A Two-Day Paddle Up Wabakimi’s Witchwood River System

Previous Post – Paddling From Auger Lake To The Mouth of the Witchwood 

Northwest Ontario’s Wabakimi area is a paddler’s dream with countless lake and river tripping combinations limited only by time and ambition.  This post looks at the   forty-five kilometer Witchwood River system, which  is one of a number of north/south routes that paddlers can use to get from the Ogoki River to the Attwood or Albany River systems. It is located to the north-east of the actual boundaries of Wabakimi Provincial Park and its entire length is included in the Attwood River Conservation Reserve. (See here for a map.)

From just north of the NE arm of the Ogoki’s Whiteclay Lake, it flows down to Hurst Lake and the Attwood River system.  The two-or-three day paddle could easily be included in a memorable Wabakimi canoe trip, especially when combined with a bush plane entry or exit.  

SONY DSCThe first half of our August 2013  canoe trip around the top of NW Ontario’s Wabakimi Provincial Park had the benefit of going with the flow of the current. We looked forward to swifts – and rapids often meant a three-minute adrenaline-pumping ride instead of the grunt work of carrying canoe and gear across yet another derelict portage.  Given that we started off with  eighty pounds of food in our two Hooligan canoe packs this was a real plus.

2013 Wabakimi Canoe Trip Overview

2013 Wabakimi Canoe Trip Overview -click on image to enlarge

All images enlarge with a click; all blue text leads to a related page with a click.

By the time we got to  the bottom of Petawa Creek on Petawanga Lake on Day 9, half of the food had been turned into paddle strokes and we reorganized the packs to take the shrinking food supply into account.  Then we set out on a series of up-the-creek and up-the river adventures that provided quite the contrast to coming down the Misehkow and Albany Rivers.

First we spent a difficult day dealing with the 10.5-kilometer stretch of Petawa Creek; then, after sitting tight on Auger Lake for a day while some bad weather passed through, we moved on to the next challenge – paddling up the Witchwood River system. It took us a day to get from Auger Lake to Felsia Lake and the mouth of  the Witchwood River. This post picks up the trip at Felsia Lake and takes us into the Ogoki River system on Whiteclay Lake.

Day One ( of Two on the Witchwood River System)

  • distance: 20 kilometers from Felsia Lake almost to Grinch Lake
  • weather: sunny morning/surprise wind/rain storm mid afternoon/ heavy rain after 8 p.m.
  • portages: 6 and a few sets of swifts and minor rapids walked up  (see maps below)
Felsia Lake morning

Felsia Lake morning – shot taken about an hour after the golden glow moved on

Unlike the overcast sky that greeted us on Auger Lake the morning before, our Felsia Lake campsite was bathed in early morning golden light; by 8:30 a.m. clouds and blue sky had changed the scene to the one you see above.

Felsia Lake Tent Site

Felsia Lake Tent Site –

We would spend about seven hours this day paddling twenty kilometres up the Witchwood River system to just before Grinch Lake.  The weather would be a mixed bag with a sunny morning, a turbulent mid-afternoon wind and rain storm that seemed to come from nowhere, a couple of no-rain hours where we put up our tent and did our cooking and then – starting at 8 – rain that would pour down for most of the night.

Up the Witchwood from Felsia Lake -Map 1

Up the Witchwood from Felsia Lake – Map 1

We were expecting some swifts as we left the lake and paddled up the narrower stretch of the river – but all was calm.  Our first portage was a 290-meter carry on river right (our left as we were ascending the river). The take-out point is clear enough and is right at the bottom of the last bit of ripples from the rapids. The trail was in pretty good shape with just a bit of deadfall requiring our attention.  Just above the put-in point we came upon a set of swifts; the bowman did have to get out of the canoe just before the top and pull the canoe for a short distance. Around a couple of corners another set of swifts required a bit of tracking to get back into calmer water.

A wider stretch of the river led to our second portage of the day – this time on river left (our right as we were going up the river).  The 200-meter trail begins in the little bay away from the main channel and was in good shape.

The third portage – illustrated on the map above – was a 365-meter cross-peninsula trail that we started at 11:15. A blaze marks the take-out point with other blazes along the trail, which goes up a steep incline before  levelling out for a bit.

looking down the Witchwood - 11-10 a.m.

looking down the Witchwood – a narrower stretch. Narrow is good if there is water to paddle in!

Up The Witchwood - Map 2

Up The Witchwood – Map 2

After the 365-meter portage we got to paddle a wider stretch of the river for a couple of kilometers before we came to set of swifts/Class 0 rapids. We did see a portage trail on river right (our left) but we ended walking the canoe up the river for about 80 meters. This led us to the big bend a kilometer upriver.  There are a couple of things to deal with here – the first is a  set of swifts which we mostly walked up. This leads you to a set of rapids with a portage take out on river left and a 125 meter messy trail to the end.

low water on the Witchwood - impassible up or down!

low water on the Witchwood – impassable either up or down!

Witchwood beaver dam 2-00 p.m.

Witchwood beaver dam – our last little challenge  before lunch – we hauled the canoe over

the view from our lunch spot on the Witchwood

the view from our lunch spot on the Witchwood – the beaver dam is at top middle

Up The Witchwood  - Map 3

Up The Witchwood – Map 3

Tent site on the Witchwood

Tent site on the Witchwood River

After a classic Wabakimi out-of-nowhere mid-afternoon wind/rain storm, we were pretty much soaked and keen on finding  a camp spot.  The plan had been to get to Grinch Lake but we would call it a day a few kilometers before and quickly got the tent up and then into our dry set of clothes. Expecting more rain, we rigged the 10′ x 14′ tarp up over the tent for that added bit of protection.  Around 8 it started to pour heavily and continued for a good part of the night, only stopping around 6 a.m.  The tent was mostly dry when we packed it away a couple of hours later.

ready for the storm - tarp on top of tent

ready for the expected storm – tarp on top of tent

looking up the Witchwood  from our front porch

looking up the Witchwood from our front porch

moss on rock

moss on rock

the banks of the Witchwood near our campsite

the banks of the Witchwood near our campsite

Day Two ( of Two on the Witchwood River System)

  • distance: 30 km over 9 hours ( from just below Grinch Lake to NE arm of Whiteclay Lake)
  • weather: wet and overcast in the morning/ sunny and dry in the aft
  • portages: 1300 m River Right  + 750 m into Whiteclay L. (see maps below)

This day was one of our bigger days in terms of distance covered and portages made.  It included a couple of our longer portages since we had started on Rockcliffe L. two weeks before. But it all felt great – with some fantastic stretches of narrow winding river to paddle in what turned out to be a pretty nice day. By five we had paddled some eight kilometres south on the NE arm of Whiteclay Lake and found a decent campsite.  We were now on the Ogoki River system!

Witchwood River - Map 4

Witchwood River – Map 4

As you can see on the map above, there is nothing to deal with in the seven kilometers from where we camped (top right) all the way through the reedy Grinch Lake section to the start of a 1300 meter portage which crosses a logging road just before the carry ends.  As much as I like the clean look of Garmin’s Topo Canada map set, I am left wondering where the logging road is!  It does not pop up no matter how close you zoom in.  Take a look at this Google Earth view of the portage area to get a better view of the situation –

Witchwood River - logging road portage

The Witchwood River – logging road portage

The Grave Site We Didn’t See!

With all our gear at the logging road just to the east of the bridge, we noticed that the trail continued about 30 meters down the road from the river. Within a few minutes we were back down on the river and ready to keep on heading south.  What we cannot really recall seeing is what these images show –

logging road just east of the Witchwood River bridge

logging road just east of the Witchwood River bridge

Witchwood logging road gravesite marker

Witchwood logging road gravesite marker

Thanks to John Holmes for the pix. He was up there in May of 2012 as a part of a Wabakimi Project team with John Sinclair, Bill Pyle, and Phil Cotton.  As for the story behind the memorial, here is how Ed MacPherson tells it – 

We (Ed and his wife) travelled Witchwood Lake and River downstream and arrived at the Ogoki Road crossing on the Witchwood River. Only the beaver dam to portage over or around, near the south end of Witchwood Lake. We subsequently camped on the road and spent 2 days clearing the long 1200m portage. 

Several meters from our tent, at the side of the road, was a tripod with some eagle feathers attached to the top. We did not know at the time that it marked a grave. In the fall of 2009 MNR and the Fort Hope community, (Ebamatoong First Nation) erected a bronze plaque, marking the grave area. I recall seeing the orange snow fencing on the road while flying over it in July, 2010 on my way to Guerin Lake on the Attwood River.

The story I have heard, and I do not know if it is true or accurate, is that a group of Fort Hope Anishnabi people were travelling the road by snowmobile one winter. They had their spiritual leader and healer, an elderly person, with them. He passed away during the night. They could not bring him back to Fort Hope, so they built their campfire on the road, which thawed the ground underneath and then buried him there marking the approximate location with the tripod and feathers. (See here for the source of the quote.)

There you have it.  Definitely a grave site marker there in 2012!  Not wanting to create a memory of one, I’ll just say that neither my brother or I took notice of it as we finished off our portage by going down the bank of the road not that far from where the marker is in the pic! If you go past this spot in the next while and don’t mind sharing the pic you take, send it to me and I will insert it here as an update.   _________________________________________________________________________

For some reason we had expected the portage to be longer and more painful than it was and an hour later as we stood on the logging road with the canoe and gear, we realized that the put-in was about 100 meters away.

(The above quote and photos make clear why the portage had gone so smoothly.  It had just recently been groomed not only by Ed and his wife but by the Wabakimi Project crew. Thanks! )

As a bonus, shortly after we pushed off from the put-in spot, we saw the biggest bull moose we have ever paddled by – a 1000-pound plus giant crowned with a beautiful set of antlers.  Cameras, of course, were nicely tucked away and safe from harm!

Witchwood River  -map 5

Witchwood River – Map 5

As we moved up Witchwood Lake, we got to watch the canoe’s reflection in the water as the shoreline slipped by.  The vegetation along the ten-kilometer lake  had us thinking  “This has got to be the ultimate moose country” so we dug out one of our cameras to be ready.   Needless to say, the moose didn’t play along!

Near the top of the lake is a beaver dam which has created a two-foot difference in water level from lower to upper.  We hauled the canoe over the unexpected blockage and paddled the final 1.5 km to the portage which would take us into the Ogoki River system.  The trail is very well used; it begins with a very steep section and then levels out before coming down to the shore of Whiteclay Lake. The end of the portage trail has definitely seen some campers over the years; there is room for at least two or three tents and is very nicely sheltered.  Here is a close-up map of the actual portage.

Witchwood to Whiteclay Portage

Witchwood to Whiteclay Portage

We had lunch there and then, at about 3:30, we decided to knock off a few more kilometers. We would find a nice campsite about seven km later and by 5:30 had the tent and tarp up and the stove boiling some water. While the day had involved a bit of work, we had actually expected much worse so we were feeling pretty good about how things had unfolded.

Whiteclay Lake - NE Arm

Whiteclay Lake – NE Arm

Next Post – Up Wabakimi’s Raymond River To Cliff Lake

Useful Links:

We have to thank Phil Cotton and the  Wabakimi Project crews for the work they did on the Witchwood portages and campsites in the year or two before we did this trip.  They also have a recently published map set (Volume 4 in the ultimate collection of Wabakimi canoe tripping maps) which you can see here.  Maps 17 and 18 cover the route from Whiteclay Lake to Hurst Lake. Map 19 takes you through Auger Lake to the Albany River via Petawa Creek.

The Federal Government 1:50000 topos are available for free download here and make a useful addition to the planning phase or to include in your map case.  You would need the following maps for the Witchwood River section:

from Whiteclay Lake to the north end of Witchwood Lake           052P02 (Kilbarry Lake)

from just north of  Witchwood Lake down to Felsia Lake             052P01 (Sim Lake)

from Felsia Lake to Hurst Lake and down to the Albany River     052P08 (Kawitos Lake)

Chuck Ryan (aka CIIcanoe) has a series of posts on a canoe trip route which we ended up copying.  The three entries which deal with their up-the-Witchwood experience begin here. He has included lots of pix of the river and portages to give you an idea of what to expect.  It seems that we did a bit more tracking and they did more portaging thanks to the different water levels we were dealt.

The Canadian Canoe Routes website is always a great place to go for information and advice.  A thread on the Witchwood River can be found here and makes for interesting reading.

 

 

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2 Responses to A Two-Day Paddle Up Wabakimi’s Witchwood River System

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great trip log and appreciate the detailed maps you present.
    I thought this line was particularly poetic: “By the time we got to the bottom of Petawa Creek on Petawanga Lake on Day 9, half of the food had been turned into paddle strokes “.
    Thank you for documenting your trip.

    • true_north says:

      Ken, thanks for giving it a read. To no surprise, there is not a lot on the net on paddling the Witchwood! My post hopefully answers some of the questions that those planning a trip may have as well as providing links to some useful other sources of info. It is a nice little river to be on for a couple of days.

      I think of it as my way of saying “Thank you!” to you Wabakimi Project crew members for the work you do to make our trips possible.

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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