Fall forest reflections
Forest of colorful autumn trees reflecting in calm lake
I had my doubts last Thanksgiving when I loaded a canoe on my vehicle and drove south into Ontario’s cottage country for a fall-colour paddle. After all, I live surrounded by thousands of deserted lakes, wild rivers and untouched forests in Northern Ontario. But my friend, Brad, was flying to Toronto from his home in Vancouver, so it made the most sense to meet for a trip somewhere in between. Reluctantly, I breached my rule of never venturing south to paddle, and braced for people, powerboats and vacation homes.

We decided on an 80-kilometre circuit on the Magnetawan River, just off Highway 69, north of Parry Sound. This part of the Georgian Bay area was once a favourite haunt of the iconic canoeist and filmmaker Bill Mason; the pink granite canyons and scenic campsites of the Magnetawan appear in Mason’s popular film Song of the Paddle. So I knew it couldn’t be all bad.

The beauty of a circular loop trip is that it avoids the hassle of jockeying vehicles from put-in to take-out and requires minimal doubling back on the water. Our route began on Harris Lake, and to my relief, the cottages thinned out as we paddled to the north end. From here, a classic Canadian Shield shoreline of pine-topped rock knobs and cedar lowlands took shape as we continued on the Magnetawan’s South Branch. Brad’s eye was glued to his camera as we pitched camp in the golden light of magic hour.

Day Two took us south through a handful of small, undeveloped lakes, leading eventually to an island campsite with a sweeping view on Miskokway Lake. The sun shone bright, the temperature soared, and we plunged into the chilly October water for frequent swims. Most of the day’s eight portages were easy, with the exception of the second-last—a brushy, kilometre-long climb through bear-clawed beech trees leading out of Wilson Lake. Despite some cottages along the way, we couldn’t believe how few people we saw.

The next night on Maple Lake, we camped on yet another tongue of rock and listened to coyotes howling. The following day, on sprawling Wahwashkesh Lake, most of the cottages were boarded up for the season. Then it was back on the Magnetawan River, where we endured the century-old, two-kilometre-long logging tote road-turned-portage around Canal Rapids. When I suggested we extend the loop by continuing downstream to the more whitewater-intensive lower Magnetawan, rather than shortcutting back to our starting point from island-pocked Trout Lake, Brad was an easy sell.

We hit Mountain Chute, Stovepipe- and Three-Snye rapids on the morning of Day Five, our last full day of travel. The river narrowed into an intimidating canyon at Thirty Dollar Rapids, where a jam once cost some unfortunate loggers a month’s salary. I dropped Brad off on shore and ran the first series of technical ledges solo before meeting him downstream, where we shot the easy rapids tandem and carried around the bigger drops. Feeling proud of the way we’d avoided most of Thirty Dollar’s ominous 2,400-metre portage, we loaded up and prepared to run the final stretch.

Of course, the river had the last laugh. “What’s up ahead?” shouted Brad midway down the boulder-laced run. That’s when I noticed the hard line stretching across the river, 25 metres downstream. Brad lacked the whitewater savvy to perform a quick eddy turn to get off the river, so I made the decision to charge it. We paddled hard, launched the canoe over the metre-high ledge and plunged gunwale-deep in the water below. We wallowed, swamped and limped to shore with a renewed sense of humility.

It felt good to eat crow at our last campsite of the trip. And as Brad and I sipped from a flask of whiskey beside the campfire, I had to admit that there are some wild oases in central Ontario still worth paddling—especially in the fall.

Other cottage country routes:

Muskoka: West of Gravenhurst, a two-day loop on the upper Gibson River in Severn River Conservation Reserve explores some of the last remaining undeveloped lakes in Muskoka. Start at the public launch on Nine Mile Lake and paddle the Gibson to Woodland and Brotherson’s lakes, then complete the circuit through Turtle Lake.

Haliburton: Queen Elizabeth II Wildlands Provincial Park is Ontario’s second-largest protected area south of Algonquin. Put-in on Head Lake off Highway 45 east of Orillia and trace the Head River 30 kilometres north. The payoff for countless beaver dams and several portages are wild campsites on Wolf and Victoria lakes.

Eastern Ontario: With numerous access options, the York River north of Bancroft is a gentler alternative to the boisterous whitewater run on the nearby Madawaska River. Take a day trip in the wildlife-rich Conroy Marsh or take three days to paddle from Egan Chutes Provincial Park to Combermere.