Thursday, August 16, 2012

Why we chose to paddle Pukaskwa

Well, yeah, because it's there, but there's so much more to it than that. And yeah, because our good friend Keith Wikle suggested we paddle it together with him and John Fleming, but that isn't the whole story, either.

Alec and Keith strike a balance.
We chose to paddle the coastline of Pukaskwa National Park and the Lake Superior Highlands in Ontario because it provides a glimpse of what the Great Lakes were like before industry and development altered them irrevocably. It's truly remote: one road at Hattie Cove, another one at Michipicoten Harbor 120 miles later, and between them nothing but wilderness and pristine waters. This coastline requires complete self-sufficiency. Paddlers must bring everything they need and be able to solve problems that arise without assistance from others, because they are unlikely to find anyone else around.

This shoreline is so remote, you're unlikely to see another paddler for days at a stretch.
A trip like this requires significant planning and preparation. That's part of the attraction. You have to make a raft of good choices about everything from what boat you'll paddle to what food you'll bring, as well as how you'll handle anything that goes wrong with equipment, the weather or the health of the group.

Keith and Sharon on a windy day.
We began by creating a Google Doc, where we shared information in the following categories:
  • Expectations: distance per day, daily schedule, priorities. 
  • Logistics: shuttle, float plan, back country permits.
  • Gear: from first aid and boat repair kits to stoves, water filters and bear bags.
  • Emergencies: medical issues, medications, emergency contacts, extraction plan.
  • Group sharing: medical conditions, phobias and insecurities (bears, snakes, hunger, baldness).
  • Resources: maps, books, campsite info.
Then we met in person to go over the list, discuss some of the items on it and ensure that we shared the key expectation for the trip: that it would be a somewhat leisurely exploration of the coastline, not a race to complete the mileage, and would include plenty of time for taking photos, poking into crevices, hiking to waterfalls and drinking whiskey around a campfire.

Keith, John and Alec chill out around a campfire (one of our priorities).
Individually, we spent time assembling our gear. We bought and dried food, marked and laminated maps, checked our boat repair and first aid kits, assembled camping equipment, and verified that we could fit all of it in our boats. Until the last minute, we were calling and texting each other with questions and suggestions; the trip was a group effort long before we got on the water together.

Ultimately, that's one of the main reasons why we chose to do this trip. Paddling requires a considerable amount of individual knowledge, judgment and skill; paddling in a remote place requires a level of self-sufficiency that puts all of these to the test; Pukaskwa offers the potential for big seas and bad weather along with stunning scenery and solitude; paddling with others adds a level of complexity. The process of planning and executing a wilderness trip with friends challenges and builds leadership and group awareness skills, and rewards that effort with the pleasure of sharing the experience on the water. Paddling Pukaskwa together was a culmination of all our effort to become good paddlers, good leaders and good friends. Doing so successfully validated all three and was a tremendous amount of fun.

The four of us at Cascade Falls.

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