[Originally published 22 August 2008]
Part I – Getting Up
Seventeen people turned out for the guided tour of the Palisades hiking trail on Saturday, August 16. Hikers had spectacular views from some of the highest points in Northwestern Ontario.
The Municipality of Greenstone partnered with the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) in 2004, and with the joint funding, Greenstone contracted with Geraldton Community Forest Inc. (GCFI) to scout out, plan, and construct a trail up and on top of the cliffs that overlook Orient Bay on Lake Nipigon.
One point two billions years old, the Palisades of the Pijitawabik [PEE-GEE-TUH-WAW-BIK] present a remarkable geological formation. When the 110 waterfalls freeze over in winter, climbers come from all across North America to challenge the ice of the Palisades.
The trail begins at a parking lot in the bush, constructed by the Municipality. The Municipality had upgraded a rough access road for half a kilometre, the rough road continuing to the TransCanada Pipelines right-of-way. The access road begins on the east side of Highway 11, exactly 38.1 kilometres south of the railway tracks in Beardmore. The next road south of this one is the Gorge Creek Road.
At 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, hikers strode along a wide groomed trail, with minor ups and downs, to a sturdy bridge across a dry watercourse. Then serious climbing commenced. The trail narrowed, grew rougher, and much, much steeper. It was useful to have a hand or two free to balance oneself and to grab onto tree trunks.
Hikers arrived at the first stairway – yes, a stairway in the wilderness. It is safe to assume most of the hikers welcomed the assist, for many were in their forties and fifties, with a few in their sixties.
Landings, each supplied with a short bench, punctuated the long stairway. From the bottom, one could not see the top. After another scramble up the steep slopes, the group encountered another, albeit shorter, stairway. A couple of minutes further on, the leading party paused to allow the stragglers to catch up, and the last one staggered in about fifteen minutes later.
A GPS unit determined the height about sea level to be 406 metres, but only 115 metres above the parking lot where the trail began. Derek Farrar, one of the two guides, stated that the group was now 183 metres above the level of Lake Nipigon.
Farrar, Operations Supervisor for GCFI, had led a maintenance crew over the trail earlier in the season. The other GCFI guide, Shawn Lawson, provided a running commentary on the trail’s botanical phenomena.
The well-groomed trail through the bush
now skirted the edge of the cliffs, but hikers had a panoramic view only at the four overlooks. The canyon through which Highway 11 wound used to be a spillway for the melting continental glacier. The sun shone brilliantly on the green-clad hills, the miniature trees, and in a far-away lake, a teensy-weensy motorboat. The trail provided no view of Lake Nipigon itself.
Most hikers strike out for the end of the trail at Cascade Falls, 4.6 kilometres from the parking lot. The trail is far from level. Part of the charm of the trip lies with the specimens of forest floor plants, the shrubs, the interesting trees and rock structures, the birds and insects, and evidence of wildlife, such as moose bones and bear scat.
The party encountered one bear scat. Jim Turner, General Manager of GCFI, told the Times Star community newspaper, “We get calls from people for an organized hike . . . . There’s more comfort in groups.” He was referring to some people’s fear of maverick bears and of getting lost, as well as the desire to have an interpretive tour.
Farrar pointed out that a moose had recently walked the lower trail and, somehow, scaled the steep slopes of the Palisades and walked the upper trail, leaving behind the moose scat the party observed.
After two and a half hours, the group arrived at the stream that feeds Cascade Falls, which overlooks Reflection Lake. Just a trickle of water dropped down the rocky streambed for several metres towards the lip of the waterfall. Only the truly adventurous could screw up the nerve to peer over the lip into the abyss.
Here the group sat down to picnic, to rehydrate, and to recuperate. The wise hiker, of course, frequently takes a sip of water on the trail. Only one of the group, Duncan McKay of Terrace Bay, had the foresight to bring a walking stick. But everyone wore sensible footwear and brought a fanny pack or small daypack with necessaries.
For anyone carrying a GPS unit, the trail offers a treasure hunt – geocaches. A geocache is a weatherproofed container which holds whimsical items and a logbook which the finder can sign. GCFI has 15 geocaches in the region, whose coordinates can be read at www.geocaching.com.
Part II – Getting Down
The Palisades trail offers an alternative route back, the Browse Lake loop. Shortly after starting back on the trail, the group took the lefthand fork (easily missed if one is not alert). Hikers often stubbed their toes on the short projecting stubs of shrubs that had been removed from the trail. One of the interesting monuments was an ancient birch that was so large a person could not encircle it with his arms. The original forest gave way to second growth, although still a respectable forest, for long ago the bush in this sector had been harvested.
The trail arrived at a junction. To the left was a long walk into Browse Lake, where some hikers took a few moments to soak their feet. The lake was a blue gem encircled by boreal forest and rockbound shores.
Back on the main loop trail, the walking improved. Part of the trail followed an old tote road. For many of the hikers who were becoming fatigued, the trail seemed interminable, but Farrar claimed that the loop trail was the quickest return route. Hikers became widely separated.
Lingering with the stragglers was always one of the guides or Heather Farrar, all experienced hikers. Occasionally hikers encountered crude stairways over knolls or log walkways over ditches and wetlands, the logs flattened on the upper side.
Back in 2004, Geraldton Community Forest had given Cory Nephin the task of scouting out the Palisades trail. The scout took several weeks, for the terrain defied Nephin and his crew, who were accompanied by an MNR employee.
“Just getting up there,” Nephin told the Times Star, “was a problem. There was no trail. There were a lot of sheer faces, all impassable.” Additional considerations were, to locate an area for a parking lot, and once they had scaled the slopes, to scout a trail to Cascade Falls, a key attraction of the Palisades, as well as a trail to Browse Lake.
In fact, in 2005, once the trail had been completed, one branch led directly to the falls, and one directly to Browse Lake. Over 2006-07, GCFI, on its own initiative, completed a branch trail originating near the waterfall to create the present loop.
Nephin stated that they always knew they would need some stairways. GCFI called for tenders, and awarded a contract to a Nipigon firm. The contractor hauled the treated lumber up to the pipeline right-of-way using the access road, and then skidded the wood up the gentler slopes and through the bush with a cum-a-long. In essence, the stairways were built from the top down. Rein Onnis, one of the hikers, and a building contractor by trade, praised the quality of the workmanship.
On Saturday, August 16, the hikers regrouped at the lower stairway, taking an extended rest break. On their way again, the group once more resolved into small parties and individual hikers. Everyone had felt the strain of descending the slopes and the stairs, for the hike had exacted a physical toll.
Interviewed later, Arlene Boracheff said, “Coming down, it was my toenails. It felt like someone had ripped them off.” She suggested that anyone who was out of shape would find the trail an ordeal. As for the stairways, she said she had been intimidated by their length, but “I guess it beats climbing over the rocks”.
For other hikers, the whole experience was a buzz. “It was a great, great walk! I’m going to do it again in about a month.” Rein Onnis said he wanted to view the autumn colours.
The two visitors from The Netherlands had a ball. Paul Kathmann, brother of Peter Kathmann, signed up for the hike with his wife, Mary. “They thought it was fantastic!” said Peter later, his relatives having already left. Back home, they had hiked at sea level, so the elevations and the spectacular views, and the interpretations of flora and microclimates offered by Shawn Lawson, made it a memorable experience.
The writer was one of the last to stagger into the parking lot at 3:25 p.m. An hour before, a handful of hikers had waltzed in. The temperature was 25′ C. Derek Farrar distributed bottles of water to the parched group.
The bus driver was already waiting. Imexko General Contracting had sponsored the bus. Peter Kathmann, proprietor, had done some of the trail improvements for GCF.
Following is a list of participants: Derek Farrar, Heather Farrar, Shawn Lawson, Rein Onnis, Edgar Lavoie, Terry Fedorus, Agnes Vincent, Sarah Vincent, Duncan McKay, Peter Kathmann, Paul Kathmann, Mary Kathmann, Jerry Shulmistra, Suzanne Brabant, Martine Turner, Colby Craig, Arlene Boracheff.