“If you see the bear, don’t run, just walk by, he’ll be busy with the Cookies ‘N Cream”

Week Four: Thunder Bay to Rossport, ON

The end of another week on the road marks the completion of the fourth week of this expedition, a full lunar cycle, and an almost dizzying recognition of how much time has passed and how much distance we have covered. We have traveled one-third of the circumnavigation route. This week also marks a significant milestone – we have shifted our feet and direction from north to east. For us, because we are so familiar with the lake and land from the perspective of Wisconsin’s south shore, it can be disorienting to face the lake with east and west reversed.

We headed out of Thunder Bay in the company of a brief, torrential downpour, and faced on-and-off precipitation as we headed to the Thunder Bay International Hostel outside of the city. Leaving the hostel the next day, we met a fellow traveler who is walking across Canada from the westernmost point to the easternmost. Our new friend Steve explained to us that walking across Canada is a bucket list item not only for him but for a surprisingly large amount of Canadians. We ended up camping together at the same rest area about twenty miles down the road, and got the chance to hear his story about grizzlies in the mountains, winds on the plains, and why he started his journey. It seems that the longer we three runners are on the road, the more vagabonds and travelers we encounter.

From the rest area, we continued north on ever-present Highway 17 to Wolf River Campground, located right on the Wolf River. Even though this was the middle of a series of days away from the lake, we are still moving through the same watershed. The cold, clear waters of the river flow out to Lake Superior, a visual reminder of the power of water to connect. We spent a rejuvenating rest day at our spot on the river battling bugs and impending drizzle, both of which too often seem to be the norm. Our new friend Caroline from Thunder Bay also surprised us at camp and drove us up to Ouimet Canyon, a side trip we wouldn’t have been able to take without her help.

The next city on the map was Nipigon, a friendly town of about 1,600 people.  We ran some errands – grabbing groceries, mailing a water sample, eating lunch, buying white gas – and then continued on to our destination for the night, Ruby Lake Provincial Park. The most that our research could tell us about Ruby Lake was that it is a non-operating park. We assumed Ruby Lake had been recently closed. Whoops, turns out it is a brand new park still in development. The directions given to us by a helpful woman at the Nipigon visitor’s center were to look for a really nice, “million-dollar road” going off into the woods. Confident that we would find it, we set off from Nipigon in the late afternoon to run what we thought would be eight more miles to Ruby Lake, eyes peeled for the unlabeled road. We kept running, and running, and running, and finally walking. No million dollar road. Huh. Ruby Lake, we’ll find you someday. Undeterred, we continued on to the Jackfish River and instead camped under the stark and somber shadow of gigantic cliffs. Even though we weren’t planning on running that far, it’s satisfying to know that our legs can carry us (and Rig) thirty miles in one day.

It’s June in Canada, and the bugs are a steady constant. Often the setting sun correlates directly with increased mosquito activity. Cooking dinner by the Jackfish River that night must have seemed hilarious from an outside perspective as we paced around and constantly swatted zipping and swarming bugs. That night by the cliffs also usefully let us know that we are definitely in bear territory. We learned this not only from ample bear scat around us but also by the sounds of the nearby creatures themselves as we got cozy in our tent for the night. We are being as cautious as possible, hanging our food in bear bags from trees at night, and during the day often seeing a bear scramble up the ditch as we run past on the shoulder.

Through previous contacts we had made in Thunder Bay around the microplastics samples we are gathering as part of this expedition, we connected with Chuck and Daniele Hutterli. On the way to their house, we passed by Kama Bay – the northernmost point on the lake. Another milestone in our circumnavigation! We spent some time at the overlook making coffee and eating breakfast, and packed up Rig just as it began to rain… again. It didn’t abate the entire afternoon. Thoroughly soggy and a bit chilly, we kept plugging away at the miles, buoyed by Chuck’s offer to cook us dinner when we arrived. At a rest area where we took shelter under a spruce for a few minutes, a well-meaning maintenance worker insisted we take the three giant, heavy duty garbage bags he offered us with instructions to make rain ponchos out of them. He wouldn’t take no for an answer, so we strapped the bags to our stroller and, like we always do, kept running. Wet and tired, we made it to their house where we were warmly welcomed by Chuck and Daniele who cooked us a delicious dinner, answering our questions about life on the lake as well as the plastic pollution on their beach. Since a train derailment eight years ago, there have been pre-production plastic pieces called nurdles washing up on their beach. We were excited to learn more about the organizing and advocacy that Chuck has been doing around the nurdles. Even though the train derailment was eight years ago, the plastic continues to wash up onto the shore. (We’ll post a longer conversation with Chuck in a couple weeks).

As we’ve been warned repeatedly by several people we’ve met, there are big hills ahead. It’s true – we are just beginning the hilliest section of the trip, meaning we are subject to the whims of million-year-old magma as well as the relentless perseverance of glaciers ten thousand years ago. We’re getting good at doggedly striding up and down miles of steep hills to breathtaking views of the cerulean waters and curving shoreline. Because we travel this route on foot and with a stroller, we are also subject to the path that modern construction has carved out of this landscape. We ponder often throughout this pilgrimage of ours how this highway is not meant for pedestrians. Navigating one-lane bridge closures and other various construction zones only serves to cement this fact.

On the way to the next town of Rossport at the top of one of the biggest hills yet, Caver’s Hill, we were nearly to the top when a construction worker warned us that they would be blasting soon. As our anxiety levels increased slightly, we began running as fast as we could to the top of the hill to escape the dynamite zone. We made it safely through just as the line of cars waiting for the blasting began to stretch down the other side of the hill. At the top, we chatted for a while with a bicycle tourist from Maine also circumnavigating the lake, and got warned by a couple from Minnesota about a bear ahead. This bear had become notorious to us by now, as both Chuck and that well-meaning maintenance worker at the rest area had briefed us on the current scenario. About a week ago, a Cookies ‘N Cream semi carrying a load of cookie dough caught on fire going down Caver’s Hill. The mess was cleaned up, but there was still cookie dough burnt onto the highway, attracting some large and furry lingerers. Sure enough, on our way down, we saw the scorched highway and just across the ditch, there was the cookie-addicted bear. We passed safely on the other side of the road, went up and down another memorable climb, and after finding a vein of amethyst in the bedrock and grabbing a couple small souvenirs, we made it to Rossport. Until the sea lamprey made its way through the St. Lawrence Seaway and into Lake Superior, Rossport was a fishing village. Now that the invasive species has decreased the fish population, the little town serves as a tourist spot and an access point to explore the myriad islands you can see from the shore. We picked up another resupply box and spent some quality time swimming and lounging at the beach before heading out for the last three miles to Rainbow Falls Provincial Park. With a rest day at Rainbow Falls, and a few more coming up quite quickly, for once we are pleased rather than disgruntled at our former selves for the plans we made for our future selves.

The past week feels packed to the brim. With both the summer solstice and the full moon right around the corner, we can feel the energy of the long-lit days. The summer is sinking in.