Lost Paddle Rapids:
We stood near the top of a difficult set of rapids and watched as the paddle floated down on the fast-moving water. We had just spent the past hour and more tracking our canoe maybe a hundred meters up these rapids. Now within ten seconds the paddle had almost covered the same distance back down. My brother was upset; it was his Auggie Lolk paddle, one of the two that we had bought from the paddle maker himself back in 1985 on a visit to his shop in Coldwater, Ontario. It had been on all our canoe trips since then. And now it was gone.
“Is it ever moving!” I yelled over the sound of the rapids. “We’ve gotta go after it!” We looked up ahead for somewhere to secure the canoe but all we saw was more water tumbling down and an inhospitable shoreline. By now, the paddle was another fifty meters down the creek. “It’s gone,” Max said. “Let’s push on. It would take at least an hour or two to get it back. We gotta keep moving up.”
And so, as the saying goes – we were up Petawa Creek without a paddle. Still in the canoe were the two bent-shafts that we use for lake travel and the other Lolk paddle. Without a doubt, most canoe trippers will know that awful feeling of realizing that something has been left behind – a life jacket, a Nalgene bottle, a fishing rod, a camera. However, this one hurt extra because we got to watch a cherished piece of gear float away – and we had to decide that this was how it was going to be. Damn!
Where Is Petawa Creek?
Petawa Creek is an 11.5 kilometer stretch of water that flows north out of Auger Lake into Petawanga Lake, which is itself a part of the 982 kilometer-long Albany River system. Not far up river (i.e.west) from Petawanga Lake is Miminiska Lake and a Wilderness North lodge, complete with its own landing strip. Just downriver from the Lake and up the Eabamet River is the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) community of Eabametoong/Fort Hope, which was originally established as a fur trading post by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1890.
Why would anyone go up Petawa Creek?
We arrived at the bottom of the creek after eight days and about 180 kilometers of downriver paddling on the Misehkow and the Albany River systems. (If you want to go back to the beginning of the canoe trip check out Canoeing Wabakimi’s Misehkow River and Going Down The Albany for maps and details.)
Now we were headed back south with a planned take out on the banks of the Pikitigushi River near a logging road. From there Annette Elliot of Mattice Lake Outfitters would transport us back to their base camp on Mattice Lake about eight kilometers south of Armstrong Station. To get there the first order of business was dealing with the “up the creek” experience that Petawa Creek would provide!
The creek represents an alternative – and much shorter – way of getting from the Albany River to the upper Attwood River system at Hurst Lake and from there to the Ogoki River system via the Witchwood River. All told, it is about 30 kilometers from Petawanga Lake to the bottom of Hurst Lake via Petawa Creek. The wild card was the 11.5 km Petawa Creek section.
The only on-line account of canoe trippers using the creek is the one that Chuck Ryan posted in 2009. It can be accessed here. It is unlikely that anyone else has gone up since then. The word “nightmare” comes to mind to describe the experience that Ryan and his bow paddler Dave Phillips had during the fourteen hours or so they spent going up Petawa Creek. Even though it was late August they had to deal with very high water conditions.
There is another way to get to Hurst Lake but it involves paddling down the Albany from Petawanga Lake to the mouth of the Attwood River at the top of Gowie Bay and then back upriver on the Attwood to Hurst Lake. Total distance is 95 kilometers and it involves going up swifts and rapids at various points on the Attwood. This route would require four days of paddling, while the Petawa Creek “express” route would take us maybe a day and a half.
In the end, we thought we’d give Petawa Creek a shot. On the one hand, we were hoping for (that should probably read expecting) better conditions that those faced by Ryan and Phillips. We also knew that Phil Cotton and the Wabakimi Project crew had been in the neighbourhood the year before and had worked on the portage trails at each end of the creek. Because of time constraints, they had to leave exploring the rest of the creek for another year. Part of our motivation was to record as meticulously as possible the swifts and rapids that we encountered as we went up so we could add to the Wabakimi Project’s Petawa Creek reconnaissance file. In my shirt pocket I had a voice recorder and my slim Canon Elph p & s camera to capture key points of our “up the creek” experience. Also useful for data were the every-ten-minute tracks created by our SPOT Connect.
What to Expect As you Go Up The Creek:
The creek is divided into two parts – the lower part up to what we called Half-Way Lake and then the upper part to Auger Lake itself. From our campsite on Petawanga lake we approached the mouth of the creek at about 9:00 a.m. and were soon in portage mode. On creek right (our left as we were going up the creek) just below the last bit of rapids we spotted the take-out point. From information that Phil Cotton had sent us, we knew that this was the start of a 400-meter portage which had been worked on just the previous summer. The trail would prove to be in good shape with just a bit of blowdown blocking passage in a couple of places. We trimmed what we needed to and moved on.
The map below presents a fairly accurate picture of what we were faced with that morning – lots of swifts and the occasional set of rapids that we essentially walked up. While not easy, the challenges later presented by the top half of the creek made the morning seem like it was. I was occasionally in water up to my waist and Max was sitting mostly dry in the stern but that would change! It took us about three hours to do the 5 kilometers to Half-Way Lake.
We continued on past Half-Way Lake up a meandering section that was easy to paddle. Then we were below the nastiest set of rapids we had yet faced this day. We thought we saw a take out point and went over to check. The “trail” quickly ended. What we were looking at was a total boreal jungle mess of deadfall and blowdown. We stumbled forward for a bit and realized that there was only one way up – and it wasn’t on land.
The shoreline was such that tracking would basically involve walking up the creek itself instead of moving from rock to rock on the side. The current was noticeably faster than it had been in the morning and made our ascent a challenge but by 1:00 we were at the top of this set of rapids.
We took a lunch break on the bank of the creek with what would be the day’s last bits of sunshine and pushed on about an hour later. It would take us another four hours to go up the remaining three kilometers of creek while enjoying some late afternoon showers. The map above indicates some of the difficulties we faced – but not all.
Around 3:00 the effort to record the gps locations of swifts, rapids, and deadfall on the river was forgotten. There would be no more voice recordings until the next morning! I was, however, still taking pictures of the obstacles we were dealing with. This was around the time that we watched Max’s paddle slip down the rapids. From then on we focussed our energy entirely on getting up, over and sometimes through the wall of deadfall that blocked our progress.
Part of our pre-trip planning had us talking about how to haul the canoe – the barely one-year-old kevlar/carbon! – over the odd sweeper or beaver dam. We did have our trusty Sven saw but we also came prepared with something new. It was a plastic snow sled – nicknamed the magic carpet – that Max had lying around. After eight days of hauling it with us – and using it as the door mat for the tent! – we started to put it to its intended use! Even though the dead fall was most often wet, the plastic made a difference. It saved the canoe from many a scratch on the side and bottom as we dragged it over stuff that could not be avoided.
I got a great sequence of shots – before, during, and after – as we literally sawed our way through one of the last creek-wide walls of deadfall and accumulated driftwood that stretched across a set of rapids. I was looking forward to inserting the pix into the post right about here to get across the nature of the challenges Petawa Creek presents to the next passers-through.
So where Are The Pictures?
Sometime after our last major obstacle at 4:00 p.m. I reached into my shirt pocket for my camera. The side entry zipper was half down; inside was the voice recorder – but no camera. It had popped out of the pocket without me noticing. Who puts pocket enclosures on the side anyway! I vaguely remember hearing a plopping sound and wondered what it was but dismissed it. As I noted elsewhere, the moment of realization was for me the most depressing moment of the trip. All of the daytime photos – maybe 250 in all – taken since Rockcliff Lake on the Misehkow eight days before – all the brief little videos to illustrate this or that point that I knew I would be writing about in the trip report – gone. Hours later I still couldn’t believe it and more than once Max looked my way thinking I was losing it as I cursed the Fates for exacting this cruel price of passage! First his paddle and now all those pix.
Just before 6:00 p.m. we got to the top of the creek and the portage on creek left that would finally take us into Auger Lake. We headed for the campsite which the Wabakimi Project folks had created in the summer of 2012 while they were working on the portage that we had just come over. (See the above map for locations.) As the tent was going up, the rain started coming down – and would continue to do so for the next day and a half. We would end up spending a rain day at Auger Lake before moving on. It gave us a chance to lick our wounds!
The next leg of our trip would take us to Hurst Lake on the Attwood River system before we paddled up to Felsia Lake and on to the Ogoki River via the Witchwood River. Click here for the post – Paddling From Auger Lake to Felsia Lake
We are counting on next year’s canoe trippers to add to the file folder of information on the swifts, rapids, and other challenges that Petawa Creek holds. Who knows? Maybe we’ll do it again – but this time goin’ down!
Maybe we shouldn’t think of that paddle as lost – it just hasn’t been found yet. Give us a shout when you pick it up!