Mississagua River

Total Distance: 15 km

Duration: 2 days (or one long day)

No. of Portages: 16 (however with the ability to line or run rapids, fewer portages are necessary depending on skill and water levels)

Total Port. Distance: 2611m

Level of Difficulty: Intermediate (knowledge of reading and running whitewater is necessary)

Map provided courtesy of Toporama which contains information licensed under the Open Government Licence – Canada. I have made additional markings to show route information. 

Going back to the Mississagua River is a bit of a homecoming for my family. We enjoyed summers (and some winters) at a cottage on the south end of Mississagua Lake for 30 years and we all spent quite a bit of time there during our childhoods. In fact, you can see the cottage marked as one of those buildings on the map above. 

Ironically, while spending time there all those years, none of us ever thought of taking an overnight trip down the river, which starts its spectacular run just past the dam at the far south end of the lake. We just weren't into canoe-tripping then. We were busy windsurfing, fishing, and motorboating about on that fantastic chain of North Kawartha Lakes. 

Fast forward a number of years and my dad ran the Mississagua in an old fiberglass canoe in the early spring of 2014 with his wife and my brother; he told me what a great run it was.  Kevin Callan also mentions how it's one of his favourite rivers to run in his Top 60 Canoe Routes Of Ontario book. These recommendations, and the fact that the put-in is only a mere 30-minute drive from my house, meant that the Mississagua River had been on my bucket list from Day One of my canoe-tripping experiences. The only issue was that I wanted to do it properly and I was holding out until I got my hands on a whitewater boat that could handle what the Mississagua threw at it. Finally, in early 2022, my covid-ending birthday present to myself (and from my lovely wife!) was an Esquif Prospecteur in T-Formex.  I was now ready for it. 

Immediately, I logged on to the Ontario Parks reservation system and booked a site on the Mississagua for the first weekend in May. Little did I know at the time that when that date rolled around, we would have experienced a relatively dry spring. The river is also dam-controlled, so when we arrived late on Saturday morning at the put-in, we weren't exactly finding the springtime high water that we had hoped for. The weather was fantastic, however, and we were just happy to be out for our first overnighter of the year.  

Incidentally, if you are in the mood for a little bit of extra information on the enigmatic history of the Mississagua Lake Dam, click on the button below:

Day 1  - Mississagua Dam Road to Site 601 

We decided to skip the upriver part through cottage country just below the dam and put in at the 61-meter portage on river-right. We unloaded our canoe and gear at the portage, parked our vehicle up the road at a safe spot, and walked back to the put-in.  From the get-go and witnessing that drop under the bridge, I knew this river was going to be a spectacular run. 

We paddled across the river for all of 30 seconds before we had to carry again for 59 meters , on river-left this time, past a rocky drop that had a cottage watching over it on the west bank. 

Fifteen minutes later and we were portaging again on river-left to get by a rocky rapid that looked like it could be runnable at higher water levels. I was tempted to try it, but the portage was so short, it didn't seem worth banging my boat around on the very many exposed rocks. 

At this point, I was anxious to give the Esquif a proper christening that didn't include hoisting it over my head. Having run the river before, my dad reminded me to be patient, knowing what lay in store for us downriver. Given where our booked site was, it probably wasn't going to happen until the following day, but there was plenty of river left to run. 

As we paddled south, I was in awe at how stunningly beautiful this far-southern reach of the Canadian Shield was. The river cut its way through rocky canyons and banks leaving a wonderful landscape in its wake. I couldn't believe that this slice of natural beauty was under my nose all along, just a short jaunt from my home. 

This splendor was even more apparent at the start of the 525-meter portage. There, the river split as it flowed through two channels around an island. Our map showed that the portage was once again on the left, so we got out to scout. We walked the entire length that was high on the left bank as the river formed a small gorge below. Other than the first drop that could be lined, I felt that we could run the rest with care around some rocks to the brink of a small falls. There, we could portage the remaining 40-meter or so to site 601, our booking for the night, at the end of the portage. With only a couple of little scrapes on the rocks, we did just that and felt happy about reducing a 525-meter carry to almost nothing! We paddle-slapped in celebration after making our way through the rocky maze. 

Before carrying our gear up the left bank to our site, we decided to get out and investigate the island that was now on our right and take a look at the right channel that dumped over a chute under the watch of a cliff on the right bank. There, we spent a few moments next to the chute taking in the spectacular scenery. 

Below that chute, the two channels joined again, only to immediately split once more into two separate drops around another island. After we made our way back over to the portage and carried our gear up to our campsite, we could see it all from our high vantage point on the left bank. The sight of the three chutes in succession is something to behold, indeed. What a view from our campsite! 

It was mid-afternoon at that point and the sun warmed things up considerably. This brought out the blackflies that were conspicuously absent at the put-in earlier that morning. Because of that, I left my NoBugZone shelter in the back of my vehicle. Doh! Now, in the hot, afternoon sun, next to moving water, the little buggers were swarming around us in large clouds. Thankfully, we soon figured out that they weren't biting yet. As unnerving as it was to have clouds of blackflies around you at all times, they were harmless for the time being. The bug shelter was not necessary. 

Before setting up camp, we decided to enjoy an adult beverage and a lunch wrap at the picnic table while taking in our striking surroundings. As we were doing so, we heard voices and the bump of a canoe on rocks from upriver. Shortly after, a young lady and her 6-month-old Doberman Pincer emerged on the portage. She was walking the trail while her two paddling companions in a plastic Paluski canoe were lining and portaging around the obstacles in the river. We chatted a bit and it turned out that this group would be the only other paddlers that we would see on the river for the duration of the trip.

The rest of our waking hours at site 601 involved setting up camp, gathering a good load of firewood, enjoying steak over an open fire and chatting with cheer into the night. As darkness descended and the temperatures cooled, the blackflies disappeared and we had a wonderful night of conversation at one of the prettiest campsites I've had the pleasure of occupying. 

Day 2 - Site 601 to Take-out on Highway  36 

The temperature went down to 3 degrees over the night, so the air was still very chilly when we awoke. We did not care, however, because it was sunny and we were excited to hit the river. 

After some coffee, eggs and bacon, and with one last incredible view of the river from our site, we broke camp and loaded the boat. We had a big day of portaging and running rapids ahead of us. 

Map provided courtesy of Toporama which contains information licensed under the Open Government Licence – Canada. I have made additional markings to show route information. 

 The 142-meter portage was so close to where we put in that it was almost a waste of time getting back onto the river. In fact, as we drifted down the river for 30 seconds or so, we could see that the portages were actually connected. A quick scout of the river revealed that it was a must-carry as it dropped over a small chute. 

After putting in, we were taking out again in less than a minute, this time on river-right at a steep take-out on a rocky ledge over deep water. Luckily, it was only for 75 meters past a larger fall. It was a very pretty spot. 

After that, we were on the river for seconds only before hauling our gear out of the canoe, yet again! By this time we were feeling a bit like dock workers.  This portage was also on river-right and cut a river bend for 147 meters as the water's course veered to the south after passing through a stunningly beautiful gorge. We took a few photos there. 

Site 603 at the bottom of this portage was also a dandy. 

Finally, after nearly an hour of loading and unloading our gear over three substantial drops in the river, we were happy to be paddling, even if it only lasted for about 15 minutes. 

Our next obstacle would turn out to be the longest portage of the trip at a length of 443 meters. There was a substantial ledge at the top of the rapids and the remainder of the run was bony. It might have been runnable in slightly higher water; the only issue was the steep river bank which doesn't allow one to put in after carrying around the initial ledge. Likewise, due to the canyon-like river banks, it didn't permit safe lining. I suspect in higher water, this would be a challenging and fun Class 3 run.

So, we humped it over this portage which was quite steep at the outset. The trail ended at site 604 next to the bottom of the rapids.

The section that followed was the longest continuous stretch of paddling on the trip. The topography flattened out somewhat but was beautiful nonetheless. We passed a vacant hunting lodge on river-left along this stretch. 

Not far downriver on the right, we passed another hunting cabin on a bend in the river that looked like it had seen better days. It was oddly tucked back in a swampy area. 

Upon arriving at the 223-meter portage on river-left, we saw a sign informing us that the portage was on private land and that users should refrain from wandering off the trail in respect of the owners. Whoever owns that land, thank you for granting access to paddlers. 

After a quick scout, we opted to carry once more upon noticing a substantial drop in the river about halfway through the run. Were there rapids that we could run on this river? This portage was substantially wet at the beginning where we had to trudge through a large puddle. This was followed by a downed tree that traversed the path and required a bit of negotiation. This was the first of these kinds of obstacles that we encountered, as small as they were, on any of the ports; this was most likely due to the fact that it was on private property and the Ontario Parks people do not possess jurisdiction over maintaining the trail. 

I turned back to get a quick pic of the bottom of the rapids behind a sweeper protruding from the right bank. 

After a very short paddle through the pond at the base of those rapids, we could hear moving water again. We immediately noticed a fun-looking standing wave after the initial drop. I got out on the port on river-right to assess the run and, lo and behold, scouted a line through the entire run. Yes! 

I returned to the canoe. In anticipation, we tied the gear down, put on our helmets, and got on our knees. We backferried to the center of the river, followed the V, and hit that Class 2 standing wave head-on. Dad got the Disney Splash Mountain effect as water splattered over the gunnels and gave him a good soaking.  The remainder of the 100-meter run was a fairly straightforward C1 run that wasn't too technical. Woo-hoo! We paddle-slapped again in celebration and paused to do a little bailing. 

For the next half-hour or so, we ran C1 rapids and numerous swifts, gaining more confidence as we went. It was tremendously enjoyable. 

When we rounded a bend and saw a concrete structure crossing the river with a sign warning us to get off the river, we knew we had arrived at Scott's Dam. We got out on our left to portage. 

This 177-meter portage would be the last of the trip. As a Peterborough resident, born and raised until I was 16 years old, it was particularly interesting to me due to its historical significance. Here is an excerpt from a trail guide to the area, published by Ontario Parks:

"... a sawmill was built adjacent to the river in 1858. The sawn lumber was shipped on flat cars on rail tracks to barges on Bald Lake and then to Pigeon Lake.  In 1863 W.A. Scott purchased this mill and its extensive lumber rights, which became known as Scott’s Mill. A large timber chute (still visible today) was erected to prevent log jams and damage to the logs. Depending on water levels and visibility, sawn lumber slabs can still be seen on the bottom of the river near this location.  The mill was typical of the kind of multi-use milling facilities operating at that time and made squared timbers, ship’s masts, shingles and barrels. The mill cut five million board feet of pine during the 1872- 73 season. At one time there were 100 men working at the mill and 20 to 30 families lived at the site. A boarding house built there was eventually demolished as the industry declined and the wood was used to build Windsor House, now known as the Cody Inn in the Town of Buckhorn." (https://buckhorntrails.files.wordpress.com/2016/03/kawartha-highlands-trail-guide.pdf)

Indeed, there was a widespread flattened area on the left bank of the river adjacent to the concrete structure where the logging town must have existed. Below the dam, the river dropped again over a falls.  Evidence of the logging operations and log chutes can still be seen. 

After putting in and riding the swifts to the Highway 36 parking lot, our take-out location, we did notice some hewn logs submerged in the river. It was interesting to think that they have been there for the last 150 years after failing to reach their destination. 

Shortly after 2:30 pm, we were hauling our canoe and gear up the steep bank to the parking lot. We headed north to our put-in spot and retrieved our second vehicle, thus ending our run down the Mississagua River.

 Though it was a fairly short trip, it was wonderfully scenic and rewarding. We couldn't have asked for better weather in the first week of May. I now fully understand the river's appeal and am looking forward to revisiting it; I can see how this weekend run might be a yearly outing for me. Next time,  I will definitely attempt it at much higher water levels to run even more of those rapids.