Taking the Roundabout Route through Agawa Canyon, Ontario

May 22-29, 2001

The Agawa region of Ontario is a place of high drama and grand scale. Located only an hour north of Sault Ste. Marie along the eastern shore of Lake Superior, it makes people from Michigan feel as if we’ve journeyed to the land of the giants. Instead of deer and coyotes, it has moose and wolves. In place of hills, it has rugged mountains with elevations near 1,000 feet. Mature white pines, maples, and yellow birch take the place of the red pine and scrub oak woods of Michigan’s north country. Over it all arches the enormous Canadian sky that brings constantly changing weather, from high, dark-bottomed clouds to eerily shifting fogs after torrential rains to clear nights with the Milky Way so sharp you can feel the stars like pinpricks on your skin.

The area is seldom visited by backpackers. This is surprising, because hiking there can be as challenging or as easy as you want to make it. The tracks of the Algoma Central Railway (known in Michigan as the Snow Train) head north from the Soo, descend into the canyon, and snake along the bottom beside the Agawa River. For $21 Canadian you can flag down the train anywhere along the tracks and ride to your next campsite. Two of our party did this and still had a great wilderness adventure while the rest of us took the roundabout route.

All seven of us started out from Frater Station, up Frater Road which turns eastward off Highway 17. This is a great chance for suburbanites to test the seldom-used four wheel drive feature on their SUVs. For five miles the road twist and grinds uphill and finally ends up on the railroad tracks. There’s a definite frontier atmosphere to this place, an atmosphere we’d experience many times over the next five days. Across the tracks, the road continues as an old logging track, suitable only for heavy-duty bush ATVs or heavy-duty backpackers. It’s rocky, steep, and wet, with slick mud and huge puddles spanning the full width of the trail that have to be walked around through the brush or waded through. A trekking pole (or two) is a big help here. We camped at the end of our first day on a big outcropping of rock next to a beaver pond that split in two around us with a rickety wooden bridge on each end. Sound effects included peepers, sandhill cranes, loons, mosquitoes, and the occasional “plonk” of beavers smacking their tails on the water. Sue, the biologist in our group, pointed out the sound of a “trilling toad” coming from the pond. I didn’t know that toads trilled.

The second day brought the threat of rain but no rain. We continued on the logging track until late in the morning when our guide announced that the bushwhacking part of the trip would commence shortly. Michael Neiger’s bushwhack routes have become famous (some would say infamous) among those brave enough to backpack with him, so we were expecting the worst, but the one-kilometer cross-country route proved surprisingly gentle: up a steep hill with plenty of footholds and handholds, around a swamp, across a soggy beaver dam exactly one hiking boot wide, a long lunch break in a stand of enormous cedars that filtered the afternoon sun, and finally down an equally steep hill to the Little Agawa River where the trees opened up along a power line with easy walking along a two-track. It had been an adventure but not an ordeal.

By now it was late afternoon as we dug out our sandals and waded across the Little Agawa, where Sue and John stopped for a swim. We went up another hill to the top of a ridge. Below us the canyon opened up with the Agawa River winding along the bottom like a ribbon and the railroad tracks looking small beside it. Michael told us how the river had flooded up over the tracks one spring and the railroad company had to bring in carloads of iron ore to anchor the bridges so they wouldn’t wash away. Here nature still has the upper hand.

We tried to camp with the canyon view in sight, but level ground was in short supply, and the sky was growing ominous. It rained that evening shortly after dinner so we retired to our tents, tired anyway. Outdoors at 2:30 a.m., I saw a sky full of stars; by 3:00 it was raining again and it continued through the night and into Friday morning. By the time we had hiked down the south canyon wall along the power lines and stood on the railroad tracks, the rain had stopped and we had a dry hike along the rails, watchful for trains ahead of us and behind. A service truck equipped with train wheels came blasting around a bend and we dove for the sides of the tracks in unison with little room to spare.

Camp that night was on a small site between the tracks and the Agawa River just north of Agawa Canyon Park where two waterfalls – one on each side of the tracks – cascade down the canyon walls. The park, located on railroad land grant propery, is the terminus of the tourist train route and frequently handles 1,500 tourists a day in the summertime. The place is absolutely pristine, with no litter anywhere, and is a textbook study in soft energy: water from a spring up on the canyon rim is self-pressurized and also provides a small amount of hydroelectric power for the buildings; propane powers a series of mantle lights and the water heater; and toilets for the tourists are the waterless “clivus multrum” composting type frequently found in remote Canadian tourist attractions.

Saturday morning we went up the west canyon wall on the Black Beaver Trail at the south end of the park, which is nearly vertical in places. The ropes and precarious footing raised our adrenalin levels and made us pay close attention, but were a cakewalk compared to the old route – a rickety handmade ladder made of two-by-fours. As we climbed higher, the vegetation changed, and the air grew cooler. Thick moss and tall fiddlehead ferns sprouted from cracks in the rocky cliff, and clusters of the biggest violets I have ever seen grew everywhere. The lushness and variety reminded me of the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest and the west coast of New Zealand.

Lunch stop was at Black Beaver Lake, the first and largest of many jewel-like lakes we would see over the next two days on the west rim of the canyon. We hiked on the network of two-tracks that covers this area, mainly used by sportsmen to reach their camps and lodges. There are big fish in these lakes; later in the trip a fisherman would show us a nine-pound brook trout he had caught, nearly two feet long, red-and-yellow speckles still shining. We were a curiosity to the fishermen. “Where’d you come from?” one asked us? When we replied “Frater Station,” he said, “Ohhhh, so you took the roundabout route.”

Throughout the trip we had been seeing numerous moose tracks and occasionally the faint print of a wolf. We weren’t lucky enough to see either animal face to face, but near Black Beaver Lake we spotted a fresh, perfect wolf track in the mud, following the tracks of a moose. The print is unmistakable – no dog has feet that big.

By now we were down to a core group of seasoned packers and were covering the miles. We crossed four small streams that afternoon, three of them without taking off our boots, and finally made camp in a small gravel pit late in the day, bone tired. It rained briefly at dinnertime, as it would for the remainder of the trip, and the black flies had their normal happy hour. The beauty of the Canadian spring is not without its price. The bugs weren’t constantly active; they tended to swarm more during the warmest parts of the day, and the nights were still too cool for them. Reactions from our group varied, from stoic refusal to wear a headnet to those who never took theirs off except to eat. All of us used bug repellent; John preferred citronella, adding “Citro-Boy” to his long list of nicknames, while the rest of us slathered ourselves in Deet. For me the blackflies and mosquitoes (yes, they were there too) were more a nuisance than a plague, but I could have done without them. It’s not a perfect world.

Sunday was cool and very humid as we hiked an overgrown two-track back in the direction of the canyon and the tracks. This road was only shown on a very old map, and Michael pulled out his compass and counted paces to make sure it was taking us where we wanted to go. It did, and we were happy to be spared a long bushwhack. Stopping next to a beaver pond to filter water, I found a single deep red ladyslipper, much darker than the pink ones I’m used to seeing in the Upper Peninsula.

Lunch stop was in the front yard of an unused camp on Hotshot Lake. We stopped and stared when we saw what the owners had done to keep the bears from breaking in: below each window and door they had fastened a board full of evil-looking nail points to keep the animals from standing or leaning too close. Ingenious, also brutal. Also necessary.

We lounged on the dock in the sun and refilled our water bottles. Three fishermen – two men and a boy – rowed in closer to take a look at us. They were firmly wrapped up in headnets and didn’t seem to be enjoying the blackflies much. “Where’d you come in from?” one of them asked.

By now we knew the drill. “Frater Station.”

“By golly, you been all over da place, eh?”

Without missing a beat, Sue spoke up: “Yeah. Like shit on a wagon wheel.”

Inside the headnets, three jaws dropped. The boy looked like he had finally met some of the people his parents had been warning him about all his life. The remark did break the ice, though, and they ended up rowing in closer and talking with us for a long time. After that it was on down the trail past several more lakes, each of them beautiful. The afternoon grew hot. We were hoping for a campsite in this area, but what little high ground there was had camps on it. Finally we resigned ourselves to another long day of hiking and ending up back at the tracks in the evening. That’s part of the adventure, too – you can’t always know what lies up the trail.

Just before the trail descended back down to the canyon, we came upon a cottage on the prettiest lake yet with a small island in the middle. The cottage had tiny windows and white shutters, something straight out of Hansel and Gretel, and like Hansel and Gretel, we wandered closer. In the yard a canoe had been sawed off short and turned on end to make a shrine, and inside the shrine lounged a statue of a pink pig with a pink bouquet above it. Of course we had to take pictures of this, and meanwhile the owners came out on the porch. They were French Canadian, from the Soo, and very friendly – they even invited us to hike back up the hill for coffee in the morning. We exchanged pleasantries and went on. Five minutes later, bringing up the rear, I heard a motor behind me. The man from the cottage had followed me on his ATV.

“I take you rest of way,” he said in his heavily accented voice. It wasn’t a question.

I debated. He was so nice – it would be rude to say no – and I wasn’t really looking forward to stumbling down the steep road on a lot of loose rock so late in the day. But it wasn’t going to look good, riding the last quarter mile of the trip on a four-wheeler.

“My friends will make fun of me if I ride,” I told him.

“Ach, no problem. We take shortcut,” he said, jumping off the machine. The man was at least 70 and agile as a cat. In short order he had strapped my pack to the frame of the ATV. “Get on,” he ordered.

I got on. The thought crossed my mind that I had survived five days of heat, bugs, a pack full of pig iron, and a vertical climb up a cliff, only to be killed by a senior citizen driving a four-wheeler, but the guy turned out to be a superb driver. The machine was fully equipped for the bush – hefty four-wheel-drive thing with steel racks overhead for carrying gear and possibly to serve as a roll cage; winch; axe fastened to the front. He turned off the trail and onto a muddy track through the woods that went straight up. The machine stalled out on the hill in the mud. “I back up,” he said, threw it in reverse, and took another run at the hill. This time we made it and went careening down the other side.

The shortcut turned out to be a ploy – it did not bypass my friends. We burst out of the woods straight into the middle of my fellow trekkers, who wisely chose to scatter. “I come back for them after I take you down,” my escort said. I was trying to picture this as we roared past Michael, who stared at me. Obviously he did not approve of his trekkers cadging ATV rides from the locals.

The guy probably would have taken all five of us down, one at a time, if dinner hour hadn’t intervened. At 5:00 it was like someone (namely his wife) had thrown a switch and off he went, promising to return in the morning. Before he left he showed us a sandbar on the Agawa River where he said there were trout. Most of us swam there, one at a time. The water was cold but absolutely pure; I let out a whoop as I plunged in and afterward I felt baptized.

Dinner brought the usual rain and bugs as we camped next to the tracks at Mile 118-1/2. After it cleared up we emerged from our tents and stayed up to talk and make the final night of the trip last. The last thing I heard as I fell asleep was the hooting of a barred owl (“whoo-cooks-for-yoooo”), probably chasing a certain member of our group who felt the sudden urge to step out into the dark and howl and hoot before bedtime.

Monday morning it was hurry up and wait for the train. Mary and Mara, who had been walking the tracks all weekend, rejoined us. We swatted bugs, chatted with the half dozen or so fishermen who emerged from the woods on ATVs, and tried to make Gail reveal the contents of her trip journal, to no avail. The train came at 2:30, only an hour late. We boarded and wandered back to the rear car to look out from the platform at the places we had walked as the engine curved and climbed the sixteen miles back to Frater. From the top of the canyon wall we looked down through a notch in the hills to Lake Superior and Montreal Island laid out before us in the distance while the Agawa River glistened in the canyon below. I vowed to come back in the fall.

There are trips, and then there is travel. Trips are always a pleasure, but they don’t take me far away enough. Travel is magical – it lasts long enough to make the world I came from seem unreal, and it’s the result of forces beyond my control coming together. Everything came together for this trip – the places, the people we met along the way, the moments of silence interspersed with times of raucous laughter. There was a little danger for spice, a touch of drudgery so I’d appreciate the high points, and a constant sense of adventure around the next bend in the trail. Agawa is that kind of place.

Story and photos copyright 2001-2009 by Boreal Press. All rights reserved. No material on this page may be copied or published electronically or in print without written permission of Boreal Press Inc.

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