Tag Archives | Stephen Barkley

Lower Missinaibi River Part 5: Tidewater Provincial Park to Home

Day 8: Tidewater Provincial Park to Home

I wanted to sleep in. We had no significant mileage to paddle today—just a quick jump across the river to catch the train. Despite my best efforts to stay in my tent, a week of early rising combined with the turf war a couple crows were having next to our campsite made that dream impossible.

For breakfast, we feasted. We filled our bellies with all the chocolate and granola bars we had reserved for emergencies. It felt strange carrying an empty food barrel on my back down to the dock to put-in.

We had some time to explore, so we paddled around the north end of Charles Island to Moose Factory. Nathan and I wanted to log a Geocache this far north so we followed the coordinates to shore. We pulled up on the rocky waterfront beside some local motor boats.

The boats of Moose Factory

The boats of Moose Factory

We thought we had found a community centre so we walked right in, only to realize we were in a classy eco-lodge. After a week on the water we were anything but classy but the employees were kind.

The Moose Factory Eco-Lodge

The Moose Factory Eco-Lodge

We left, found the Geocache, and set our bows west with dreams of cheeseburgers and ice-cold water.

Geocache: “Wachay! Moose Factory’s First Cache”:
N 51° 15.519′
W 080° 37.028′

On our way across to Moosonee we paddled around the south edge of Charles Island. We encountered a water taxi who was not interested in sharing the water or even waving!

Acting on a tip from the people in Moose Factory, we found the entrance to a creek that runs right beside the train station. It was high tide, so we were able to paddle across what would later be Islands we would need to paddle a long way around. We found the entrance to the creek and started picking our way up.

After many days of near-pristine wilderness, it was discouraging to see shopping carts, lawnmowers, liqueur bottles, fire extinguishers, and bicycles choking the creek. We pulled over a few dams of logs and garbage and met an excited (and very intoxicated) man under the road-bridge.

The dirty creek

When we made it to the train bridge we pulled our gear up the hill and found ourselves right next to the station. This saved us portaging our canoes and gear through town.

Store Creek by the train station

With our gear at the station and our tickets confirmed, we hit the streets of Moosonee. It was a very hot, sunny, and dusty day!

The dusty streets of Moosonee

The lady at the train station informed us that the best restaurant in town was the Sky Ranch. We were a little apprehensive when we saw the place. Signs reading, “absolutely no hoodies allowed” and “absolutely no baby strollers allowed” didn’t convey the friendliest vibe. It didn’t matter. We feasted on cheeseburgers and cold drinks, chatting about life in Moosonee with our waitress. We were actually the second group of canoeists in the place. Another team had just finished paddling the Harricanna River out of Quebec. They had a night to clean up in a lodge before arriving in Moosonee, though—they smelled much nicer than us.

Sky Ranch restaurant

We wandered around the small town for a bit, eating ice-cream from a convenience store and chatting with the Town Clerk while trying in vain to find some souvenir to take home with us. We explored the grocery store, marveling at the prices of every day goods. Many people fax their grocery order to the supermarket in Cochrane and pay the train to bring it up as freight to save money! This was the only grocery store I have ever seen that sells ATVs in the aisles.

We climbed onto the Polar Bear Express about an hour before it left, enjoying the air conditioning.

Our ride home

The ride was not very exciting and the meal prices were near-insane. We played cards and napped. The highlight of the ride was the Moose River Crossing where the train slows down from its regular speed of about 70 km/hr to give passengers time to soak in the view. It felt surreal coasting over the water we had paddled through just a few days earlier.

When we made it to Cochrane, things got confusing. Despite it being a Monday night, the hotels were all full! We ended up locking our canoe to a picnic table behind a hotel and driving a couple hours back to Mattice to drop off Brian and pick up my vehicle. After a quick farewell, we drove all night to get home at just after 10 a.m. Not exactly the way you want to spend your first night after a canoe trip, but it was nice to be home. I’d like to personally thank Monster energy drinks for the ability to drive all night.

This truly was the trip of a lifetime. We’ve reached the point in our tripping career when we cannot go bigger and better any more. There’s no real way to conceivably “top” the Missinaibi—just different waters to paddle.

Stay tuned.

< Lower Missinaibi River Part 4: Moose River to Moosonee

Lower Missinaibi River Part 4: Moose River to Moosonee

Day 6: Missinaibi/Moose Junction to the Otakwahegan River (49 km)

We awoke excited. Today, after four years, we would paddle the last bit of the Missinaibi River. In a mere 20 km, the Missinaibi would join the Mattagami to form the Moose River which would take us the final 90 km to Moosonee.

The weather was overcast and a little cool but with no sign of rain. Brian cooked us up a breakfast of fried bacon and cheese burritos and we hit the water. Once again, the river was so low we had to pick our way through it like a maze.

After a few hours of paddling, we found Portage Island at the end of the Missinaibi River. We pumped some fresh water for our Nalgenes and toasted the end of the “Mighty Miss”.

Hap’s map said there were swifts to the West of Portage Island. In such low water levels, these swifts were dry land with little trickles of water cutting through them. We backtracked a bit and took the East side. To our surprise, there was a raging high-volume class II technical rapid awaiting us. There’s no sign of it on the map—I suppose it only exists in low water levels. The entrance to the rapid was a CI that took you into a pool on the East shore of the Mattagami/Moose. Once in the pool, the exit was the big CII tech. Plenty of volume along with a ferry to the left near the end to avoid the rocks made for an exciting ride. What a welcome to the Moose!

Later that morning I caught a large Pickerel while Shane and I were taking turns pumping water. I threw it back. A little while later, Brian caught a nice Pickerel that we used to supplement our Mr. Noodles lunch.

Brian's Pickerel on Brian's paddle.

Brian’s pickerel on Brian’s paddle

After lunch, the Moose River ran out of water. We ended up walking the canoe again. If the water had been another 6″ lower, we would be portaging down the dry riverbed!

Shane water-walking (again)

Shane water-walking (again)

After a gentle CI between Nicoll and Mike Islands, we saw the Moose River Crossing in the distance. It felt a little strange seeing a symbol of civilization on the sixth day of our journey. Workers were repairing the concrete piers that face upstream to take the brunt of logs which wash down the Moose during spring run off. The workers seemed quite excited to see us. One man waved his orange hat to indicate which channel under the railroad bridge had enough water to paddle through. We slid through some swifts under the bridge while the workers took pictures of us.

Moose River crossing

Moose River crossing from the south

Just north of the bridge, the map showed “gypsum caves.” We had anticipating exploring them all afternoon.

Brian and Nate paddle by the Gypsum Caves

Brian and Nate paddle by the Gypsum Caves

Gypsum is a soft rock that erodes in an interesting pattern. One of the small caves was large enough for me to crawl through for a photo.

Shane by Steve in the Gypsum caves

Shane by Steve in the Gypsum caves

After paddling for what felt like ages, we stopped for a quick break on a mud flat in the middle of the river. The river is so wide and straight here, it felt like we’d never leave the train bridge behind!

We paddled a bit more and found a nice Island to sleep on.

At first we were unsure of finding flat tent pads. The entire shoreline was rocky and the raised centre was covered in thick bushes. We were fortunate to find a sandy spot on the Island to pitch our tents. It turned out the be the most comfortable sleeping spot of the whole trip.

Two tents on the Moose River

For a while we thought we would finally receive some rain. Dark clouds rolled in as the sun was going down. In the end, we were spared the rain (which we clearly saw falling to the south of us) when the edge of the storm passed directly over us. We enjoyed our dehydrated meals (Pad Thai!) with the setting sun beating down on us.

The storm slides to the south

The storm slides to the South

There was a nice little fire pit set up with large rocks set up. We enjoyed a windy fire of driftwood before crashing in our tents for the night.

An evening campfire

An evening campfire

As we fell asleep, we all wondered if there would be enough water to paddle in when we woke up.

Nate in the evening

Nate in the evening

Site just past the Otakwahegan River:
N 50° 53.351′
W 081° 11.634′

Day 7: Otakwahegan River to Tidewater Provincial Park (62 km)

The day started promising. We were able to paddle out of the cove we landed in without water-walking. Our luck wasn’t to last, however!

Once again, we're walking our canoe

Once again, we’re walking our canoe

The centre of the river was too dry to paddle so we veered to the East side. After a little big of paddling there we realized that we would have to switch to the left side, 1 km across. We walked beside the canoes for another 750 m or so.

During one of our morning breaks, in a redux of a scene from our 2004 Quetico trip, Brian rocked a Karate Kid-style crane kick pose on a boulder alongside Big Asp Island.

The karate kid

The karate kid

We ate lunch on a gravel spit by Nipiminanak Island. We had hoped to get a good view of the Allan Rapids as the Abitibi flowed into the Moose, but at over a kilometre across the river, we only saw some lines of white on the horizon  Given the low water levels (and our corresponding low energy levels) by this point, we decided to keep paddling toward Moosonee rather than pull and walk across gravel bars to the Abitibi.

When we left our lunch spot, the water was too shallow to paddle through again. Since Nathan and I brought water sandals, we balanced Brian and Shane in the middle of the canoes and floated them to deeper water before hoping in.

Floating down the river

Floating down the river

The Kwetabohigan Rapids arrived quickly. Maybe it was Brian and my vocal rendition of “Grace Too” that helped the time pass so quickly! These rapids are listed as CII – CIII depending on the tide, and they continue for 2 km! What great fun!

The start of the rapids was a little drop into a calm(ish) area where you can hang out in an eddy. We followed Hap’s advice and stuck to the left side of the river and ran straight through them. The volume was huge and the waves were choppy. It felt like a roller coaster!

At on point, half way through the rapids, we saw two people in a fishing boat in a pool to the side. The lady in the front of the boat stretched out across the gunnels and pointed her big zoom lens towards us. Shane and I smiled and flashed our paddles before getting shocked back into reality by a big wave which jarred us from the right bow. We quickly got back to work and paddled out the bottom of the rapids as Nate and Brian followed. These are the sort of rapids you could portage back up and spend all day running. What a great set of rapids to end the trip on!

The next leg of the trip felt long. We were tired and started to look for campsites. We thought we found a good spot to camp on Bushy Island but upon closer inspection, the tide was overtaking the area. We took a break and ate some Crispers.

The tide's coming in

The tide’s coming in

As we ate, we kept having to pull our canoes further inland as the tide came in. To leave, we got in the canoes and waited about 5 minutes for the tide to lift us off the mud.

The last 7 or 8 km of the trip to Charles Island was the hardest. Our energy was spent and we had already paddled over 50 km. We fought the incoming tide and wind on flat-water. Even the excitement of seeing Moosonee didn’t last long. You see the town a long time before you actually arrive!

First sight of Moosonee

First sight of Moosonee

Our exhaustion turned to sheer joy when we pulled up at the Tidewater Provincial Park dock. It turned out that we were the only people on the Island! We were quickly set up our site and found some wood for a fire.

Tidewater Provincial Park

Tidewater Provincial Park

One of the simple luxuries you miss on a trip like this are chairs and tables. I have never enjoyed sitting at a picnic table so much as that night.

Food at a table

Food at a table

After watching the sunset over Moosonee, we fell asleep quickly.

Sunset over Moosonee

Sunset over Moosonee

Tidewater Provincial Park Site:
N 51° 15.807′
W 080° 37.716′

< Lower Missinaibi River Part 3: The Pivabiskau River to the Moose River

Part 5: Lower Missinaibi River Part 5: Tidewater Provincial Park to Home >

Lower Missinaibi River Part 3: The Pivabiskau River to the Moose River

Day 4: The Pivabiskau River to the Opasatika River (50 km)

There’s nothing quite like waking up on a gravel spit in the middle of nowhere to a breakfast of pancakes and coffee (courtesy of Brian). As we ate and packed up our gear we watched the mist lift off the river as the sun burned through. Beautiful.

The Pivabisku River Delta in the Morning

Just before leaving for the day’s paddle, I cast a spinner toward the lee side of a rock in the middle of the Pivabiskau. A big bass hit it as soon as it touched the water. As I dragged it up onto the gravel I thought, “You’re lucky my belly is already full of pancakes!”

A Missinaibi Morning

The landscape is completely northern now. We’ve left the Canadian Shield behind. The banks are low and sandy populated with black spruce, poplar & birch trees. Every time we round another corner the river spreads wider. This makes it a challenge to navigate in low water. You have to keep guessing which side of the river has the most water. A couple times today we paddled backwards on the river as gravel bars directed the flow around within the riverbed.

We learned to watch for bubbling water. Normally when you’re canoeing, bubbling water with spray indicates danger—a hidden rock or shallow swift. At this point on the Missinaibi, bubbling water meant there was probably enough to paddle through without having to get out and pull the canoe over!


The fishing was good today. One of my favourite moments of the trip came when Brian and Nate got stuck without enough water in a small rapid. Shane and I, seeing their predicament, changed our path and floated right by them. We had enough time to cast a bit while they got unstuck. At the base of this rapid, Shane and I both caught pickerel. Then, on my last cast, I thought I caught a snag. It turned out to be a decent sized pike! By the time I pulled it to the canoe we were drifting into some rocky swifts so I had to stick the fishing rod between my legs and paddle to the shore while the pike surfed with its head just out of the water.

Lunch at the Soweska River

We ate lunch on a bit of gravelly mud where the Soweska River flows into the Missinaibi. We dined on Mr. Noodles as the wind kept picking up. Seeing an opportunity to have some fun, Shane and I found some washed up tree trunks and created a T-shaped sail with our tarp. Brian and Nathan left ahead of us while we put the sail together with dreams of shouting, “So long, suckers!” as we blew by them.

It didn’t quite work as planned—probably due to our lack of any experience sailing a canoe. Shane hoisted the sail and held it in place between his legs while he tried to snatch the ropes that were tied to the bottom corners of the sail. For a brief moment we caught the wind and I was able to use my paddle for a rudder. Before we knew it we washed up on rocks (which were hidden under 1 inch of water in the middle of a 400m wide river)!

A Poor Attempt to Sail

We tried a few more times but the sail was more problems that in was worth. Eventually we caught up to Brian and Nathan and joined them for a swim—a welcome relief from the oppressive sun!

Getting out of the water after swimming was a challenge. Just like back at Thunderhouse, we had to exit the water and pull tight tech clothes over our wet bodies while simultaneously dancing on a rocky shoreline and swatting Loonie-sized horseflies. Good times.

By the time we started looking for a campsite we were quite worn out. We had paddled 50 kilometers in the hot sun and were ready for a break. We eventually found a campsite on an island just after the Opasatika River.

Island Campsite Just Past the Opasatika River

The officially marked campsite was set into the woods and was reminiscent of a horror movie set. The flies in under the cedars were horrendous. We chose to set up camp on the sandy grassy end of the island instead.

The Old “Horror” Campsite

After setting up the tents and the cooking stove, we picked our way into the current of the river to relax. After the heat of the day, letting your body float in the current while holding on to a boulder under the water felt like heaven.

Brian cooked one of our most successful meals this night. We used thick pita shells as a base and cut pepperoni and cheese on it to make pizzas with some diced tomatoes. I was a little surprised that the factory-sealed pepperoni survived the heat. In the end it smelled okay and we were hungry!

Sunset Just Past the Opasatika River

We finished the night with a roaring bonfire of deadwood we picked up along the side of the island.

Opasatika River Island Site:
N 50° 25.137′
W 082° 20.745′


Day 5: The Opasatika River to the Moose River (60 km)

The day began with a quick breakfast of oatmeal and bugs before launching out on a long day’s paddle. 60km sounds like a lot, but with rest stops every 10 km or so it’s manageable. On our first break we pulled out apples which were a welcome sight to all of us!

The wind picked up quite a bit during today, but fortunately, it was blowing mostly downstream. The combination of choppy water, bright sun and clouds were beautiful.

Clouds and Contrails

Just before lunch we spotted a post on the shore with a solar panel on it. Shane and I pulled over to have a look while Brian and Nathan kept paddling to our lunch spot.

After we climbed the bank we saw a bigger metal cabin hidden from sight. The door was open so we went inside. It had been insulated at one time, but all the insulation was pulled out. An old bed frame and rusted out stove were left along with a broom that read, “Property of Environment Canada.” Interesting.

Old Weather Station

A quick paddle brought us to the gravel bar where we ate lunch: fried chili-cheese burritos! Man, they were delicious!

Arriving for Lunch

Shane on the Rocks

Lunch by the Weather Station:
N 50° 35.091′
W 082° 05.035′

The highlight of today was “Deception Rapids” It was a 450m long CI-CII. The volume of water running through here was massive. We rode big waves all the way down until close to the end when you have to make a quick jump to the left to avoid hanging up on rocks. It was a great adrenaline-filled jaunt! We took a quick break below the rapids to stretch before the last 20km of the day.

The Perils of Low Water

The river is uneventful at this point. In Hap’s guide book there are three lengths of river beside each other on the same page because there’s nothing to write about. Even so, the beauty of this river is stunning. We watched many fish jump right out of the water today as we paddled along.

We set up camp on a flood-level ledge of sand and grass beside the river. The water was so low, there were paths of rocks all through the river to walk along.

Rocky Road

At one point I went for a walk and the sun broke through the evening clouds setting up my favourite picture of the trip.

My Favourite Picture

For supper we created an unexpected appetizer. We smeared the left-over pizza pitas in butter and chopped garlic and fried them for garlic bread. This little snack is a must-have on our next trip! We followed the garlic bread up with a meal of spaghetti and pesto before crawling into our sleeping bags. Tomorrow morning we would reach the Moose River.

This might be a good time to extol the virtues of a quality tent with noseeum-proof mesh. Brian and I slept like babies on top of our sleeping bags in the heat in his Eureka tent. Nathan and Shane alternated between swatting noseeum bites and sweating inside their sleeping bags to find protection from the demonic swarm. This is the last trip that Nathan’s $25 Walmart tent will be on!

Two Very Different Tents

Pre-Moose River Site:
N 50° 43.414′
W 081° 45.306′

< Part 2: Thunderhouse Falls to the Pivabiskau River

Part 4: Moose River to Moosonee >

Lower Missinaibi River Part 2: Thunderhouse Falls to the Pivabiskau River

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.

The end of Stone Rapids portage

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.

Hell’s Gate

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.

Hell’s Canyon

Steve overlooking Hell’s Canyon

Shane planking Hell’s Canyon

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!

A delicious bass

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.

After Hell’s Canyon

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!

Nathan and Brian at Coal River

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.

Facing the Pivaskau River

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.

Driftwood Campfire

After dinner we slept soundly on perfectly flat tent pads.

Pivabiskau Campsite:
N 50° 13.166′
W 082° 52.346′

< Part 1: Mattice to Thunderhouse Falls
Part 3: The Pivabiskau River to the Moose River >

Lower Missinaibi River Part 1: Mattice to Thunderhouse Falls

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.

Mattice Campsite:
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.

Riverbank in Mattice

The riverbank in Mattice

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.

Lunch by Murphy's Island

The gravel spit beside Murphy’s Island

There were some brilliant irises in full bloom on the gravel.

Irises in Bloom

Irises in Bloom

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.

Black Feather Rapids

Black Feather Rapids

Shane at Black Feather Rapids

Shane at Black Feather Rapids

Brian at Black Feather Rapids

Brian at Black Feather Rapids

The bedrock here was interesting. It had eroded in strange cobweb shapes. It looked like something from a horror movie set.

Odd Rock Erosion at Black Feather

Odd erosion patterns at Black Feather Rapids

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.

Isabel Island Campsite

The mosquito-ridden Isabel Island site

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′

View of Skunk Island from Isabel Island Site

View of Skunk Island from the Isabel Island Site

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.

Bare Rock Point

Nathan & Brian at Bare Rock Point

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.

Thunderhouse Warning Sign

Thunderhouse warning sign

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.

Thunderhouse Falls Site

Thunderhouse Falls Site

We spent the afternoon on the rocks right at the second major falls. The sun was hot and the scenery was breathtaking.

Thunderhouse Falls

Thunderhouse Falls

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!

Thunderhouse Spa

Thunderhouse Spa!

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!

Log Balanced Above Thunderhouse Falls

A log balanced above Thunderhouse Falls

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!

Thunderhouse Gorge Site Lookout

Thunderhouse Gorge site lookout

View Downriver from Thunderhouse Gorge Lookout

The view downriver from Thunderhouse Gorge lookout

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.

Thunderhouse Campsite:
N 50° 03.101′
W 083° 11.154′

Part 2: Thunderhouse Falls to the Pivabiskau River >

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