2 — Chippewa Ridge Hike
Yep, the last Saturday in September, I climbed Chippewa Ridge, more easily though perhaps not accurately described as a shoulder of Mount McKay, that massive promontory that overlooks the city of Thunder Bay. I joined about a dozen Field Naturalists, led by Marian and her husband Bruce. Marian interpreted the hike, Bruce made sure we didn’t step off a cliff or lose ourselves in the maze of interconnecting trails.
I’ve always wanted to climb an elevation called Chippewa Ridge, or named the Appalachian Mountains, or known as the Wind River Range. Such romantic names . . . I did actually climb the Wind Rivers once, but had to settle for driving up and over the Appalachians, and now here I had the opportunity to climb a prominence with an almost-Canadian name: Chippewa is what Americans call Ojibway. Okay. I would settle for Chippewa.
Bruce forged ahead of the group, stringing rope at particularly steep slopes so that the more decrepit among us, I included, got an assist. We emerged on a bare ridge, a stretch of loose shale, from which we saw the sun-drowsy waters of the bay stretching away to the Giant Who Sleeps. A stiff breeze blew all the flies up the slope. And there I saw what I had really come for.
Pits. Shallow pits in the rocks, big enough to lie down in and cover yourself with a birchbark canoe if a gale were whipping in from the bay. Pukaskwa pits, as they are called, after a region on Superior’s North Shore where they were first discovered. Bruce confided to me that they were indeed true archaeological artifacts, and he would know, being practically a contemporary of the original creators. (Give me another ten years and I’ll match him story for story.)
The Ojibway who live on the North Shore have ancestral memories of the little hairy men who once sought refuge in these pits. The memegwesi, they called them (MAY—MAY—GWAY—see). Well, I ain’t little no more, and I am missing a few hairs, but I decided to try on a pit for size. I can vouch that the rim came up to my knee caps.
No one knows the age of the pits. Speculation ranges from a few hundred to a few thousand years. Well, let me throw a monkey wrench into the pits. Chippewa Ridge lies several hundred feet above the waters of Gitchie Gumee. It is a beach of prehistoric Lake Minong, formed after the retreat of the Wisconsin continental glacier 10,000 years ago, give or take a year or two. Now, does anyone seriously think that hairy little men built those pits for hikers like me to get their pictures taken in? Or sculpted the Sibley Peninsula to resemble a Sleeping Giant? Or placed an electric light on top of Mount McKay? I think not.
There was another interesting structure on the ridge — a low stone-walled hut, roofless, the decaying birch limbs having caved in. Its walls came up to my knee caps. It wasn’t here this spring, Marian said. She and Bruce frequent this locale a lot.
So . . . I concluded . . . the memegwesi are back. Creating little Chippewa huts for their kids. And someone could prove it. Someone could lie up on that ridge one moonlit night, when the breeze is sweeping the flies up the slope, and catch those hairy little buggers in the act. Not me, though. My skin is sensitive to moonburn.
We traced a circuitous path through aromatic conifers and colourful deciduous trees and emerged on a rocky shelf overlooking Chippewa Park and the Fort William First Nation Reserve. A green carpet rolled on and on to the place where a hazy generating station reared its smokeless chimney into the blue yonder, and the distorted city squatted behind a hedge of wavy air. We could imagine how it might have looked once in the valley and flood plain of the River with Forked Tongue (Okay, okay. I’m exercising my poetic licence here. After all, I paid for it). I glanced to my left and behold, there stood Chingachgook, last of the Mohicans, leaning thoughtfully on his war axe, and limned on the forehead of McKay’s Mountain.
I snapped the photo you see here . . .
Moving a few paces right, we saw the harbour breakwall stretching along the shore of this great inland sea, and the manes of white horses flashing brilliantly in the sun as they leapt the barricade.
We started our descent along mysterious paths. Marian, ever active, sermonized on the beautiful and blessèd vessels of this wooded chancel . . . Brown-robed chanterelles murmuring a Gregorian chant in a
dusky grotto . . . A rare orchid — a rattlesnake plantain — lurking behind a birch, poised to dart a fang at an exposed ankle . . . And roosts
of bracket fungi — turkey tails — on a rotting log, clucking away silently . . .
We emerged from the enchanted forest onto a well-travelled gravel road. One quick glance behind me . . . to catch a glimpse of a tiny hairy creature, or a fabled Mohican warrior.
No luck this time.
Better luck next time.