Moon River Loop

Total Distance: 34 km

Duration:  3 days recommended (can be done in 2 long days)

Number of Portages: 12

Total Portage Distance: 4350m 

Level of Difficulty: Experienced Novice (some challenging portages, negotiating river conditions and wind potential near Georgian Bay)

Map provided courtesy of Toporama which contains information licensed under the Open Government Licence – Canada. I have marked my route in blue and portages in red.  

June 11th, 2021 was the first day that camping was allowed after the long third Covid lockdown. I had a few trips booked earlier to do some spring trout fishing in Algonquin, but they had been cancelled. I had done several local day trips so far, but I was itching to get out for a longer trip further afield, despite facing the nasty bug conditions in mid-June.  So, when it was announced on June 8th that camping would be allowed, I immediately made plans to depart on a trip right after work on the 11th.


Last year, my daughter's Christmas present was a copy of Hap Wilson's Canoeing and Hiking Wild Muskoka: An Eco-Adventure Guide (Thanks, Tanya!). In it, Hap raves about the beauty of the lower section of the Moon River as it empties into Georgian Bay. After reading his descriptions, I had to experience it for myself and I would soon find out that Hap understated how wonderfully scenic it is. What made this trip even more alluring was that it could be done as a loop according to the route displayed on the Unlostify Map of The Massasauga. After all, with only three days' notice from the Ontario government that it would allow camping again, it was difficult to find a canoe partner willing to go at the drop of a hat in peak bug season. Alas, I would be adventuring solo, and the loop option allowed me to do this without arranging a shuttle.


Day 1 - Kapikog Lake to Buckhorn Lake

I arrived at Kapikog Lake Dam at around dinner time on Friday, armed with Hap's book, the Unlostify map and prints of some online trip reports (Thanks, Tearknee!). It had just started raining and the weather forecast predicted that I would have a wet paddle ahead of me. It was unfortunately correct.


There is an 80m portage between Healey Lake and Kapikog lake straight uphill over a giant culvert, the outlet of the dam above it. It didn't look fun, so I drove up a cottage road for about 100m and unloaded my car at the bridge over the culvert. From there, it was only about 30 metres to the put-in. I subsequently drove my car back down to the parking lot below the culvert and hiked back up to my gear -- easy, peasy.


Here are shots of the top of the dam and the put-in.

Kapikog Lake was nice and behaved. Paddling in a steady drizzle is bittersweet. On one hand, there is no wind; on the other, it becomes a moist, mosquito rave party.


I arrived at the south end of the lake and easily found the take-out to Dunbar Lake. After about 100m, it comes to a cottage road. There, I turned right and followed the road for another 100m and then found a path down to the swamp...umm, I mean, lake. This was the worst part of the entire trip for mosquitoes, and I'd be lying if I wasn't concerned at the time. Thankfully, the bugs got better as the trip progressed.

When I reached the 60m liftover at the south end of Dunbar to Juniper Lake, I got down on my knees and thanked the merciful canoe-tripping gods for the breeze that had suddenly sprung up, providing respite from the bugs and sweltering humidity. Okay, I didn't do that, but I thought about it for a second. 


There was a campsite there that wasn't half bad, but the water on both sides of it was pretty swampy. It did look like a prime spot for bass fishing though. I was two weeks too early for that, so I didn't even think about staying in such a mosquito haven.

As mentioned in Tearknee's online report, it was difficult to locate the 750m port to Eagle Lake. There was no sign, blaze or flagging tape to behold. The south shore was a swampy mess, as was much of this section of the lake, and I simply went ashore at the only spot that allowed me to do so. From there, I ventured into the bush for about 30 metres or so and was able to spot a rock cairn next to the faint outline of a trail. Yippy-skippy, I had discovered the portage!


Not bringing a bear barrel on this trip and having my food stuffed in a smaller dry bag inside my large tripping bag, I decided to single carry this longer port to 'get 'er dun' in one shot. Thanks to the wonderful people who had placed rock cairns along the entire way, it was easy to follow. There were several little rocky ledges to negotiate along the trail, but other than that, it was fine.


The paddle through Eagle Lake was uneventful except that it started raining again. I hadn't seen a single soul since the parking lot and I was enjoying the solace. The shores of Eagle Lake had some nice rocky bluffs on either side to camp on, but I was into the groove by that point and wanted to keep going. In the rain, it is better to paddle than it is to set up camp in my books.

The narrow strip of water leading to Vaughan Lake was interesting. The eastern side possessed a nice rocky shoreline and the plant life was plentiful and diverse. I noticed a lot of pitcher plants.

At the entrance to Vaughan Lake, I decided to bestow the "Loneliest Tree in Ontario Award" to this sad fellow. It reminded me of Charlie Brown's Christmas Tree for some reason. 

Vaughan Lake was pretty and sported two nice campsites across the channel from one another at the point where it opened up into a larger bay. One was occupied by three like-minded campers, so I waved and moved on, wanting something a little more private.


I followed a long, weedy and narrow channel at the south end of the lake after passing a hunting cabin on the eastern shore.

The 190m portage to Buckhorn Lake was at the base of a steep embankment at the southeastern tip of that channel. There were a couple of tin-can fishing boats there and I had to squeeze between them to take out. The portage was short but was tricky in a spot or two as it followed along the rocky ridge of the embankment. It led directly to someone's private cabin. Not wanting to disturb anyone, I was able to put in quietly next to a small dock just to the right of the trail leading up to the cabin. 


I paddled to the island about halfway down the lake and was pleased to find the campsite there vacant. It appeared that I had Buckhorn Lake to myself! The site was an obvious fishing spot as there were three cleaning stations set up on it, but it was immaculately clean; not a speck of rubbish was to be found anywhere. Some old camping chairs that were carefully placed under a shelf and an old bucket were the only discarded items to be found.

It was nearing dusk and with that came even more mosquitoes. Luckily and unusual for June, there weren't any blackflies. I quickly got my bug shelter and hammock in place. 

The humidity hadn't broken yet, and I was positively drenched in sweat and bug repellent when I had finished. I jumped into the lake for a swim to wash off. It was glorious. The water was unseasonably warm for the second week of June; Ontario had experienced an incredibly hot spring thus far. Just as I was emerging from the lake, the clouds broke and the sun came beaming in from its position low in the western sky. It was after 9 pm and that was my omen to finally get some food in my belly. 

I snapped one last photo of my set up in the evening sun and tucked into a lovely dinner of pepper steak with gravy, salad and naan bread, accompanied by a nice Czech pilsner. Not a bad evening, at all! 

I capped off the night with a couple of gentle sniffs of whiskey in the bug shelter as I watched darkness engulf the lake and the mosquitoes fruitlessly trying to get at me (Thanks, NoBugZone!). 

Day 2 - Buckhorn Lake to Moon River (Chimney Falls)

I wish I could say I woke up feeling refreshed but I can't. I woke up at around 2 am (thanks, whiskey!) and ended up tossing and turning most of the night after that. I heard the birds chirping and saw the first rays of light when I finally drifted off again. I finally got up at 9 am feeling quite tired and berated myself for not getting a better night's sleep.


Every year, the first night out on my first trip of the season, it often takes a while to settle down and get used to being in the backcountry again. By the second night, after two days of being in the wilderness, I usually feel more in touch with my surroundings and I sleep like a baby. This trip was no exception.


It wasn't until 10:30 am that my tired and sorry carcass departed the island and I took one last pic of my island home and I moved closer to the Moon River.

I paddled to the south end of Buckhorn Lake, enjoying the sunshine that was absent the day prior. I noticed 3 or 4 aluminum fishing boats resting near and on a half-submerged dock at the southwest corner of the lake. There, I got out precariously on the dock, hoping it would hold the weight of me and my gear. It did somehow, and I loaded up for the long single-carry to the Moon River that headed south from the dock into the bush.


The portage was not a fun one. (Are any of them "fun"?) It was a wide ATV trail that was a giant bowl of mud. A high ridge was on the left and my map demonstrated that the ruins of a fire tower sat upon its crest. The trail had deep tire gashes all over it from the countless ATVs that run amok on it; with all the rain the previous day, it felt like I was negotiating a series of ponds. To make matters worse, after about 1100 meters, a side trail veered to the left, but I kept following the main trail as it turned right, running parallel to the river. I went a few hundred meters like this before realizing that this trail wasn't going to meet the river but rather run the high embankment next to it. Knowing I had made a mistake, I was forced to backtrack and take the left turn that took me down to the river where I unloaded with a sigh of relief. I had turned a 1200m port into about 1700 meters. Doh! And did I mention that I had to stop twice on the portage, once to douse myself in deet and then again to put on my bug jacket? There were a few mosquitoes along the way.


The put-in was at a grassy, treelined section of the river. I was surprised at how wide the river was at that point.

A few hundred meters downstream, I startled a large doe grazing on the left bank. It darted into the bush upon seeing me and then let out a couple of ominous and weird bleating noises that approximated an intoxicated goat. I thought about answering back but didn't, just in case I wasn't alone on the river. I wouldn't want anyone to alert the authorities about a crazed, sweaty, middle-aged man paddling alone on a river in the middle of nowhere making pained, animalistic noises to himself. It's a good thing, too, because there was a cabin about 100 meters downstream from there that I hadn't noticed. 


After about 15 minutes of paddling, the river began to narrow, and the banks started getting a little rockier with more coniferous trees. I was happy to get back into the Canadian Shield terrain that I know and love. I almost immediately spotted the top of Curtain Chutes ahead.


Hap's guidebook warns of the approach and mentions how canoeists have died by accidentally going over the falls; but on this particular June, after a very early, hot and dry spring, the river was probably at mid-July water levels rather than the dangerous torrent of water that it would be shortly after ice-out. The falls looked benign. There was a father and his young son playing around in the water and on the rocks at the top of the falls.


I portaged on the left bank after scraping my boat over some exposed ledges to get to the take-out. The portage rose up a steep bluff where there was a campsite in the woods and then descended to the river past the rapids. Upon completion, I rock-hopped back up the river along the bank to get a better shot of the falls. It was hard to believe that the falls that I was seeing could result in death, but it just goes to show the extent of the change of flow that this river can possess.

On the stretch between Curtain Falls and the Twin Falls, I dawdled. I was enjoying the fantastic paddling conditions and fished quite a bit. I caught a couple of small bass and pike, but nothing to write home about. I caught up to a trio of young dudes and we small-talked a bit. They were also taking it slow while fishing and managed to haul in a large pike. They stopped at the campsite at the large widening of the river where it splits into two channels. There, they fried up their catch for a shore lunch. Jealous, I moved on, hoping to catch an eater myself.


The rocky banks of the river on that stretch were gorgeous with beautiful red and white pine trees riding the ridges.

By the time I arrived at the top of Twin Falls, it was about 2:30 and I was hungry. I had read in Tearknee's report that taking the Upper Twin Falls portage on the north branch of the river was a mistake because it leads to the impassable Chimney Falls -- a veritable gorge. However, I still wanted to get a glimpse of the falls, so I paddled to the portage, left my boat and gear at the take-out, grabbed my food bag and hiked up past the campsite to have my lunch above the falls.


Not a bad spot at all to enjoy a couple of wraps!

After lunch, I went back to my canoe and did the short paddle to the south branch portage that bypassed the Lower Twin Falls, the prettier of the two in my opinion. 

The portage running to the right of these falls was a steep, rocky scramble that involved a bit of boulder and log hopping to get to the water. I had to tread very carefully there! 

I fished for a while at the base of the falls. I had something monumental take the hook and give a good fight, but I lost it after about 30 seconds of battle. Grrrrrrrr. Of course, that kept me there fishing much longer than I normally would have! 

I eventually continued downstream and soon came to a couple of small rapids. The first was a small ledge that I easily ran, but the second required a liftover as it emptied into a beautiful little bay where the two channels of the river reconnected again. On the right bank was a nice, rocky slope that had a campsite at the top. Looking around at the stunning scenery, it took a microsecond to decide to spend the night there.


Even though the fabled Moon Falls was just a further 10-minute paddle downriver, I knew the sites in that area would be busy on this first weekend after the lockdown. On the other hand, where I was, I had the entire area to myself with an awesome little campsite above a gurgling rapid just a stone's throw away from Chimney Falls. Moreover, I had a beautiful little bay where the two channels met that would be excellent for fishing. I was in heaven!


Here is a short video I took immediately after arriving to show how pretty the view from the site was.

I quickly set up camp and washed off the day's sweat by jumping into the river below the small rapid and letting the current carry me downstream. Fun!


Then, I got back into my canoe with my fishing gear and explored the area. Paddling below the Chimney and looking up into that gorge was something to behold.

After dinner, I walked back over to the Chimney and got an even better shot from the top of some rocks. 

I was not wrong about the fishing, either. Unfortunately, I had all my success after dinner when I was full, so I didn't bother keeping any to put in my belly. I caught four nice pike and one beautiful yellow walleye. I even had a muskie smash my lure earlier in the day, but couldn't keep that guy on the line. 

There was enough of a breeze to keep many of the mosquitoes away until dusk. I don't think I saw a single blackfly. The deer flies were another story, however. Those b$%&#rds were out in abundance. It seemed that we were getting July in the second week of June.


I enjoyed a sip of whiskey in the bug shelter, venturing out only to catch the sun retiring over the trees to the west. I stayed up just long enough to catch the sliver of a yellow, crescent moon and unlike the night before, slept like a log in my hammock until 6:30 am. I am happy to report that those first-night camping jitters had been swept away down the Moon River. (cheesy end to the paragraph, I know, but it's true!)

Day 3 - Chimney Falls to Healey Lake

Dreaming of a walleye breakfast, I immediately returned to my fishing hole when I awoke. I guess I didn't build enough good fishing karma by releasing that walleye the night before, because on my first cast I managed to tangle my line in a way that I had never done before. Yikes! I guess that pine sap fell onto my rod in the night and when I cast it out, mayhem ensued. (Note to self: NEVER leave your rod under a pine tree again). By the time I dealt with my fishing travesty, it was time for bed again. Well, it didn't take that long to sort out, but it pretty much killed my fishing time for the morning.


I wanted to get moving. I knew I would be paddling bigger water closer to Georgian Bay and wanted to take advantage of the morning lull before any big wind whipped up.


Just after 9 am, I was paddling the beautiful rocky channel leading to the top of Moon Falls.

Getting closer, I could hear the falls well before I spotted them. I located the portage fairly close to the top of the falls on the right. There was a vacant campsite there, as well. Knowing there would be a lot to investigate and see on the return trip, I decided to double carry this one and explore the area on the return walk for my canoe. I'm glad I did because the falls and the steep rapids below them are quite special. 

I mountain-goated up to the top of the falls and took the following video. 

Below the falls, it was tent city. Not quite as busy as Algonquin Park in August, but nearly. I was very grateful that I had made the decision to camp where I did in my own private oasis.


I moved west through the centre of Arnold's Bay and was back in motorboat territory again. The wind started to emerge a bit and I could smell the big lake. The Great Lakes have a unique odour that lets one know BIG water is on hand.

Every campsite on the northwest shore of this area was occupied. Getting into Moon River Bay in very favourable conditions, I was firmly back in cottage country. That is a bit of a misnomer in this case because the structures on the eastern shore of the bay couldn't really be classified as cottages -- exquisite upscale waterfront mansions would be more appropriate. It might have been the first time I had seen security cameras installed at the ends of docks. I gestured...I mean them as I paddled past.


I found the narrow creek at the east end of the bay and paddled up it a couple of hundred meters. Just before the creek veered to the right, I exited my canoe next to a very creaky old dock and yanked it ashore on a grassy area covered in goose poop. I was bound for Healey Lake, or thought I was!

Knowing this portage was close to 1000m, I strapped in my paddles, and fishing rod and loaded up for the single carry. I walked toward a cottage (the one with the blue tarp in the photo above). In front of the property is a cottage road that went left. I couldn't see anywhere else to go, so to quote Jim Morrison, I "walked on down the hall!"


Well, I did this for about 1000m, mostly uphill as the road turned here and there, and saw no signs of a portage, lake or anything else resembling part of a canoe route. I unloaded and consulted my GPS. Doh!!! I was going the wrong way!


After a few choice words to the leaves and the mosquitoes, I humped it back down to the cottage. I looked around. There was no sign of a portage anywhere. Again, I looked at my map and my GPS. Yes, I was in the correct place. I was at a loss.


I decided to try and consult the owner of the cottage, praying that Cujo was away at the kennel. Walking closer to the door, I called out several times. I couldn't see a vehicle. No one answered.


I sat down, somewhat dejected for a moment, with my head down. It meant I would either have to do a crazy bushwhack somewhere, but it seemed to be all private property, or paddle quite a distance further north into Wood's Bay and Blackstone Harbour and circle back into Healey Lake. This would add a couple of hours to my trip. Then, I heard, "Are you looking for the portage?"


Standing before me was the owner of the cottage and what an interesting man he was. Sporting a long grey beard, this Gandalf-like man pointed me in the right direction. He was so nice! He apologized for not coming out sooner and pointing the way. He explained how he sold part of his land to the municipality so that the portage could still exist. Wow! We chatted a bit and he wished me well as I thanked him profusely. Perhaps, erecting a sign would solve a lot of problems, but I suspect the man might like to have a chat with the canoe adventurers passing through. 


So, if any readers of this blog are planning to do the route, here is how to find the portage in case the man isn't home: From the creek where I took out, walk up toward the cottage, turn left and walk about 20 or 30 meters along the cottage road. On your right, you'll see a grassy meadow between the forest and the man's cottage property. Turn right into the meadow, following the forest tree line on your left. The trail is hardly discernible.  (Wear long pants on this port...a lot of long grass that might hold ticky ticks.) When you run out of the meadow and come to the forest, the faint remains of a logging road will appear in the forest. It is overgrown with grass but wide and easy to follow to Healey Lake, where a lovely dock awaits you to put in above the dam! Easy Peasy! (Ya, sure, easy...I had turned an 800m portage into 3000m of walking. Doh!)

Healey Lake is a big cottage country lake. It took well over an hour to get back to Kapikog Bay at its south end. I found this part the most difficult to paddle anywhere on the trip due to the endless parade of massive motorboats blaring country music whilst towing screaming people on gigantic inner tubes. They gave two #$%@s about the dude in the red canoe, worming his way up the shoreline and hanging on for dear life as their wakes wreaked havoc. Oh well, it was a beautiful Sunday afternoon and I smiled and waved to them nonetheless. Why wouldn't I? I was wrapping up one of the best weekend trips I've ever had.


I unloaded at the landing dock, immediately located my swimsuit at the top of my bag, and jumped in the water off the dock to christen the end of a fantastic trip. I was tired, but very content while driving home. Hap was right. In the heart of cottage country is one of the most scenic and amazing trips a paddler can have over a weekend, and I was so grateful to have experienced it!