My partner, Kristine Redmond, had never paddled a river. She’d canoed across wind-swept lakes and portaged between remote ponds, but she had never navigated wild rapids. So, I chose a perfect novice waterway that’s full of easy swifts to class I whitewater. The Saugeen River, set in BruceGreySimcoe Region, is known as Southwestern Ontario’s Algonquin. It’s lined with forested banks and alive with hundreds of birds and other wild critters.

It’s been more than a decade since I’ve floated down the Saugeen. It still has that Huck Finn flavour to it. The nearby hills support cows, corn and old tractor parts. However, the valley itself is under the watchful eye of the Saugeen Conservation Authority and this is truly a wild place.

paddling riverKevin Callan

And things have changed—for the better. The municipalities and Conservation Authority have placed a total of 15 access point along the entire 105-kilometre stretch between Hanover and Southhampton, where the river flushes into the expanse of Lake Huron. Each one has a parking area and well-maintained launch site. Thorncrest Outfitters, the key outfitter and shuttle operator for the Saugeen, has also opened up a brand-new store at Denny’s Dam, the last take-out (#15) on the river.

Kristine and I chose the section between Walkerton and Denny’s Dam, eliminating the two portages on the upper stretch. We spent three full days paddling the river, portage-free.

Our shuttle was easy enough. We drove to Denny’s Dam, just outside of the quaint hamlet of Southhampton and a three-minute walk to Thorncrest Outfitter’s new store. The outfitter met us there and then drive us to access #5 at Lobies Municiple Park in Walkerton. 

  

  

The first day was our longest. We paddled from Walkerton to McBeath Conservation Area, where paddle-in campsites are maintained by the Saugeen Conservation Authority. The total distance was just over 30 kilometres and was supposed to take us eight hours to complete. However, heavy rain the day before rose the water level significantly and it only took us five hours to reach our first campsite.

This section was one of my favourite en route. It has a great sense of remoteness, cutting through lush forest and high clay-silt bluffs. The shoreline is alive with nesting swallows and kingfishers. Kristine was able to practise her whitewater paddling strokes on several rapids. The Saugeen becomes constricted in many places, creating some of the most exciting whitewater on the river. And we were lucky enough to have McBeath Campground all to ourselves. Kristine and I were paddling the river mid-week to avoid the weekend crowds, and our plan worked perfectly. We pitched out tent under a canopy of pine and cooked up a dinner of chicken curry and papadums.

SaugeenKevin Callan

It was a rainy morning, so an hour into our paddle on day two we pulled up at the Paisley docks and walked into town for coffee and pastry at the Paisley Common, and a couple of local brews from the LCBO to enjoy around the campfire that evening.

Day two was a shorter day. We paddled 22 kilometres and made camp at one of the riverside campsites at Saugeen Bluffs Conservation Area. This campground caters to paddlers who travel the river, as well as horseback riders enjoying the unique horse camping sites.

Shallow swifts sped us along most of the way, especially after Hidden Valley Camp, and by now we had become so proficient at reading the rapids ahead, knowing which channel held the most water and which would scrape the paint off the bottom of our canoe, that we pulled up to the campground on the north shore just a couple of hours out of Paisley.

  

  

On my past trips on the Saugeen, I witnessed some paddlers using the islands downstream of Sauggen Bluffs campground to pitch their tents. That doesn’t happen anymore. The islands are not Crown land. They’re owned and managed by the Saugeeen Conservation Authority and camping is not allowed.

The next morning, we enjoyed more pastries purchased in Paisley the day before, and then set off on the seven-hour (25-kilometre) paddle to Denny’s Dam (access #15), near Southampton. The river widens its banks even more here and after the County Road 4 bridge, and especially after the County Road 17 bridge, it splits into definite channels around islands thick with willow and butternut trees. The rapids also continue, parting themselves around boulders and gravel bars. And not far beyond the County Road 3 bridge, where a stunt man from the 1986 movie One Magic Christmas plunged a car into the river and didn’t come back to retrieve it until a local canoe club sent some angry letters to the Walt Disney Corporation, is an excellent Class I rapid—the most challenging on the river.

Eventually the rapids calm down the closer you get to the finish, and you’ll begin to feel the cool wind coming off Lake Huron as you approach the take-out to the left of Denny’s Dam. 

Check out my video series of the trip on my KCHappyCamper YouTube channel.