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Cross Roads - Backpacking Adventure

AUGUST 1, 2016

Lake Superior Journal: Day One at the Crossroads

The hiking trail in Lake Superior Provincial Park proved to be rugged and story-filled for the author and his family.

My wife, our four little kids and I eagerly approached the trailhead of the Lake Superior Provincial Park Coastal Trail in Ontario.

Months after deciding to plunge into backpacking and camping, we were poised there, packs loaded, hiking boots laced, prepared to take our initial footsteps into a new adventure.

After researching this trail, we decided to jump into it midway, where the Trans-Canadian Highway separated from the shore. If we were going to backpack, the whole point was to get away from civilization and immerse ourselves in the beauty of the Canadian wilderness.

As we approached the trail, a brown Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry sign caught our attention. Of course, we looked at the map on it, measuring out one more time how far we would go each day. As we perused the sign, we noticed a bulletin had been posted. A closer look revealed a warning for potential backpackers – i.e. us – that the trail was experiencing “bear problems.”

Jen and I exchanged quick glances as we read the notice. A regular stream of bears apparently had been frequenting Rhyolite Cove, causing problems for those who attempted to overnight at that particular camp. Rhyolite was one camping destination on our nearly weeklong journey.

Now, we knew going into this trip that bears might be part of the backpacking equation, but the sign vividly brought to life that reality. The kids read as we did, and their eyes widened, though we’d already discussed potential dangers and what to do in emergencies.

It seemed like a crossroads was confronting us.

Ready for adventure were Caleb, Tara, Logan (in back) and Karli.

It’s times like these when a man’s true nature comes to the forefront. Mine came as shrieks in my head: We’re absolute rookies at this! Never done a backpacking trip before! We’re hiking an expert-level trail! And let’s just throw into the mix that we may have to share our first hiking experience with the local bear population!

Then, Jen and I put on our most confident looks and headed into the woods with our children. We left behind our questions: “Are we going to continue on?” Yes. “Could we handle a potential bear problem?” We’d manage. “Are we endangering our children?” We’re prepared.

The kids – ages 4, 5, 8 and 9 – had their own questions as we hiked our way in.

“What exactly is a bear problem?”

“How long ago was that sign posted?”

“How many days until we get to Rhyolite Cove?”  

“Why would bears keep revisiting the same campsite?”

One by one, we answered each question with the utmost calm and reminded the kids of our great adventure ahead. We threw positive energy onto the ember of fear, hoping to douse its spark in us and especially in the children.

By the time we reached an overlook of Orphan Lake, we were bounding down the trail along the jagged rocks toward Lake Superior. We’d started hiking in late afternoon and were going to have just enough time to get down to the Lake to set up our tents for the night and cook up a quick dinner. (It was a rookie miscalculation.)

As we got to the beach, we saw the Baldhead River running into the Lake. We also found that we’d have neighbors for the night. A group of kayakers had already claimed a campsite on the other side of the river, so we chose to camp on the beach. With the light fading, my 9-year-old son, Caleb, and I grabbed our backpacks and set out to find a suitable tree from which to hang the gear. The quickly dwindling daylight rushed us, and we just couldn’t find sturdy-enough perches.

For the next half hour or so, Caleb and I wrestled the local aspens. Caleb played the role of monkey as he shimmied up and down the trees, trying to find one that didn’t bend too far with a heavy backpack attached. I tied one end of our rope onto a rock and the other end to our backpacks. The goal: Throw the rope up and over a tree branch, and then pull the gear high into the air, away from any curious or hungry bears. We tried tree after tree, but all were too flimsy or too difficult to reach. I must confess, it wasn’t a proud parenting moment as I voiced my frustrations more than once. Both first-night jitters and thoughts of marauding bears weighed on me.

Finally, our gear hoisted safely into a tree, Caleb and I returned to base camp on the beach where the girls had food waiting. Mac and cheese and hotdogs never tasted so good. Nothing compares to a meal at the end of a trail when you’ve work so hard to get there. I’ve almost – the almost being a story for another day – never had a bad meal on the trail.

After supper, everyone chipped in to gather firewood, and we had a fire roaring in no time at all. Night had fallen, and we sat on the shores of Lake Superior, listening to the lapping waves and telling stories of all kinds – funny, spooky and reminiscent. Above in the cloudless sky, the stars sparkled incredibly bright. We lay on our backs and stared upward. Jen, digging into her mental archives from her college astronomy class, pointed out constellations and other star formations. A shooting meteorite crossed the black sky. A few minutes passed, and then another shot over – and another – and another.

That evening turned out to be absolutely magical as Nature’s fireworks played out directly above us. As the exertion of the day overtook each of us, we headed to our tents.

Jen and I were ready to crash from an already long day, but the kids, too amped up from the day’s adventure, giggled, chattered and wrestled each other in their tent. Their conversations focused on the day’s experiences and what might come during the rest of our week.

With a sense of incredible satisfaction, Jen and I listened into the night, knowing that we’d created lifelong memories.

The day started with trepidation, deciding if we should venture forward or avoid those problematic bears (which we never did meet, even at Rhyolite, though we had plenty of adventure on the way there … another story for another day). It ended with us drifting off to sleep as shooting stars laced the sky above and our children’s happy murmurs bubbled from their tent and eventually diminished into contented quiet.

The bookends to this first day encapsulated the adventure of backpacking: potential risk for the privilege of untouched beauty. We didn’t know it at the time, but this was the first of many days that we’d spend on trails, exploring the shores of Lake Superior. We started from that crossroads of risk a bit bewildered and unnerved, but our first night on the trail settled us into what would become a lifelong step-following-step rhythm of gratitude for the Big Lake and its big wilderness.

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