We drove 3,000 km round trip from Toronto to walk 26km, half of it uphill, to see an amazing sight.
Hidden beyond the Giant’s knees, another 2km above the “summit” and 980 feet above Lake Superior, is The Chimney, one of Canada’s natural wonders. I’d seen a photo of it in a magazine and promised that I’d find a way to see it for myself.
It was beyond what I’d expected: a dramatic fissure in the pink granite and black basalt rocks, rising about 800 feet from the shore of the lake in the shape of a narrow horseshoe. The top is lined with red rhyolite volcanic boulders and crumbling shale, dotted with scrubby pine trees and wild flowers. No photograph can really capture the amazing beauty and power of this place: it truly has to be seen.
We started our hike to the Chimney a little later than we’d planned: it’s probably best to start at 9am, certainly no later than 11. Keep in mind, you will be walking for ten hours. The trick is to pick a good weather day for this kind of hike. The temperatures were around 21C with a good 20km/hr wind: the breeze kept the heat and the bugs to manageable levels, but the first six km to Tee Harbour are along a fairly wide, level old logging road, through deep, boggy woods. Rain would make the hike impossible. There had been a deluge the night before we went (123mm in some places) and we had to skirt large puddles. The bogs alongside the road were full of mosquitoes.
These woods are quite dark and the festive jingling of bear bells, punctuated by cries of “Aieee!” and “Whoop!” (which would carry on for the next ten hours), were more comforting than desperate at this point. On a previous hike, we’d met two bears and we really didn’t want to meet any more. The trail is narrow and twists, and sometimes it’s hard to see what’s ahead, so announce your presence as noisily as you can.
At the beginning of the trail, around 1km in, you can climb a small branch path to the “Sea Lion,” an arch of rock that now looks more like a sea horse since it lost its head in the early 1900s. (We had done this walk a few days before: you won’t want to take the detour from the main hike at this particular time). It’s a lovely view and we’ll talk more about it next week.
Back on the main trail, the first stop is Tee Harbour, around 6km in. There are campsites here, part of the Kabeyun Trail system, which extends more than 30km along the shore of Lake Superior. It was developed as a hiking trail in the 1960s on the bed of a 1930s logging and firefighting road.
Another kilometre along the shore, you turn off to the Talus Trail, where you are confronted with a notice saying that a new trail has been cut to the Top of the Giant. “Due to the extreme danger of falling rock,” (which I’ve heard described as “boulders the size of fridges and compact cars….”), “the Chimney Trail has been closed.” The new trail adds kilometres to the trip, but we were told by a ranger in the park office that the old trail, now well hidden, is crumbling and lethal, and the rangers will charge anyone caught trying to use it. Some kamikaze climbers do still attempt it, but saving an hour or so really isn’t worth risking your life. The new trail is quite exciting enough…. The sign also mentions that the trail to the top is 4km (8km round trip) and you must be physically fit to attempt it. They really aren’t kidding….
From here, you go up…and up. We were carrying about five litres of water, which is pretty heavy, and we were starting to feel it, but we were glad we had it. The trail goes over boulders and “stairs” constructed on the side of the hill. Shorts aren’t recommended: you’ll be on your knees at some points and on your bum at others, climbing hand over hand. You might reach out and land in a patch of poison ivy. You’ll be single file by now and you need to be careful not to dislodge pebbles into your partner’s face! My heart sank a little when, after climbing a couple of hundred feet, the trail went DOWN…. I knew that meant we’d have to climb UP here on the way back!
This part of the trail feels a bit like The Land of the Lost, with giant ferns lining the narrow and twisting path. Don’t forget to jingle your bear bells here! Stop for a short rest on the bench by Talus Lake, before climbing the talus or shale scree. Once past this, the real climbing starts: more “steps” with risers about two feet high, and clambering over rocks and tree roots. Intermittently from here, you can look through the trees, and the views make the effort absolutely worthwhile! Little side trails lead to the edge and while you can look down, you can’t really look up to see the top.
Oddly enough, after Talus Lake, I didn’t feel the urge, not even once, for a cigarette…!
The trail climbs up the Sleeping Giant’s “knees” through a series of switchbacks, so although you feel yourself climbing, it’s manageable. At this point, you’ll begin to meet other hikers coming down (and teens in yoga pants and running shoes jetting past….). They’ll all tell you that it’s totally worth it and you need to keep going to the very end.
The Top of the Giant, 750 feet above the lake, is marked with another bench and another warning sign mentioning distance (2km out and 2km back), elevation (another 200 feet up) and repeating the suggestion that you should be fit to do this hike. Seriously. Remember: by the end of the trail you are only halfway through your hike! Fine print at the bottom reminds parents to look after their children. The park’s lawyers thought of everything…except a waiver and a fence.
The islands and peninsulas of Lake Superior are spread out below, with the Sibley Peninsula looking like the tail of a whale flicking a couple of islands, one of which has a lighthouse. You can see Talus Lake far, far below and you can’t believe how high you’ve climbed. Wait, yes you can: the sign just told you. The last part of the trail winds along the edge of the mesa, then turns inland to go up to The Chimney, which is on the other side of the Giant.
The trek across the top is pretty grueling, with hills and valleys that probably seem steeper than they are. It felt like further than 2km, but we’ll choose to believe the sign!
Emerging onto the plateau, you are very quickly drawn to the edge. Watch your step: there are no barriers, no fences, no ropes, and the surface is crumbly. Get as close as your heart will allow. You may want to crawl on your belly to look over the edge.
The Chimney is magnificent, rising majestically from the shore of the lake, it looks as though someone took a saw and cut through the cliff. The jagged rocks and steep angles are incredibly beautiful, but those with vertigo might want to stay well back. It looks a bit like the pillars of rock in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, but it’s real and not CGI. It was even more than I expected, with a peaceful atmosphere. The waves crashing onto the shore and rolling rocks on the beach are a constant sound around Lake Superior, but you can’t hear them up here. The only sounds were birds and buzzing insects. We spent about 45 minutes and would have stayed longer, enjoying the gorgeous view, but knew we had to make it off the trail before dark to avoid running into any furry friends. I would have loved to have camped up there overnight: maybe someday….
The descent was a lot faster than the ascent, and I was right to be apprehensive about the final climb before the last slope down to logging road. It was the second hardest part of the whole day, even though our water pack was a lot lighter than it had been on the way out. Our sandwiches and power bars were gone too. We were surprised to see people near the summit with very little water and no insect repellent. Staying hydrated makes the climb much more comfortable.
Back through the Land of the Lost, we walked 4 km in an hour and ten minutes. Emerging onto the Kabeyun Trail, exhilarated but tired, we rested briefly at Tee Harbour.
The final 6km back to the parking lot was the hardest part of the whole day: our feet were feeling the distance and our water was running low. That road seemed endless and building the final kilometre uphill was just mean…. but the dappled golden light through the stands of birch trees was stunning.
Really, we wouldn’t change anything about the day at all. Any discomfort was minimal compared to the sheer beauty and power of the landscape we walked through.
And the ice-cold beer and pizza back at our cabin tasted pretty damn good!
I would do it again in a heartbeat…. Stay tuned....