Sunday, 27 April 2008

Mississagi River

Mississagi River

"Give me a good canoe, a pair of Jibway snowshoes, my beaver, my family and 10,000 square miles of wilderness and I am happy"
Archibald Belaney, aka Grey Owl
I suspect my somewhat reclusive nature developed from having grown up an only child in a rather isolated rural setting. Over time, solitary pursuits that were once my only recourse, unknowingly became entrenched as a lifestyle. Later, by extension, the northern wilderness became my refuge when hectic city life encroached upon my sanity…. or perhaps it was simply an attempt to recapture my childhood and a quieter, simpler time. Regardless, each spring I longed for the chance to lose myself on some remote river - to re-energize, recharge and rejuvenate myself in quiet reflection whether alone or with a ‘silent’ partner.

Not surprisingly, the dynamics change dramatically when travelling in groups as was quickly evident on our Mississagi River trip. Even before the cars ground to a dusty halt, our boisterous companions were spilling out of half opened doors, arms flailing, bounding down the trail with whoops and hollers.
Undeniably, this trip would be different…

The cast of characters accompanying us on this trip included a few of Brian’s medical school classmates attending The University Of Western Ontario. A rowdy bunch headed by their irrepressible ringleader Bob F., all looking for a way to burn off the stresses of their academic pursuits.

The headwaters of the upper Mississagi River originate around the town of Biscotasing Ontario and run through a lush green corridor now designated as the Mississagi Provincial Waterway Park. Englishman Archie Belaney once called these waters home(1) when he duped the world as his alter ego, the native indian, Grey Owl. The lower Mississagi River continues below Aubrey Falls in it’s 270 km (168 mi) quest for Lake Huron. It was here that we would begin our journey.

(Aubrey Falls At Low Water Flow - Aubrey Dam Visible In Background)
(Falls At Full Capacity In Miscellaneous Photo Section)

Looking back over my shoulder through veils of smoke wafting skyward, it was evident that ‘happy hour’ had received yet another extension as periodic eruptions of laughter punctuated the cackling cacophony emanating from camp. Escaping the hubbub, I strolled down to the foot bridge spanning the gorge and peered upstream at Aubrey Falls noting the diminished flow of water cascading over the cataract from that at mid-day. Nightly, after tourists had zipped themselves into their tents, a greater volume of water was diverted to the penstocks of the hydro-electric generating plant above the falls in an attempt to quench society's electrical thirst. As I lay down mid-bridge to marvel at the crystal night sky pinned to the heavens by glittering stars, I was treated to shimmering sheets of greens, blues and reds - iridescent auroras dancing overhead. Off to the east, over the muffled roar of the river, I could hear a distant pack of wolves howling at the waxing gibbous moon. A scenario with all these elements in a single night, not even Disney could script!

The rising sun had not yet burned off morning’s haze from the river as we prepared for our first taste of the Mississagi. Pushing off we were greeted by a set of ‘class II rapids’ a few short strokes downstream. After showing the way, Brian and I pulled into an eddy below to watch the others attempt the rather easy descent. Instead we found ourselves center stage to a rather comical slapstick routine of flailing arms, legs and paddles as ‘the boys’ found themselves in a spin descending the river backwards. It took only a few hundred yards of river travel to wrap a rented Coleman canoe broadside around the first Mississagi rock encountered. After the laughter subsided, it took all of our combined strength to pry the canoe from the Mississagi’s watery grasp. Pull as they might, for the rest of the voyage the bent keel insisted on veering to the right.

The beautiful Lower Mississagi is a canoeist’s delight with numerous stretches of shallow rapids that on occasion required wading. Bearing names such as ‘Forty Mile Rapids’ and ‘Pig Pen Chutes’ the river provided an exhilarating ride between lakes held back by hydroelectric dams. Although the Mississagi runs parallel to highway 129 for much of its length, neither the sound of traffic nor evidence of civilization encroached on our wilderness experience.

(A rather gentle un-named chute of water on the Mississagi River)

Not long after Snowshoe Creek the river passes between two 90 m (300 ft) massive vertical cliffs called ‘The Tunnel’ or ‘Gros Cap’. Continuing on Tunnel Lakes we encountered the George W. Raynor hydroelectric generating station. The portage around the dam is rather long and quite steep but was facilitated by Ontario Hydro’s(2) gravel access road connecting the headwaters to the spillway below. Care had to be taken below the dam as additional penstocks could open at any time dramatically increasing the volume and height of the spillway below.

(George W. Raynor Dam’s Spillway as Viewed from above)

The exhilaration of running rapids in the early part of this river route was contrasted with the picturesque lake travel on the lower section. Time to bask in the sun and marvel at the granite cliffs that nestle the river. Lashing our flotilla of canoes together as the midday sun beat down on upon us, we were able to stow our paddles and drift aimlessly on the barely perceivable current. Out came a bottle of ‘Hiram Walker’ coffee liqueur which was eagerly passed around. After a few swigs of the syrupy libation Bob laid back on his seat, pulling his straw hat over his face to block the sun. We became curious as muffled “ooohs and aaahhhs” began to escape from beneath his sunhat. The diffracted rays penetrating between the woven straw provided a kaleidoscope of colours as he twisted the brim around. “Ah, Hiram” we exclaimed in turn as the bottle and hat were passed around so that all could experience this psychedelic light show.

Bob’s treasured chapeau had raised quite the ’cow-lick’ on his head which resisted any effort to be patted down. With another shot of ’Hiram’, he decided that there was no time like the present for some wilderness grooming. With no coiffeur amongst us, Bob retrieved the ‘Vidal-Sassoon’ dish detergent from the camp pack and stretched out over the gunwales, dangling his soapy head in the river. As the iridescent bubbles floated away, Bob shot upright and like some mangy dog, shook his head, sending water flying about as we all ducked for cover.

Laughing and joking under the mid-day sun, all our problems, stresses and anxieties seemed to wash away along with those soap suds.

Continuing downstream where granite cliffs gave way to sandy riverbanks we entered picturesque Red Rock Lake constituting the headwaters of the Red Rock hydroelectric generation station. A portage of about half a kilometre (1/3 mile) was made along the east bank to the spillway below. Bathed in sweat on such a hot afternoon, I contemplated jumping into the river as the heated air shimmered, radiating off the dry rocky shore.

Now the sandy banks turned grassy as we approached the town of Iron Bridge where, among the buildings skirting along the shore, a ‘hotel’ was spied. Our parched armada stormed to shore, clamouring up the bank in almost fervent desperation in an attempt occupy the pub and invade a few ales. As the door swung open we were hit by the frigid blast of air-conditioned darkness in such stark contrast to the bright sweltering heat under the mid-day sun. As the pitchers of ‘Molsons’ disappeared, so did our companions enthusiasm for completing our expedition. Bob sprung the mutiny upon us, taking the rest of the rebellious crew with him. As canoes have no brig, the indenture dissolved and the scallywags were last seen hitchhiking down Hwy 17.

In the end, only Brian and I departed Iron Bridge by water. The setting sun had us make camp on the east bank at Mississagi Falls (3) where we debated whether the mosquitoes outnumbered the black flies. The final day was rather subdued as we explored a grassy west bank promontory where a Hudson Bay Company post supposedly once stood.

(Mississagi River Mouth - Looking South Towards Lake Huron)

Slow and meandering, as was the river, we entered Lake Huron and paddled east towards the town of Blind River where my faithful Chevy lay in wait.

(15’ Starcraft Canoe - on my ‘76 Chevy Impala at Blind River, Ontario)

(1) Grey Owl called these waters home for a short period of time before finding fame as an author, lecturer & conservationist after settling in Saskatchewan.

(2) The hydro-electric generating stations of Aubrey Falls, George W. Raynor & Red Rock were sold by Ontario Hydro and are currently privately owned by BRASCAN.

(3) Mississagi Falls appears on Google Earth named Serpent River Falls/Rapids.
Slide Show Of My Mid-1980's Canoe Trip Down The Lower Mississagi River

Roadmap Indicating Mississagi & Spanish Rivers
(Click to Enlarge)

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

Aubrey Falls - Mississagi River Jump-off
Lat/Long- 46° 54’37.69” N, 83° 12’49.88” W

George W. Raynor Dam
Lat/Long- 46° 26’ 01.11” N, 83° 22’59.44” W

Red Rock Dam
Lat/Long- 46° 18’53.82” N, 83° 17’12.68” W

Iron Bridge ON
Lat/Long- 46° 16’46.49” N, 83° 12’58.74” W

Mississagi River Mouth
Lat/Long- 46° 10’14.65” N, 83° 00’28.94” W

Blind River ON
Lat/Long- 46° 11’28.27” N, 82° 56’56.94” W

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