We are definitely lost.
Somehow, somewhere we made a wrong turn on the river. It was now late in the day, the rain clouds are gathering and the thought of pitching a tent on some tiny mosquito-infested bush campsite is not my idea of a good time.
My wife and I are serious canoe trippers. Over the years we’ve paddled many remote lakes and rivers deep in Ontario’s interior. When our son ACE was born we had to put those adventures on hiatus, albeit temporarily. So when he turned three this spring we decided it was time to take him on one of those longer canoe adventures somewhere deep in the interior. And don’t worry we didn’t name our son ACE, those are just his initials, but it would make for conversation.
I have a fascination, almost an addiction to topographic maps. I’ll walk into my local MEC store, buy a topo map in the off chance I may one day need it. It’s irrational I know. Must be the combination of the pale green inks alongside the plastic polymer paper it’s printed on.
I pull open my desk drawer and look over my collection of topos, it’s a stark reminder of adventures from my past. A decision is made that Temagami is the perfect destination for our adventure. It’s one of those special rite of passage destinations for youth campers and canoe trippers. They all congregate here in the summer months from all over the province of Ontario on their path to manhood.
This wouldn’t be ACE’s first canoe trip. We’ve taken him out on many weekend adventures before and in fact, his first ever trip was over the Canada Day long weekend in Killarney Provincial Park, an absolute jewel of Ontario. He was one-and-a-half then. Now, he’s almost a seasoned veteran having been on at least half a dozen, shorter, closer to home trips. But, this will be his longest canoeing adventure by far.
I have to admit, I have a habit of being a bit over zealous with route planning, and a “biting off more than I can chew” problem. Scouring my Temagami maps I find a perfect route that would require a float plane drop off to a remote lake, deep in the Temagami interior. The plan is to charter a float plane to Florence Lake and make our way back to civilization, a nine or ten day journey.
There would many portages and tough days ahead, but nothing I haven’t faced before. Digging deeper into the route I realize this could be one of those “biting off more than I can chew” moments. For instance, early on in the trip we would carry over the Chaplin Lake portage, which has the distinction of being called the ‘worst day of my life’ portage. Maybe this route needs some rethinking. It’s one thing to put your head down and grind out a difficult portage, it’s another to ask your 3-year old to suck it up buttercup. The trip success dwindles by the minute.
As exciting as a Beaver float plane ride would have been, we, mostly I, had to admit a need to scale back the adventure factor on this trip. In the end, I settled on a more reasonable itinerary. We would still have a number of tough portages along this route but also have some short and fun days of exploring.
Day 1: Temagami Bound
Our plan is to leave early in the morning, drive the six or so hours to Temagami, put-in at Ferguson Bay where we would find a campsite and sleep our first night under the stars. That of course does not happen. We leave the city later than expected, arriving in Temagami at 5 p.m. to a torrential downpour. We run for cover to the Outpost Store to pick up a fishing permit and figure out our next move.
The thought of driving another hour down the pot holed Red Squirrel road just to pitch a tent in the pissing rain was not that appealing to anyone. Instead the decision is made to spend the night at Smoothwater Outfitters Lodge. Pulling into the driveway we see a number of cars topped with canoes – I think everyone’s got the same idea, sleep in a warm dry bed and start out in the morning.
Tonight we’re staying in the Otter House, a small space with a kitchenette and a double bunk bed. The atmosphere here is very homey. ACE is excited about sleeping on the top bunk and I don’t blame him, it does seem like fun. At one time Hap Wilson, the writer and author of many canoe route books, owned this lodge, the new hosts Johanna and Francis have turned this into a quaint little spot.
The rain finally tapers off under a dull grey sky. Aside from the usual Pelican case full of camera gear I bring on canoe trips, this time I’ve added a drone to the arsenal to get some of those amazing aerial perspectives. On the dock I try flying my new toy, hoping not to crash it. I get a few decent photos. Needless to say, I’m really excited at the prospect of shooting from the air. The rain starts up again. That’s my cue to pack it in for the night. Off to bed now, a new adventure awaits tomorrow.
Distance paddled: 20km
Number of portages: 1 (525m)
ACE wakes up at the crack of dawn – what else is new with a 3-year old. Let’s get a head start. I peek out the window, not very promising, still raining. I guess a wet start is inevitable for our trip. We eat a granola breakfast and are out the door by 7:15 a.m. The 28 km, hour-long drive down Red Squirrel Lake road is uneventful. It’s been years since I’ve driven down this road and what I mostly remember is a bumpy potholed drive, which is pretty much what we got. The turnoff to get to the put-in is at Camp Wanapitei. It’s one of the oldest youth and tripping camps in the region, in it’s 85th year.
I park the car, spread out and organize all our gear for the 800 meters portage to the put-in on Ferguson Bay. The first 500 meters of the portage are passable only with a 4×4 vehicle, but the deep potholes and ruts in the road make the decision to carry our gear the entire length an easy one.
It’s also a good time to test out our portage system. I’m hoping we can avoid the triple carry, which would be truly demoralizing. For our gear we have a ginormous 130-liter Ostrom canoe pack, a 60-liter food barrel, a 40-liter hiking pack, the canoe and various FRU, which are those obnoxious extra bits that haven’t yet found a home. (i.e., water bottles, paddles and life jackets.)
With all the recent rains the road ruts on our walk are deep and full of water. It’s hard to judge their depth, nevertheless, I manage to walk around most of them avoiding any nasty surprises. ACE on the other hand charges straight for the first puddle and managed to get a boot full of water. Naturally, some waterworks ensue.
I finish off the double carry into Ferguson Bay. It feels great to be back in Temagami. By now the rain has stopped but the dull grey persists. Better grey than rain I say.
This will be the first trip with our new canoe. It’s a new-used kind of boat – previously loved you might say. She’s a real beaut, 17 feet long, kevlar, weighing in at 53 lbs. Not the ultra-light model I really wanted, but certainly more reasonable than my other canoe, which tips the scale at over 75 lbs.
We load the boat and push off heading in a southerly direction towards Devil’s Bay. The wind has picked up but thankfully it’s a tailwind that is really helping us move along. I check my GPS and we’re cooking at an average of 7 km/h without much effort – smoking fast! We cross the open water along the North Arm of Lake Temagami, which was a little trickier with the wind and waves hitting us broadside.
This canoe is slimmer than the Prospector model I’m used to, so it feel tipsy. We reach the other shore and we stop for a quick lunch of cheese, salami and bread – our standard for the trip. We’re not picky when it comes to chow, so most of our meals are simple, easy to cook with little clean up at the end.
Pulling into Devil’s Bay the water is again calm, shielded from the northerly winds. Ahead, our first portage of the trip, a 525-meter carry over to Obabika Inlet. At the put-in we meet a group of campers who look to be about 12-years old. They are on day 23 of 25 and just finishing up their trip. For youths, trips such as these are never forgotten and lifelong bonds are forged here.
We portage all our gear in 2 carrys, success! The portage is uneventful but what made me very happy is that I was able to carry both a pack and the boat in one shot, something not possible with my other boat.
On Obabika Inlet we find a delightful little island to camp on. It’s quite small but obviously a well used site. Our first night dinner is couscous with Indian curry. The sky finally clears for a magical light show and sunset. We go out for an evening paddle just as the sun kisses the horizon and absorb this moment.
Distance paddled: 13km
Portages: 2 (465m)
It always takes me a night or two to get acclimatized to sleeping in the bush. First, the fresh air is intoxicating. Coming from the city you forgot just how clean the air is up here along with the pungent scent of pine everywhere. Needless to say, I toss and turn the entire night and wake up at the godly hour of 5:00 a.m. The full moon is high in the sky, and it lights up the landscape. I see the world beyond my tent mesh in crystal clear detail.
Now that I’m up I might as well go take pictures. It’s a cold morning, much cooler than it should be for mid-August, even this far north. I throw on a warm jacket, head outside, and spend a few hours shooting and trying to stay warm. When the sun finally peaks over the horizon instantly I feel the air warming up. It’s a beautiful clear morning.
There’s a routine you fall into when you’re on a trip. In takes a few days to work out the kinks, but soon it snaps into place and an order is established. Our morning routine consists of breakfast, packing-up gear and loading the canoe.
We say goodbye to our little island campsite. A half hour later we hit a short carryover followed by a 400-meter portage into Lake Obabika. Both trails are well used and in great condition. ACE is a champ and walks the entire portage on his own.
O-b-a-b-i-k-a. Just saying that word feels satisfying. We paddle northward to a slight tailwind. ACE is making himself comfortable in the bow of the canoe and nods off for a snooze. In the distance I hear thunder and behind us dark clouds are gathering. Nothing to worry about yet, the sky overhead is still blue. But just to be safe, we move closer to the west side of the lake and follow its shoreline.
As we near the shore the weather changes rapidly and the thunderstorm hits. Frantically we make note of a few campsite options on the map and race towards them. ACE wakes up screaming his head off – I would too being woken up wet to lightning and thunder. We beeline for the first campsite on the map and pull the canoe on shore. It’s really coming down now, waves crashing, wind howling – it’s chaotic. ACE is terrified by all this commotion. I dig out the tarp from our pack, set it up and we all dive under it to wait out the passing storm.
Half-hour later it all passes. We’re soaked to the bone. It’s getting late in the day anyway, so we decide to set-up camp here. It’s not a bad site either, a little bushier than I like it. Upon further inspection we find the site has it’s own beachfront. Bonus! ACE strips down to his birthday suit and runs up and down the beach blissfully.
We find a somewhat-dry spot to pitch our tent. Dinner tonight is pasta with tomato sauce. At the end of the meal not a strand of pasta is left, I guess we were some hungry bears after all. In the distance another storm is approaching and the mosquitoes know it too. They’ve become a little feistier, sensing this might be their last meal for a little while. We jump in the tent and hunker down.
Huge thunderclaps pass overhead and the roar fills the void of the evening. From our tent cocoon, we sit and watch the lightning flashes around us. The last time I experience such a storm on a canoe trip was years ago in Quetico Provincial Park. I remember lying in my sleeping bag wide-awake, counting the seconds between the lightning flash and thunderclap.
Distance paddled: 6 km
Portages: 1 (615m)
After all the excitement of the previous day we sleep in till 8:30 am. It’s one of those slow lazy molasses mornings. Everything is still dripping and soaking wet from last night’s rain. I set up a line to try hang and dry out the gear. It’s an array of colours and shapes, like a garage sale in the bush. We’re camped on the west side of the lake and the sun is already poking out from behind the trees drying out our gear.
A slight change of plans for today. We were hoping to head up the Obabika river but with the late start this morning we’re hours behind schedule. Instead we’ll have a short paddle to Chee-skon Lake and camp at Spirit Rock. Across the lake we can see the sacred aboriginal site of Grandmother and Grandfather Rock – it’s a stark reminder of the people who once roamed these lands.
We’ve got maybe a 3 km paddle to the portage. As far as portages go, I’m really looking forward to this one. The trial along this portage is one of the last remaining old growth forests in Temagami. Giant white and red pines tower overhead. It’s an impressive sight. The portage goes smoothly, except for the part where I missed a turn off and end up on one of the hiking trails. No matter, I get to see some of the old growth forest.
Once again we hear thunder in the distance and our pace quickens significantly. We’re still double carrying over the portages so I jog back down the trail to pick up the last load of pack and canoe. I play a little game and time myself – 5min 30 seconds. Not bad for 615 meters with a canoe on your back. We make quick work of the paddle to the site. My wife and I are in total set-up mode. Tarp set-up – check. Tent set-up – check. Kitchen set-up – check. Everything is organized in record time. Don’t want to repeat yesterday’s experience. We’ve been so focused on getting the campsite set-up before another storm rolls through we’ve hardly had a moment to appreciate where we are. It is truly spectacular. Just across our campsite is the most awe inspiring cliff face and the sacred Spirit Rock tower.
The sky looks angry again and we hear thunder off in the distance but thankfully the storm misses us just to the north. It’s just after 2:00 p.m. so we have the rest of the day to take it easy and explore the old growth forest. ACE and I go for a hike along one of the marked trails. I’m hoping the clouds break this evening and we get to see a sunset.
So far this is my favourite campsite of the trip. It’s secluded and has an amazing cliff face. Dinner tonight is chill and mashed potatoes. This meal takes some prep ahead of time, mostly dehydrating veggies and kidney beans, but the extra effort is worth it. The secret with kidney bean is to use dry beans, cook them, and then dehydrate them again. Seems all very counter-intuitive. If you’re tempted to use canned beans, don’t, the salt content turns them to powder once they’re re-hydrated and makes for one mushy chili meal. For dessert, we bust open the M&Ms and wash them down with some Baileys. Life’s little luxuries.
Distance paddled: 20km
Portages: 5 (1915m)
I haven’t said much about my son ACE. He’s been a real trooper so far. He’s walked all the portages on his own and has really enjoyed being out here. These outdoor experiences are so vital for kids today and will certainly shape him into the person he’ll become in the future. Less video games more outdoor play I say. I think his favourite thing so far is peeing in the woods. Where else can you drop your drawers anywhere you choose and let loose. I can almost see him doing this in city only to get scoffed at by other moms who think we’re raising a wild wolf.
By this point in the trip our morning routine is all but dialed in. We’re up at 7 a.m. and on the water paddling by 9 a.m. Today we’ve got a huge day ahead of us – a 20 km paddle with 5 portages that will put us in Lahay Lake. We breeze through the 615 meter portage back to Obabika where the lake is smooth as glass, a rare sight indeed. A past trip years ago had us wind bound on Obabika for two days waiting for the winds to subside, so it’s a real treat to paddle in such calm conditions.
We paddle towards the mouth of the Obabika river. At its entrance is the home of aboriginal elder Alex Mathias who has lived here on his traditional land for many years. Looking at our map we have over 12km of paddling along a very twisty river. My biggest fear is missing the portage along the river and ending up way downstream. I’ll have to be extra careful and check the map and GPS making sure we find the portage trail which eventually leads us to Lahay Lake.
The twists and turns on this river make it feel more of a slalom canoe course than a gentle winding river. Our canoe struggles in these conditions. It’s streamlined to go straight and fast on the open water but here, it’s a real challenge. I’m having to make major stroke corrections just to turn the tight corners and my wrists are starting to throb. We encounter a few log jams along the way but all are passable. There is one blow down that gave us a little bit of trouble so we busted out the hand-saw and cut our own path.
Watching the topo map carefully we find what looks like the portage into the unmanned lake. I expect it to be a total slog but instead it’s quite a lovely little walk. The put-in on the other side is a little marshy, but nothing some wet shoes couldn’t solve. From here we turn northward and stop for lunch at a small campsite on the unnamed lake. Our usual spread of bread, cheese and salami hits the spot. Next, a 555-meter portage is just ahead. The walking here is flat and easygoing. The thick vegetation below our feet tells us it’s not a well-used trail. We come to a fork in the trail and spot tree blazes pointing us towards the right. Our final portage of the day, a 270-meter uphill walk through a beautiful birch forest puts us at Lahay Lake and our campsite. When we get there the wind is really howling, but a welcome reprise from the biting mosquitoes.
Speaking of bugs, they have been very odd this year and have lingered much longer than usual. At one point we found ourselves dealing with blackflies, mosquitoes, horseflies and no-seeums. An odd year indeed.
There’s evidence of an old hunting cabin just past our campsite. Long gone is the roof to the cabin but the main structure still exists along with the mounds of garbage left behind. I’m not sure the history here but something tells me the occupants left in the mid 80s when I find Stubbies half-buried everywhere.
This has been our longest and toughest day by far, a total of 9 hours of paddling and portaging. The usual routine of camp set-up is in full swing only this time, we’ve busted out the hammock. Strangely enough I’ve never been a fan of this contraption and rarely bring it on trip. But the moment I lay in it all I can think is “how on earth have I not brought this before?” ACE jumps in with me and we swing like two little kids at the playground. When the wind picks up again, we hunker down to read the latest adventures of Trucktown: Smash! Crash! I’m a hammock convert.
By evening the wind has died down and all that’s left is the solitude and the occasional loon call. The evening sky is perfectly clear for some star photography.
Distance paddled: 15km
Portages: 4 (650m)
This morning I finally get a chance to fly my drone. It’s a little frightening but exhilarating nevertheless. The mist coming off the lake looks stunning and I’m excited for the drone footage. On the agenda today is a much needed rest day, so our tent and gear are staying put. We’ll spend the day exploring Naismith Creek. Looking at our topo maps, the Creek looks just as windy and curvy as the Obabika river. It’s been a high water year so far and I wonder what this creek looks like in lower water levels – might be a total slog I suspect.
Most of the our morning is spent paddling up the creek. The unmarked portage turns out to be the 700-meter carryover to a small but pretty waterfall. The weather has been perfect today, blue skies and fluffy white clouds all around us. With all the rains we’ve had this trip it’s a nice change of pace. At the waterfall we enjoy a packed lunch and I take time for a few drone photos. We jump in the warm water for a swim and sunbathe until it’s time to head back to camp. We retrace our route back to our campsite.
Kids are so ingenious when it comes to keeping themselves occupied. We’ve brought along a few of his favourite Hot Wheels and other toys. But ACE hasn’t touched any of them. Today, he finds a T-shaped stick, which he appropriately names the ‘hammer stick’ and spends the next few hours pitching ‘the hammer’ into a pine tree, hoping it gets stuck in the pine needles. When it does, he finds an even bigger and longer stick to poke and knock it loose only to begin the process all over again.
It’s been a blissful day, mostly because it didn’t rain.
Distance paddled: 25km
Portages: 4 (1300m)
After our rest day on day 6, it was time to retrace our steps back to Obabika Lake. We make quick work of the three portages to the Obabika river. Traveling back upstream the river current, which I hadn’t noticed going the other way, is much stronger than I anticipate and our pace slows considerable. I would have to work slightly harder but no matter, it was a beautiful sunny day and we were feeling great.
By late afternoon we reach Obabika Lake and decided to push onward to Wakimika Lake to a campsite at the southern end. To get there, we need to navigate the tricky Wakimika creek. It’s yet another windy and curvy creek intersperse with cedar and spruce forests.
This is where things go slightly off kilter.
The clouds rolled in and a drizzle started up again. Somewhere along the Wakimika creek we made a wrong turn onto a tributary and only realized this when things didn’t look and feel right. You know that gut feeling – like you’re definitely lost and something doesn’t quite make sense. The creek also got very narrow — one canoe width narrow — and the number of beaver dams seems to have increased exponentially.
I took my GPS to check our position and sure enough we were off route. The time was now 6:30 p.m., we had another hour or so before the sun was to set. A slight moment of panic set in. I envisioned having to camp on some really horrendous bug ridden site along this tiny creek. We turned the canoe around and paddled like stink, launching our boat over beaver dams that moments ago we were so gingerly portaging over. When we got to a beaver dam, my bow paddler would launch herself out of the canoe, dismantle the dam in record time and we’d pull the canoe over. I’m sure the boat lost a few layers of gel-coat along here.
The light was fading fast when we finally pulled into camp. We set up our tent and pulled out a KD Mac & Cheese dinner. It’s our emergency meal when time is short and of the essence. The mosquitoes, hungry are buzzing and swarming. I too am tired and wet, having seen more beaver dams than I could care for in one day. I’m asleep before my head hit the pillow.
Distance paddled: 13km
Portages: 2 (700m)
By the time we roll out of bed, it’s almost 9:00 a.m. Peeling back the tent fly and looking upward, the sky is a perfect mono-toned grey. Everything is still sopping wet from the night before. It’s truly demoralizing having to pack up wet gear, in the hopes when we get to the next campsite we have a chance to dry things out a bit.
ACE is a bit out of sorts this morning as well. The bugs have been munching on his face for most of this trip and he’s finally reached a saturation point. At breakfast he asks “when are we going home?” I don’t blame him, I’m starting to get bugged out as well.
ACE who is properly toilet trained has been accident free on this trip. Today he breaks that cycle. I guess it’s an inevitability that your perfectly toilet-trained child will undoubtedly soil their last clean dry pair of pants on the buggiest campsite imaginable. I take a long deep breath and go to my happy place before I deal with the little matter.
We set off to the gentle pitter-patter of rain for today’s destination, Diamond Lake. We would have two portages to deal with – the first a 400-meter easy-paesy, sure-footed path, the second is nothing but. This is the Temagami I knew and grew up with – long difficult, huge exposed rocks and ankle breaking portages. The slick rock takes this to another level – this was the double black diamond of portages. I’m happy when I finished with my ankles still intact.
Diamond Lake is absolutely stunning. The shoreline is dotted with tall white and red pine trees. We stop for the day on one of the many island sites on this lake.
One of my absolute favourite camping activities is foraging for blueberries, but on this trip I have not seen many at all. This year’s crop peaked early and when we started our trip they were mostly finished. Needless to say, it was surprising to see these little beauties dotted throughout the island. ACE and I both gorged on them until our bellies were full.
Blueberry pancakes are on the menu for tomorrow morning!
Distance paddled: 21km
Portages: 2 (900m)
The blueberry pancake this morning really hit the spot. We pack up gear and paddled east towards the Sharp Rock portage with the help of a gentle tail wind. Once you’re through this portage civilization emerges and cottages start appearing.
The final portage of the trip would be the 755-meter Napolean Mountain Trail. It would be the longest portage of our trip but the walking is easy with the exception of the steep downhill at the end. Back in Ferguson Bay we contemplate for a split second to camp on the beach for one last night but the crowd of rowdy locals tearing up the place convinced us otherwise.
I count our final paddle strokes as the bow of the canoe touches the sandy beach. Sadly our trip is officially over now. On the beach, a Lakeland Airlines float-plane is waiting to pick up canoeist, probably headed to Florence Lake. And by the expression on the pilots face, they are late. If you’ve ever flown a bush plane before you know exactly what I’m talking about. ACE is confused and fascinated that a plane is floating in the water. How could this be? His entire universe of knowledge turned upside-down.
Walking down the portage trail, we hear in the distance the familiar sound of a float-plane revving up its engine for take-off. Moment later we see it buzz overhead.
Back at the car, we pack up, car-top the canoe and get set to boogie on out of there. It was late afternoon and the long drive home was not in the cards. Instead we drive back to the town of Temagami for a well deserved fish & chips dinner. I treat myself to an ice cold can of Coke, or as ACE calls it ‘a sugary drink’. It’s funny, I never drink pop back home but really crave it after canoe trips. Perhaps my body is telling me I need more sugar. Solution – bring a more generous portion of gummy bears on trip next time!
Finlayson Point Provincial Park, just down the road from Temagami, will be our final destination tonight. We set up our tent for the last time and enjoyed the rest of the evening, free of bugs and portages.
Post Trip Reflection
Months have now passed since our adventure last summer. As I sit in the comfort of my living room writing these words, I’ve had time to reflect on our experience. The memories of biting bugs, challenging portages and wet gear fade quickly. What remains are the good mushy parts – the laughs, the shared moments and the magical landscapes we witnessed.
Almost every trip I’ve even been on has had its challenges. Most of the time they are minor inconveniences. A few times they could have had life and death consequences. I’ve tried to always overcome these fears and challenges no matter how scared sh*tless it made me. And thus I’m a firm believer of teaching our kids resilience. The helicopter and bulldozer parents of today are setting up their children for future failures. I’ll always offer my son a hand when he needs it but will also let him scrape a knee or two.
Till our next adventure!
Trip distance paddled: 135 km
Trip portages: 23 (8800m)
Number of beaver dams: Too many to count