By Jim Baird
Everything I had read about paddling Ontario’s Kesagami River made it sound difficult and dangerous.
Anything on paddling the James Bay coast? Well, that sounded suicidal. A couple of months in advance of my trip, I searched for friends to join me on this adventure, but when no one jumped aboard, I decided to paddle the river and coastline alone.
If tackling this river with a group isn’t tough enough, I worry that a solo trek is ludicrous—especially when I learn the Kesagami’s whitewater section drops 200 metres in just 35 km. My brother had asked me how I was planning to develop expert solo whitewater skills, and he was right to do so—I hadn’t done a lot of advanced-level solo canoeing.
With a healthy dose of nervousness, I look forward to the challenge and chance to learn. After all, most serious paddlers have done at least one big solo trip.
On my way to the start point in Cochran, Ontario, I stop over at Lake Temagami for a couple nights of camping with friends, where I proceed to dump hot oil over my left hand while frying fish. The blisters on my fingers are grotesque and infection is a concern. I won’t cancel my trip, though. Two days later, I drive north from Temagami toward the Arctic Watershed.
I decide to lead my shuttle driver, Mark, on a wild goose chase as I try to find an alternate put-in off Highway 2, northeast of Cochran. I think cutting a few kilometres off my route will rest my burned fingers, but I’m wrong. Two buggy, trail-less bushwhacks later and all my stuff is finally at the Kesagami River. Soon, though, I’m paddling and things are going well. There aren’t too many places to camp in this country, so I stop early for the night when I see a good site.
Not long after massive Lake Kesagami grants me passage, I’m into the whitewater section and the blazing hot weather turns to four days of rain. The notoriously boggy portages on this particularly wet year are at their peak of horribleness. The carries are not particularly long, but numerous. The water level is high and the river is pushy. Eddies above waterfalls are small, and I quickly learn that it’s not so easy to land a boat in a chest-deep eddy while paddling solo.
Closer to the end of the whitewater section, the rapids are at their largest and I dump when a gust of wind causes me to miss my already-botched approach on a big drop. I’m swimming—downriver is a falls, upriver is my canoe. I stroke hard against the current to grab my canoe, tear out the throw bag and swim towards a large eddy on river-left. Thoughts of the smashed-in-half canoe I had seen earlier that day jump into my head as I watch my canoe near the falls. I run out of rope before I get to the eddy, so I start tugging on the rope in a series of hard yanks in an attempt to ferry the upside-down boat to safety. My technique works and I let out a sigh of relief when the back current of the eddy finally catches the boat. After pulling my boat in, I see my throw-bag clipped to the bungee cord I had used to hold it down, not to the sturdy towrope where it should be attached. I’m seriously thinking the Trickster, a mythological creature of local Cree culture, has something to do with this.
I’ve lost track of how many days I’ve been out, but who cares? The final portions of the rapids are the toughest, but the dangerous part is that a waterfall often follows many of the runs. It takes me seven days to get through the 35-km whitewater section; I paddle 50 km in one day after the last portage. Soon, I’m greeted by a seal at James Bay.
I think I’m ready to deal with the tides, but I quickly realize I’m out of my element. Finally, after being stranded on the massive flats and having to pick up and portage back to the mosquito-infested shores, I realize what’s up. High tide means get close to shore—I’d rather not camp on the flats with the next flood tide rolling in well after dark. The next day, I learn it’s faster and safer to stay close to shore and push off the bottom. After all, I’d have to go a long way out to find water deep enough to sink a full blade. I push off the bottom for 18 km on my second-to-last day. It’s sweltering out; the hottest place in the province today.
Finally, I make it to the Moose River, but I’m out of drinking water and the brackish Moose won’t quench my thirst. Soon, I see Moosonee in the distance. A wave of emotion comes over me, the kind of sensation that makes a trip worthwhile; exactly what I’d hoped for.
At Moosonee, locals Christy Neilson and Don Cheechoo have me over for a traditional Cree breakfast of fried moose and bannock. That afternoon, I’m on the Polar Bear Express train, heading due south. I arrive in Cochran late, where I see Mark, my shuttle driver, waiting for me. He had decided to keep my vehicle at his house, rather than leave it at the station.
“How did you know I’d be here now?” I ask. And, with a shrug, he tells me it’s the exact time I said I’d be there.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2015 issue.