Upper Nipissing River Loop
Total Distance: 51 km
Duration: 3 days (but 4 or 5 days are recommended)
Number of Portages: 14
Total Portage Distance: 5800 meters
Level of Difficulty: Moderate -- challenging creek travel and some steep portages through a relatively remote part of the park
Map is courtesy of Jeff's Map -- my route is marked in blue
Some people might say that doing a remote canoe route in some of the most swampy and buggiest parts of Algonquin Park in late June would be a bad idea. Well, in terms of muck and mosquito bites, they wouldn't be wrong. However, in terms of wildlife viewing, the Upper Nipissing River area (which is, indeed, swampy and buggy) may be one of the best places in Algonquin to experience nature and hang out with a wide variety of critters other than mosquitos. For this reason, I embarked on a June solo trip that would take me from Access Point#2 to Big Bob Lake, down the alder-choked waters of the Upper Nipissing, up the winding, swampy muck of Loontail and Latour Creeks into Rosebary Lake, and then up the well-travelled Tim River back to my waiting vehicle at the access point.
Given the topography and distances involved, it certainly was an ambitious trip to attempt over a weekend -- especially at the height of bug season. Consequently, I would be going solo; no one else I knew was silly enough to try it with me!
On an overcast Friday in late June, after working the morning and then attending an appointment in the early afternoon, I was heading north toward Huntsville by mid-afternoon; my gear and canoe were already loaded in and onto my vehicle the night before. My site booking for that evening was on Big Bob Lake, and I certainly wanted to get there before it got dark, so I didn't have a lot of room for delays. Lucky for me, in the third week of June, I had the maximum amount of daylight to reach my destination despite the gloomy skies.
Just before they closed for the day, I checked in at the Algonquin office in Kearney where I enquired about water levels and conditions along the route. The warden said that water levels were good, but that he hadn't had any reports about the route yet this year. He also warned me that my proposed route would be challenging given my time frame, particularly on Sunday to get from Loontail Creek Junction back to the access point in one go. I told him I understood and said that I would get up early. I also stated that I was a fairly experienced canoe tripper and perhaps a bit of a madman that enjoyed the Type 2 fun of putting in a long, difficult travelling day. He smiled, perhaps a bit too knowingly. I'm happy that the wardens share their thoughts in this way, however. It should be made very clear to trippers that they know what they are getting into.
I made my way up the logging road to the Tim River Access, unloaded my gear at the swampy put-in, parked my vehicle, and got ready to embark. I was excited with that nervous energy that every canoe tripper has at the start of a trip.
What I was most excited about was the high probability of encountering a lot of wildlife on this trip, and as I made my way through the shallow, swampy waters of the upper portions of the Tim River, I encountered my first moose of the trip in the first five minutes! I spotted some flapping ears above the water line on the distant shore as a rounded my first bend in the river. The cow sensed me coming, climbed ashore, and darted off into the woods. Was this a good omen for the trip?
I made my way down the winding Tim River to Tim Lake where the creek emerged to the right of an island. I paused to take a quick photo of the picturesque Tim Lake, and just I did so, a loon emerged from the waters in front me --another good omen.
I made my way across the bay to the west shore of the large island that dominated the centre of Tim Lake to check out the campsite there. I like to do this if I can in an effort to scout out possible nice sites for future trips. From the water, it seemed fine but nothing special.
Five minutes later, I was pulling up to the take-out at the portage into Chibiabos Lake on the north shore of Tim Lake. The trail seemed well-used and was an easy 345-meter carry despite a steep hill at the beginning.
As I was bringing my canoe and food barrel to the put-in on the second load, my luck turned south. I stepped on a root as I was rounding a corner and rolled my left ankle badly. My leg buckled, and down I went with the canoe crashing upon me. That left ankle of mine has had countless sprains from playing sports over the years and its ligaments remain stretched and damaged; there isn't a lot of tension left in those ligaments and a constant worry that I have, especially on solo trips, is that I will roll my ankle and be incapable of walking.
I lay there on the trail for a minute, fearing the worst. After gingerly returning to my feet, I was glad that I could put weight on it. I tightened my walking boots, retrieved some velcro straps from my bag, and wrapped them around the outside of the ankle of my boot for extra support. I picked up the canoe and heaved it on my shoulders again and finished the portage. I could feel a bit of a pang at every step, but it was manageable.
At the put-in, I made a bargain with myself; I would continue up to Big Bob Lake that evening, try to elevate my ankle over the night, and if the swelling and pain were too great by morning, I would backtrack to the vehicle and end the trip. Perhaps a wiser person would have done that immediately, but I had come all that way and didn't want to abandon ship just quite yet. I would just have to be super vigilant on every step and make sure that I didn't roll that darn ankle again.
I put in on Chibiabos (Spirit Rabbit) Lake and paddled past the campsite on its eastern shore. It, too, was fine but nothing special.
Within a few minutes, I was pulling up to the swampy take-out to Indian Pipe Lake (time for a name change, perhaps?!?), where I gratefully unloaded onto a makeshift dock of planks to get past the nasty, mucky bits. The trail was short and unremarkable except for the fact that it crossed a well-maintained logging road that connected to the road at the access point.
It was a pretty, little, round lake with some rocky outcrops, but with a shallow and swampy west end where I found another mucky take-out to the portage to West Koko Pond.
This one was longer at 820 meters and had some undulating bits. I tread very carefully through the wet spots and particularly where I had to rock hop across a creek. My ankle was getting sorer and I dearly did not want to go over on it again. Reaching the end of the portage was bittersweet; I was happy to have finished it, but a little demoralized to see the sign for the 790-meter portage into Big Bob Lake, just a one-minute paddle across the pond.
The daylight hours were ticking away, so I had to keep on keeping on. This carry was a little easier than the previous one and I happily put it behind me in short order. I was spurred on somewhat by the mosquito population which seemed to be growing by the minute.
I put in on Big Bob and immediately began paddling to its west end.
The campsite on its eastern shore was supposed to be a nice one, but it was adjacent to a swamp and seemed like it might be a mosquito party. The site that I was aiming for appeared to be on a point jutting out from the lake's north shore and had more potential for a breeze to blow away the nasty critters.
Indeed, when I arrived there, it was a great site with water on three sides of it and a lovely rocky front porch facing southwest. The firepit had nice views and if there hadn't been a fire ban, I would have had a nice fire that evening; the site wasn't even that buggy.
I got my bug shelter and hammock up a few moments before the darkness descended, jumped in the lake for a quick wash-off, and enjoyed some steak, salad, and potatoes inside the tent, safe from harm and with an adult beverage or two. It was relaxing to have the entire lake to myself and listen to the cacophony of bullfrogs singing their throaty song into the night. I retired to my hammock and fell asleep shortly after 10 PM.
I woke up a couple of times in the night because my ankle was throbbing, but soon fell asleep again quickly. I was tired and actually had a restful sleep. When the morning did arrive, the ankle was swollen quite a bit; it looked like I had half a tennis ball stuck to the outside of my foot, but when I emerged from my hammock, I could still put my full weight on it. I decided I would proceed with my plan to do the loop. I did have 7 portages to complete along the Nipissing River that day, but none were over 200 meters in distance and I wasn't expecting any of them to be that challenging or steep.
The sky was overcast again and by the look of the top of my bug shelter and hammock fly, it had rained a bit in the night.
After a bowl of oatmeal and fruit, and a couple of camp coffees, I emerged from the bug tent to break camp.
I was on the water by 8 AM. I paddled east on the calm waters of Big Bob Lake and could see the orange glow of the sun trying to find its way through the clouds.
I cruised by the site at the east end of the lake that I avoided the previous evening and took a gander. It actually looked to be a nice site.
I made my way to the grassy take-out of the portage to the Nipissing River through a shallow, log-choked inlet.
I was in good spirits. My ankle seemed to be holding out, I felt rested, and the sun was desperately trying to make its presence known through the ceiling of clouds that had been covering me since the trip began. I was actually singing to myself as I proceeded down the portage. My tune came to an immediate halt upon beholding a rather large maple tree that had recently fallen completely across the portage with no apparent way around it.
I thought about pulling out my saw, but the job looked a bit too formidable for hand-sawing, and I had a very long way to go that weekend in a short amount of time, so I decided I would try to bushwhack a way around it.
The location where the tree had fallen was next to a small waterfall that I could barely make out to my right and it was a bit too steep to go around the tree in that direction. I walked back up the trail a bit and began breaking a route through the bush to my left. Unfortunately, the tree was a tall one and I had to bushwhack at least a good 20 meters or so until I came to the point where the tree had broken away from the trunk. There, I was able to squeeze under the fallen trunk and carve out another route back to the portage. I did place a call to Ontario Parks the following Monday to let them know about that obstacle, so hopefully someone with a chainsaw is able to get up there to do a little clearing in the near future.
When I finally cast my first look at the Nipissing River, I knew that I was in for a bit of a slog that day. It isn't what most people would even consider a river to be. It was a narrow creek through a boggy marsh.
Though tough at first, within the first kilometer or so, it widened out and seemed to get a little more water volume.
The bird life there was incredible; there were so many species flying about; in particular, the red-winged blackbird population of the Upper Nipissing is indeed healthy and well.
The river began winding back and forth as it snaked its way west in, seemingly, the most indirect way possible. That mish-mash of a trajectory would be the order of the day.
On one particular bend, I noticed an oddly-shaped stump near the left bank. As I paddled closer, I discovered that it wasn't a stump at all, but the corpse of an old snapping turtle that had somehow met its demise.
In a little over 30 minutes of being on the river, I made it to the first of five short portages that allow canoe trippers to bypass a series of rocky drops in the river.
At the top of that first one, I was chastised by a huge red-tailed hawk that yelled at me repeatedly to get away from its chirping offspring nearby. I couldn't see the nest, but I could hear the eyas squeaking as its mother flew from tree to tree, screeching frantically. It seemed like a tense moment, so I quickly made my way across the portage.
By the time I reached the end of the short 65-meter trail, I discovered what the Nipissing River mosquito situation was really about. In that short distance, every mosquito in the area was alerted to my presence. When I reached the end of the trail with my canoe pack, I desperately ripped it open and retrieved my bug shirt while slapping and swatting nearly every bit of exposed skin all at once; there were literally clouds of the b@$t@rds all over me instantaneously. I would wear that bug shirt for the vast majority of the day.
On my return trip for the canoe, I took a shot of the rocky section of the river that the portage bypassed. Despite the report from the park staff that levels were on the high side, the river levels seemed a bit low, but then again, I have no frame of reference to compare, so maybe these were indeed high levels for the Nipissing.
Five minutes later and I reached the top of the second portage, which was on river-right this time.
Again, it was a short and easy carry, however, the humidity was high, and hauling my gear in and out of the boat in a bug-shirt lent for some sweaty times.
Ten minutes later and I was at the next portage which humped over an esker-like ridge that sported a nice, little campsite with some fantastically large pines. By this time, the clouds had mostly dissipated and the sun had fully emerged.
I fished for a while at the base of the rapids there. It was nice to get a bit of rest from the in and out of the boat and with the bug hood off to soak up a few rays.
After another quarter-hour of paddling, I spotted a large beaver dam crossing the river and saw the steep take-out to the 200-meter portage on river-right. The trail was clear and came back down to the river below another set of rocky rapids.
After that carry, the river topography started to change a bit. The alder started to get more apparent and thicker along the shores as the river began winding and became much less linear.
I rounded a bend and came upon a beaver dam clogging the river from bank to bank. Below the dam, the river entered yet another set of rocky, shallow rapids. I couldn't see the portage anywhere. Thinking I missed it, I turned around and went back upriver to see if I could find it. Again, I couldn't see anything, so I went back to the dam and lifted over it. I found the portage sign on river-left behind some bushes next to the rocks at the top of the rapid. It was a bit of a tricky take-out.
The 110-meter carry led me past a shallow, rocky section of the river that would have been very difficult to wade or line down at those water levels.
The river continued winding through the country with large alder bushes all along the shore. My map showed a campsite on river-right that I kept an eye out for. It wasn't hard to spot the sign when I came upon it, for it was dangling over the middle of the river on a fallen tree that required me to lie right down in the boat to get under it.
I couldn't actually see the campsite through all the trees, but I guessed that it most likely wasn't useable given all the deadfall.
Almost immediately after that site, I came upon a steel bridge of a logging road that crossed the river.
I wish I could say that I had a lot of recollection of the following two and a half hours, the duration that it took to paddle from that bridge to the portage into Grassy Lake, but it's a bit of a blur. The river on that stretch is an insanity-inducing maze of narrow, winding, alder-choked madness where the paddler is barely able to progress twenty feet without turning the boat one way or another. As a solo paddler, it was particularly difficult not having a bowsman to draw or cross-draw to get the boat pointing in the right direction. It required a lot of back-paddling and hard work to get the boat into the necessary position.
After a while, I began to get a little antsy. I was actually feeling claustrophobic and my sense of direction had completely vanished from the endless twists and turns. On a few occasions, it felt like the river was doing complete 360-degree turns. Was I going in circles?
About halfway through that mess, I had a scare that most definitely brought me to my senses. I broke through some alder that was completely blocking my view of what was ahead of me. As I was pulling on the alder with my hands to get my canoe through it, I heard an enormous splash ahead of me. After emerging through the leaves, I was faced with the @$$-end of an enormous bull moose not more than five feet in front of me. It jumped up onto the muddy bank and tore off into the bush in a hurry. It obviously hadn't sensed me due to the alder. I was just so grateful that it decided to bolt in the opposite direction. Had it decided to come toward me, there was no way I could have gotten out of the way. I have never been that close to a wild moose before, nor would I like to again. It was massive and the musty smell that lingered was something! Okay, canoe-tripping spirits, I came to the Nipissing River for wildlife, but jeez, did it need to be that close? Ha!
When I saw the 240-meter portage to get into Grassy Lake, I was ecstatic that I had put that crazy section of the river behind me. It was 2:45 PM at that point.
The trail passed through an awful little campsite that was only about a twenty-square-foot area off to the side of the middle of the portage. At the grassy put-in, I sat under a tree, filtered some more water, and made a naan-bread wrap with peanut butter and honey. My energy was much depleted and it was good to get some rest.
It was a short paddle to get into the more open area of Grassy Lake, a welcome sight indeed after being closed in amongst the alder for hours.
The lake is nothing more than a widening of the river and as it veered north and around a bend, I came across a cow moose and her calf about 40 feet in front of me. Again, we surprised each other. They both got out of the river, but Mama turned to get another look at me. Still a little shaken up from the earlier, far-too-close moose encounter, I called out to her to send her in the other direction in case she felt like getting protective.
That was exciting and fun. I continued my way through Grassy Lake for five or ten minutes where the river turned south and then to the east again. As I rounded that bend, there was yet another moose on the southern bank of the river across from a nice-looking campsite in a stand of pines on the northern bank. This place was a virtual moose city.
From that point, it was about a fifteen-minute paddle to the confluence of Loontail Creek. The skies in the southeast were looking very dark and I could hear thunder rumbling in the distance. Though, I seemed to be facing a bit of a headwind from the east at ground level, when I looked up at the clouds they appeared stationary so I couldn't tell if those nasty clouds were heading in my direction or not.
The confluence was marked by a yellow sign stuck to a stump for paddlers coming out of Loontail Creek to know which direction it is to head downriver.
There was a marginal current to paddle against on Loontail Creek, but it was definitely manageable. The creek made some wide turns at that point and I was paddling harder as the thunderclaps seemed to be getting louder and nearer; the rain was holding off.
I reached the site in about 15 minutes, which was a large grassy area at the base of a tree-laden slope of pines. To get to the take-out, there was a tiny beaver dam to traverse and I pulled up on some massive logs with a steel triangle affixed to them. It appeared to be some sort of contraption left over from the logging days and acted nicely as a little dock to pull my canoe and gear ashore.
There were a couple of very loud thunderclaps nearby that got me in a hurry to get my gear up to the firepit. From there, I made quick work of getting the bug shelter and hammock up.
In the end, the storm seemed to have missed me, so I explored the site a bit and went down to the river with a pot to scoop up water and dump it over me. I had a whole lot of Nipissing River grime on me. I would have gone for a swim, but the water was murky and there were three large leeches stuck to the bottom of my canoe when I pulled it up. No thanks. Slightly downstream from my site, I watched a beaver (it must have been training for the Olympics) swim back and forth across the creek over and over again for no apparent reason.
The views over the wide expanses of Loontail Creek were very pretty in their own right and I enjoyed my dinner of pizza pockets (rehydrated spaghetti sauce, cheese, and sausage in a rolled-up naan bread) while looking out at this magical world. Thunderstorms and rain were happening somewhere else.
I read my book for a while in the shelter and sometime after 8 PM, a pair of sandhill cranes dropped in across the river and ended up staying the night there. Their odd sounds became my soundtrack for the evening. At one point in the night, their clicking and noises woke me up, but I soon fell asleep again. Loontail Creek was alive and thriving at all hours.
I woke up early and was on the water just before 7 AM. A quick meal of oatmeal, dried fruit, and coffee got me going. Unfortunately, the air was very hazy and it appeared that some winds from the east had blown in the smoke from the Quebec forest fires. Yuck.
Loontail Creek was very shallow in spots and if I didn't keep to the deepest parts of the main channel, I would grind to a halt on mudflats.
Within fifteen minutes, I had another moose encounter. This one ran away, but oddly came back to the river a few minutes later, saw me again, and ran away for the second time. It was weird. The bugs were crazy bad that morning, so perhaps he was trying to get back into the water for protection
As I progressed up Loontail Creek, the banks became steep with walls of grass. It was an interesting sensation paddling through that because it was difficult to see over it to the wilderness beyond at times.
Unfortunately for me, I was kind of caught up in the paddle and missed the portage that I needed to take to get into Latour Creek. The sign was on my right, tacked to a tree, and only appeared as I rounded a bend. I guess I just wasn't looking in that direction at that moment. I just kept on trucking up the creek not thinking I had already reached the take-out. I even lifted over a beaver dam and began paddling hard up against a swift. When it finally dawned on me that I had gone too far and backtracked to where I needed to go, I had wasted an entire half-hour.
The portage was fairly steep as it went over a ridge and back down to Latour Creek. It crossed the very same logging road that I had crossed two days earlier on the portage from Chibiabos Lake into Indian Pipe Lake. It was also very buggy and humid, so not pleasant in the bug jacket.
I was somewhat dismayed upon arriving at the put-in on Latour Creek; the creek looked like it was on the low side and darn muddy. Little did I know what Latour Creek would put me through.
Indeed, I got caught on mudflats a number of times and cursed a bit as I was figuring out what a slog Latour Creek was becoming. It was also a little confusing in a couple of spots; the creek seemed to meander in a few directions and it was a little challenging figuring out the best way to go. I had to check my GPS a couple of times to make sure I was heading in the right direction.
Eventually, I got to where I needed to go -- or at least I thought I did. The creek got smaller, narrower, and decreased to a trickle where I could barely get my canoe through.
It didn't seem right. Had I missed the portage? Again, I consulted my GPS (Garmin) and the map showed that the portage was behind me. Darn! It took a little effort to get my boat turned around and I went back to look for the portage. I couldn't see a thing. I paddled past the spot where my GPS showed where the portage was a number of times -- nothing. I got out on shore at three different places and started tramping about the bush and looking into the forest in an attempt to spot a trail -- nothing. Did the portage sign fall off? Was I in a wrong tributary of the creek? Was my GPS map wrong? I looked for an hour and was beginning to get a little worried.
I had to do something or I would be spending the better part of the day trying to get out of that damned creek. I decided to temporarily abandon my canoe where my GPS showed where the port was and bushwhack through the forest and long grass further in the direction further up the creek
After about 600 meters or so, I saw a little upside-down portage marker stuck to an upright log through the trees. I was very relieved!
The sign was at least half a kilometer past where my GPS map showed where the portage was! Perhaps, the map was from old data and the trail location had changed?
I made my way back to the canoe and paddled back upstream and into that narrow channel that I earlier thought was wrong. The creek did, indeed, become too narrow and I had to get out of the canoe, tie a rope to the front, and drag it in the very little water that remained in Latour Creek.
Eventually, I saw the portage sign a few hundred meters in the distance and pulled my way there. I then discovered the reason why the creek had no water; there was a formidable beaver dam just before the portage. Those pesky rodents and an incorrect GPS map had made my day very difficult. All told, I spent two hours and fifteen minutes on Latour Creek, a stretch of only a few kilometers. Sigh.
I was so relieved to have finally arrived at the portage that I didn't even mind the very steep beginning to the 1300-meter portage into Floating Heart Lake. I didn't even curse at the three or four downed trees that blocked my way on that very difficult incline for the first 400 meters.
By the end of the portage, though, I was officially exhausted. It was undulating, long and had a particularly wet swampy bit on one of the low points. The smoky haze that was hovering over Floating Heart Lake was a very welcome sight upon arriving at the put-in.
I slowly paddled across the lake to the take-out to the 400-meter portage into Rosebary Lake. Floating Heart Lake wasn't that large, and I think I was procrastinating having to do the next portage. The previous two had been steep and buggy, and the time on Latour Creek between the pair had not been a barrel of laughs. However, upon undertaking the portage, I was ecstatic to find it flat and easy. It was a gentle stroll in the park compared to its predecessors.
It felt weird arriving at the Rosebary put-in. It is a fairly large lake that seemed much larger with the smoky haze obscuring views of the opposite shores. I had been on tiny lakes, ponds, and grassy creeks for two days. Seeing Rosebary after that and in these conditions was enough to stimulate a case of agoraphobia.
I had planned to explore a bit of the lake, but the views weren't great and the disaster on Latour Creek set me considerably behind schedule. Also, I needed to eat and filter water, so I made my way to the site next to where the Tim River dumped into Rosebary to make some lunch. On the way there I chatted with a pair of canoeists who were also heading upriver back to the access point. They were the first people I had seen on the trip.
Normally, I whip up a quick lunch of peanut butter and honey wraps, but after the portages and difficult creek travel of the morning, I got out the stove, boiled some water, and made a carbonara pasta dish --fuel for the three and a half more hours of paddling and portaging that I needed to do.
I began heading up the Tim River at 1:30 PM.
I passed two other canoe parties en route. One that was ahead of me and having a break on Little Butt Lake, and another family with young children heading into the park in the opposite direction. This was obviously a more commonly used part of the park; I hadn't seen a soul until reaching Rosebary and the Tim.
Just west of Rosebary, the Tim winded and twisted, not quite as much as the Nipissing had but enough. After Little Butt Lake, it became more direct.
For one stretch, I seemed to be chasing a Great Blue Heron up the river. It would wait for me to get close, spread its massive wings, fly upriver, and then we'd re-enact the scene again shortly. It was fantastic because it was probably the largest heron I had ever seen.
Eventually, I reached a massive beaver dam just east of the portage into Tim Lake. It was a formidable dam that I was able to drag my canoe over at a breach on the north end of it.
The portage was a short, but very steep incline to the left of a falls that couldn't be seen but could be heard from the trail.
At the top of the portage, there were orange buoys placed in front of the Tim River. I guessed they were there in an effort to prevent hapless paddlers from paddling into a dangerous situation.
The eastern part of Tim Lake was swampy but beautiful in its own right with its extensive lily pad fields and pine-clad shorelines.
I made short work of the rest of my journey back to my vehicle. Other than the smoky haze filling the air, conditions were good for paddling; there was very little wind and the temperature was not so hot. Perhaps, the haze was blocking the heat of the sun from reaching the surface.
I made note of some campsites on the western side of Tim Lake, paddled to the south of the large island, and re-entered the Tim River where I had begun my trip two days earlier.
I didn't see anyone else (including any moose) on the lake or in the river until the access point came into view around 4:30 PM. A car was pulling up as I was, and as I was taking out, I chatted with a family from Bangladesh who was visiting their son. They had wanted to see the famous Algonquin Park and had pulled into this more remote access point to take a look.
Fifteen minutes after loading my vehicle with my canoe and gear, driving west on the logging road to get out, a storm blew in with some heavy rain and lightning. I had made it out just in the nick of time.
On the drive home, I thought about the trip. Yes, it was difficult and a "boot camp" of a trip in such a short period of time, but for me it was enjoyable. I experienced both remote solitude and a lot of wildlife which were my main reasons for choosing this part of the park to trip in. It was challenging, but I did it alone and I felt a solid feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction having done it, especially persevering on a hobbled ankle.
For those who aren't quite the Type 2 fun junkies that I may be, I still recommend this trip if they are into nature and solitude, however, maybe with an extra day or two to accomplish it. What I had to endure in bugs, I made up for in water levels. I would definitely not want to tackle Latour Creek in August or September at a lower water table that would make that stretch even more of a horrible slog.
Until the next trip...