August 22 – September 5, 2016
The story of a 2 week canoe trip through the wilderness of Temagami: mishaps, wildlife, solitude and more. In this section we journey South from Smoothwater Lake (through Apex L, McCulloch L, Mihel L, Scarecrow Creek, Scarecrow L). We stop to hike Ishpatina Ridge and then continue West across the northern Solace Provincial Park lakes (Woods L, Little Scarecrow L, Hamlow L, Regan L, Melanson L, Tooth L, Carrying Bar L, Broadbent L, Biscuit L and Einar Lake). Come with me!
“Following the chain of lakes south to Mihell and Scarecrow Lake, we were surrounded by hillsides clothed in the richest, loveliest, most fantastic stands of white and red pine.”
– In the Footsteps of Grey Owl by Gary and Joanie McGuffin
Day 1, Aug 22 2016, Montreal River
“Oh look! Shhhh, quiet now. Let’s see how close we can get!” The whoosh of wings had drawn our gaze overhead and now we were paddling quietly toward an old tree with a dead top where the owner of the wings had found his perch. His white head and tail stood out in clear contrast with the dark foliage. We watched as he furled his great brown wings around himself. A bald eagle! We would see one of these majestic birds on almost every one of the 15 days we spent camping and canoeing in the wilderness of the Temagami region. We had been unsure of where to camp for the night, how far to push down the river in the fading light, but the eagle perched directly across the river from this campsite sealed the deal. We’d rest here tonight and push on to Smoothwater Lake in the morning.
We had started the morning in the urban jungle. A last minute errand had sent us into the heart of Monday-morning downtown Toronto – the natural habitat of the ‘stuffed shirt’ and his office towers. It was quite a transition to go from the crowded, buzzing streets to the quiet, empty shores of the north. We spent most of the day driving. Past cottage country towns quaint on the shores of rivers and lakes, past stretches of northern highways nearly tunnelled by rock walls and towering trees, to flat stretches of farmland interrupted by nowhere towns. Finally we turned down the Beauty Lake road and parked our car. We were nearly on our way when a bear of a man trundled over from the campsite across the road where he’d parked his massive RV. He chatted us up, asking where we were going and generally checking us over, making sure we weren’t rookies about to get ourselves in over our heads. Both my husband and I look younger than we are so this once over is a bit of a pre-trip tradition. He told us stories of travelling all over the park on his snowmobile. “Wouldn’t never go nowhere without a motor though!” he barked and chuckled. Then, looking at our map “Oh I don’ know of any campsite along this stretch of river. Bin comin’ here over 15 years! But there is a cabin”… Twenty minutes later we set off upriver.
We made camp at dusk in the curve of the Montreal River. After a quick dinner of sausages and steamed broccoli we retired to our tent. Enveloped by our luxurious sleeping bags and the sound of the wind in the trees, we drifted off to sleep.
Day 2, Aug 23, Montreal River, Lady Dufferin L, Smoothwater Lake
We woke with the rising sun to the sound of a brisk headwind whistling down the river. The wind had been in the forecast the night before so we knew that there was no point trying to beat it by either getting up extra early or waiting it out. This would be an all day affair. We packed quickly and pushed off. The paddle up the Montreal was really lovely. Lots of tall pine trees and around each turn a new ridge of hills piled up, one behind another.
There’s a cabin on the East shore of Lady Dufferin Lake. Before we set out, RV man had leaned in towards us and whispered the story in hushed tones, full of pride to have scavenged this insider information. He had heard from a reliable source that back in the logging days this cabin had been a “whooore house!” As he said this last bit he puffed out his chest and glanced at Sean for approval. They would bring the girls up to live in the cabin for the summer and keep the loggers company on their days off. He said he wasn’t sure if we should believe it but he knew a guy who knew a guy who swore by this tale.
We pushed on into the headwind and when we came to Smoothwater Lake the water was less than smooth – a joke I’m sure has been made one too many times what with the size of this lake. It wasn’t the worst chop we’d paddled through and so we surfed our way along until we found the fabled crescent of sand beach on the Eastern shore of the lake.
Smoothwater is quite a big lake with large hills all around. The forest is a bit inconsistent—some stands of the big, tall, old growth white pine that we’ve come to associate with Temagami and some areas of shorter pine and poplar. The water is relatively clear and a lovely turquoise blue/green colour. But it’s the beach that really makes this place special. It stretches for about 2-3k along the Eastern shore and has 2 campsites spread out along it. The Southern site is the most desirable but, as Smoothwater is accessible by motor boat also, there was already a tent there. We chose the more northern site and it was quite nice as well. It was only 10am but we had been looking forward to camping on this beach for a long time and we had plenty of days to cover the kilometres ahead. We were apprehensive about how far we would even get on this trip. I’d had a concussion a month before due to a bike accident. So we eased into things.
We were a bit antsy but enjoyed our beach day, eating, reading, swimming and walking in the sand. It was really nice to walk around camp on the smooth, warm sand. Much easier than it is to clamber around on rocky shore like a billy goat, up to the tent and down to the water. We found a handy fire grill so we BBQ’d the just-thawing, spice rubbed chicken thighs over the fire alongside potatoes, carrots and onions all fried in bacon fat.
Day 3, Aug 24, Apex L, McCulloch L, Mihell L, Scarecrow Cr, Scarecrow Lake
This is a great time of year to travel. Light comes at around 6am and fades to dark by around 9pm so rising and sleeping with the sun gives you the perfect ratio of sleep and travel time. It also means that you don’t have to stay up until 1am to see stars and then try to sleep in a tent that is as bright as day by 5 or 6am. It’s late in the summer so there are almost no biting bugs and even in typically clear, cold lakes the water has had time to warm and is the perfect temperature for swimming. We slipped easily into a rhythm of rising and sleeping with the sun and were on the water bright and early. There was still a light SW wind but no waves and we made good time down the lake.
We were sorry to leave the wide expanse of Smoothwater Lake. It was quite pretty and we hadn’t heard much about the lakes between here and the Solace Lakes. For some reason we assumed that because they were small lakes they wouldn’t be as nice. Were we ever wrong! For the remainder of the trip we compared wherever we were with these Ishpatina valley lakes and, with the exception of the spectacular Florence Lake, voted these lakes as our favourite every time. Their small size brought the scenery into macro focus, everything up close and in your face. Massive shapely hills, forests of red and white pine reaching up to scrape the sky, and blue green water all combined to create perfect Temagami gems. Unfortunately, we didn’t take any pictures…
As we paddled down McCulloch we past a solo canoeist with his dog who tipped us off to an especially nice campsite on Mihell that wasn’t on the map. Mihell was my favourite lake of all: bays and peninsulas swooping in and out. A line of islands down the middle perfectly framed a tall, exposed rock face on the Eastern shore. We found the unmarked site just SW of the marked site on a point to the E of the mouth of Scarecrow Cr and just behind/ to the N of the big round island. It is a really nice site with a beautiful view of the lake and islands. A faint smell of wood smoke hinted to a recent breakfast fire. We stopped here for lunch: summer sausage and cheddar on bagels.
Despite the beauty of this site we had our hearts set on the island site in Scarecrow Lake. Leaving Mihell we had a choice between Scarecrow Creek or a 1260m portage. Having already scrambled in and out of the boat for 6 (albeit short) portages with heavy, fully loaded packs, we opted for the creek. Bad choice. The water levels were fine, that wasn’t the problem. The 1-2 foot high beaver dams weren’t a big deal either. We were travelling downstream and so pushing the boat down over the dams was a breeze compared to what it would have been trying to get up them. Also, we added river shoes to our gear this year which made a ginormous difference when jumping in and out of the canoe during creek travel. The issue was the hairpin weaving of the river back and forth and back and forth. It made the creek at least 3x longer than it would have been otherwise. Maneuvering the canoe that sharply took a lot of strength and meant we didn’t travel very fast at all.
The wetland was beautiful, as wetlands are. The heavy cloud above highlighted the rust, gold and green colours of the surrounding bushes and grasses. Unfortunately, those heavy clouds opened up when we were only about half way down the creek and by the time we arrived at the island everything was wet and we were feeling rather cold. If we had taken the portage we probably would have made camp before the rain started. Bummer.
I set up a very useless tarp while Sean got a fire going. We decided to make tea on the stove under the tarp but as it was quite windy we left the stove on high while we ran around getting fire wood. Sean is quite the master fire maker and it wasn’t too long before he had a nice fire going despite the wind and rain. Whether we were able to get warm by the fire despite the wind and rain is another question! As the rain wasn’t letting up I decided to put the tent up quickly anyways. This worked out fine and all the tent things (sleeping bags and pjs etc) were in the drybag so the inside of the tent was mostly dry at least. Of course 10 minutes after I rushed to put the tent up the rain slowed and eventually stopped.
That evening the forests and hills around us were a misty, magical wonderland. Tired and hungry we opted for a freeze dried meal and hoped the rest of the chicken would keep for tomorrow’s dinner. After dinner we watched the steam rise from the forest and waft through the valley’s between hills as we brushed our teeth and tidied up camp.
Day 4, Aug 25, Scarecrow Lake
We slept in and then lay in the tent for awhile enjoying the warmth. It had rained on and off all night so it took me awhile to convince myself to get up and go out into the damp. We opted to take a rest day today. All our stuff was wet so we wanted to dry out a bit and we also didn’t want to pass up our chance to do the Ishpatina ridge hike. Once I did get out of the tent I went straight into the water for a morning dip – if I have to be wet I might as well enjoy it right! I swam around the island with a loon and then had a bath. Clean and warmer it was time for breakfast.
Here’s a question: why do dry batter mixes always call for too much water?! Muffins, bannock, biscuits, I always follow the recipe to a T and end up with watery batter. Today the culprit was a pancake mix which caused me a bit of a headache. Also, we ran out of propane in our first of 2 tanks. I guess leaving the stove on high in the wind wasn’t the best idea! We did have a second tank which I kept on extremely low heat for the rest of the trip and managed to cook everything, no problem. I also managed to salvage the pancakes, and the bacon and coffee were predictably great.
We hung everything to dry while we went for another swim and relaxed. Then we tidied the site, put everything away in case of more rain, and paddled over to the Ishpatina hike. For Temagami, this was a pretty easy hike on a decent trail. Not a lot of boulders or climbing up sheer cliff faces like you get on the Lady Evelyn River 🙂 But it’s still 3h round trip and consistently up hill. There are a number of lakes along the way which were quite pretty. I want to say that the view at the top was worth the trouble but I have to admit that I was disappointed. There is quite a bit of brush and small trees at the top which obstruct the view and there aren’t many defining features to the landscape that would draw your attention and make you catch your breath. If you climb a little way up the (decommissioned) fire tower you can see quite a distance across the rolling hills with their little pockets of bright blue lakes, so that was nice.
Back at the site we had a relaxing evening. A group of about 8 loons gathered, barking and hooting back and forth to each other. We slipped in for a swim as the sun dipped towards the horizon and the light turned to gold. I BBQ’d the last of the chicken for dinner, making sure to really cook it just in case it wasn’t as fresh as it should be! We sat by the shore while we ate, watching the sunset, listening to the loons, and marvelling at the beauty of the place.
Day 5, Aug 25, Woods L, Little Scarecrow L, Hamlow L, Regan L, Melanson L, Tooth L, Carrying Bar L, Broadbent L, Biscuit L, Einar Lake
Throughout this long-ass day I had sung Taylor Swift songs at the top of my lungs as a distraction during portages. “Are we out of the woods, are we out of the wood yet?” Also Beyoncé. Lol
We started this day unsure. Sean had read a report on Ottertooth of a group who had come through this route to re-open it 5-10 years ago, but we weren’t sure how well they had marked the trails or what condition they would be in now. The portages on our spring trip into Little Fry Lake (trip report in progress) had been either completely unmarked or marked by only the tiniest bit of flagging tape. We had really sharpened our path finding skills on that trip and were expecting to put them to good use today. So we weren’t surprised when the 690m portage from Hamlow into Reagan was obscure and not where it seemed it should have been according to our map.
A little aside about our map situation. We don’t have a GSP device but we did bring 2 maps as well as Hap Wilson’s guide to Temagami. Each have their own strengths and weaknesses and little discrepancies. It’s nice to get a second opinion sometimes. One of the maps is easier to read so we mostly use it throughout the day. It turned out to have many inaccuracies so we got pretty upset with it by the end. It does, however, list all the roads or snowmobile trails in the area. This would come in handy later. The other map is a little bit more difficult to read, so we only pull it out when we need to. For this trip our secondary map turned out to be more accurate. The book is, well, a book. Big and clunky but good if we’re really confused and nice to read in the evenings.
We didn’t see the sign for the 1100m portage, although it’s probably there. We also didn’t see any campsites in this part of Hamlow. The shore seemed rather overgrown and marshy. We opted for the shorter portage and found the take out farther into the bay on Hamlow than we expected. Near the beginning there was a big blowdown but we managed to clamber around it and find the trail again on the other side. After this it was a simple jaunt uphill to the first logging road of the day. We checked our map and compass and found where the trail continued just across the road and a little south (this jog south isn’t marked on either map). This part of the trail follows a road of some sort which curves west just after you see a boulder strewn creek bed through the trees to the North. It grows smaller and smaller and starts to climb uphill. We followed the trail uphill for a little ways before deciding that we shouldn’t be going uphill to get to this lake. We dumped our gear and back tracked a ways, checking our compass against the map precisely before we found a bit of flagging tape that marked where the portage leaves this road and plunges once more into the bush. We rearranged the flagging tape so that it could be more easily spotted and went back for our gear. All our gear across we packed the boat and pushed off into Reagan Lake. As we paddled along we looked over and saw a large take out area with a lovely bright yellow portage sign. That must be where the longer, 1100m portage comes out. The group that came through to re open these portages must have picked the 1100m one to clear.
We continued down to the end of Reagan and commenced our search for the next portage. Seeing as the 1100m portage was marked clearly, I thought that we might also find this one easily. But we didn’t. We were still relying on the wrong map at this point. This time we found a barely there 1cm bit of flagging tape. We took turns. I set out first and followed the trail until I lost it in the underbrush. Then I returned to the canoe and Sean had a go. The trail was extremely faint but we are able to follow the it until it met the road. According to the map we should jog left along the road before finding the remainder of the portage. We spent at least 2h scouring the North side of the road.
I was absolutely determined. Last year we got spooked and turned around. In the spring we took our time and eventually found the trails. This time I was going to find a way forward, no matter how long it took. We found faint markings, ancient axe blazes, decaying logs that have been sawn in half and thus marked by some sort of human existence, even bits of flagging tape in completely random places, but no trail. Defeated we headed back to Reagan Lake. It looked like we would have to adjust our route and go down the Sturgeon River and into the Solace Lakes from there. It would take longer, and we’d miss out on the (obviously) less-travelled Northern portion of the Solace Lakes. I spent the afternoon praying furiously for God to help us find our way. We were really craving the isolation of a “road less travelled by”, hoping that it would make all the difference. We pushed off down Reagan Lake, past the shore where the map says the portage should be. We continued on and, just by chance, Sean turned his head North at the exact moment when we were passing a clearly marked, well used portage landing. HURRAH! We had found our way!! Cursing our primary map for being wrong, again, we unloaded our gear.
Unfortunately I had adjusted the inch of flagging tape to a more prominent location on the phantom portage we had just left. If you’re following this route DON’T FOLLOW the pink flagging tape. Follow the lovely yellow portage signs. They’re quite clear. I think what’s happened is that when this area was logged the 5000 year old nastagan trails were obscured. When this route was reopened, in some places, the old trails were left and new trails were forged. You can find bits and pieces of the ancient trails still discernible even after all these years. That’s how we got confused.
Anyways, most of the rest of the day went without a hiccup. Once we knew what we were looking for the portages, with their nice yellow signs, are easily found and mostly free of blow downs. The lakes through Melanson to Einer are a dream. If they have been logged it’s less discernible as the forests are tall and lush. On Melanson we are greeted by a loon. Around a corner we discover a family of otters. There are wild flowers, a ridge of bright white cliffs on Tooth Lake, and gorgeous little Islands on Broadbent. It’s too bad there are no campsites through here. If we had looked around, as we should have, Broadbent probably could have provided a bush site for the night. As it is we scrape the bottom of our energy tanks for left over fumes and push on to Einer.
We paddled past the still morning when weak sunshine reveals perfect reflections in mirror like water, through mid-afternoon when the sunlight falls straight down through the water, rays of light meeting at an ever-elusive point just below the surface. We paddled on past golden hour when the low light bounces off the water, creating rippling light-shadows that reflect off the cliffs at waters edge. As the light is stripped from the water by the shadow of the overlooking hills we pull up to our last portage of the day…
The story continues in Smoothwater Loop Part 2