A Tale of Three Rivers: Being An Account of a Trip By Canadian Canoe Up the Brightsand and Kashishibog and Down the Kopka

aka: Kopka River Canoe Trip Report – August 2012

oner of our two favourite camp sites on the Kopka River

The Basic Route:

Having already discovered northwestern  Ontario ( and specifically the Wabakimi Park area)  as an incredible paddling destination,  my brother Max and I decided to change the direction this summer. Our put-in spot would still be a VIA Rail stop somewhere along the Canadian National-owned rail line between Armstrong Station and Savant Lake. (You’ll find a good primer on Wabakimi access here.)

Instead of canoeing north from the CN rail tracks  down the Allanwater River (2010)  or Flindt River (2011) towards Wabakimi Lake and Whitewater Lake, we were heading south from the tracks this time. Here’s the trip overview –

Trip overview- from Allan Water Bridge (Aug. 13) to Bukemiga Lake Access Road (Aug. 23)

Trip overview – from Allan Water Bridge (Aug. 13) to Bukemiga Lake Access Road (Aug. 23)

An interactive Google Map view of the 225-kilometer route can be accessed here.

Starting at the Via Rail stop at Allanwater Bridge, we paddled south on the Brightsand and then east on the Kashishibog River system over five days.  This brought us to the beginning of a 500-meter portage into Redsand Lake and the headwaters of the Kopka River. For the next five days we paddled down the Kopka, subjecting our new Swift Dumoine kevlar/carbon fiber canoe to more than a few scrapes and scratches as we tried to negotiate the late-season waters with as much grace and as little effort as possible.

the first set of falls in the Kopka gorge section – one of the highlights of our 11-day trip

The reward: a couple of days of the most stunning combination of river and rock that we have experienced in more than thirty years of paddling in northern Ontario.  Now that awesome feeling of standing above and below the Missinaibi River’s Thunderhouse Falls has some new company. Read on to find out more about what the Kopka has on offer! You’ll find maps, portage info, and pix which should give you a pretty good idea of what the trip involves.

How We Got There:

For the second year in a row, we took the train!  VIA runs The Canadian (the train celebrated on the back of the new Canadian ten-dollar bill) three times a week from Toronto through NW Ontario on its way to Vancouver.  Canoes are welcome on the voyage for a fee of $50.  VIA was having a 60% off seat sale in early July when we bought our tickets so for about $750. we got the two of us and the canoe and packs there and back – not a bad deal considering it is 1800+ km to the starting point!

(Update: In July of 2013 VIA doubled the canoe carrying fee. It is now $100. per train used, no matter how far you travel.  See here for info on the new fee structure.)

our Swift Dumoine on the platform at Toronto’s Union Station

Not wanting to end up at Allanwater Bridge with canoe packs but no canoe to put them in, I hung around the baggage car a bit obsessively waiting for them to load it.  The threat by one of the baggage people to call “security” if I  didn’t  leave the area pronto and get back on the train did put a bit of damper on things, but I did get this picture for my troubles!

our canoe by the baggage car at the foot of the CN Tower

My brother and fellow paddler is less paranoid about these things and eventually let me know that one of the attendants had confirmed that the canoe was indeed on board and that I could relax.

Max and the VIA Canadian at Union Station in Toronto

The 25-hour ride up to Allanwater Bridge was itself uneventful.  The train left Union Station shortly after 10 p.m. The inflatable pillows we brought along were a real plus; sometime during the night we also got out our sleeping bags to use as blankets because the air conditioning was set just a tad low.  We did splurge on both breakfast and dinner in the dining car, in each case being seated next to fellow-travellers with interesting stories to tell.

the breakfast table on VIA 001

A few times the next day the train made brief stops at various stations; nicotine addicts used these stops to light up a cigarette or two. Others rushed to the nearby convenience store to stock up on assorted junk food. We had put together a bag with lunch and snacks back in Toronto, having learned from our first trip the summer before.

VIA stop and smoke break in Hornepayne, Ontario

a view of the VIA train at Hornepayne, Ontario –  note the dome cars!

the dinner menu in VIA’s dining car

Two realizations really help to make the VIA train experience more enjoyable:

  1. accept that prices are going to be a bit high. Bite the bullet and order – what you get is actually very well done and the VIA staff is never anything but pleasant and approachable (well, maybe that baggage guy excepted!);
  2. accept that the train will probably not get to your destination on time – and if it does, take it as a crazy bonus. CN owns the rails; VIA rents access. Count the long string of freight cars as they zip past while your VIA 001 sits on a side rail  – in this world, freight comes before passengers.  We got to Allanwater Bridge around midnight (Eastern Time)- about two hours late. (Somewhere west of Armstrong Station you slip into the Central time zone –  we just stayed on Eastern Daylight Time  for the duration of the trip.)

Overnighting At the Allanwater Lodge:

I had arranged an overnight stay at Allanwater Lodge.  Johnny Jelinski, the co-owner, was there with his ATV and a trailer when the baggage car doors opened; in short order we were loaded and made the 70-meter ride to our home for the night – a cabin that could easily sleep four or six people.  The cost – $50.  We figured that after our full day on the train it was a justifiable final  luxury before we set off for the Kopka.

our cabin at the Jelinksi Lodge at Allanwater Bridge

There had been other paddlers on the train with us –  one party of four actually got off at Armstrong Station to meet up with their outfitter. They would be setting off the next morning on a trip that would include the Kopka from Lake Kenakskassis on down. The other group got on at Armstrong Station and then off at Allanwater Bridge with us. Instead of the rented cabin option (or tenting on the Lodge property for a fee),  they found a clear space on the other side of the tracks from where we had debarked. When I went to see how they had fared the next morning around 8:15 they were all but gone.

a free camping area on the other side of the tracks from the Allanwater Lodge

Well, maybe the camping area was not “free” but it was definitely available. And maybe not “legal” either but then who will be checking at 2:00 a.m.?

the CN sign warning to stay clear of the tracks –  the last of the campers packs up

Day One: From Allanwater Lodge to a small island camp in the narrows just south of Antler Lake

Until we got to Redsand Lake the primary map set we worked with was the one from Laurence Mills at wabakimimaps.com.  It provided the info we needed for portages and potential campsites as we made our way up the Brightsand and Kashishibog Rivers to the Kopka,  Once we got to the Kopka headwaters, we supplemented Mills’ maps with the ones available from Ken Kokanie’s web site.  Also along for the ride were trip reports from iPaddle and Serg88, two posters at the myccr.com web site.  We were definitely not voyageurs paddling into the unknown!  (And given their native guides, neither were the voyageurs!)

  • Distance: 20 km. over 5 1/2 hours
  • Weather: a mixed bag – overcast, cloudy, sunny, gentle wind from the NW
  • Portages: a half-dozen or so. Generally easy to do once found. Deadfall a challenge on a couple of them. Also did a bit of lining where possible.

1. Allanwater Lodge to Antler Lake

During the night three of four freight trains rumbled through Allanwater Bridge but we were pretty tired and didn’t even have the energy to tune into whatever noise they made.  After making use of the cabin’s gas stove to prepare breakfast, we loaded the canoe by the Lodge dock.  Staying there with us the night before was a party of ten guys up from the States for a bit of fishing. They were already out fishing when we got our act together and on the water at 9:30.

the adventure begins at the dock of the Jelinskis’ Allanwater Lodge

As we paddled south on McEwan Lake we spotted the first of many eagles that we would see during our trip.  We always take this is a good omen, imagining that Animiki, the powerful Thunderbird of Anishinaabe myth,  is keeping a close and caring watch over us as we glide through his world!   If nothing else, it is a clue that we’re paddling somewhere approaching wilderness, which is never a bad thing!

our canoe waiting to be carried at the beginning of the first portage

For the first five days we didn’t have to worry about running rapids of any class, given that we were going upriver.  We lined (apparently the correct term is “tracking” when you’re heading upriver) when we could and portaged when we had to.  All in all, it wasn’t that big a deal and the paddling was quite enjoyable.

lining our canoe past some turbulence on the Brightsand River

We initially had two fifty-foot lengths of rope on the canoe for lining purposes.  After the first couple of lining jobs we agreed that 50′ was way too much and ended up putting one rope away and cutting the other in half.  This worked out much better.

time for the Mr. Canoehead jig step –  deadfall on the portage trail on Day One

portaging over some deadfall

We got to our tent site at about 3, having spent 5 1/2 hours paddling and portaging.  Les, a paddler in one of the other canoe parties on the train, had proposed 4 km per hour as the typical speed that most groups average out to.  We had a chuckle when we did the math at the end of the day. Les’ Theorem worked!

island camp in the narrows to the south of Antler Lake –  used by nearby lodges for fishing groups

We picked an island in the narrows just south of Antler Lake as our Day One campsite.  It would be the first of three islands in a row as we made our way to the Kopka headwaters at Redsand Lake.

Antler Lake/Brightsand River Day One Island Camp

Day Two: From island camp in the narrows just south of Antler Lake to island camp at north end of Harmon Lake

  • Distance: 21 km. over 5 1/2 hours
  • Weather: sunny and very hot with a gentle wind from the NW
  • Portages: 5 with a bit of lining thrown in

Day Two’s route from south of Antler Lake to Harmon Lake

3. Wapikaimaski Lake to Harmon Lake

rapids on the Brightsand River south of Antler Lake

the passing view from the portage trail along the Brightsand River

another set of rapids on the Brightsand south of Antler lake

paddling up still waters on the Brightsand River

third time lucky –  a guide and two clients motorboating up a set of rapids on the Brightsand River after failing to make it on their first two attempts

As we paddled to the north end of Harmon Lake, we met in one thirty-minute period all the people we would see for a while – five motor boats with two or three people in each.  The fishing was great, they told us as we paddled by.  The next time we saw anyone was eight days later on the far side of the Seven Sisters section of the Kopka below the third set of waterfalls.

We contented ourselves with day after day of eagles, hawks, ravens, loons, ducks and assorted water’s edge life like otters and beavers. Not seen at all were caribou, moose, or bear.  Camp visitors were limited to the occasional chipmunks.  Most evenings we hauled our food pack 10 feet up some tree branch (although I must admit that it sometimes seems like something we do just because we have always done it).

ripples up ahead – Brightsand River view

the bottom of our new canoe at the end of Day Two

An expected but still painful experience was seeing the growing collection of scratches and scrapes on our brand-new kevlar canoe.  Perhaps an earlier trip date may have resulted in less contact with the just-not-quite-submerged-enough rocks we almost slid over. As we paddled those first couple of days, I saw a newspaper headline in my mind –  Geologists Find Major New Kevlar Deposits in NW Ontario.

Not too far into the trip we accepted that the experience of being there was worth a lot more than the scrapes that made us wince whenever we flipped the canoe over at the end of the day.  Besides, we now have a little gel coat repair project this winter as we get ready to scrape it again.  A massive plus on the portage trail is the 42 lb weight of the canoe. The end section of the infamous Mountain Goat Portage would be (absolutely no lie!) at most a five-minute piece of cake!

tent tucked away on our Day Two Island Camp at the north end of Harmon Lake

We got to our “okay” campsite around 5.  It was a breezy spot with a nice flat rock lounge area.  The tent itself rested on some moss-covered rock; the Thermarest pads (a NeoAir and a Prolite 4) definitely make the ground a non-issue.  Well, almost.  One side of the tent had a bit of a root sticking up and we had to reach under to do some surgery.

front porch Zen view from Harmon Lake Day Two campsite

dusk reflections on Harmon Lake

 

Day Three: From island camp at north end of Harmon Lake to island camp 2 km east of the Graham Road on unnamed lake (part of Kashishibog River system)

  • Distance: 31 km. in 8.5 hours
  • Weather: cloudy but no rain;  a headwind and some nifty waves to deal with
  • Portages: 4 and a bit of lining

towards the south end of Harmon Lake

Our Route for the rest of Day 3 – and for Days 4 and 5 as well

portage trail on the Brightsand River south of Harmon Lake

our canoe in a bay waiting to be portaged

Day Three island camp –  that’s three island camps in a row!

We reached the day’s tent site – another spot used by nearby fishing lodges when doing a camping overnight with their guests? – after some tough afternoon paddling into a SW wind that was whipping up the water.  We misread the portage info taking us across the Graham Road and ended up portaging 200 meters on another trail instead of the 50 or so had we lined up the first stretch of rapids to the bridge.

creaturely comforts of home behind our island campsite

The island campsite had tables and shredded blue tarps were tucked under them. A 30-meter trail led from the fire circle and the camping area to a toilet sitting above an open mound of shit and paper.  It definitely was the backside of the camping experience!

Day Four: From island camp 2 km east of the Graham Road to rough camp on E side of Sparkling Lake (see map above)

  • Distance: 9 km.
  • Weather: very windy with drizzle which came and went; the sun popped out for a minute around 10 and then disappeared for the day.  Some hard rain in the aft and into the evening.
  • Portages: 0

morning wind ripples on the Kashishibog  River

Perhaps if we could do this day over again we’d do it differently.  Instead of paddling along the eastern shore that we ended up on, we’d cling to the western shore in hopes of getting more protection from a very strong SW wind.  As it was, we were definitely shaken by the 1 1/2 feet swells and whitecaps that we needed to cut across to get to where we wanted to.

beached canoe with wind-whipped  water

We finally went with the waves as they pushed us on the sandy shores of a small bay.  We waited for a while, hoping that things would settle down but it eventually became clear that the day was over.  Amazingly enough, we found a sheltered-from-the-wind and not-bad flat area for our MEC Wanderer 4 tent (all 8’x 8′ of it) and settled in for the day.  While we hate sitting around we certainly didn’t want to deal with the consequences of sitting in the middle of a wind-whipped lake with an overturned canoe and sunken packs.  The food pack that night was tucked away on the beach some distance from the tent.  We didn’t have a chance to think about canoe scratches this day!

you can barely see it but our tent’s in there!

we see hope in the red sky sunset on the Kashishibog River after a stormy windy day

Day Five: From rough camp on E side of Sparkling Lake to Redsand Lake camp on E point (see map above)

  • Distance: 14.5 km.
  • Weather: more of what day 4 gave us but now with wind from the NW
  • Portages: 3,  including the 500-meter portage into Redsand Lake; other rapids lined

deadfall on the portage on the Kashishibog River west of Redsand Lake

our breakfast spot on Day Four next to a set of scenic waterfalls on the Kashishibog on the way to Redsand Lake

the brothers stop for breakfast  at the end of a portage on the Kashishibog

We left our previous night’s camp by 7 a.m., intent on putting in 10 km or so before  breakfast. We stopped at the top of a scenic set of rapids on the Kashishibog – the last set before the portage into Redsand Lake itself. It was already a bit windy and the canoe acted as a bit of a windscreen as we enjoyed my brother’s favourite filtered  Kenyan AA coffee to wash down the oatmeal/berries/chia seed breakfast concoction we usually have.

Day Five camp on point on south-east corner of Redsand Lake

The 500-meter portage from a small bay on Kashishibog Lake took us into the headwaters of the Kopka River.  From this point on we would be paddling with the current!

Unfortunately, the very strong NW wind presented us with a more immediate challenge –  just getting to the campsite on the east side of the Redsand Lake as you paddle NW from the end of the portage trail.  We dug in hard and after quite the effort (and keen awareness  of the danger) we managed to pull in at the campsite.  Up went the tent; down came the rain. The wind continued to blow hard.  Two rough days in a row and we started to worry about making it to the end point on time if the wind didn’t let up for a day or two.  Up ahead were almost 50 kilometers of mostly lake paddle to do before we got to the north end of Uneven Lake.  A NW wind would make that a real grind.

a visual summary of a windbound day on Redsand lake

 

Day Six: From Redsand Lake camp to camp on W point at N end of Uneven Lake

  • Distance: 47 km.
  • Weather: a sunny day with a NE wind which did not become an issue until we entered the lower (i.e. N) part of Uneven Lake
  • Portages: 1

Day Six –  the first leg of our 47-km paddle to Uneven Lake

Day Six continued…up to Uneven Lake

down river to Day Six camp and onward to Lake Sandison

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We were on the water by 7;  there was little wind and the water was calm compared to its state twelve hours before.  Parts of our early morning paddle seemed almost dreamlike as we made easy progress across cloud-speckled Siess Lake.

Siess Lake waters in the early morning of Day Six

dreamlike early morning waters and reflections on Siess Lake/ the Kopka River

We finally stopped for breakfast about 15 kilometers later on a point half way between Siess and Waterhouse Lakes.  The sun was shining; it felt great to be moving.

getting the filtered coffee ready for our mid-morning breakfast

looking down a narrow stretch of the Kopka- nice paddling on an almost portage-free day

Not having to do a half-dozen portages in a day will definitely increase your kilometer count. We continued on, paddling down Waterhouse Lake, across Gaal Lake, down the southern end of Uneven Lake, and then after a bit of narrow-river paddling,  back to Uneven Lake (the northern piece).  Almost as if to remind us that we were not masters of our own fate, the NW winds made this last stretch “interesting”.  We paddled close to the shore once we crossed the bay with the outpost on it.  (There was no sign of anyone there.) A while later we were at the campsite on the west side of Uneven Lake about three km N of the outpost.

a Nature Burger in waiting?- a wild mushroom on the banks of the Kopka River

Day Six camp on a point at the north end of Uneven Lake

The day was done and we felt great; we had managed to win back our “spare” day for possible future use and the day’s paddling had actually been quite enjoyable, given the closed-in feel of stretches of the river.  We’d be getting even more of that the next day –  with twenty sets of rapids thrown in as a bonus!

Day Seven: From Uneven Lake camp to island of lake just east of Sandison Lake

  • Distance: 24 km. over eight hours
  • Weather: mixed sun and cloud with occasional wind blowing our way
  • Portages: 20 – more or less – with some lining thrown in. After a while it became a blur! You really need a voice recorder to capture impressions and details as they come at you. That way you’d have a fighting chance of getting it right later on.

The previous map has most of Day 7’s route – this map finishes it off and continues with Day 8…

A delightful stretch of the Kopka greeted us this day, different from the 47 km of lake paddle that characterized the previous day.  “Delightful” because until you enter  Sandison Lake you are always aware of both river banks; the scale of things is just right.  It would have been even more agreeable with a bit more water but you take what you get.  I’m glad we didn’t miss out on this part of the Kopka experience.

the view from under the canoe of a stretch of the portage trail on the Kopka River

During the day our shots were usually taken with our p&s cameras (my bro’s Sony H2 and my Canon Elph 100).  Before we packed up in the morning and after the tent went up in the afternoon, the DSLRs and the tripod came out. As I pulled out my little Canon from my shirt pocket for the above shot it slipped out of my hand and down between the rocks I was finding my way across.  An impromptu squat was in order before I got to return to framing the shot I had in mind.

looking back at one of the 20 sets of rapids on the Uneven Lake -Sandison lake Stretch of the Kopka

yet another set of the 20 Kopka rapids between Uneven Lake and Sandison Lake

Day Seven island camp on the unnamed lake just to the east of Sandison Lake

We stopped for the night a couple of portages east of Sandison Lake.  The campsite was on the NW point of an island on the small lake.  A bit of site rehabilitation was required – eg. clearing of deadfall.  Below the tent site was a small bay and behind us a lot of deadfall. At my insistence the food bag – getting lighter every day by 4 pounds! – went up again for the night.

our food pack about ten feet up – the nightly ritual

 

Day Eight: From camp on island of the lake just east of Sandison Lake to the waterfalls camp at top end of a 50-meter portage (see map above for route)

  • Distance: 17 km.
  • Weather: mostly sunny with the wind not an issue
  • Portages: a half-dozen, including one of 400 meters

approaching the logging road bridge over the Kopka on Day Eight

hoofing the bags over a Kopka portage

Day Eight lunch spot at the end of a portage on the Kopka

Kopka eye candy during a leisurely lunch stop

as the vendors in Nepal say –  “Same, same …but different”

another type of wild mushroom on a Kopka portage – one could do a post just on mushrooms!

Kopka River camp on Day Eigh t- at the top of a small waterfall and a 50 m portage

When we came across this spot at the top of a pretty little waterfall, we decided quickly that our day was done. We had actually planned to paddle a few more kilometers but figured the chances of canoeing into a second site as perfect as this one were remote.

It was  2:30 on a beautiful, sunny afternoon and the location was perfect for lounging and rambling around, as well as pitching a tent and washing up. We’d also get to play with the DSLR gear that had spent too much of the trip hidden away from the realities of a canoe trip.  There was a fifty-meter portage to get around the waterfall but that could wait until the next morning.

another view of maybe our favourite campsite of the entire trip

one of three or four small fires we made during the trip

Day Eight sunset on the Kopka

Day Eight sunset on the Kopka River- a bit later with the telephoto

This tent site may have been our favourite of the whole trip, helped of course by the weather and the stunning sunset we got to watch.

Day Nine: From Waterfalls camp to Kopka camp on lake between 2nd and 3rd Falls

  • Distance: 18 km. over 5 hours
  • Weather: cloudy with a gentle SW wind
  • Portages: 3 to get into Lake Kenakskaniss and then 4 portages in the so-called Seven Sisters section of the Kopka

Kopka River – Days 9, 10, and 11

We left our idyllic camp at 8:30 and before 10 we were on the other side of the 400-meter portage at the north end of Lake Kenakskaniss, a bit apprehensive about potential wind problems on the lake from the SW.  The SPOT Connect data shows that a bit over an hour later we were getting close to our first and longest portage (750 m)  in the Seven Sisters section of the Kopka.  We had been spared the energy-sapping challenge of paddling down the lake into a headwind.

We had to laugh when we saw the “This is not the portage! Keep on going!” sign above a set of swifts as we left Kenakskaniss and headed for the first and longest of the portages around the Seven Sisters.  A few minutes later we reached the actual portage and less than thirty minutes later were sitting at the far end with our canoe and packs, talking about the portage trail.

In my mind a movie played of a drunken Cyclops not obeying the gods’ request to make a nice pilgrims’ path to the falls and instead carelessly throwing boulders here and there and thinking that would be good enough. “Besides, who comes down here anyway?”

Luckily for us it was not a rainy day as we passed through. It would have been a bit more slippery in our no-grip Bean Boots had it been. Our one regret is not having gone back to see exactly what it was we had portaged around. We did not make the same mistake for the portages around the three dramatic sets of falls coming up.

canoe at the end of the portage around the first falls in the Kopka’s “Seven Sisters” section

If you’re wondering about the “Seven Sisters” label,  a note on Ken Kokanie’s Kopka maps provides a nice explanation –

“…the canyon portion of the route is made up of grueling portages (poor footing and steep inclination or declination) that avoid a series of 7 severe drops in elevation”.

The topos show an elevation of 1245′ for Lake Kenakskaniss and an elevation of 1030′ on the Kopka beyond the last set of falls.  That is a 215′ drop over at most a two-kilometer stretch.  This fact makes the Seven Sisters stretch of the Kopka River one of the most dramatic bits of Ontario river that my brother and I have gotten to sample in over thirty years of paddling in northern Ontario.

close-up of the vertical rock face which characterizes this stretch of the Kopka

looking up to the beginning of the first of three sets of Kopka River falls

Max shooting the same waterfall pic – but at a much faster shutter speed with his Sony H2

Max getting closer to the spray of the falls on the Kopka Seven Sister stretch

another day, another type of mushroom to wonder about

looking down the end of the first set of falls towards the small lake and the river as it heads to the second set of falls – the portage begins on the shore to the right of the river

Kopka River – an up-close view between first and second falls in Seven Sisters section – the portage begins on middle right of the image

the beginning stretch of the second Kopka waterfalls

second set of Kopka waterfalls in Seven Sisters section of the river

the late afternoon view from our Day Nine Campsite below Falls #2

Our Day Nine campsite edges out the previous night’s site for best site of the trip.  It is located at the end of the second set of waterfalls on a beautiful small lake lined on three sides with up to fifty feet vertical granite rock face.  According to the federal government topo map,  the historical (but no longer existing) Mink Bridge Portage ended here.

There are five portages on the Seven Sisters section of the Kopka River

The campsite itself is quite large and has room for three or four tents; the spot we chose was one tucked away from the shore and nicely sheltered from the elements.

shoreline trees at the bottom of Kopka Falls #2 – our tent site was about 100 feet in

looking from the tent site back to the small lake below Falls #2 on the Kopka

more interesting Kopka vertical rock face lining the small lake after Falls #2

rock face and water and a setting sun on a Kopka lake

the final chute of the second set of waterfalls

the rubble on bottom left – the rather steep end point of one of the portage trails around Falls #2

This portage proved to be a bit of an unexpected pain.  The previous ones had been very obvious and when not there was always a bit of orange tape to move you along in the right direction.  Not so with this one.  My brother went first with his pack load.  He ended up following the shorter of the possible portages down the rather steep final stretch to the water – as seen in the photo above and the one below.  It is this portage that I am sure  that Serg88 describes in his  trip report. Thinking he had made a mistake,  Max retraced his steps.

Meanwhile, I did something I never do; instead of taking the remaining packs, I made the canoe my first carry.  (I usually take the packs half way so that I can acquaint myself with the trail before I do it with the canoe.)  Not seeing where Max had gone, the path I followed veered right away from the route he had taken to the steep final entry point of his route.  I found myself going down into a gully and then walking over a makeshift bridge made up of three or four twelve-foot jack pines stretched out over the gap. Up I went onto a rocky ridge which I followed until I saw the camp site.  The trail had disappeared by now but I pressed on, sure I would hit it again as I got closer to the campsite.  No such luck.  I finally got out from under the canoe and had a clearer understanding of the situation – I was bushwhacking with a canoe on my head!  Luckily it was a 42 lb. Kevlar and not a 75 lb. Royalex.

Later on,  after finally setting up camp, we took our roll of orange marking tape and went back to the beginning of the portage and marked off two possible routes –

  1. the short one that ends up by the “cave” and the steep descent and
  2. a longer one over the rickety logs, along the ridge and to an easier put-in point just across from the campsite.

Both portages require reloading the canoe for a short paddle to the actual campsite.  We never did find a trail that would have taken us directly to the campsite and we didn’t mark the improvised route we took to get there!

looking down at the final steep stretch of the short portage

Day Ten: From Kopka camp between 2nd and 3rd Falls to start of portage from Wigwasan Lake to Bukemiga Lake (See map for Day 9 for route info)

  • Distance: 17 km.
  • Weather: sunny and hot
  • Portages: 1 (The Mountain Goat) and some lining

on our way to the third set of falls and the Kopka’s Mountain Goat Portage

the “mountain goat” section of the portage around Kopka Falls #3

another view of the declination of the mountain goat portage

After a memorable bit of paddling around the shores of the little lake we headed for the last set of falls and the Mountain Goat Portage.  The portage itself was pretty straightforward –  well, at least until we came to the end.  The images above show in a 2D kind of way what we had to deal with – a vertical drop of about 10 feet to a shelf and then a further drop of about 7 feet. From there the trail sloped fairly steeply down to the water. There are small steps to make use of as you go down the two drops but it is the ropes – apparently left by the Keewaydin Camp people (or some other Temagami teen tripping outfit)- that make the descent possible. We did the four packs and the bundled paddles first – Max went down a level and, each time I  lowered a roped pack down to his feet, he lowered it down to the floor of the next level.  In about twenty minutes the gear and paddles were on the shore.

Now we had to deal with the canoe.  Amazingly enough it was down in five minutes at the most.  Max came up to the top and I went down the first two drops – about 17′ and the length of the canoe.  I grabbed the nose of the canoe as he lowered it on a rope attached to his end. When I was able to put my hands on the yoke I just flipped it over and onto my back and walked it down to the shore.

Now I know that I could not have done that with a 75 lb canoe; being 42 lb made it possible. It also didn’t hurt that it was a sunny day and the ground and rocks were not wet and greasy; neither was wind an issue.  Our conclusion: the Mountain Goat Portage presents a challenge you don’t often face but in the end it is not that big a deal.

Looking down beyond the end of the falls to the Kopka and Lake Wigwasan (top middle)

a shot of the third falls from above

the dramatic end of the Kopka’s Seven Sisters section taken from the small lake at its base

canoe at the bottom of the third falls on the Kopka while we walk over to say hello to the first people  (and their dog) we’ve seen in nine days

Remus (a Leonberger I think) at the bottom of the third set of Kopka Falls – his folks were fishing!

a close-up of Remus on the Kopka – in no time at all I had him eating out of my hand – and peeing on my pant leg! (The owner assured me it was just his wet snout!)

paddling the Kopka downriver from the third falls – still some more rock to behold!

the shores of Lake Wigwasan by the start of the portage trail

rock and sky on Lake Wigwasan

the boulder garden at the start of the rapids between Wigwasan and Bukemiga

 

Day Eleven:  From Wigwasan Lake side of portage camp to take-out point at end of  Bukemiga Lake Access Road

  • Distance: 7 km.
  • Weather: mixed bag – cloudy, rainy, sunny…complete with one hour of drama as thunderstorm rolled through from the SW
  • Portages: 1

one last breakfast on the rocks at the top of the Wigwasan/Bukemiga rapids

Wigwasan campsite just before takeoff on the last morning

The start of the portage trail from Wigwasan to Bukemiga is obviously a popular spot with weekenders; there is room for a dozen tents. At the north end of the site were three overturned boats; the very messy toilet area 30 meters or so in the bush showed signs of heavy use.  For the first time since Antler Lake on Day One we were able to use our tent pegs; all the other sites had no more than a veneer of moss or soil over rock.

sitting out a passing thunderstorm from the SW on Lake Bukemiga

waiting for the morning storm to pass on Lake Bukemiga

The rain fell on the tarp over Jimmy Winn’s picnic table in the trailer park at the end of the Lake Bukemiga Access Road.  Jimmy wasn’t  home so we hope he’s okay with us taking shelter there.

We had a bit of time to kill when we got to the end point – well, six hours to be exact. It was a Thursday when we pulled in and there was no one in any of the six trailers In what seems like an unofficial trailer park at the end of the access Road from Highway 527 to Lake Bukemiga.

In retrospect, we should have camped the previous night at the beautiful campsite just below the third and final set of falls.  Or we could have paddled a bit further down the Kopka – a few more kilometers down to Kopka Lake itself.  But we didn’t want to risk the possibility of being windbound on Wigwasan or Bukemiga and missing our take-out connection or the train the next day, so we had played it safe and camped at the start of the Wigwasan/Bukemiga portage instead. Therefore, a 1 1/2 hour paddle on the last day!

About fifteen minutes early (4:45) our Wabakimi trip fixer, Clement Quenville,  arrived to transfer us to Armstrong Station, thirty kilometers north of the take-out point.  The community of 300 is at the end of Highway 527 from Thunder Bay and it is also a stop on the VIA train route which would take us back to Toronto. (There are only three eastbound trains a week so if you miss yours it is a two or three-day wait!)

Chateau North, downtown Armstrong’s only motel

We managed to get a room ($100. + tax) at Chateau North, a hotel/motel some 100 meters from the railway tracks with 10 units available.  The Thursday afternoon we arrived was also the eve of a major funeral and two days before a wedding.  We waited a bit while the manager phoned someone to see if she was going to keep the room reservation she had made some time ago for the funeral but had not confirmed.  Luckily for us, she had decided not to take the room.  We – and our canoe and gear – were cozy and secure for the night.

canoe and gear at the Chateau North in Armstrong Station

one of the local dogs near our unit at the Chateau North – we’d later see him again at his favourite spot outside the door  to the kitchen of the restaurant at the Chateau North

the now-closed E & J’s Restaurant at Armstrong Station – Gail’s Grill is now the place to go if the grill at Chateau North doesn’t suit your fancy

the gas station and small convenience store behind the Chateau North

We got to Armstrong at about 5:30 so we had that evening and the next morning to ramble around and visit Gail’s Grill and Bakery for both supper and breakfast.  A restaurant we had visited on our first visit to Armstrong – E & J’s –  looked like it was closed.

looking down King Street at the liquor/Grocery store with Gail’s Grill a bit further on.  On the left is the CN maintenance workers’ bunk house.

a shot of the track-side of the CN Bunk House at Armstrong Station

Gail’s Grill has clearly picked up the business that E&J’s left; the food and service were more than acceptable.  On the walls of the diner is an interesting collection of photos of the Armstrong Station of yesteryear. They even have the sign that you see in the photo below hanging in the restaurant!

the old train station at Armstrong Station –  demolished in the mid-1980’s

armstrong Station 1980's

armstrong_on

I found the two above images online. They show the station from different angles. From the photo detail it would seem that the building was still standing in 1986. (See here for the image source.)

the Armstrong station of the 1940’s – another photo of a photo at Gail’s Grill

the empty spot where Armstrong Rail Station used to be

a CN Freight Train passing through Armstrong Station

waiting for VIA 002 to arrive from Winnipeg

The next morning we moved our gear and canoe from the room to the spot by the tracks where the VIA baggage car would be stopping at the 9:50 official arrival time.  Having heard stories of the train arriving early – and then leaving early!- we were there by 9:15.  The fact that no locals were there should have been a clue to us.  By the time noon arrived, local vehicles were starting to pull in!  The train arrived shortly afterward.

When we drove up to  Armstrong Station in August of 2010 there was a small shack that maybe served as a waiting room but it was locked. When we passed through Armstrong on the VIA train on the way to Flindt Landing for our 2011 Wabakimi adventure the shack was gone!  This year when it started to rain, we put our packs under the canoe and headed for the covered entrance of the church on the other side of King Street within eyesight of our gear.

sheltered by the roof over the front door of the church across from the train stop

Luckily I had found a way to kill time while we waited. Staring at the Chateau North sign as we sat there, I finally registered that it offered free hi-speed wi-fi!  Well, my iPod Touch does wi-fi! In short order, we were connected and I got to check two weeks’ worth of email, try to Skype my wife back in Toronto, and email the following mini-movie filmed with the iPod to a few contacts. Out came the battery charger to perk up the iPod’s battery!  Max wanted to do email too.

 

Sometime after noon the VIA train pulled in; some problem with the rails east of Winnipeg had caused a two-hour delay.  Gear and canoe went into the baggage car and off we went to the economy passenger section.  Our car was mostly filled with teen males on their way home to southern Ontario after a few weeks of tree planting west of Armstrong.  Without even being asked, the attendant came by about twenty minutes later and let us know that she had set aside seats for us in another (i.e. quieter) car.  A day later we pulled into Toronto’s Union Station  – two hours late.  Well, at least we hadn’t lost even more time after we got on at Armstrong.

Some Useful Links For Planning a Kopka Canoe Trip:

Maps:

The Ken Kokanie website is, as always, a goldmine of ideas for trips, as well as for info and maps.  We found most the maps we needed for our trip here. I think it was this website that first made me aware of the Kopka River.  And then it seemed to pop up everywhere in Cliff Jacobson books, in Kevin Callan videos!

This Canadian Government site has all the 1:50000 topographical maps available for free download. All you need to know is the map’s identifying number. The maps you would need to do the trip are in the 052 folder.  I’ve made it even easier – just click on the titles below to download the maps!

 

If you want to see the maps online, Jeff’s Topos is a great website to go to.  You can download (for free) all the topos you want and print them yourself.

I did also purchase a nicely detailed set of maps online from wabakimimaps.com, a site owned by Laurence Mills of North Bay.  He put together a map package of the complete route from Allanwater to the take-out point east of Bukemiga Lake.  You can see them here.  Last summer we used his Flindt River map set and were quite impressed with the format and amount of information – portages, campsites –  provided.

Not used this year, but absolutely essential for our first two trips in Wabakimi country, were volumes 1 and 2 of the Wabakimi Project‘s  map sets.  I did notice that (Uncle) Phil Cotton and his crew of volunteers are planning a couple of new volumes. Listed is this one which would have been of use for us this summer –

Volume Five – Lake Nipigon & Northern Tributaries (Kopka River to Little Jackfish River)Scheduled for Release: Fall 2017?

Trip Reports:

In scouring the Canadian Canoe Routes forum we came up with some great trip reports from folks who had been where we were going – kinda like reconnaissance!  Serge88 posted his report at this link – Serge88’s Kopka River Report.

Another trip report I made a copy of to bring along for the ride is ipaddle’s very readable account of his trip which you will find at the myccr.com site here.

Kevin Callan: 

It is amazing what you find when you enter the world of Youtube.  Who would have thought there’d be Kopka River stuff there – but there is!  Click on the Youtube link and you will find more than a few brief videos worth watching – starting off with Kevin Callan’s account of his trip down the Kopka.  Part One of this canoeing epic can be found here. Callan also includes a chapter on the Kopka in a new compilation of some of his canoe trips in Top 50 Canoe Routes of Ontario (Firefly Books, 2011)

Ontario Forest Fire Stats 2009 – 2015

After our experience with nearby fires (the one at Burntrock Lake and the other just west of the native cottages on Whitewater Lake) on our 2011 paddle through Wabakimi, we were a bit apprehensive about  being caught in the same situation again.  However, it was never an issue.  The 2012 April to November fire season in Ontario turned out to be closer to being a “normal” year than the previous one. The total amount of hectares burned fell from 635,373 to 151,181, a significant drop; it makes the  14,824 hectares burned in 2010 look like it is missing a digit. Here are the Ontario figures for the past few years. While the figures since 2011 look pretty good,  the prediction is for more and not less fires in the boreal forest.

Year …….. # of fires ……….. Hectares

  • 2009…………. 384 ……………. 20,656
  • 2010………… .939 ……………  14,824
  • 2011………… 1,330 …………  635,373
  • 2012………… 1,615 …………  151,181
  • 2013 ………… 576 …………..   45,925
  • 2014 ………… 303 …………..     5,387
  • 2015 ………… 666 …………..   39,312

This segment from a January 2013 Quirks and Quarks program has Bob MacDonald and Professor Mike Flannigan explore the issue of fire in the boreal forest in the age of global warming.

 

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6 Responses to A Tale of Three Rivers: Being An Account of a Trip By Canadian Canoe Up the Brightsand and Kashishibog and Down the Kopka

  1. Jim O'Brien says:

    Just finished a week-long trip (1st week of Sept.) in Wabakimi, northwest from Allan Water Bridge to the Flindt River drainage, then back to the Allan Water south of Brennan Lake, finishing at Lower Wabakimi. Great trip, but too many motor boats on Brennan Lake.

    Your photos are beautiful. Please tell me what camera(s) you used.

    • albinger says:

      Jim, your trip sounds a bit like one of our previous visits to Wabakimi P.P. We’ve paddled down both the Flint and Allanwater Rivers on the way to Wabakimi Lake and Whitewater Lake. You are right about the motor boats; they can spoil that feeling of being far away from it all. Having said that, we found that it was most likely to happen around the area you mentioned; get off the lakes and do a portage or two and you’re on your own again! Some folks are attracted to Woodland Cariboo Park for that very reason- to escape the boats! On this trip all the boats we met- five in a 30 minute time span!- were on the morning of Day 2. After that we didn’t see anyone for eight days.

      Re: the cameras. My brother’s vintage Sony H2 and my Canon Elph 100 were out and available during the day. In the mornings before we took down camp and in the evenings after the tent went up we played with our Sony dslrs- my bro’s A330 and my A700. We like taking pictures. I should also point out that I do some post-processing in Adobe Lightroom and/or Apple Aperture. Mostly we just feel lucky to be out there on our little paddling adventure so the pix are a bonus. They are also a great reminder of the beauty of the Canadian Shield country. They give us yet another reason to plan next summer’s trip so we can frame more scenes like the ones we paddled into this summer.

  2. Peter Scheuermann says:

    Hi,

    This trip looks incredible and your blog has inspired me to take this same trip this coming August with 3 friends! I’m hoping you’d be willing to answer a few questions.
    Can you tell me which topo maps you used and where you got them? I’ve already downloaded Ken Kokanie’s annotated map of the Kopka.
    Is any part of this route on Crown Lands? I emailed an outfitter, Wabakimi Wilderness Adventures, and they quoted me a price for camping on Crown Lands. Before that I hadn’t thought this trip was on Crown Lands, just non operating provincial parks.
    Did you have to double portage (two trips per portage)? I ask as a way to gauge how fast we can expect to go.

    Thank you!
    Peter

    • true_north says:

      Peter, great choice for a canoe trip! We really enjoyed the adventure.

      Re:maps. We used the free Kokanie maps – he sent me additional maps that took the route back to the start of the Kashishibog. Other than that, I had the map set that Laurence Mills has available. That was basically it. We also travel with a couple of Garmin GPS devices. Mine has the Canada Topo version 4 on it. I would not bother with the paper 1:50000 topos. It would cost a fortune to piece together the entire trip. The first two sources mentioned should give you all you need and the GPS maps provide peace of mind on those (hopefully rare!) occasions when you don’t quite understand where you are!

      I think it is all park land as opposed to crown land but there are no camping fees to be paid. The first stretch in is Brightsands Provincial Park and the second in Kopka River Provincial Park. This will save you guys a pile on money! I think Wabakimi Wilderness Adventures has it wrong. the Parks you’ll be paddling through are non-operating with no campsites provided. See here for a list of parks and fees and note that the two parks are not mentioned. http://www.parkreports.com/fees/backcountry/2014

      My bro and I have perfected the carry-and-a-half system. We make sure we have everything in four bags – two Hooligan 110 litter bags and two large duffel bags – with no loose odds and ends, except for the paddles. My bro will carry a Hooligan and a duffel right to the other end. I follow with the other Hooligan and duffel and four paddles bundled together with velco straps. At the half way point (admittedly a guess!) I drop the stuff and go back for the canoe. We know we’ve done well when we meet each other at the half way point on our return!

      I don’t recall any really long portages on this trip. Check this post for a rundown on the portages and distances. –

      https://albinger.me/2012/08/05/2012-gone-canoe-tripping/

      It all added up to about 6.5 kilometres of portages which means that with the carry-and-a-half system we both ended up walking 13 kilometres of portage trail.

      We did it in 11 or 12 days; plan on a couple of extra days if you are not quite as driven as we tend to be! We do regret not spending a bit more time in the dramatic Kopka gorge section and actually plan on returning to spend more time there. Also, we don’t fish. If you guys do it will mean less distance covered each day.

      We got out on Bukemiga Lake; an alternative exit would be a bit further down where the Kopka River crosses the highway up to Armstrong. We used the services of Clement Quenville who lives in Armstrong for a shuttle back to the VIA station there. If you drive up he can shuttle your vehicle(s) for you.

      Peter, I hope I have given you the info you wanted. Feel free to get in touch if you have any more questions.

      • Peter says:

        Hi,

        Thanks for the response, all good information. Could you give me contact information for Clement? We’ll be driving up in 1 car so we’ll definitely need a shuttle. You also wouldn’t happen to know of anyone other than designated outfitters who might rent us a canoe? We just have mine at the moment. I’ll also be sure to ask Clement that question. That’s all the questions I have for now, thanks again!

        Peter

  3. Kerry Gordon says:

    This looks like it was a fantastic trip. My wife and I are looking for a river trip for non-whitewater paddlers for next August and this might well be it. I would like to talk with you further about it if you have the time. By the way, your photography is outstanding.
    Kerry

Your comments and questions are always appreciated, as are any suggestions on how to make this post more useful to future travellers. Just drop me a line or two!

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