Down The Pikitigushi River From Cliff Lake To Lake Nipigon: From The Bear Camp To Windigo Bay

Previous Post: Days 2 & 3 – From Cliff Lake To Ratte Lake To The Bear Camp

For an overview map and some pix that highlight the entire 150 km. route., check out  Canoeing From The Pikitigushi’s Cliff Lake to Echo Rock on Lake Nipigon  

Day 4 – From The Bear Camp to Below Log Jam #3

Day 4 – the Pikitigushi River south of the road

N.B. images and maps enlarge with a click or two!

• distance: 14.4 km
• time: 9:40 a.m to 5:05 p.m.
• portages/rapids/liftover-line: 3/0/1; P 280m – (Bear camp to river right); LO LJ1 – 20m (higher water may be navigable); P LJ2 – 70m (25 min); LJ3 – 70m ( +2 hours – cut portage along embankment)
• weather: sunny in the morning then partly cloudy w/sunny periods, warm
• campsite: grassy river embankment area (to avoid sand), 1 x 4 person (possibly more 2 person areas; plus more on sand)

We spent the first three days of this summer’s canoe trip revisiting Cliff Lake and redoing the stretch of the Pikitigushi from Cliff down to the Bear Camp a few kilometers south of Pikitigushi Lake.  No surprises there!

location of the four logjams on the Pikitigushi, as well as the historical Big Bend portage. Also indicated is my brilliant idea to deal with three of the four logjams – that is,  a 5.2-km. portage. Max made clear we would be doing no such crazy thing. Of course, he was right!

Now we were heading down the last fifty kilometers of the river to its mouth on Windigo Bay on Lake Nipigon.  We had little information except for some satellite scans courtesy of Google Earth and Bing and the Ontario Government’s map site.

The earliest reference I found to the bottom stretch of the Pikitigushi was by Robert Bell of the Geological Survey of Canada. He had come up the west side of  Lake Nipigon in 1869 and written a report on his findings.  Now in a report he contributed to the Geological Survey of Canada Report of Progress For 1871-1872,  he summarized the work of his colleague, a Mr. Lount, who had gone up the river as far as Pikitigushi Lake (named Round Lake in the report):

We set off from the Bear Camp knowing this –

  • It is 16 km. as the crow flies from the Bear Camp to the mouth of the Pikitigushi on Windigo Bay. We paddled 50 km.  There was some meandering coming up!
  • Once below the Bear Camp rapids, recent satellite images showed that there were four logjams and one more set of rapids to deal with.
  • Topographical maps still show the portage to which Bell refers. Using it would eliminate fifteen kilometers of paddling around the Big Bend. We doubted that it still existed.
  • From the Bear Camp guys, we learned that water levels were at an almost historic low.

The Pikitigushi Bear Camp – a view from the road

Barry’s Bear Camp dog Sophie

the Pikitigushi Bear Camp and the road over the  culvert

Before we packed up our gear and did the 300-meter portage to the put-in below the rapids, we walked down to the culvert for another look. The first image is a view of the river above the culvert. As I snapped the shot,  I recalled a Canadian Canoe Routes forum trip report (“Wabakimi 2017- 7 sisters- to whitewater – to Pikitigushi“)  by ipaddle from 2017 in which he mentioned some confusion about exactly where the take-out was. (See the entry for July 19!) In short – if you can see the culvert, you have gone too far!

looking north up the Pikitigushi from the logging road over the culvert

The early morning view downriver included a bit of mist rising off the water and the sun coming up on river left. The portage trail eliminates all the potential drama of bumping and grinding your way down. Neither image makes clear that there is a 50′ (15 meters) drop from the top of the rapids to the bottom.

looking south down the Pikitigushi from the culvert crossing by the Bear Camp

We had spent a half-hour the evening before walking to the put-in and doing some trail work at the same time. It is a fairly well-used trail with Bear Camp guests walking it to access the fishing spots below the rapids.  We’d meet the couple from Texas staying at the camp a few minutes after we had loaded up the canoe and were ready to start.

Seeing the photo below of me staring at the iPhone in my hands is yet another reminder of how canoe tripping has changed since our first trips in the late 1970’s!  Back then it was a half-dozen paper topos at $2.50 a sheet and maybe a paperback for rainy days. Our manual-focus Nikon SLRs rarely came out during the day.  We’d bring five or six rolls of 36 100 a.s.a. slide film along.   Now we take cell phones, a Garmin GPS device or two, an inReach Explorer for off-the-grid emergency communication, and two or three digital cameras – point & shoots and DSLRs –  and jars of batteries and power packs.  Sometimes we get nostalgic for the good ol’ days!

But there are benefits too!   At the put-in, I fired up the iPhone and took another look at the saved image of the first of the four logjams we’d be facing. It comes up within the first half-hour.  See below for what I was staring at!

the put-in at the Pikitigushi logging road portage

Logjam #1:

Logjam #1

And so we set off, hoping for the best. Given that the satellite images were not totally current, it was possible that things had moved or cleared – or made even more blocked up in the year or two since the images were taken.

The good news?  Logjam #1, as the GPS data above shows, took us about ten minutes to deal with and we slipped into a bit of fast water afterwards. We paddled through on river right with things looking pretty much the way they do in the image above.

One down and three to go!

below Logjam #1 looking  downriver

There is the occasional collection of deadwood, as in the image below, that we dealt with but nothing more complicated than paddling around or hauling over.  We liked the feel of the river, its narrowness and the high sand banks that gave it a closed in feeling. [And its English name Mud River, which is apparently a translation of the Ojibwe Pikitigushi.]  For the next two days, we would be reminded of the Steel River in its thirty kilometers of meandering in the section below Rainbow Falls.

a logjam in the making on the Pikitigushi –

high sand banks on the Pikitigushi

Next up – Logjam #2.

This logjam would require a bit more work.  We spent a few minutes doing some cutting so we could move the gear and canoe through the thirty meters of bush on river right. Our GPS track indicates that we spent about 30 minutes on Logjam #2 before we were back to our 6-km./hr. cruising speed.  We did take out the prospectors’ tape and mark the trail – we are just not sure for whom!  So far, the water level had not been an issue and the logjams were easy to deal with.

Pikitigushi – Logjam #2

We paddled around the collection of deadfall in the image below on the left – no big deal. Next up – Logjam #3.  We would finally be faced with some serious work!

some deadfall below logjam #2

lunch spot on the Pikitigushi before Logjam #3

Logjam #3:

The mess of a logjam you see below is the one which took us the longest to deal with. We pulled up to it around 2:15 and only paddled away at about 4:30. The trail clearing at the top end gobbled up some time, as did the scampering over the logjam itself near the end.  Both Max and I took tumbles as we hopped from log to log. The light pack that he was carrying actually provided a bit of a cushion for his fall.

We were on our way back to do a two-person carry of the canoe over the logs when I slipped and fell awkwardly, landing on my upper right arm and shoulder. For the rest of the trip, my right arm was operating at 70% as I adjusted my stroke and canoe hoisting technique, and even the way I slept,  so as not to aggravate the shoulder.  Three extra-strength ibuprofen daily were also a part of the answer.

As I write two months later,  the pain is still there.  I kept thinking – “Give it time! You’re not 25 anymore – it takes longer!” However, after a visit to the doctor and an ultrasound and x-ray later,  it looks like a partially torn tendon in my shoulder and a 5 mm. bone fragment that may need something more than time.  I’ve got an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon in late November for an MRI that should give a clearer picture before we consider the next step.  And now I finally understand what the phrase “rotator cuff” means!

Pikitigushi Logjam #3 – click on the image to see the route we took

the top side of logjam #3

Not long after leaving LJ#3 we starting scanning the shoreline for a possible campsite. A spot on river left on one of the many bends of the river is what we settled on.  While we don’t like tenting on sand because of the mess involved, we found a grassy and fairly flat spot just above the beach.

We had only covered 14 kilometers of the river but it felt good to know that we only had to deal with one logjam and a set of rapids the next day.  We also had to decide whether to make use of that Big Bend portage indicated on all the topographic maps.

our MEC Wanderer 4 on a bed of grass above the sandbanks of the Pikitigushi

tent site on the lower Pikitigushi below logjam #3

Day 5 – Below Log Jam 3 to Mud River

  • distance: 27.7 km
  • time: 9:15 a.m to 6:15 p.m.
  • portages/rapids/liftover-line: 1/0/0; P 210m; including portage cutting and log dance (1h 45min)
  • weather: partly cloudy, sunny periods, warm
  • campsite: Mud River outfitter camp ‘lawn’, river left,  north of tracks – uphill ~40m portage!!), multiple 1 x 4 person (with permission?)
  • 1:50,000 Natural Resources Canada Maps: 052 I 07_Pikitigushi Lake

Pikitigushi River above Mud River VIA Rail Stop

“The Big Bend” On The Pikitigushi:

Not far from our campsite was the top end of the historical shortcut portage which had been used 100 years ago to eliminate the paddle around the Big Bend.  I had found reports from 1909 and 1939 which mentioned this portage and the topos still drew it as if it still existed.

An Ontario Department of Mines report from 1909 makes these observations about the Big Bend Portage –

The object of this long portage seems to be the escaping of a trip of ten miles, around a great bend in the river. Careful estimation showed a change of only 15 feet in the level of the river, between the upper and lower ends of the portage.

Around 9:30 we slowly paddled by the shoreline where a creek supposedly comes in from the little pond indicated on the map. We did not see the creek.  We also did not notice anything along the shore that would indicate a  boat landing or human traffic. We were not surprised since we had seen no signs of anyone having been on the river  – no campsites, no fire pits, no abandoned fishing boats, no marking tape for portages around the logjams … nada!

We decided to stick with the river and paddle around the Big Bend instead of taking on a 1.5-kilometer portage across the Big Bend through an area ripped apart by clear-cutting. It was the right choice!

We were at the other end of the once-portage trail just before noon – it had taken us about two and a half hours to travel the thirteen kilometres around the Big Bend.  There were no noteworthy obstructions and occasionally some fast water to speed up the proceedings for a minute or two.  The satellite image above did have us wondering why a section of the river has the sandy white colour you associate with a dry river bed.

We didn’t know it at the time but at the easternmost point of the Big Bend, we were no more than 2.5 km. from the gravel road that connects Armstrong and the Bear Camp to Ferland. one stop east of Mud River on the CN rail line. [See here for a map which has the road on it.]

All in all, there are far worse ways to spend a morning than to paddle down a river with both banks a few meters away. However, coming up was the last of the logjams.  Less than 2 km. below the bottom end of the used-to-be Big Bend Portage we came to Logjam #4.

Logjam #4:

Click on the image to see our easy way around the logjam! The bottom was clear and we paddled out with no problem.

We had lunch at the top of the logjam.  I opened up my iPhone and the satellite images I had of the various logjams. We looked at the image above and saw that after getting around the initial blockage at the top, we might be able to paddle out without any more fussing around. Lunch done,  we spent a half-hour clearing a walkable path, making use of the collapsed edge of the river bank on river right.

 

 

the other end of Logjam #4

Max waiting as I video the “path” we had used to get our gear around the top of the logjam

the view from the canoe to the deadfall I just passed under  – looking pretty bad!

And then it was on to a set of rapids/falls about 6 kms. downriver.  Interestingly, that 1909 Department of Mines Report I referred to above made no mention of any of the four logjams we had dealt with.  If they existed back then, someone coming upriver from the railway stop at Mud River would have to deal with three of them.

The Report does mention the set of rapids/falls that we were approaching. Since it was written from the perspective of someone going upriver from the rail tracks at Mud River, it refers to the way around them as “the first portage”.

At the first portage there is a combined fall and rapid, making a total change of elevation in the river of nearly 18 feet….The portage is well beaten and only 215 yards long.  At 300 yards above this portage, there is a second one only 75 feet in length. This portage is necessary to pass an old log jam, which has blocked the channel.

When we got closer,  the first thing we noted is that the logjam the report mentions is no longer there.  It was all clear right to the takeout spot for the 210-meter carry around the rapids/falls.

That “well beaten”  trail was still faintly there but overgrown and not used for a long time.  It may be that guests in the fishing lodges at Mud River come up to the rapids to do some fishing but they were not hauling boats from bottom to top.  We would spend a couple of hours carving out and marking the trail to get around this last Pikitigushi obstacle.

Then it was an easy 4-km. paddle south to the CN tracks at the Mud River VIA rail stop.

Pikitigushi rapids above Mud River VIA train stop

our put-in spot below the last of the Pikitigushi rapids

 

Pikitigushi rapids panorama

We were not sure what we’d find at the Mud River VIA stop.  We did have the satellite image below as an indication.  As we approached the tracks we saw a path on river right running up the steep banks but we kept going. Nearer to the tracks we noticed another path on river left going up to the clearing you see in the satellite image at the top right.  Beaching our canoe at the boat landing, we made the climb up to the freshly cut lawn fronting three fairly dilapidated cabins, a woodshed, and an outhouse.  Sitting there out in the open – as if they were going to be used again very soon – were two lawn mowers.

We shouted out “Hello” expecting to hear a reply.  We were going to ask if whoever answered would mind if we camped on the edge of the lawn for the night.  However – nobody home!

We hauled our gear up the banks set up camp in a sheltered corner of the property.  You can see our tent spot on the extreme left of the panorama. Later that afternoon we walked to the railway tracks from the property on a maintained path and wondered who stayed there and when.

our Mud River tent spot - north of the tracks on the east side of the river

Max standing at our Mud River tent spot – north of the tracks on the east side of the river

Also at Mud River is a Wilderness North lodge, though we did not walk across the bridge on the tracks to the west side to see what was there.

Mud River buildings on NE corner

If you have any information about the property – is it still a lodge? –  and who owns it, do write in a comment below.  We’re curious!

Day 6 – Mud River to The Britannia Islands

  • distance: 17.6 km (11 km. to Windigo Bay; 6.6 to the Britannia Islands campsite)
  • time: 9:15 a.m to 12:40 p.m.
  • portages/rapids/liftover-line: 0/0/0
  • weather: partly cloudy, sunny periods, cool, windy (SW) on L. Nipigon
  • campsite: a Britannia island cove about 30m into the tree stand, 1 x 4 person; alternate 1 x 2 person in adjacent cove, possible other 1 x 2 person or multiple hammock sites

On our first day and a half on this stretch of the Pikitgushi from the Bear Camp, the silt and sandbanks were prominent; now we were seeing more clay – as in the image below. The large cabin is just south of the CN tracks on river right; we went up for a look and found it locked and the ground around it uneven and overgrown.  We had made the right choice in campsites the evening before!

cabin and dock south of the CN tracks at Mud River

A couple of kilometers further down the river, we would see the dock that had probably floated down from its place in front of the cabin at Mud River in the image above. [In the satellite image above you can see the dock in its right place!]

And then the final stretch of the Pikitigushi as we approached its mouth

the mouth of the Pikitigushi River – Windigo Bay coming up

Among other things, our trip down the river all the way from Cliff Lake to its mouth gave us a deeper appreciation of the effort that many generations of  Anishinaabe shamans and vision quest-ers may have made to get to the special place known to us as Cliff Lake. We are assuming, of course, that they had left their people and their summertime settlements on Lake Nipigon and travelled upriver to get there.  When we saw Haystack Mountain from out on the lake we thought – What a visible landmark to guide them on their journey! See below for a photo.

the last cabin before you come to Windigo Bay

Windigo:

The Canadian Encyclopedia describes Windigo this way –

…a supernatural being belonging to the spiritual traditions of Algonquian-speaking First Nations in North America. Windigos are described as powerful monsters that have a desire to kill and eat their victims.

While we had not seen much wildlife on our way down the Pikitigushi, on three or four occasions we had looked up and spotted an eagle riding the wind currents above us. On our canoe trips, we take this as a sign of good luck.  To have the Thunderbird looking over and after us is not a bad thing!

But as we left the narrow confines of the Pikitigushi – aka Muddy – River and entered Windigo Bay, we knew that we were entering a new phase of our canoe trip.  Now we were looking at a vast and open expanse of water on a Lake known for its temperamental nature and sudden changes in mood.  We hoped that Windigo would not take offence at our passage and that Thunderbird would keep looking down!

a view of Haystack Mountain from our Britannia Islands campsite

Meeting Point:

We got to the Britannia Islands in the early afternoon after paddling the shallow waters along the shore of Windigo Bay right past Meeting Point.  I had wondered about the origin of the name “Meeting Point”.  One evening in reading through Robert Bell’s 1870 Report On The Geology of the Northwest Side of Lake Superior, and of the Nipigon District I think I stumbled upon the answer! [Bell is famous for his work with the Geological Survey of Canada and is credited with naming over 3000 Canadian geographical features.]  His report (a copy is available here) includes the following –

Having arrived at Lake Nipigon, I divided our party, and gave Mr. McKellar charge of one of the sections. Beginning on the south side of the lake…Mr. McKellar proceeded to the right, or east side, while I took the west. At the end of about eight, the two parties met at the northern extremity of the lake, having completed a survey of its shores, excepting the deepest parts of some of its bays.

The Britannia Islands: 

South of the point where Bell and McKellar had their meeting back in the late 1860’s,  we headed towards a campsite mentioned in the only post we found online on paddling Lake Nipigon!   Hannah Fanney & Rodney Claiborne’s Lake Nipigon Kayaking Trip Report (click on the title to access)  describes a three-week circumnavigation they did in September 2017 and has loads of useful information for anyone considering a similar trip or something less ambitious – i.e. like our bit of island hopping from Meeting Point to Echo Rock in the northwest part of the lake. Their list of campsites included this one –

  • Britannia Islands N50° 12.159′ W88° 33.730′ Large Cobble Beach [facing south]

While that was our target, we ended up setting up our campsite one bay over on the same island. It faced north towards Windigo Bay and gave us a nice view of Haystack Mountain you see in the image above.

Haystack Mountain and the mouth of the Pikitigushi River from Mud River VIA Stop to Windigo Bay

The next morning we’d start our planned three-day paddle down the lake.  Check out the next post to see how it went!

Next Post: Canoeing Lake Nipigon From Windigo Bay To Echo Rock

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