Oxtongue River

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)

All maps on this page provided courtesy of Toporama which contains information licensed under the Open  Government Licence – Canada. I have marked portages in red. 

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 people. Judging by the fact that they were in a group together and all taking photos of us paddling the river, we assumed that they were foreign tourists who had just arrived in a large bus.  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 mob 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 smiled and waved. (Is it possible to smile and wave sarcastically?) 

I knew we were approaching Whiskey Rapids and kept an eye out for the portage sign since 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 the one and only 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. 


We spent the next hour or so meandering down the river, being as quiet as possible in the hopes of spotting a moose. After rounding a bend, we did run into a very curious otter who kept poking his head out of the water to see what we were up to. By midday, we saw the footbridge that crosses the river and leads up to the Western Uplands Backpacking Trail. There, we pulled the canoe ashore and hoisted our food barrel up to one of the picnic tables near the parking lot. We boiled some cheese ramen for lunch. 

Thirty minutes later, we were back on the river and by 2:30 PM we had reached the portage around Twin Falls. The two campsites on the portage were the only ones en route to Gravel Falls, so we decided to call it a day and set up camp. We chose the first of the two right next to Upper Twin Falls.

We cooked our steak for dinner and had a lovely evening catching up on some daddy-daughter time. We could feel the temperature dropping as the sun went down and crawled into our sleeping bags between 9 and 10 pm. I was grateful for the flannel sleeping bag liners that I had just purchased to combat the -2 degree chill.


Day 2 - Upper Twin Falls to Oxtongue Lake 

Waking up and enjoying bacon and eggs for breakfast, we broke camp and were on the water shortly after 10 am. To do this we needed to finish the portage we were camped on and get around Lower Twin Falls. After putting in, it was just a short paddle to our next portage around Split Rock Rapids which could be run by experienced whitewater paddlers with a proper boat.

Back in the boat downriver from the picturesque Split Rock portage, we paddled the meandering river that began a series of switchbacks. Now and again we could hear the cars go by on Highway 60. We enjoyed the scenery and kept an eye out for any late-season moose, but unfortunately couldn't spot any. 

By the time we passed the road that leads to Algonquin Bound from the river, a group of 6 men in three canoes came paddling up behind us, loudly chatting. They seemed in a hurry to race down the river, so we let them pass. We caught up to them at Cedar Rapids shortly after. Two were on the portage scouting the rapids and another was expending a lot of energy throwing large logs into the river -- for what reason, I do not know. I was a little miffed that he was doing this because we were planning to run the rapids and I didn't fancy smashing into any logs that might jam up in the rapids. Sheesh. Eventually, they all got through the rapids and we followed. We immediately pulled up to the empty campsite on the right bank and whipped up a lunch of dehydrated chili and rice -- yum.  

After lunch, we continued through the swifts on the way to Gravel Falls. The last set of rapids just before the falls were a little too shallow and we grounded on the rocks. I was able to wade over them and get to the portage that was just to the right of the falls edge. Not excited about a steep 1000-meter portage, I climbed over the rise and made my way back down to the river's edge just below the falls. Upon examining the rest of the rapids below the falls, I spotted a nice tongue through the moving current and decided to run them. They appeared to be a fairly standard Class 1. We made our way through them and with only one minor scrape along the bottom. Cutting about 700 meters off that portage certainly cheered us up.

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 half 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 the highway 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 veered to the north, 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. It was a fantastic couple of days with my daughter. and I was looking forward to tackling the Oxtongue River 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.