Under threatening skies on a humid July morning, the centuries-old Ojibwa pictographs at Agawa Rock radiate an energy matched only by Lake Superior's restless swell. This is the payoff for four days of backpacking in northern Ontario on Lake Superior Provincial Park's Coastal Trail: a shaman's canvas that soars 70 metres out of the water. It's a place where blood-red rock paintings speak of countless journeys - like my own - on Lake Superior's rugged shoreline.
The 65-kilometre Coastal Trail runs north-south from Cape Gargantua (pronounced like the French, gar-gan-twa) to the provincial-park campground and visitor centre at Agawa Bay. Like Vancouver Island's popular West Coast and Juan de Fuca backpacking trails, the Coastal Trail crests headlands for sweeping views of Superior's ocean-like horizons and follows driftwood-laden beaches reminiscent of the Pacific Northwest. All that's missing are the tides, marine life and rain-forest climate. And unlike its West Coast cousins, reservations aren't required; even in the height of summer, Lake Superior's minimalist backcountry campsites are typically crowd-free.
The trail's northernmost access point is located at Gargantua Bay, 170 kilometres north of Sault Ste. Marie on the Trans-Canada Highway and at the end of a bumpy, 14-kilometre gravel road. With a stop to pick up interior camping permits at the park's Agawa Bay headquarters ($10 per person, per night), it's about a three-hour drive from the Sault. I park my car at the trailhead, load up my pack and hike north, emerging two hours later at the sandy beach and prime campsites of Warp Bay.
Since it's too early in the day to set up camp, I set off on a two-kilometre side trail cutting across Cape Gargantua to a black sand beach. A pyramid-shaped islet called Devil's Chair sits just offshore; this is the mythical resting place of Nanabijou, an Ojibwa demigod. The fur-trading voyageurs, old-time fishermen and present-day sea kayakers follow the native custom of leaving an offering at the Chair. Lacking the traditional pinch of tobacco, I spill some tea leaves into the water. Then I strip down and wade in; contrary to common belief, Lake Superior is refreshingly swimmable in sheltered coves like this.
According to researchers, the lake has become comfortable for bathing within an alarmingly short period of time. Jay Austin, a physicist at the University of Minnesota Duluth's Large Lakes Observatory, has recorded a 2.5-degree Celsius increase in Lake Superior water temperatures in the past 25 years - a harbinger of climate change. With this year's early spring and scorching summer, Austin suspects new records could be set this month.
At the same time, the lake's endemic communities of "Arctic disjunctive" vegetation - the tiny, cactus-like plants clinging to rocky promontories on the Coastal Trail - are disappearing, according to University of Guelph botanists. Typically found 1,600 kilometres north in the Arctic or at high-alpine elevations, these plants serve as memories of Lake Superior's glacial past and indicators of the cool microclimate created by the lake's perennially chilly water.
It's the threat of ecological change that inspired a couple from Minnesota to hike all 4,400kilometres of Lake Superior's coastline this summer. Naturalists Mike Link and Kate Crowley are taking photographs every five kilometres along their walk and recording sightings of rare, at-risk species like woodland caribou and peregrine falcons, both which are known to live in Lake Superior Provincial Park. They hope that this "baseline data" - never collected for the entire lake - will be useful for measuring changes in the future.
My five-day journey on the Coastal Trail hardly compares to Link and Crowley's five-month " Full Circle Superior" expedition, but it captures the essence of the lake's paradoxically rugged yet fragile shoreline. I encounter the most difficult section of trail on Day 2, after backtracking to Gargantua Bay and heading south. I climb a precarious, rockbound crevasse known as Fatman's Alley, and eventually sweat my way out of the woods at Rhyolite Cove. The trail remains steep, slippery and generally painstakingly tough from here to Beatty Cove, another sheltered sand beach with a handful of tent sites. After grunting my way up and over Baldhead Hill, I traverse rolling sand dunes and spend my third night camped on a sprawling beach just north of Agawa Rock.
I reach the pictographs the next morning. The granite cliff is accessible from Highway 17 via a short, well-used trail, but it feels more rewarding to tiptoe along the narrow rock shelf at the water's edge after four gruelling days on the Coastal Trail. The paintings of bears, caribou, canoes and fish have withstood 150 to 400 years of exposure to the elements, despite being made with a crude mixture of crushed stone, animal fat and fish oil. Most striking is the image of a horned, spike-tailed cat that gazes out over the open water.
Link and Crowley will help to create a visual reminder of the Lake Superior coastline. "We have a lot of concerns about the future," Link said. "But our message is to encourage people to look around and learn to love the lake, and then they will help take care of it. We can shake fists, but people do what they feel in their hearts."
On this day, my heart is content and my muscles feel rejuvenated. I collect my pack and all but float the final seven kilometres of trail.
Special to The Globe and Mail