The story of a 2 week canoe trip through the wilderness of the Western Temagami region: mishaps, wildlife, solitude and more. Continued from Smoothwater Loop Part 2. In this section we journey from Florence Lake, down the South Lady Evelyn River, up the North Lady Evelyn River, across a massive portage to Sunnywater Lake and home via Smoothwater Lake and the Montreal River. Come with me!
Day 10, Aug 31, Florence River, Duff Lake to Road on Lady Evelyn River
It was with a heavy heart that I said goodbye to our beautiful site and reluctantly climbed into the canoe. A canoe, by the way, with a broken bow seat. The bow seat had been squeaking all trip and had finally cracked as we had paddled up Florence two days before. We fixed the problem by setting up a life jacket and the dry bag as a temporary seat. However, the dry bag is round and so it’s hard to balance on and sort of rocks back and forth as you paddle. This made Sean seasick so I, with my superior balancing skills 😉 was stuck in the bow of the canoe for the rest of the trip.
Sean especially loved this section of our trip from the north end of Florence Lake through to the Florence River and on to Duff Lake. There is a swath of old growth white pine forest here that runs through the valleys and blankets the crests of hills. On the north end of Florence Lake there is what looks like another really nice campsite on a rocky outcropping along the eastern shore.
Hoping to see some wildlife we managed to spend the morning paddling in silence. We did not have to wait long for our reward. As we paddled out of Florence Lake a huge brown bird with white speckles flew overhead. Perhaps it was an osprey or a juvenile eagle? Then, all of a sudden, we spotted a moose and her calf feeding in the shallows. Moose had always seemed to elude us. Finally here they were, not a stones throw away. Our vow of silence was working! We kept it up, biting back the constant flow of conversation that usually surrounds us. Then, just at the confluence of the Florence and Lady Evelyn Rivers, we caught sight of a bull moose just before he retreated through the trees. This intersection of rivers was a beautiful area with a field of lily flowers framed by towering old trees set against a dramatic backdrop of hills. We stopped at the Duff Lake campsite for lunch. Sean spent the entire lunch break leaning against a tree at the edge of the site, gazing around at the incredible trees.
Just around the corner from Duff Lake is Duff Ridge, a really beatific corner of creation, and just beyond that the last nice campsite on this section of the South Lady Evelyn River. We stopped here to poke around. I’ve imagined this campsite many times since reading Hap Wilson’s description of it in The Cabin (find this fabulous book here). It lived up to my hopes with great swimming and docking rocks. A short climb up to the cliff top site reveals a sunset view out over the black spruce forest which cloaks the opposite shore.
It was still early in the day so we continued on upriver. We kept a close eye out for the campsites that are listed on the maps but we didn’t find any of them. We didn’t search high and low but we found neither markers nor level, non swampy areas that would provide even a good bush site. After passing 4 map-marked but non-existent campsite locations we started to get a bit worried. It looked like rain and we wanted to set up camp before the clouds broke. Finally we passed an old, deconstructed bridge and, not wanting to take a gamble on whether the sites upriver existed, we decided to camp on the road for the night. It didn’t have great swimming but provided a wonderfully flat surface for the tent and just up the road and we found a biffy! This bridge isn’t listed on the map as a campsite but it’s obviously being used as one. Sean was feeling nauseous from sitting on the drybag so we went to bed early.
Day 11, Sept 1, South + North Lady Evelyn River, Gamble L, Junction L, to Sunnywater L
We slept extremely well on the flat, man-made surface and started the day later than normal. After our usual breakfast of home-made granola with chocolate, walnuts and dried cherries served with rehydrated milk, we set off upstream around 9am, placing another vow of silence upon the morning. The river meanders through a marsh here and we paddled all morning with the sun over our right shoulders.
Our silence paid off. We had never seen as much wildlife as we did in these 2 days. First up, 2 black bears! The first didn’t notice us right away and so we were able to watch it eating berries for awhile before he pricked up his big, fluffy, cinnamon ears, sniffed with his cinnamon nose and looked straight at us with his deep black eyes. He was a smaller, more timid bear and trundled off into the bush as soon as he saw us.
After that first bear we kept our eyes and ears absolutely peeled for wildlife – this was getting exciting! Not too far upstream I started pointing and motioning as excitedly as I could while still staying quiet. I had spotted a second bear in the brush just uphill from the waters edge. This bear was bigger, blacker and less afraid of us. It seemed like he had heard or seen us coming and was already heading off into the brush when I heard his snapping steps. He was standing on all fours and we could see his legs ending in long feet. He had a dangerous air about him. He stared at us a long time before moving along.
Upstream and around a bend we disturbed an eagle who had been perched in a field to our right. He spread his wings and flew low across the field and over our heads before gaining height and speeding out of sight. A few bends in the river later we came around a corner and were face to beak with a heron who quickly flew off upstream so that we disturbed her 2 or 3 more times. A little later the longest V of geese that I have ever seen flew overhead, heading south. It was September 1st and I guess all the geese in the area decided that today was the day to leave the north.
The South branch of the Lady Evelyn River met with the North branch without the particular fanfare that I was expecting, just a small T in the road. We kept a close eye on each curve of the river, having discovered that there is more to river travel than ‘point and shoot’. The portage to Dees was well marked and right where our maps placed it, in the elbow of the river. Two otters swam right past us huffing and snuffing in the funny way that they do. Here the river comes out of its wetland and becomes reminiscent of (though not quite as spectacular as) the lower Lady Evelyn with rocky shores and tall pine. Just south of Chance Lake we passed the first decent-looking campsite since the cliff top site just north of Duff Ridge. If you have to camp along this stretch of river I’d suggest stopping here as it’s much nicer than Gamble Lake.
We arrived at Gamble Lake around 2pm planning to camp here for the night. The campsites on Gamble did not inspire us. One of them is on a wide, freshly levelled, gravel road in a clearing amongst sparse baby pine. The other is a shady, dark little hole of a site hidden on the narrow part of the peninsula (not on the point where our not-so-trusty map placed it). It is set amongst small, dark cedars with a weedy, muddy shore. We decided it was too early in the day to settle for these dregs. As it was late in the day, and our packs were rid of most of our food, we decided to complete the rest of the portages in a single carry to save time. We did not want to run out of light again! We had a rest and a snack before tackling the hardest portage we’ve ever done.
Our overly optimistic map strikes again! It clearly lists a 320m portage followed by a creek which finishes in a 2085m portage. Don’t be fooled! Optimistic as always we waded out into the muddy ‘creek’ to save some portaging time only to get stuck in the mud. If you do this route just bite the bullet and stay on the portage for all 3970 glorious meters. Twenty minutes later, when we had extracted ourselves from the mud, we made up a song for our beloved map:
I’m gonna punch your face,
I’m gonna punch your face,
I’m gonna punch you right in the
I’m gonna punch your face,
… Etc, Repeat ad nauseam!
The mud puddle was in a really pretty little field surrounded by big hills and nice trees. It was the most beautiful place we’d seen since Duff Lake. Of course we were too distracted by scrambling through sucking mud to take any pictures, sigh.
While planning this trip we had spent some time studying the maps and had noticed that this portage gains a lot of elevation. So, each time we climbed a hill we hoped that at least that bit of elevation gain was behind us. And each time we descended a hill we groaned. No, this portage saves ALL the elevation gain for the end. The trail rolls gently up and down hills until right near the end where it takes a sharp turn for the skies. One massive, never ending hill and about 400 little breaks later, we made it to the top. From there it was just a hop and a skip across 2 little lakes with their adjoining portages we arrived at Sunnywater Lake.
Day 12, Sept 2, Sunnywater
The morning was bright and sunny but with a cold, autumn scented wind. I found a patch of sunlight and curled up in the roots of an old, granddaddy white pine near the shore. This magnificent tree had unfortunately crashed to his death not too long ago. The trunk now bisects the campsite. The morning passed in a blur of groggy haze as my sleeping mat had popped and I hadn’t slept much the night before. I spent the time reading and cooking up some cheesy bannock for the next few days of lunches. In the afternoon we took a short hike down the portage to Wilderness lake and found a picnic spot in the sun-soaked woods above the lake. After lunch it was back to Sunnywater for a swim.
With a name like Sunnywater you know there has to be something special about this lake, and there is. The water is astonishingly clear. So clear that at the waters edge you only know where the land ends and the water begins because at a certain point the rocks begin to look wet. Even with that defining line it is unclear exactly where the surface of the water is until your fingers are actually wet. I noticed this every time I went to wash my hands or fill a pot with water. It was like my depth perception was off. It wasn’t, the water is just that clear.
The rocks are white and pink here which makes for lovely snorkelling. I swam way out into the lake and could still see the bottom. Then I flipped upside down and the rocky lake bottom became my ceiling. Ahead turquoise water faded into distant violet and below me my toes brushed a wavy sky. I don’t think I will ever forget that view. I spent a long time swimming upside down and by the time I got out of the water I was chilled to the bone. Clear lakes are always the coldest – everything has it’s price!
I’d been carrying a potato, an onion and some carrots this whole trip. Tonight, the extra weight paid off! A fresh meal of potatoes, onions, carrots and summer sausage chopped up, seasoned, wrapped in foil and roasted over the fire was a wonderful treat after nearly a week of freeze dried meals.
An evening paddle uncovered a little stream flowing down to Wilderness Lake. Ever the explorer, Sean set off to bushwhack his way along it. I continued the paddle solo, gliding on glass and peering through turquoise to catch glimpses of boulders fathoms below. After we beached the canoe for the night I sat by the waters edge and watched as tendrils of steam began ghosting across the lake. We lit a fire and stayed up late into the night, this time by choice, gazing into stars and embers.
There is a certain magic in being connected to the land. When you’re out here it’s easy to see where the inspiration for faeries and giants, sprites and talking trees, magic and quests comes from. It feels to me like there is a novel around every corner. That island could be some great prehistoric behemoth crouched in the water so long that trees have grown on his scaly back. Perhaps this rocky portage is really the spine of a sleeping dragon. At any moment we could stumble upon the woods of Lothlorian or intersect a gaggle of hobbits on a journey.
We had been unsure about whether to take 14 days for our trip and come home with a day to unpack, wash and reorganize our lives, or take 15 days because we love it and we can. I had really wanted to take an extra day at Florence but Sean was uncomfortable with that. He would be going back to school the day after we returned so it was really up to him. As we sat by the fire we re-evaluated our priorities and decided to take a third rest day here, at Sunnywater Lake, instead of heading back to Smoothwater tomorrow and home the next day.
The call of the wild was too strong to resist.
Day 13, Sept 3, Sunnywater
I made pancakes and bacon for breakfast after a quick, cold morning dip. I had fixed the sleeping mat the day before and so I had much more energy today. After much suntanning, reading, writing, and staring into the clear blue depths, Sean was stir crazy. So it was off to the Aurora trout lakes for some fishing! Jk, jk. The aurora trout lakes are home to, you guessed it, the aurora trout, a species of fish found no where else in the world but in these 2 or 3 lakes. So no fishing allowed!
It was a bright, sunny day with not a cloud in the sky. Columns of diffused sunlight slanted through the forest as we ambled along: short portage, wilderness lake, longer portage, Whitepine lake. The north portion of Whitepine L is quite nice with islands surrounded by tall trees and rocky outcroppings. The south end is nothing special, shorter forest and low hills. We left our canoe at the research station’s dock and walked across a faint trail through a pretty wood to Whirlygig Lake. I can definitely see why fish like this lake! The water is warm and brown with organic matter. I took a rather disgusting swim in the soupy water, quite a shock after the cold, clear Sunnywater Lake.
As we arrived back at camp later that afternoon we passed the first humans we’d seen in since Scarecrow Lake! We’d had 10 full days of complete and utter solitude #CampingGoals 🙂 This group of guys were headed to Smoothwater for the night.
The evening was still as ever so we made dinner and paddled out to the middle of the lake to eat it. The silence was a physical presence pressing in on our eardrums.
Day 14, Sept 4, Wilderness L, MarinaL, to Smoothwater
We woke up early today. I skipped my usual morning dip and we were packed and on the portage before the mist had burned off the lake. Everything felt heavy and difficult this morning. Too much rest had made me lazy! But the woods were pretty and I saw a 3rd grouse to add to the 2 we’d seen on this portage yesterday. Once on wilderness lake we saved a dragon fly from drowning and took a second to bask in the beauty of the trees and mist highlighted by morning sun.
The second portage out of Wilderness Lake and into Whitepine Lake has a nearly-Lady-Evelyn-esque pile of rock scree at the end of it that we had to clamber down – much harder to accomplish with full packs than it had been the day before when we were carefree and unburdened. A quick paddle across Whitepine and an easy portage later, we found ourselves in Marina Lake. This is a very pretty lake with nice white cliffs. We paddled around taking in the sights for awhile before heading off to the well trodden path to Smoothwater Lake to have our hopes of having our last night on a sandy beach dashed. Smoothwater was slam-jammed, packed out. The colourful array of tents reminded us that it was the Labour Day long weekend. All the campsites on the lake were taken. In fact, the beach, which is supposed to house 2 campsites had 4 or 5 camps spread out along it.
It was still early in the day so we paddled across the lake to check out an unnamed lake to the west of Smoothwater. We found the creek that leads to the lake, pulled the canoe up and scrambled along the logs jammed in the creek to check out the lake and see if it was worth the portage. It was so we headed back to the canoe, this time via the portage. This portage has been completely obliterated by a massive fallen white pine.
After grabbing our lunch and the canoe we scrambled back over the logs to get to the lake. Paddling across the lake a ways, we found a rocky point with a perfect canoe landing spot and swimming rocks. We weren’t the first people to think this point was perfect. On the top of the small hill we found the remains of a very old, half-built cabin. There was also a completely overgrown fire pit with an old style, rusted out pop can in it and, in the notch of a tree trunk, 5 wooden poles which would have been used to set up an old canvas tent. Perhaps no one had been to this spot since this would be settler had abandoned his dream. We made a lunch of bannock and the last of the salami and cheese. I went for a swim and lay on the smooth, hot rocks until I dried off.
We considered camping here but decided to make our way to the end of the lake instead with hopes of shortening our journey home the next day. There was a site Sean had liked on the way in that was just at the mouth of the Montreal River. It also had a sandy beach. We quickly beached our gear, went for a swim together and lay on the sand in the sun for awhile before making camp. After an early dinner we went for an evening paddle. All was quiet and still as we drifted along, dipping our paddles into glassy reflections.
The trip is behind us, home is ahead. I’m sitting on a sandy beach, content. The waves are lapping at the shore and the water is moving silently down the channel before me. The sliver of a new moon is just cresting hill opposite, bright against the sunset sky. It’s light is making silhouettes of the pine. The water is rippling gently, rose gold and then violet. Sean is farting and joking beside me.
Later, as I lie in my sleeping bag, I cherish this last night in the tent. The sound of the stillness, of the wind breathing through the trees, the sound of distant loon calls and, closer, a rabbit scuttling through the bush. These sounds all seep deep into my being as I drift off to sleep.
Day 15, Sept 5, Smoothwater L, Lady Dufferin L, Montreal R, Home
This morning was a visual symphony. The land, hills, water and trees providing a grounding harmony which gave depth to the melody of the misty sunrise. As we paddle toward our car and home the last scraps of steam are clinging to shadowy corners of the river. I keep glancing back over my shoulder to see the edges of saw-toothed ridges receding, one made distinct against the next by valley’s filled with mist.
And just like that our journey was over. The journey was over but the memories remain.
“It had nothing to do with gear or footwear or the backpacking fads or philosophies of any particular era or even with getting from point A to point B. It had to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles with no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way.”
― Cheryl Strayed,