Sunday, February 7, 2016

Review: Mijinemungshing Lake, Lake Superior Provincial Park

View over Agawa Bay, the Montreal River
and the Trans Canada Highway
Location: 1.5 hours from Sault Ste. Marie, 8.5 hours from Toronto
Website: Ontario Parks or Friends of Lake Superior PP
Map: Friends of Lake Superior PP or Google Maps
Camping Facilities: Backcountry (at Mijinemungshing)
Grade: A+
Stargazing: As expected up north
Summary: A large inland lake for jump-off backcountry camping with plenty of campsites and access to lakes further inside the park
Thoughts: I feel like Lake Superior Provincial Park is Ontario's hidden gem. Everyone knows about Quetico, Killarney, Algonquin, Temagami, Haliburton, etc. but I don't know if I've ever heard anyone say much about Lake Superior PP. And that is a great oversight. There are very few camping spots in Ontario that can give any camper everything they're looking for. I am willing to wager that Lake Superior Provincial Park is one of those places. To list the most important features:
  • Reasonable drive from Toronto (well - 8 hrs, but you can do it in a day)
  • Numerous access points to observe the violent beauty of Gitchigumi herself
  • Plenty of car camping and interior camping dispersed throughout the park
  • Rich in interesting natural and human history (in fact, you can observe the native Canadian relationship with the area through the parks pictographs) 
  • A variety of hiking trails providing a range of difficulty levels, with rewarding vistas
  • Incredibly scenic drive along the Trans Canada highway through the park
There is something for everyone here. And it's bound to provide you with some of the best quality experiences of whatever it is that you seek.

I was able to make a stopover in Lake Superior PP on my way to explore Northern Ontario, ultimately reaching Quetico for a few days of camping. You make your way into Mijinemungshing Lake via a gravel road off the Trans Canada highway, which was in better condition than most of the backcountry access roads I've used in my life. After a 15-20 minute drive, you'll reach a parking lot that's just a couple minutes walk up from the docking point. You can unload at the put-in and drive your car back up to the parking lot. The put-in comes complete with a wooden dock large enough for at least a couple parties to launch simultaneously. As well, the park staff have provided a weathered old pavilion just up from the dock, probably installed ages ago when this park saw a lot more visits from our American neighbours. It has a map, a little information about the history and the ecology of the area, but overall, the content didn't seem to warrant the sturdy structure. Be warned: the stony beach next to the dock is very soft - do not attempt to park on the slope here, you're liable to get stuck.

Mijinemungshing Lake put-in
When I first arrived in Mijinemungshing, the skies were dark and ominous. The winds were blowing fiercely from the south and the clouds looked ready to shed their load at any moment. I thought that I should embark as soon as possible, find myself a campsite and set up camp before things got too messy. Mijinemungshing is a larger lake, with islands and lots of hiding plac
es from foul conditions, so I figured that it should be safe. However, when I set out south from the dock, it quickly became clear that in a battle between me and the wind, the wind had the advantage; the minute I tried to make a turn east out of the bay, I would be broadsided by the gusts and either pushed ashore or dumped in the lake. I was having a hard enough time just keeping the boat straight (my canoe has quite a bit of freeboard when paddling solo and no tumblehome, so it catches the wind very well). So after 5 minutes of paddling, I turned around and headed back to shore with the aid of the wind and waited for it to die down.

While I was waiting for the situation to improve, a car pulled up with a friendly man and woman in their 70s from Northern Michigan, a pair of retired teachers. They came to a similar conclusion as I did, to wait until the winds become a bit more hospitable before their leisurely afternoon paddle on the lake. The gentleman had visited this area 20 years before with his late wife and mentioned how impressed he was by the park (which I found surprising, given that they were from Northern Michigan - I had just assumed a similar experience could be found on the other side of the border). He mentioned that the loons on Mijinemungshing Lake would let you to paddle right up next to them, and that the fishing was good here. "But there don't seem to be any loons here now", he said wistfully. He seemed to be attempting to recapture the experience of his visit to Lake Superior all those years ago and I really hoped he would be able to.

We both looked out onto Mijinemungshing in silence for a few moments while the wind pressed against our faces. It seemed to evoke memories of his late wife: "Coming back to this lake, you brings everything back". I clumsily mumbled something like "I can imagine", but it made me think about all the times I had spent with friends and family camping in the outdoors and how they produced deep, vivid memories that can fuse the sentiments towards your traveling partners with the beauty of these places. The quality of the memory seems to be enhanced by majesty of the location, and I guessed that a splendid spot like Mijinemungshing would provide rich, detailed emotions entwined with the feelings you have about the people you experience it with. It made me briefly wish that I wasn't paddling solo, but later I realised that my time here will give me a fond memory of introspection and solitude that I could always come back to, something that would be valuable in the days when I was daydreaming about the Ontario woods.

Tent pads can turn into above-ground swimming pools
if the rains get heavy
The wind died down enough that the couple thought they'd head out. I saw them push out into the waves and thought maybe now I could give it a shot again. The previously relentless gusts had calmed down considerably so I kept pushing while rounding the corner of the bay. Then the weather turned. What had seemed to be the weather calming was in fact the calm before the storm. The torrents of rain were slowly filling up my boat, so I headed to the large island with four campsites that wasn't too far from the dock. I picked the spot on the top-right corner of the island (as presented on the Lake Superior PP map) and rushed to set up camp in the rain. I quickly discovered that my tent was leaky and the fly didn't hold it's shape well when wet, and seemed to funnel rain into one of the vents/windows. As the downpour continued, my tent started to accumulate a nice little indoor swimming pool. Finally, the sound of the rain starting to lighten came like music to my ears and I would have some time before sunset to dry things out. I stepped outside into a newly-formed puddle that had collected during the time I took shelter in the tent. I rotated the tent away from the pool and the rocky/sandy soils soon drained the water away.

I filtered some water and poured a mug of rye, then sat and looked out at the lake. Mijinemungshing was everything I was after; a good-sized, quiet lake with plenty of interior campsites, just a short distance off of the Trans Canada highway. It's possible to portage deeper into the backcountry from Mijinemungshing, but I just didn't have the time; I was on a mission to see as many of the parks between Toronto and Thunder Bay as possible in the 10 days that I had off and I hoped that what I learned about these places would inform future trips back to Ontario. Indeed, I realised that I would have to come back to Lake Superior another time to explore the many backcountry camping opportunities it provides.

Lake Superior Provincial Park Interior Camping

There are tent pads at the sites on Mijinemungshing, in addition to privies, picnic tables and fire pits; all the backcountry comforts that you desire from a provincial park. The water is crystal clear. You can get a sense of wilderness and seclusion, even though my closest neighbour was only 50 metres away. The stargazing is splendid. The effort to get here is minimal, where you can go from the dock to setting up a campsite in less than an hour. Everything a lazy interior camper in search of serenity can ask for. The only thing that left me wanting was the short amount of time I had to spend there.

Loon on Mijinemungshing Lake
As I paddled back to the car the next morning to resume my journey up north, a loon popped out of the water in front of me. It seemed to be a demonstration that this place was indeed still flourishing, still able to support wildlife as it had throughout the centuries. It gave me some comfort and made me think of my friends from Michigan who had paddled this spot the day before. I hoped the loons of their memories found them before they left the park. But I guessed that it didn't much matter - the lake hadn't changed, it still held the aura of twenty years ago, and of the centuries that came before.

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