Day 2 – From Smoothwater Lake To An “It’ll Do” CS On Lady Evelyn’s South Branch
- distance: 19.5 km
- hunting ground: that of Djakwunigan (of the Kingfisher clan). See map here
- time: 8:45 a.m. to 6:50 p.m.
- portages/rapids: 2/ 0 rapids run;
- P1 – 770 m (50 min) [listed as 700m]
- P2 – – 800 m (1h:30m including lunch) [listed as 700 m]; also many submerged logs, deadfall, and beaver dams as liftovers between Whitemud Lake and Jerry Creek outlet
- weather: cool; overcast
- campsite: makeshift site on the upper stretch of LE’s south branch; a much nicer one was a mere 260 meters downriver (as we found out the next morning!)
- 1:50000 NRC Topo Map: 041 P 07_Smoothwater Lake
Looking for Mishipeshu’s Cave:
The Nanabush/Mishipeshu story was told in communities across the Anishinaabe world – from the Algonquins along the Ottawa to the Chippewa in Minnesota. To no surprise, the local account reflected locations familiar to the listeners. Instead of Smoothwater Lake, the Ojibwe of Bawating heard of Gitchi Gami (Lake Superior). Instead of a cave on the west side of Smoothwater, the Ojibwe of Manitoulin Island believed that Mishipeshu’s cavern den was accessed by a hole on the bottom of the lake near the dock at Manitowaning.
We started our day with a paddle over to the west side of the lake. The Ottertooth map of the lake (see here) indicated a “small cave (possible site of Temagami First Nation creation story).” Given the lake’s role in a foundational myth, you’d figure that this would be reflected in its name. Robert Bell recorded the lake’s locname as White Beaver, and we know it as Smoothwater, a translation of the Anishinaabe Shusawagaming.
We wanted to see what sort of a cavity someone had found that (s)he was then able to connect to the Flood caused by the underwater beings in response to Nenebuc’s (i.e.Nanabush’s) killing of the Queen of the Great Lynxes. [The lynx is referred to as a lion in this account, perhaps the result of the local storyteller being influenced by the prominence of the lion in the symbolism of the British rulers.]
As the account given by second chief Alec(k) Paul of the trading post band on Bear Island to Speck made clear, the cave figures very prominently. [See the end of the previous post for the story’s beginning.] We read this from the written report Speck published by the Department of Mines in 1915:
As he went along the shore [of Smoothwater Lake], the next morning, he heard someone singing and shaking a rattle. Nenebuc (i.e. Nanabush) stood there wondering and waiting, and pretty soon he saw an old woman making the song. So he went across to see her, and when they met, he asked her, “What are you doing?” “I’m a doctor,” she answered. “The queen of the Lions has been shot by Nenebuc and I am going to cure her.”
She didn’t know that it was Nenebuc to whom she was talking, for she was too old. So Nenebuc told her, “Let me hear you singing. Is that what you are going to do to cure her?” “Yes,I will sing and then pull out that arrow.” The Lions had sent for her at the foot of the lake to cure the queen. Nenebuc pulled out a club and killed her, saying, “You are no doctor (mackrki-‘winini’k’we ‘medicine-person woman’) at all.”
Then he discovered that she was no person at all, but a big toad(oma’kak’iS). So he skinned her and put on the skin. The skin had a hole in the groin, and as he had no needle to sew it up with, his scrotum hung out when he put it on himself. This did not worry Nenebuc, for he thought, “It will be all right unless they notice me too closely.” So he walked past the cave in which the Lions lived and kept singing and rattling all the time.
When the young lions heard him, they said, “There’s the old medicine woman coming.” They were very glad to think that their mother would be cured. So they opened the door in the rock and Nenebuc went in, and one of the daughters came to meet him and siad, “Come in, old woman.” They were very much pleased. Nenebuc said, “Don’t shut the doors. Leave them open, as the queen needs plenty of fresh air!” Then he said, “I’ve had a long walk and I’m tired.” Then they gave him a good meal first. While he was eating, he sat with open legs and the children cried out, “Look at the old woman with testicles hanging out!” But the older ones told them to be silent, as they thought some old women had testicles.
When he had finished eating, Nenebuc said, “Don’t watch me. I’m going to pull out the arrow point. You will hear her suffering and me singing, but don’t look until you hear her stop suffering. Then she will be cured, and the arrow point will be out. So don’t look, for I am going to cure her.” Then he began rattling and singing, and, as he did so, he shoved the arrow point farther into the wound of the queen in order to kill her. When she yelled, her people thought that the hurt was caused in pulling it out. At last one of the little lion children peeped and saw Nenebuc pushing the arrow farther in. He told his sister, “That’s Nenebuc himself inside!” Then Nenebuc ran outside and the Queen Lion was dying. Nenebuc had difficulty to clear himself. He pulled off the toad skin and tried to climb up the rock.
(g) The Giant Lynx Causes the World Flood and Gathers the Animals on a Raft; Muskrat Dives for Earth, which Nenebuc Transforms into a New World.
As soon as the queen died, a giant stream poured out of the cave and the lake “That is to flood the world began rising. going and be the end,” said Nenebuc. So he cut trees and made a kind of raft. [See Speck’s report here (pp.35-36) for the Ojibwe Flood story, the outcome of Nanabush’s killing of the Great Lynx in the cave.]
As the map above shows, we paddled over to the west side of the lake and then along the shore across from our Day 1 campsite, looking for anything that could pass as the mythic cave of the Nanabush/Mishipeshu story. We saw no sign of previous paddlers on the same quest, no strip of prospector’s tape as evidence we were close; it was primarily low-grade rock rubble along the shore.
I was left wondering who the fantasy-prone individual was, who, after accepting the literal truth of the myth, was able to find a “cave.” It would not be the only time this happened on our trip down the river. A few days later, on Florence Lake, I looked at “Table Rock” and was left skeptical about the explanatory note found on the Ottertooth map.
Had I been aware of the E. Robert Ross painting “Smoothwater Lake” beforehand, I would have framed the above photo of the rocky point on the west side of the lake better! The Ross painting shows the view looking to the south end of Smoothwater Lake, the portage to Apex Lake, and Ishpatina Ridge.
As we came to the south end of the lake, I hopped out to do a quick check of a potential campsite just up from the sand beach. It was okay – but not as nice as ours on the east side beach from the night before or the other one further north.
Then it was our first portage of the day, the 770-meter haul from Smoothwater to Apex. The way our portages usually work is like this – Max takes one 115-liter Hooligan pack (50 lbs.) and a duffel (25 lbs.) and bundled paddles the full distance while I carry the other Hooligan (45 lbs.) and duffel (30 lbs.) halfway. I drop it off and head back for the canoe (60 lbs.) and my camera bag (7 -10 lbs.) and, if we have figured out halfway correctly, Max is just arriving to pick up the bags I have left as I am approaching with the canoe.
A rare splash of red in a Temagami landscape that is overwhelmingly green – I had to stop and get a shot before moving on with the pack/duffel carry. Temagami in the fall is definitely not as colourful as Algonquin!
The trail to Apex from Smoothwater is a good one. There is a bit of up and down to deal with but no real mushy spots. We were able to ‘git ‘er dun’ in 45 minutes and were soon paddling across a glassy calm lake. I am not sure how rare this is, but Apex Lake seems to be the headwaters of the Montreal River system and the Lady Evelyn’s south branch.
The Wilson guidebook has a rare slip-up on portage directions. The portage trail into Whitemud definitely starts at the east end of Apex, one bay up from the portage down to Scarecrow Lake and the Sturgeon River.
When we got there, we decided to revisit the take-out spot for the first of a series of carries that takes you into Scarecrow and the Ishpatina Ridge trail. We had done it back in 2009 on our trip down the Sturgeon before paddling up the Obabika River to access Wawiagama Lake. Then it was back to the east end of Apex.
The second portage to Whitemud from Apex is flatter but a bit rougher than the one from Smoothwater to Apex.
- It starts nice and smooth,
- is followed by a short section of boulders (none of which had a flat surface for totally secure footing!),
- and finishes with a mix of rock and earth.
The impressive bouldered river bed runs alongside the portage trail on your righthand side, visible evidence of a glacial stream that flowed down from Apex to Whitemud thousands of years ago.
Yet when I went to the Toporama website (the Natural Resources Canada online map source meant to replace the archived 1:50,000 topos from the 1970s and 80s), here is what I found –
- no water flow between Apex and Whitemud;
- Whitemud as the headwaters of the south branch of the Lady Evelyn.
When we got to the far end, we took some time for lunch before paddling down the length of Whitemud Lake and moving on to the afternoon’s challenge – the first few kilometers of the south branch.
As we sat on the shore at the top end of Whitemud Lake, we glanced over and saw a trickle of water coming into the lake. Proof that Apex Lake was feeding Whitemud? Just a tiny unrelated water source?
Then it was on to the afternoon’s challenge – maps of the river warn paddlers of complications they can expect on the initial stretch of the South Branch. The Ottertooth map (see here) notes this – Spring Travel Only – numerous obstacles, including mud shallows, deadfalls.
It was early September, so we were definitely out of season! How bad could it be?
Into Whitemud Lake we went, spared the hopping from one cluster of grass to the other that some trip reports describe. There was just enough water – i.e. about six inches – that we could pull our canoe down the lake with half-paddle-blade strokes.
Our GPS track indicates speeds up to 1.5 km./hr.! I think it was here that Max pushed his paddle down into the mucky bottom – and it all but disappeared! We were left wondering what would happen if someone fell in and did not have something to grab on to!
An Afternoon of Obstacles
It took us roughly 4 hours to do the initial five-kilometer stretch of the LE’s upper South Branch. Max’s and my combined age is getting close to 140; a younger crew may get it done faster. The water conditions at the time will also factor in how rough you are willing to be with your canoe bottom as you haul it over yet another obstacle.
The map below will give you some idea of our slow progress as we made our way to the Jerry Creek outlet. We didn’t know it at the time, but after we reached that point, we were through the worst of it.
Further down the South Branch, we found more evidence of a river bed that was once much more impressive than the trickle we were dealing with. Here is the explanation that makes sense of the above images of a bouldery river bed and the image below!
It comes from a 1917 Department of Mines report – Onaping Map Area by W.H. Collins for the Geological Survey of Canada. (Click on the title to access a copy.) Here is how Collins read it –
Reading books is one thing; reading nature from whatever angle you choose is another. Insight like that provided by Collins makes me realize how illiterate I am when reading the Canadian Shield. I have spent a lifetime paddling.
We took no pix for three hours as we dealt with all the usual obstacles of going down the shallow headwaters stretch of a small river. You must accept that your feet will get wet as you haul your canoe over yet another log. Psychological fatigue sets in alongside the physical one as you look ahead and see more trouble coming!
Doing this on a sunny summer day is obviously preferable – but one good thing about our choice of early September was the absence of bugs.
After Jerry Creek, progress came more quickly; it took only 30 minutes to do a 3.3 km. stretch from the Jerry Creek outlet to the view in the image below. It was also getting a bit late, and we started scanning the shore for a potential campsite.
It was getting close to 6 p.m., and we were flagging after the afternoon workout. When we came up to a clearing on river right seen in the pic below, I hopped out of the canoe and took a quick look. Max hopped out too and scanned the area. Our decision – “it’ll do.”
After a bit of site clearing, up went the tent and the tarp; out came the Helinox chairs and the food bag. By 7, we were having supper and celebrating our passage down the south branch’s upper section. Hearing some rain shortly after dark, we crawled out of the tent and put our second tarp over the tent, partly to keep the tent and fly as dry as possible and make tent take-down the next morning easier if it was still raining.
Had We Only Known!
The next morning – minutes into the day’s paddle to Florence Lake – we rounded the corner and saw on river left a rare piece of rock outcrop. Up on the flat top of the slope was a fire pit and a ready-made tent spot that was somewhat sheltered from the wind and yet provided great views of the river from its elevated vantage point. We had missed it by 260 meters!
After rereading the Hap Wilson guidebook after the trip, I realized that the site he describes below is the one we came so close to at the end of Day 2! He writes:
If you are planning a trip down the LE’s south branch from Smootwater, then this campsite described by Wilson makes an excellent reward for a couple of 700+meter portages and a half-day of slogging down the first few kilometers of the river. See the next post for some pix of the site and compare it to the one we stayed at!