by Larry Rice
first appeared in May 2006 Canoe & Kayak
"Don't get much better than this" is our collective, delusional mantra as we trudge forward into a green wall of unyielding undergrowth. Five specks in a vast uncaring landscape, we are deep in the heart of Ontario's Pukaskwa National Park, pushing steadily upward through deeply faulted ravines, across boot-sucking muskeg, and over formidable ridges and rolling knolls bristling with dense thickets of spruce, fir, and cedar mixed with birch and aspen. We cross moose, black bear, and wolf signs in this trailless, roadless wilderness, but of human signs we see absolutely none. Only the foolish, or those on a mission, would dare tread in these unforgiving hinterlands.
Having left our canoes, most of our gear, and one of our teammates on Lake Superior's exposed North Shore, we are definitely on a mission, a spirit journey, a son's quest to finish his father's dream. Climbing, crawling, slipping, sliding, clawing, we are attempting to complete the vision of two departed men: the legendary long-distance canoeist Verlen Kruger; and Kruger's best friend, Jerry Cesar, who perished 30 years ago on their expedition to reach the summit of Tip Top Mountain, the same point of high land where we are now headed.
For two consecutive summers in the 1970s, Jerry and Verlen devoted several weeks to trying to reach Tip Top's 2,099-foot peak, one of Ontario's tallest heights of land, located in Pukaskwa National Park. With no trail leading anywhere near the mountain, which lies some seven to eight miles inland from Lake Superior, their first attempt—a bushwhacking route from the east that had them dragging their tandem canoe overland and up a network of tiny streams—ended in defeat when they ran out of time many miles short of their goal. The following year brought them closer, but the prize still remained elusive.
Todd was just 10 when his 34-year-old dad, paddling ahead of Kruger, capsized his canoe and was swept into the swollen White River's Chicagonce Falls.
So in May 1975, they decided to get as close to Tip Top as they could by canoe on Lake Superior, then hoof it east from there, an equally ambitious undertaking even for these tough-as-nails latter-day voyageurs. Their strategy involved paddling and portaging handmade solo canoes down 50 miles of the White River to Superior; cruising south down the notoriously unpredictable inland sea for 21 miles to Simons Harbour, the closest landfall to Tip Top; then trekking to the peak and back, which they reckoned might take three to four days. After that, they would stroke another 90 miles on Superior to Michipicoten Harbour, the first available take-out on this uninhabited coast.
To be true to our predecessors' vision, we are attempting this same route. However, at the moment, slogging ponderously onward somewhere between Lake Superior and Tip Top Mountain, we have only a vague notion of where we are. There are no landmarks in this nearly impenetrable boreal forest; each bouldery creek bed, each hill, each escarpment looks like the one before. Fortunately, in a rare clearing of wind-sheared trees, my GPS monitors enough orbiting satellites to pinpoint our location. The good news is that Tip Top's summit is only about three miles away as the raven flies. The bad news is that we don't have wings. With our sluglike pace, it will take us another full day to reach the mountain's base.
Todd Cesar, the 40-year-old undesignated leader of our disheveled band, takes a final drag on his cigarette, then rises slowly to his feet. "Well, men," he says, hoisting on his backpack, "we're not getting any closer to Tip Top sitting here. How 'bout we move on? We can get in another hour or so before making camp." Without a word of dissent, we comply. A two-pack-a-day smoker with emphysema and only a few wilderness trips under his belt, Todd has become the driving force of our expedition, a focused beam of positive, harnessed energy. It's as if he is being driven by a higher force. And he is: the specter of his long-lost father.