Down Wabakimi’s Allanwater River To Whitewater Lake and “The Center of the Universe” – Introduction, Logistics, Maps

For more specific info and  detailed maps showing rapids, portages, and campsites, see

Day-By-Day Trip Report: Allanwater to Caribou

The Route:

Allanwater River-Wabakimi Lake-Whitewater Lake-Smoothrock Lake – Caribou River-Little Caribou Lake

One thousand miles of road faced our canoe-topped car as we set off to visit Wabakimi Provincial Park in northwestern Ontario. This is where we would find the island paradise of an eccentric American inventor who had acted as the island’s custodian until his death in 1980.

Quetico and BeyondThe island itself is called Best and it was, according to the personal mythology of its custodian Wendell Beckwith, the veritable “center of the universe”. A chapter in Kevin Callan’s book Quetico and Beyond had first pointed us in the direction of the wilderness of Wabakimi Provincial Park in northwestern Ontario. In the book Callan spends a chapter recounting his visit to Beckwith’s retreat on Whitewater Lake and describing the region in terms of canoeing possibilities.

We had never even considered paddling there – distance may have had something to do with it –  but Callan’s narrative hooked us. We had two weeks for our adventure –  ten of actual paddling and four to get there and back.

In the end “the center of the universe” proved to be an elusive point and here we are, back on the circumference, a little like Jason without the Golden Fleece, but still richer for the journey. Read on to find out what happened!

standing by Brennan Falls- one of the highlights of the trip

Where Is Wabakimi Provincial Park? 

Created in 1983 and enlarged in 1997, Wabakimi P. P. is greater in area than a number of U.S. states and the Canadian province of P.E.I. In Ontario, only Polar Bear Provincial Park is larger in size.  It sees a small fraction of the canoe tripper traffic found in easier-to-access and tamer parks like Quetico, Killarney, or Algonquin. 

This Google map puts Wabakimi Provincial Park into perspective.

Armstrong Station is at the north end of Highway 521 from Hwy. 17 near Thunder Bay and serves as the major gateway to Wabakimi Provincial Park.  It gets the name “Station” from the Cold-War-era Pinetree Line radar station located there and run by NORAD in the late 1940s and into the 50s. It was shut down permanently in 1974.  See here for a brief historical account.

These days it is a passenger stop on VIA’s The Canadian train service from Toronto to Vancouver on tracks belonging to Canadian National Railway. Armstrong also services nearby First nation communities, especially the Whitesand First Nation located just to the north of the settlement.

Armstrong Station

Getting To Armstrong Station:

No matter where you’re starting from, to access Wabakimi your road will first take you to the outskirts of Thunder Bay.  In our case, the total road distance from southern Ontario (London and Toronto) via Highways 69 and 17 was about 1850 kilometers.  We left Toronto at 7 a.m. and twelve hours later were at Marathon on top of Lake Superior. The Airport Motel right off Hwy 17 is a decent place to stop for the night.

getting the canoe ready for the Grand Portage to Wabakimi

The next morning we knocked off the final third of the ride. The road from Marathon to Nipigon along the north shore of Lake Superior has dramatic elevated views that rival those on the B.C. coast. Just to the north of Thunder Bay, we left the Trans-Canada Hwy. for Highway 521, a well-paved stretch of secondary road. Three hours later we were in Armstrong Station.

The Grand Portage was done!

a moment of the two-day portage to Armstrong from southern Ontario

Armstrong Station itself has a grocery store, a couple of restaurants, a hotel, and a gas station. Just south of Armstrong Station are a number of outfitters ready to supply you with what you need- maps, canoes, park permits, gear, fly-ins, etc. See here for a satellite view.

waiting with our gear at the “train station” (since torn down!)

Before we left Armstrong Station, we had arranged with a local – Clement Quenville – to leave our vehicle at his place and then for him to leave our car at the take-out point on the morning of Day 10. Our car was waiting for us when we got there. Clem does shuttles and rents out canoes and related gear. [wabakimiclemq@outlook.com

Allanwater Bridge is 90 kilometers from Armstrong Station.  We chose it as the start of our first Wabakimi canoe trip because it seemed that the river, which flows from the bridge down to Lake Wabakimi, was the most popular route to the heart of Wabakimi Provincial Park. We figured the portage trails would be in better shape because of more frequent use and the occasional sets of Class 1/class 2 rapids would mean the chance of doing some whitewater.

Backcountry Camping Permits:

Ontario Parks is responsible for Ontario’s provincial parks. See here for the 2021 Wabakimi backcountry fee schedules – one for non-residents of Ontario and another for residents.

Non-Residents:

Residents of Ontario:

When it comes to Wabakimi you are not actually reserving a campsite; you are instead registering for a specific number of days that you will be overnighting in the park. It took a phone call to the Park Super for me to figure out how to do an online booking for Wabakimi since it does not appear in the list of parks under Backcountry.

To register online, go to the Ontario Parks website here. On the top of the page, clicking on Reservations will open the window to various options.

  • Choose Reserve Online; the Ontario Parks Reservations page will open with a number of options.
  • Choose the one at the far right of the page – Backcountry Registration – clicking on it will open a number of parks including Wabakimi near the very end. Enter the required info and you are done!

We have usually stopped at Mattice Lake Outfitters and purchased our permits there. On one occasion I spoke directly with the Park Superintendent and we did the transaction over the phone.  He emailed me the receipt a few minutes later.

The current Park super is: Shannon Lawr – Phone (807)475-1634

From Armstrong Station to Allanwater Bridge:

To get from Armstrong Station to the put-in at Allanwater Bridge, there are a couple of options:

  • fly in from the Mattice Lake bush plane base south of Armstrong Station or
  • take the train from Armstrong Station.

wabakimi-provincial-park.png

The De Havilland Beaver/Otter Option:

Mattice Lake Outfitters and Wabakimi Outfitters both have air bases on Mattice Lake, a few kilometers south of Armstrong Station. Also nearby on Mackenzie Lake is Wilderness North.

While the first two have smaller (and cheaper to hire) Beavers for fly-ins, WN has an Otter for larger groups. Expect to pay about $800. for a Beaver insertion at Allanwater Bridge.  It is the no-fuss, most efficient way to get to the start of your Wabakimi adventure. It would also give you an excellent bird’s eye view of your home for the next two weeks! 

The Train Option:

Given the $800.+ cost of the plane ride, and since there was a cheaper option, we went with the train ride. It was $21 a person in 2010 with an extra charge for the canoe. (The 2021 price for 1 adult is $23. with $50. for the canoe.)

canada-10-dollar-polymer-bill-2013

The back of the new 2013 $10. bill with The Canadian featured

The VIA train is called The Canadian and runs through Armstrong Station from Toronto on its way to Vancouver three times a week. Tickets need to be purchased at least 48 hours in advance since Armstrong Station is not a scheduled stop. You can buy the tickets online at the VIA website; local outfitters will probably arrange them too.

Click here for a look at the VIA Canadian timetable from Toronto to various Wabakimi insertion or exit points (Armstrong Station, Collins, Allanwater, Flindt Landing).

Make sure your VIA schedule is current!  The VIA Canadian train schedule underwent a major change in 2019.  Older trip reports may have out-of-date info if they have not been updated. 

the train leaves Winnipeg  at 23:45 the night before

the train leaves Toronto at 09:45 the  day before

 

Stuff being unloaded from the baggage car at Armstrong Station-

Note: As of 2020 canoe trippers will be leaving Armstrong Stn at 9:17 a.m.  (ET) and arriving at Allanwater Bridge about an hour and ten minutes later – i.e. at 9:26 a.m. CT. When we did the canoe trip in 2010, the VIA schedule had the train arrive at Armstrong Stn. at 8:30 p.m.  This explains why we are standing in the dark in the image below waiting for a train that was almost three hours late!

The new schedule also means you can set off down the Allanwater on arrival instead of wondering where to camp until daylight!

waiting for the westbound VIA train at Armstrong Station- take it as a bonus if it is on time!

When the train pulled in, canoes and gear were hoisted into the baggage car in record time – everybody was pitching in to speed things up. The ride lasted about 80 minutes or so and by 1:00 a.m. we were at Allanwater Bridge. As our good luck would have it we were not the only paddlers to board the train this evening.

Allanwater Bridge VIA Stop:

Screen Shot 2018-01-13 at 7.23.12 PM

Back in Armstrong Station we had met Tim and Sandy Eaton (the owners of the canoeing.com website) and chatting with them about canoe trips past and coming up definitely made the wait go by faster.

Now we sat with them on the way to Allanwater Bridge where they had arranged accommodation at the Wabakimi Canoe Outfitters outpost. The outfitting business is owned and operated by Bruce Hyer, the man most responsible for the establishment of Wabakimi Provincial Park in the 1980s.

Tim asked for the train to stop in front of the outpost on the west side of the bridge and we got off with them. It was pitch dark and about 1:00 a.m. as we make sure all of our gear got tossed off the baggage car!

wabakimi.com header

And then the train pulled away and Tim and Sandy headed down the trail for the outpost.  On the other side of the tracks was what looked to be an abandoned building (perhaps the old schoolhouse?).

Allanwater Bridge Lodge header

We had arranged to stay on the Jelinski AWB Lodge property for the night. The cost was $20. a person to tent on the lodge grounds until the morning with a shower as a part of the deal.  Renting one of the six or seven cabins on the property is another option. The next year we did just that for $50.

Of course, I had not asked for directions to The Allanwater Bridge Lodge so we didn’t have a clue about where it was! We really could have used the satellite image below – and some daylight!  It turns out it was only 250 meters down the tracks!

All we knew was that the Wabakimi Outfitters’ outpost was right there and it was 1:15 a.m. In the end, Tim and Sandy’s hospitality solved the problem for us and that’s where we ended up for the night. The image below is a shot of the outpost you’ll find on their website.

See here for the webpage where I found the image.

Wabakimi Outfitters also makes the outpost grounds available to campers for $15. (plus tax) a person. Their outpost also sleeps at least 12 and it is available for anyone looking for a plush entry into the wilds of Wabakimi.

the rail-level view of Allen Water Bridge the next morning  – a few minutes later we paddled under it on the way down the river

______________________________

Maps And Route Info:

This was the last canoe trip where we brought along the actual paper 1:50000 topo maps issued by the Government of Canada’s Natural Resources Department.  Since then we learned that the maps are available for free download and we just print off the material we need.

Federal Gov’t. 1:50000 Topos (archived)

The following  archived 1:50,000 Topos cover our route from Allanwater Bridge to Whitewater Lake and then back to our exit point at the south end of Little Caribou Lake Just click on the particular map title to access the tif file from the Gov’t of Canada server:

The Atlas of Canada – Toporama

Do note that the above topos are mostly from the 1970s to the 1990s.  Natural Resources Canada now maintains an online and current version of the topos at the following website – click on to access.

The Atlas of Canada – Toporama

While the government topos are essential, they do not have any information on portages and campsites.  For that, the next four sources will provide you with the info you need.

Ken Kokanie’s Map Set 

In our map case, we had Ken Kokanie’s excellent annotated trip map.  It outlines a route he did down the Allan Water River to Wabakimi Lake and then heading south to Lower Wabakimi Lake to exit at Little Caribou Lake.  (Click here to access an 8 Mb pdf file.)

Friends of Wabakimi Maps

Wabakimi Project header

We also had additional soon-to-be-published info courtesy of Phil Cotton,  mapmaker Barry Simoni and the Wabakimi Project volunteers, who had just done the river a few weeks before.  The maps have since been published and can be found in Volume 3 of the Wabakimi Project’s comprehensive maps on the Wabakimi Area. (Click here for Volume 3 info.) They are absolutely worth it for the level of detail they provide on the rapids, falls, and portages you will encounter.  However, they are not meant to be your only map source. They need to be supplemented at least with the 1:50000 topographical maps from NRC mentioned above.

Wabakimi Maps by Laurence Mills

We were not aware of the maps produced by Laurence Mills before our Allanwater trip. However, the very next summer we purchased his Kopka 2 canoe route package and found it to be detailed and accurate for the rapids, portage, and campsite info the set of laminated 8.5″x11″ sheets provided.  As with the Wabakimi Project maps above, having reliable information allows for better planning, saves energy, and decreases the chance of making bad decisions! Definitely worth the C$20.  Mills has two Allanwater packages – Allanwater I is the shorter one that heads to Caribou Lake via Lower Wabakimi Lake while Allanwater II is the exact route that we did as our “Introduction To Wabakimi”!

Click here to access the Wakakimi Maps website. See Day 1 below for a sample of the maps that Mills provides for dozens of Wabakimi-area trips.

Paddle Planner

Click on the header above to access the site.

In the decade since this report was written, a new source of canoe route info has appeared on the internet. What its creators have done is collate all the available information from the sources above – and yet other trip reports and info submitted to them by fellow trippers.

It is the same approach as that of the now-defunct Jeff’s Maps and the current Unlostify maps available for some Ontario destinations. Of the data, the Paddle Planner website includes this reminder:

Wabakimi is a real wilderness area and has the challenges that wilderness brings. Portages and campsites are not as well-maintained as in other canoeing areas such as the Boundary Waters. A route may not have been traveled for years, so portages and campsites may be overgrown, hard to find, and/or may not exist anymore. All locations are approximated.

Access the site here.

Note: there is a $20. cost to access all of the useful features of the site, a minor investment that will repay itself by having the most up-to-date info on what is coming up in terms of rapids, portages, and campsites.

If you access the old Paddle Planner website you can get a full-page view not available for free at the new site. See here.

Google Earth View

The image below is a screenshot of a Google Earth kml file of our canoe route. Satellite images provide a different perspective and sometimes useful extra information about certain challenging stretches of the route.

Click on the link below to access the kml file in my Dropbox folder. Then use the browser-based or stand-alone Google Earth to open and view. Note – you need to sign in to import the file from your computer.

kml file –  Allanwater To Little Caribou Via Whitewater Lake 

See here for the day-by-day trip reports with maps, portage, and campsite information, and more detail.

Day-By-Day Allanwater to Whitewater Trip Report

Down Wabakimi’s Allanwater River To Whitewater Lake and “The Center of the Universe” – Day-By Day Trip Report

For yet more Wabakimi, see our admittedly subjective

A Paddler’s List Of Wabakimi’s Top Six

 

 

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4 Responses to Down Wabakimi’s Allanwater River To Whitewater Lake and “The Center of the Universe” – Introduction, Logistics, Maps

  1. Douglas Lawrence says:

    Thanks for the updates! I look forward to reading it all. Cheers Doug Lawrence

    • true_north says:

      Doug, it may be faster just to do the trip yourself! The Allanwater River route is a great into to Ontario’s second-largest park – and second emptiest next to Polar Bear Prov. Park!

  2. Fantastic writeup, as always! We’ve followed a number of your routes over the years and in 2 weeks will set off on this exact same trip. We’d originally planned to paddle the Misehkow/Albany, but with water levels currently very low this seemed like a better choice.

    Did you paddle this route with a kevlar boat? We’re debating between kevlar and royalex/t-formex and would love your thoughts on the suitability of either. My friend and I will be paddling our TuffStuff prospector and loaning another boat to our friends. They’d love to NOT portage a heavy plastic beast, unless you think it’s a bad idea. Obviously we’d be careful and portage anything shallow or bony. Any thoughts or insight would be much appreciated.

    Thanks again for all of your hard work writing these reports – they’re an incredibly valuable resource!

    Cheers,
    Lachlan

    • true_north says:

      Lachlan, take the kevlar! 40-some pounds instead of 75! Yes, it will get scratched but there is always G-Flex 650 to patch things up. In 2012 we took our brand new 42-lb. Kevlar/Carbon Fiber Swift canoe on our Kopka canoe trip. Here is what the bottom looked like at the end of Day 2 –

      We came to accept the scratches as a part of the journey. As you note, portages around rock gardens will mean fewer scratches – and so will lining in rough spots – but won’t eliminate all of them! A few years later we also painted the bottom white so that the scratches would not be so visible! We still have that Swift Kevlar and have taken it on some punishing trips. We occasionally reward it with a Georgian Bay trip that involves no rapids at all.

      Thanks for the positive review of my trip reports! Glad to hear they are of use to fellow paddlers. I enjoy doing them and it allows me to relive the trip – and do something with all the images I come back with. BTW – I spent an hour in your portfolio of excellent canoe tripping shots – that is quite the resumé of a decade of paddling you’ve captured! I looked extra close at the Kopka and Wabakimi 2019 shots and recognized a few of the locations! Your shots of the abandoned NORAD base in Armstrong remind me that we need to visit it one of these days!

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