This is an account of my first wilderness canoe trip. The Missinaibi River is a true wilderness river in Northern Ontario. This trip covers 185km from Chapleau to Mattice and is only half the river. The northern section is slightly longer, reaching north to Moossonee, and is even more isolated. It is also much more hazardous as it has claimed the lives of dozens of unprepared canoeists.
We leave Matheson and drive to Timmins where we have breakfast at McDonalds. Next we drive for about 200 km on Hwy 101 to Chapleau where we eat lunch at the Sportsman Hotel. Bruce gets directions to Missinaibi Prov park from someone he knows at the water treatment plant. The next leg of our journey takes us 83 km along a dirt logging road into the park which has only one sign. We catch sight of a black bear running into the woods and see signs of moose. On the way into the park we meet a van coming out, pulling an empty canoe trailer. We eventually reach the access point where there are several motorhomes and campers from Ohio and one or two from other States. The occupants are easy to spot out on the lake in their blaze orange survival suits on their fishing boats.
After getting fresh water we load the canoes and set off at 3:30 PM. Paddling north up the lake the sky is mostly sunny but there is a slight threat of rain. At the north end of the lake there is a large sand bar and the water gets very shallow, about 8-10 inches with marsh grass rising to the surface. A mayfly hatch is in full swing at the outflow of the lake just before the portage. The sky has completely clouded over and it begins to rain just before we reach Quittagene Rapids. We portage the packs and scout the rapids. My partner Phil and I decide to attempt to run it without our packs. We take on a little water from a standing wave at the bottom of the rapid but no problem. The rain continues on and off. There are ducks everywhere.
Cedar Rapids is small and short so we run them without stopping to scout, spotting a moose just above the rapids. I catch one small pickerel. We make camp past the rapids somewhere near the Hay River high on left bank. The sight isn't very large and hardly visible from the river. Supper is pasta and sauce and one small pickerel.
The night was cold and the rain continued through the night and into the morning. We hang what we can to dry out a bit but our little campfire of damp wood isn't much help. We eat breakfast, load up and go. It is a bit windy, cold and wet. Bruce and Traf are ahead of us and spot 3 moose. (Really!) There is a cold rain throughout day.
Barrel Rapids portage is more like 500m than the 200m marked on the map. There is nowhere to land the canoes without stepping into knee deep water and climbing up the steep bank of wet slippery clay. Are we having fun yet? The river continues lazily for several kilometers and we come to the rail bridge at Peterbell where we land at a small dock on the left. I have been cold and wet all day and am now becoming hypothermic. Traf wants to explore then continue down the river but it is getting late in the day and we are all getting a bit tired. Camp is set up in a clearing next to the river and I get a fire going. It appears I am to be the arsonist on this trip.
Everyone starts to feel better after we get something to eat and warm up a little. The rain finally stops and the clouds break to reveal a breathtaking sunset. Perhaps it is so beautiful because of the effort it took to get here. The river is smooth as glass now that the wind has dropped and it reflects the bright red sky and a rainbow which reaches from horizon to horizon.
Exploring the area, we find remnants of some kind of foundry or of a brickworks here and beyond the trees in another clearing you can see the train tracks and the path of an old siding which came right up to the ruins. The one thing that detracts from this piece of the past is an ATV which is chained to a tree near our tents. Somebody must come here regularly to fish or hunt.
Next morning the sun is shining warmly on the tents but the ground is clay and it is slippery from all the rain. Everything is hung out to dry covering every bush in sight while we have a leisurely breakfast.
After the canoes are loaded, we set off into a gentle headwind. The sun is shining in a clear sky but the air is cool. The activity of paddling soon warms us. The wind strengthens as the river widens into Peterbell lake which turns out to be wide and marshy with just a channel through the reeds and grass where the river flows. We spot another moose feeding in the shallow water. There is much birdlife to see such as cranes and an eagle.
We stop on the rocky bank to fish for awhile. We switch partners and I climb into the bow of Trafford's boat while Bruce pairs up with Phil. We spend a large part of the day travelling through the marsh. Late in the afternoon, we smell woodsmoke in the air and soon see the smoke rising from the shore on the left. We stop to investigate and discover a campsite recently vacated and the fireplace still smouldering. After the campfire is put out, we continue on our way. We portage Swamp Rapids and run a couple of smaller rapids which follow.
Deadwood Rapids is the next rapid to be portaged. We decide to take the left fork around Allan island so we will have only one portage which is a bit shorter than the two portages combined on the right fork. When we reach the portage at the end of Allan Island there is a very nice campsite at the near end on the crest of a hill beside the falls. We have covered about 17 km today and this spot is too good to pass up this late in the day so we start to unload our gear. This is when I discover that I have left my tackle box back on the rocks. After supper, Bruce disappears into his tent for the night. There is still plenty of light left so Phil and Traf take a canoe and fish below rapids 'til after dark. It is still light enough to read at around 10:00.
There is a nice fire going when the fishermen return so Phil decides to bake some bannock. When it appears to be cooked after keeping a pot covered with coals till well after night has taken hold, the rest of us head for our sleeping bags. After a full day of lake paddling into a headwind, sleep comes easily when there is no rain.
Phil got up during the night and fell on a rock hurting his hip. It is not serious but he will be sore for a few days. Everyone is starting to get sunburned to some degree since we try to take advantage of every occasion the sun shines on us. We discover a sandpiper nest right next to our tent with four chicks beeping away. The mother is trying to lead us away from her nest anytime we come near. By the time we are ready to pack up the tent she has taken her brood into the underbrush.
Today the sun is shining but the clouds are on the horizon and moving in. Breakfast is a cheese omelet, bacon, bannock with syrup and tea. The skies are grey as the canoes are pushed from shore below Wavy Rapids.
We catch two fish at the base of Wavy rapids and have a quick lunch just downriver. The sun breaks through the clouds as we eat. There is another warm fireplace on the next portage. It seems we are not far behind another group of travellers. Perhaps they are the ones belonging to the trailer we saw exiting the park.
There is a slight tailwind today and the water is calm. As we are fishing in a particularly fishy looking spot (according to Traf), we are buzzed by float plane VERY low over tree tops.
The plane must have been looking for the Ministry of Natural Resources crew we meet at Greenhill Portage. They are college students, three guys one girl from Sir Sanford Fleming College, who have been hired to clear and mark the portages and campsites along the river. They are the first crew to do maintenance on this route in twelve years. They haven't cleared this portage yet because they are doing it by hand axe since their chainsaw is wet from a swim in one of the earlier rapids. It is much longer than the 1km marked on the map because of detours around twelve years of deadfall. We try to help them get the chainsaw working but the toolkit they have been supplied with doesn't have the proper plug wrench. We decide to get moving when we see another band of voyageurs coming across the river. The path is very grueling with swamp, hills and shoulder high deadfalls. Although this is the longest portage marked on the map, we hope it is not an indication of things to come now that the trail blazers are behind us. Traf takes a short swim at the end of the trail after more than an hour of slogging.
Bruce and Traf are again in the lead and they wave their arms and point as they round the first bend. Phil and I expect rapids so we take the inside of the turn very carefully. It was a moose and a calf that they were pointing at. (Really!)
St. Peters rapid is next and it is short but with large standing waves. All the gear is portaged a short distance around it and we stand at the edge of the river scouting the rapid. Bruce and Traf decide to try and run it empty. They make the first large wave but take on lots of water. Traf decides to bail out some of the water in the middle of the rapid and they both go for a swim after the next standing wave. No damage and they are easily recovered in the shallow water below the rapid.
The rest of the afternoon is spent paddling thru small rapids until dusk when we drift past two moose. We glide past within 20 feet of them by not moving or saying a word. Shortly after we begin dipping our paddles again, the hiss of big whitewater in the distance can be heard getting louder.
This is Split Rock Falls, the largest falls on the southern part of the river. The wide, slow moving river is squeezed through a cleft in the granite bedrock about 40 feet wide and 60 feet deep. Not runnable. We are very cautious as we approach. Camp is set up at the bottom of Split Rock Falls portage passing up a wooded site near the top where there is a blaze on a tree with a note nearly 20 years old. There is bear scat on the trail.
There are acres of driftwood at the bottom of the falls near our campsite so a campfire is in order. Clouds surround the sky overhead but there is a pink sunset promising of clear skies tommorrow. I rinse the Greenhill muck out of my clothes and leave them on the rock to dry in the morning sun. After supper, Phil bakes bannock again.
All four of us fished hard throughout the day with only two pickerel to show for it. We were right, it did rain all day. Phil makes more bannock. He's getting good at it after all this practise. Plans are made to get to bed early and try to get an early start to make up some time and to stay ahead of the crew behind us.
Our two canoes start off down river at 9:00 in bright sunshine and a cool, gentle breeze. We dig in and paddle hard and steady with the gentle current. Along the banks we spot several trap lines marked with flagging tape and what look like small nesting boxes nailed to trees along the paths.
Two moose, a cow and her calf, graze at the shore and eye us cautiously as we pass. Lunchtime finds us at Fire River where we raft up for fish and bannock. After lunch we lie back and take a nap letting the river carry us along as there are no rapids marked. Brunswick portage is poorly marked. It is so hard to spot that when we hear bush planes overhead we are sure we have past it. Clouds start to move in, the sun is getting low, time to look for a campsite.
The campsite past Brunswick portage is high on the bank and in the trees. We give it a miss. Paddling until twilight, we are surprised by a rather large bridge. Landing to the left of the bridge, we discover logging roads and a reforested area. The four of us explore in different directions and decide to camp just off the bridge near the road.
MANY, MANY BUGS! The tall grass and small trees breed every kind of biting insect ever seen in the woods. A quick supper of soup and we all dive into our tents before the sun has fully set. We have covered 60 km in one day!
"I've given pocket change to people who looked like me." I say as I crawl from my cold sleeping bag into the cold light of day. A quick breakfast and we pack up camp to get away from all the bugs the dragonflies left behind.
As we are carting our gear to the canoes, two pickups drive up and Bruce chats with the occupants who are going fishing. He soon informs us that there is supposed to be good fishing at the Brunswick River. It is sunny and warm so we strip down, put on sun screen and go fishing. As is usual, the sky clouds over while we are fishing, and it soon starts to rain. Must be something in the sunscreen. Time to head down river.
We enjoy a lunch of pike and whitefish under clearing skies at Two Portage Falls. Just as I am hanging my delicates out to dry in the sun, a group of young people show up on the portage. Four canoes with eight kids altogether. They are from a Youth camp in Michigan, travelling all the way to Moosonee. There are two counsellors, around 18 years old, and six campers just under 16. We share our fish with them and discuss campsites. We decide to stay here while they camp at the next portage at Devil Shoepack Falls.
After the kids leave, we set up camp at the head of the portage on a very nice spot. While we are finishing supper under our tarp, six guys from Sudbury show up near sundown. The first canoehead says, "You guys like to party?" These are the people we saw coming up behind us at Greenhill Rapids. They camp at the other end of portage.
With pancakes for supper, Phil and I make extra for breakfast to get an early start. The plan is to start early and meet up with the kids for a fish breakfast. Phil wants to sleep in his hammock. This works out fine 'til heavy rain drives him into the tent at 5:30.
We come across a few small rapids but most of the marked rapids must be submerged. We meet up with the kids in the middle of Albany Rapids. Lunch with the kids on a rock in the middle of the river consists of fish and hot soup. They appreciate our Canadian hospitality. They are soon on their way and we pack up and continue down this rock garden.
Not long after, we see the kids on rocks on river left at the next rapid. By the time we notice them we are already picking our way down the right side of the river. Since this rock garden is about five km long and there are no potages, Phil and I are following close behind Bruce and Traf. Closer than we probably should but we want to follow their exact line. Their canoe just makes it over a ledge and misses a rock, we make the ledge and broadside rock.
Phil does a nice low brace as we lean downstream toward the rock. We have avoided catching the upstream gunwale and swamping but we are firmly pinned on the rock. As I try to get free of the rock to no avail, the downstream gunnel slips under the water when the canoe comes off the rock. From water level I can see Phil upstream with the canoe being rescued by bruce and Traf. I can also see the hydraulic below a rock sucking me upstream! Forget the "feet up and float downstream" strategy, this is not a textbook case. A quick sprint out of the hole and downstream and I am okay. The two counsellors arrive very quickly to help pull me out of the current but they have trouble with the strong current. I have to swim on my own in the lee of their canoe.
Phil has a dislocated shoulder thanks to hanging on to his brace too long and I am exhausted from my battle with the current. At least I didn't have to swim the rest of the rapid, about two or three km, and then walk back. I lost my paddle, hat and bandana but all the other gear is intact. This is embarrassing. There is nothing more Canadian than canoeing and we blew it in front of a bunch of Americans! Phil and Traf pair up as do Bruce and I, putting one unscathed paddler in each boat. We catch up to our rescuers at Beaver Rapids portage. They have recovered my paddle. We leave them behind and continue through three more portages to Glassy Falls.
The portage starts well above the falls at a steep bank. The trail is wide with tire tracks from ATVs on it. We make camp on a large sand beach beside the falls where there is evidence of massive beach parties. There is plenty of cut cedar which we split to get a roaring fire going. Phil is very sore, he should not have paddled after the accident and I am physically drained from my swim. Everything, including the tent is drenched. I wring out enough clothes to wear and sit by the fire until they are only damp. I go to bed fully clothed with my shoes on lying under my sleeping bag because it is so wet. I could be in real trouble tonight.
It begins to rain as soon as we get into the canoes. It builds to a downpour that keeps up all the way to Mattice. Bruce and I bump one ledge at the last rapid, Crow Rapids.
Ten o'clock sees us entering Mattice. When we have pulled the canoes up on shore, Phil and I head for town to find a restaurant. Without the effort of paddling, we are both getting very cold. Everyone meets at the restaurant to dry out and have breakfast. The tea and coffee are kept coming and we all feel better with some food inside of us.
Chris, Traf's younger brother who took the car back from the put-in, shows up around noon. He, Bruce and Traf head off to tie the canoes on the car and load the rest of the gear.
When Phil and I catch up with them a little later, Traf has a NASTY cut on his finger, self inflicted by his belt knife. Phil patches up his finger and we all pile into the car. Bruce, Phil and Traf pass out as Chris plays chauffeur.