Down The Pikitigushi From Cliff Lake To Lake Nipigon: Logistics. Maps and Day 1 – Cliff Lake

Related Posts: Canoeing From The Pikitigushi’s Cliff Lake to Echo Rock on Lake Nipigon … a summary of our trip with lots of pix

It was back in 2013 that my brother Max and I first paddled into Cliff Lake.  It was near the end of a memorable three-week 350-kilometer trip that had started on the west side of Wabakimi Provincial Park at Rockcliff Lake, close to the headwaters of the Misehkow River system. In Max’s mind, it is the best trip we’ve ever done!

Paddling the Perimeter of Wabakimi Provincial Park – Overview Map and Links To Detailed Posts

Cliff Lake site #219 up closer

a small section of Dewdney’s Site #219 on Cliff Lake

Among the many highlights of that trip,  Cliff Lake and the stretches of dramatic vertical rock face lining its shores left an unforgettable impression.  This September we returned for another look at one of the boreal canoe country’s largest collections of Anishinaabek pictographs painted on six different stretches of rock on the lake.

Along with the pictographs, this September’s short trip had a couple of other goals –

  • going down the Pikitgushi River right to its mouth on Windigo Bay
  • island-hopping our way down Lake Nipigon to Echo Rock just north of Gull Bay and then back up the lake’s west side to Wabinosh Bay and Waweig Lake
Lake Nipigon - West Bay - Echo Rock

Echo Rock – aerial view from the south

What we Did For 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.

052 I 10 Linklater Lake

052 I 07_Pikitigushi Lake

052 I 02_Castle Lake

052 I 01_Ombabika Bay

052 H 15_Kelvin Island 

052 I 03_Wigwasan Lake

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 used were paper copies of a couple of pages of the Friends of Wabakimi‘s Volume 5 map set – Lake Nipigon Northern Tributaries (Wabinosh River to Little Jackfish River).  Just published last year, it had the info we needed for the last two days of the trip – i.e., the stretch from Wabinosh Bay up to Wabinosh and Waweig Lakes.

Our Garmin GPS devices – my brother’s Etrex 20 and my Oregon – both have 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!

A Toast To (Uncle) Phil Cotton (1940-2018)

We also returned 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 the 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 1600 kilometers to Armstrong Station and the slice of paddlers’ heaven that Phil had made his retirement project!

Phil Cotton

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 all we had to do was find out where Uncle Phil and his work gangs had been the summer before and make that our route!

With this trip we followed after him once more – this time to Cliff Lake with an offering of a shot or two of Canadian whisky that we poured 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.

Getting To The Put-In:

It is a sixteen-hour drive (and 1600 km.) from southern Ontario to Armstrong Station, Ontario, and one we have done three times to access our favourite slice of northern Ontario canoe country. This time we got to Marathon on top of Lake Superior around 7:00 p.m. on Friday, twelve hours after having left Toronto.   After overnighting at the Airport Motel on the Trans-Canada, we finished off the trip with a 500 km. ride along some of the most scenic road views in Canada – i.e., the section from Marathon to Nipigon.  As we crossed the bridge over the Steel River east of Terrace Bay, we reminisced about our Steel River trip a couple of summers ago.

Approaching the eastern outskirts of Thunder Bay, we took Highway 527 north up to Armstrong Station. [It is always a good idea to tank up before you leave the Trans-Canada since there are no gas stations once you get on 527.]  There is, of course,  a gas station at the end of the paved road at Armstrong Station.

Before turning in at Mattice Lake,  we continued up to Armstrong for a fill-up so that we’d have a full tank ready for our ride back south a couple of weeks later.  We also had lunch at  E & J Restaurant on Queen Street before redoing the 10 km.  back down Highway 527 to Mattice Lake Outfitters.

We had arranged a fly-in to Cliff Lake for that afternoon and they were waiting for us! While there are certainly cheaper options to get to Cliff Lake,  there are other costs associated with them that made the ride in a De Havilland Beaver easier to rationalize! At the end of the trip, we had also arranged for a shuttle back to our vehicle at Mattice Lake.  Don Eliot and his staff provide as much service as a canoe party might need, right up to renting out canoes. [Click on the header below to access their web page.]

Mattice Lake Outfitters header

Day 1 – From Mattice Lake to Cliff Lake by Air

  • distance: flight: 63 km / revisit the north end picto sites: 5 km.)
  • time: 26 min / 2 hours
  • portages/rapids: 0/0
  • weather: sunny and seasonably warm; some wind
  • campsite: north end, east side of the lake; 1 x 4 person; 2 x 2 person sites

With our canoe strapped on to one of the de Havilland’s pontoons and our gear piled in the back of the plane, we made the less than 30-minute flight from Mattice Lake to Cliff Lake.  We had originally planned just to get shuttled to the Bear Camp off the logging road that crosses the Pikitigushi some 40 kilometers south of Cliff Lake and then paddle up to Cliff Lake over a couple of days.

We decided to splurge and, instead of paddling both up to and then back down from Cliff Lake, we had two days to spend on other water.  Subtracting the cost of the road shuttle from Mattice Lake to the Bear Camp somehow made the $850. cost of the flight seem a bit less extravagant!

the pilot Yves strapping our canoe to the Beaver’s left pontoon

our canoe strapped to the de Havilland Beaver and ready for take-off

a view of the inside of the four-seater Beaver

de Havilland Beaver control panel

de Havilland Beaver control panel – cutting edge technology from the 1950s!

a view of the Mattice Lake Outfitters

Mattice Lake from the air – Mattice Lake Outfitters on the left

a view of Armstrong Station from the air – looking east

Yves checking the map

Yves trying to make sense of that carpet of green and blue we are flying over

Cliff Lake – an aerial view from the north

We asked Yves to land at the north end of the long and narrow lake. We had set up camp on a point on the east side of the lake five summers ago which we remembered as an excellent spot.

Cliff Lake Campsite across from Dewdney’s Pictograph Site #264

Perhaps it was the string of okay but not truly great campsites on our 2013 trip that resulted in our very positive rating for this Cliff Lake tent site?  The view of the stretch of vertical rock on the other side of the lake was a plus!   We found our tent spot – it is on the left side of the panorama image above – about thirty meters in from the shore.  Just to the right of the canoe but not in the image is a rocky spit with a fire pit that makes for a nice place to set up the eating area and to sit and contemplate the lake and rock as dusk moves in.

In retrospect, perhaps not the greatest campsite ever –  but it was certainly nice to be back!

the north end of Dewdney’s Site #264 on Cliff Lake

The main reason for our return was to see the Ojibwe rock paintings that had ignited our interest back in 2013 and continue to influence where we choose to paddle, intent as we have become on seeing more of the sites which have been documented and occasionally finding some that haven’t been.

Selwyn Dewdney is the person most responsible for initiating the systematic recording and analysis of Anishinaabe rock paintings (i.e., petroglyphs or pictographs) of the Canadian Shield. His book Indian Rock Paintings of The Great Lakes (First Edition) has provided us with a list of sites to visit and an introduction to the meaning of the various paintings.

Dewdney puts  Cliff Lake as a pictograph lake into context this way:

[It has] a concentration of petroglyphs that is only exceeded by the Hickson-Maribelli sites north of the Saskatchewan River in Saskatchewan, and by the Bon Echo sites on Lake Mazinaw in southern Ontario….The overriding impression of the Cliff Lake setting is one of an age-hallowed place, where paintings were made at intervals over long periods of time.  More than half of them are indecipherable and many more nearly so….[137, 140]

Download (here) the pages of Dewdney’s Indian Rock Paintings of the Great Lakes where the six Cliff Lake pictograph sites are described.

N.B. In 1967 a second edition of the book was published. The Cliff Lake material appears in it but not in the first edition, a link to which is provided here.

Also, note that Dewdney refers to the river of which Cliff Lake is a part as the Mud and not the Pikitigushi.  Given a comment by Robert Bell of the Geological Survey of Canada in his 1870 Report on the Geology of the Nipigon District,  it would seem that Mud is just the English translation of the Ojibwe –

During the spring freshets, the waters of the Pickitigouching are said to be quite milky from the clay which they hold in suspension, and hence the Indian name of this stream, which signifies the Muddy River.

The clay banks of the river beginning south of Pikitigushi Lake give the river its early-season muddiness.  South of the logging road the river has meandered its way through thirty kilometers of a massive glacial sand deposit which reminded us of the lower Steel River to the south of Rainbow Falls.


Cliff Lake map with Selwyn Dewdney’s numbered sites indicated – pages numbers refer to his book Indian Rock Paintings of the Great Lakes

After we got the tent up we figured we’d revisit the two pictograph sites at the north end of the lake – Dewdney’s sites #264 and 263 – as well as check out the potential campsite on the east side of the lake across from pictograph site #263.  In my mind, I was already writing a post that would highlight the four or five best campsites on Cliff Lake!

the lakefront patio at our Cliff Lake campsite

Sept 8 paddling Cliff Lake

On our way over to #264, we checked out the point across from our campsite which looked like another possible site.  Ten minutes of tromping around later, we had to conclude that there was nothing there that would get us to stay and put up a tent!  Off we went to see the pictographs.

Dewdney Site #264 – human figure and caribou and various smudges

Dewdney had the following to say about his Pictograph Site #264.  In his scheme of things, it is the fourth and northernmost of the sites on the west side of the lake  –

caribou figure and human figure – Cliff Lake Site #264

Dewdney’s drawing of Site #264 – Face I in 1965

Dewdney Site #264 – Face I

My shot of Face I is a good example of the A+ blur you can achieve when your camera is set at 1/30th sec. and you are sitting in a canoe bobbing up and down!

We continued on down the lake to the next site – listed as #263 by Dewdney. Here is a view of the rock face of #263 which we took a half-hour later from the east side of the lake –

Cliff lake Site #263

And here are some close-ups of a few of the images and smudges you will find there.

Cliff Lake Site #263 pictographs

Dewdney’s drawing of Cliff Lake Site #263 pictographs

Cliff lake Site #263

Our visit to the two pictograph sites at the north end of the lake done, we paddled to the other side of the lake to the potential campsite we had visited back in 2013.  It sits on that fairly flat piece of rock outcrop about four meters above the water and is accessible from the north end.  It is no more than a bit awkward to unload the canoe and move your gear the four meters up to the plateau if you choose to put your tent up there.  You can see the campsite in the image below taken from Dewdney’s Site #263.

campsite on the east side of Cliff Lake – north end across from Dewdney’s Site #263

What we found were a number of fair-weather two-person tent site possibilities with little shelter from the wind. Our four-person MEC Wanderer with its 2.5 m x 3 m space requirement would have had a home if we dealt with the deadfall that covered the one suitable area. However, given that it was more exposed to the elements than we like, we decided that – after all our talk about what a great site it was! – we would not be tenting there the next night!

a view of the Cliff Lake campsite area across from Dewdney’s Site #263

Instead, we figured that the next morning we would pack up and paddle down the lake and see if we could find another – read “better” – site where we could spend a second night on the lake.  [Spoiler alert: the next night we were sleeping in an abandoned cabin on Ratte Lake!]

Sept 9 – Cliff Lake To Ratte lake

Next Post: Day 2 and 3  – Cliff Lake To Ratte Lake To The Boucher Bear Camp












This entry was posted in Anishinaabek World, Pictographs of the Canadian Shield, wilderness canoe tripping. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Down The Pikitigushi From Cliff Lake To Lake Nipigon: Logistics. Maps and Day 1 – Cliff Lake

  1. David Towlun says:

    Thank you so much for your very thorough route descriptions. They’re not only great diversions as we enter the winter months, but they’re also informative. I’ve been eyeing Wabakimi for a few years and your recent entry on Cliff Lake has confirmed it for me – I’m going!

    I’ve got a question for you. I’m a hammock camper. In your experience, are there enough large trees that far in the boreal that I can hang from? Thanks. Looking forward to reading more of your adventures!

    • true_north says:

      David, nuthin’ like canoe trip seed time, eh! We’ve certainly enjoyed our trips up to Wabakimi over the past eight years and Cliff Lake is just one of the memorable spots we keep talking about. Having picked Wabakimi, now you got to narrow it down to one from a hundred different possibilities! See an older post A Paddler’s List of Wabakimi’s Top Six for a subjective take.

      Re: hammock camping. Not an issue at all! In fact, you’ll have an easier time of it that we do thanks to our 8′ x 10′ four-person tent.

      Enjoy the planning phase of your next adventure!

  2. Dan Rachor says:

    Personally, I love the campsite at the north end! Great view. Great “kitchen area” We put two smaller tents there just fine and stayed two nights.

    • true_north says:

      In the end, it is the best site on the lake! We really did not see anything better in our search for alternatives.

      • Dan Rachor says:

        Yes and it is nicely tucked away out of the wind. When we arrived there we were facing a stiff wind. I was glad I had printed out your map showing where the site was. Even the short little paddle to the site was a challenge in that wind. If nothing changes there is a good chance I will camp there a night or two this summer. Not doubt I will think of you and your bro.

  3. Erik Torpegaard says:

    Picture 264 is very interesting and is in my opinion showing a map and a route from Greenland (east) to Lake Nipigon (West). It could have been made by Norse people (Vikings)

    • true_north says:

      Erik, while the Vikings did establish a settlement on the Atlantic coast at Newfoundland’s L’Anse aux Meadows 1000 years ago, the idea that they journeyed deep into the heart of the continent in the Lake Superior area has been thoroughly debunked in the past 60 years.

      The Indigenous people who have lived in the area for at least 2000 years were the ones who made the rock paintings using images and symbols taken from their cultural image bank. The Cliff Lake pictograph site is one of hundreds in the boreal forests of the Canadian Shield. Sometimes the most obvious explanation with lots of evidence supporting it is also the correct one!

      See this article – dating back to 1957 – which exposes the most recent of the many hoaxes perpetrated on gullible people.

      Click to access beardmore-viking-hoax-2.pdf

      A recent in-depth examination of the Beardmore hoax sums things up nicely and is definitely worth a read. See here –

      Beardmore: The Viking Hoax That Rewrote History

      BTW – I looked over my post to see what your comment about picture 264 refers to. I have no idea what you are talking about! Feel free to clarify.

      • ERIK TORPEGAARD says:

        I can’t send a picture this way, but if you look at pic 264 at right you will see Greenland mapping going at left against Lake Superior. You will find more lakes on this mapping.

      • true_north says:

        Erik, I still have no idea where you are seeing a map in any of the images in that post! If you could take a screenshot of the image and send it to me via email – – I will be able to see what you are referring to!

        BTW – you do know that the Vikings never got to Lake Superior, don’t you? Perhaps you are so committed to believing this is the case, that your mind can interpret things in such a way so that they fit and confirm your existing belief. I am reminded of St. Augustine’s troubling maxim – “I believe in order to understand”.

        Erik’s response by email –

        Here’s a first draft of the route from Greenland to Lake Superior as a Gateway.
        Follow the Brown routes. Lake Nipigon is North of Lake Superior, the way the Norse made their maps.
        Try to use Google maps and you will find the same Picture. I have some bearing dials telling the same story.

        Your comments please.

        He provided this image as “evidence”: Lake Superior and Greenland drawn on a rock face at Cliff Lake It is a panel at Dewdney’s Site #264 with a woodland caribou and a human figure. By “brown routes” he presumably means the lichen in the shallow rock grooves.

        My comment? Incredible how the mind can create meaning and evidence that supports pre-existing beliefs.

  4. Erik Torpegaard says:

    Hope for comments from people width a more open mind and knowledge from the areas. If they contact me I can give you more “evidences”.

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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