Backpack Day 1: Boat Ride to North Swallow Harbour
Monday, July 26
A few showers passed over Marathon as we slept in our dry and cozy motel rooms. By the time we emerged, the very northern-angled morning sun was shining over the low ridge to the north-east of town.
The plan was to do our ferry operation with two runs, since we were told that Doug's North Shore Adventures boat had a maximum passenger capacity of six people (and we were eight). Those in the second group would hang around the park headquarters for roughly an extra two and a half hours until he returned to pick them up.
Passing through Heron Bay
Yseterday, Doug had rung us up, and he asked us if we could re-jig our boat ride time. He was hoping for an earlier departure so that he could fit in some other requested activity (something related to a rescue) later in the day. We were totally fine with that, since an earlier departure time presented less risk for us, and more time relaxing at camp.
We made the short 20 minute drive from town to the park. Doug must have an arrangement with the national park, because he had specified that his pickup location was at a shallow dock immediately adjacent to the park's main visitor center, something that likely would not be possible without prior agreement. We got out our packs, secured the cars in the main parking area, and headed over to the water's edge to be picked up.
Heading back into the park
The hubbub before departure
Brian then discovered that he had forgotten his tent pegs at home. Given that there was some chance of rain in the forecast later in the week, he was quite concerned about being able to properly stake out his tent, and even though the rest of us offered to share a few pegs from each of our tents, he preferred to find a way to get new ones. Jenn and Alana had already volunteered to be in the second boat run, and therefore had a couple of hours to burn. And so they offered to drive back into Marathon and pick up some tent pegs at the town's Canadian Tire store. Off they went.
Nearly immediately after they had left, Doug glided up in his aluminum-hulled Hewescraft Ocean Pro 220. Gregarious, friendly, disarming and surprisingly young, he quickly introduced himself and prepared us for boarding. He also suggested that "hey, since the waters so calm today, and I can bring all of you in one go. That way, I can go help with a rescue that someone's asked me to participate in later today". We quickly exchanged glances amongst ourselves, happy for the offer but also realizing that two of our group were happily (and probably unhurriedly) driving back to Marathon to pick up tent pegs.
Waiting for the girls
We explained the situation to Doug, offering him the choice of doing the two runs, as originally planned, or waiting for Jenn and Alana to come back. We spent some time attempting to communicate with them, but the cell and data connection at the park and outside of Marathon is very weak to non-existent. We were therefore unable to raise them. Doug soon suggested that we could just wait for them to make their Canadian Tire run, and even used a little portable cell-signal booster he had to tell his wife (who, coincidences of coincidences, just so happened to work at that Canadian Tire) that two of his customers would soon be arriving to pick up tent pegs, and could they please maybe hurry a touch?
So, we all lounged around Doug's boat, getting a sense of his friendly personality and hearing a few of his many north shore experiences.
It took about an hour for Jenn and Alana to make the round trip from the park headquarters to the Marathon Canadian Tire and back, arriving at about 10 a.m. with some shiny new tent pegs from Brian. With that critical bit of kit out of the way, we carted our gear -- and ourselves -- onto Doug's boat and he pushed off from shore.
Doug gave us a quick safety spiel as he idled through the waters of Hattie Cove - an especially sheltered little inlet of water with a very narrow neck leading out into broader Lake Superior. There was more than enough space for the eight of us in the boat, and Doug clarified that his six person limit is essentially in place for when conditions on the Lake are rougher (which they were not, today).
Doug did predict that the journey out through the narrow neck and into the open waters would be a little bit rough, and indeed it was. As doug applied more power and carved full-on into some choppy swells, our little group chirped and giggled at the suddenly rough ride. It felt pretty special and adventurous to get this rough-and-tumble boat ride to the start of our backpack!
As Doug predicted, as soon as we got out of Hattie Cove and into open waters, the ride settled. It truly was a very calm day by Lake Superior standards, with nothing more than a gentle rolling surface. Certainly less than two feet. Doug claimed that we were nearing the end of the calm season and that soon (as August rolled around), we would be heading into what he called 'hurricane season' (meaning that the effects of the atlantic hurricane season strongly affected the waters of Lake Superior, not that there would be an actual hurricane up here).
The rugged coastline of Pukaskwa National Park slowly scrolled by as we headed south. with Doug calmly and casually draped over the boat's controls, he began regaling us with more stories of past ferrying adventures and misadventures.
In just over an hour, we had motored south along forty-five kilometres of isolated coastline, past seemingly countless little indentations, coves, and islands. All of that land would be ours to traverse, heading back north, over the course of the next five days.
Our boat's bow settled back down into the water as Doug reduced the throttle. We were headed into a narrow north-facing cove, and ahead of us a friendly-looking strip of beach appeared.
We reached the North Swallow Harbour beach at about 11:30 a.m. Doug showed his efficiency by gently burying the boat's bow into the sand, whipping out a dollar-store step stool, and guiding us down to the beach without us having to touch a drop of water. We briefly posed for a thank-you group shot and then he was off, springing lightly back onto his craft with a practiced leap, reaching down and sweeping up his plastic steps in one smooth motion. Shortly he was floating in deep enough water to drop his motor and apply full throttle, speeding off north to handle whatever emergency in which he had agreed to participate.
So, where had we been dropped off? We were now standing in North Swallow Harbor - a picture-perfect little 200 meter wide pock-mark in the coastline of Lake Superior. A wide, sandy beach stretched the entire width of the cove. On either side, the beach abruptly ended and the more usual coastline of bedrock, boulders, and cliffs resumed. Two high prominences of forested granite framed a small strip of ocean-like horizon at the mouth of the cove.
Here at North Swallow Harbour, there were no other adventurers about. It is worth reiterating that this is a very remote spot. The closest road was back at the park headquarters - 45+ kilometres away by watercraft, and substantially more on foot. Within that radius (ie - in all directions), there were absolutely no permanent human settlements or activities.
We quickly set about finding the official spots for tent placement. We found several obvious good ones, with nice flat ground and clear evidence of past campage, but no actual signs or markings. We knew that there was only one hiker backcountry campsite here, and we had it booked. That meant we were extremely unlikely to see other hikers today. There were two other "water" sites (for paddlers), but these appeared to be empty. After some discussion about which site was which (it wasn't entirely clear) and where we should be putting up our tents, we decided to just put tents up in various convenient spots and to move them if some late-arriver water campers showed up.
Setting up at North Swallow
After unpacking our gear and setting up our tents, we emerged back to the beach to enjoy our little strip of quiet wilderness. The park service had placed two plastic adirondack-style chairs in the sand above the water line. These two chairs served as the focal point of the afternoon's lounging, wine-drinking, sun-tanning, and swimming. By Northern Lake Superior standards, it was a lazy, midsummer day: perhaps 26 degress celsius and with a fairly high humidity and very still air. It felt downright hot, really.
Perfect Afternoon for Swimming
Shortly before 2pm, we noticed a dot in the far distance, not far below the horizon. The dot gradually grew, and soon we could see that it was a kayaker, headed our way. The paddler seemed to be alone, and not in a group. We realized that this could be someone who was booked into one of the 'water' campsites for the night, and that we just might have to make way for a neighbour tonight.
A Visitor Approaches
The paddler soon glided up to the beach and popped out of his kayak. He had a certain grizzled and weatherbeaten look about him, but also an exuded a sense of experience and competance. Gino and Chris went down to the water to chit chat with him. We learned that he had already set up camp at a different location a short way to the north and that he was just in the middle of an afternoon paddle.
A few of us weren't content to laze around for the entire afternoon and evening: Katie (Chris and Gillian's 11-year old daughter) was showing signs of exploration, poking along the beachfront and the bouldery coastline. Brian and I had noticed some prominent granite bluffs not far from camp, and we decided to hike up to them in order to get an eagle-eyed view back down onto the beach.
Our group and the visitor