Canoeing North of the Magnetawan
Dave and Helen Damouth
August 7-14, 1991
Closed loop canoe trips which are deserted in August, within a day's drive of Rochester, NY, and in attractive wild country are rather rare. I would have said nonexistent, but then we read about such a place in a recent issue of Paddler Magazine (the successor to Canoesport Magazine). Since we had a free week in mid-August, had neglected to do any advance planning, and needed a change from Algonquin and Killarney, we decided to try it. The authors of the article apparently weren't anxious to see hordes of people stampeding into this relatively undiscovered spot, and provided almost no directions. There are no government route maps, no guidebooks, no obvious and easy access, and therefore almost no people.
The article described (sort of) an ambitious trip starting and ending on Wahwashkesh Lake, (about an hour's drive northeast of Parry Sound) heading north then west through Island L., Kelsie L., John L., Noganosh L.; Then north through Smoky L. and Smoky Cr. to the Pickerel R. Then 10 km. east along the Pickerel R., and south through Arthur L., Bass L., Clear L., Long L., Otter L., Rat L., and back to Island L. Several of the portages appeared very long, and some of the portage locations were rather speculative.
Armed only with the Paddler article (a few mentions of lake names and portages, interspersed in a couple of pages of interesting background and historical information about the region), and the addresses of a few map dealers gleaned from the Toronto Yellow Pages, we left Rochester at 11:20 AM.
Wednesday, August 7. We stopped at Open Air Books and Maps, 25 Toronto Street, in the heart of Toronto. We bought the topo maps we needed, bought several other neat books that we hadn't seen on our side of the border, ran out of time, and vowed to spend much more time there on our next Toronto trip. The entire store is travel and wilderness books and maps - including books of Canadian canoe routes that I didn't know existed.
Then we grabbed an excellent hamburger at the Muddy York and stopped at the Tilley Endurables store to inspect the famous Tilley hat. Helen and I each bought a T3, but that's another story. By this time it was 6 PM, and we joined the rush hour traffic and headed up highway 400 - 75 mph in the slow lane, being passed by two more lanes of faster traffic. We got to Parry Sound in time for dinner, a couple of hours of poring over the maps, and a good night's sleep. Next morning, we stopped by the Ministry of Natural Resources office to pick up whatever additional information was available. They had a few sketch maps of popular canoe routes (mostly on the big rivers). We spoke to the guy responsible for dams and water levels for the region, who confirmed that the water was unusually low. He said most of the lakes were perhaps a foot below their normal August levels. This wasn't as bad as we had feared, so we set off.
We arrived at what appeared to be a public dock at the foot of Bennett's Bay, on Wahwashkesh Lake, and finally got sorted out and on the water at 12:35. This lake is huge and convoluted, and has many impressive camps scattered along the shoreline and on the islands. Public access by road seems to be limited to this one spot, where there is a small marina, a government-maintained dock, and a lot of cars parked casually in the woods.
Powerboat traffic was fairly heavy here as families headed out to their camps with heavy loads of supplies, or returned, toting empty propane tanks for exchange. But a kilometer or so north, we rounded Grave's Point and the traffic thinned out to become almost unnoticeable. Another 3.5 km. of paddling through a confusing maze of islands brought us to the Magnetawan River outlet, and just to the north, the Cramadog Creek inlet. (Anyone want to speculate on the origin of that name?)
Three moderate portages (perhaps 150 meters each), several beaver dam pullovers, and several kilometers of paddling up a narrow, twisty pretty creek brought us to the inlet from Farm Creek. Farm Creek looked like about 3 km on the map. It was actually much further since much of it was one oxbow curve after another, punctuated by beaver dams, some of which were too high to pull over. We often verbally abuse the beavers for building these obstacles, without realizing that there wouldn't be enough water to paddle without these dams to hold it back. Finally, at 5:20, the water ran out. We felt quite lucky to have gotten this far in a dry season, and were happy to walk for a while after two and a half hours of difficult twisty paddling, punctuated only by beaver dam pullovers.
We saw no signs of a marked portage, and walked up the streambed, sometimes in shallow pools and sometimes scrambling over dry rock. Occasionally, I could float the canoe through a pool, walking beside it, but none were big enough to paddle. I doubt if much of this is canoeable even at high water, since the elevation change is significant. Twenty minutes of walking brought us to Island Lake. So far, the obvious route had turned out to be the right one. The portages, except for the last, had been used often enough to be easy to follow, and had started at logical, easy-to-find spots. We quickly found a pleasant campsite on Island L. A couple of cabins are visible on the north shore, about 1.5 km. away. There is no road access to this lake, which is about 5 km. in its longest dimension, with many islands and a convoluted shore. The materials for the cabins must have been flown in, or perhaps floated up the creek at spring high water. We saw float planes fly over several times a day: it seems to be the standard form of transportation in this region.
Shortly after we set up, two old codgers arrived, rowing a heavy wooden boat. They informed us we were the only folks on the lake, and gave us a couple of armloads of dry firewood they had picked up along the shore somewhere. We're still speculating on their motives. Did they expect to get paid? Invited to dinner? Just lonely and wanted conversation? Or were they hoping that we'd brought a case or two of beer? Considering what happened over the next few days, we should, in retrospect have invited them for a snack and quizzed them about the portages ahead of us. But we were tired, hungry, and looking forward to our charcoal grilled steaks and a flask of good wine (a first night tradition on our trips).
We were only a few days from the Perseid meteor showers (peaking Aug. 12-13), and we looked forward to a lot of star watching. Indeed, we had several perfectly clear nights, and two of our campsites had nearby open rocky areas which provided a panoramic view of the incredibly bright stars. We saw many small meteors, and one with a bright tail that stretched across 30 degrees of sky and lasted a couple of seconds. There are a startling number of satellites up there - often two visible at once. There is a satellite in a polar orbit which is apparently tumbling. The brightness varies dramatically - a brilliant flash every 10 seconds or so, with dimmer flashes and occasionally continuous illumination in-between. Anyone know what it is?
Next morning, we were on the water by 9:30 and headed to the northwest end of Island Lake, where we hoped there would be some evidence of a portage to Kelsie L. Again, the lake is a confusing collection of many bays, peninsulas, and islands - delightful paddling. The forest is predominantly white pine throughout this whole region, logged about 1890 and apparently untouched since then. Coming up Farm and Cramadog Creeks, we could occasionally see the remains of large logs with sawn ends, apparently preserved underwater for 100 years. These tiny creeks floated millions of board feet of lumber down to the Magnetawan and then to Georgian Bay. It's hard to reconcile the tiny placid creeks we canoed in August with the raging spring floods that would be needed to move large logs through the many kilometers of twisting channels.
After 6 km of pleasant lake paddling, we found the spot where, judging from the map, Island L. most closely approached Kelsie L. and started looking for a portage. Almost immediately, we found signs of a trail that seemed to head in the right direction. It was quite faint in the bracken near the lake, but more distinct as we moved inland. It was marked only by occasional rock cairns, but had been used enough to leave a noticeable tail on the ground in most places. I was too busy with keeping track of the trail to measure the length, but the map suggests about 1 km, which is consistent with the 45 minutes of elapsed time, taking in to account the several pauses and detours in the poorly marked spots.
The end of the portage at Kelsie L. was marked by the skeleton of an old wooden rowboat. About 50 feet or so west, three light aluminum rowboats were stored among the trees. Near the boats were a fire ring and a neat pile of several cases of empty beer cans. We saw no cabins and no regularly used campsites, and concluded that some of the people from the camps on Island Lake occasionally walked the portage for a day of fishing. A couple of kilometers of paddling brought us to the other end of Kelsie Lake, and a brief search at the logical spot identified a faint trail which we hoped would lead west into John Lake.
At first, pushing through the brush and ferns near the lake, we were afraid we were following one of the many game trails, but after 100 M. or so, we broke through to an open meadow, and climbing to the west, soon saw a rock cairn. At least we were on a human trail. We climbed a gentle hill to a plateau and saw several more cairns, pointing the way off to the northwest through more relatively open meadow. Twenty minutes later, as I came over a small rise, I saw motion ahead of me and stopped abruptly, as a large black shape rose out of the brush 30 meters or so ahead of me. I gently set the canoe down, and backpedaled down the hill to intercept Helen. We came back up and watched a black bear systematically pulling down branches of a scrubby choke cherry tree and gobbling bunches of berries, right alongside our trail. It seemed completely unaware of us (we were down wind) and showed no signs of leaving. After a while, we began to look around for possible detours, seeing nothing promising. I got tired of the show, walked out into clear view, and clapped my hands. The bear stood up, peering intently in our direction. I waved my arms and clapped again. The bear immediately turned around and bounced leisurely off away from us.
I had read that bears have poor eyesight, but this was the first time I had been close enough to one to believe it. It also confirmed that humans are scarce here, and probably mostly hunters, so that we were viewed as predators rather than food sources. This was somewhat comforting, but we were still very careful with our food hygiene and our nighttime bear bags for the rest of the trip. Subsequently, I saw other evidence of an active bear population: many of the fruit trees had broken branches; many of the rocks, some of them larger than I could move, had been freshly turned over in the bear's search for the juicy things that live under them.
There were extensive, quite open, meadows running primarily east-west through this area. Near the meadows, the predominate tree was often jack pine and the trees were all about the same age. We concluded that we were seeing the results of a forest fire, perhaps 40 years earlier.
We continued walking. In the meadows, the trail was marked by cairns but otherwise was invisible. In the woods, the trail was blazed - blazed in the original meaning of the word, by slicing off an axe-width of bark from each side of a tree along the trail. The blazes had been renewed at various times, the oldest overgrown, weathered, and barely visible; the newest showing fairly visible white wood. A little further along, we began to see the blazes augmented occasionally by little red-and-white plastic arrows nailed to the trees, printed with an advertisement for a snowmobile repair company. Further yet, these were augmented by occasional lengths of faded red plastic blazing tape.
We walked, and walked, and walked, occasionally losing the trail and backtracking to find it. We did a tightrope walk across the lip of a steep-sided beaver dam. We waded a small swamp below another beaver dam. We reached John Lake, only to realize that it was much too small to be John Lake and was just an un-named pond in the woods. We walked some more, now mostly to the south. There's nothing to the south on the map except miles and miles of forest. Finally, at 6:41, the light was fading and we'd seen no signs of a lake. We hadn't paid much attention to the details of distance and direction, since we thought that the only logical destination of the trail was John Lake. Obviously (by hindsight), this was a mistake and a misconception. We may have been following a snowmobile trail which looped back to Island L., or perhaps simply a trail to some guy's favorite deer hunting spot.
Heavy clouds have moved in. Thunder has been rumbling in the distance for some time, and is getting much closer. I'm probably carrying about 100 pounds between the canoe and the pack. Helen's pack is probably close to 60 pounds, and we're about done in. We've emptied all three canteens in five hours of hot sweaty walking. At this point, we had an attack of discretion, and backtracked half an hour to a stream we had crossed, where a beaver dam and pond provided water. Caution paid off!. We hurriedly pitched the tent, built a fire, boiled some drinking water, heated a freeze-dried meal, hung the food, and dove into the tent just as the thunderstorm arrived.
Next morning, we ate breakfast and broke camp under a heavy overcast sky, studied the map, and decided we were several kilometers beyond any conceivable distance to our lake. Since we hadn't been recording compass bearings of distances coming in, we were thoroughly lost. The total elevation change in this entire region is about 100 feet from lake level to the highest hilltops, so the map contours provided little help. My initial estimate, based on guesses about yesterday's route, could only place us within about plus or minus three kilometers.
This uncertainty, coupled with the numerous swamps indicated on the map, and the one kilometer length of the lake we were searching for, left us little option but to backtrack our trail. So we began to backtrack - easier said than done. This trail had been blazed by people going in, and was much less visible coming out, so we frequently had to drop the canoe and packs and scout around for the next marker. We broke out our emergency whistles, and several times got far enough from our packs and from each other to verify that a whistle sound carries much further than a shout. We were glad that we had agreed on whistle signals.
Even so, we nearly panicked at one point when we realized that we had explored out so far from our packs and canoe that we weren't sure we could find our way back to them. And the packs couldn't whistle at us. (Hmmmm - you know those little gadgets that attach to your key chain for finding your car in a large parking lot? You push a button and the car horn blows? Now if I attached one of those gadgets to the canoe ). Spending a few nights without our equipment didn't sound like fun. And swimming back to the car sounded like even less fun. And no one had any idea where we were (we didn't know ourselves where we would be going when we left home.)
I'm not sure if it was skill or luck, but we climbed a little hill and saw, on another little hill across a beaver pond, our brightly colored packs and canoe. Our initial reaction when we saw them was "Hey! There's another camper out here - let's go ask him where we are."
At 1:30, after 3 1/2 hours of backpacking, we found a place where the red blazing tapes diverged from the red and white arrows. The tapes headed west while the arrows continued back to the northeast, the way we originally came. We had missed this divergence coming in, and we almost certainly had now discovered our error. We debated on following the tapes west, but had lost almost two days of time, a lot of energy, and still weren't really sure where we were. Again, discretion won, and we continued backtracking, often losing time searching for the nearly invisible trail. At 6:10, we're at a pond. I had found a chain of cairns and followed them, only to have them fade out in the middle of nowhere. They clearly aren't the ones we followed coming in. Who built them? Why?
It had been raining on and off all day, the clouds were heavy, the light was fading, and we still weren't sure where we were. We had been searching for the continuation of the trail in this area for three hours without success. It was time to quit and make camp. The rain stopped, so we took the time to cook a good meal: wild rice, tiny dried shrimp, mushrooms, ginger. Good stuff!
Next morning, it was still overcast but not raining. We ate, broke camp, and explored off in another direction, using some overnight inspiration. Suddenly, we found recognizable landmarks, and then the broken remains of a red plastic arrow. We're back on the trail. An hour of walking brought us back to the high meadow within view of Kelsie Lake. Again, it became a one way trail, invisible while backtracking, and it took another hour to find the way through the woods and brush to the lake. We loaded the canoe, explored the shore for a campsite, and set up camp around noon. The clouds were gone, the sun bright, and we strung clothesline, hung out everything to dry, and went for a swim to soothe sore muscles and wash off two days of swamp gunk and sweat.
A rocky promontory at our campsite had a fire ring on it. But the rocks were covered with lichens and the ashes in the center had long since been overgrown with a thick layer of moss. We hated to disturb it. People are very scarce around here!
After a long swim, we inventoried our injuries. Our legs documented the folly of bushwhacking through miles of blackberry-infested meadows in shorts. It was far too hot to wear long pants. I'm not sure what the solution is! Other than the mass of scratches from mid-thigh to ankle, (and very tired muscles) we're in pretty good shape. Well-broken-in shoes have saved us from blisters in spite of 10 miles or so of bushwhacking with canoe and heavy packs. We loafed and enjoyed the sun for the afternoon, cooked a good dinner, and spent a long brilliantly clear evening watching stars, meteors, and satellites.
Kelsie lake is very pleasant. Next morning, we rose leisurely and decided to spend another lazy day. In the afternoon, we launched the canoe and circumnavigated the lake. Several of the points have old fire rings. All are moss and lichen covered, and so haven't been used for years. Each of the lakes we have seen has more exposed rock than is typical in Algonquin, making quite varied and attractive scenery. Much of the rock is heavily faulted and folded, creating endlessly varying patterns of rock grain and different colored inclusions.
Evenings and early mornings, I occasionally heard an unfamiliar noise in the woods to the west. It was sort of half dog bark and half lion roar. What does a bear sound like? Several times, we heard float planes passing over a mile or two away, but there were no other signs of civilization.
Near the water among the rocks at our campsite, a patch of soil was torn up and scattered, and many shells of turtle eggs were scattered around. It looks like something dug up and ate the eggs before the turtles hatched. The Paddler article mentioned seeing a giant snapping turtle in one of the creeks. The chipmunks and squirrels are afraid of us and keep their distance: another sign that tourists are rare!
We had yet another crisp clear evening and stayed up late star-gazing. During the night, something splashed and scrabbled at the edge of the lake. Next morning, we awoke early and decided to make a long day of it and go all the way back to the car. We were on the water by 7:45, and at 9:35 were back in Island L., passing Yogi Point and enjoying a "concert" by a half a dozen loons. Perhaps they are already gathering into their migratory flocks to head south. While walking Farm Creek, we saw blue plastic and aluminum canoe-scrape marks on the rocks eighteen inches above the current water level. It's indeed a dry summer.
We arrived back at the dock on Wahwashkesh L. at 3:38, and were packed up and driving by 4:07. We found a motel and good restaurant in Parry Sound, and spent the night in luxury, driving back to Rochester the next day.
Afterthoughts: The contrast between heavily used supervised "wilderness" as found in Algonquin or Killarney or the Boundary Waters, and the relatively unused unsupervised "wilderness" of these crown lands is interesting: Algonquin, for example, can feel wilder than the country we've been in, even though it is far more populated. This is because of the intense indoctrination in low-impact camping to which Algonquin users are subjected, backed up by cleanup crews who keep the area relatively pristine.
Kelsie L., in contrast, might not have had an overnight visitor this year (we visited perhaps half of the likely campsites, and these appeared unused for at least a year.) But the people who do visit are the old-timers, with high-impact habits. We saw a few tin cans, most of them ancient, because no one had an incentive to pack them out (we thought about taking some out ourselves, but it was a long way back). We saw a pile of recent beer cans near the fishing boats. In other areas like this, we have in the past seen signs of saplings recently cut to make tent poles, hemlock branches cut to make mattresses, nails driven into trees to make convenient pot hangers, etc.
The absence of rules works both ways. We enjoyed having whole lakes and dozens of campsite choices all to ourselves, with no concern over reservations and quotas. We resented the leavings of previous campers who had played by different rules, and we missed having paid crews of park employees to clean up after them. Also, floatplanes are banned from designated wilderness, so that in the interior of the parks, we can count on seeing only people who have expended just as much physical energy as we have in order to get there.
All things considered, this area has a lot to recommend it, and we'll certainly go back. There is a large loop circuit to complete, and many more lakes even further from civilization.
We also learned a bit more about wilderness navigation and self-sufficiency. It's a bit disconcerting to travel for several days without even one signpost proclaiming where you are.
A response from Peter G. Odell on 30 Aug 91:
Welcome back. Sounds like you had quite the little adventure. I pulled out my topos of the area to follow your route. The Magnetawan River, both above and below Wahwashkesh, is a popular whitewater route so I am familiar with the general area though not your route. It is gorgeous country.
I have some thoughts re your report. First off, Open Air (Adelaide and Toronto St.) is a neat place, a couple of blocks south are the two major Toronto outfitters, Trail Head on Wellington and opposite it, across a little parkette, is Mountain Equipment Coop (on Front). If you already have a parking spot and are an equipment freak, what the heck.
It sounds like you parked at a private marina at Bennet's Bay. The public dock is on Indian Narrows. Just as you come to where all the cars are parked among the trees there is a road to the left, once you are on it there is a sign telling you it goes to the public dock (helpful?). This is important since there is an MNR map of canoe routes in the area showing the public dock on the water and I for one have parked where you did for a shuttle and then paddled back to the other dock, it is only a kilometer or so walk, but it's the principle.
I was surprised that you got up Farm Creek as easily as you did. A variation on your route might be to descend the Mag to Trout Lake and then go north via Sinclair or Portage Lakes. I don't know about leaving the Mag, but this section of the river is gorgeous and if you have never seen Canal Rapids it is worth a detour. Mid September is particularly nice for the scenery. Shame about the portage to John Lake, what you didn't tell the folks on the DL is that once you hit John Lake you had miles and miles of easy paddling.
Although the route back down from the Pickerel River to Island Lake looks tenuous. I am fond of explanations (read excuses) when things don't go exactly as planned. The forest on the north side of Wahwashkesh was heavily defoliated by caterpillars a year or two ago (this is true), loss of tree cover would lead to thicker growth of underbrush obscuring little used trails. Personally, I think this has a nice logical ring to it, and having had a similar experience in Temogami, I sympathize.