aka: Kopka River Canoe Trip Report – August 2012
Related Post: A Paddler’s List Of Wabakimi’s Top Six
The Route – Overview:
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.)
However, this time 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. Here’s the trip overview –
An interactive Google Map view of the 225-kilometer route can be accessed here. It will give you a general idea of where you’ll be paddling!
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 reward: a few 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.
Maps and Route Information:
Until we got to Redsand Lake (the Kopka River headwaters), 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 that used to be available from Ken Kokanie’s web site. (The site is dead as of 2018. but Ken was kind enough to let me host a copy of the map set here. It is a 33 Mb pdf file.)
In 2017 The Wabakimi Project published Volume V of their comprehensive map collection of Wabakimi canoe routes. Included are 1:100,000 maps of the route we took from Allanwater Bridge to Bukemiga Lake. While not detailed enough to serve as the trip’s only maps, it has the essential info you want – campsites, the location of lodges and outposts, swifts, as well as enlarged scale views of all rapids and portages. The volume also has info on the Kopka River to its outlet in Wabinosh Lake and then the final stretch down the Wabinosh River to Lake Nipigon. [See here for a map of what volume V covers.]
The 1:50,000 Natural Resources Canada topographical maps below cover the entire route. While they date back to the 1990s, they are still worth it for the level of detail they provide. See here for the entire archived topo collection or click on each of the maps below.
- 052 J/01 Seseganaga Lake
- 052G/16 Harmon Lake
- 052H/13 Uneven Lake
- 052I/04 Aldridge Lake
- 052I/03 Wigwasan Lake
Each day’s overview section also has a link to the NRC topo map for that day.
Garmin Topo Canada Map:
The maps used in this trip report to illustrate each day of the route are from the Garmin Topo Canada map set (v.4.0). I imported the GPS files from our Etrex Legend into Garmin Basecamp and then added some additional detail to make the maps more useful.
Since we just learning how to use our first Garmin GPS device – the Etrex Legend – when we did the trip, we did a so-so job on recording the route. On Day 1 we forgot to turn it on until we got to the first portage! Since the Kopka trip, we’ve learned how to use our Garmin devices (now an Etrex 20 and an Oregon) and also make use of a small voice recorder for on-the-spot notes and observations. This improves the odds of remembering all the details, as does taking a lot of photos and videos!
GPX File: Kopka – Allanwater To Bukemiga
Click on the blue GPX file title to download it from my Dropbox folder.
Using Google Earth, you can view the route using the KML version of the above GPX file. Click on the blue Dropbox link below to access –
KML file: Kopka – Allanwater to Bukemiga
If you use our GPX track and note any serious errors and missing bits of route information, let me know (firstname.lastname@example.org) so I can make the necessary corrections and improvements for the next paddlers to benefit from your input.
Also along for the ride were trip reports from ipaddle and Serg88, two posters at the Canadian Canoe Routes website. We were definitely not voyageurs paddling into the unknown! (And given their native guides, neither were the voyageurs!)
- Serge88 posted his report at this link – Serge88’s Kopka River Report.
- ipaddle’s readable account of his trip can be found at the myccr.com site here.
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 his canoeing epic can be found here.
Callan also includes a chapter on the Kopka in a recent compilation of some of his canoe trips in Top 50 Canoe Routes of Ontario (Firefly Books, 2011)
How We Got To Allanwater Bridge:
We live in southern Ontario. It is a 1600-kilometer drive up to Armstrong Station. 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.)
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!
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.
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.
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.
Two realizations really help to make the VIA train experience more enjoyable:
- 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!);
- 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 Allanwater Bridge 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.
2. Wildwaters Lodge (Bruce and Brenda Hyer):
Another accommodation choice at Allanwater Bridge is the lodge to the east of the Jelinski lodge. Click on the header for contact information. Tenting on the lodge property is another option.
3. The Tenting Option:
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.
We watched as another 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 walked up from our cabin the next morning around 8:15 to see how they had fared, they were all but gone!
Well, maybe the camping area was not “free” but it was definitely available. And read the sign by the tracks – maybe not “legal” either but then who will be checking at 2:00 a.m.?
From Allanwater Lodge to a small island camp S of Antler Lake
- Distance: 20 km. over 5 1/2 hours
- Weather: a mixed bag – overcast, cloudy, sunny, gentle wind from the NW
- Portages/rapids/liftover-line: 6/0/1 P01 RL 115m; P02 RR 50m RR; P03 RL 300m; P03/P04 line; P04 RR 25m; P05 RL 20m; P06 RL 20m
- Portages generally easy to do once found. Deadfall a challenge on a couple of them. Did a bit of lining where possible. All portages are indicated by downriver directions so RR means the right side when going downstream but it is the left side if going upstream RL is the converse left side down and right side upkeep that in mind for the rest of the post. Oh, a CBR – check before running (which should always be done anyway right?)!
- Natural Resources Canada Topo Map: 052 J/01 Seseganaga 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.
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!
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.
The close-up views of the portages of the day will give you a rough idea of what is involved as you make your way up the Brightsand. Note that L ( i.e. river left) and R (i.e. river right) are based on the directional flow of the river. Since this route takes you upriver, the river left/river right thing can get a bit confusing! Also, if you do not think in meters, just remember that a meter is a titch (3″) longer than a yard.
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.
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!
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.
From island camp just S of Antler Lake to N end of Harmon Lake island camp
- Distance: 21 km. over 5 1/2 hours
- Weather: sunny and very hot with a gentle wind from the NW
- Portages/rapids/liftover-line: 5/0/1: P07 RL 70m; P08 RR 90m; P09 RR 125m; P10 RR 140m; P11 RL 20m; P12 RR 180m or line
- with a bit of lining thrown in
- Natural Resources Canada Topo Map: 052 J/01 Seseganaga Lake; and
- 052G/16 Harmon Lake;
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 motorboats 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 any 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).
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 that 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!
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.
From island camp at the north end of Harmon Lake to island camp 2 km east of the Graham Road on an 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/rapids/liftover-line: 4/0/1: P13 RR 500m; P14 RR 155m; P15 RL 250m; P16P 250m and a bit of lining
- NR Canada Topo Map: 052G/16 Harmon Lake;
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.
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!
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/rapids/liftover-line: 0/0/1: P17 RR lined
- NR Canada Topo Map: 052G/16 Harmon Lake.
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.
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!
From rough camp on E side of Sparkling Lake to Redsand Lake camp on E point
- Distance: 14.5 km.
- Weather: more of what day 4 gave us but now with wind from the NW
- Portages/rapids/liftover-line: 3/0/2: P18 RR 125m; P19 RR 260; P20 RR 20m lined; P21 RR 25m lined; P22P 495m portage into Redsand Lake
- NR Canada Topo Map: 052G/16 Harmon Lake;
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.
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 endpoint 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 northwest wind would make that a real grind.
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/rapids/liftover-line: 1/7/0: R01 to R03 CBR (Check Before Running!!); P23 RR 280m; R04 to R07 CBR
- NR Canada Topo Maps: 052G/16 Harmon Lake; 052H/13 Uneven Lake; 052I/04 Aldridge Lake;
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.
We finally stopped for breakfast about 15 kilometers later on a point halfway between Siess and Waterhouse Lakes. The sun was shining; it felt great to be moving.
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.
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!
From Uneven Lake camp to an island on the lake just east of Sandison Lake
- Distance: 24 km. over eight hours
- Weather: mixed sun and cloud with an occasional wind blowing our way
- Portages/rapids/liftover-line: 2/1/1 P24 RR 190m; P25 P150m; R08 CBR – line; P26 RL 70m CBR
- : 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.
- Natural Resources Canada Fed. Gov’t. Topo Map: 052I/04 Aldridge Lake;
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.
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.
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.
From camp on an island on the lake just east of Sandison Lake to the waterfalls camp at the top end of a 50-meter portage
- Distance: 17 km.
- Weather: mostly sunny with the wind not an issue
- Portages/rapids/liftover-line: 7/0/0: a half-dozen, including one of 400 meters : P27 RR 175m; P28 RR 70m; P29 RL 620m; P30 P460; P31 RL 30m; P32 RL 155m; P33 RR 90m Falls
- NRC Topo Map: 052I/04 Aldridge Lake;
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.
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.
From Waterfalls’ camp to Kopka camp on the lake between 2nd and 3rd Falls
- Distance: 18 km. over 5 hours
- Weather: cloudy with a gentle SW wind
- Portages/rapids/liftover-line: 6/0/0 P34 RR 35m and P 35 RL 440m to get into Lake Kenakskaniss; P36 RL 540m; P37 RR 230m; P38 RR 110m; P39 RR 110m; (note P36 – P39 plus P40 the next day traverse around the so-called Seven Sisters falls section of the Kopka)
- NRC Topo Map: 052I/04 Aldridge Lake; 052I/03 Wigwasan Lake
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 we 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.
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.
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.
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.
This portage proved to be a bit of 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 halfway 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 campsite. 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 –
- the short one that ends up by the “cave” and the steep descent and
- 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!
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/rapids/liftover-line: 1/1 /0: P40 RL 200m (The Mountain Goat); P41 RL 190m CBR and some lining
- NRC Topo Map: 052I/03 Wigwasan Lake
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.
From the Wigwasan Lake side of the portage camp to take-out point at end of Bukemiga Lake Access Road
- Distance: 7 km.
- Weather: a mixed bag – cloudy, rainy, sunny…complete with one hour of drama as a thunderstorm rolled through from the SW
- Portages/rapids/liftover-line: 1/0/0: P42 RL 330m
- NRC Topo: 052I/03 Wigwasan Lake
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.
We had a bit of time to kill when we got to the endpoint – 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!)
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.
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.
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!
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 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 perhaps 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.
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 a 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 problems 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.
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 fewer 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