Sault Ste. Marie to Thunder Bay (May 24 – June 9)

Sault to Thunder Bay… 700 km of long wilderness stretches and monster hills. A landscape inhabited by bears, wolves, lynx, cougars (if the locals are to be believed), and unique individuals who drive big black trucks. Incredible landscapes and provincial parks, and the road always returning to the largest freshwater lake in the world. Lake Superior continuously reappearing over the crests of big hills, staring back at me like the ocean in “Solaris” and, at times, contributing to the feeling that I might be losing my mind like in the film. When Terry Fox ran his Marathon of Hope, this was, tragically but truly, the portion that wore him out for good. In my own planning phase, this last fact definitely cast an intimidating pall over the planned two weeks’ running, and I felt that it would be the toughest part of my whole cross-country run. It was the run of my dreams and the run of my nightmares, the Big Bad Run that I’d get excited but also anxious thinking about. Well, I came out the other side, and yes, it was everything I thought it would be. It would be difficult to recount all the things that happened, and running, eating, and finding shelter have proven to constitute such a full-time job that I haven’t been able to write nearly as much as I’d like to, but I do have a selection of memories to share.

If by “wilderness” you mean “private lakefront cabin with in-deck hot tub”…

In Sault Ste. Marie, I stayed with Davey & Jen Taylor and their three kids (Finn, Angus & Molly), who were at first a very distant connection – Charlotte had hooked me up with these folks through her friend Spike, who’s Davey’s brother. Despite how convoluted all that might sound, it definitely turned out to be the right place at the right time, for so many reasons: Davey used to work in the fitness industry and has run a few marathons/ultras, and now he’s a schoolteacher, so we had a lot to talk about. The whole family took such good care of me, and were such good friends, that it was a little sad leaving Sault, which I’d also found to be an all-around pretty nice town, and a haven of amazing hospitality. (It was a great place for a rest day – root beer floats & ice cream sundaes at Scoops, sitting on a bench by the bay, looking across the water at the stars & stripes flying in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan!) The consolation prize for leaving this place of comfort and happiness for some 230 km of “nothing” (from Sault to Wawa) was that the Taylors gave me directions to not even one, but two cabins along my route, where I could stay the night. Jen’s dad, Brian, who I’d met at a barbecue / birthday party situation in Sault, had built a beautiful cabin right on the shore of Lake Superior, halfway between Sault and Wawa at a place called Montreal River. I thought Sault to Wawa was going to be, like, the ultimate in roughing it, wilderness in the extreme, and now I was being offered this lakeside cabin to hang out in all on my own?

Big numbers. “Marathon” is right.

That kind of road.

The run to Montreal River (two days) was incredible: I knew the scenery was going to be something special, but when I got my first glimpse of Superior over one of those big hills, it was truly like nothing I’d seen before or expected to see. The terrain was extremely hilly, but somehow in those first two days, there was a strong impression of it being a net downhill, so I had all these long exhilarating downhill races with the chariot… truly an emotional high. And then, when I arrived at the Taylor camp at Montreal River, it was like a dream come true. Brian is such a creative guy when it comes to building – now that I’ve seen a few of his cabins I’ve come to appreciate what he does with weird, cast-aside / oddly-shaped pieces of wood and root structures that he integrates into the building. It was basically this open-concept log cabin with a nice upright piano to noodle around on, a cast-iron bathtub installed on the porch, an incredible stretch of pebbly beach on Superior, and a phone that I was invited to use.

The Taylor camp at Montreal River, all mine for an extremely relaxing evening.

You can see a bit of Brian’s creative woodworking in the interior here, and also his “open-concept”/community-minded layout design philosophy. What an absolutely beautiful little house.

I started off the evening by running the tub, getting in and soaking for a while, and eating a recovery meal and sipping a glass of whiskey on the rocks. When I was feeling really good and the hot water had done all it could for my body, I ran down to the beach – totally naked – and just jumped in Lake Superior, leaving the tub full for my return. Superior was colder, cleaner and clearer than any lake I’ve ever been in. I was shivering and my body was having minor spasms as I hobbled back up to the deck to jump in the tub. Naturally, that’s when Brian turned up to say hello, but the first words I heard him say in my vulnerable and mortified state were, “You got a motor in that thing?” Of course I had no idea what he was talking about and assumed the worst, but after he repeated it, I realized he was actually just not weirded out at all by the fact that I was naked, and was asking if the chariot ran on any kind of motor power. This is the guy whose grandson described him to me as “a piece of work,” and who, when I first met him at the cookout, grabbed my shoulder, stared right into my eyes, and said, “You better not give up! ‘Cause you might never get another chance!” A major figure in the eastern Lake Superior portion of my run.

Oh, yeah, life is really hard out there in the bush.

Feeling overheated from the hot tub? Just go down to the beach and jump naked into the largest and most beautiful lake in the world (possibly also one of the coldest).

Brian and his wife Caroline lived just a little ways from the Taylor camp, so when he surprised me that evening, he was just dropping in to say hi. Once I got dressed, we got in his big red pickup truck, which was blasting the latest Leonard Cohen album, and he poured me a glass of wine (a weird feeling, drinking a glass of red wine in a truck) and took me to see a cabin he’s putting the finishing touches on for an artist who lives in the area. Some of the woodwork in this place was really incredible – I feel like he was pulling out all the stops to impress this city slicker artist guy who was paying him to build the cabin. My favorite touch: Brian did this really awesome piece of wood carving across the ceiling of the master bedroom, incorporating all kinds of animal and human shapes. Hidden at one end of it, he incorporated the silhouette of his wife’s nude body. Brian gleefully pointed this out, and related how, when he showed the artist/client guy, the latter had said he wasn’t sure how he felt about having that in his bedroom. “Well, too damn bad!” he cackled to me. Brian thought it was pretentious that this guy wanted a bathroom in his cabin, rather than the standard outhouse.

But really, it was cool seeing all these places that Brian had built and talking about them with him. Each one was a combination of artistry & craftsmanship, and considering house design & land use was an interesting topic. I love the way that what Montreal types might call “green building practices” are just common sense to a guy from another generation and another level of removal from the city.

In the sanctuary of the Clivus Multrum, swathed in the clothing of thunderbirds.

That first half of the run from Sault to Wawa was a lot of fun and not so difficult. When I left Montreal River at 2 pm feeling all well-rested and good, however, reality kicked in! Whereas there had been a few dwellings, restaurants, gas stations, etc. for that first 110 km, everything disappeared when I entered the long stretch of road that passes through Lake Superior Provincial Park. It was an extremely beautiful run, of course, but a little less hospitable, especially when stormclouds showed up on the horizon just as I left Montreal River. I probably ran for an hour or two before it started raining, and I was just beginning to realize that it was time to pay for those nice downhills, when it started really pouring down. Miraculously (since there was really nothing for miles around), a road sign appeared with a few icons indicating concepts like “bathroom,” “camping”, “hiking,” and the only word on the sign was “PICTOGRAM.” So I’m like, “What the heck is a pictogram? I hardly care as long as there’s some kind of roof under which I might be able to take shelter.” Although I was utterly soaked and pretty cold, in my mind it was amazing coincidence that I’d found any sort of shelter at all right at that moment when it became apparent that I needed it.

Well, the rain wasn’t letting up, so my camp for the night was under the 3- or 4-foot roof overhang of the one roofed structure for many miles around, the composting toilet at Agawa Rock – and you can bet I was thankful for it. I always thought composting toilets were a pretty cool idea, but after this experience where Rikard Lindström’s clivus multrum appeared for me when I needed it most, I really consider them friends. It was a bit of a gloomy night, but also a kind of beautiful one, watching and listening to the storm on this little porch/balustrade deal, huddled in my damp sleeping bag, waving off mosquitoes. It was a long and intense thunderstorm, with heavy rain and thunder coming and going, and the constant dripping of the soggy forest. Haruki Murakami was there for me in Kindle form, thank God.

My shelter for the night, roof overhang of the composting toilet at Agawa Rock.

When I woke up in the dim morning, which hardly looked any different from the previous evening – all gray, dripping and misty – there was a thick and ubiquitous fog. The mountains in the distance were hardly visible through the fog. Laying there in my sleeping bag, considering what “pictogram” might mean, at some point I put two and two together, and remembered having heard the name “Agawa Rock” before. I realized that the pictograms that sign had been talking about were probably the native rock paintings Al Purdy talked about in his poem, “The Horseman of Agawa,” something I’d read in Lecker’s Canadian Lit class a couple of years ago and faintly remembered. It’s a really conversational account of his own visit to Agawa Rock, scaling that sheer rock wall to see and touch the marks left hundreds of years ago by another people, and feeling deeply impressed and perhaps somehow connected to those people and that time in spite of the distance between two cultures. I found it online, later, and was glad I had looked it up:

My own experience at Agawa Rock was strangely like Purdy’s, in terms of both circumstances and the experience I had. It was spring, and there were no platforms. In fact, I think Agawa Rock is probably the most dangerous public landmark I’ve ever seen, a place which the government takes care of and puts up informational placards at, but where you could easily lose your life if you weren’t careful!

But the view, both looking out from the rock wall, and of course the pictograms themselves, were incredible, and it’s hard not to feel like it was a fate thing that I ended up there that morning. There wasn’t a soul at the rock on this foggy spring morning after a thunderstorm, so I was all alone, wandering around the incredible forest paths that surround it and exercising extreme caution as I walked along a long crack in the rock slope that provided traction: if it wasn’t there, it would be a lot easier to slide right down into cold, clear, clean Lake Superior. There was a life ring sitting out by the rock for the purpose of rescuing someone who fell in, and the signs warned that unpredictable rogue waves occasionally came up out of the lake and washed people away. I was awed by the power of this enormous lake, which in three days I had only begun to circumnavigate.

Agawa Rock – most dangerous public landmark in Canada?

There were some placards installed around the area that told a bit about the history of the pictograms, and also about Ojibwe culture. When I read these, I got a bit of a chill: they told me that in Ojibwe mythology, “thunderbirds” were considered the protectors of mankind. The fog which follows a thunderstorm was the clothing in which the thunderbirds wrapped themselves, and it was only at these times and during thunderstorms that they manifested themselves to humans. Any thunderstorm was a conflict between the thunderbirds – our protectors – and Mishipeshu, the lynx-shaped water spirit that resided in Lake Superior. (One translation I found of the name Mishipeshu was: “fabulous underwater panther.”)

Mishepishu, up close on Agawa Rock.

Yeah, I’ll admit, this episode got me a bit spooked. In fact, not just spooked, but I was feeling a sense of reverence for the tradition I had entered. I pull over to this place in the middle of the most intense thunderstorm I’ve yet encountered, and informational placards promptly inform me that what I’m experiencing is the thunderbirds & the underwater panther, duking it out, possibly over the fate of a human or humans. It was immensely comforting to think of that incredible fog as the clothing of the thunderbirds, watching over us and averting disaster. The bottom line is, after finding a roof for the night and seeing so much beauty in the morning, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d been taken care of by a greater power. Ever since, whenever there’s been a thunderstorm, I try to tell myself not to worry, because the thunderbirds are our friends! It’s that devious/fabulous underwater panther you have to watch out for, and so – at the suggestion of a placard that talked about offerings the Ojibwe would make to Mishipeshu, to ensure their safe passage – I poured out a bit of whisky for the old lynx. Hope he doesn’t mind rye.

Swathed in the clothing of the thunderbirds, the morning after a big storm.

Do fabulous underwater panthers drink rye? A rhetorical question which could easily be the title of a Philip K. Dick novel.

Anyway, I’m still alive. So it must have worked, right?

Breaking through

The rest of my run through Lake Superior Provincial Park was fairly uneventful, and it got really cold towards the end. I got behind schedule because of my (good) choice to stick out that thunderstorm under a roof, and arrived in Wawa a day late, greeted by freezing temps. The forecast was calling for -1 C that night, so I caved in and went to a motel. I mean, I just went through what I at least thought was going to be the hardest 230 km of the whole run, and a thunderstorm, and my camping gear is not intended for freezing temperatures, so it seemed justifiable. I was feeling a tiny bit worn out.

The next 24 hours turned out to be extremely interesting. Basically, tired out and in this motel, I just said I was going to do whatever I felt like, whenever I felt like it. First of all, that meant eating a lot: that night I had a big meal out somewhere, and the next morning I had two 12-inch subs at Subway and a couple cookies… and then later I got three donuts from Tim Hortons. And that night, I watched probably close to three whole movies on TV in the motel (the truth is, I really miss movies!)

I wasn’t thinking my two-day, 90 km run from Wawa to White River was going to be anything special, especially when I was leaving Wawa at 2 pm having eaten this huge meal and a bunch of donuts. But I was just doing what I felt like, and as it turned out, once I hit the road at 2, I felt like RUNNING! I didn’t start with any walk to warm up at all, just got into it right off. The weather was just right, and the hills had chilled out considerably since the mountainous terrain in LSPP. When I started running, I wasn’t seriously thinking I could make it to White River that night, but as I kept going and it just felt effortless, I reconsidered, and I kept recomputing the sort of pace I’d have to take to get there before it was too dark. So I basically said, ok, run now because you feel like it – don’t worry about making it tonight, but just maybe today is a special kind of day, and if that’s the case, go with it.

It turned out to be an extremely special day, God knows why. I simply never felt tired and never felt like I wanted to stop. I breezed past the point where it had been a marathon (there were road markers every 2 km) in 3:51 and didn’t feel like it was necessary to take any kind of break just yet. I was hoping that a store of some kind would materialize soon, but not before the 50k mark, because I was obviously going to crush my PR for the 50k today. Well, a store turned up before the 50k mark, just as I passed “Desolation Lake” and then “Fungus Lake,” so I figured I better stop and at least fill my water bottles – because I sure as hell wasn’t filling them with desolation or fungus water. I filled the bottles with the most iron-heavy water in Canada, downed a Red Bull and an ice cream sandwich, took some other stuff for the road and had the shortest conversation I could with the store owner before heading on. With the clock still ticking during all that time, I hit my 50k at 4 hours, 46 minutes: in spite of my stops and pushing the Chariot, I’d taken 20 minutes off the time I made in the Mount Royal Summit Quest two years ago, a race for which I tapered.

It was just totally unreal, the energy I had that day. I kept going, only taking maybe 30 minutes to walk after I hit the 50k point – but even my walking pace was bizarrely fast, maybe 8 kph instead of my usual 6? Not only was I going fast when I was walking or running, but I was on an extreme emotional high. Every once in a while I just couldn’t help laughing at the ridiculousness of what I was doing and experiencing, and one time I was so happy I started crying a little. I guess what got me so worked up about this whole scenario was the fact that this crazy energy I had on that special day, it didn’t feel like my own… it felt more like something was pushing me forward – not involuntarily, but independently of my own body. Maybe the events of the past few days, at Agawa and making it to Wawa, and this day of incredible energy – maybe it had all conspired to restore, at least a little bit, some faith. Not necessarily faith in “God” or in the literal reality of thunderbirds or a fabulous underwater panther or what have you, but faith that everything is going to be OK; faith that even when you’re having some dark and dreary times, they might suddenly change. Or maybe just an ongoing acknowledgment and increasing awareness that everything in life is change – that this amazing energy might not be here tomorrow, but it is right now, and that’s cool.

Well, you can bet it wasn’t there the next day, and that was fine. I got to White River at 11 pm that night, just as it got dark, and my time for the 90k (the longest run of my life) was exactly 9 hours. I stayed at Brian’s other cabin in White River for a total of three days, perhaps for no other reason than because I could, and I felt like it. Maybe I was still riding that wave of doing whatever I want, so I hung out there and watched movies and spent time with Jen and the Taylor kids (who came up for the weekend). I’ve never done anything like that since then in all this past month, and I’m still three days behind schedule because of this whole episode: the epic run and the three-day vacation. No regrets whatsoever. It was entirely worth it.

Hanging out in White River. The giant thermometer commemorates the lowest recorded temperature in Canada, but according to Jen (whose grandfather was town weather guy at that time), the extreme measurement might have been due to a cracked thermometer. White River is also where Winnie the Pooh (actual bear who inspired the stories) came from.

That 90k run wasn’t just an awesome experience, it was a huge confidence booster, and I feel that it kind of took me to a new level, both as a person and an athlete. I’ve been a guy who runs long distances for a few years, but I’m pretty sure that, after this run, I’m in some different kind of category. Like, not to toot my own horn or something, but just having a day like that out of the blue when you’re already running crazy mileage is pretty hardcore, and it made me realize that there are a lot of cool races out there that I could definitely be doing, once I finish this cross-country run. Yeah, I want to run the Canadian Death Race, and I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch at my present level of fitness. Yeah, someday, even if it’s five years from now, I suspect I’ll eventually run Badwater, because I caught that bug years ago when I first ever heard about it. I wasn’t anywhere close to that level then, and maybe I’m not there yet, but I’m getting to this point where it’s becoming obvious that someday I will be there. When I started running, I couldn’t handle two miles on a treadmill, and now I routinely have 45-mile days with 20-30 miles on adjacent days. I’m pretty sure the sky’s the limit.

Kind strangers in big black trucks.

I’ve really experienced so many small kindnesses on the road that it would probably be boring for you to read if I listed them all, although they’ve certainly impacted me personally and I will remember them. That said, I wanted to share a couple anecdotes about people who literally pulled over on the highway to offer me help.

In Ontario, everybody who’s anybody seems to drive a big black truck, probably a Ford F-150 or a GMC Sierra, although other makes pass. And of course Brian’s truck was red, so black isn’t a rule, but it’s a certain thing out there. At first I was intimidated by all these big black trucks, and I think for some of those drivers, the intimidation factor is desirable. They weren’t always the most considerate drivers, and often drove pretty fast, especially around Sudbury. So, I was a little apprehensive when I was heading north just out of Sault, and saw this big shiny black truck pull over to the side of the road, and a guy getting out. I kept on running and just said hi and smiled as I started to go by him, because he hadn’t waved me down or anything (though I had a feeling he might have stopped for me). But then he smiled back and called out “Hey! Slow down for a minute! I just want to know what you’re doing!” This guy, Justin, can’t have been much older than me – just a really friendly guy, driving up to his cabin with his girlfriend. The thing is, he had seen me three times now, hundreds of kilometers apart! First, he’d passed me in Sudbury. Later, he saw me again at Elliot Lake, and finally now we were north of Sault Ste. Marie! So I told a bit of my story and explained as well as I could what it was all about, and linked him to my blog. This guy pulls out $50 cash from his pocket and just hands it to me. I was really dumbstruck, and for a moment didn’t even know how to respond. The truth is, it was a big help. But maybe even more than the cash, it was just this guy’s no-barriers kind of friendliness that cheered me up a great deal – I love it when people see what I’m doing, and don’t feel like I must be a really different kind of person from them. We exchanged contact info and there was a possibility of my stopping in at their cabin between Wawa and White River, but the cell reception was out and it didn’t happen. Maybe it’s fate, again, since that would have broken up the most epic run of my life, but at the same time it’s kind of too bad.

When I was on the road from Nipigon to Thunder Bay and another big black pickup truck passed me, swerved around and came right back at me, pulling up alongside me in the other lane going the wrong way (on the Trans-Canada Highway, remember?), I initially was saying to myself “No way, Justin can’t possibly be all the way out here and passing me again!?” But it turned out to be this really good-humored, heavyset native guy named John, in a bandana and aviator shades. John passed me the only drink he had in his truck, a diet pepsi – not something I’d usually drink, but the gesture was so incredible, and the fulfillment of the  “passing motorist hands me a cold beverage fantasy” so incredible, that of course I was totally amazed. “I’m not religious and I don’t believe in God, but my thing is ‘The Big Guy,'” said John. “Well, I hope the Big Guy looks after you.”

The Big Guy. Thunderbirds & underwater panthers. Pheasants? Loquebantur variis linguis apostoli.

Well, there are so many interesting bits and pieces and things that have happened. I’m trying to go more or less chronologically here, and I’ve pretty much covered things up until Thunder Bay. Check in soon for that and beyond, because it’s really been just as eventful.

Leona Woodmass thinks I need to name the Chariot. Any suggestions?

Thought it was pretty cool the first time I entered “unsurveyed territory.”


~ by edmundmilly on June 26, 2012.

6 Responses to “Sault Ste. Marie to Thunder Bay (May 24 – June 9)”

  1. It seems like in the Unsurveyed Territories it would be appropriate to annotate the sign with “Here Be Dragons” lol….Glad your still ok…Regards from Bill in Sturgeon

  2. great stuff!!

  3. Ned
    If you haven’t already thought about it, I’d encourage you to consider writing a full-length book about your journey when it’s done. Seems like something that would sell. I’d guess that many professional writers would envy you for having such a unique experience with which to entice readers.

    • Hey Mike,
      Yeah, I do feel like there’s a lot to write about in the experiences I’ve had… for some reason it’s been hard not to keep thinking about all sorts of ecological/social issues like the way we use cars and roads, as well as the relationship we have to the land. And I get this huge cross-section of Canadian/North American society to interact with, all sorts of interesting people. I hardly even manage to get everything out in this blog, but whenever I have the time I think it’s really important to at least record what I can. It’s possible that sometime in the future I’d want to get it a bit more organized and a bit more refined, in some form!

  4. Go dude – btw… Death race a piece of cake for u now 🙂

    • Yeah! Wish you could have met Davey, the guy whose family I stayed with in Sault – he’s another endurance guy, and we watched this documentary “The Perfect Runner” together, where there was a lot of footage of the Death Race. We were both fantasizing about how cool it would be to take part some day. Btw, thanks so much for the cytomax – it’s saved my butt a couple times.

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