Four years ago we had a great plan. My friend Brian Lachine, my brother-in-law Nathan and I decided to paddle the entire length of the Missinaibi River from Lake Missinaibi to the Moose River into Moosonee. We were well on our way until, 50 km up river of Highway 11, Brian slipped on a portage and tore his ACL, MCL, & Meniscus (go big or go home)! After a frantic day of paddling and a lot of pain meds, we pulled out defeated at Mattice on Canada Day.
Four years later to the day we returned to put-in where we took-out and finish the trip. We made two major changes this time around. First, we added Shane Metcalfe to the crew which gave us two tandem canoes so I wouldn’t have to solo. We also upgraded our canoes. The high school in Wawa and friends from my church were gracious enough to lend us proper whitewater canoes.
Nathan and I took many pictures and videos during this year’s trip. I kept a journal every night and we marked all significant points on the GPS. Here’s what we saw …
Day 0: Getting There
These Northern rivers take a bit of work to get to. Nathan and Shane met me in Bracebridge, loaded the car with food and gear and left to meet Brian in Cochrane. Brian was arriving from Wawa, so he was able to drop off his canoe in Mattice on the way.
In Cochrane we loaded the food barrel Brian brought with the food we brought and jammed ourselves into my Escape with all our gear to head to Mattice.
There is a nice little grassy campsite beside the river with a picnic table and fire pit. We arrived around 11 p.m., fought the mosquitoes and enjoyed a little camp fire before bed.
N 49° 36.905′
W 083° 15.881′
Day 1: Mattice to Isabel Island (31km)
The first day started slowly. After reading warnings about leaving unattended vehicles in Mattice, we contacted a local outfitter who agreed to keep our vehicle for $5 per night. The place that was supposed to be just a couple kilometres out of town turned out to be 4 kilometres away. This wouldn’t have been so bad if the people were there to give me a lift back to the river! After wandering around and knocking on doors, I left the fee in an envelope with a letter, parked my vehicle and started the trip with a 4km walk back to town.
The good thing about the walk back was it gave time for Brian (the designated cook on this trip) to get the bacon and eggs going. We feasted on a pound of bacon and a dozen eggs before putting the canoes in and picking up where we left off 4 years and one day earlier.
Shane had been on one trip with us before, but it wasn’t a whitewater trip. It didn’t matter. After some basic instruction (draw, pry, cross-bow draw, back-paddle), we were rolling through some easy swifts just around the corner from the camp.
The first real rapids were only 5km from the campsite. Rock Island Rapids was listed as a CII tech to CIII depending on water levels. We were able to negotiate the first chute approaching the larger rapids so we could pull up on the outcropping of bedrock to scout the rest. After a good look we decided the rapid would be fun but a little beyond our skill level. There was a fun chute with a bunch of good sized haystacks in it, but there were boulders at the end which needed to be negotiated. We portaged the 150m or so over the rocky outcropping. In hindsight, had we encountered this rapid later on in the trip we would have run it without much hesitation. At this point, though, we were new to the canoes and to our paddling partners.
As we continued on, the heat became oppressive. It had to be over 30 degrees Celsius. We ate a lunch of smoked meat sandwiches with mustard on a gravel spit on the far side of Murphy’s Island.
There were some brilliant irises in full bloom on the gravel.
The afternoon was more exciting. We had a lot of fun running Black Feather Rapids.
The challenge to this set of rapids was finding enough water to run through. It was long enough (1km) that we were able to run it in sections with opportunity to scout in between.
The bedrock here was interesting. It had eroded in strange cobweb shapes. It looked like something from a horror movie set.
After completing Black Feather, we paddled through some swifts and a CI before a fun roll through Beam Rapids—a CII which took you down a quick drop beside an island in the middle of the river.
Kettle Falls portage was an easy 300m walk, but it was difficult to get to because of the extremely low water levels. We ended up coming ashore before the portage and picking our way over rocks to get to it.
After a paddle around the West shore of Skunk Island that seemed too long because of the oppressive heat, we found our campsite on Isabel Island. The entrance was a sandy hill that led to a grassy opening. The site wasn’t that pretty, but it was big with flat tent pads.
This is where I faced my biggest problem of the trip. I had brought a few frozen venison steaks to use the following night in a stew. They were sealed in a large Ziploc bag in the top of my pack since we didn’t have enough room for all the food in the barrel. When I picked my pack up off the hillside to bring it into the camp, I smelled meat. Sure enough, the steaks had exploded in the sun and everything in my pack—all my gear—smelled like dead deer.
Knowing that the pack would attract animals, I spent the next hour or so down by the river washing every piece of gear I had brought despite a little mild sunstroke and constant torment by mosquitoes. I even left my backpack underwater weighed down by a boulder for a while to get the smell out of it.
The steaks were rotten—the sun was just too hot for them. I grieved a little bit as I threw them into our campfire. My only consolation was a feast of Farmer’s Market honey-garlic sausages and sauteed onions. They were packed differently and stayed cooler. I went to sleep that night hoping that my backpack which was left drying in a tree would still be there in the morning.
Isabel Island Campsite:
N 49° 50.998′
W 083° 12.344′
Day 2: Isabel Island to Thunderhouse Falls (26km)
Brian woke us up at 6:30 this morning with coffee & pecan pancakes. I asked him about my pack while I was rolling my Thermarest in the tent. Good news: nothing on the site was touched by animals.
The weather this morning was drastically different from the night before. The overcast sky kept getting darker. As we were putting our canoes in the water, the clouds opened up. For the next hour or so the rain alternated between a pleasant mist and a few pretty substantial downpours. By the time we stopped for a break at Bare Rock Point, the rain had stopped.
After casting lures into the current with no results and snacking on Snickers and Coffee Crisp bars we hit the water again, excited to get to Thunderhouse Falls. Before we got there, there were swifts, a CI and a big CII rapid to run. We ran them feeling like pros after all the experience in the canoes the day before.
I’ll say this as a warning to anyone planning on running this river: don’t paddle to the big billboard-sized caution sign with the portage logo on it. After picking our way through rocks, we got close enough to realize that the sign was there to tell us that the portage around Thunderhouse was another half kilometer down the river! If you’re going to put a portage logo on the sign, there should be a portage there! Shane and I took our boots off and walked the canoe out of the rocky mess we had paddled into.
We arrived at the Thunderhouse portage shortly after. We beached at the first portage, scouted, then saw it was easy enough to get to the second, a couple hundred metres downstream. The CII that followed that portage was very runnable, but the map indicated that Coal Rapids was a dangerous CIII which followed immediately after the CII. We took the responsible route and portaged (1,645m to the next put-in, about 1,300 to the campsite) to the Falls site by 12:30 p.m. Even though we only covered 25km, we decided to stay at Thunderhouse for the night to enjoy the waterfall. We didn’t regret this decision!
We chose the Falls site over the Gorge site because of the direct access to the water. The site was well-used but clean. There were logs around the campfire to sit on and even a rather large stone table to cook on.
We spent the afternoon on the rocks right at the second major falls. The sun was hot and the scenery was breathtaking.
I cooked Angry Red Lentil soup with fresh squeezed lime and old cheddar cheese on the rocks. After eating we discovered that we could climb to the base of the second falls and stand on a ledge knee-deep in the foamy water. It was like a natural spa. We all washed up and felt very refreshed from it!
Later on, Nathan and I took some time to climb over the rocks to check out the first falls while Shane and Brian took a nap. Out on the rocks there were no mosquitoes to worry about—only the omnipresent horseflies. We found a huge log balanced on top of one of the ridges by the falls. It would be amazing to see this area during high water levels!
Later in the afternoon, we all walked down to the next put-in and fished unsuccessfully in the fast-moving water. We quickly shifted to swimming. Brian noticed a good jumping cliff about 12 feet high on the far side, so we swam to it and jumped off a few times after checking the depth of the water at the base. The trick was to pull yourself out of the water and climb the rock face quick enough to reach the top and slap the horse flies before they took too much of your flesh! Getting dressed on the other side was a struggle, too. I got out first and did a frantic dance, slapping horseflies while trying to stretch tech clothing over my wet body. The rest of the boys sure had a laugh!
On our way back we inspected the Gorge site. It’s stunning. The 35m cliff at the edge of the site is vertigo-inducing. It’s easy to see why a little alcohol would make this a dangerous site!
We returned to the water falls for supper. Brian cooked up a vegetarian stew (due to the spoiled venison). We borrowed some spaghetti from a later dinner to thicken it up. It was good, but spicy! Brian loaded it with all the spices we brought: Indian chili powder, crushed chili pepper, and coarsely ground black pepper. The weather turned rainy one last time for about 1 minute before clearing up for the rest of the trip.
That night we slept soundly, although the big portages to come the next day weighed a bit on my mind.
N 50° 03.101′
W 083° 11.154′