Going Down The Little Jackfish River From The South Summit Dam
From its South Summit Lake headwaters to Ombabika Bay on Lake Nipigon, the Little Jackfish River is 45 kilometers long.
The top half is a sequence of four lakes – South Summit, Stork, Moule, and Zigzag – separated by falls or rapids.
The section from the bottom of Zigzag Lake to its mouth is a much narrower river run with a number of rapids and portages.
There are two long sets of continuous rapids in the stretch just south of the Armstrong Road bridge which crosses the river 6.5 km. below Zigzag Lake. This is a common end-of-trip point. Near the mouth of the LJ, Canadian National rail tracks cross the river. The VIA stop at Ferland is another possible extraction point – either by train or shuttle vehicle.
Surface Geology of the Little Jackfish River Area:
A few years ago we paddled down the nearby Pikitigushi River from Butland Lake to Windigo Bay. To no surprise, the Little Jackfish has a very similar surface geology profile. The big difference between the two is in the meandering that the Pikitigushi does in the 50 kilometers it takes to cover the final 20 kilometers to the Bay.
They share the following surface geological features:
- 1a silty to sandy till
- 2c end moraine, interlobate moraine, sand, gravel, boulders
- 4c sand; silty to sandy till
- 4a varved massive clay and silt
Going down the Little Jackfish River from Mojikit Lake had crossed my mind years ago but it was crossed out as soon as my inadequate research led me to this Youtube video –
I somehow projected the white water in that video to the Little Jackfish in general!
While planning our trip down the Ogoki from the headwaters to the Waboose Diversion Dam and the South Summit Control Dam, I returned to the idea. If we were really going to do the Ogoki River from top to bottom, then going down the Little Jackfish River to the logging road and on to Lake Nipigon’s Ombabika Bay would make it complete.
A few days after I posted a brief outline of our proposed trip on the Friends of Wabakimi forum web page, I received via email a detailed trip report from John Holmes. He and other Wabakimi Project volunteers had gone down the Little Jackfish in 2014 and mapped and cleared the portages all the way to the Little Jackfish Road. The trip report really helped clarify things and added a lot of detail to the two pages on the Little Jackfish River in Volume 5 of the Wabakimi Project map set.
From the report, I learned that the dramatic bit of whitewater featured in that video mentioned above is located just south of the Little Jackfish Road. It is/was the proposed location of the Ontario Power Generation’s Little Jackfish hydroelectric project. Holmes’ report did note the various portages around the White Mile section of the river, though his crew did not do any work on the section of the river below the bridge.
The idea of ending our canoe trip with a descent of the Little Jackfish didn’t sound so crazy anymore!
South Summit Dam Outflow Rate:
With info on rapids and portages in hand, there was still one other concern – that is, the outflow volume at the South Summit Dam. When I visited the Ontario Power Generation (OPG) website and found the data for the dam (see here), I realized that the kayakers in the video I had seen all those years ago had probably driven the 60 kilometers from Armstrong on the Little Jackfish Road in June or early July and put in at the bridge for their two-kilometer fun ride down.
Here is the 2021 graph showing the 2020 and 2021 (up to September) outflow rate measured in cubic meters per second:This year 220 m³/sec (7769 ft³/sec) was the peak outflow; we would be going down in late August with a probable outflow rate of 75 to 80 m³/sec. An email to an OPG contact in Thunder Bay about our plans for late August this year confirmed that there was no outflow increase planned for late August. [The day after our trip ended, there was massive rainfall in the area; the uptick in outflow rate is the early September result.]
The copy of the FoW trip report and the OPG outflow graph changed my initial and long-held view about going down the Little Jackfish!
Day 13: From South Summit Dam To Stork Lake
- distance: 6 km
- time: 2h: started at 10 and done by noon – we took our time!
- portages/rapids: 1/1 290 m portage + 40m up to campsite
- weather: 6 to 20 ˚C; sunny during the day, E/SE 10 -15 kph
- sightings: the Pine Crest group on a river right point just below the rapids
- campsite: top of a bluff, room for multiple tents, nice spot! Max’s favourite of the trip thanks to its elevated view.
- Natural Resources Canada archived 1:50,000 topo maps: Mojikit Lake 052 I 09 (b&w 1970)
- Toporama (here) is NCR’s up-to-date interactive coloured mapping website; it’s free to print what you need.
- our Garmin inReach-generated GPS track (here)- (Click on View All Tracks at the top right-hand corner)
Given the 33 km. we had covered the day before, we planned for something much less ambitious this day. Since our tent site was still in the shade, we grabbed our chairs and our full coffee mugs and moved up from the shore into the full sunshine on the edge of the clearing that serves as a helicopter landing area. After the coffee was drained, we finally got on the water. It was 10 a.m.
A half-hour (three kilometers) brought us to the bottom of South Summit and to Stork Falls with its three-meter drop. The portage is on river left. We found the trailhead within five minutes at the top of the waterless bay and within 30 minutes were at the Stork Lake end of the 290-meter carry. [On the Wabakimi Canoe Route map, the grassy meadow you see in the image below is a bay you paddle into to access the portage.]
Before we pushed off, we walked up to the falls with our cameras to get a few shots. The island blocked a full view of the main channel but here is what we came up with.
As we passed by a point about a half-kilometer south of Stork Falls, we saw campers doing some fishing. It turned out that they were the same Toronto-area YMCA Pine Crest group we had seen a few days before at Eight Flume Falls at the west end of the Ogoki Reservoir. They had a leisurely four days before their shuttle from the logging road that crosses the Little Jackfish about 6 kilometers south of Zigzag Lake. They recounted their easy passage down the Reservoir, thanks to a northwest wind that blew them down! It was the same wind that we battled for part of a morning as we headed southwest from Waboose Falls!
During the fourteen days we were in Wabakimi, these paddlers and a father/daughter combo above Ogoki Falls were the only canoe trippers we met. We also did not see any fishermen in motorboats on Whitewater or Whiteclay, though we did see a couple of staff or clients at the Wilderness North Lodge at Striker’s Point and again at the Mojikit Channel Lodge. To complete the list of people sightings, we had also chatted with the six-man OPG crew doing maintenance work at Waboose Dam.
We paddled down Stork lake about halfway until we came to an excellent elevated campsite. It was only noon but we were done for the day! We hauled everything up the sloped rock face and, given the positive overnight weather forecast, went for a fairly exposed spot. You can see it in the image above. The surrounding trees did give us a bit of a windbreak from the NW wind.
At most campsites, we usually turn our canoe into a tabletop. It is a clean surface that gives us space to organize things and make them readily accessible. The canoe sometimes also acts as a windscreen overnight or for butane stove cooking, though a repurposed baking sheet is our primary wind guard.
On the boil on our two butane stoves is our supper – pasta with Indian-style channa masala. The meal pouches are ready after a three-minute boil. The pouches – one for each of us – are not exactly light at 285 grams (10 oz.) but they certainly make supper a no-fuss affair. The company is Tasty Bite (click here to see the various entrées it has available.) The pouches cost about $3.50 CDN each and are easy to find in Toronto. I have also seen them on Amazon though sometimes at double or triple the price they should be. Buyer beware!
Our other mainstay supper option are the entrées from Harvest Foodworks, an eastern-Ontario based family operation. See here for the range of meals they provide. Each pouch serves two and is ready in under twenty minutes. They do require a bit more attention than the boil-a-bag Tasty Bite option! Mountain Equipment Co-Op used to stock their products but it has inexplicably stopped doing so. I did send them an email asking why but received an answer that completely dodged my query. I have since just ordered directly from Harvest Foodworks.
The Garmin inReach Explorer+ on my stomach in the image below provides fairly accurate hyperlocal forecasts courtesy of a weather app called Dark Sky, which was acquired in 2020 by Apple. The forecast: clear the next day as we paddled down to Zigzag Lake but massive rain on Sunday, the day we had arranged to be picked up on Zigzag.
The thought of sitting through a rainstorm on Zigzag Lake and then being picked up by a plane landing in a downpour when we could fly out a day early had me mulling over an early exit.
Day 14: Stork Lake To Zig Zag Lake
- distance: 15 km
- time: 6h: 9 a.m. -3 p.m.
- portages/rapids: 3/3 1) 80 m relatively flat; 2) 230m relatively steep! 3) 290 m
- weather: overcast
- sightings: none
- campsite: Hwy 17 Nipigon motel
- Natural Resources Canada archived 1:50,000 topo maps: Mojikit Lake 052 I 09 (b&w 1970); Little Jackfish River 052 I 08 (colour 1976). See the Toporama website (here) for more up-to-date mapping.
We set off around 9 for Moule Lake (the locals pronounce it Moo-lee) about 4 kilometers from our Stork Lake campsite. But first, there would be a short portage to deal with. We didn’t find it right away, having gone a bit too far down. I walked back along the shore and found it after pushing aside some new alder growth that had covered over the trailhead. We cut away the bush and put up some orange string to spare the next crew coming through the initial search. [The Toronto YMCA Pine Crest group was just behind us by a half-day.] The portage itself took twenty minutes.
We played tourist for a while and check out the rapids, walking some way up to get some different views.
It is about 5 kilometers down Moule Lake to the next portage – in this case, two carries that take you into Zigzag Lake. The first portage trail took a couple of minutes to find. We were initially drawn to some prospectors tape visible twenty to thirty meters in. The “trail” looked very rough. I remembered John Holmes’ comment about coming across a bad trail in this spot –
After spotting some flagging tape and cut logs on river right, in a bay just above the moving water at the south end of the lake, we followed an appallingly bad trail over a steep ridge and down to the other side.
We paddled down a few meters and were soon looking at the portage trail that Holmes and his Wabakimi Project crew had cut in 2014. It was definitely looking better than the first one whose flagging tape might lure people into it! We gave the entrance a bit of a trim and put some orange string on at the start of the trail and got to work. The trail had a Lord of the Rings vibe to it, thanks to the moss!
We got the 250-m portage done in a half-hour and then stopped on the beach at the bottom end of the portage for lunch. We also decided that as soon as we were on Zigzag Lake we would email our outfitter (Don Elliot at Mattice Lake Outfitters) and see if he could arrange a pick up for later this very afternoon.
Then, after spending some time checking out the rapids around the corner from us, we paddled over to the small island before moving on to the last of the portages of the trip. The island would make an okay campsite but not much more. Setting up camp where we just had lunch or in a spot closer to the falls would be a better option.
Apparently, the fishing in the rapids pictured above is very good! In his LJR trip report, Holmes writes this –
The fishing below the upper set of rapids was phenomenal. I expect the large drop off prevents the walleye from getting upstream. We caught and released several over 23 inches and kept smaller ones for our dinner. Out of fish breading already, so we used crushed crackers!
From the island, we paddled over to the start of our last portage. The trail was in the best shape of any we had done in the past two weeks! It is likely that the Wilderness North outpost further down on Zigzag Lake maintains it for the use of its clients.
At the bottom end of the trail is this sign letting people know they are in the right place!
We sat there at the top of Zigzag Lake. It was 2 p.m. and we had arranged a De Havilland Beaver pick-up for the next day. However, our weather app was forecasting a substantial rainfall beginning overnight and continuing on through the day. Fifty mm (two in.) of rain was predicted! We could put our tent somewhere on Zigzag and sit out the storm and then hope that the conditions would not be so bad that the plane couldn’t land – or we could see if Don Elliot could have a plane sent in this very afternoon.
This is where the Garmin inReach comes in very handy. The inReach includes
- an SOS function,
- a weather forecast app, and
- the ability to send a GPS coordinate location to a website which the folks back home can access and whose track they can follow along.
- It also includes two-way email communication.
Off went the email to Mattice Lake Outfitters. Within ten minutes as we sat there at the top of Zigzag, we got a response! “The plane will be there around 3.” I answered back – “Fantastic! We’ll be paddling down the east side of the lake towards the WN outpost.”
We started paddling down Zigzag, sticking to the east side to cut down the wind now coming from the SE. We were getting close to the outpost when we heard the drone of a plane. However, the bright orange Wilderness North colour and the fact that it was a De Havilland Otter, and not a Beaver, had us confused. We initially thought it was headed to the WN outpost.
But no – we were the reason it landed. Now we were concerned! The reason? – An Otter shuttle costs about twice as much as one in the smaller Beaver. By 3:30 the canoe was strapped to one of the pontoons, our gear was inside, and we were seated in the much roomier Otter. This would be our first ride in the plane dubbed “King Beaver” during its design stage!
The pilot was Cam, the same guy who had airlifted us out of our Ogoki headwaters misadventure and dropped us off at the west end of Whitewater Lake nine days before. As for the cost – we were charged the Beaver rate (i.e. $800.)!
The seventy kilometers from Zigzag Lake back to Mattice Lake took about twenty-five minutes. Waiting there for us was our vehicle – and the bill for our De Havilland air shuttles:
- the Beaver to Endogoki Lake
- the Beaver shuttle to the west end of Whitewater Lake from some nameless lake just a few kilometers east of Endogoki. The reason? We decided to forego the rest of our Ogoki headwaters bushwhack.
- the Otter flight from Zigzag Lake to Mattice Lake.
As we get older and the number of future possible canoe trips gets closer to zero, it is becoming easier to rationalize a bush plane ride or two or, in this case, three!
The LJ From Zigzag To the Armstrong Rd
While we ended our trip on Zigzag Lake, another option is to stay with the river down to where the Armstrong/Jackfish Road crosses the river. You can be picked up there by a pre-arranged shuttle vehicle from Armstrong. The following map locates the five sets of rapids in the 6.5-kilometer stretch from the bottom of Zigzag to the bridge:
See this Friends of Wabakimi/John Holmes’ Little Jackfish trip report for details on each of sets of rapids and the portages noted below. A Wabakimi Project crew went down the river in 2014, clearing or creating portages and recording locations as well as campsites and other useful information.
Note: The archived Natural Resources Canada’ topo Little Jackfish River 052 I 08 (colour 1976) does not have the logging road from Armstrong indicated. Neither does the Garmin’s Topo Canada 4.0 map installed on our Etrex 20 and Oregon 450. Check out the NRC up-to-date Toporama website (here) for more current mapping and print what you need. You’ll also find that the Toporama map site provides access to many additional layers of useful information.
Satellite Images of the Rapids:
There are five probable portages before you get from Zigzag to the road. The following overview shows the first 4; there is one more just before you get to the bridge. All portages are on river left.
The First Set of Rapids Out of Zigzag Lake: The 530-meter portage is on river left.
The Second and Third Sets of Rapids Below Zigzag Lake – One 630-meter carry on river left gets you around these two sets of rapids.
The 4th Set of Rapids Below Zigzag: Again, the portage is on river left and is 400 meters long with a campsite at the top end.
The Rapids/Portage Up To The Armstrong Road. The Holmes’ trip report notes this about the river below the 4th set of rapids:
The character of the river is quite different in this section, with an earthen bank instead of the uniform boulders that make up the shoreline further upstream. The portage [up to the road] is on river left (east side) and starts before the bridge comes into view. It is 253m to the road.
Portage #5 on river left takes the paddler up to the logging road and the bridge for a possible shuttle connection some 65 kilometers back to Armstrong Station. Another option is to continue downriver. See below for more detail.
The Little Jackfish Below The Bridge:
Note: This section needs some detail from someone who has actually gone down. If you have, let me know what needs to be added.
Another trip option is to go down the final 15 kilometers of the river right to Lake Nipigon. You could end there with a floatplane extraction in Ombabika Bay or continue your adventure.
Rapids #6 – 700 meter river right portage
Of the five sets of rapids to deal with, the most challenging ones are the first two below the bridge. This “White Mile” of the river is where the proposed hydroelectric project was to be built. These two sets of rapids are the longest of those remaining – and so are their portages.
[I have no idea what shape they are in – or if they even still exist. My red line arches do not indicate their exact locations! If you have been down this stretch, any detail you can provide would be appreciated – and included in this write-up for the use of future canoe trippers.]
Volume 5 of the Wabakimi Project map set has a page on the rapids/portages from Zigzag Lake down to Ombabika Bay. It has Portage #6 as 700 meters and #7 as 500.
Rapids #7 – 500 meter portage on river right
Once at the bottom of portage #7, things become much more manageable. The final Rapids/Portages are indicated below.
The satellite images provided by the Ontario Government’s Make a Topographic Map website are useful in getting a close-up sense of the river. [To access the sat view, go into the “I want to… window and choose Change visible map layers. Uncheck topographic and check imagery.]
Rapids #8 –
Rapids #8 Little Jackfish River
Rapids #9 – Portage:
Rapids #10 – Portage:
Rapids #11 – Run, Line, and/or Portage
From the CN tracks down to Ombabika Bay is another 4 kilometers and a possible floatplane extraction back to one of the outfitters located on Mattice Lake.
Thinking we might paddle over to the northwest corner of Lake Nipigon’s Windigo Bay, during our planning last winter, the location of Portage Island had us looking for the possible portage into North Bay across the narrowest point of the peninsula.
Like the portage trails in the Ogoki headwaters, it would have been used by fur traders back in the 1800s. Max and I will not be the ones making it the setting of our next misadventure!
The Ogoki From Top To Bottom: Final Thoughts
My goal to do the Ogoki from “top to bottom” needed more time – maybe five or six days more – than the fourteen days we had to “git ‘er dun”. My brother’s initial skepticism – “Are you sure we have enough time? We’d need to do about 25 km every day!” – turned out to be the correct assessment of my ambitious schedule.
Another three days would have been enough to allow us to continue bushwhacking down the initial 40 kilometers from Endogoki Lake to Tew Lake, a section to which I had allocated three days.
Add to that the disappearance of any historical portage trails that were used 150 years ago by the Hudson Bay Company to transfer furs from Nipigon House to Osnaburgh House. While maps – the Canoe Atlas of the Little North, Wabakimi Project, and the online paddler planner – show portage trails from Savant Lake into the Ogoki River system and then others leading into Tew Lake, the fact is that these Ogoki headwater portages no longer exist.
It does seem a shame that the headwaters of the river that defines Wabakimi is not a part of the Park or do-able by recreational paddlers. The reasons for this are varied:
- the fact that it flows through crown Land just outside the Park boundaries being harvested by logging companies
- the disappearance of some necessary portages and
- the lack of convenient access points that do not involve bush plane insertion.
At the other end of the trip, we needed a couple of extra days to do the stretch from Zigzag Lake down to Ombabika Bay. So – no top and no bottom, just 200 kilometers of pretty amazing in-between!
On our way home we considered the possibility of returning next summer. With more time and a better understanding of the situation, we would complete the headwaters stretch from Endogoki to just before Wabakimi Lake. We’ll see if that seed of a trip grows any over the winter – or if it abandoned for something else!
The map below shows that headwaters section in red just east of Savant Lake. It also shows the other bits of the Ogoki – red for what we paddled for the first time this August and black for sections done before. The other tracks – in blue – are other Wabakimi-area rivers and lakes we’ve paddled on previous canoe trips.
We were thrilled to have paddled bits of the Ogoki that we had not done before and our time on the eastern reaches of Wabakimi Park and the Ogoki Reservoir gave us a deeper appreciation of the river and what has been done to it with the construction of the Waboose Dam.
Now our post on Wabakimi’s Top Six – our attempt a few years ago to list our favourite Wabakimi spots – needs updating or enlarging so that it would include
- Eight Flume Falls and
- the gorge-like stretch of the Whiteclay before you get to the Two Mile Bay portages!
We will definitely be back for some more of what Wabakimi has to offer!