Total Distance: 31 km and requires a shuttle.
Duration: 2 days recommended (can be done in one long day)
Number of Portages: 7 but less if running some rapids
Total Portage Distance: approx. 2400 m if all portages are taken
Level of Difficulty: Experienced Novice (paddlers should have some rudimentary knowledge of reading and running rapids)
October 2019 was ideal for paddling. It was unseasonably warm; however, this year it was our turn to host Thanksgiving for our extended family. As awesome as that was, I was unable to take advantage of the warm fall weather and get out for a paddle on that long weekend. When the Thursday of the following week arrived, the weather forecast was looking good and I immediately planned a cheeky little overnighter.
The Oxtongue River seemed like a great choice as it would only take two days if I put in just below the Tea Lake Dam. I quickly got on the horn with Algonquin Outfitters to see if they could shuttle me from their Oxtongue Lake location to the dam on the Saturday morning. They graciously said they could for a fee. Worried about low water levels, I asked them if it was runnable at this time of year and they told me that the Tea Lake Dam had been opened just a few days earlier, raising the water levels. Better yet, I was able to talk my oldest daughter, Tanya, into joining me for the trip. The stars were all aligning to make this a lovely little late-season trip.
Day 1 - Tea Lake Dam to Upper Twin Falls
By 9 a.m. on the Saturday morning, we were pulling into the Outfitters with my father's Swift Mattawa strapped to the roof. The young lad who shuttled us up to our put-in was a canoe tripper himself and shared with us his experience of recently running the Nahanni River in the Northwest Territories. I tried not to turn green with envy. Having just finished high school, he explained that he was studying to become a backcountry guide - something I would have considered myself had I known about canoe tripping at the time. What a lucky fellow to have a lifetime of wonderful trips ahead of him.
After a quick pit stop at the Algonquin West Gate to pick up our permits, we were soon putting in on a nice little sand bar just below the Tea Lake Dam.
There were several little swifts between the dam and Whiskey Rapids. The sun was shining and the temperature was warming up. It was quiet except for the odd car that could be heard as the river snaked closer to Highway 60.
After about 30 minutes we could hear people talking along the river bank and we knew that we had reached the Whiskey Rapids trail. Suddenly, we were upon a large group of foreign tourists who began to immediately take our photos in large quantities. Feeling a little unnerved, we quickly paddled past them, around a bend, only to run into a rather large sweeper that was across the entire length of the river. The banks of the river on either side were not conducive to portaging around it, so we were forced to lift over it in the middle of the river -- and a deep part of the river it was!
It was challenging to find a spot on the log where we could both stand on it and get the leverage to pull the fully-loaded canoe over a smooth part of the log surface. By the time we situated ourselves to do that, the camera-toting horde had caught up to us and were fully photo-documenting our efforts. Trying to get this lift-over done and not ending up in the icy drink with a crowd of people photographing you is a little disconcerting, to say the least! I did have to stop myself from flipping them off, but then I remembered that I'm a polite Canadian! We eventually made it over and were on our way.
I knew we were approaching Whiskey Rapids and kept an eye out for the portage sign. Tanya didn't have any whitewater experience and I, myself, had never really tackled anything beyond a Class 2. I wasn't sure how fierce the rapids would be.
The river began to pick up a bit and I saw some white water ahead of us, but no portage sign to either side. Knowing that there was supposed to be a portage and the rapids not looking too bad, I ran them, spotting a nice little tongue between some protruding rocks. Only after getting down the river a little further had I realized that those, indeed, were Whiskey Rapids. The loggers after whom the rapids are named must have been very intoxicated to have dumped on those! And either I am blind, or the portage sign had fallen off.
The river moved quickly on the way to Ragged Falls and we were looking for the portage before long. We knew the falls were near because we could hear them from nearly a kilometer away upriver. We also saw a couple hiking on the trail on the left bank.
Taking out and portaging toward the falls, we ran into more people milling about above the falls. The trail also split into several different paths which were confusing, but we continued in the most direct route toward the base of the falls. It was a steep descent which made the trail seem longer than the posted 450-meter distance. We found a place to put in that was away from the crowds of people peeping at the falls.
On the return trip for the canoe, we climbed to the top of the falls for a photo op. The photo doesn't give the steepness of the falls justice.
Below Ragged Falls and with the sun getting lower in the sky, we crossed Highway 60, but not before having a family of otters swim alongside our canoe for a bit. South of 60 and obviously out of the provincial park boundaries since there were now cottages dotting the shoreline, we moved into Oxtongue Lake and marveled at some of the massive new cottages on the Eastern shore. We soon crossed under the highway again and spied our vehicle waiting for us next to the Algonquin Outfitter docks.
Stopping off for pizza in Dwight on the way home, we reflected on what a wonderful two-day trip we had just experienced. I am looking forward to tackling the Oxtongue again, perhaps in the spring when the chance of spotting a moose is more likely and when trout season is open. This trip was a good taste of some baby whitewater and inspired me to take a whitewater course to tackle bigger and more challenging rivers.