Bushwhacking the Ogoki Headwaters: Days 3, 4, and 5

Previous Post: Paddling The Ogoki Headwaters – Days 1 and 2

Day Three: When You’ve Got Two Bad Choices!

Ogoki headwaters – Day 3 – some trouble spots circled

  • distance: 2.5 km total, about 510 m of boreal bushwhacking
  • time: 8 h
  • portages/rapids: an all-day extravaganza, read on!
  • weather: hot, very hot (  17˚ to 31 ˚C; max. humidex ~36˚); mostly clear
  • campsite: nice thick, fluffy, bouncy boreal moss, everywhere 🙂
  • 052 J 09 Neverfreeze Lake – Natural Resources Canada archived 1:50,000 topo map
  • See Toporama (here) for NCR’s current interactive coloured mapping and print what you need.
  • our Garmin inReach-generated GPS track (here)- (Click on View All Tracks at the top right-hand corner)

Another early get-up to take advantage of the cool of the early morning … As the following video clip shows, we got to paddle a  tranquil slice of the boreal forest, definitely an upgrade from the bushwhacking down the river bed of the first two kilometers of the Ogoki.

It was not to last –  that jarring sound at the very end of the clip woke us from our dream state!

The nose of the canoe hit a submerged log just not quite deep enough to skim over.  Back to reality!  And as we rounded the bend in the river,  a complication up ahead!

I hopped out to have a look; it did not look good! I scampered along the left shore about 25 meters to see what was coming up – still not good! It was a replay of the situation we had faced for most of the previous day – and one we were not keen on repeating!

Ogoki headwaters blockage

Ogoki headwaters river view

In planning for the trip, I’d checked out my copy of Canoe Atlas of The Little North (2007). It indicates a 1440-meter portage trail that allows paddlers to avoid the kilometer or two of yet more bushwhacking that they would have to do if they choose to stay with the river.

The Wabakimi Project Volume 1 map (my copy dates from 2009) had the same 1440-m portage but also notes the logging road (702) which crosses it at the one-kilometer point before a final section of trail down to the water. Given that its portage distances are identical to those in the Canoe Atlas, it is likely that the Project map has taken its info from the Canoe Atlas.

Wabakimi Project map – portages from Savant Lake To Tew Lake Via Ogoki River

A post-trip visit to the useful canoe tripper’s online resource,  Paddle Planner,   turned up the following rendition of the portage.  At the bottom left-hand corner, a credit is given to the Wabakimi Project map.  Given the very precise measure of the portage  – 1278 meters –  the impression left is that it is based on someone actually having walked it.

We paddled back to the bend in the river where our map indicated the start of the portage. After going back and forth a couple of times and seeing nothing – no flagging tape, no sign of a canoe landing, no sign of human traffic, no blazes – we were left with a choice to make:

  • go back and deal with what the river had for us or
  • make our own “trail” through the bush.

Given the eight hours we had spent on Day 2 dealing with the first two kilometers, we had no reason to think the next five would be any easier. Low to no water and no portage trails would mean another full day of slogging.  Much better to go overland and skirt all the problems the river was throwing our way – a portage of two or three hours and we would be done with it.  That, at least, was the thinking!

While we were at the maximum trip weight – with 23 kg. of food in our packs – even at 9:30,  it was hot enough that the mosquitos that could have made it a nasty experience, were nowhere to be seen. Off we set. If there was a portage trail in there, we did not stumble upon it!

satellite view of the terrain from the river bend to the open water

We decided to move across in small 100-meter legs, each of which required three carries so that for every 100 meters forward we were walking 500. We found out soon enough that it would not be easy.

Ironically, in this summer of massive wildfires in the boreal forests of northwest Ontario, this slice of it could really use a good burn!  We were walking on a mishmash of lichen, rotten tree trunks and assorted deadfall and blowdown. Most steps were question marks as we moved our gear down the line to the next bit of orange duck tape.

About 1 1/2 hours into the “portage” I did express the thought that maybe we had made the wrong choice.  What to do?  Spend 1 1/2 hours moving everything back to the river and deal with what we had tried to avoid – or push on with what we started?

Some high school Shakespeare bubbled into my mind and I recalled Macbeth’s words as he surveyed the results of his murderous path so far –

I am in blood
Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.

Change the word blood to bloody boreal and our situation was nicely encapsulated. Like Macbeth, we decided to go o’er!

on our way to that logging road

We didn’t know it at the time but we had embraced probably our most unsettling and forgettable canoe tripping experience ever – and one that we’ll never forget! Over the next 26 hours, we would spend eight of them bushwhacking through the boreal Canadian Shield version of an Amazon jungle.

Max checking his Etrex 20 to make sure we are on track

what looks like a friendly section of our carry

By 2:30 or so we were “bushed”! We had covered a mere 500 meters and the temperature was in the low 30s C. It was feeling even hotter. And we had a water problem; we were running low and would not have enough for the next morning unless we went back to the muddy creek we had crossed a half-hour previously and filled up our three Gravity Works bags.

We decided to stop for the day. Up went the tent; out came the lunch bag.  After a bit of a break, we wandered back and scooped up 12 liters of somewhat muddy creek water.

our tent halfway across the “portage”

Later, after supper, when I went for a walk to see what tomorrow morning held in store, I was able to string together a series of rock outcrops with little vegetation on them.  While they took us off our direct path, they made progress easier. Before we crawled into our sleeping bags, we made use of this easy section to haul the canoe, the water bags, and the food bags another 140 meters down the line.

some bare spots in the boreal – string enough together in as straight a line as possible and you have a portage trail!

Day 4: Out To the Logging Road and Back To the River

  • distance: 5 km to campsite
  • time: 11 hrs.
  • portages/rapids: 2/0 – 720 m (to the road); 1.72 km on the logging road to the river, then back on the Ogoki for the rest!!
  • weather: very hot 😦  20 C˚ to 33 ˚C;  max. humidex ~40 ˚C; from clear to partly cloudy
  • campsite: make-do on raised outcrop; ok for 1 x 4 person

We were back at it by 8:30. Shortly after noon, we got to the logging road. Totally focussed on just getting to the road, we had taken zero photos of our traverse!

The logging road goes north and crosses the Ogoki about 1.7 km. from where we came out. First, we walked up and down the gravel road to see if there were any traces of a portage trail or signs of anyone having come out of the bush on our side of the road. Nothing evident. We looked on the other side of the road for signs of a trail or of human traffic that would indicate a portage back to the river. Again, nothing.

Not keen on another session of boreal bushwhacking to get to the water, we picked the other option. We would move our gear up to the logging road to the bridge that crosses the Ogoki River and put in there. We fantasized about an empty logging truck passing by and stopping to give us a lift. A fantasy it remained!

The 32ºC  temperature and the complete lack of shade during the hottest part of the day had us break the 1.7 km. road portage into segments of 300 or 400 meters. At the end of each double-load carry, we took a ten-minute break. Two and half hours later, we were at the bridge and keen to get back to a canoe trip that involved water!

the logging road we walked up to access the river

I looked west from the bridge and saw the Ogoki snaking its way through low-level scrub and marshy terrain. As it came up the bridge it was maybe 15 cm deep, maybe just enough to float our canoe.

the Ogoki river headwaters as it snakes towards logging bridge 702

We hauled the canoe and bags down to the river, squeezing by a cached boat to do so. While the initial stretch looked promising we would soon find that the shallow water meant for more than a bit of scraping and hauling the canoe over semi-submerged logs and rocks.  From 5 to 6:30 we managed to move down 2.1 km. of the river.

the downriver side of the bridge – our put in

Faced with another portage, we took a quick look before deciding a good night’s rest was in order and that we’d leave it for the next day.  When we saw a flat spot on an elevated rock outcrop nearby, we headed over to check it out.  It would have to do!

Day 4 CS on the banks of the Ogoki

Our focus on “top to bottom” river trips has provided us with some challenging but, in the end, exhilarating situations.  However, in this case, we were not feeling the exhilarated bit! Had we decided to continue our trip down the Ogoki via the portage by-pass route, originally developed because the river itself was probably even more work, we were faced with the likelihood that those portages also no longer existed and that more bushwhacking would be on tap.

That night we made the decision to pull the plug on our exploration of the upper Ogoki – well, at least the rest of the headwaters section to just before Wabakimi Lake.

We figure that all the portages marked in red on the map above are now only historical in nature. They were probably a part of an HBC fur transit route from Nipigon House on Wabinosh Bay (and after 1830 relocated to near Jackfish Island) on Lake Nipigon. Once the furs arrived at Osnaburgh House they were transported down the Albany to company warehouses on James Bay.

Canoe Atlas of the Little North (2007) indicates all these portages; the Friends of Wabakimi map from two years later reproduces them all. Trails that haven’t existed for a hundred years or more survive on paper. It reminds me of

  • the historical-only Mink Portage on the Kopka River or
  • the Big Bend Portage on the Pikitigushi River above the Mud River VIA stop.

They continued to appear on NRC topo maps into the 1990s even though they no longer exist. However, since no one uses them anyway, it doesn’t really matter, at least not until someone plans on walking them!

the string of Ogoki lakes from Tew to the Reservoir

Beyond Tew Lake the Ogoki takes on a totally different character; it becomes a sequence of big lakes joined by narrow channels punctuated with rapids and falls and well-used portage trails. Wabakimi, Kenoji, Whitewater, Whiteclay…all the way to the Ogoki Reservoir and beyond.

In my pre-trip planning, I had calculated that we would be on Whitewater Lake by the end of Day 5. Well, here we were at the end of Day 4 about 5 kilometers as the crow flies from our Endogoki starting point!

With supper done, we made use of our Garmin inReach Explorer+ to send Mattice Lake Outfitters an email about the possibility of a “Beaver shuttle” from the lake we would be on the next morning east to Whitewater Lake. We got a response much faster than expected – “We’ll pick you up mid-afternoon tomorrow. Just send us your exact coordinates.”

[At the end of the trip as we sat on the Mattice Lake Outfitters porch, Don Elliot gave us a souvenir photocopy of the map sheet on which someone had pencilled in “Albinger Lake” on the patch of open water where the pilot would land the next afternoon. They could not remember ever landing a plane on that lake!

a view of the next morning’s first order of business – an unrunnable set of rapids

Day 5: Airlift From Ogoki Headwaters To Whitewater Lake

  • distance: 3 km; 69 km;
  • time: 2h + waiting time; 26 min flying time,
  • portages/rapids: 2/0 – lining 150 m into Nameless Lake
  • weather: hot (20 C˚ to 33˚ with max. humidex ~40 C˚); clear/partly cloudy
  • campsite: camper’s choice, multiple 4 person spots on the shore but all exposed

This morning  I took another look at the sleep data generated by my Polar Vantage M watch.  My usual overnight sleeping heart rate average is 47;  after Night 3 it read 65; during Night 4 my sleeping heart rate average had climbed to 75 beats per minute! Yikes!

We looked forward to a few hours of sitting around and waiting for the plane to arrive – but there would be some work to do first.

a view of our tent space – without the tent

With the tent down and the canoe loaded, we set off for the first of the morning’s to-do list. It came up within a couple of minutes.  In the image below, the canoe sits in 15 cm of water and I’ve walked ahead to see what we need to do. Shallow water meant that the portage along the left side of the river would be a bit longer.

Twenty minutes later we had hauled everything to the bottom and were ready for what the river had for us next.

at the bottom of a mini portage on the Ogoki headwaters

Surprise! A minute or two down a stretch we could float in –

And then one final bit of hauling to get beyond the boulder garden you see in the image below. We hopped on the rocks on river left to get to the bottom –

looking back at the boulder garden we had just portaged

The nameless lake below the two dry sets of rapids on the Ogoki headwaters took us an hour to get to.

Once on the widened section of the river,  we paddled over to the west shore.  It was there that the supposed portage trail comes out.  We found no evidence of a portage or of human traffic as we scanned the shoreline.

Ultimately, you have to wonder – who would be coming this way-  and from where? It would certainly not be locals from Osnaburgh House or the VIA stop at Savant Lake.  This route would lead them nowhere that they would want to go.  Locals do not even travel by canoe anymore – and the route is certainly not one for a “boat and kicker”!

Our scan of the west shore of the lake done, we paddled over to the other side and set up the tarp to give us a bit of shade.  We also took advantage of the sloped rock and the beach to cool off in the lake, had a leisurely lunch,  and another cup of coffee.

Around 3:30 p.m. we started listening more carefully for the drone of a De Havilland. The plane finally arrived at 5 and by 6 we were 70 kilometers  downriver.  With our airlift completed, we paddled to the south shore of Whitewater Lake not far from the Wilderness North outpost at the lake’s west end and set up camp. It felt great to be sitting next to water  – we were back to actually being able to paddle!

Whitewater Lake – west end beach campsite

Coming up: two days of canoeing across Whitewater Lake with return visits to the Ogoki Lodge property and the Wendell Beckwith Cabins on Best Island. Things had changed since our previous visit in 2011!

The following post has all the details and pix!

Next Post: A Two-Day Paddle Across The Ogoki’s Whitewater Lake From West To East

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2 Responses to Bushwhacking the Ogoki Headwaters: Days 3, 4, and 5

  1. Ken Babinchak says:

    Wow. Let that be a lesson re: The Canoe Atlas of the Little North. It is an historical document sans pareil, but many times that’s all it is. I can’t believe Phil Cotton would send that info off to the mapmaker Barry. Maybe it was just a placeholder and the actual reconnaissance was never done… and subsequently forgotten. I can attest that during my 16 weeks in the bush with The Wabakimi Project we never made things up. We feared the wrath of Phil.

    • true_north says:

      In Canoe Atlas the authors do mention scouring old topo maps for marked portages. I found an Ontario Department of Lands and Forests topo from 1962 used as the base map for a surface geology map of NW Ontario and it has those portages indicated. The Wabakimi Project map has the same length for each portage as the Canoe Atlas.

      In an email correspondence, Vern had a fuzzy recollection of being with Phil in 2008 and looking for a 700-meter portage into the Ogoki from Savant Lake – and giving up after not finding anything at all.

      I should send the map makers a note requesting that those initial portages from Savant Lake to Tew Lake be marked as “historical” as opposed to confirmed and in-use ones.

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