Paddling The Albany River (From the Mouth of the Misehkow to Petawanga Lake)

Snake Falls on the Albany River

Eskakwa Falls on the Albany River

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Our 2013 Wabakimi area canoe trip was a 350-kilometer paddle around the edge of Wabakimi Provincial Park, beginning with a 100-kilometer ride down the Misehkow River , then going with the flow of the Albany River to Petawanga Lake, and finally heading south via Petawa Creek and up a couple of river systems towards Pikitigushi Lake. The first five days of our trip are described in Canoeing Wabakimi’s Misehkow River. This second post will take a look at the Albany stretch of our trip. The map below  shows our four campsite locations made during our down-the-Albany paddle.  This section of our canoe trip was memorable for the four sets of impressive waterfalls that we got to experience.

The Albany River section of our canoe trip

The Albany River section of our canoe trip

Day Five (continued):  down the Albany River From The Mouth of the Misehkow to the “Birchview” Camp 

distance: 8 kilometers from the Misehkow/Albany junction

weather: sunny with a bit of headwind

portages: 0

As mentioned in the post on the Misehkow, we were on the Albany before I even realized it.  Given the sometimes-dramatic descriptions of the series of swifts in the two kilometers before the Misehkow River merges with the Albany, I was expecting more.  Perhaps higher or lower water levels would have given me what I was looking for!  So there we were at noon on the historic Albany River, once a major fur-trading route from James Bay. These days it is but a shadow of its former self, given the impact of major water diversion projects at various points along its length. Still, Ontario’s longest river has much more of a flow than the Misehkow – it is wider and has a less-enclosed feel to it. The following two images capture some of the difference:

dusk on the Misehkow below the rapids Day Four camp

dusk on the Misehkow River from below the rapids – our Day Four camp

the floodplains of the Albany River below the mouth of the Misehkow

the floodplain of the Albany River below the mouth of the Misehkow

We stopped for lunch two kilometers later on the north banks of the Albany and then continued on for another two hours of paddling before pulling in at the site pictured above. A bit of work and we had created a decent albeit completely open-to-the-elements spot for our Four-Person MEC Wanderer tent.  We called it the Birchview because of the stand of trees on the other  side of the river that we got to contemplate for the evening -

the view of the stand of birch trees on the Albany

the view of the stand of birch trees on the Albany

Day Six: The Day of the Falls – From the Birchview to Snake Falls Campsite distance: 29 km weather: sunny portages: 3

Day six- the Albany River from Birchview to Snake Falls

Day Six -  the Albany River from Birchview to Snake Falls

On the water at 8:30, we came to the first set of swifts about one kilometer into the day; there would be more as we made our way down to our first portage.  At times they doubled our usual travelling speed!  By ten when we stopped to stretch our legs on a striking volcanic rock dome on the side of the river at the bottom of one of these swifts, we had already covered thirteen kilometers!  While we sipped on the Gatorade-flavoured Albany Nouveau from the Nalgene bottle and munched on the Clifbars, we watched a plane overhead on its way to the landing strips at Miminiska or Fort Hope – a rare reminder that we were not alone in Wabakimi.

A couple of kilometers south of our rest spot, we ran a very easy set of rapids and then headed for Upper Eskakwa Falls, the first of three falls that we would portage around this day. The 330-meter portage trail was easy to find; it begins fairly close to the falls on river right (N51°28.729   W088°  58.205).  An awkward take-out with a bit of a bank to hoist the packs and canoe to the top of and then the trail, showing signs of occasional use, runs through a large tenting area with room for four or five tents. The put-in is another twenty-five meters further. We stopped here for lunch, sitting on the logs by the fire pit.

the view from Upper Eskakwa Falls campsite

the view from Upper Eskakwa Falls campsite

Immediately on leaving the put-in at  Upper Eskakwa Falls we faced a choppy but easy stretch of water which we figured was Class 1 but could become somewhat more worrisome with more or less water. And then it was on the next portage of the day – that of Eskakwa Falls.  This time we would be heading to river left for the trailhead and take-out point. Again,the 150-meter portage trail was easy to find and showed signs of use. Paddling down a set of swifts we got out just before the falls on river left and about an hour after having left our lunch spot we were at the put-in below Eskakwa Falls.  A small fire pit and a potential make-do tent site would make this a possible campsite, though we did see a couple of better tent sites nestled in the stands of spruce  between the trail and the river as we walked the gear across.

Eskakwa Falls from the put-in

Eskakwa Falls from the put-in

We did make one excellent decision at the put-in point.  We decided to slow down for a bit and pull out the too-precious-to-be-out-during the day cameras from the Watershed duffel.  Had we not done so we would not have had any pix of perhaps the most scenic falls of our entire route.  (Usually I just content myself with using a Canon Elph p&s for daytime pix but I would lose it and 250 images of our progress a few days later.) As it is, Eskakwa Falls lends itself perfectly to scampering and rock hopping. You can walk along the side of the river almost all the way back to the top of the falls and feel the energy of the tumbling water as you inhale the mist.

Max looking down the last bit of Eskakwa Falls

Max looking down the last bit of Eskakwa Falls

looking up river  at the top of Eskakwa Falls

looking up river at the top of Eskakwa Falls

Max going long on the banks of the Albany at Eskakwa Falls

Max going long on the banks of the Albany at Eskakwa Falls

looking down river at the top of Eskakwa Falls

looking down river at the top of Eskakwa Falls

By mid-afternoon it was clear that a new weather system was moving in; it was already clouding up.  Since there wasn’t really a great campsite at Eskakwa Falls, we decided to push on to Snake Falls, thanks to reports of a scenic campsite there.  In about thirty minutes we had paddled down the Albany to the take out spot and in another hour had the short portage done and the tent up.  The campsite is 30 meters above the put-in spot and is accessed by a side trail just before you start descending somewhat steeply to the shore.

Up to this point in the trip, this site was definitely the best – the tent nicely sheltered in the bush, a great cooking/lounge area on the top of a rock outcrop that slopes down to the put in spot, and easy access to views of the falls themselves. We would get a bit of rain during the late afternoon and evening. The tent and the 10′x14′ tarp were up pretty quickly to keep everything and everyone nice and dry.

looking down the Albany River at the bottom of Snake Falls

looking down the Albany River at the bottom of Snake Falls

Day Seven: From Snake Falls to Miminiska Lake Wind Camp distance: 18 km weather: a grey day with noticeable NW wind which got increasingly worse portages: 0

Day Seven- Snake Falls to Miminiska Lake Wind Camp

Day Seven – Snake Falls to Miminiska Lake Wind Camp

We were on the water by 9 and headed down river; on the way we passed a rocky point  (N51 32.924  W88  50.626) with a fire pit and room for a tent or two. It would be okay in a pinch.  We continued on towards Miminiska Lake. (Minis is the Ojibwe word for island; perhaps it is at the root of the word’s meaning, given the number of islands at the east end of the lake?)  The wind from the NW had already picked up and  we could feel the effects as we paddled north and then east towards the big open section of Miminiska Lake. (The lake is divided into two by the massive peninsula – almost an island – that you see on the map above.)

Continuing toward Miminiska we headed east into a side wind and then up Howells Lake to visit the Cree burial ground on the lake’s east side.  (See the map above for the reported location.)  We walked along the shore and checked out various possible trails and even stood on top of the hill in the general area of the supposed site. I had pictured a burial site something like the one I remember visiting on the banks of the Yukon River in the late-1970′s – small 4′  high spirit houses enclosed with 2′ high picket fences.

Unfortunately, we were not rewarded for our effort! We saw no evidence of human activity and figured the entire site must have been forgotten and overgrown over the years.  The burial site was probably connected with the Anglican chapel located on an island on the other side of the lake.  Its services likely stopped – and visits to the burial site too – when the community it served moved to Fort Hope or down to the CN tracks by Armstrong or Collins. On the beach near the supposed burial ground we picked up an large eagle feather. Over the years we have come to see the presence of eagles above as a sign that we are being watched over.  We took the feather  as a good omen and positioned it at the front of the canoe as we headed back to the Albany River. For the first time that day we paddled with the wind as we made our way to Miminiska Lake.

Miminiska Lake Wind Camp

Miminiska Lake Wind Camp

By the time we got the beginning of the lake the wind had picked up even more and made paddling a scary proposition.  I must compliment the stern paddler for his skill at hitting the 2′ + waves at just the right angle.  I was relieved when we hit a sandy stretch of shore – a veritable beach that just needed some sun umbrellas and deck chairs to look like Carib North.  It was just before 1 p.m. but, given the strong wind and the waves, we decided that the day was done.  Amazingly, we found a flat and fairly sheltered 15′x20′ area just in from the beach behind a stand of 40′ high white spruce and poplar.  Fifteen minutes of site rehabilitation and the use of the canoe as an additional wind screen and we were all set.

Miminiska Lake west end Wind Camp

Miminiska Lake west end Wind Camp

Miminiska Lake beach

Miminiska Lake beach

golden sunset on Miminiska Lake

sunset on Miminiska Lake

sunset on Miminiska Lake – red sky at night…a good omen for the next day?

Day Eight: From Miminiska Wind Camp to Petawanga Lake near Petawa Creek distance: 29 km weather: sunny; NW wind picked up as the day unfolded portages: 1

Day Eight- The Albany from Miminiska to Petawanga

Day Eight- The Albany from Miminiska to Petawanga

We got up a bit earlier this morning – 6:30 – and also got on the water without having breakfast. There was little wind and the water was much calmer than it had been the previous afternoon and evening.  By 9:00 we were about 10 kilometers further along having  that needed cup of freshly filtered coffee and our usual oatmeal concoction on a small island.  We nicknamed it  Picnic Island thanks to the tables we found. We figured it is probably used by the folks of nearby Miminiska Lodge as a lunchtime fish-fry spot.  We were fully expecting to see or hear lodge guests in fishing boats as we paddled towards the falls – but nobody home.

The Lodge itself is up at the north end of the lake; the original plan had been to paddle up there to say hello and have a look around. (Click here for info on the lodge and a great photo of their landing strip setup.)  We had also planned to check out the Anglican chapel (named St. Andrew’s and operational from 1895 to1959) on the small island on the way up there.  Unfortunately the NW wind made paddling the five kilometres  a very unattractive proposition – so we decided to give it a pass.

We were also to pass on the chance to do the 850-meter portage with the take-out point on river/lake right just behind the small island. (See the above map for details.)  Our assumption was that the portage is really meant for upriver travellers who want to avoid the swifts below the falls, as well as the falls themselves. Instead, we headed towards the falls. As we approached we first had to deal with a set of swifts. Below them on river left just above the falls is the beginning of a short 100-meter portage.  The trail takes you around the ten-meter drop of Miminiska Falls.  It showed signs of recent use; laid along its length at regular intervals were logs that it seems motor boats had been hauled and rolled over. The falls themselves were quite scenic – as always, it was a rush to stand next to them and inhale the ion-enriched air. It sure beat hoofing the 850-meter portage on the other side!

Once at the put-in we looked down at a series of swifts that promised a nice ride.  Glancing down at our Garmin unit a few minutes later in the middle of one of them we noted a speed of 14 kilometres/hour!  The water level was ideal – enough but not too much. It was not low enough to be a rock garden or high enough to turn the ride into something snarly. Before continuing downriver we did a brief detour to the put-in point of the long portage that we had avoided.  Sitting there were a couple of motor boats ready to be used, perhaps by guests of the nearby Miminiska Lodge.

Petawanga Lake Campsites

Petawanga Lake Campsites

A couple of hours later we stopped for lunch on a small island/point just off the south shore of Petawanga Lake and then finished off the day by paddling through the narrow channel that divides the lake into two halves.  On our way we spotted a tin hut tucked in the bush on river right. (N51 29.296   W88  24.654) We checked it out and found a serviceable shelter in pretty good shape; it would make a great emergency refuge on a rainy or stormy day. On the wall was a message left by a fire crew which had been here in 2005 dealing with a 360-hectare burn, the signs of which were still visible as we paddled on to our campsite for the night.  (N51 28.621   W88  23.959)  The Wabakimi Project crew had worked on it the previous summer and Phil Cotton had mentioned it to me during a break at the Canoe Symposium in Waterloo in March.

Day Eight Camp on Petawanga Lake

Day Eight Camp on Petawanga Lake

As with most sites some rehabilitation was necessary to clear blowdown and deadfall. By 4 the tent was up and the water was on the stove; soon we’d be sipping tea and contemplating tomorrow’s adventure – the eleven kilometers of Petawa Creek.  On the plus side was the very word “creek”, which brought up images in my mind of a minor and fairly tame tributary. On the negative side was Chuck Ryan’s description of a day and half spend in canoe trippers’ hell as he and his partner Dave Phillips fought their way up to Auger Lake. As is usually the case, time would reveal all!

the view from our Petawanga Lake front porch

the view from our Petawanga Lake front porch

Like all the other daytime shots I had taken since the beginning of the trip, the ones for this day can be found somewhere at the top of the very same Petawa Creek; I was to lose my camera at the end of the next day and my brother his ‘proverbial’ paddle. The result so far has been a couple of posts with very few pix to illustrate the proceedings.  If you’re still reading, bravo!

Petawanga Lake sunset - one more attempt at getting THE shot just right!

Petawanga Lake sunset – one more attempt at getting THE shot just right!

If you want to continue the adventure, the next instalment of our trip – Up Wabakimi’s Petawa Creek Without A Paddle – can be accessed by clicking o the title.

Useful Links: Ken Kokanie’s web site (click here has all the info a paddler would need to get a handle on the Albany River. His trip report and accompanying 1:50000 annotated maps and even GPS waypoints cover the river from Highway 599 at the Osnaburgh Lake put in all the way to Miminiska Lake. He and his partner had a bush plane pick them up once they reached the Lake; you could continue on to Fort Hope and fly out from there.  You could also do what we did, which was head south  from Petawanga Lake via Petawa Creek to the Attwood and Ogoki River systems. Really, the only limits to alternative routes and possible float plane pick-up spots are how much time and money you have! Whatever you choose to do, you can be sure you will be paddling through an incredible slice of the boreal forest and will probably not see anyone.