The story of our foray deep into a seldom travelled area: the Northern Temagami wilderness, namely Makobe Lake. This story is continued from Magical Makobe Part One. In this second instalment we journey through a whole new world: the Grays River and Lakes. Very little is said about this area so we had no preconceived notions of it. Perhaps that added to the magic.
Day 6 – Rapid South of Shortcut L NLER
Only early summer produces the kind of rich green foliage that is currently cascading from the rocky ledge of the opposite shore. The fronds of the lush ferns have grown so long that they reach down into the rapid below. The moving water causing them to dance and sway, eternally.
I turn my gaze upstream to watch the smooth water slip over the rocks until suddenly it shoots off into a thousand white bubbles. These converge into a long, lacy V that burbles past my feet. The sky is moody and pregnant with rain, but the air wafting up from the little waterfall is warm and gentle, moistened by the ever-flowing water. Within moments I’ve stripped off my clothes and slid feet first into the little pool that hugs the edge of the rocky ledge and ensuing V of bubbles. The water is surprising, but not cold. I submerge myself once and am instantly content in the new temperature that is rushing past my skin. Carefully I feel my feet along the dark river bottom and plunge my head and chest into the cascade of falling water. I feel out a ledge with my hands and work my way around so that the water is pounding down on my neck, shoulders and back. Ahhh… just the massage I needed after 28km of paddling.
We started the morning on Florence Lake, packing up slowly after our strange experience the night before (read about that here). We marvelled at the beauty all around us as we paddled North through Florence L, commenting that the lake seemed even more beautiful when paddling North than it had paddling South 3 days earlier. Making good time up the lake and river despite a stiff headwind, we met with the Lady Evelyn River (LER) and felt the current sweep us on our way. The perfectly sunny morning gave way to cloud which slowly built in and threatened rain. We stopped at Duff L to shore up the boat and get out our rain gear in case the clouds let loose. A little while later we stopped at Hap’s cliff top site for lunch. It was even more beautiful than we remembered it from last years trip (read that story here). We continued down stream, the pull of the current making for a really lovely paddle through wetlands and around curves. Pine and spruce covered hills rose up in the distance and then dropped back behind us as we pulled ever forward.
The day ended with an easy portage through to Shortcut Lake and another 50m hop over to the main branch of the LER. These portages are marked with new yellow signs, as are most things in this area, but finding the 150m was very much aided by our Garmin GPS which cleared up exactly which of the 500 curves in the river concealed our portage.
I complete my swim by washing my hair for the first time this week, letting the falls pound the remaining soap out of my long strands. As I emerge I look up. The clouds have blown away and the sky is a clear light blue. Across the river the evening sun is highlighting my dancing ferns. It feels good to have arrived at this brand new little campsite by the river.
Day 7 – Macphereson Lake
With the music of the falls as white noise we slept soundly. When I got up in the night the bright, full moon hung low over the river, illuminating a beautiful mist that had arisen. Our morning alarm came too early. We’d set it for 530am in hopes of catching a beautiful sunrise and getting a long day of travel up to Grays Lake under our belts. One look outside told us that the sunrise was nothing special so we quickly rolled over and were lulled back to sleep by the falls.
When we woke again it was 8am. We had slowly started about our morning chores when Sean noticed that our water had an acrid, smoky taste to it. We’d left our plastic water filtration system hanging in a tree directly in the path of the smoke from our fire. I guess the plastic had absorbed the smell and taste and was now imparting it to our water. Very unpleasant. I was of the mind to just grin and bear it but he was determined to fix the problem and we wasted an hour or more trying to do so, to no avail. Finally we filtered our water and filled the jug with spruce tips to try and marinate the taste away. By the end of the day we had nice, sprucy water – a tip I will remember in the future!
When we finally got underway I insisted we try the rapids along the way in our Swift Kipawa Kevlar canoe, not the best canoe for the job. Also, all I know about running rapids was learned from a Bill Mason video that I watched at camp when I was 15. The backcountry is not really the place to learn white-water, but if not now then when? We ran a couple successfully and wasted a ton of time scouting. The last run trapped us against a rock due to a communication error and resulted in me hopping out onto a rock mid river to free the canoe and avoid damage. Once free the canoe of course floated away from me and I had to swim the rest of the rapid in my clothes and boots. Wet boots for the day, sigh.
After that we just portaged the rest of the rapids. We’d wasted a lot of time. As we boulder hopped along side the river I noticed that I was feeling stronger than usual. What used to seem insanely difficult feels normal now. Comfortable. Like coming home. I thought back to my first year in Temagami. After spraining my ankle on day 3 the next 2 weeks of balancing and clambering precariously from razor sharp rock to razor sharp rock seemed to me an almost impossible feet. (Read that here.) We’ve spent enough time in this area that the terrain, the plants and flowers, the various challenges have become familiar. This year my footing is sure.
We pulled up to an island in Mcpherson Lake at 2pm for lunch, having moved super slowly all day and argued quite a bit. As we pulled the canoe up the beach we noticed a campsite marker. Neither of our maps had this site marked. As such it looks like it hasn’t been used in years. The fire pit was blanketed in pine needles, it’s rock rim having sunk down into the ground so that it was nearly reclaimed by the dirt. It was the nicest campsite we’d passed in awhile so we decided to camp here. The next site was 15km away and we just didn’t have it in us today.
We spent the afternoon swimming and exploring. At one point the caw of an Eagle had us running to shore to watch it fly low over our island, circle and move on. There’s a dead tree right in the middle of the island with fish carcasses below it. A great eagle roost. He was probably coming in to land before noticing us. As we ate an early dinner we enjoyed the beautifully sunny and perfectly still evening. A look to the West brought a bank of massive, dark thunderheads to our attention. Suddenly the wind picked up, almost to the same gale force strength we had experienced on Florence Lake. We rushed to secure camp.
Afterward I lay in the tent writing this and listening to the harmony of birdsong and wind in the trees; white-throated sparrows, hermit thrushes and wood thrushes serenaded the evening light.
Day 8 – Banks Lake
At 6:30am the sky is leaden and the air is cool. We bundle up for the first time this trip, making sure to wear our rain gear and cover the packs with their rain shields just in case. By 7:30am we’ve packed up camp, breakfasted and pushed off towards the Grays River.
We are not sure what to expect as we head north. We haven’t heard much about the areas that we will be travelling through for the next week, despite scouring the internet. Whether or not it will be pretty we’ve yet to discover, but the sense of adventure is strong as we begin paddling up the meanders at the mouth of the Grays. “It’s gorgeous here!” We’re careful to whisper the few words we speak this morning – careful to paddle quietly to avoid disturbing any wildlife. We’ve already surprised a beaver and an otter.
This river is not a wetland like the LER’s meanders were, with her wide-open fields and stunted forests. The Grays River is flanked by high forest. Sheep’s Laurel and Alder bushes frame the shore giving way to a thin layer of black spruce, which are crowned with a canopy of tall jack and white pine. The thick, high forest on either side creates a canyon-like feel to the river.
The day quickly warmed up and became sunny. After the first portage the forest changed again and became mostly jack pine, uniform and thick. The banks of the river were rocky all the way along which added so much beauty to the area. The second portage has a fire ring on it’s south end, probably used as a hasty bush site by someone who wasn’t able to make it through the campsite-less section between McPherson L and Grays L in one day. Not the flattest tent site but it would do in a pinch.
After the second portage the river widened, straightened and slowly became more and more marshy until it opened up into Graymud Lake. As one might expect, this lake certainly lives up to its name! The muddy, shallow bottom of the lake shortened each paddle stroke abruptly. Progress was interminably slow. But even here the land held a special beauty. The hills to the West were larger than we’d expected and cloaked in beautiful stands of pine. Along the Eastern shore armies of black spruce marched along, their branches tipped with brilliant lime green growth catching the sun and lighting up the forest in the most wonderful way. A little farther along and there he was, the illusive moose we had been waiting for all day. His big, soft, round ears pricked towards us. He remained motionless so long that we wondered if he was even real. We managed to get quite close before he turned slowly and slipped silently back into the brush, quickly becoming invisible despite his big bulk.
Grays L provided yet another pleasant surprise: big hills, lovely rocky points and bluffs. The forest was ever changing. There were whole hillsides of old growth red and white pine. These were interspersed with sections of black spruce—sometimes lush, sometimes only thin trunks with very little vegetation. The Jeffs map of Grays L places the campsites correctly whereas Chrismar does not. We stopped at the Southern-most site for lunch. It boasts nice swimming rocks and one great tent site along with 2-3 others that are feasible. It’s a little more sheltered than the site midway up the lake. This site has to be the best one on the lake though: a lovely white rock point that rises up into little cliffs all along the shore. Farther North on the Western side of the lake is another campsite not marked on either of our maps. It has a smooth rock beach and a less-than-used looking fire pit under a beautiful tall white pine.
We made it to the North end of Grays Lake in record time and enjoyed a last look at the hills back the way we came from before hoisting our packs and beginning the last major accomplishment of the day: a 1270m portage to Banks Lake where we would camp for the night. The beginning of the trail is quite boggy and we slipped and slid our way along, balancing on rocks and logs that have been laid down. This section is quite short and afterwards the trail is long but easy. Slowly it climbs a little ways up and then slopes gently down to the lake. Not a bad trail at all.
Portage complete we looked North and were awestruck at the gorgeous, Georgian Bay-esque landscape before us: white rock points and islands dotted the bright blue water. Once we left the Southern bay the lake opened up. We pushed our tired muscled and paddled hard towards a supposedly fabulous campsite about which Sean had read a number of glowing reviews. The NE arm of the lake narrowed to reveal shapely hills and inlets.
Just around the river bend we caught site of what all the fuss is about. High cliffs engulf a red-rocked, desert-like wonderland. Flanked on both sides by small waterfalls, a wide rock expanse of rock is topped with cactus-like red pine and covered with blueberries and lush, bright-pink Sheep’s laurel. A five minute hike in any direction brings you to a view of one of the 3 surrounding waterfalls. The entryway to the site is of beautiful pink quartzite smoothed by the passage of time and sloping gently into the river. Wonderful swimming presents itself either in the river on the East side or in the deep pools below the largest of the waterfalls to the West.
However, the rolling rock makes it difficult to set up an efficient campsite. The only tent site is quite far from the best fire pit location, which is quite far from the water so there’s a lot of walking to be done around camp. Also the numerous blueberry bushes provided perfect hiding places for multitudes of black flies. Our conclusion was that, although beautiful, it was not a place we’d spend more than one night at, at least not until the blueberries were ripe and the blackflies had died down.
Long day behind us we explored the site. Sitting on a mini cliff beside a waterfall I thought back over all the beauty we had experienced today. Our only hope had been to explore a new and seldom travelled area, which we had certainly done. We had not dared to hope that this new area would be so incredibly beautiful. Perhaps the low expectations added to it’s magic. After dinner and a sunset swim in the river I turned my thoughts to tomorrows journey into Makobe Lake. Someone had mentioned online that Makobe was just as beautiful as Florence Lake. If that was even partly true we were in for a treat.
Continue the journey with Part 3!