies at sunset"

Dramatic skies at sunset

"Looking out to Lake Superior from Oiseau Bay"

Looking out to Lake Superior from our Oiseau Bay campsite

"This is the only campsite where saw another person"

This is the only campsite where saw another person

"What a scenic spot to spend the night"

What a scenic spot to spend the night

In the end we hiked all of 7.2 kilometres, averaging about a kilometer an hour – totally disheartening numbers. However, the beauty of the camp site, a hot meal of spaghetti with a glass of wine, and a superlative sunset provided a welcome boost to our spirits.

So the day from hell ended on a good note but as the map reader I couldn’t help but wonder if we’d ever get off this trail.

Have you ever had a hiking or backpacking trip from hell?

Other posts related to this trip you  might enjoy:

Leigh McAdam is a Calgary based writer, author, photographer and social media enthusiast with over 57,000 followers. Her blog: HikeBikeTravel is frequently cited as one of the top travel and outdoor adventure blogs in Canada.

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta

This Post Has 24 Comments
  1. That beach really does look beautiful. . . but I would not want to hike over those rocks. Give me the woods any day.

    I had a survey in the Yukon that turned into a long-distance hike when we got lost in some muskeg. It was slow, and wet, and smelly. And not even that scenic.

    1. @Jess Getting lost in muskeg would be truly miserable. Fortunately by the fourth day the rocks weren’t so slippery and in fact you could walk straight down them with the friction of your boots making it possible.

    1. @Jennifer It’s the first time I’ve seen red moss and it created quite an impression. The whole day was beautiful but it was painstakingly slow. I’ve never been on rocks so slick – without any rain.

  2. I love both the photos and the narrative. So interesting. But you ended the post too early. How did you find getting out/moving on the next day or days? Did you still find the rocks really slick?

  3. At least the temperatures look nice. After hiking hot and humid Isle Royale,temperature is everything to me, but I can understand how difficult this trip was. It is written all over the dog’s face. Beautiful colors though and you cannot beat a beach on Lake Superior for a campsite.

    1. @Ted The days were very pleasant – even a tad warm and humid on the first two. The last two nights were cold but fortunately we could have a fire – which is a nice way to start the day.

  4. Glad you stuck with it so that we could enjoy these fabulous photos. That red moss is very cool — I saw something like it at Point Lobos near Carmel, CA but not sure if it was the same. The dog really does look disheartened. What an adventure, Leigh!

    1. @Cathy You should have seen the dog by the 5th day. But after Keeper had a day of recovery he seemed raring to go again. In fact I think we got him into too good shape. And the whole trip really was an adventure – especially backpacking in the dark.

  5. Yikes, that did sound like a hike with some peril indeed. That tree stump picture is AMAZING!!! I liked all the photos as usual, Leigh, and I’m glad the day turned out ok all told. But one question, what is your dog’s name?? He’s adorable!

    1. @Mike At a few points in the day I certainly wondered how it would end. Fortunately the worst days always make the best stories. And that wonderful dog isn’t mine but my friends and goes by the name of Keeper. Mine was home in Calgary and I’m not sure she could have made it.

  6. I’m considering doing this next summer. Are the rocks normally wet (wind/mist/fog off the lake), or is that due to specific rain/weather conditions? Vibram soles and wet rock/wood are not a good combination–BTDT!

  7. I did this trail in 2012. I agree, by far the hardest stretch was from Fisherman’s Cove to Oiseau Bay. I’ve read other people’s blogs and they say the same too. Great photos though brought back a lot of good memories. Thanks

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