Spanish River

(East Branch)

Total Distance: 95 km from Duke Lake to the Elbow

Duration: 4 days

Number of Portages: None! (6 if not running any rapids)

Total Portage Distance: 0 (3050 meters if not running rapids)

Level of Difficulty: Experienced novice with knowledge of reading and running whitewater.

Woo-hoo! That's all that can be said when running the Spanish River. What a fun ride! It's the perfect river to improve and learn whitewater skills and I'm so glad that I waited to do this trip in a T-Formex boat.

Having said that, I was a little nervous on the day when my father and I departed for the trip in the middle of July 2022. Two weeks earlier, I came down with COVID while out on a remote solo trip. It was my first bout with the virus. I was about a quarter of the way through the Kirkpatrick Lake Loop in the Algoma Highlands when I started getting chills, a sore throat, an accelerated heart rate, and a headache that felt like my eyeballs were going to pop out.

I decided to paddle out the way I came in. Though it was a wise decision in retrospect, it was not a fun day. The weather was excruciatingly hot and I had 6 portages totaling close to 3km to get through, two of them quite challenging. Normally that would not be an issue for me, but with strong COVID symptoms, being totally alone in a remote isolated location, and battling whitecaps against a strong headwind on Toodee Lake, it pretty much took all the strength I could muster to get back to my vehicle.

By the time I had finished driving the 8 hours to get home to Peterborough, I felt like death warmed up. It had been 7 months since my third booster shot and I wasn't sure how much vaccine protection remained in my 51-year-old body. It took nearly two weeks to recover and test negative once again. So, on the day of our departure for the Spanish, I was still a little concerned about my condition after two weeks of convalescing. I was still coughing, but I was more nervous about just feeling low on energy out in the backcountry.

Day 1 - Duke Lake to Eighth Lake (12 km)

*** Note: All maps shown on this page are provided courtesy of Toporama which contains information licensed under the Open Government Licence – Canada. I have marked our route in blue.***

On our day of departure, I picked up my father at his place just outside of Peterborough and we were on the road by 6:15 am. We made excellent time and were driving along Fox Lake Road and up to the Elbow to scout our take-out shortly after noon.

The road was in fairly good shape in terms of potholes, but was a little gravelly and was probably due for a fresh grating. Having said that, it could easily be done in any vehicle.

After checking out our take-out spot, we drove up to Fox Lake Lodge on Fox Lake just a few kilometers south of the Elbow. We had arranged with Wayne and Monique at the lodge to shuttle us up to the put-in on Duke Lake. They would drive our vehicle back and have it waiting for us at the Elbow on the day of our take-out.

Wayne was excellent and professional. He gave us some good information on the area and also arranged our backcountry camping permits for us. The driver that joined us up to the put-in, Ricky, was a nice guy and we enjoyed his company on the 90-minute ride to Duke Lake from the lodge. He helped us unload the car and gave us a thumbs up as he drove back down the road, leaving us alone with the Spanish River. I highly recommend using the services of Fox Lake Lodge if trying this route. Indeed, our car was waiting for us in good shape right where Wayne told us it would be.

There was a couple that was trailer camping at the lake and they waved us off as we carried our gear down to the lake. We were on the water by 2:30 pm and were very excited to start the trip. A fishing boat passed us as we paddled away. We were looking forward to getting down the river and away from motors of any kind.

We had been looking forward to tackling the Spanish for quite some time, so we indulged in taking a selfie at the put-in.

The first thing we noticed about the water was how incredibly tea-stained it was. The brownish colour of the water is caused by tannins from decaying organic matter. While it may be aesthetically unappealing and a little unnerving to drink brown-coloured water, even after filtering, it causes no health issues and can be safely drunk once filtered.

We were lucky to have very little wind as we made our way south on Duke Lake. We saw another canoe ashore at the campsite on the western side about halfway through the lake. It would be the only other canoeist we would encounter until Cliff Rapids three days later.

We plodded through the rest of Duke and Tenth Lakes taking stock of the fantastic scenery. The East Spanish seemed to have its own character of steep ridges and cliffs adorning both shores. The river flows along a two billion-year-old geological fault line, and as one moves through it and marvels at the high rocky prominences on either side, it soon becomes apparent that it is a special place.

The East Spanish consists of a series of "lakes", counting backward from Tenth Lake to First Lake, which are simply wider parts of the river separated by narrow bits through which the water is forced to squeeze and form fun little swifts between each lake. When we slid into Ninth Lake at 4 pm, we spotted a set of cliffs on the eastern shore and made our way over.

We knew that there were supposed to be some pictographs on a cliff in that vicinity. As we got closer, we were dismayed to see a bunch of white graffiti on the cliff and suspected that some thoughtless idiot might have spray-painted over the pictographs. Luckily, we spotted the pictographs to the right of the paint and they seemed untouched; however, it was troubling to think that some @$%hole with a spray can felt he could "add" to the sacred site with his own inane musings. I have since learned that Ontario Parks is planning to have the graffiti removed, thankfully. An internet search has taught me that the pictographs display a thunderbird, a serpent, and a canoe, though I have no idea how authentic that information may be.

We continued our way south through Ninth Lake which turned out to be one of the nicer lakes at the top of the route. It was a little larger than the others and had large cliffs on its eastern shore.

The swifts into Eighth Lake were fun and we spotted a nice clearing at the campsite immediately to our left. Most of the sites that we had seen up to that point appeared to be rather bushy, particularly the ones on the western side; and in mid-July, we knew the mosquitoes were going to be an issue. This year seemed to be a particularly bad one for mosquitoes. The site was a bit more open than the others and was situated at a nice spot just below the swifts emptying into the lake, so we decided to make camp. It was around 5 pm and we were getting hungry, so we enjoyed a lovely steak and potato dinner over the fire after setting up and having a swim.

The rest of the evening was spent having a laugh and sipping whiskey next to the fire. Though the day was short, I felt like the Covid issue had been put to rest in my mind.

I had set up the bug tent down by the water in case the mossies got out of control, but we never ended up using it. They started to come out at the witching hour (mosquito party time) which seemed to be about 9:45 pm, but for the first time, we tried using a Thermacell device, which emits allethrin (a synthetic version of an insecticide that’s found in chrysanthemums) in a 15-foot radius. It seemed to work because the bugs disappeared.

Day 2 - Eighth Lake to Expanse Lake (24 km)

We woke up to a beautiful, sunny day. Eggs, bacon, and coffee got us going, but we weren't in a hurry. We didn't have any major bodies of water to contend with, so we were in no rush to get distance behind us before any wind came up. We left the site by 10 am, which seemed to be our campsite-departure time every morning of the trip -- nice and relaxed!

When we got out onto the water, it was perfectly still. The weather was very humid which seemed to cast a lull over the area. Indeed, we had noticed the previous evening how quiet the forest was -- eerily so, in fact. There wasn't any wind, almost no birds chirping, no loons wailing, and if it weren't for the odd sound of the moving swifts, there wouldn't have been any sound at all other than the splash of our paddles dipping into the water.

The reflection of the shore along the still water was mesmerizing.

By 11 am, the weather became excruciatingly hot -- I'm talking 30+ Celsius type of hot. Dad, a sun junkie, took his shirt off when we were finally treated to a light breeze which provided some much-needed relief.

From Eighth Lake to Third Lake, the route is fairly static in terms of terrain and scenery. We paddled through the small lakes dominated by lofty ridges on both shores. It was very pretty terrain.

The reward for paddling each lake was the fun swift that gave us some acceleration as we spilled into the subsequent lake. After a while, by the time we got to Third Lake, it started to feel like we were getting deja vu. Hadn't we just run that swift? Hadn't we just paddled that lake? Lather, rinse, repeat. Were we in some sort of backcountry version of a Twilight Zone episode? Was the crazy, hot sun playing tricks on our minds? The cycle was finally broken when we actually spotted an unnatural structure in the river ahead of us -- a bridge!

Ok, so we weren't losing it. We moved through Second Lake and came upon Cavana Rapids, which was a gross misnomer on that particular day. A more apt name would have been The Unrunnable Cavana Rock Garden. We immediately realized that we were dealing with very low water levels and were concerned about our ability to run rapids for the rest of the trip.

We waded, lined, and scraped our Esquif Prospecteur down the trickle and made our way into the pool below where we bumped into a young man and his father fishing in a tiny motorized aluminum fishing boat. We chatted a bit and they said that they had come in at the bridge that we had seen earlier. They had a few pike and pickerel on a stringer. As they departed with a bang or two getting their boat up Cavana Rock Garden, Dad and I enjoyed fishing in the pool for a bit where Dad pulled in a nice pike.

We were getting a bit peckish and low on energy. We were also both dying for a swim to cool off. When we got out onto First Lake, we immediately headed for the campsite on the northeastern shore across the lake from the mouth of the Snake River. It was one of the only sites we had seen thus far that had a nice rocky front porch and was high off the water. We ate a couple of wraps and enjoyed jumping into the deep water there to get some cool relief from the relentless heat.

After lunch, we crossed the lake to check out the spot where the Snake River dumps into First Lake. The Snake River connects the West Branch to the East Branch and some West Branch trippers choose to take it to avoid a series of rapids and falls on the lower part of the West Branch before the Forks. The base of rapids and falls is always a good place to cast a line; however, when we got there, our hopes of reeling in a fish diminished. What would normally be a cascading falls over rocks was nearly bone dry. There was barely a trickle of water coming off the Snake River.

A series of casts yielded nothing, so we didn't waste much time. We passed the nice-looking cabin on the western shore and made our way down First Lake, which was the largest and prettiest up to that point. We enjoyed gawking at the massive cliffs on the eastern shore, known as The Rampart.

After First Lake, we had the long Drive Road Rapids and Breadner Swifts to contend with. That section was nearly 2km of continuous swifts and rapids; however, we were quite concerned if we would have enough water to get through them after seeing nothing but rocks at Cavana and Snake Rapids.

Indeed, it was a slog. What should have taken less than a half hour took us about an hour and fifteen minutes. We would get a little bit of water to paddle and then grind to a halt. We would both have to get out of the boat and wade. We had to do this so many times that we eventually had to bail out the canoe; the water from our boots was filling the boat after getting in and out so much. It was tedious and frankly a little frustrating. Toward the end, we had to stop and filter more water to drink. In the following photo of the final set of Drive Road Rapids, the rocks on the left would normally be submerged displaying how low the river was.

By the time we got out onto Expanse Lake, we were looking to call it a day. The site on the north end of the lake was fine but the water around it was also very low and muddy and we were looking for a place where we could swim to relieve us from the oppressive heat, so we pressed on.

We ended up paddling through most of Expanse Lake and camped on an exposed point on the western shore. It had a nice beach on the north side of the point and deeper water. The only drawback was that it was in a grove of cedars and very buggy. For this reason, we cooked dinner out on the exposed river bottom on the point which was getting some wind to blow the skeeters away. Dad chose to pitch his tent out on the beach for the same reason. Unfortunately, I was forced to hang my hammock amongst the trees and the hordes.

Day 3 - Expanse Lake to The Upper Splits (28 km)

Over the night the temperature stayed in the mid-20s and when I awoke, there had to have been well over 100 mosquitoes clinging to the mesh of my hammock. Despite the incessant buzzing, I had slept like a log and felt great when I awoke.

We broke camp while trying not to lose too much blood. We couldn't figure out which was the lesser of two evils, the mosquitoes or the stable flies. What is it with stable flies and ankles anyway?!

Again, we were treated to a beautiful day and a cloudless sky, but it was crazily hot. The temperature was in the thirties by mid-morning when we departed. A bald eagle soaring above the cliffs across from our campsite waved us off as we continued our journey down the Spanish.

We had a 2.5 km run of the Kingfisher Swifts before reaching The Forks and we were both dreading the possibility of dragging the boat over rocks the entire way as we had done on the Drive Road Rapids. Luckily, that wasn't the case. In fact, we had enough water to run the vast majority of the swifts. Finally, we got a little taste of what we had come for!

In that section, there were noticeable changes in the river topography. It was considerably more marshy. A few sections had some wonderful sandy bank-erosion on some bends.

As we approached The Forks, it did get shallow in a few spots and we got hung up a couple of times.

Before we knew it, we were at The Forks. I turned to take a shot of the West Branch in anticipation of running it in the not-too-distant future. The flat area on the left of the photo was our first glimpse of the infamous railway line that runs parallel to a large part of the Spanish.

We paddled alongside the tracks for about a half hour and then the river veered to the east away from them.

Just as we moved out of sight from the railway, we heard a train clacking down the tracks from the north. It was quite a noise!

We rounded a bend and on the left bank and I spotted a very large male bear bound from the water onto a sandy spot on the river bank. By the time I was able to hiss the word, "Bear!" to my Dad, it was into the bush and gone. It happened so fast; Dad didn't see it. It made me wonder how many large mammal sightings I have missed on my trips. I simply didn't see them because I was looking in the wrong place and they were gone before I even knew they were there.

Fifteen minutes later we came upon the Upper Athlone Rapids, the first real set of whitewater on the trip thus far. With the West Branch adding volume to the river, there was enough water to run them. We got out on the left bank and scouted. The first set at the top looked to be the most challenging bit. I could spot a technical run that required a bit of needle threading at the outset, followed by a Class II wave train. We knew that this would be one of the more challenging runs of the entire trip and we hadn't really worked our way up to it yet due to low water levels, so we chose to line the canoe down the left bank over the first set.

Getting into the pool at the bottom of that first section, we rounded the bend, paddled out and scouted the last half of the rapids. Again, a little technical, but we found our line and ran them perfectly. What a rush! It felt great to actually run a proper set and gave us some confidence.

Lower Athlone Rapids followed and again we got out to assess. This time, I remembered to take a photo!

We ran the entirety of those and really enjoyed the ride. We decided to celebrate the fact that we just bypassed two 400-meter portages by paddle slapping and having lunch; we stopped at a gravel bar on river-right. We didn't notice it at first, but as we munched on our wraps we spotted half a canoe jammed on a rock across the river from us. We guessed that someone from days gone by wasn't so lucky in getting through the Athlone Rapids.

Over the next hour, we enjoyed running a series of swifts as the river veered west again back toward the rail line. We really understood the appeal of the Spanish and were thoroughly enjoying the scenery and the ride.

Just as the river began running alongside the tracks, we heard that familiar clackety rumble in the distance and knew we were going to be visited by a train. It ran right next to us and the sound was deafening. I took a video, but unfortunately for some unknown reason, the audio didn't work. The train seemed to go on forever; after a little googling, I discovered that the average freight train in Canada is 1.54 km long. Some are as long as 4km!

After the train noisily departed northward, we came to The Flume, a small river that dumps water under a rail bridge into the Spanish from Pogamasing Lake. A 780m portage is there that connects the lake to the river and bypasses Pogamasing Dam. This allows paddlers to loop back north through the West Spanish Forest area to Biscotasing to complete a circuit route -- a trip I plan on doing someday. On that particular hot day in July, there was very little dumping into the river, however.

Immediately, we came upon Railway Rapids, which were simply too bony to run. We lined the canoe down the right-hand side, and stopped to filter more water and have a much-needed swim amongst the rapids.

For the next 15 minutes or so, the river quickly carried us over a series of fun swifts to the "town" of Sheahan. This series included Bridge Rapids, a set that was easily run on the right under a bridge where the rail line crosses the Spanish. The history of the logging industry and the building of the rail bridges is interesting. This link leads to a website with more information:

Sheahan used to be a thriving rail town called Wye. The history of the town is interesting. The following excerpt is from the site

"William Bell Plaunt started a sawmill at a rail locality named Wye on the C.P.R. and renamed the location Sheahan after a doctor from Chapleau, Ontario. The site contained the mill and mill buildings, a few cabins for families, bunkhouses, a post office (Wye P.O. 1929-1942), station, and a small company store. The mill which began operation a few months before the depression clung on for its survival after the crash of October 1929. It managed to continue sawing until the pine was gone. That became apparent by 1940, and production decreased slightly. The mill closed two years later, all moved away. Submitted by: Yvan P.Charbonneau"

Now, it is nothing more than a few summer cabins on the east bank. The first one appeared to be occupied, but the others looked vacant. We paddled past the remnants of a series of log booms and bridges in the middle of the river and a boat cache on the west bank, where there was a second portage up to Pogamasing Lake.

Not long after that, we spotted a very large prominence on the left and knew we were approaching the rail stop of Pogamasing.

Apparently, a small town existed there, as well. Perhaps, it was an extension of Wye, a few kilometers to the north. All that can be viewed from the river now is a sign next to the tracks.

Continuous swifts took us to a couple of vacant campsites on river-left just north of The Splits. They were connected by a trail and we chose to make camp on the lower one due to its easier access to the river. After setting up, we walked up to the first one with our PFDs, waded into the river, and floated down the swifts to our site. It was a fun way to wash off the dirt and sweat of the day.

We made dinner and enjoyed sitting by the fire as the evening retired, thankful that the bugs weren't nearly as bad as the previous evening. We heard a couple of trains just to the west in the evening, but none woke me through the night.; it had been an eventful day with a lot of fun river play and not even a train could have disturbed my slumber.

Day 4 - The Splits to The Elbow (31 km)

We woke up to yet another hot sunny day with blue skies. Lucky us!

After another lazy morning of coffee, breakfast and a relaxed pace of breaking camp, we were on the water by 10 am and running through the shallow swifts of The Splits. There, the river had two sections where it splits into separate channels. We stayed on the right throughout where the water seemed to have the most volume.

Below The Splits, the river ran a straight southward trajectory next to a high ridge on the west.

It didn't take long before we could spot the canyon overlooking Cliff Rapids up ahead.

After scouting the drop, we found a line and ran a slightly technical run through them. We bumped and scraped a couple of times, but nothing drastic. It was a fun run followed by a little fishing in the deep pools below the cliffs.

There was a couple staying at the nice site at the base of the rapids. We chatted a bit and they told us that a large group of young people had gone through earlier in the morning before us. That surprised us since we had seen no other canoe trippers since Duke Lake!

Below Cliff Rapids, the river slowed down and was pretty uneventful until we saw a cabin on the right and ran a rapid over a ledge. Below that, it really slowed down and got quite marshy as we entered Spanish Lake by paddling through some weeds.

We stopped at the campsite at the north end of the lake with the intention to filter water and eat something for energy, but the water was so low and muddy, we decided to move on. There was a cabin on both sides of the lake, but they appeared to be vacant. We could see an ATV trail leading to the one on the east shore.

By that time, the many days of heat and humidity were coming to a saturation point. The skies darkened in a hurry and it began to feel like a storm might be brewing. Checking the weather on my sat device, it indeed was predicting some nastiness later in the afternoon.

We got our water and food at the campsite on the right just above Zig Zag Rapids and paddled toward the final and perhaps most technical set on our route.

After scouting from the portage we had quite a discussion on the best line through them. They were a rock garden at the top and very bottom. We finally decided on a line and gave it a go.

Indeed, we grounded to a halt a couple of times at the top of the Zig. Once we finally got through that, we should have eddied out on the left before the Zag, but I got cocky and decided to run it straight through in one go. This led to missing my line over the ledge on the Zag. We hung up on the ledge there and I had to get out of the boat to ease us into the right spot with a strong flow pushing the boat in a direction that I didn't want it to go. I was able to correct it, but I learned a lesson in patience there. Had the water been higher and pushier, that mistake could have had worse consequences.

We ran the rest of the set without issue, but I was a little angry at myself for rushing the run. It was a good teaching moment; however, in my state of mind, I forgot to get a photo of the very beautiful rapids.

We were planning to stay at the next campsite after a couple of swifts and easy rapids below Zig Zag, but, alas, that large group had already claimed it and were setting up their tents. So, we proceeded through Tofflemire Rapids, which were very bony in spots, but were generally an easy run

Arriving at the Knuckle, we saw the last two sites before our take-out and we weren't impressed. They looked bushy, didn't have great water access and didn't look like a good place to ride out a possible storm. Being only 3km from our take-out, we decided to end our trip. (A good decision in the end, because the area got hammered by heavy rain and thunderstorms that evening.)

The Spanish threw one more curve ball at us in the last straight stretch leading up to The Elbow. The river was quite wide there which made the water very low and we had to wade through a number of parts in this section.

It was 5pm when we arrived at our vehicle. Thankfully, Wayne had dropped off our vehicle a day early. He stated that he always did that as policy in case people get through the trip earlier than expected, which was indeed our case. We were very grateful for Wayne's policy; we had paddled 31km that day in extreme humidity. My look says it all here.

We loaded the car, had a quick swim in the current at The Elbow, and felt a lot better once we got into clean dry clothes. We dropped into Fox Lake Lodge to thank Wayne and pick up a couple of cold drinks which satisfied us until we had a proper meal in Sudbury.

Despite the low water conditions at the top and the bottom of our route, the Spanish indeed lived up to its reputation as a great whitewater learning experience. I can't wait to tackle the West Branch in the near future.