2020 is a strange year, heck it’s a nasty year, so why shouldn’t my Pukaskwa National Park Coastal Trail attempt be any different?
2020 was supposed to be my Appalachian Trail (AT) year, but COVID-19 shut that down. Still, I have made the best of it. I spent lots of quality time with family, reconnected with local wilderness, cycled and hiked, yet nothing seemed to be able to fill the gaping void left when the Appalachian Trail was denied.
I tried re-hiking the Rideau Trail with my good friend Chris. Although enjoyable, it didn’t seem to scratch my backpacking itch. So what are my other options?
The USA is not an option. The pandemic numbers of our neighbours to the south are so bad, that most countries in the world have denied Americans entry. Canada is no acceptation. Even interprovincial travel can result in compulsory 14-day quarantines. So my only reasonable option is to remain in Ontario.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Ontario is large, beautiful and has plenty of wonderful hiking options.
Firstly, I was looking for a new adventure, that would leave only 2 choices. Pukaskwa National Park Coastal Trail, and the Ottawa-Temiskaming Highland (OTH) Trail. Both are linear rather than loops. Linear hikes pose logistical challenges, which is likely the reason they are the last two big Ontario hikes I haven’t bagged.
The OTH trail will likely require hitchhiking, in COVID times this is a problem. So by elimination, Pukaskwa it is!
The preparations were easy. I was already planned, prepared and packed for my AT 2020 attempt. All I needed was to pencil in 2 weeks, register and go! There were however two additional items I needed: Bear Spray and a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB). These were highly recommended by Parks Canada to which I agreed. Particularly since I was hiking solo!
This is where the problems began.
When testing my PLB (Garmin InReach Mini), I placed it on the roof of my truck to get a good satellite signal. Then I got distracted and forgot about it until later that night. Meanwhile, my good wife had taken the truck out for several errands throughout the day. The InReach was lost and never found.
I was leaving the next day so there was no time to replace it. I made the difficult decision to hike the isolated northern Pukaskwa Coastal trail without a PLB – Strike 1.
The two-day drive to the trailhead was easy and uneventful.
Once on the trail, I was positively giddy with joy. The day was perfect and the path moderate, a great way to start what was expected to be a challenging hike. Then during an easy stretch – that’s often when my guard is let down – I navigated over a blown-down tree and awkwardly landed in a hidden hole. Down I went like a bag of nails. Pain shot from my toes to my knee. I was afraid to look. After dusting myself off I assessed the damage. No broken bones nor skin, but I did twist my ankle – Strike 2.
What to do next?
I have sprained many an ankle and recovery is often, ever so slow. The question is how bad is the sprain? Is it minor and l could recover by simply “walking it off”, or is it severe, and in 12 hours the swelling will fill my leg and profoundly disable me? I gingerly tested the injured ankle and bit down in pain. I took a second step and the pain didn’t get worse. I then made the difficult choice to move forward and take a chance!
One of the challenges of a linear trail is every kilometre, is 2 kilometres back, so I was concerned about moving forward with an injury, solo without a PLB. I would have no help if the situation escalated.
This wasn’t totally true. I did know that the trail was fully registered, so there should be lots of people around if I needed help. So I thought!
My first campsite was at Hook Falls. I had booked the last available site in a cluster of 3. So there should be people to help and possibly socialize with. I was wrong – Strike 3
It took me over an hour to find my campsite. It turns out the trailmaker had blown down. I would eventually find it, bushwhacking with the help of the GPS on my iPhone. I soaked my swelled ankle in the cold river water and waited until dark to settle in thinking others would be arriving. No one showed, so I pitched my tent and built a campfire.
I gently rolled into my tent, tucked myself into my quilt, elevated my sore feet and pulled out my Kobo to read myself to sleep. My e-reader was dead! Completely dead I would later find out – Strike 4.
This is what went on in my head. No Beacon, no people, sprained ankle, downed campsite markers, no kobo … the hiking Gods were talking to me. Be safe, get off the trail and come back next year!
I hobbled out the next morning and set up car camping for the next few days. My ankle recovered better than I expected and I began to second-guess my decision. However I rationalized it all as “better safe than sorry”, and “hindsight is 20-20”.
The Coastal Trail was a bust, but the car camping was wonderful. More importantly, I am safe to hike another day!