Day 3: Thunderhouse Falls to the Pivabiskau River (44 km)
We woke up to windy overcast skies with the smell of rain on the air. No one likes breaking camp in the rain, so we packed our gear and ate breakfast quickly. Fortunately, the clouds only spit a little. A quick jaunt (~ 300m) brought us to the end of the Thunderhouse Falls portage and back on to the mighty Missinaibi.
A few quick swifts and a bend in the river brought us to a 700m portage around Stone Rapids. Hap Wilson’s map reads, “CIII-IV DO NOT RUN!” in bold red letters so we watched the side of the river for that iconic yellow portage sign. Even so, we missed the portage and ran a fun little swift approaching the larger rapid.
I hopped out onto the rocky riverbank and walked to scout the rapid. Hap was right—the first part looked fun, but the haystacks at the end would have swamped us. After realizing our mistake, we turned around and paddled back up the swifts (a little early-morning arm workout)! Once we were facing back up river, the portage sign was visible.
Stone Rapids portage was brutal. 700m doesn’t sound like much, but try it with a canoe on top of your pack. Add to that the fact that the portage was virtually unmaintained and you can understand our struggle. We were constantly climbing over or bush-waking around trees that had blown down over the trail. The worst is when a tree is suspended just a little higher than your legs are long. You have to hop one leg over, swing the other one over and cringe as the canoe’s thwart bounces into the meat on top of your collarbone. At one point the fallen trees were so thick that I left the canoe suspended upside down in the trees, walked around, then pulled the canoe over the mess of branches before ducking back under the thwart.
A quick 1km paddle down some swifts brought us to the next (and largest) portage of the trip: Hell’s Gate Canyon. The watery approach took us longer than it should have because we were afraid of missing the portage again. If you don’t catch this one you’re through Hell’s Gate and into dangerous walled-in water.
We were overcautious and took the shallow side of the river. In the end, it was so shallow and stoney that I gave up and hopped into the water, boots and all, to pull the canoe to shore. After wringing the water out of my Smartwools I put my pack on and started walking. Since the portage was 2,350m long, we resigned ourselves to making two trips.
After Stone Rapids portage, this walk was a breeze, despite being over 3 times as long. After an initial heart-thumping hill, the trail leveled out until we made it to the campsite at the lookout. The drop-off at this lookout is massive.
We threw rocks over the edge and got dizzy watching them fall and fall and fall. If we had a few extra days to spare, that canyon would be worth exploring.
After the campsite/lookout, the trail drops all the way down to the water. We shrugged off our packs and returned for the extra gear. I took the food barrel this time. Although it was heavy, you can almost enter a zen-like state of during a long portage where your mind starts to drift. Before I knew it I had reached the descent to the end of the portage. We walked over 7 km on that portage!
The end of Hell’s Canyon Portage:
N 50° 13.166′
W 082° 52.346′
While the rest of the guys were returning with the gear (they were taking turns swapping the canoe back and forth with the extra person), I cast a line into the bay. To my surprise, a good sized fish followed my lure in. On my second cast I saw him take the lure. I landed a nice sized bass which turned out the be the start of a pretty fantastic lunch!
Once the rest of the guys joined me we continued to catch bass, pike, pickerel and even a shiny whitefish! A little lemon-pepper and butter made those fillets taste like heaven after our morning of portaging. By this time the sun had come out and it was hot again. After cleaning the frying pan and our utensils, we launched our canoe and carried on, eager to put in some good distance.
The paddle to Bell’s Bay was awe-inspiring. The water was almost always moving with swifts, CIs and CIIs to play our way through. The landscape here was massive—the northern edge of the Canadian shield is glorious. The forested hills on either side look so huge I felt like we had entered some giant’s land. Shane mentioned that every time we turned the corner it looked like another poster. This kind of beauty is almost impossible to capture with point-and-shoot cameras. You’ll have to trust me.
One of my favourite rapids ended this section. Just before Bell’s Bay there is a 400m CII. It looked much longer than that. As we approached it it looked like a roller coaster. The land just dropped for almost half a kilometer. Scouting from the shore was pretty much impossible so Shane and I entered the centre cautiously, back-paddled frequently and navigated around the pillow rocks all the way through. It was one of the longest endorphin rushes of the trip!
Bell’s Bay is a popular fly-in spot for fisherman, but we didn’t see any signs of humanity—just wildlife. On this day we spotted three moose along the shore of the river. I saw a fox run up the shoreline. The highlight was the wolf that came down to the water’s edge in Bell’s Bay and checked our party out. Deciding that we were no threat, he strolled back and forth along a gravel bar at the river’s edge before walking back up into the woods. The Bald Eagles were incredible too. We saw them regularly from this point until Moosonee.
Just past Bell’s Bay the water got shallow and gravel spits started emerging all over the river. For the first time we had to decide which side of the river to run, hoping not to get caught on the gravel without water. We stopped on one of these large gravel spits for a good afternoon snack. The sun was very oppressive by this point.
Just over an hour down the river from our lunch spot we reached Coal River. Hoping to find old N.W.C. post ruins, Shane and I pulled up and went exploring. We followed the river for a while before losing interest and returning to the shoreline. When we returned we found Nathan and Brian laying down in the gravel channel letting the cool Coal River water wash over them. We quickly followed suit. How refreshing!
It felt like a long old paddle from the Coal River to our campsite on the Pivabiskau River. The last 5km in particular seemed to stretch on forever. We even threw our fishing lines in to break up the trip but nothing was biting here.
The junction of the Pivabiskau River and the Missinaibi River has two campsites, one on either side of the Missinaibi. We didn’t use either of them. Instead, we pulled up on a large gravel delta formed by the Pivabiskau.
It was only about 1 foot above the water level, but there was a gentle breeze and no bugs at all. Both of the marked sites were back in the woods with the mosquitoes.
As we set up camp, Brian cooked pasta with pesto, Parmesan cheese, and coarsely ground peppercorns. No meal has ever tasted as good as that one. To my surprise, Shane found enough driftwood caught on the sides of the gravel delta to create a nice campfire that we enjoyed as the sun set.
After dinner we slept soundly on perfectly flat tent pads.
N 50° 13.166′
W 082° 52.346′