Canoeing The Little Missinaibi River: Day 1 – from Healey Bay to Ramhill Lake

Previous Post: The Little Missinaibi From Top To Bottom – Intro, Maps, & Logistics

  • distance: 14 km
  • time:  start – 8:30 a.m. ; finish – 3:00 p.m.
  • portages/rapids: 4
    • Culvert under railroad – iffy in low water maybe  – check with Happy Day Lodge.
    • Lining through marsh/streams in Little Island Lake
    • P1 RL – 130m – over gravel road; followed by some 450m of floaters, deadfall etc. to Mackey L
    • P2 RL – 560m – dry (muddy) lake bed for about 260m followed by lineable stream section of about 300m; followed by beaver dams, then lineable rocky stretches. As always, this will vary based on water levels. It could turn into a 1000 m + portage!!
    • P3 RR – 90m
    • P4/LO – 10m around or over the mini-beaver dam stretched between the two sides of the overgrown road.
  • weather: Overcast in the morning, then sunny rest of the day; rain overnight
  • campsite: Unused logging road; room for multiple 2/4 person tents on the left side (did not check the right side of the road

LM01 copy

And so the adventure begins!

We had driven up from southern Ontario to Healey Bay on Lake Windermere the day before.  It is a 28-kilometer drive on a decent gravel road off Highway 101 to the west of Chapleau.  We tented overnight at the Happy Day Lodge  ($30.) and then arranged to leave our vehicle there ($5. a day) while we made our nine-day trip. It seemed a safer option than leaving the car in a parking lot in Chapleau.  The trip’s start was also just down the shore from the lodge, so it was perfect.   We would get back to the lodge from Missanabie on the VIA train that runs from  White River to Sudbury. (The train runs east three times a week – Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.)

Happy Day Lodge – Main office at Lake Windermere (Healey Bay)

We were at the dock and on the water by 8:30, and it would be overcast for the first part of the day as we made our way to the headwaters of the Little Missinaibi River.

the dock at Happy Day Lodge on Lake Windermere (Healey Bay)

When we paddled under the railway tracks, we were officially in the Chapleau Crown Game Preserve, apparently the world’s largest. Who knew!  Founded in 1925, its boundaries are the Chapleau River on the east, the CPR tracks that we were limbo-ing under on the south, the old Algoma Central tracks on the west, and the CNR tracks on the north side. See the map below for some context.

bear spray

While hunting and trapping are not allowed (except by those indigenous people who choose to by Treaty right), clear-cut logging does continue. There is also a road from Chapleau that goes right to a campground at the Preserve’s heart on Missinaibi Lake’s Barclay Bay.  The area around the lake – and Little Missinaibi Lake – is also a part of Missinaibi Provincial Park.

I had been concerned enough about the possibility of bear encounters in an area famous for its bear population that, for the first time in thirty years, we were setting off with bear spray – one can for each of us!  [Spoiler!  We did see two bears over the nine days; they  wanted nothing to do with us and disappeared into the bush on seeing us.]

heading north from the CPR rail bridge at Healey Bay

A leisurely half-hour paddle to warm up, and then we were faced our first unknown – the passage from the southern section of Little Island Lake to the top of the lake. We found a reedy shallow passage and spent fifteen minutes lining and walking and dragging the canoe to some water we could dip our paddles in. The map and images below show the terrain.

looking at the trip’s first question mark – the narrow channel at the north end of Little Island Lake

a narrow rut to drag our canoe through at the top of Little Island Lake

After that, it was easy paddling to the top of Little Island Lake.   Thanks to the aluminum canoe and the motorboat shell sitting on the shore, we found the trail going up to the Austin Road from the lake.  We walked the canoe and gear down to some water on the other side of the road.

The trip was less than two hours old when Max had already scored his first flower shot!  Then we spent an hour and a quarter dealing with the 440-meter distance to get into  Mackey Lake – paddling, lining, dragging our way.

the Austin Road between Little Island Lake and Mackey Lake

a lady’s-slipper on the side of the Austin Road; also called moccasin flower

our canoe reloaded on the east side of the Austin Road

our next obstacle on the way to Mackey Lake – we found a small channel on river left

a narrow channel to paddle on the section between Little Island Lake and Mackey Lake

When we first got our pricy composite Kevlar/carbon fibre Swift Dumoine we were determined to prevent scratches.  On its first trip – the 2012 Kopka – we brought along a 2′ x 4′  plastic sliding platform  – aka “the magic carpet” –  which we placed in crucial spots to help with dragging the canoe over logs and beaver dams and other impediments.  While the initial motivation may have been to reduce scratches, we soon realized that was hopeless and came to accept the scrapes as a price of the journey.  However, we also appreciated how it made dragging the canoe so much easier! You’ll see it at work in a few pix – like the one below as we make our way to Mackey Lake.

dragging the canoe over deadfall before Mackey Lake

A leisurely thirty-minute paddle up Mackey Lake to our next unknown, the passage into Sunset Lake.  Mackey Lake would seem to be the headwaters of the Little Missinaibi River, but its flow into Sunset Lake has been blocked by a makeshift gravel and rock wall around the culvert connecting the two lakes and going under the logging road.

We beached the canoe and walked across the logging road, expecting to see the long narrow pond shown on the Garmin topo map.  Instead, we saw about 300 meters of the dry riverbed.  Portage time!  We followed that up with some lining and paddling when the water was deep enough.

the top of Mackey Lake – culvert

Max doing carry -the-portage-into-sunset-lake

The little dot you see a bit right of center in the image above is Max doing a double bag carry to the end of the dry section.  It was Day One, so we were at our heaviest.  Given our carry-and-a-half system,  I follow with a similar load and drop it at the halfway point and then return for the canoe and camera bag while Max returns to the halfway point and picks up the bags I have dropped. The portage is done when I get to the end with the canoe.  We know we have done a good job guessing the halfway point when we arrive together!

the canoe making its way to some water on Sunset Lake

It took us about an hour to deal with the portage and lining from Mackey to Sunset.  Somewhere near the end – it was 12:30 –  we stopped for an hour, pulling out the lunch bag and our plush Helinox camp chairs and took a break.

a photo-op as we look back to the narrow stretch of river between Mackey and Sunset

looking north at the Little Missinaibi as it heads for Sunset Lake

Once on Sunset Lake, we celebrated that from here on, it would definitely be 65 kilometers of downhill to Missinaibi Lake at Whitefish Falls.

And then – a shocker!   Sitting on the lake as we entered were a couple of fishing boats!  “What the …! How did they get here?”  Well,  the Austin Road passes the lake on its east shore, and a few minutes later, we would see their parked vehicles. We waved at them in the distance and headed to the north end of the lake, where it narrows and does a sharp turn to the right.  We knew there would be some complications to deal with!

We spent a half-hour (2:00 to 2:30) on the rapids and blockages to the north of Sunset Lake, where it makes that sharp turn to the east.  There was no trail to be found – what a  surprise! – so we bushwhacked our way on river right to the bottom of the rapids.  Along the way, we did some trimming and marking the new trail with prospector tape on the off-chance that some crazy canoe trippers would be coming through!

a section of the portage trail we made and marked – first bend north of Sunset Lake

canoe ready to go at the portage put-in below Sunset Lake

We put in below the rapids out of Sunset Lake at 2:30.  By 3:00, we had paddled the three kilometers down to the “road” as it crossed the river at the south end of Ramhill Lake. There is a definite wetland feel to the area;  it reminded us of the Peterbell marsh area on the Missinaibi River. Three beaver dams presented the only interruptions to our easy paddling.

We kept looking for grazing moose, but none were to be seen. We would see our first (and only moose) of the trip on Day 5 as we were approaching Admiral Falls just north of the outlet of  Little Missinaibi Lake.  We had expected way more, given that this was the world’s largest game preserve! [See the Benoits’ Boreal In Peril – The State of The Chapleau Game Preserve)  for a troubling assessment. They have also produced a brief video accessible on Youtube here.]

We set up camp on river left after clearing away some alders. A light rain had us setting up the Granny apple green silnylon über-tarp first and then putting up the tent underneath.  Some packs went underneath the overturned canoe and others into the vestibule areas on both sides of the tent.  Then it started raining in earnest for a while, so we had a late afternoon siesta, lulled into nap mode by the raindrops hitting the tarp.

panorama – the remains of a road partway across the Little Missinaibi above Ramhill Lake

Day 1 campsite on the Little Missinaibi above Ramhill Lake

the Little Missinaibi River from our campsite above Ramhill Lake

Later on, the sun was back out and the day ended clear and sunny. Thirty meters behind the tent on the remnants of the once-logging road, we put up our new Eureka NoBugZone for the first time.  While we didn’t really need to – since the black flies and mosquitos were not that bad – we figured it would be good to learn how to do it before the evening came when we really needed it up in a hurry!

As you can see from the image below, it definitely looks like a first effort.  It would take us a few set-ups before we caught on to the right things to do and look for.  Click here for the best set-up – it came seven nights later!

Our Eureka NoBugZone is up for the first time – and looking like it!

Day One had gone pretty much as expected.  The 1:50,000 topo maps for Day Two promised a different kind of day as we left the wetlands and a negligible elevation drop to more dramatic drops in elevation.  There would be some work to do as we continued down a section of the river that few – if any – canoe trippers have done lately. How much work we would soon find out!

Next Post – Day Two: From Ramhill Lake To Below Rawhide Lake


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2 Responses to Canoeing The Little Missinaibi River: Day 1 – from Healey Bay to Ramhill Lake

  1. Absolutely beautiful. Thank you for your story and images. Very interested in how your Eureka NoBugZone tent performed. That’s a name to live up to. Googled it, reasonably priced. (My only aversion to portage camping is the insect bites, always looking for ways to reduce their success.)

    • true_north says:

      We usually avoid June canoe tripping because it is prime time for black flies. I figured the bug shelter would give us a refuge from the swarms of blood-seeking critters. It turned out to be nowhere near as bad as expected!

      We did appreciate the NoBugZone. It made the bugs a complete non-issue at nights and early mornings at breakfast. It weighs 5.5 lbs. It has been added to our 2 lbs each Helinox chairs as essential gear.

      The added comfort and peace of mind are worth the extra weight!

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