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Backpacking Pukaskwa - The Tempest

MAY 31, 2022

Have you ever been unable to pick hikers up from the trail?” Jen asked the charter boat captain.

“We’ve been doing this a long time, and there was only one occasion I can recall where we weren’t able to get to them,” Keith, captain of the Melissa June, confidently responded. “Had a storm kick up that shut everything down.”

We made this call weeks before our backpacking trip along an untamed edge of Lake Superior’s Ontario shore, but the words stuck as we tied up our loose ends …

Four days into backpacking the Pukaskwa Coastal Trail, Jen, I and our four children – Caleb, Logan, Tara and Karli – rounded a jagged peninsula overlooking Lake Superior.

We’d already crossed whitewater chutes on a suspension bridge, hiked through bear-infested territory and stayed at a fabulous white sandy cove with a roaring campfire for the ages. But our most important time on the trail would turn out to be a five-minute conversation with a retired couple hiking in the opposite direction.

“We found this little trapper’s cabin tucked up in the woods, and we stayed there until the storm passed. It was a lifesaver,” the woman reflected.

We’d kept tabs on the weather and knew another storm would be on us in a day. We’d arranged for a pick-up down the trail, but if the storm kicked up, we wouldn’t get to our proposed destination. In that cabin, we figured we, too, could ride out a storm.

The cabin on our radar, we hiked down from an overlook into a sandy bay that extended for miles. We surveyed the treeline looking for our next camping spot, yet hoping to see that trapper’s cabin. Because the bay so closely matched the retired couple’s description, we decided to forgo the rustic camp sites and hiked on. Half mile farther, we spotted it.

As we opened the unlocked cabin door, we immediately spotted a journal. It listed the names of others who sought refuge along with their stories. It also established the “house rule”: Leave something future guests might need.

We unloaded our gear in the primitive 12x12-foot cabin, not knowing how long we may need to stay. If all went as planned, we’d hold up two nights then connect with Keith for a lift to the rangers station. The forecast at bedtime was for rain by afternoon with a high wind advisory already issued.

By morning, the winds rose. Ominous clouds loomed to the west. Later, a group of kayakers, done in by battling growing winds and waves, beached their kayaks and raced to set up tents under the pines before the rain came.

By nightfall, despite brief reprieves, the winds hit in full force, gusting to 60 mph. Our new neighbors popped by to see if we knew the forecast, and we learned they hailed from Australia and Toronto. As we hunkered in for the night, an epiphany caused me increased concern. Preparing for the trip, we’d debated the best mode of emergency communication on the remote trail. With no cell service there, we contemplated renting a satellite phone or buying a SPOT system – a Synchronized Predeployment and Operational Tracker. We settled on a marine radio. With it, we could contact any boat in an emergency. Great plan … until a tempest forced all boats off the Lake. We were on our own.

Next morning, the storm raged on with waves exceeding 12 feet. Wind drove the pelting rain sideways at times and the pine trees doubled over under the onslaught. We weren’t going anywhere.

Our thoughts went to the kayakers in tents; how miserable they must be! Mid-morning, we invited them out of the rain. Bringing out snacks and cards, we played a euchre tournament. The cabin was a cozy fit for our family plus five as we competed, munched and swapped stories. At noon, we fired up our marine radio and repeatedly called to Keith, but to no avail.

We’d packed an extra day’s worth of food, and this was the extra day.

After our neighbors left, we scraped together a Bacon-Bit soup. It wasn’t tasty, but kept our stomaches from growling. The food was nearly gone.

Soon our new neighbors returned, this time with more snacks and freeze-dried ice cream. Sharing the bounty, we learned they, too, were in a time crunch to get back to jobs and that they’d also arranged a pick up from Keith. Since we needed to change our rendezvous point, we agreed to see if Melissa June could take them. Then they handed us their rented satellite phone. What wonderful neighbors!

It was the next morning before we connected with Keith’s wife, who told us Keith was holed up on Michipicoten Island, the storm wind and waves being too much for his boat. She relayed our change of plans to Keith and called back to say he would arrive at our bay around 1 p.m.

Tuned into the marine radio for word of Melissa June, we repeatedly heard a gone-missing alert for a man in a catamaran with red-and-white sails. We remembered seeing a sailboat like that a couple days earlier.

Feeling snakebit with the bad weather, we secretly wondered if Keith could get to us or if we’d need to wait another famished day. Word came he was on his way. Since the chop on the Lake was too high to pull up on the beach, we’d need to meet him in a tucked-in cove. Our gear already packed, we hiked there with the kayakers. En route, we saw Melissa June come into view. Keith slowly fought the waves until he made it into the harbor – a huge relief.

After securing the boat with our help, Keith dropped the plank, and we loaded our gear. Two girls were already on board. Keith explained to our new friends that there wouldn’t be enough room on this trip. He promised to return the next day.

We boarded, and the boat gingerly eased into the bay. We stayed in the cabin, out of the elements, but the waves were too much for Jen; she got seasick. We headed outside to the stern, where she relieved her upset stomach over the side.

Leaving the protection of the bay, the waves got bigger yet. Caleb and I stared up at waves peaking higher than the boat’s cabin. Logan, Tara and Karli hung tight inside, away from the spray. At first, we worried about our safety, but soon the water-borne bronco ride became exhilarating – for most of us.

Keith was a masterful captain. He’d ride the top of a wave as long as possible, and just as it curled, he’d ducked the boat down the backside to rise up next wave and repeat the process.

For the two hours to the ranger station, Jen stayed curled in the stern.

As we slowly navigated through the treacherous waters, a Coast Guard alert again noted the missing catamaran. There had been no contact for a week. His family asked for help. We mentioned we’d seen that sailboat, and the two girls said they’d seen it, too. One thought she’d taken a picture of it and sure enough, there was a catamaran with a red-and-white sail in her cellphone photos.

Keith relayed that information. At least the family now knew he’d made it to Pukaskwa. We prayed the angry Lake hadn’t overtaken him.

Then, as we hugged the rugged cliff-lined shore, we saw puffs of rising smoke. We surfed on until to the front of a small cove. There we spotted the unmistakable sailboat and a man on shore tending a fire. Keith reported the good news to the Coast Guard.

Navigating the foreboding waves, Keith guided us to our drop-off point. Grabbing our gear, we headed to our SUV as Jen struggled to get back her land-legs and to shed the seasickness.

We hoped our Aussie friends got out the next day and the sailor’s family soon reunited. We felt grateful for Keith’s nautical skills and for the safe haven of little trapper’s cabin. As we departed the park to gorge on burgers and root beer, we thrilled to know we’d experienced a Lake Superior tempest and earned a lifetime memory of a Big Lake adventure.

We knew Keith had a new memory, too. When asked if he ever was unable to pick up hikers, he surely would have a new answer: “We’ve been doing this a long time, but it’s only happened twice. Both times, we had a pretty big storm that shut things down.”

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