The central Canadian harbour on the shores of Lake Superior is where, historically, fur-traders would have shipped beaver pelts south to Toronto, and then beyond, to the markets of Europe. Today, Thunder Bay is reinventing itself as a gateway to epic adventures.
I’d arrived into Thunder Bay, via Toronto, with a few days to spare before my own expedition; so after an exhilarating sail on Lake Superior, in wind strong enough to blow away the cobwebs of a trans-Atlantic flight, I took the short drive to Sleeping Giant Provincial Park.
The park – colloquially known as ‘The Giant’ – is a slim peninsula of forested land which protrudes into Lake Superior. I chose to explore the 100-plus kilometres of hiking and multi-use trails by mountain bike, a world away from the urban centre less than an hour’s drive away. Riding alone though a dense forest of birch and aspen, on rough, yet well-maintained trails, and often splashing through small streams and large puddles, I arrived at the Head Trail. Leaving my bike by a still-smoking fire pit at one of the many ‘hike to’ campsites, I hiked up the very steep trail to ‘The Head’ peak. The Head is a table-top mountain of sedimentary rock, with great views across to the ‘Top of the Giant’, the main mountain in the park.
Suddenly I saw a large shape cross the path a short distance in front of me. It was unmistakably a wolf, and as I realised this, my heart started to race. While seeing a wolf in the wild was fulfilling a life-long dream, I couldn’t help but ask myself, ‘Don’t they normally travel in packs?’
Quickly looking around, I could seeing nothing, yet still I could almost feel hundreds of imaginary eyes boring into my very soul. The one wolf I could see had retreated around six feet into the forest, turning its head to look straight at me.
Now, I’m no Doctor Doolittle, but for some reason I felt at ease; the wolf’s actions and expressions calmed me. I felt no threat from this wild creature, and after what felt like a spiritual connection, it turned and was lost in the late afternoon shade of the forest.
The wolf encounter was the perfect start to my Canadian adventure with Ray Mears, which began in earnest several days later by driving northwards the one and a half hours to the tiny settlement of Armstrong.
Eventually, the highway simply finishes aside the railway tracks of Armstrong on the Trans Canadian Railway and our jumping off spot into the wilderness proper. From here, there’s nothing man-made of note north of the railway line, until you pass the North Pole and head a long way back south into Russia.
After a quick visit to the time capsule of the local frontier shop, we unloaded our gear at the Wabakimi Eco Lodge. The lodge is owned by Bruce Hyer, who straddles dual roles as both the organiser of our little group and being a member of the Canadian parliament for the Green Party. Bruce dropped out of mainstream Canadian life in the 1970s to live deep in the Wabakimi boreal forest. It was this period of wild living which instigated his idea to create a protected area within Ontario’s wild north. Through direct lobbying of the province, Bruce’s dream ultimately became the five million acre Wabakimi Provincial Park that exists today. It’s probably the largest canoe-able reserve anywhere in the world. But what’s even more staggering is that, despite its relative ease of access, Wabakimi sees less than 1,000 visitors a year. Your chance of meeting another human while journeying here isn’t even slim.
Waking to a clear and cold September morning, we left the comfort of the lodge to wait on a small jetty for a floatplane to arrive. Our small group consisted of Ray Mears, Becky Mason (canoe expert, artist and daughter of environmental film maker Bill Mason), Bruce Hyer and his son.
Our conversation, and last minute checking of kit, is interrupted by the appearance of a 1950s Otter floatplane. Almost skimming the tree tops, it glides downwards in near silence as the pilot cuts the revs, before the large aluminium under floats slice into the clear, calm water. Our relaxed waiting suddenly turns to beaver-like activity, as we load the bags into the Otter’s interior, and the pilot straps our canoes to the float stanchions.
With surprising speed we’re airborne and flying parallel to the Trans Canadian Railway. It’s only from such an elevated vantage point that it’s possible to really grasp the scale of our surroundings. The boreal forest stretches almost endlessly away to our east and west, broken only by the oceans.
Our short flight ends with a sharply banked turn and a short bumpy glide into a headwind, before a very smooth touchdown on the Allen Water River. We taxi over to a small jetty, where we load our kit from plane to canoe, as a mink scuttles along the shore line. I jump in with Becky Mason, who within moments realises my lack of skill. She shows me how to throw a short jab punch with my hand on the paddle’s T-grip, finishing the stroke with a slight trunk rotation. I appreciate her expert knowledge as I eventually fall into a steady rhythm, while she tells me of how the 17th century voyageurs – fur traders, mainly from Scotland and France – learnt from the first nation hunters the skills needed to navigate the forest’s waterways.
There’s no real noticeable current to the water, and if I didn’t know better I’d think we were on a lake. Ray, paddling alone, hugs the shore line so as to keep out of the slight breeze that’s blowing across a wide section on the Allen Water River. He stops amongst some reeds and as we glide alongside he says, ‘You can eat the roots of these, a bit tough and fibrous, but they’ll keep you alive.’
We paddle on before stopping on a rocky outcrop a few hours before sunset to make camp for the night. Finding fire wood in an almost endless forest should be an easy task and not wanting to look like a bushcraft idiot, I delve deep into the woods, eventually returning with an armful which thankfully passes Ray’s approval.
By the time the fire is well established, he’s putting the finishing touches to a tripod constructed from three long branches. It’s tied together with a thin flexible stick, from which hangs a kettle. We eat a dinner of rice and burgers around the campfire. Our conversation is accompanied by the gentle sound of lapping water, as the first of the evenings countless stars begin to show themselves – no light pollution here.
‘I love being out here,’ states Ray. ‘It’s as if we’re journeying in the footsteps of the voyageurs of old; they were the real pioneers of modern-day Canada. I can’t understand why there’s a maple leaf on the Canadian flag – it should be a canoe!’
We break camp after a breakfast of eggs and ham, and are soon on the water again. It’s easy to slip back into a relaxed, almost meditative state of movement and progression as our paddles and canoes cut through the mirror-like surface of the river. The manager of Wabakimi Provincial Park had informed me of how they’d taken advice from the area’s first nation residents, on how to evaluate the health of the parks animals: ‘They told us to just look at the beavers. Beavers are an indicator species; if they’re doing well, then the park’s doing well. It’s simple really – when the water’s clean, the plants will grow well, and if the plants grow well the beavers have food, as do all the other animals. So by studying one species, we can assess the health of the whole park.’
My relaxed state is disturbed by an approaching rapid, which we stop above, and inspect on foot. Becky and Ray agree that it looks okay, so one boat at a time – with someone on shore holding a throw line, just in case – we run the rapid. It’s an adrenaline fuelled moment, and I get a face-full of water as the first wave strikes the boat.
Our last night is spent beside the Trans Canadian Railway line at the tiny settlement of Allen Water Bridge. Today it’s nothing more than a few fishing lodges, but amazingly – with a little pre-organization – you can get the massive 4,466 km cross-Canada train to stop and pick you up.
It was a bizarre experience to load our canoes aboard the diesel-powered beast, stepping from the connection with the forest, into a world of holiday makers with iPads and mobile phones. I stared out the train window, suddenly detached from the forest landscape we sped through. I longing to pull the emergency cord, grab my canoe, and once again voyage into the forest to regain my inner voice.
This was published in the March 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine