Part One: Hiking Towab Trail to Agawa Falls – (Rated Very Difficult)
I had been looking forward to hiking this trail for two years now. Back in August of 2017, we had wanted to hike the Towab, but it just didn’t work out. This year, it was going to happen!
The day was Tuesday, August 20th. One day before my 54th birthday. I had read that the trail was anywhere from moderate to very difficult. It was only about a six-mile hike, one way, and we brought our backpacking gear so that we wouldn’t have to hike the entire 12-mile round trip in one day. The reviews that I read told that the first hour and the last hour were easy, but everything in between was strenuous. We found out that strenuous is quite an understatement… especially for people wearing 20 and 40 pound packs!
We left at 10:00am and the reviews were correct. The trail leading to Burnt Rock Pool was nice and mostly down hill. The trail was clear in most areas, with no overhanging foliage, and you could see out into the forest of maple, birch, and other gorgeous trees. A wooden bridge carried us over a stream that wound through the valley. The water, shimmering like precious diamonds, reflected the rays of sunlight filtering down through the green leaves. The trail had few rocks or slippery roots and was very pleasant to walk, and we enjoyed talking about the chaga we saw high up on a birch tree, or envisioning Native American families, walking this very trail 100 years ago…
When we arrived at Burnt Rock Pool, we walked out onto the rocky shoreline and gazed at the beautifully colored rock walls on the opposite side. Ontario might not have the high elevations that other provinces have, like British Columbia and Alberta, but there is a wild ruggedness to this area that begs to be explored!
There were a few places to set up camp for people not wanting to venture past this area and subject themselves to the “very demanding” trail ahead. Wherever there are designated back country camps in Canada, they also supply a pit toilet… just bring your own tissue since they consist only of a basic toilet seat atop a wooden box. Very primitive, but very welcome in the back country!
After the first hour of hiking, the trail quickly turned steep, slippery, and dangerous. Some of the trail follows the edge of a cliff that runs alongside the Agawa River and it would take only one wrong step for someone to go plummeting down onto the rocks below. Let’s just say we took our sweet time in those treacherous areas! I was very thankful to have my two trekking poles… they helped to steady me, and with the added weight placed on my back, like a heavy turtle shell, kept me balanced and upright.
Having the trail close to the river was nice for a respite and a break to re-energize… loading up on water and taking in some much needed calories. We had no idea how much we were going to need the hydration and stored energy at that point. Not too much further ahead, there was a section of the trail that became even MORE grueling… it led us almost straight up the side of a mountain, with slippery rocks, slippery tree roots and took the spunk right out of us! We climbed, clawed and clambered all the way to the top, then followed the trail back down… slipping, tripping, grabbing onto nearby roots, branches and rocks. After we made it through that section, we weren’t loving this trail anymore…
Finally, we made it to the bottom of the falls!! The sight was spectacular and we were SO relieved!! We thought we’d NEVER make it!! One more stretch of trail and then we would be at the TOP of the falls! We knew it wouldn’t be an easy stretch, but we had NO idea how tough it would be… this part of the Towab trail, between the bottom of the falls and the top is excruciating! It leads almost to the top, then reverses and nearly goes down to where it started, then straight back up again! It’s 30 minutes of serious torture that we didn’t want to have to repeat, and Phil was already devising a plan to avoid that nonsense and find a shorter route.
So, we made it to the top of Agawa Falls! We were beyond exhausted, but after we took off our heavy packs and sat on the cool boulders, submerging our bone-tired tootsies into that refreshing, mountain water, the roar of the falls took our minds off of our aching muscles. The little minnows swimming in the shallow pools of water gently nibbled on our toes, tickling them and bringing much-needed smiles to our faces.
We decided after viewing the last campsite at the top of the falls and not finding any deep pools we could swim in, to go back down to the campsite at the bottom of the falls. We wanted to get that section out of the way and not have to repeat it in the morning.
As we approached the area of the trail where we could view the campsite at the bottom of the falls, we saw that two men were sitting there, and my heart just fell into the pit of my stomach… I yelled out to the guys, “Hey, are you guys camping there for the night?” The older gentleman shouted back, “Maybe… is there anyone camping at the top?” I told him, “No, we were just up there and if you don’t mind, we’d like to camp down here if you would take the upper site.” I think he could hear the desperation in my voice. Being very gracious he replied, “Sure, we’ll camp up there but we need to rest up a bit, if that’s okay?” We, of course, told him they could take their time and thanked them wholeheartedly!! Curious to know why we didn’t want to stay at the upper campsite he asked, “What is the reason you don’t want to stay up there? Is there anything wrong with it?” We assured him there was nothing wrong with it, we just didn’t want to have to walk that section again in the morning. We ESPECIALLY didn’t want to have to go back up… again! After finding the shortcut, it was still difficult, it just didn’t take as much time or energy.
Phil surmised that we could chop off the worst part of the trail by slinking across a mountain stream that the trail had crossed at a much higher elevation. It was extremely slippery and one false step would have had us at the bottom of a 30 foot drop, very quickly and painfully. We took our time, moving very, very, slowly and deliberately, successfully crossing the stream and shaving off a good 15-20 minutes. YES!! Hallelujah!! During this treacherous crossing, the man and his grown son that were resting below, had been watching us. They asked if that was part of the trail, and we explained why we crossed there instead of taking the trail that went up, and then, back down again. We discussed how crazy this trail seemed at times, and the man and his son agreed that there appeared to be no purpose, other than to make it as physically demanding as possible! They decided to follow our lead and avoided the worst part of the trail.
We spent the evening soaking our feet in the river, setting up our tent and sleeping bags, then preparing and eating our Mountain House dinners. They never tasted SO GOOD!! Earlier, in my haste to quench a powerful thirst, I had taken a water bottle from Phil’s side pocket and chugged. Phil asked me why I was drinking from an untreated water bottle? Ugh!!! I had completely forgotten that we had drank all of the store-bought water and had only river water in the bottles. Immediately, I sent up a prayer asking God to save me from any nasty bacteria that would surely ruin the rest of this hike AND my birthday!! This trail was torture enough… I didn’t need stomach issues to go along with it. 😦
(Thankfully, I never suffered from any beastly bacteria and I sent up many prayers of gratitude!) 😀
We took some time to sit and relax by the calming river, and watch as trout leaped out of the water after insects. By 8:00pm, we were ready for bed and it didn’t take long to fall into a very deep sleep. I woke up just a few times to hear, what I believed to be, small forest creatures rummaging around nearby, and I was able to fall back asleep fairly easily. We awoke at daybreak. Phil gave me a happy birthday hug and kiss, we had our breakfast, then packed up and got ready to hit the trail.
We were dreading the hike back and had wondered what it would be like to hike the river back. The section that goes up the mountain and away from the river was the worst, so Phil thought we could take the river instead, crossing at the shallowest points when needed. Once we cleared the dense forest underbrush and walked out into the gorgeous sunlight at the river’s edge, we felt 100 times better! It’s amazing what sunshine can do for the spirits!! We surveyed the river ahead and committed to taking this uncharted path, wherever it led.
I had read several books written by Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail hikers who had crossed many mountain streams. Some had changed from their hiking boots to crocs or water shoes, while others kept their boots on for more stability. As rocky as this river bottom was, we both opted to keep our boots on and just deal with wet feet at the end of the trail. It turned out to be a good decision. 🙂
The rocky river trail took quite a bit of time off from our previous hike, and we were able to watch bald eagles soar overhead, while merganser ducks swam just ahead of us. When an impassable cliff wall came into view, we would find a shallow area to cross over where rocks lined the edge of the river. This was August, so the river was most likely at its lowest level, making our river hike achievable. The deepest water we walked through came just above my knees. The rocks in the river were quite slippery, and the current was strong in the deeper areas. I, again, was very thankful for the added balance my trekking poles gave me.
We came to an area where the river deepened and we were unable to walk through. We would have to go back up the side of the mountain. Just as Phil was heading up to look for the trail, we spotted a young couple hiking towards us. We had found it!! Burnt Rock Pool was a short hike away, and we talked to this couple for a few moments. They were attempting the entire 12-mile round trip hike in one day. We told them about the grueling trail ahead and how we chose to hike the river, being very glad we made that decision. The husband said they would stay on the trail on the way up, but may take the river on the way back, thanking us for that tip. They were younger than us and not carrying heavy packs, so they may not have found the trail as strenuous as we did.
We passed several couples hiking the Towab trail… none that were carrying heavy, overnight back packs. We asked them if they had hiked this trail before and not one said that they had. It made perfect sense to us. Once you’ve hiked the Towab Trail, you really don’t need to hike it ever again, lol!
Coming up next, our two-night kayak camping excursion into the wild and wonderful, Mijinemungshing Lake of Ontario!