I’m closing in on a dozen canoe trips so far this season, and I only portaged once. The majority of routes were across open water, with no lengthy, bug-infested, muddy trails to haul my gear and canoe across. It wasn’t necessarily a conscious choice, an adoption of getting older, or getting a tad out of shape. It just so happened the places I chose to paddle were portage-free—and I was fine with that.
If you’re so inclined to eliminate portages on your next canoe outing, here are some of my favourite routes to try out across Ontario.
Algonquin’s Opeongo Lake
Opeongo is one big piece of water with a shoreline of 149 kilometres. The lake stretches 15 kilometres north-to-south and 14 kilometres east-to-west. It’s a perfect weeklong paddle—a massive lake with tranquil scenery, unlimited campsites and amazing sunsets. Annie Bay is one of my favourite parts of Opeongo. The big motorboats don’t seem to gather there, and the campsites are outstanding.
Algonquin’s Kioshkokwi Lake
Kioshkokwi Lake, otherwise known as Kiosk, is a less busy spot set on the more northernly portion of Algonquin park and offers countless campsites with beach fronts to swim from and rocky shoals to watch stunning sunsets from. It’s also teaming with history. The town of Kiosk, on the north shore of Kioshkokwi Lake, was once home to a large and well-developed lumber mill and rail station. Kiosk’s mill burned down in 1973 and the town slowly degraded into mere ruins. In 1996, the last residents packed up and left.
Algonquin’s Kingscote Lake
Kingscote is a relatively new access point for Algonquin Park. Historically, there was a cottage housed here, but in 1999-2000, under the Living Legacy Program, the Nature Conservancy of Canada helped Ontario Parks purchase and develop a mini campground at the south end of Kingscote. I’ve stayed at the campground and quite enjoyed the less crowded drive-in or walk-in sites. The area boasts some incredible mountain-bike trails and a prime hiking trail along the York River. However, I much prefer paddling farther north on Kingscote and pitching a tent on one of its backcountry sites. And there’s a chance of catching the legendary Kingscote “silver” lake trout. The trout differ from the common lake trout found throughout Algonquin by their uniform body colour devoid of the common white spots or vermiculations.
Big Gull Lake
This lake is managed by the local municipality—North Frontenac Township—and you need a permit to pitch your tent on one of the 24 maintained campsites. The neighbouring Crotch and Kashwakamak lakes are popular lakes as well, but I find Big Gull Lake has a more northern feel to it. There are some seasonal cottages at both ends of the 20-kilometre lake, but the campsites are situated in the centre portion, far from any development. Two boat launches are located on both ends of the lake.
Charleston Lake Provincial Park campground maintains over 200 campsites. The park also offers 13 interior sites organized into clusters grouped together at Bob’s Cove, Hidden Cove, Buckhorn Bay, Captain Gap, Slim Bay and Covey’s Gap. Each cluster has one to three campsites and can hold six people and three tents per site. There’s a remote feeling to each site, and powerboats have been banned because the area is the only known nesting site for loons in the park. Conveniently connected to each interior site is a hiking trail upon which visitors can head off to explore the area’s wide assortment of flora and fauna. Since the Frontenac Axis is the most southern part of the Shield, the various habitats that are found here create what biologists call a transition zone. A large selection of plants and animals occur either beyond the normal southern or northern extent of their range, and Charleston Lake has some of the rarest finds in the province.
Upper Ottawa River
I am totally enthralled with the upper stretch of the Ottawa River, from the town of Mattawa to Driftwood Provincial Park. It makes a perfect canoe route. The scenery is amazing, with the steep-walled corridor of Quebec’s Laurentian hills to the left and the surprisingly undeveloped Ontario forested shoreline to the right. The width of the river is just under a kilometre at best, so wind and waves might become an issue, and in some areas, there are a lack of good campsites due to little use by paddlers. But the scenery far outbids any of the negative drawbacks.
Like the lower stretch of the Ottawa River below the town of Mattawa, the upper section that flows from Lake Timiskaming to the town of Temiscaming gets little use from paddlers. I haven’t a clue why. The scenery is exceptional, with thick boreal forest rooted on the western Ontario shoreline and the Laurentian Mountains jutting up behind the eastern Quebec border. The notably rough waters of Lake Timiskaming—the same that drowned 12 boys and one leader from St. John’s Anglican School of Ontario in 1978— may keep paddlers away. But when approached with caution and logic, this entire route makes a perfect journey on one of Canada’s most historic waterways.
The eastern coastline of Georgian Bay is the southern edge of the Canadian Shield with smooth granite bedrock, windswept pine, thousands of islands, countless inlets and crystal-clear water. It was a common hang out for members of Canada’s Group of Seven painters and by far one of the most scenic places in the province of Ontario. There are lots of choices on what’s labeled “the sixth great lake,” but the place I always seem to go back to is Foster Island and the mouth of the Naiscoot River.
Lake Temagami is the focal point of the Temagami region. It’s close to 2,000 square kilometres (20,000 square hectares), measuring 45 kilometres from north to south and 35 kilometres east to west. It has over 1,200 islands, its deepest spot is more than 100 metres to the bottom, and the total length of its shoreline has been estimated at 5,000 kilometres. That all adds up to one amazing full-week paddle! I’ve paddled around Lake Temagami several times, first in my mid-twenties as a solo paddler inspired by Hap Wilson’s extensive Temagami Canoe Routes guidebook (1978), and then as a canoe guide in my mid-thirties and early forties. It remains one of my favourite Temagami routes to re-experience.
Philip Edward Island
Philip Edward Island is just south of Killarney Park. It’s a fantastic four-to-five-day route that has been rated by a number of leading canoe and kayak magazines and websites as one of the top 10 paddle destinations in North America. The trip circumnavigates 50 kilometres of island shoreline, starting out from either the marina in the town of Killarney or a Chikanishing River access point. You can paddle around the island in either direction, but the preferred way is counterclockwise due to the prevailing winds. The exposed southern shoreline is also the most scenic, and many paddlers simply go to Beaverstone Bay and back. But the north shore is still well worth a visit. It has a protective channel, Collins Inlet, and it is fascinating for historians, as it seems everyone in Canadian history paddled through here.