See how our trip is unfolding by clicking on the link below. It is a live GPS track created by our Garmin inReach tracker, which records a location every ten minutes when it is on and then uploads the info via satellite to a Garmin website.
The device also allows for two-way text message communication and our version – the Explorer+ – includes mapping. It represents a significant upgrade from our Spot Connect, now retired after seven years of off-the-grid canoe tripping! Click on the blue text –
It has been five years since my brother Max and I first paddled into Cliff Lake. It was near the end of a three-week 350-kilometer trip that had started on the west side of Wabakimi Provincial Park at Rockcliff Lake, the headwaters of the Misehkow River system.
Cliff Lake and the stretches of dramatic vertical rock face lining its shores left an unforgettable impression, as did another slice of the Canadian Shield canoe country – the Kopka River just above the Goat Portage.
This week we return to visit both of them again. It will be the ultimate double-header, flying into one and paddling out from the other. The planned 14-day trip is supposed to unfold like this:
- fly into Cliff Lake
- spend a couple of days revisiting one of the boreal canoe country’s largest collection of Anishinaabek pictographs
- paddle down the Pikitigushi River to Windigo Bay, checking out the log jams and portage possibilities on the way
- island hop the northwest corner of Lake Nipigon down to Kelvin Island and then across to Echo Rock (wind & waves permitting; we may opt to paddle the mainland shore from the mouth of the Pikitigushi River)
- visit the site of an HBC trading post across from Dog Island
- camp on Jackfish Island and climb up to the Mount Royal fire tower
- paddle up to Wabinosh Bay
- portage and paddle up the Kopka River to just above the Goat Portage or, if time is short, paddle up the Wabinosh River to Mattice Lake via Pillar Lake.
- shuttle back from Bukemiga Lake to Mattice Lake Outfitters
You can download the gpx file of our planned route here – 2018 Cliff/Nipigon/Kopka
This time our trip starts with a very plush de Havilland Beaver insertion from the Mattice Lake Outfitters base camp. We have a couple of campsites in mind for our two- or three-night stay on the lake while we revisit the rock painting sites that started us off on our journey into the world of Anishinaabe pictographs.
A Toast To (Uncle) Phil Cotton (1940-2018)
We also return to Cliff Lake with the bittersweet knowledge that, of all the lakes in the Wabakimi area, it was the favourite spot of the legendary Phil Cotton. Phil was born in Hamilton but his family moved to Thunder Bay when he was fifteen; he would stay in the area, working as a music teacher for forty years at various schools including Port Arthur Collegiate Institute. Summers were for his other passion – canoe trips on the region’s many lakes and rivers, often as a YMCA guide and leader.
On retirement, Phil spent his remaining years advocating for the Wabakimi area. See the map above for the mammoth task he took on through his Wabakimi Project.
- It promoted wilderness canoe tripping in the area,
- by re-establishing historical canoe routes with portage clearing done by volunteer work crews each summer
- and providing canoe trippers with the necessary up-to-date maps which covered the Park and surrounding area.
We first got to know Phil by his Canadian Canoe Routes handle of Voyageur. Back in 2010, he had made our entry into Wabakimi canoe tripping very easy with his ready advice and still unpublished copies of the first volume of the five map sets that his Wabakimi Project has since put out. We had never even heard of Wabakimi and now we were driving 1800 kilometers to Phil’s slice of paddlers’ heaven!
Three more Wabakimi trips in the summers that followed – and three more occasions where we got to benefit from the maps created by Project mapmaker Barry Simon and the portage clearing done by Phil and dozens of Wabakimi Project volunteer work crews. We joked that the trick was to find where Uncle Phil and his work gangs had been the summer before and make that our route!
We’ll follow after him once more – this time to Cliff Lake with an offering of a shot or two of Canadian whisky that we’ll pour into the lake he loved most of all. We miss his keen and precise vision and direct no b.s. manner. He was an original.
Googling his name will turn up some background info on his life and legacy. In this piece –My Turn: Phil Cotton – in On Nature magazine, Phil explains the motivation behind The Wabakimi Project back in 2004 and the Friends of Wabakimi that it has morphed into.
Govt of Canada NRC 1:50,000 Topo Maps
While we appreciate our GPS devices, we like to have a paper copy of the day’s route in our map case. We print the relevant sections of the 1:50,000 topographical maps published by the Federal Government’s Natural Resources Canada department.
Click on the titles of the various map sheets to access jpg copies.
You can also download the maps – larger file size in a tif format – from the Govt of Canada server. Start with this webpage – toporama/50k_geo_tif/ – and go to the 052 folder.
Also coming along are paper copies of a few of the Wabakimi Project‘s Volume 5 map set – Lake Nipigon Northern Tributaries (Wabinosh River to Little Jackfish River). Just published last year, it has the info we need for the last few days of the trip – i.e., the stretch from Wabinosh Bay up to the Kopka Falls or up to Mattice Lake.
We also have our Garmin GPS devices – my brother’s Etrex 20 and my Oregon – both with the Garmin Topo Canada map set installed. Once or twice a trip, they help us figure out exactly where we are! They also record an exact day-by-day track of our route with distance and other variables calculated. It is not everyone’s thing, but we love the stats!
From Cliff Lake To Windigo Bay (Lake Nipigon)
Having done the Pikitigushi from Cliff Lake down to the logging road bridge south of Pikitigushi Lake, we know what to expect on that section of our route. A “question mark” bit of tripping follows – the section from the rapids by the bridge down to Windigo Bay and Lake Nipigon. An ultra-meandering Pikitigushi River, four logjams of varying size, and another set of rapids or two – we’ll finally get to see it for ourselves after mulling it over these past five years! See the following post for this part of our trip –
Once on Lake Nipigon itself, we hope the wind and waves will allow us to paddle to and down the string of islands that arc their way towards Undercliff island and Echo Rock on the mainland. There are a couple of four-or five-kilometer stretches of open water to paddle and conditions will have to be very good for us to contemplate the crossing. The most open section is the one from Kelvin Island over to Undercliff island, but a couple of small islands that break the five-kilometer distance into smaller chunks. We’ve set aside a few extra days for uncooperative weather.
The Weather Network has a Gull Bay marine forecast which will provide the info we need.
Thanks to the fact that our inReach GPS tracker/communicator can receive emails as well as send them, the folks back home will be sending us a synopsis of what the Weather Network page is showing. We will also make use of the premium – i.e., not the basic! – level of weather forecast info provided by our Garmin device.
Echo Rock – Gibraltar-like in its vertical rock face – will be the point of our trip where we head north along the shore to Wabinosh Bay. Just north of the Rock is a campsite that we are looking forward to. A scamper up to the cliff top may be possible!
To the north of Echo Rock – and just across from Dog Island – is the site of a now-gone Hudson Bay Company post, opened in 1850 and closed in 1937. It was K.C.A. Dawson who came upon the site in 1969. What follows is his summary of what he found –
What we’ll see – if anything! – is unclear, but it will still be neat to paddle by and listen for the echoes of Anishinaabe – Cree and Ojibwe – and Scottish voices conducting the fur trade business that first opened up this region to the European newcomers. (See here for a copy of the report.)
Jackfish Island will be the next stop. We’re hoping that there is a trail that goes to the top of the island’s Mount Royal. (The shore is at 260 m; the fire tower is at 420 meters.) There is still a fire tower up there from the time fifty years ago when bush planes had yet to take over surveillance of the boreal forest. The west side of the island is a part of a First Nations territory. (On the older topo map, it is still referred to as Indian Reserve #57.) If anyone is home, we are hoping they can point us to a usable trail up to the top!
Once up in Wabinosh Bay we will decide whether to continue our trip with a return visit to the Kopka Falls area above the infamous Goat Portage. There is an unforgettable small lake up there that we’d like to paddle in again!
If time is short, we may have to leave the Kopka visit for another time and instead head northwest from Wabinosh Lake up the Wabinosh River towards Nameiben Lake and then up to Pillar and Mattice Lakes. Our car is parked at the north end of Mattice Lake at Don and Annette Eliot’s Mattice Lake Outfitters Lodge.
Time will tell how it all unfolds. Until then, check in every once in a while to see how we’re doing!