A day behind schedule, we awoke before dawn to the sound of silence; the wind had finally subsided. The morning air was damp and cool, and a faint breeze carried with it a waft of oceanic-esque scents. As the sun slowly crept over the horizon, we swiftly tore down camp, all too eager to get on the water and put some meaningful distance behind us.
Our planned destination for the day was Cascade Falls. I had been captivated by this spot ever since I watched Bill Mason's 'Water Walker'. The grainy National Film Board video may not have encapsulated the true beauty of the area, but I could still envision the magic it must convey in person. Remote, wild, spectacular; Cascade Falls seemingly epitomized the quintessential backcountry campsite.
The early morning Fog swirls in the distance as we paddle our way down the coast.
Launching under the soft morning light, we glided across our small fjord and out into the open waters of Superior. Patchy fog clung to offshore islands, slowly whispering past the rocky knolls and windswept evergreens. Canoeing southward down the coast past One Lake Island, we came ashore for a brief pause at North Swallow Harbor, the terminus of the Pukaskwa Coastal Trail. From this point onward, our journey would be far more remote and wild, a seemingly impossible proposition given how desolate the previous stretch of coastline had been.
As we rounded the headlands, a stiff breeze began to blow in from offshore. Another day of headwinds would no doubt befall us. As the kilometers melted away, so too did our forward progress. The winds began howling in a piecing, straight-line and aggressive gusts attempted to stall any momentum. Thankfully chop was minimal, so we tightened our grip, dug our blades in deep and forged ahead. We were determined to camp at Cascade Falls today, wind be damned!
Taking a break at North Swallow Harbor.
The iridescent, clear waters of Superior.
Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, the tip of Otter Island and its historic lighthouse came into view. Built in 1903, the 70ft structure was the only building we would lay eyes upon until we arrived in Michipicoten nearly a week later. Still in operation, the lighthouse sends out a white flash every ten seconds to assist mariners during the navigation season.
The lighthouse was a welcoming motivator, as Cascade Falls is situated directly across from the point. Powering ahead with newfound strength, we rounded the final peninsula and soon found ourselves drifting in a sheltered bay, awestruck by the beauty that unraveled before us. We had arrived!
Awestruck by the scene before us, we quietly drifted across the cove. The air was still, yet alive with the thundering sounds of the cascades. A fine mist gently kissed our brows as we were slowly drawn in by reciprocating currents. For a brief moment, we floated away, our canoe bobbing along in the crystal-clear waters, piloted by no one but the ebb and flow of the water.
Snapping out of the trance we had been drawn into, we eagerly beached our canoe and set about exploring the cobblestone beach at the base of the falls. While the chutes remain relatively unchanged throughout the eons, the beach can change character annually. Winter storms frequently pummel the coast, reshaping the cobble and casting sizeable amounts of driftwood far ashore. Each visit can vary, adding to the magic of discovery and subsequent rediscovery.
Approaching Cascade Falls.
View of the falls from our adjacent campsite.
The falls were a favourite haunt of the late Bill Mason, who would often venture to breathtaking wilderness areas, painstakingly capturing their tranquility on canvas. With each stroke of his brush, the landscape would come alive. A mosaic of colours and patterns would converge, perfectly conveying a particular mood or feeling exuded by the scene he sought to capture.
One particular scene from ‘Water Walker’ always stood out for me. In it, Mason spends what had to amount to countless hours composing a painting of Cascade Falls, only to disappointingly crumple and burn the masterpiece upon completion. At the time, I failed to comprehend how one could throw away such magnificent art, but upon soaking in the landscape, I soon realized one could never wholly capture the raw beauty of the falls on canvas – or any medium for that matter. Rather, the cascades demand an in-person visit to truly comprehend and appreciate. There remains a powerful energy to the area that cannot be captured or grasped by the workings of any human. I suspect Mason came to a similar realization all those years ago.
View of the campsite from atop the falls. Lake Superior's Otter Island in the background.
Pictures fail to capture the raw beauty of this place!
View of the campsite from atop Cascade Falls.
After erecting camp, we decided it was time for a well-deserved dip. Superior is breathtakingly frigid, but the small bays and coves offer warmer waters more appealing to the prospective bather. Cascade Falls is unique, in that it offers a natural ‘backcountry shower’, complete with a priceless view of Superior and the surrounding coastal mountains. Having not bathed in quite some time, we eagerly stepped out under the curtain of rushing water, washing away days of accumulated sweat and grim. Refreshing and fulfilling!
That evening, we devoured a scrumptious dinner of Sheppard’s Pie – Leah exclaimed it was the best dehydrated meal I had ever concocted – and a slice of reflector oven cake for desert. We had originally planned the sweet treat for our Canada Day festivities, but as that was a washout and the subsequent day was spent confined to our windbound bugpocalypse, Cascade Falls was more than a fitting substitute. So, we unfurled our well-traveled Canadian flag, devoured our sugary treat and unwound beside the fire, sipping red wine and soaking up the view.
Does it get any better than this?
Cake baking in the reflector oven.
Evening at Cascade Falls.
The pre-dawn air was crisp and still. A heavy fog drifted about the lake. Far in the distance a loon cried out. We pushed off on glassy waters; the only ripples radiating from the adjacent falls. As we paddled into the early morning, the sun slowly crept over the horizon, burning off the fog and basking us its warm, golden glow.
Reluctantly departing Cascade Falls.
Taking advantage of the morning calm, we swiftly traversed the open channel isolating Otter Island from the mainland. Once across, we skirted its western shores in hopes of catching a glimpse of an elusive Woodland Caribou noted to inhabit the island. These skittish creatures enjoy the quiet isolation provided by the island. Silent as it is today, in the not-so-distant past, the area was abuzz with the bustling whir of industry. It was near here, on adjacent Old Dave’s Island, that the last vestiges of a commercial fishing operation persisted for decades beyond the collapse of the industry. Commercial fishing thrived in Lake Superior until the 1950’s – more than sixteen and a half million pounds of fish were caught in 1951 alone – before the industry collapsed when Lake Trout populations plummeted.
The devastating collapse of the fishery was blamed in part to the introduction of invasive Sea Lamprey. Although not deliberately introduced, the lamprey is an exotic species with a markedly catastrophic impact on Great Lakes fisheries. Improvements to shipping canals facilitated for the movement of the lamprey to the upper lakes. In the 1940s and 1950s they attacked, and virtually destroyed, the lake trout populations on Lakes Huron, Michigan and Superior. Joint action by the Canadian and American governments has since brought the lamprey under control and trout populations have only just begun to recover. Despite the modern revival of the Superior fishery, the clamor of industry will never return to region surrounding Otter Island. Now fully protected by the National Park, it will forever remain a silent refuge for the elusive caribou. The only indication of its once industrious past are the crumbling buildings and rotting cribbing slowly being reclaimed by the wilds.
Early morning sun burns away the fog near Otter Island.
With no caribou sighted, we pressed onwards, eager to discover the next point of interest. Our trip notes indicated Pukaskwa Pits could be found near the islands at Tug Harbour. As the thick fog of days past had hampered any serious efforts in locating a pit, we were all too eager to finally spot one. Bolstered by sunny skies, we were optimistic with our prospects!
Over 180 pits have been documented along the northern coast, though finding one remains a difficult task as their exact whereabouts are kept a loosely guarded secret in order to preserve the sensitive sites. The pits were constructed on raised beaches – ancient shorelines from a bygone time – which somewhat narrows the search, though the Superior basin contains innumerable such perched coastlines.
With the retreat of the glaciers, the land beneath was freed from the immense burden of the ice and slowly began to rise through a process known as isostatic rebound. The north shore of Superior continues to rise by roughly half a meter per century. The many raised beaches on both the north and south side of the lake give further evidence both of glacial rebound and of the different water levels which existed in the Great Lakes basin as the glaciers retreated. From the water, the ancient beaches appear as dull-green terraces, encrusted with lichen and far removed from the current shoreline.
A clam day for paddling!
As we rounded a small cove, something peculiar caught the eye. An odd rock formation stuck out from a sprawling boulder beach. It didn’t look like much, but the jumbled mound seemed oddly out of place with the natural gradient. It was a half kilometer or so from where our notes had placed the pits, but we decided to head ashore to examine for ourselves.
We landed on the shores of the primeval beach and clambered up to where stone met forest. Sure enough, rising from the surrounding cobble, there it was! A large, solitary pit, with a commanding view of Superior and the jagged cliffs of a nearby island. As we approached, a powerful, unspoken energy seemingly descended upon the beach. Perhaps it was carried on the wind, or maybe the setting emanated some silent reverberation from the beyond. We stood there in silent wonderment, taking in the scene before us, pondering what had compelled the hands of the ancients to erect such structures that have withstood the test of time.
The large Pukaskwa Pit.
Looking down from the raised beach.
The pits, Maandawaab-kinganan, are considered sacred by the Anishinabe people and are of great archeological and cultural importance. As they are assembled of loose cobblestones, any minute movement can potentially dislodge a stone, irrevocably damaging the site. As such, do not touch, enter, or disturb the pits. The only trace of our visitation was a small gift of tobacco we respectfully offered in return for calm waters and a safe passage. The offering was timely, as the bold headland of Pointe la Canadienne and its unpredictable reflection waves were just a short distance away.
The Superior coast between Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay is home to three formidable headlands that were both feared and respected by the voyageurs and first nations alike. Elemental, exposed and raw, the promontories – Pointe la Canadienne, Point Isacor, and Cap Chaillon – are flanked by towering cliffs with minimal safe havens. Powerful gusts can race down the precipice and push small craft into unpredictable surf on even the calmest of days. Further complicating the matter, wind direction is notorious for differing on approach. Calm conditions can lull one into a false sense of assurance as one side of the cape can be favourable, while the other mercilessly unforgiving. A traverse requires full commitment, stamina and a hearty respect for the lake.
We had paddled Cap Chaillon the previous year on a northward journey along the Lake Superior Provincial Park coast. Buffeted by high winds and rocked by dangerous reflection waves, it was a harrowing ordeal. With the windbound escape from Fisherman’s Cove still fresh in our minds, we tepidly approached the imposing point. The skies were clear and a slight, though noticeably increasing, tail wind wisped around our canoe.
Near Cap Chaillon in 2016. The high cliff walls stretch far out of the frame.
Much to our relief, it appeared our offering of tobacco was well received. The lake remained docile and the rounding of Pointe la Canadienne was fairly uneventful, save for a moderate crosswind and slight chop. If the wind had been up a few knots, we would have undoubtedly been subjected to a nerve wracking crossing. We now set our sights on Imogene Cove and the ghost town of Pukaskwa Depot
Pukaskwa Depot operated at the southern end of Pukaskwa National Park in the early 1900’s. A settlement for workers - primarily from Quebec - and their families, Pukaskwa Depot acted as a base of operations for the Abitibi Paper Company’s logging operations along the north shore of Lake Superior. From 1917 until the Great Depression, workers from the Pukaskwa Depot harvested approximately 30,000 cords of wood per year from the area. This timber was shipped by rail and boat along the Lake Superior coast to the pulp mill in Sault Ste. Marie. During the winter months, the Depot was totally isolated, save for the thin communications line afforded by the White River dog team trail. Supplies were hauled in by boat during the ice-free season and the winter harvest was tugged back to Sault Ste. Marie on the return journey.
The lone dilapidated building in Pukaskwa Depot.
Isolated, remote and only accessible by an ~80km water journey, very little remains of the depot in Imogene Cove today, however at its busiest, the village consisted of 23 buildings, including a doctor’s office, and had a population of 400. Walking through the open woods, we encountered few signs of the once bustling town. Scattered rusting debris, overgrown foundations and a lone dilapidated building, slowly being swallowed by the encroaching forest were all that remained.
A weatherworn plaque and two red chairs overlooking Imogene Cove are the only modern additions to the fading ghost town. The chairs are part of Parks Canada Red Chair Experience, a national initiative of connecting Canadians with nature in the country's most unique and treasured places. Pukaskwa Depot is undeniably one of those special spots. Lonely, desolate and cut off from the rest of the world, it’s hard to fathom the difficult life encountered by its former inhabitants over a century ago. The failed settlement is a testament to the harsh conditions encountered on this wild and unforgiving coast.
The supportive chairs were a real luxury for a backcountry trip, so taking full advantage of the offering, we sat back, enjoyed a hearty lunch and watched the waves rolls in. Feeling no sense of urgency, we lingered at the depot for a while.
Relaxing with Parks Canada Red Chair Experience. What a luxury for a backcountry trip!
Guided by the warm mid-afternoon sun, we soon rounded Imogene Point and passed the mouth of the Pukaskwa River. This untamed and challenging whitewater river has always topped my bucket list of Ontario rivers to paddle. Long a favourite canoe route of the late Bill Mason, it has made several appearances in his films, including WaterWalker, and was captured in his painting, "Campfire, Pukaskwa River". With the passing of the river mouth, we now found ourselves outside the boundaries of the National Park. Despite the change in jurisdictional boundaries, the wild and desolate coast extends onwards to Michipicoten. From here, the land is a mixture of provincial park, conservation reserve and crown land.
We did not have a firm goal for the evenings’ campsite, though Mackie’s Cove was floated as an option to take advantage of the excellent paddling conditions and put more distance behind us. However, just a short distance later, a sprawling beach bearing a strikingly peculiar name, ‘The Wheat Bin’, came into view. One could only speculate what inspired such creative nomenclature. Perhaps from afar, the coarse sands resembled glimmering fields of wheat, or maybe, a ship laden with grains ran aground off this desolate stretch of coast.
Aerial view of the sprawling beach at the Wheat Bin.
Flat sand everywhere! Endless possibilities for pitching a tent!
Upon reaching the golden shores, the thought of camping at Mackie’s Cove rapidly departed from our minds. Spanning an impressive 600m of coastline and extending over 100m deep, it was a prime campsite we could not pass up! Despite the windbound day, we were nearly 10km further along than planned in my initial trip itinerary, yet another reason to stay.
A brief walk along the beach unsurprisingly yielded no wheat. The name remains a mystery one can ponder as they soak up the warm, radiant sands. As we loafed around, we did just that. We spent the remainder of our time bathing in the mild waters of a nearby stream and unwound beside a roaring fire as the late evening sun dipped below the wide horizon.