Related Post: Route Options, Maps, Shuttles, Permits, And More
This first post introduces the Temagami region and provides a bit of historical background, mostly focusing on aspects of the story I learned about in researching for this canoe trip. You can skip history class and get right to the trip maps, route options, and planning by clicking on the link below –
Temagami & The Lady Evelyn River:
Temagami is the region to the north and west of North Bay in northeastern Ontario. In the Anishinaabe language of the Algonquin and Ojibwe people whose hunting grounds it had been for some time before the newcomers arrived, the name refers to the region’s largest lake and means “deep waters”.
Temagami’s isolation would end in 1905 when a newly-built rail line, the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway, reached the top of the NE arm of the lake from North Bay. The following year an 18-year-old Archie Belaney, an English adventurer stepped off the train and into a new life as a fur trapper and wilderness guide before gradually morphing into Grey Owl, the world-famous Ojibwe environmentalist. Twenty-five years after the rail line, a rough gravel road from North Bay further connected the region to southern Ontario.
Having grown up in the Abitibi region 150 kilometers to the northeast of Temagami and having made both that train ride and road trip up from North Bay to Noranda many times, it took a while for my brother and me to see Temagami as a possible wilderness canoe tripping destination.
To us, wild meant downriver to James Bay; Temagami was the scenic cottage country we passed through on our way to Toronto! However, a few Temagami canoe trips over the past decade have opened our eyes to the area’s rugged beauty and almost-wilderness. This September we headed back for a fifth visit. Our goal was to paddle the length of the Lady Evelyn River system.
Lady Evelyn-Smoothwater Park
Created by Ontario’s provincial government in 1983, Lady Evelyn-Smoothwater Park is Algonquin Park’s wilder cousin. If Algonquin is where you introduce someone to canoe tripping and camping, then Lady Evelyn-Smoothwater in Temagami is the next step. It is a bit further from southern Ontario, it is rawer, more rugged, more scenic, with less signage and fewer paddlers.
Don’t let Lady Evelyn-Smoothwater Park’s relative size compared to Algonquin on the map above fool you – it is the centerpiece of a hodgepodge of crown land, fifteen other parks, a dozen wilderness zones, and various other designations of public land. This Ottertooth map (here) shows the actual size of Temagami canoe country – and it is larger than Algonquin!
The Lady Evelyn River:
If the park is the heart of the Temagami wilderness area, then the Lady Evelyn River is the spine running right through it from west to east. The River begins on the high plateau between Ishpatina Ridge (Ontario’s highest point) to the SW and Maple Mountain to the NE. Five of the top fifteen highest points in Ontario are within 20 kilometers of the river’s headwaters! (See here for more ON high points info.) By the time it reaches the Montreal River below the Mattawapika Dam, the Lady Evelyn River drops about 120 meters or so in altitude.
The map below shows the various sections that make up the Lady Evelyn River system:
- The North Branch has its headwaters just south of Beauty Lake.
- The South Branch begins in Apex Lake, one portage from Smoothwater Lake on the Park’s western edge. A bit further down, Florence, considered one of Temagami’s most beautiful lakes, feeds into this branch as it meanders its way to The Forks where it merges with the North Branch.
From The Forks down to Katherine Lake, there are a dozen sets of rapids. The time of year will determine how paddlers deal with them – portage, wade & line, or run. Katherine Lake was once also known as Divide Lake – and for good reason. At the bottom end of the lake, there is a choice to be made:
- The North Channel with the three sets of waterfalls that make up The Staircase empties into Sucker Gut Lake to the north.
- The South Channel, a bit longer and with more waterfalls and challenging portages ends at Willow Island Lake at the bottom of the channel.
Then it is north and east through Obisaga Narrows and across the enlarged expanse of the Lady Evelyn Lake created when the Mattawapika Dam (1925) significantly raised lake water levels. Given the park’s status as a “wilderness” park, Lady Evelyn Lake itself, as Willow Island and Sucker Gut Lakes, are not a part of Lady Evelyn-Smoothwater Park! The fishing lodges (click on the link to see their locations) and motorized boat traffic put them in different categories – natural environment zone or conservation reserve!
An easy 200-meter portage around Mattawapika Dam brings the paddler to the mouth of the Lady Evelyn River as it merges with the Montreal River, the one that those who accessed the Lady Evelyn from the South Branch paddled up to reach Smoothwater Lake. From the Lady Evelyn River’s Apex Lake headwaters to the mouth there is about a 116- meter drop (387m to 271m).
On the east side of the Montreal River is Mowat Landing, one possible endpoint of the trip.
Note: The planning post has all of the above in much more detail. Click here to see.
Hap Wilson: Temagami Guidebook and The Cabin
When it comes to canoe tripping in Temagami, Hap Wilson’s Temagami: A Wilderness Paradise is the book – the essential source. It was the first of a number of guidebooks he has written over the past forty years. His guidebooks to the Missinaibi, the Rivers of Manitoba, and the Upper Ottawa Valley all sit on my bookshelf and have served me well. Route suggestions, detailed sketches of rapids, and advice on portages and campsites, as well as local history…it is all there and still mostly relevant and useful forty years after the first edition! The book is an investment that will repay itself many times over as you inevitably return for more of Temagami after your first visit. It points out things that will save you time, aggravation, or worse!
Temagami was first published in 1979 and has seen a number of reprints and editions. The one pictured is the second edition from 2011. [See here for an Amazon.ca copy of the book for $25. You may also find it at your public library. The Toronto Public Libary has 8 copies of the 2nd ed. See here for the details.]
Another Wilson book that is worth checking out is The Cabin: A Search For Personal Sanctuary (2005). It is really his autobiography. It moves from –
- his childhood obsession with creating an isolated and secret space to which he could retreat from his dysfunctional family
- to his discovery of Temagami and wilderness canoe tripping in the early 1970s,
- to how he came to be the owner of what he has turned into an Eco-Lodge at Cabin Falls on the South Channel of the Lady Evelyn River.
The book needs some detailed maps to illustrate the geography that is at its core. Given that Wilson is clearly obsessed with maps and does an incredible job creating them, the book disappoints with its one map. On it, the Temagami area is the size of a postage stamp with none of the detail that would often help the reader make sense of what is being described and narrated. You end up having to put down the book and access other maps to get the full picture.
Wilson will also have you wincing at his over-use of Brobdingnagian synonyms and often not-quite-appropriate words when simpler ones would do just fine. However, there are more than enough Temagami-related nuggets of information and insight to persevere.
A digital version of most of the book is also available at the Google Books site. The Preamble: Transformation and Chapter One are both available. [See here.] They are recommended reading before a trip down the Lady Evelyn; both will make you look at things a bit differently than usual.
- The Preamble: Transformation recounts the local version of the Ojibwe Flood Myth with Nanabush (referred to here as Nenebuc) taking on Mishipeshu, the Lynx-like creature of the deep waters and the ensuing flood and recreation of earth. And it all begins on Smoothwater Lake!
- Chapter One is Wilson’s account of his own mythic journey from Smoothwater Lake to Cabin Falls on the South Channel of the Lady Evelyn in the company of a friend or client to whom he is revealing his Paradise at Cabin Falls.
A Bit of Historical Background:
Speck’s 1913 Hunting Grounds Map:
The lakes and rivers of the Canadian Shield country we are drawn to were already the home and native land of the Anishinaabeg before the Europeans arrived. With respect to Temagami, in 1900 there was a small Ojibwe community on Bear Island. See the map below for its location.
It was the transfer of the Hudson Bay Co. to Bear Island from its initial location at the south end of nearby Temagami Island in 1875 which created an Ojibwe trading post community there. The trading post itself would operate until 1974 when the HBC sold the property to the Zufelt family.
With the Canadian Government’s purchase of Bear Island from the Ontario Government in 1971, it became Bear Island 1 Reserve or what is now called Temagami First Nation. By 1981 TFN had purchased the HBC post from the Zufelts.
The most graphic and detailed analysis that I found of the Ojibwe presence in the Temagami area was a map drawn up by the American anthropologist F.G. Speck in 1913 during his stay with the Ojibwe families living on Bear Island. He numbered this community at 95 that year.
From his conversations with family heads over a two-week period, Speck concluded that an original group of twelve families had moved into the Temagami area from Lake Huron/Lake Nipissing around the year 1800 in search of new hunting grounds.
The result of Speck’s visit was a brief study for the Canadian Government’s Department of Mines entitled Family Hunting Territories and Social Life of Various Algonkian Bands of the Ottawa Valley, (Click on the title to access the document.) In it, Speck writes –
For two weeks, while at Bear island, I had the heads of the families themselves engaged in marking their territories on the map which is here reproduced. The results are shown upon the map itself. It is believed that the territorial bounds there defined are as correct as it is possible to make them.The Indians themselves realized the importance of the subject, and, probably for the first time in their lives, settled matters in black and white which had formerly been merely entrusted to memory. [Click on the title above to access the document, p.13]
The map below of the Temagami area showing the hunting grounds of the dozen or so Ojibwe families who lived there at the time was the result of those meetings with the various family heads.
Speck gives enough detail that had we been doing a Lady Evelyn canoe trip in 1913, we’d have known whose family hunting grounds we were paddling through. Speck also notes this about entering the hunting grounds belonging to other families.
When it was necessary in travelling to pass through another family territory, permission was generally sought at the owner’s headquarters before passing on, and if by necessity game had been killed to sustain life, the pelts were carried to the owners or delivered to them by some friend. This gave the proprietors the right in the future to do the same in the territory of their trespassers. [Speck, 4]
Not only were Ke’kek and Wendaban of the same Rattlesnake clan, but they were also brothers. Their combined hunting grounds were once the possession of their father Wabigan, who gave Ke’kek the lands encompassed by 27 and 27a and Wendaban 24. From their relative sizes, it may be that Wendaban was the younger son.
Apparently, Wendaban married a Nipissing woman and spent many winters (the hunting time) on Lake Nipissing instead of in the Lady Evelyn Lake area. Wendaban and his wife had no children and he is said to have died in 1894. Speck did not speak with or record the presence of anyone from hunting ground #24 during his stay.
To the south of the brothers Ke’Kek and Wendaban was the hunting ground of Misabi, still alive and almost 100 years old when Speck was at Bear Island in 1913. He had come up to Temagami from Georgian Bay – one source says from the Shawanaga area of Georgian Bay – as a young man and, having married one of Ke’kek’s daughters, was given 27a as his hunting ground. That would mean he had arrived around 1840 or so. On a side note, the Nipissing woman mentioned above as Wendaban’s wife – Thor Conway states that Wendaban married Misabi’s sister. If so, this would explain why he spent much of his time in the Shawanaga area and not specifically on Lake Nipissing.
To think that we are talking about a hunting grounds map drawn up only 110 years ago and reflecting the local realities of the late 1800s. Given that my father was born in 1914 and my mother in 1922, and I was born in the Abitibi to the northeast of Temagami in 1951, this is not exactly ancient history!
Knowing some of the backstories of those Anishinaabeg who lived in Temagami a century or two before us makes the journey on the rivers they knew that much more meaningful.
The Ontario Government’s Exploration Survey Report:
In the summer of 1900, an Ontario Government-sponsored exploration survey party (#3) crisscrossed the Temagami and Matagami regions, paddling up and down rivers in an epic summer of canoeing. Already a railroad was pushing north from North Bay to Temagami; the government needed a better idea of the exploitable resources they would find. The survey party’s report covered lumber, mineral, hydro-electric, and farming potential. Along the way, the survey party also noted features of the waterways they travelled.
Here is what the report said about the crew’s ascent of the Lady Evelyn River from the Lake.
A click on the title will take you to a copy of the report – Report On The Survey and Exploration of Northern Ontario. Survey Party #3’s report begins on p. 83. It makes for interesting reading: among other things, it sometimes uses the earlier Algonkian language names of lakes and rivers. Lady Evelyn is not one of them!
The name Lady Evelyn was first applied just to the lake by Robert Bell in 1888 when he did survey work in the area for the Geological Survey Department of Canada’s Federal Government. [Bell was responsible for naming over 3000 Canadian geographical features; he is also the one who gave nearby Maple Mountain its name.]
Only later did someone in the mapping department in Ottawa use the same name for the river coming into the Lake at the bottom of the falls at the outlet of Willow Island Lake. [The falls disappeared in 1925 with the massive flooding caused by the construction of the Mattawapika Dam.] Before that the river was known locally as “The Trout Streams”, a translation of the Ojibwa, namegos (trout) + zibbins or sippi (stream or river). See here for a use of Lady Evelyn River in the Ontario Government Northen Ontario Report mentioned above.
So – in 1888 Bell found himself with a large lake below The Trout Streams and no Anishinaabe name to give it. This was not his preference. As he had written in an earlier survey report of the Nipigon region in 1870:
Since the lake needed a name and the local Ojibwe either did not have one or Bell did not find it distinctive enough, he came up with the name Lady Evelyn. Craig Macdonald, the creator of a Temagami map based on the pre-1925 topography and using Ojibwe names does label Lady Evelyn as Monskawnawning Lake. (Ojibwe translation: Haunt of the Moose). If that name was actually being used by locals 100 years before Macdonald compiled the map, why Bell did not make use of it? Given his clear preferences stated above, it is as much of a mystery as who Lady Evelyn was!
If you need to know more about possible Lady Evelyns Bell may have had in mind, click here (pdf)or click on the title below for a Word doc –
The Enduring Mystery of the Lake Named Lady Evelyn: Whom Did Robert Bell Have In Mind?
For day-by-day maps and route descriptions:
- Day 1 – To The Put-In And Up River To Smoothwater Lake
- Day 2 – From Smoothwater Lake To An “It’ll Do” CS On Lady Evelyn’s South Branch
- Day 3 – From Our “It’ll Do” Campsite To Florence Lake
- Day 4 – On Florence Lake
- Day 5 – From Florence To Just Below The Forks of the Lady Evelyn
- Day 6 – From Just Below The Forks to Macpherson Lake Island CS
- Day 7 – From Macpherson To The South Channel’s Bridal Veil Falls
- Day 8 – From Bridal Veil Falls To The Bottom of the South Channel
- Day 9 – From The South Channel To The West End of Lady Evelyn Lake
- Days 10 & 11 – From The West End of Lady Evelyn lake to Mowat Landing
Some Of Our Other Temagami Trips:
Since my brother and I grew up in the Abitibi region of northwestern Quebec it took us a long time to realize that there was some great paddling country that did not slope down to James Bay on the Quebec or Ontario side!
It has really just been the last decade that Temagami has become an option for an almost-wilderness canoe trip. The fact that we can put our canoe in the water six hours after leaving Toronto is definitely a factor, but the main draw is Temagami itself – rugged, scenic, with layers of history to contemplate, and some great campsites to discover. While we have not returned to Algonquin since the late 1970s, as we get older Temagami may well become our go-to canoe tripping slice of the Canadian Shield.
Here are a few trip reports of Temagami visits over the past decade –