Wed. Nov 29th, 2023
Pink sky of a low sun in the background of a rocky forested landscape

In today’s post, Conor Mihell captures the timelessness of Wabakimi Provincial Park.

The sound of car tires on gravel slowly fading into the distance is the glorious sound of freedom after many hours on the road. Silence falls and suddenly my wife Kim and I find ourselves alone, faced with the task of loading 24 days of food and gear into our canoe and setting off for Little Caribou Lake, across the threshold of Wabakimi Provincial Park. .

Isolation is both daunting and exciting; There are few places where the feeling is more intense than in the interior of northwestern Ontario.

Part one: West

This is our third trip to Wabakimi and by far the most ambitious. On previous ventures, we arrived by chartered seaplane and VIA Rail passenger train service, great options for those short on time or looking to experience the nostalgia of train travel with a canoe.

Aerial view of the park (water and forest)

We opted for a vehicle transportation service from Wildwaters, based in Armstrong. The outfitter would store our vehicle and pick us up at another access point at the end of the trip. Road access to Wabakimi is extremely limited, but with the luxury of a longer trip, we had the option of cheaper and easier to plan vehicle transfers.

At 8,920 km2 (3,440 mi2), Wabakimi is more than twice the size of Minnesota’s Boundary Waters canoe area. It is a landscape of glacier-polished granite, carpeted by pinhead firs and lush birches of the boreal forest.

Pink sky from a low sun in the background of a rocky forest landscapePhoto: Conor Mihell

Most importantly for canoeists, countless lakes and rivers radiate through Wabakimi like a watery circulatory system, emptying northward to James Bay into the Arctic Ocean. You could spend your whole life rowing here.

View from the rear of the paddler's canoe in front on a calm misty lakePhoto: Conor Mihell

A day after heading west at Little Caribou, we arrived at the labyrinthine Smoothrock Lake. I love the challenge of relating landmarks to topographic maps; On large lakes like Smoothrock, I spend most of my time with one eye exploring the surrounding area and with the other identifying the various headlands and islands represented on the map.

This is ancient canoe country, and it’s always fascinating to discover transports (that aren’t signed to Wabakimi) located in the most logical places. We camped our fourth night at McWade Lake, atop a polished promontory that appears to have been a stopping place since the beginning of time.

Camping that includes dog, camping equipment and canoe.Photo: Conor Mihell

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It’s exciting to slow down and immerse yourself in the deliberate rhythms of the canoe trip; Our rhythm seems to match the frequency of the earth.

Second part: North

It’s mid-August and the Flindt River on the western edge of Wabakimi is running low. We’ve had a lot of portage to get here, jumping from Lake Brennan to the headwaters of the Flindt.

Drifting north, we anticipate many more carries as we travel downstream. Our count will be over 70 before the trip is over.

View from the campsite, royal blue lake with forest beyondPhoto: Conor Mihell

Wabakimi is large enough to allow ecosystem processes to function naturally without human intervention. Wildfires are a key part of the boreal ecosystem and we are witnessing the impacts of the fire on the Flindt River, which bisects a large fire.

Lush vegetation sprouts between the charred trees, including colorful seaweed and tasty blueberries. It is surprising to see how the fire danced across the landscape, destroying some places and saving others.

The sun shines brightly on the lake with rocky islands

On a more practical level, we are pleased that the Ontario Parks First Nations-led backcountry maintenance team has cleared the numerous short portages that mark our descent. After three days on the river, Flindt feels like an old friend; We sailed down his current toward Tew Lake and turned east toward the heart of Wabakimi.

Part Three: This

Just as Wabakimi captures ecological integrity, it is also defined by its watersheds. Ultimately, most of the park’s streams and rivers flow into the Albany River, the liquid highway of far northern Ontario.

At sprawling Lake Wabakimi, the Flindt joins the Ogoki River, which bisects the core of the park, capturing tributaries and gaining volume as it moves east and north.

Wabakimi coast with conifers

Fortunately, we find one of Lake Wabakimi’s many campsites moments before an afternoon storm forces us to take shelter in the windswept tent. Northwestern Ontario is famous for its intense storms. They are mostly short-lived, but it is essential that paddlers monitor the evening sky and be prepared to get out of the water at short notice.

Brief, powerful deluges occurred four times during our 24-day trip, enough to make me nervous upon first seeing an anvil-shaped cloud.

There’s enough water in the crafty Ogoki River for us to carefully run half a dozen rapids on our way from Wabakimi to Kenoji and Oliver Lake. In such a remote environment it is essential to carefully explore each rapid; After planning a route, Kim and I communicated constantly in the canoe.

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River rapids through the forest

Despite the powerful current, paddling safely in moving water is a slow and deliberate process, and especially rewarding after a successful race.

The eastward leg of our journey is the longest. Finally, the Ogoki deposits us in Whitewater Lake, the largest water on our route. From here, we continued downstream to walk the sandy, shallow shores of Lake Whiteclay.

Coast with conifers and gray blue sky

After nearly three weeks on the water, we felt ready to tackle the most challenging part of our trip: a little-known upstream route to land level on the Raymond River and across the watershed to Cliff Lake.

Fourth part: South

Things turn ominous the moment we turn south: the Raymond River is nowhere to be found. We backtrack, scanning the swampy shore for an exit. Finally we discover a small deep water channel that takes us to a wide muddy basin.

water with grasses

We wondered about our decision to paddle down this dark corridor in a season clearly of water scarcity. But with every bend in the river, our apprehension fades. The Raymond narrows; We soon find ourselves walking through ancient transports, our footprints mixing with the cloven tracks of the elk, in this rarely visited wilderness high above the ground.

Clearly few paddlers make it this far these days, but if you look closely it’s clear that this has been a paddling corridor for a long time. The legacy of the First Nations is etched in the trails of long and arduous transportation; written in the blood red pictographs of Cliff Lake; and captured in mysterious place names like Bad Medicine Lake.

Crossing forest path

Just when we want time to stop, our journey comes to an end. For a moment, time stops at Cliff Lake. An irregular tear in the Earth’s crust contains this impressive lake. We sail slowly under the coasts of the same name, contemplating the innumerable shapes of pictographs.

We float in silence and reverence. Before returning to camp, we left a pinch of tobacco in the water as a token of thanksgiving for the rich opportunities offered by a day’s stopover in such a spectacular place.

View from the back of a canoe in the water of the silhouette of a person paddling in front and the sun peeking over the trees aheadPhoto: Conor Mihell

I know we will follow this sacred offering as we paddle south; In two days our adventure will be complete.

Conor Mihell is an award-winning adventure travel and environmental writer based in Sault Ste. Marie. Maria. Read his work in the Globe and Mail, Explore, Cabin Living, Canoe and Kayak, IN THE Wildernessand other magazines and newspapers.

Follow Conor’s routes or plan your own!