Sleeping with giants
We were alone, deep within the woods, when we heard it: a rustling in the trees ahead. My heart jumped to my throat. Naively, we had left our bear spray back at camp, and now we were standing in the middle of a ripe berry patch. Shaking with fear, we waited for whatever it was to emerge.
How we had gotten to this point was a case of over-ambition…and poor judgment.
My then-boyfriend and I were on a road trip through Northern Ontario, camping our way from Toronto to the Manitoba border. It was the furthest north I had been in the province, and with each passing day, I fell further in love with the land that is my home.
That’s why, when we arrived at Sleeping Giant Provincial Park near Thunder Bay, I wanted to hike the Kabeyun Trail—so I could see more of the remote corners of Ontario. But hiking the Kabeyun was an ambitious goal; stretching out at more than 40 kilometres and making a coastal loop around the Sleeping Giant, the full trail takes several days to complete. Along the way, the Kabeyun meets up with several other trails, including the six-kilometre scenic Talus Lake Trail and very challenging Top of the Giant Trail that takes you straight up 950 feet.
Our plan, however, was to brave only a small portion of the Kabeyun. We would start at Sawyer Bay on the west of the peninsula and work our way south to Thunder Cape. From there, we would curve back up into Lehtinen’s Bay and across the interior Talus Lake Trail, eventually circling back to our starting point. On the map, our route looked to be about 15 kilometres—a substantial hike, but with numerous beaches and coves to relax in along the way.
Northern Ontario is a land of legends, where spirits wander the forests and sea monsters roam the waters. At Sleeping Giant, a stone giant guards the coast. Geographically, it’s just a tableland, a long stretch of steep cliffs that rise straight out of the Sibley Peninsula on Lake Superior. But for the Ojibway of the region, the mass isn’t just rock and dirt—it’s Nanabijou, the Spirit of the Deep Sea Water and guardian of the peninsula. From the shores of Thunder Bay, the escarpment resembles a man resting, his arms crossed over his chest. On the Kabeyun, the Giant is always within sight, looming over hikers like they are trespassers on his land, as if they need to prove their mettle to him.
The legend of the giant
According to legend, Nanabijou was a spirit who rewarded the area’s Ojibway for their peaceful, industrious nature by telling them about a rich silver mine located on an island just off the peninsula. However, the spirit also warned the chief and his people that if they were to reveal the mine’s location to the white man, Nanabijou himself would turn to stone and the Ojibway tribe would perish.
As the Ojibway became famous for their elaborate silver ornaments, jealous Sioux warriors set out to find the mine. A Sioux scout infiltrated the camp by posing as an Ojibway, learned the mine’s location and took several pieces of silver as proof for his own tribe. However, on his way back to camp, the scout stopped to purchase food from white traders—and paid with a piece of the stolen silver. The white men, eager to make themselves rich, plied the scout with alcohol until he was drunk, and then convinced him to take them to the mine.
As they approached the site, a storm swept in over Lake Superior, drowning the white men and rendering the scout insane. And as the storm cleared, the figure of a sleeping giant could be made out on the peninsula—as promised, Nanabijou had been turned to stone.
The mine did eventually go into production, although Mother Nature—or perhaps Nanabjijou—put up a fight. In 1870, the Silver Islet Mining Company built breakwaters around the island and used crushed rock to expand the area. Some $3.2 million worth of silver was extracted. But over the next decade, Silver Islet, the first silver mine in Ontario, began to struggle. Most of the silver had been removed, and the price of precious metal had declined. Then, in a final blow to the site in 1884, the pumps that held back the lake stopped and the mine’s shafts flooded. Today, from the tip of the peninsula, you can still spot a glimpse of the partly submerged shafts.
…But back to that bear
As we set out under the Giant’s watch at mid-morning, it didn’t take long to realize we were in over our heads. Apart from a few abandoned camp sites, we saw no sign of other people. Bear scat littered the path, and the forest was eerily silent, with only the sound our feet crunching over broken branches.
There are more than 100 kilometres of trails throughout Sleeping Giant Provincial Park (the longest trail system of any Ontario park), ranging from easy strolls to intense treks. And those intense treks? Well, they’re for fit hikers only, and their degree of difficulty should not be underestimated. Steep cliffs, uneven terrain and plenty of wildlife (moose, wolves and black bears are common) make for some of the best, but also most challenging, hiking in the province—not to mention that many of the trails lead to remote corners of the park.
We should have turned back. We weren’t wearing proper hiking shoes and hadn’t packed sufficient snacks or water. After several hours, the tip of the peninsula was still nowhere in sight. Yet, stubbornly, we continued on. Perhaps Nanabijou was testing us.
When we reached “The Feet” of the Giant, near the tip of Thunder Cape, we were greeted by a steep, slick slope. We slipped and stumbled our way up and over, emerging at Lehtinen’s Bay. Turquoise waves crashed against the rocky shore. It was beautiful, but treacherous. The path twisted over massive boulders and crevices, and the trail markers pointed in directions that seemed physically impossible. Above us, the sun slowly began to dip into late afternoon. Fear gripped me. We had finally made it halfway, but I suddenly wasn’t sure we’d make it out before dark.
By the time we reached the Talus Lake Trail—the final stretch—I was in tears. Darkness was looming, our water had run out, and we were now deep within the interior of the peninsula. My legs burned as I stumbled and tripped my way over the steep, muddy hills. To top it off, my boyfriend was semi-collapsed from dehydration. I sat with him until his dizziness subsided, and we continued on, but at a slower pace despite not having time to spare.
So when we arrived at that final moment of terror—a bear, we were certain, lurking in the forest ahead of us—it felt like Nanabijou was throwing down his final test. I held my breath as the bushes parted, resigning myself to becoming the beast’s dinner.
Out came a chicken.
It poked across the path before stopping to look at us, seeming just as surprised to see us as we were to see it. I fell into a heap of delirious laughter and the immense relief gave us a final push to continue onward.
We arrived at our campsite just as darkness fell over the park. Snug in my tent, on the verge of sleep, I could finally appreciate the pleasures of our ill-judged adventure. Like seeing Ontario’s rugged beauty up close, standing at what feels like the end of the world, the immense pride of pushing ourselves beyond what we thought possible…and the echoing sound of what I swear was Nanabijou, laughing at us.
A version of this article originally appeared on TravelandEscape.ca.