A river trip is a journey.
Floating down current—gently one minute then thrashing like an unbridled horse the next—river tripping is about celebrating water and the landscape around it. From a long list of loves, here are seven essential Canadian rivers:
Paddling the Milk River is like a trip back in time. My favourite route begins at Gold Springs Park and ends at Writing on Stone Provincial Park. In between, the river cuts its way through Prairie landscape, blowing grasses, sandstone cliffs and big blue sky.
The farther you paddle downstream the more the rock walls and rolling hills turn into elaborate hoodoos and coulees. First Nations’ rock art also begins to show itself. The petroglyphs and pictographs carved and painted onto rock faces along the river depict stories of ancient battles and dream quests. Indigenous peoples paddled the Milk River well over 3,000 years before Lewis and Clarke travelled it in 1805 and named it after the silty water, which had the… “appearance of about the colour of a cup of tea with the admixture of a tablespoonful of milk.” There’s a profound sense of openness and solitude along the Milk River. It’s an absolute joy to paddle
Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park, Ontario
Most of us have a local river that we paddle during the beginning, and possibly the end, of the canoe season. It’s a way to reintroduce yourself to paddling before moving on to something wilder; and later, to find closure on something familiar.
Mine is the Mississauga River. It runs through the bottom half of Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park, a couple hours north of Toronto and a half-hour from my home. Despite being surrounded by cottage development, the landscape of the Mississauga River is unexpectedly wild. The river winds through the rock barrens of the Kawarthas and is made up of open ridge-tops capped with 100-year-old red oak and sugar maples, which provide habitat for the five-lined skink, Ontario’s only lizard.
The river tumbles over granite and cuts deep into rocky gorges. As it happens, the Mississauga is the one portion of the 35,000-hectare Kawartha Highlands that seems to get the least attention from paddlers. Perhaps this is because of the dozen-or-so portages marked on the route map. Few of them are necessary, however, as most of the fast water is either of the pool-and-drop variety, with short carries, or shallow-swifts that are easily run.
Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario
This was Bill Mason’s River. He loved to film and paddle here. Prime Minster Pierre Trudeau favoured the river as well. Countless writers, poets, musicians, painters and politicians have paddled it for inspiration. There’s a reason why the Petawawa enjoys such popularity—it’s a perfect river. Set in Algonquin Provincial Park, the scenery is unsurpassed with riverbanks of stout white pine and granite cliffs. The rapids are moderate but challenging, the portages are marked and cleared and the campsites are welcoming.
The Petawawa originates on the western edge of Algonquin. But the lower stretch, which holds the most intimidating whitewater, lies between Cedar and McManus lakes—a trip that takes at least seven days to complete. A shorter, and more intermediate-level stretch lies between Traverse and McManus lakes. It’s an easier car-shuttle, the rapids are less technical, a good majority of the portages can be avoided with moderate whitewater experience and the trip fits nicely into a three-day weekend.
I first paddled the Sturgeon River as a way to finish a trip to Temagami’s Ishpatina Ridge—Ontario’s highest point of elevation. The climb to the summit was a bit of letdown; I’ve been on far more impressive hilltops. Paddling the Sturgeon, however, was the highlight of the trip. The river is a collection of doable rapids mixed with remote atmosphere and gorgeous scenery.
The only downfall is access. Taking a bushplane to Scarecrow Lake is one method. A far better option, however, is to paddle up the Chiniguchi River system—which looks identical to the quartzite mountains and turquoise waters of Killarney. A series of portages through Temagami’s typical old-growth pine will lead you to the upper reaches of the Sturgeon River. From there, paddle the river and return to where you started.
The loop will take you a full week. It’s one of the best river trips in the province. I’ve paddled the full loop more than a dozen times and have never been disappointed with my time spent there.
The Missinaibi is one of Ontario’s longest free-flowing rivers, beginning in the Chapleau Crown Game Preserve and flushing more than 400 km away, at the expansive Moose River and James Bay. The overall length and the diverse geology the river cuts through makes it ideal if you’re looking for an expedition-style canoe trip. If time is limited, however, you can cut the trip in half and choose to paddle just the upper or lower section of the river.
Choosing which section to paddle is a constant debate amongst river-runners. The lower half offers the incredibly scenic Thunderhouse Falls, as well as the treat of being able to bless the bow of your canoe in the salty Arctic waters of James Bay. The upper section, however, has more technically challenging rapids.
I’ve done both and I’ve paddled the entire length. My choice is the upper half—it offers far more diverse scenery to gawk at while you paddle through. It’s also an easier (and cheaper) shuttle.
Wabakimi Provincial Park, Ontario
The Kopka River is so dissimilar to the northern park from which it drains. Wabakimi Provincial Park is relatively flat, even mundane at times. The Kopka resembles something you’d witness in the depths of the Amazon. It is a wild and remote river that begins like an enlarged stream, but spreads out into a massive piece of water and rushes over a series of abrupt waterfalls (seven in total) where portages require climbing gear!
You can take a bush plane to the upper limits, or take the train and work your way to the river via a series of small lakes. You can also end the trip at the road into the town of Armstrong, or choose to paddle for another week to where the river empties into the northeastern tip of Lake Nipigon. Either way, it’s an adventure you’ll never forget.
Prince Edward Island
The Hillsborough River is Prince Edward Island’s largest river system, nearly cutting the island in half. It’s a massive piece of water to paddle and was made a Canadian Heritage River due to its historical and ecological significance. Paddling it is a bit of problem, however. The majority of the river is influenced greatly by the tides of the Northumberland Strait, the banks are mostly made up of giant salt marshes and its vast expanse of water makes it more of a kayak destination than a canoe trip.
My suggestion is to head to the upper reaches and add on a tributary stream or river—the Pisquid River is perfect. It’s located in the northeastern corner of the island, free from Anne of Green Gable tourists. The entire river is a nature preserve, rich with shorebirds and soaring bald eagles. It’s still a tidal river; but it’s also just a day trip. This allows you to stay a night in a nearby B&B and soak in the true culture of PEI—the people who live there.