Thursday 1 January 2009

Preparation For The Voyage - Prologue

Preparation For The Voyage

“In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments - there are consequences”
R. G. Ingersoll

With an unfortunate turn of events in the spring of 2006 came the realization that my canoe trips would be forever in the past and that any future trips would be via a wheelchair. So much idle time bred boredom so I began to jot down various recollections and organize photos of some of my favourite river trips. My notes slowly evolved to become these short stories based on my true life adventures. As I initially wrote these stories solely for my own amusement, they were often written out of sequence, as my mood dictated. For example, I wrote about some humorous events which occurred on our way to canoe Ontario’s Missinaibi River, never expecting to write more about the actual trip itself. Inspiration struck some time later and I then wrote about events at the conclusion of the trip. Still later I added a story about events at Kettle Falls, early in the voyage. Having come this far I felt compelled to tie the loose ends together and complete the voyage. As a result, my 1980 trip down the Missinaibi River was written in the order of chapters1,4,3 & 2. Each chapter stands as a complete tale however anyone wishing to read about this trip in sequential order should search for the following stories or click on the links below:
(1) Chapter One - Hornepayne Ontario On Route To the Missinaibi River (1980)
(2) Chapter Two - Missinaibi River: Mattice to Moosonee (1980)
(3) *Chapter Three - Kettle Falls: A Fleeting Glimpse of Spirituality - Missinaibi River (1980)
(4) Chapter Four - Missinaibi River - First Excursion - Moose River (1980)
*more accurately, a supplemental chapter of some personal views.

The stories presented here are simply my recollections & reflections of time I spent on my beloved Northern Ontario rivers. There are numerous detailed, mile by mile, rapid by rapid description of these river routes available on the web. My intent was never to duplicate these guides but rather to offer the reader a feel for the river's character, to share the situations I encountered along the journey and to convey the joy experienced in wilderness canoeing.

Note (1): Uploading or Publishing dates of these Posts are irrelevant as I have placed them in an order of my own preference. Newer posts are added to the end (oldest dates). I may mirror these posts at some future time in a web site which would be a more appropriate vehicle for presenting the material on this site.

Note (2): A number of the photos displayed here have been accepted by Google Earth and can be viewed by following the rivers on their site.

***Update August 2010: I thank all those who have viewed and commented on the photos I uploaded to Google Earth. An occasional commentator has taken issue with the exact placement or location depicted in some particular photo. Please remember that the river trips posted were made between the late 1970's and late 1980's, long before Google, and of most relevance, the Global Positioning Satellite/System (GPS).

I made an honest effort to map my photos accurately using written notes made at the time, notations scratched upon my topographical maps and the numerical continuity of my photographic slides - not to mention my faltering memory some thirty years hence. As such, I did not memorize, nor do I have the GPS coordinates of any particular rock, tree or bend in the river. I admire those who can view my photos of trips taken along a several hundred mile stretch of river, confidently identify particular features along route, and offer a correction. I thank you.

As stated in my preamble, the intent of this blog (and accompanying photos where ever they may appear) was never to have it used as an absolute guide or reference for those attempting these same trips, but rather as a vehicle to share my passion for canoeing, my love of these rivers and experiences encountered along the route. If not of an indisputable feature, the Photos I uploaded to Google Earth offer a visual reference of the general characteristics of the river as close to the exact location as I can place them.

Any errors in matching my photos on Google Earth to their exact and precise location are mine alone.

Note (3): I have provided Longitude & Latitude co-ordinates for the river locations at the end of each tale. By cutting and pasting the co-ordinates into the Google Earth Search bar as they appear, the search feature will bring the viewer to the rivers & locations mentioned.

July 1st, 2009
Note (4): The Flickr photosharing site who's services my internet provider is associated with, has significantly downsized the free hosting capacity to their clients. As I am unwilling to pay a premium price for the few number of photos (as slideshows) I present on this blog, I am experimenting with other providers and slideshow media. At the end of most tales there will either appear a slideshow or a link to a mirrored site on which the appropriate slideshow appears. Bear with me while I experiment in achieving the best presentation without supplementing the income of internet moguls & CEO's.

January, 2010

Note (5): I've always welcomed comments on the stories presented here however in recent weeks the spam-bots have found this blog site and have begun daily postings in the comments section - unrelated to any topic found on this site. For that reason I've had to initiate 'word verification' for those wishing to post a comment so as to reduce the self-serving garbage posted by spammers.

March 2010
Note (6): Though hosted by Blogger through Google, this site, for all it's faults and shortcomings, was my attempt at artistic expression, and perhaps self indulgence. Art, of course is in the mind of the creator and eye of the viewer - the two often may not connect. I however assembled this material foremost to please myself and if others found anything of interest amongst the words and photos - all the better.

I assembled the material in this blog in a manner of my choosing and for reasons of my own, wished to display a large number of posts per page. This month Google has decided otherwise and in an attempt to "improve" my site and others like it have introduced 'automatic pagination' where Google dictates how many posts per page and where the cuts occur.

Tales From The Paddle is heavily content laden and took some time to load but was presented as I wished. Google however knows better...

(I Now have a sidebar with content that runs on endlessly down the page)

© Copyright - All rights reserved.

“The river delights to lift us free, if only we dare to let go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure”
Richard Bach

Wednesday 10 December 2008

Mississippi River (Lanark County Ontario (198?)

Mississippi River
(Lanark County Ontario)
September 6th 1985

"Everyone must believe in something. I believe I'll go canoeing"
Henry David Thoreau
* * *

Rain………, dark damp and pouring rain!! A steady drum beat tapping out our wake up call on the nylon tent fly. Opening my eyes, I was insulted by darkness. My other senses coaxed me into consciousness delivering the heady aroma of pine needles and wet leaves laced with the acrid odour of last evenings campfire. There would be no campfire this dreary morning. Coffee and oatmeal would have to wait. Mosquitoes eagerly anticipated their meal teasing us to abandon the warmth of our sleeping bags and brave the morning.

Grimacing, we stepped into our wet boots and donned our rain gear. Our shadows exchanged uncertain glances as we unzipped and greeted the new day. September sixth, my birthday, welcomed me with the greatest gift of all. Alive, healthy and embraced by my beautiful Ontario wilderness.

After years of exploring the back rivers of Ontario, my canoing partner Brian and I had made an art of dismantling camp. Without a word we began rolling up the damp tent, nesting cooking pots, gathering our gear and loading our canoe. Passing each other on
our relay to the river bank we sputtered granola dust with words of encouragement while ferrying our packs to the muddy shore.

A gentle breeze whispering through the trees echoed the muffled chatter of the river. Pushing off, I raised my collar and glanced back at the woods that had sheltered us for an evening in our lives. Always nostalgic, I realized I may never pass this way again, to be embraced by those trees nor to share that evening with a friend.

Rain drops continued to make the river sing as our paddles sliced through the water adding rhythm to the chorus. Dawn was making a feeble attempt at pushing back the darkness while Lightfoot’s lyrics from ‘Whispers Of The North’ danced in my head.

"Whispers of the wind, I will feel it sting
I will see it rise and fall, I will hear it sing
The sound is like a song to me, it takes away the pain
The river is the melody and sky is the refrain" (1)

This was the last stretch of our voyage as we raced to keep our appointment with a rafting company on the Ottawa River. Hours passed in quiet reflection and with the lifting of the mist we found our car and bid farewell to the Mississippi River.

We arrived at the town of Beachburg and followed the road signs directing us down ever smaller gravel roads to the rafting company. Parking our car, we ambled off to a large canopy where the enticing aroma of coffee, pancakes, eggs and bacon wafted through the air. Grabbing a plate I eagerly began filling it with all the mouth watering items offered. The morning paddle had created an appetite that could not be satisfied with only one helping. As we loosened our belts and wiped our chins, our host began to describe the itinerary of the day. Beginning with the history of ‘Wilderness Rafting', he thanked us for our patronage of their company. ‘Wilderness Rafting’??? We had signed on with ‘Ottawa Whitewater Leaders’ (OWL). Realizing that we were in the wrong rafting camp, we made a dash for our car and escaped in a trail of dust searching for our correct host. A few more twists and turns on the back roads we arrived at the OWL organization and sauntered up to their cook tent to load up on more steaming coffee, and an additional complimentary breakfast. All that driving can certainly create an appetite!

After thanking us for our patronage and a description of our itinerary for the day we waddled off to board the bus for our riverside destination. Satiated with the breakfasts, we were ready for a nap rather than the physical exertion that awaited us. We no doubt made better ballast than paddlers as we settled into the raft and donned our helmets.

An enjoyable day was spent descending the Ottawa river, riding the bucking rapids, surfing the current and lazing away the day in the warmth of the sun.

A stark contrast to our rainy morning nevertheless equally as delightful , embraced by the wonderful countryside of the Ottawa river valley during the waning days of summer……

Note: To read about the Mississippi River trip in it's entirety go to my separate post entitled:
Mississippi River - Lanark County- 1985

Slide Show of the 1985 Ottawa River Rafting Trip
(Music: Whispers Of The North - Gordon Lightfoot)
* * *
© Copyright - All rights reserved.

(1) ' Whispers Of The North' -from the album 'Salute' (1983) -Gordon Lightfoot

Friday 28 November 2008

Hornepayne Ontario (Missinaibi River 1980)

Hornepayne Ontario On Route To the Missinaibi River (1980)
(Chapter One)

“It gave me a moment of exquisite satisfaction to find myself moving away from civilisation in this rude canvas canoe of a model that has served primitive races since men first went to sea.”

John Millington Synge

Brian and I, having finished loading the Chevy, gave one last tug on the ropes securing the canoe to the roof, said our goodbyes and departed our university town of London Ontario. Pushing back into my seat, I pulled out my treasured collection of Gordon Lightfoot cassettes and searched for an appropriate album with which to christen our journey.

Lightfoot’s music has always been my refuge, where I can hide between trips to the northern wonders of my beautiful province. Gord’s gift of painting musical portraits depicting rugged wilderness, lost loves and lonesome travels, have always been the embodiment of the Northern experience. What better way to start our trip than to complement it with some treasured Lightfoot tune? How appropriate! His beautiful tune ‘Hi’way Songs’!

Our destination would be the town of Mattice on the Trans-Canada Highway where we would test ourselves against the waters of the Missinaibi River. The beautiful Missinaibi is one of the last undammed rivers still free to run off the granite Canadian shield then weave it’s way through the Hudson Bay lowlands. Joining with the Mattagami River at Portage Island, the marriage of waters form the mighty Moose River.

A flip of a coin had us set our compass westward, taking the American over the Canadian route to ultimately reach our jump-off point(1). As the skies turned an unfriendly grey, we cranked up the heat to drive away the dampness of this spring day.

Approaching Port Huron, we crossed over into the state of Michigan on Route 69 then set our compass for Highway 75 and our trek northwards.

As growls from our stomachs were beginning to challenge the stereo’s volume, we chose an upcoming off-ramp outside of Flint Michigan and searched for some enticing restaurant offering a meal and brew. A rather tired looking pub sporting a flickering neon ’Schlitz’ sign beckoned us in spite of it‘s questionable appearance.

It was a rather uneasy feeling walking into that smoky darkness, the slamming door committing us to our choice. Chatter quickly died off as all eyes turned towards our two silhouettes standing in the doorway. God, it was just like a scene from the movies, where Bubba and the boys sized up the strangers in town. Plaid shirts, sports caps and the odd toothless grin aimed at us could have been a scene right out of ‘Deliverance’! Swallowing hard, we could feel eyes following us across the room as we seated ourselves and waited to be served. The din of the “good ‘ol boys” slowly returned as they once again swore insults and slapped each other’s backs.

Having finished our burger and Bud, our chairs screeched our intention to leave and all attention once again descended upon us. The cashier eyed me with curiosity as I opened my wallet to settle our tab. Pulling out some American ‘greenbacks’, a bright blue coloured Canadian bill fell to the counter. George Washington had brought Sir Wilfred Laurier along for a trip and he lay there staring back at me. “You boys Canadian?” drawled the apron garbed proprietor. My God, strangers AND foreigners invading their local hangout! “Yes we are, just passing through” I sputtered, keeping one eye on the door, our only means of escape. “Well boys, there’s no charge”. “No Charge?” I asked in confused disbelief . “Nnnooo chaaaarrge” the owner reiterated slowly so we “Canucks” could understand.. Once again the commotion faded as eyes focused upon us.

Canadian? As if a priest had just performed an exorcism, the atmosphere in the room lifted. The cashier’s till slammed shut and ‘the boys’ shouted jovial greetings at us!

It was 1980 and the year before Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor, stationed in Iran, had offered sanctuary to six American citizens hiding from militants. The insurgents who had invaded the U.S. embassy had taken over seventy hostages. With the blessing of the Canadian government, these American’s were issued Canadian passports and smuggled out of Iran as our own citizens.

We were soon made to realize that as Canadians, our grateful American neighbours were eager to offer us a token ‘thank you’ for the actions of our government. We were touched by the gesture, yet rather embarrassed as we obviously had no direct involvement. Escorted to our cars as celebrities we headed back to the interstate beaming, yet humbled. After all, neighbours look out for each other.

The sky remained overcast with a light drizzle periodically reminding us that summer had yet to arrive. The trip through the heart of Michigan was spectacular. Our ribbon of blacktop ran through a lush green corridor with abundant wildlife periodically watching the traffic from the roadside. Again, Lightfoot was our companion as his newly released album ‘Dream Street Rose’(2) was receiving disproportionate airtime. His song ‘On The High Seas’ blared out the lyrics:

“ was it somewhere in Michigan, or the Lake Of The Woods”.

Crossing back into Canada over the Michilimackinac bridge we entered the city of Sault Ste. Marie. Following the Trans-Canada Highway, as it hugged the eastern coast of Lake Superior, we were treated to a spectacular sunset.

Shades of orange shimmered off of the surface of Whitefish Bay, immortalized by Lightfoot’s masterpiece ‘Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald’

Eager to reach our destination we decided to persevere and push on down the road. Leaving Trans-Canada Hwy 17 behind, we rattled down the secondary ‘King’s Hwy 631' in inky darkness, pierced only by our headlights. What a desolate stretch of twisting two lane road this was. Miles turned to hours as they in turn gave yawns. It became obvious that any attempt to reach our destination this night would be at the expense of logic and safety. Surrendering to our fatigue, we decided to pull off of the road and find some suitable gravel shoulder to nap on. Headlights bounced off the roadside trees as we located an old gated driveway. Safely off the deserted highway we jostled for position within the car, my ending up intimately cradling the steering wheel in the front seat. Sleep immediately swept over us

Was it the low drone or the penetrating odour that first brought me to consciousness? Bells were clanging, horns were bellowing their displeasure. Diesel fuel permeated the night air as engines and rolling stock were jockeyed in the shunting yards. It became painfully obvious that we had driven onto some rail yard access road and the night long reshuffling of box cars would not permit any further sleep. With the first light of day just starting to paint orange hues into the midnight blue of dawn, we conceded defeat and pulled back onto the highway. Perpetual yawns were silent pleas for coffee. Perhaps some music would stimulate our minds enough to continue our journey safely. Punching a cassette back into the player Gord began to croon to our rising sun. A new melody began to unfold before us as Lightfoot’s “On The High Seas” broke the silence. Easing into our seats as well as the tune, the lyrics were painting images of worldly travels from Montreal to Reno to Rome. As the next phrase unfolded, Gord sang out;

‘Was it up in Hornepayne, Where the trains run on time?”

Simultaneously, as the words settled on our caffeine deprived brains, our jaws dropped when a misty road sign flashed into view. It simply announced HORNEPAYNE” Pop.1600. Peels of laughter ensued blasting away any lingering remnants of sleepiness.
That moment made our day and was captured in my memory for eternity.

Of all the trappings we might expect in this rather small, remote northern town I did not expect to find the “Hallmark Centre” a card store perhaps, which served extra duty as a post office, convenience stores and more. No ‘Second Cup’ or ‘Starbucks’ was to be found and the only foam was to be our styrofoam cup. Over the hot brown water, the proprietor was happy to explain to us that Hornepayne was a regional hub for the Canadian National Railroad. Indeed, we had decided to catch a few winks in what amounted to the center of the town’s major employer, the CN rail yards.

The song was replayed numerous times that morning until reaching our destination of Mattice. With that tune echoing in our heads we stowed our gear and prepared to ferry our car further east to Cochrane, our final destination and terminus of the Ontario Northland Railway. .

Lightfoot’s ‘On The High Seas’ was played one last time as it ended with the phrase...

"I don't want to own the key
To some ghostly mansion where souls are set free
I don't remember where she said she would go
Straight for the highway or down the low road
I don't remember where she said she would be
Back in the city or on the high seas"

And so our journey began……

Note: To view a slide show of my 1988 trip on the Missinaibi, click the above link (Chapter Two) and scroll to the bottom. Click on Frame to initiate the show.

* * *
(1) Jump-off point is the chosen location on a river from where to load up and launch the canoes from.

(2) Gordon Lightfoot’s March 1980 release of ‘Dream Street Rose

Google Earth Co-ordinates:
(cut and paste everything after the dash- (in red) into Google Earth search bar.

Hornepayne Ontario - "Where the trains run on time"
Lat/Long - 49° 13’02.66” N, 84° 46’31.81” W

Mattice Ontario - Missinaibi Jump-Off Location
Lat/Long- 49° 36’56.15” N, 83° 15’48.37” W

* * *
In November of 2006 I had the pleasure of meeting Gordon Lightfoot for my second time, much shorter now as I looked up at my idol from wheelchair level. I took that opportunity to ask him if about his song 'On The High Seas' and whether he too spent a sleepless night in Hornepayne while the trains shuffled in the moonlight. I hoped to "get a scoop" on that story and pass it onto the Lightfoot News Group. Gord listened to my story intently. Having laid out the scenario, I reclined back waiting for some spectacular insight. Gordon answered me "I really don't know". With a chuckle he had revealed to me that the marriage between music and lyrics isn't always the product of deep thought or some profoundly moving emotional experience but sometimes may just due to momentary inspiration or sheer chance. If the words fit, use them!

* * *
Massey Hall November 2006: Gordon Lightfoot and Myself Chatting about Hornepayne Ontario.

* * *
© Copyright - All rights reserved.

Tuesday 28 October 2008

Missinaibi River - Mattice To Moosonee (1980)

“The river Called. The call is the thundering rumble of distant rapids, the intimate roar of white water…a primeval summons to primordial values”
-- John J. Craighead

Missinaibi River: Mattice to Moosonee (1980)
(Chapter Two)

Our waitress fought back a chuckle as I ordered breakfast with my mangled high school French. “Deux ouefs au lard et pain grillé pour petit dejuner.…..Oh, et un TRES GRAND café s’il vous plait“. Brian, did I order bacon or lard??? With an understanding smile she pushed her pencil back into her hair and disappeared behind the counter.

Looking around the roadside diner, it was obvious that Brian and I were the first customers of the day. Truckers had yet to arrive as their big rigs, heavily laden with logs, raced by the storefront window. Lost in the scenario before me, Lightfoot’s tune ‘Cabaret’ pushed aside his song ‘On The High Seas’ which I had been humming all morning.

“Sitting in a roadside diner,
the big trucks rolling by
I don't seem to know at times what's best
And still I'd like to tell her
That I miss her so, in North Ontario”

Did I share some parallel universe with Gordon Lightfoot? Hours earlier Gord’s ‘on-time trains’ had derailed my sleep in Hornepayne and now I was sitting in a roadside diner off Hwy 11 as big trucks rolled by this northern Ontario town of Mattice. How spooky was that? Gord’s lyrics had mirrored my life on more than one occasion.

Mattice, situated at the junction of the Missinaibi River and Trans-Canada Highway is typical of these small northern towns. It’s predominantly French speaking population had dwindled in recent years due to a faltering economy. Those trucks piled high with logs were finding ever fewer pulp and paper mills, the region‘s principle employer, still in operation. Founded in 1910, the town’s growth was spurred on by the arrival of the Canadian Transcontinental Railway. Earlier still, the Missinaibi had served as an important fur trading route joining the Great Lakes to James Bay. It was the desire to retrace part of this historic route that had drawn us to this sleepy town.

Coffees drained, our waitress directed Brian to a payphone where he fed it a coin and dialled the number provided by Ontario’s Ministry Of Natural Resources office. It was our understanding that the town elder on the other end acted as a liaison for river voyagers. As in some covert spy mission, the word “Missinaibi” would be uttered, setting into motion a series of actions to literally bring us “in from the cold“,…. at least for the night.

Mr. Benoit‘s(1) age was not betrayed by his gait as he hurriedly approached with an extended hand and broad grin. “Bonjour mes amis”. Without a breath, the undecipherable slurry of French continued to pour from his craggy face and had us nodding yes or no wherever it seemed appropriate. A pause……….then an eruption of laughter as he slapped his knee in response to some joke only he was party to. Brushing past us he unlocked the door to the rather dilapidated Quonset hut and directed us into the darkness. A flick of a switch bathed the aging arena in light as Mr. Benoit ran about pointing and muttering. Cuisine (kitchen), chambre a coucher (sleeping facilities), salle de bain (washroom). With yet another belly-laugh and a slap on the back, he pressed the keys into the palm of my hand and departed as quickly as he had arrived. Brian and I stared at each other in silence. What had just happened? A jovial French-Canadian had just entrusted two total strangers to the unsupervised use of the town’s arena.

With our gear safely stowed inside we hopped in my Chevy and headed east. Those stake trucks heavily laden with logs continued to bounce down the highway, at one point criss-crossing the Mattagami River(2) where to our amazement the river was so jam-packed with a log drive that one could literally walk from shore to shore without setting foot in water. Imagine the shock in having planned a canoe trip on the Mattagami only to arrive to the scene before us. A two hundred mile portage down the center of the river perhaps?! Further east was our destination of Cochrane Ontario. Parking our car at the Ontario Northland Railway station, we headed across Railway Street for last minute provisions and more importantly, to the Cochrane Tavern for one last glass of ale. Catching the ONR bus back to Mattice we hoped we would find ourselves back at this terminal in some twelve days time.

The bus rattled along the shoulder and came to a dusty halt just short the Missinaibi River bridge. Hopping off we strolled along the river bank debating our plan of action. The running waters seductively murmured, as from the lips of some dark and mysterious mistress, tempting us to forgo the comforts of “our” Quonset hut and sleep beside her this night. Seduced we retrieved our gear, ferried our faithful Starcraft(3) to the bank and tucked the keys behind the hydro meter as instructed.

With a two week supply of provisions and gear straining the canoe’s thwarts, I steadied myself on the gunwales and began to add my own weight to that of the cargo. With my left foot planted soundly on the canoe floor I followed my departure ritual, purposely dragging my right boot through the flowing waters. Feeling the coolness wick its way up my sock, I knew I had been anointed by river and that we were no longer strangers. Pushing off into the evening light I savoured that first stroke of the paddle. After summertime dreams and many a winter’s night of preparation, we were finally on our way.

I don’t recall quite how I came to know of the Missinaibi River. The name itself seemed to dance in my mouth when first spoken. Increasingly, I found myself repeating it with growing excitement and anticipation. In the early 1980’s there wasn’t a great source of information to draw upon in regards to these mysterious northern rivers. Browsing through the card catalogues at The University Of Western Ontario, I could only find some highly specific government hydrological surveys and the occasional article in outdoor magazines. A freshly mimeographed(4) copy of the route description arrived by mail that winter which I supplemented with eleven dusty 1:50,000 scale topographical maps obtained from the bowels of a local book store. The personal computer was in it’s infancy in 1980 and digital age tools such as the Internet and Google Earth were yet to be developed. Today, contemporary voyagers can network with veteran paddlers or zoom in from the cosmos to study a particular rapid prior to departure - all from armchair comfort. Yet, the ability to examine a river from source to mouth by satellite somehow seems to diminish the adventure from the days when we left home with nothing more than a Tupperware container of top-maps, scribbled notes and a mental image of what may lay ahead. Google had no idea of what lurked around that next bend in the river, nor did we…

Water spouts danced in the wind before us, like miniature tornadoes, they performed pirouettes teasing us to give chase. With evening’s advancing darkness came lower temperatures and soon our amazement was diverted from these dying ‘water devils’ to heaven’s multitude of sparkling stars suspended in the clearest sky I had ever witnessed. A late camp was set on the first available point while steaks sizzled on the grill. With our best ‘Mr. Benoit accent‘, we rattled off orders to each while packing gear and inching ever closer to our sleeping bags.

Morning broke under an unsettled steel-blue horizon leaving us uncertain if the first drenching would be courtesy of the skies or the river. Our first real encounter with whitewater was to be Rock Island Rapids where the obvious portage was not on either bank but rather over the island itself. In short order we were back in the canoe where I smiled in satisfaction as the river remained between it’s banks and wasn’t dripping from my pant pockets.

Black Feather rapids soon followed. A checkerboard of strewn rocks challenged us to a game in which the odds of staying afloat favoured the river. Brian and I declined the rumbling dare and chose to line(5) the loaded canoe along the eastern bank. Having secured ‘painters’(6) to both bow and stern we planted each rocky step carefully, playing the canoe out into the swiftly flowing current. With lines taut, Brian and I appeared to dance a riverside ‘pas de deux’. An un-choreographed ballet consisting of pirouettes and pliés - leaps from rock to rock while lines snapped and swirled as we danced the canoe through a boulder strewn stage. My smug satisfaction in having remained dry ended abruptly as I suddenly found myself looking up from the Missinaibi, now running at chin level. Having played out too much line, the Missinaibi was quick to remind me of who was boss. Grabbing the stern with one violent yank, the current flung me into the rapids which mockingly roared as I backstroked to shore. As water drained from the camera dangling from my neck, the sickening realization swept over me that I had lost more than my dignity on that plunge.(7) The final rock garden in this series was Beam Rapids which we humbly portaged muttering Burton Cummings’ tune ‘Fine State Of Affairs‘ under our breaths - with heavy emphasis on the title.

"Ooh I miss the real exciters
Anything with anyone
Such a fine thing, fine state of affairs... ooh yeah
Lining up for fast one-nighters
When the final show was done
Such a fine thing, fine state of affairs
No one cares, no, no"

The afternoon sun had finally found the courage to punch through the cloud cover and began to drive the dampness from our clothes. It’s orange rays danced in the treetops, descending to meet us at our evening’s campsite. Pulling to shore at Kettle Falls, we set up camp, prepared supper and studied the geological formations known as “kettles” for which the falls was named. Bathed in sharp shadows, I made my way to the edge of the falls where I surrendered to my fatigue and soon was absorbed by the beauty before me. Mesmerized, I drifted into a deep and intense reflection of my life - a unique emotional experience which stays with me to this day.
(Kettle Falls - Missinaibi River A Fleeting Glimpse Of Spirituality - Chapter Three)

A sunny dawn greeted us once again as we pushed on down the river. Several runable rapids lifted our spirits and made for an enjoyable morning. Passing Alice Island on our left we set a steady pace for what would be the geological highlight of the voyage. The landscape transforms dramatically at Thunderhouse Falls where the metamorphic Precambrian rock of the Canadian Shield delivers the Missinaibi to the sedimentary base of the Hudson Bay Lowlands. There too the foliage changes from the dense boreal forest to a ground cover generally made up of sparse tamarack and black spruce struggling to grow in the thin soil along the well drained river banks.

For Brian and I, Thunderhouse had taken on an air of mystery and intrigue. What little was written about the falls painted it in an eerie, almost supernatural light. Native-Americans roamed these woods centuries before and had themselves marvelled at this cataract. The river drops approximately 30 meters (90 ft) over three closely spaced cascades where aerated water froths and boils in it’s thunderous decent to the chasm below. So violent an action that the vibrating roar is transmitted through one’s bones as much as it is deafening to the ear. At the end of the canyon stands a pyramid shaped rock which juts defiantly from the swirling waters. Indian lore had preserved the legend that this rock, known as Conjuring or Conjurer’s House, was a sacred stone tee-pee and the roar came from the spirits of their forefathers held eternally captive within. A site to explore with respect and to hold in reverence.

Paddles momentarily hung in the air as our ears strained to hear the first tell-tale sounds of Thunderhouse Falls. Sketchy route descriptions had us bordering on paranoia as we scouted the west bank for a portage marker. The current gained strength as the width of the river narrowed and with each stroke the rumble intensified. Rumours of panic stricken canoeists, paddles desperately reaching for salvation as they were swept over the falls abound but could never be substantiated. Regardless, the falls were not to be trifled with if one didn’t wish to join the captive spirits shouting for eternity within Conjuror’s House below. Partially obscured by foliage, the yellow portage marker flashed it’s warning and had us scramble for shore.

The humid air was almost as thick as the swarms of mosquitoes that eagerly greeted us. Squinting from the glare, I nudged Brian, drawing his attention to a mother duck and three ducklings caught in the headwaters of the falls. Like sports fans at the big game, Brian and I shouted words of encouragement to the hapless feathered family as their webbed feet paddled furiously against the current. Drawn almost to the precipice they slowly gained headway, finally reaching a quiet eddy where the exhausted mom took stock of her flock. Brian and I gave a victory shout and pumped our fists into the air, as if our encouragement intervened in the inevitable. Further ashore sat a twisted and perforated aluminum canoe - another sobering reminder of the unforgiving strength of the Missinaibi.

The mile long portage around the falls was reasonably well travelled, rising and falling with the landscape. Essential packs were ferried to a clearing capable of accommodating several tents. With camp erected, we leisurely hiked back and forth along the trail relaying our gear along the way while taking frequent side excursions to view the gorge. Words fail to capture the beauty and grandeur of this magnificent landscape capable of titillating each of the senses. Sparkling granite rusts and ever-greens framed by azure skies and cerulean waters. Pungent pines mingling with the heady fragrance of ferns anchored by an aromatic earthen base. The rhythmic drumming of a ruffled grouse’s wings or the white throated sparrow’s lilting melody set against gurgling waters. The gentle caress of a wafting breeze or the searing sting of pelting rain, all for the exhilarating taste of victory savoured at the end of a rapid run. Not surprisingly this seductive splendour has captured the hearts and minds of artists over the years, serving as muse to several of Canada’s Group Of Seven(8).

A pleasant afternoon was spent exploring the falls from various vantage points, photographing the cataract under playful noon time rays to evening’s falling shadows. Retreating to base camp we prepared supper under descending darkness. Time yet for a few hot chocolates around the fire before we would climb into our sleeping bags and be lulled to sleep by the muffled roar of the falls.

Striking camp we made our way to the portage terminus where our canoe and gear lay in wait. Repacking under a light drizzle, we set off across the foaming river making for the opposite shore. Ahead of us was a foreboding rocky outcrop we nicknamed “the monkey house” which would serve as camp on a future trip. Periodically glancing over my shoulder I watched Conjurer’s Rock recede into the misty horizon - it’s exploration would have to wait for a subsequent trip as well. Our attention was soon diverted to the rumble of Stone Rapids which we ran, avoiding the 875m (0.5 mile) portage on the eastern bank.

The next imperative would be the 2350m (1.5 mile) portage around Hell’s Gate Canyon. Drizzle had turned to a gentle downpour, making the water sing as we put to shore at the head of the gorge. The day was still young - far to early to make camp and wait out the inclement weather. Tying tin cups and pots to our backpacks we set off clanging along the trail in hopes of warning any bear of our approach. Spring rains had muddied our path and fallen deadwood frequently blocked our way as we stumbled along in this mosquito haven. Straining under the weight of our packs, our feet would often become mired in the sucking muck below. Boots sank until they disappeared beneath the ooze, then reappeared with the next strained step, slurping to the surface as the vacuum released.

"Pussywillows, cat-tails, soft winds and roses
Rainpools in the woodland, water to my knees
Shivering, quivering, the warm breath of spring
Pussywillows, cat-tails, soft winds and roses"

Dropping our packs for a breather, we would hike off the trail to peer over the precipice and marvel at Hell‘s Gate canyon below. How easy it would be to miss that narrow veiled path weaving through the undergrowth and find oneself lost in these dense woods. With the rain washing perspiration from our brows, we finally stumbled into a clearing which we named “the Ranger Camp” for it was here that the government had at one time tested the site for it’s suitability in being dammed for hydroelectric power. Holes drilled into the granite canyon wall were all that bore witness to that endeavour. Thankfully the Missinaibi continues it’s unharnessed run to the bay to this day.

In all we would traverse each portage three times as first we ferried personal backpacks, then camp packs containing cooking utensils, tent and other wilderness essentials and finally the canoe itself. Portaging the canoe became a feat of endurance. The muddy trail had now been churned up by our previous trips and stuck to our boots like glue. With the canoe raised overhead, we stumbled over deadfall and slid in the mire. The bow frequently became entangled in dangling branches sending it in a direction opposite to our own while rewarding us with a shower of rain. Neither of us were smokers, yet we lit up a couple of pungent stogies in order to blow acrid cigar smoke at the mosquitoes feasting on our outstretched arms. The famished hoards, unfazed by repellent and blown smoke more frequently required a swat to be driven off. Releasing my grip on one gunwale brought the canoe down on my head with a metallic clang that resonated through the forest. Cursing under my breath, I swear I could hear distant wildlife laughing at my plight! Yet I wouldn’t trade that experience for a lounge chair and umbrella drink at some posh Caribbean resort.

"Are We Having Fun Yet?"

Morning remained overcast as we completed the final leg of the portage. Slip-sliding down the steep clay incline, my momentum carried me into the refreshing waters of Bell’s Bay where the previous day‘s sweat and grime rinsed away. The next few hours were some of the most thrilling as we rode one bucking rapid after another descending from the shield through the clay belt to the lowlands. Our pace began to slow once the river widened, spending the rest of the afternoon in an almost hypnotic rhythmic paddle while entertained by dragon flies feasting on our entourage of mosquitoes.

We pitched camp on a sandy bank at Bull Moose Bay, a deeper and wider expanse of river than we has previously encountered. One of the few locations on the Missinaibi assailable by float plane. A nearby creek gurgled as it’s runoff joined the Missinaibi. It’s waters ran clear however we dare not replenish our canteens in fear of catching a bout of the dreaded 'Beaver Fever'(9). Brian, standing by the gurgling stream with the coffee pot in hand, was staring at his feet and shaking his head in dejected disbelief. The running shoes that had served him so well along those muddy trails had finally decomposed or more accurately exploded. Caked in mud, the sole had separated from the uppers revealing a grungy sock full of toes wiggling within. In sombre ceremony, Brian changed to his boots and spoke few heartfelt words of praise and remembrance of said pair. Hoisting tin mugs of scotch overhead in a final salute the service concluded with the cremation of the canvas runners on our pyre.

Dawn couldn’t arrive soon enough as a new blight known as “no-see-ums” had discovered us. A scourge so tiny that they were all but invisible as they eased their way through the mosquito netting to inflict a burning bite. Even the reeking stink held between our nylon walls didn’t discourage their aggression. Brian and I looked at each other with wrinkled noses, silently incriminating each other for the eye watering stench emanating from the heap of filthy clothes piled between us. Why, those shorts could be hoisted on the end of a stick and used as skunk repellent! Undeniably laundry day had arrived!

Casting off we made for the mouth of the Soweska River, certain a good campsite would be found near the confluence. With a relaxed paddle ahead of us, we discussed what should be done with the plastic bag of festering clothing stowed between the thwarts. In a moment of inspiration we pulled to shore and retrieved a rigid plastic milk crate that carried our kitchen gear. Emptying the perforated box, we placed our clothing within and filled each pocket with a squirt of dishwashing detergent. Securing the open top with bungee cords, we tied the stern painter to the box and headed out to mid river. Tossing our improvised washing machine overboard we leisurely paddled downstream towing the crate behind us. As the box bounced off of the occasional river rock, the agitation scrubbed our duds clean. When soap bubbles no longer burst from our laundry, we knew the rinse cycle was complete and we could haul the crate back aboard. Spreading our damp denims over the center thwarts, the sun provided the dry cycle. River clean, wind dry and sunshine fresh….if only I could figure out how to market this wilderness laundromat.

Weather in the north seemed to change hourly. Once again under overcast skies, we searched for our next campsite. A metallic glint caught Brian’s attention and naturally it begged exploration. Slightly removed from the riverbank stood a government water monitoring station. Finding the door to the small corrugated metal hut unlocked we peered inside. In one corner stood some apparatus replete with wires, pipes, gauges and meters. Powered by batteries charged by rooftop solar panels, the mechanism would spring to life momentarily, then once again go dormant until the next reading. The true find were the bunks inside as we knew immediately that this would be home for the night. No mosquitoes, horseflies, black flies or no-see-ums! Such a pleasant accommodation that we lazed about for a second night, drying out, repacking and cleaning up both ourselves and our host cabin. Grateful for this wilderness oasis, we left it in better shape than in which it had been found.

A blustery day followed with the wind continuously buffeting us. Securing an upright paddle to the center thwart, we lashed a sturdy spruce pole across the blade. Draping that frame with a tarp we created a sail with which we could harness the wind and speed our journey.

“I'm sailing down the summer wind
I got whiskers on my chin
And I like the mood I'm in
As I while away the time of day
In the lee of Christian Island”

Not exactly the sleek sailboat which Gord sang about but with a bit of trim our canoe rode the waves magnificently.

Alternating glances between our top-map and the hazy horizon began to increase in anticipation of our next landmark. In the distance, the silhouette of Portage Island rose from the merging waters of the Missinaibi and Mattagami rivers - the combined flow giving birth to the mighty Moose River. Invigorated by our progress, we decided to push onwards for a few hours more. Finally, with the afternoon light fading, we pulled for a beautiful sand spit on the western shore. Surveying our campsite, it was difficult to believe we were so far north in Ontario. As these caramel sands bound forest greenery to sparkling turquoise waters, the location was deceptively reminiscent of some Caribbean resort. Not such a long stretch of the imagination as our route was punctuated by numerous fossils along the way. Preserved in the sedimentary rock were palm fronds and trilobites, inhabitants of a tropical north millennia before.

If sand was a condiment, my rehydrated supper would have been well seasoned. Finding the gritty mess unpalatable I scratched out a hole and returned it to the very beach that had so generously contributed to our meal. Riverside, I sat back on my heels and washed my utensils, chuckling over the antics of a large demented bumble bee which derived pleasure in delivering repeated stings to my backpack.

….And so it was on this summer’s eve that I drifted into a state of rare contentment for at this moment all was right with my world. Far removed from societies hectic pace, my tension and anxiety dissipated. Deadlines were dictated by the setting sun, line-ups meant walking in tandem on a portage trail, my noisy neighbour was an industrious woodpecker and nature’s rapids would be the only traffic jam encountered. There were no bills, no commercial breaks or intrusive phone calls. Far from my house yet so much more at home here where all I really needed could be carried on my back.

Glancing downstream, I wondered what adventures tomorrow would bring as we continued our voyage down the mighty Moose River on it’s perpetual journey to the bay…
(Missinaibi River - First Excursion - Moose River 1980 - Chapter Four - Conclusion)

“Rivers have what man most respects and longs for in his own life and thought--a capacity for renewal and replenishment, continual energy, creativity, cleansing”
--John M. Kauffman
(1) Mr. Benoit - the character was real but his name changed as my detailed notes were placed somewhere safe, never to be seen again in this lifetime…
(2) Mattagami River - See photo of log jam in post entitled ‘Miscellaneous Photos Of Various River Trips’
(3) Starcraft - a manufacturer of aluminum canoes amongst other products.
(4) Mimeograph - think of it as a pre-computer hardcopy.
(5) “Line” - the act of lining is were the canoe is guided through a set of rapids from the river bank by means of it’s painters (see #6).
(6) Painters - the term refers to the ropes tied to both the bow and stern of a canoe.
(7) As my 35mm Yashica camera became waterlogged early in the trip - the later photos are from my 1982 trip with a second canoe.
(8) Group of Seven - a group of Canadian artists of varying styles who captured Canadian landscapes on canvas early in the 1900’s
(9) Beaver Fever - a slang term for an infectious diarrhoea cause by ingestion of the parasite Giardia lamblia which can live symbiotically in the Canadian beaver. Smaller streams dammed by the beaver may have a greater amoeba or cyst load than the river itself.

Google Earth Co-ordinates:
(cut and paste everything after the dash- (in red) into Google Earth search bar.

Mattice Ontario - Missinaibi Jump-Off Location
Lat/Long 49° 36’56.15” N, 83° 15’48.37” W

Kettle Falls
Lat/Long- 49° 47’11.44” N, 83° 13’13.62” W

ThunderHouse Falls
Lat/Long- 50° 03’09.80” N, 83° 11’05.33” W

Moose River & Abitibi River Junction
Lat/Long- 51° 03’09.28” N, 80° 55’53.89” W

Moosonee ON
Lat/Long- 51° 51’16.28” N, 80° 38’43.81” W

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Slide Show of the 1982 Lower Missinaibi River Trip
(1982 Trip With 2nd Canoe to Moose River Crossing)
(See Albany River Slideshow for Scenes Of Moosonee)

“The rivers flow not past, but through us, thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fibre and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing”
-- John Muir