Ahh, Northeastern Ontario...heart of the Canadian wilderness
With tall trees, glassy waterways and pristine backcountry, big adventure is guaranteed to those who seek it. And in a region that spans 184,000 square kilometres, and is laced with waterways, there's no better way to adventure than by paddle power. Travelling by canoe is also a quintessentially Canadian way to explore these parts. Northeastern Ontario is home to heritage rivers including the French and the Mattawa, and if these rivers could talk, they'd tell tales of rich First Nations tradition, early European explorers, and fur trading Voyageurs.
If your heart yearns for classic adventure along legendary lakes and rivers, you need only look to Ontario's backyard. (It's closer than you think!) Here are six Northeastern Ontario canoe and kayak routes to get stoked on.
The Old Voyageur Channel on the lower half of the French River is a great route to take to the expanse of Georgian Bay. You paddle down a series of small chutes named after the Voyageurs that once travelled here (Petite Faucill, La Dalle, Cross Channel Rapids, Devil’s Door) and then into the ocean-like vistas of the bay.
If the wind is calm it’s possible to paddle further out to the Bustard Islands—named after a European game bird that made a habit of frequenting isolated areas. The Bustard Island Lighthouse is worth a visit while you’re there. The navigation beacon was first manned in 1875 by Edward B. Barron, who, surprisingly enough, was a canoeist. Besides his commission at the lighthouse, the keeper was hired by the government to make exploratory trips to the James Bay area by way of canoe.
The return trip to the access at Hartley Bay Marina is by way of the Eastern Outlet and the Bass Creek Tramway. This 240-metre boardwalk, originally constructed of rails mounted on large timbers, was first established as a way for the lumber companies to move their mills off Georgian Bay and move them more inland.
Most paddlers choose to keep to the areas of Killarney Provincial Park where white quartzite and crystal-clear lakes dominate. The northern range has a subtle charm all its own, however. There’s a large sense of history here, not to mention lots of fish to catch. As a rule of thumb, save your bait for the lakes with pink granite shorelines. These lakes have a water chemistry that allows fish stocks thrive.
There’s another huge advantage of paddling the northern lakes that not a lot of people realize. It’s much easier to access Great Mountain Lake from the north than to portage in from the south. You’ve got a few short carries compared to the three-kilometre trail, which also happens to be uphill along its entire length. My favourite campsite is on Gail Lake, a small pond just off of Great Mountain. There’s one campsite on Gail Lake, which means you have the entire lake to yourself. A great place to relax, swim and bake wild blueberry pie.
Two main access areas can be used to reach the north end of the park. Lake Panache put in is reached by taking Regional Road 55, off Highway 17 (west of Sudbury), to Panache Lake Road (Country Road 10). Turn right and travel 14 kilometres to the access point at Penage Bay Marina. Walker Lake is also a good choice. Use Mountain Cove Lodge to store your vehicle. Turn off Highway 6 (through the town of Espanola) and drive 9.5 kilometres east on Queenway Ave.—which later turns into Panache Lake Road. There is a sign indicating to turn right to go to Mountain Cove Lodge.
The Temagami region is an absolute oasis for canoeists searching for wilderness routes. Countless trips can be had from Lake Temagami. The lake itself, however, offers endless possibilities as well. Lake Temagami’s shoreline measures 4,800 kilometres, with a cluster of 1,400 islands spread out along the way. Massive old-growth white and red pine are rooted along the shoreline as well and are a major drawing card for the region. It’s a must to stop en route at the Temagami Island hiking trails and walk amongst these giant trees, aged 260 to 270 years old; some have even been dated up to 400 years old.
Diamond Lake and a short 85-metre portage links the north end of Lake Temagami with Lady Evelyn Lake. Combining these two lakes adds another 3,000 kilometres of undeveloped shoreline, over 250 possible campsites, and a second hike—a three-hour tour up Maple Mountain, the second highest point in Ontario.
A perfect weeklong paddle would be to begin at Lake Temagami’s government docks, at the end of Temagami access road, and end at Mowat’s Landing, at the far northeastern point of Lady Evelyn Lake. Temagami Outfitters provides a car shuttle.
Not only is the Mattawa River a scenic paddle but it’s also an historic dreamscape. This was a major travel route for Native groups, European explorers, Jesuit priests and the voyageurs. The four-day route begins at the government docks off McPherson Drive and ends at Samuel de Champlain Provincial Park. Algonquin North Outfitters provides a shuttle.
Cascades and portages along the way have historic labels placed on them. One of my favourite is the 26-foot high Paresseax Falls. It’s absolutely breathtaking. What’s even more impressive, however, is Porte de L’Enfer—a narrow cave located just around the corner on the north side of the river.
The site is actually an Aboriginal mining site dating back 3,000 years. Lured here by the sounds of spirits singing at the base of the falls, First Nations people found the rich veins of hematite, an oxide of iron that when refined was used as a basis for the rock paintings known as pictographs. The superstitious Voyageurs, however, interpreted this as the living quarters for a flesh-eating demon (its blood made up of the red ochre) and named it the “Gates of Hell.”
Upper Ottawa River
The Upper Ottawa River route creates a perfect weeklong paddle from Lake Temiskaming to Mattawa. The full length adds up to 120 kilometres, but your trip can easily be shortened by using a number of alternative access points along the way. But that’s the beauty of it. You’re able to float for that entire distance, with only one portage to deal with. It makes for a good family route, paddling gently along, gawking up at rich forested hilltops of the Laurentian Mountains and the Ontario bush.
It’s true that Lake Temiskaming deserves the same respect given to other large water bodies, like Lake Superior or Lake Nipigon. But it’s also true that it’s an absolute paradise to paddle.
This is one big lake. Lake Temiskaming achieves a maximum depth of 220 metres and averages out at 36 metres; a perfect natural habitat for legendary “Mugwump” or “Old Tessie.” The creature was first described in a 1979 article in the North Bay Nugget by the Mayor of New Liskeard, Jack Dent, as a very old Aboriginal legend about a “mugwump” (meaning fearless sturgeon) measuring over six metres long.
What remains after Lake Temiskaming is a wide stretch of the incredibly scenic, and surprisingly uncrowded, Ottawa River. You’re flushed down the gentle but always present downstream current, taking a relaxed pace all the way back to the town of Mattawa. A few camps/cottages will be passed, but the majority of the river is left to its natural state. Even the few spots of development end up adding greatly to the trip. This river is drenched in history and the people and places met along the way quickly became highlights each and every day.
If you’re looking for an adventurous river route with good access, few portages, moderate level whitewater, and long stretches of unblemished wilderness—the Spanish is a perfect choice.
For 142 kilometres, the east branch of the Spanish River, beginning at Duke Lake and ending at Agnew Lake, flows through a diverse, ever changing landscape. One minute you’re floating along a calm current, sighting moose and beaver, and the next you’re bumping and scraping over sunken gravel bars, riding down chutes, riding powerful eddies, and shooting along strong, deep channels between massive boulders. It’s an incredible joyride.
A car shuttle can be arranged through Agnew Lake Lodge. You can even shorten the trip by taking the train—called the “Bud Car”—from Sudbury to a drop off spot called Pogomasing and finish at the “Elbow.” This cuts off the series of lakes at the beginning and end of the trip.