My giant microadventure: a winter hike at Sleeping Giant Provincial Park

I grip the handles of my seat as the plane leaves the tarmac of Thunder Bay International Airport. Not that I am afraid of flying; just prefer to remain on the ground. That little niggle at the pit of my stomach is forgotten as soon as the frozen expanse of Lake Superior comes into view. The white is interrupted by the dark blue waters, smooth and serene from up here. Glued to the window, I glimpse the head and chest of Sleeping Giant, just as majestic from the air as he is from the ground. The plane dives into the cloud before I manage to say good-bye.

Lake Superior and Sleeping Giant from the airplane window

Lake Superior and Sleeping Giant disappear under the cloud

I’ve professed my love for Sleeping Giant on numerous occasions. After years of travels, it remains one of my favourite places to visit. However, with a 15-hours drive separating us from the park, it’s not exactly a weekend microadventure destination. So when a work trip to Thunder Bay came up, I added a visit to Sleeping Giant to my itinerary.

view of Sleeping Giant from Thunder Bay

In Thunder Bay, Sleeping Giant is everpresent:
View of the Giant from Prince Arthur’s Landing at Marina Park

I had an ambitious goal of recreating our hike to the top of the Giant. I got very conflicting feedback from a cab driver, a waitress at Montana’s, and training participants. Some thought that wouldn’t be a problem; others believed the trails weren’t maintained well enough for me to reach my destination. With the park office closed for the season and no reports available online, my only option was to try and see how far it would get me. Did I mention the trek is 12 kilometres one way?

I arrived in the park on Saturday morning, purchased a day use permit at the Joeboy Lake  pay station and headed to the Kabeyun trailhead. The parking lot was partly cleared of snow, which I took as a good sign of things to come.

hiking at Sleeping Giant

All ready to hit the trail

Encouraged by a well-packed path right from the start, I was already imagining a breezy ascent to the top. I kept running calculations in my head: how much time I had before the sunset and how fast I had to cover each section of the trail.

In addition to all these additions and multiplications, by brain was buzzing with thoughts of the training we did the day before and all the things I’d have to do when I get back to the office on Monday. While my feet were pounding the snow, my head was everywhere but on the trail, which felt like a waste of the precious little time I had to spend in the park. The trail, however, has a habit of bringing you back into the present. While the first section was level and fairly easy going, there were still some fallen trees that required crawling under or climbing over or both at the same time. And when Lake Superior came into view, my brain finally got speechless.

view of Lake Superior along Kabeyun Trail in Sleeping Giant provincial park in the winter

I am always spellbound by the beauty of Gitchi Gummi

No matter how many times I see Lake Superior, I always get overwhelmed by the feeling of reverence. Subdued under its icy shell, the lake seemed motionless and quiet at first. Then sudden popping and cracking broke the frozen silence. I listened to those otherworldly sounds while eating my lunch at one of the backcountry campsites in the Tee Harbour.

view from one of the backcountry campsites at Tee Harbour in Sleeping Giant Provinical Park in the winter

Nothing but the cracking of ice interrupted the white silence

As much as I wanted to wander around the harbour, I knew I had to keep going if I were to come back before dark. Once I left the Tee Harbour, the path got tighter, occasionally narrowing to a single set of footprints. Walking became harder and required more balancing but at least there was a path to follow and I was hoping whoever left it walked in the same direction I was heading.

I kept following those prints in the snow all along the Talus Trail to the intersection with the Top of the Giant trail. The footsteps turned towards the Giant. So far so good. That’s when things went downhill just as the trail was about to go up. The snow got deeper. The footprints, while still there, were mid-thigh deep in some places so I had to high step like a dressage horse. I stopped from time to time to get the snow out of my boots. Not that it helped much. My socks were getting wetter by the minute and I could feel beginnings of blisters on both toes.

Kabeyun trail in Sleeping Giant provincial park in the winter

The trail started nice and wide

Kabeyun trail in Sleeping Giant provincial park in the winter     Kabeyun trail in Sleeping Giant provincial park in the winter

Even though the first section of the trail was mostly flat, there were a few obstacle
along the way

Kabeyun trail in Sleeping Giant provincial park in the winter

The path got narrower but at least it was going in the right direction

Talus Trail in Sleeping Giant provincial park in the winter    hiking at sleeping giant provincial park in the winter

The path was eventually reduced to a set of very deep footprints

I kept plowing ahead until those guiding footprints disappeared. The trail, so obvious and easy to follow in the summer, was less so in the snow. After diving almost waist deep into a bank, I had to admit that it was time to follow on the promise I made to my family not to take stupid risks.

I looked up the sheer rock wall in front of me and couldn’t believe I was about to quit after having walked over nine kilometres to get here. I also knew that even if I managed to locate the path to the top, it would be dangerous to hike it with all the snow and ice.

hiking at sleeping giant provincial park in the winter

After getting this far, I lost the trail and had to turn back

It was disappointing but at the same time I was too tired to feel too disappointed. The more I thought about it on the way back, the more I came to realize that disturbing Sleeping Giant’s winter dreams under his cozy white blanket would not have been very polite.

I retraced my steps back to the Tee Harbour where I was free to explore now. I visited our campsite from several summer ago. I am using “our” very loosely because we never got to stay there chased away by a furry visitor. No bears were in sight this time: probably still sleeping somewhere by the Giant’s side.

backcountry campsite at the Tee Harbour in Sleeping Giant Provincial Park in the winter

The backcountry campsite where we almost stayed a few years ago

I plowed through more snow to the tip of the Tee peninsula. The polished surface of Lake Superior stretched to the horison with dark blue clouds swirling above it, a sliver of light seperating the two. I kept looking for familiar outlines in a world reshaped by ice and snow.

view from Tee Harbour in Sleeping Giant provincial park in the winter

Swirly clouds almost touch the polished surface of Lake Superior

view from Tee Harbour in Sleeping Giant provincial park in the winter

Broken shards of ice line the shore

view from Tee Harbour in Sleeping Giant provincial park in the winter

Giant’s legs stretch across the Lehtinen’s Bay

view from Tee Harbour in Sleeping Giant provincial park in the winter

Everything looks familiar yet different in a world reshaped by snow and ice

On my way to the parking lot I made a detour to the Sea Lion. The rock arch got its name decades ago when it still looked like a lion. The mane eroded with time but the name stuck. So there sat the maneless king, its paws encased in ice, its proud reflection etched into the shimmery waters of Lake Superior.

Sea Lion at Sleeping Giant provincial park in the winter

Sea Lion looks proudly over Lake Superior

When I reached the parking lot, it was around six. My initial plan included a sunset over the Giant after finishing my hike. Now that the hike was cut short, I still had two hours to go. I considered hiking another short trail but was too tired to move. Plus, I could feel the water almost sloshing in my boots, which wasn’t a very pleasant feeling.

I drove to Marie Louise Lake picnic area that offers a great view of the Giant across the water or, in this case, ice and snow. The sun was still pretty high. The prospect of returning to the hotel with a warm shower and comfy bed was very tempting.

I then decided to call home, which required driving back to the Joeboy Lake parking lot to get a signal. I agreed with my husband’s well-reasoned argument that going back to the hotel and getting some rest was a smart thing to do. I hung up. Then, instead of turning left towards Thunder Bay, I headed back to Marie Louise Lake. Of course, I wasn’t going to miss this rare opportunity to wish Sleeping Giant a good night.

sunset over Sleeping Giant in the winter

A gorgeous ending to an amazing day

I was rewarded with a beautiful splash of colours – right out of Sleeping Giant’s dreams and all across the sky. My feet were freezing. But I just stood there watching the day fade away, afraid the slightest move might break the fragile white silence all around me.

sunset over Sleeping Giant in the winter

Good night, Nanabijou

3 thoughts on “My giant microadventure: a winter hike at Sleeping Giant Provincial Park

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