Paddling the untamed waters of North Eastern Ontario


 

Moving from coastal East Sussex to the untamed wilderness of Northeastern Ontario would be challenging at the best of times, but imagine doing it on your own before your 18th birthday. In the summer of 1906, young Archie Belaney from Hastings journeyed north from Toronto, to a region then known as the Temagami Provincial Forest.  He settled in Northern Ontario, and was soon adopted by an Ojibwa community, the Teme-Augama Anishnabai, whose name translates as ‘the deep water people’. Tiny Bear Island in the middle of Lake Temagami would prove the ideal place for the English teenager to begin assuming the identity of Grey Owl, as he learned from the native people how to live off the land.

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It’s amazing to think that the Temagami region is largely unchanged and can be visited now in much the same way as in Grey Owl’s time. With 600 miles of shoreline and 1,200 islands, Lake Temagami is just one of the largest of over two thousand lakes in the region, amid an intricate network of lakes, rivers and channels, rapids and shallows, creating a “promised land” for canoeists.

To the west of the Temagami Forest, “Grey Owl Country” continues.  Once Archie became a skilled woodsman and canoeist, he became a forest ranger, searching for poachers and keeping an eye out for smoke, and the dreaded forest fire.  His stomping grounds were then known as the Mississagi Provincial Forest, and the Spanish River was one of his byways.  This river provides excellent intermediate whitewater canoeing, over seemingly endless rapids and swifts, through towering pine forests.

Grey Owl push point

The rugged and often roadless wilds of the Temagami canoe route network and the Spanish River beckon some, while the gentler but enchantingly scenic French River further south appeals to a broader clientele. Here, long sections of flatwater are punctuated by easy portages that bypass the fast water sections.

The French River is a young river flowing east-west from Lake Nipissing across the Canadian Shield, some of the oldest bedrock on Earth. This was the first river to be designated a Canadian Heritage River in 1986 – in recognition of its natural, historic and recreational value. Some say that without this river, and the canoe, Canada might not exist. Two years later, the Mattawa River was also listed. Flowing into Lake Nipissing from the Ottawa River in the east, this very scenic river is also popular for short canoe-camping trips. Travelling by open boat along these historic trading routes and camping on the rock platforms smoothed off by glaciers is the only way to explore. The fishing is superb for Ontario’s key sports fish: walleye, muskie and crappie all taste a lot better than they sound.

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Challenging portages allow you to reach pristine, motor-free lakes, though it is also possible to find solitude along the more accessible waterways. In the unforgiving north, signposted portage tracks can be swallowed by vegetation, blocked by fallen trees or turned into quagmires after rain (and it rains a lot). The reward comes when you slide your canoe back into the water or perhaps enter a current that rushes your canoe along, an experience as exhilarating as free-wheeling downhill on a bicycle.

Hundreds of numbered camping spots along canoe routes are big enough for only one or two tents, with backcountry sites allowing nine people per site.  Once you’ve purchased a camping permit (about $12 per person per night) from the relevant visitors’ centre, marina or supply post, you’re free to camp at a designated campsite, on a first-come first-served basis in many backcountry parks. Note that advance reservations may be necessary in very popular provincial parks that also offer excellent canoeing, such as Killarney on Georgian Bay (ontarioparks.com/park/killarney).

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Outfitters make everything easy. Hartley Bay Marina (hartleybaymarina.com) offers backcountry camping packages (food excluded) for $60 (£30) a day including hire of canoe, paddling gear, camping and cooking equipment and route information. Three-day guided and catered trips are also available for £200. Further north , Lady Evelyn-Smoothwater Provincial Park is a gem, in the Temagami group of parks. Smoothwater Ecolodge and Outfitters (smoothwater.com) has devised an inclusive ‘Grey Owl Paddling Adventure’ comprising five days of paddling and camping in this unique, unspoilt ecosystem, bookended by two nights in the comfortable lakeside lodge renowned for its cuisine, from £322. Paddle the Spanish River (paddlethespanishriver.com) also offer canoe packages, including a 145km, five-to-seven day trip from East Branch, Duke Lake to Agnew Lake Lodge.


 

Travel Essentials

Air Canada operates four flights a day from London Heathrow to Toronto and Air Canada rouge connects Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester and Dublin with Toronto. Air Canada rouge will also operate summer flights from Gatwick to Toronto from 19 May, 2016.

The French River Visitor Centre is located near the point where the Trans-Canada Highway crosses the river, less than three-and-a-half hours’ drive from Toronto or just over an hour from Sudbury Airport. The direct road route from Toronto to Temagami takes four-and-a-half hours, or two hours from Sudbury. French River Country has a developed tourist infrastructure. Information on visitor services, accommodation, canoeing and camping can be obtained from Ontario Parks (www.ontarioparks.com).


 

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WRITTEN BY SUSAN GRIFFITH FOR THE INDEPENDENT

 

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