Lady Evelyn River Loop
Total Distance: 117 km
Duration: 7 days
No. of Portages: 24 (Some can be avoided if running rapids)
Total Port. Distance: 9.7 km (based on Hap Wilson's distances, not from the map below)
Level of Difficulty: Moderate (portages along the Lady Evelyn River can be difficult in wet conditions, wind on Lady Evelyn Lake)
Map is courtesy of Jeff's Maps -- our route is marked in blue.
A quick highlight of images from the trip.
Before the pandemic hit in March of 2020, my father and I had discussed paddling the Spanish River for our yearly August outing. We ordered maps and were debating on whether we should contact Agnes Lake Lodge to shuttle us up to the put-in on the East Branch or load our canoes on a train to try the West Branch.
Well, Covid-19 hit us and the shuttles for either section of the Spanish River just weren't economically feasible. The outfitters were asking that two vehicles be involved so that the drivers wouldn't have to drive in a car with the passengers. This meant paying for two drivers and an extra vehicle to go both ways. So, we looked into another route that would be as scenic, challenging and was a loop that wouldn't involve any third-party transportation. The Lady Evelyn Loop in northeastern Temagami seemed to check all of these boxes. The Spanish River would just have to wait until after the plague.
Day 1 - Mowat Landing to Lady Evelyn Lake
So, on a Sunday in mid-August, we left Peterborough at 6 am and were headed north in some fairly heavy rain. The odd thing was that up until the day before, we weren't even sure what route we would be taking!
Our original plan was to paddle the length of Lady Evelyn Lake, but for a while, the weather wasn't looking like it was going to cooperate. The eastern end of Lady Evelyn is notorious for its winds. Earlier in the week, the weather network was showing 30km/hour winds at Mowat Landing on the day of our departure, which probably meant they were much worse out on the lake itself. So, our backup plan was to take Red Squirrel Road into the northern end of Lake Temagami, do the Napoleon portage, head into Diamond Lake and make our way into the southern end of Lady Evelyn by doing the lift over Lady Evelyn "Falls". This would avoid any brutal winds that whip up on Lady Evelyn Lake BUT would mean doing the rather steep Napoleon Portage twice and...ugh...the two-miler (4km) from Willow Island Lake back into Diamond on our return. Neither of us was very keen on that, so we held off booking our permits until the very last minute.
It's a good thing we did, because, as is often the case in Ontario, the weather forecast changed by the time we got to North Bay! Those earlier predicted 30km/hr winds were gone and it now showed sun and calm in the afternoon, which was perfect for us since we were aiming to be putting in by 1 pm.
We were pulling into North Bay shortly after 9:30 am and it was still raining on and off. My father grew up in North Bay and we decided to do a drive-by of the house he grew up in. I remember visiting my grandparents there in the seventies when I was a young boy. Nostalgia is an amazing thing. When you return to a place that you haven't been to since you were a kid, memories come flooding back to you. Seeing the house again, I suddenly remembered what it looked like inside and playing in the backyard with my father's youngest brother, who is only 11 months older than I am. (My dad is one of seven children.)
After a quick bite to eat, we continued north up Highway 11 and were getting excited as we got closer to our destination. The sun was beginning to emerge as we drove through the towns of Temagami and Latchford. The views of all the water from the highway looked inviting.
We arrived at our destination slightly ahead of schedule and were soon out on the water. My father gave the thumbs-up of approval as we embarked on our week-long adventure.
Within 15 minutes we came to our first portage of the trip and, as we would inevitably discover, the easiest one. It was over a nice road that bypasses the Mattawapika Dam. The dam was originally built in 1925 for hydroelectric purposes and raised the water levels 20 to 30 feet for Lady Evelyn, Willow Island, Sucker Gut and Hobart Lakes. It has had an environmental impact on the area, not to mention a negative influence on several First Nations heritage sites.
We shared the road with a man in a truck pulling a trailer. He was shuttling motorboats past the dam. Once above the dam, we continued up the Montreal River and made our way toward the open waters of Lady Evelyn Lake.
We were lucky because the wind was negligible and paddling was relatively easy despite the motorboats whipping by, creating large wakes. Most boaters were considerate and slowed to minimize the wake for us humble canoeists, but every once in a while a special kind of person would fly by at top speed and create a mini tsunami. It's at moments like these that I remind myself to believe in karma. One day, those speed freaks will get their just desserts! (insert maniacal laughter here)
The river was pretty and had some lovely rock cliffs along its banks. It reminded me of the French River in places. I wondered how steep these cliffs would be at the river's natural height before the building of the dam.
In a little over an hour, we were entering the vast expanse of Lady Evelyn Lake. We couldn't ask for better paddling conditions on such a large body of water. Rather than having to hug either the southern or northern shore to escape the infamous winds that normally prevail on the lake, we took the most direct path straight up the middle, using the distant rise of Maple Mountain (one of the highest points in Ontario) to the west as our target. There was nary a ripple on the lake.
We stopped for a late lunch on an island site in the Waswaning Narrows. With the fantastic conditions we were experiencing, we wanted to get as far as we could before any winds came up. We thought we might make Sucker Gut Lake at the pace we were going.
After lunch, we skirted the south side of the lake at the Obowanga Narrows to take a gander at the sand-dune eskers there. I had expected large mounds of sand sticking out of the water, but instead found narrow fingers of tree-clad shoreline pointing into the lake. A number of the larger trees seemed to be falling into the water as if the sandy soil was desperately trying to cling to their roots in a last-ditch effort to keep them erect. It was interesting.
Back in the day, camping was allowed on these fingers of sand, but now they are correctly recognized as an environmentally sensitive area and camping is no longer permitted.
We continued moving west. Looking toward the northern shore of the lake just west of the Obowanga Narrows, we spotted a large, dark figure moving on the swampy shoreline. It was too far away to see clearly, but we probably spotted our first and only moose of the trip. In fact, for a northern backcountry area, we saw very little wildlife throughout the trip.
We were happy when we got through the Obashingwakoba Narrows and started moving south past the islands. We had made it through the big open water without any major wind or waves. Here, my navigation ability failed me. It was Jeff's map that led me astray. We had been paddling for several hours at this point, and anyone who has done this to any degree knows that your body tends to go on autopilot after a while. So, we were paddling away, and even though I tried to pay attention to land formations, islands, etc., and match them to what I was seeing on my map, I second-guessed myself when I saw a fishing resort on an island in the narrows. On Jeff's Maps, there was no resort marked on the island I was paddling past. The only resort I could see on my map was Garden Island Resort, but that was in the large, open southern portion of this massive lake. It didn't seem like we were there yet, so we kept going.
We were getting a little tired and hungry, so we thought we'd stop for a snack. We came upon a lovely, vacant campsite on the southeast shore. We had a quick bite and a swim to cool off. Unfortunately, some careless fools decided to leave a massive garbage bag full of empty beer cans here. Grrrr. Did these idiots think that there was a garbage boat ready to pick up their empties? If they can carry a couple of cases of full beers in, they can damn well carry out the empty cans! Grrrr, again!
Getting ready to go, I consulted the map. Again, I second-guessed our position, because there was no campsite marked on Jeff's Maps on the spot where I thought we were. Looking southwest, we saw a cottage, but I couldn't see the entrance to the Obisaga Narrows. I convinced myself, and my father, that we were in the wrong place based on the absences on the map. Not wanting to head too far in the wrong direction, we decided to paddle back and ask the people at the resort where we were.
I should have trusted my map-reading skills and my instincts, because it turned out we were exactly in the location we were supposed to be! The resort, I found out, was called Island 10 Retreat and wasn't marked on Jeff's Maps and neither was the campsite where we had our break. So, after a thank you to the fellow who pointed us in the right direction at Island 10, we paddled back past the campsite and eventually found the entrance to the Obisaga Narrows just past the cottage that we had earlier spotted. Had we originally paddled for a few more minutes past where we were, we would have seen the narrows. With the hour-long delay paddling back in the wrong direction, the sun was beginning to get low in the sky by the time we got into the narrows and we knew there was no chance of making Sucker Gut before dark. Oh, well! I can't fault Jeff's map too much. It has been an invaluable tool on many of my trips and I'm grateful for all the work Jeff has put into them. I later found out that I was using the original version of his Temagami map. Apparently, it has since been updated.
The two sites on the north shore of the Obisaga Narrows looked dark, small and uninviting, so we pressed on. Moving around the point and into the big open water of the southern section of Lady Evelyn, we were amazed at how large and beautiful this lake was. The northern shore of the section is dotted with several islands and inlets. We made a beeline west, paddled straight into the sun and could now see Maple Mountain looming closer.
We made our way into the northwestern arm of the lake that would eventually lead into Sucker Gut and looked for a campsite. We could see a beached canoe at the site on Preacher's Point to the west, so decided to investigate the two sites on the south shore of the arm.
Again, Jeff's Map is slightly wrong there. The two sites were both on the island and were joined by a trail. We chose the site on the western side of the island in the hope of catching a nice sunset. We weren't disappointed. The site had a couple of nice tent pads in a grove of pines and a cute, little firepit on a rock ledge right on the water. We set up camp and managed to get our steaks cooked just as the sun was setting. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening.
Day 2 - Lady Evelyn Lake to Hobart Lake
With our navigational setback and late arrival to the site, we weren't able to try our hand at fishing the previous day. Lady Evelyn Lake is famous for its walleye fishing. The local lodges claim it is world-class. Paddling out on our last day at the east end of the lake, we witnessed anglers pulling out a few large walleyes just in the 10 minutes or so it took us to pass them in our canoe.
On the morning of our second day, we tried our luck in front of our site with some deep-diving crankbait but had no luck. It is a massive lake and it would have helped to have local knowledge of where the wally spots were. Also, we didn't have any live bait with us and that certainly helps with the warm water in the summer. We never managed to land a walleye for the entire trip, but then again we didn't spend a lot of time and effort on it. We were pretty much on the go from morning to early evening every day.
On this trip, Dad and I were operating on a late-to-start, late-to-make-camp schedule. The vastness of the area allowed for a lot of choices of campsites, though this approach did affect us negatively on a couple of occasions. Relaxing with a coffee over breakfast is a nice thing generally. After a campfire breakfast of bacon and eggs, we broke camp and were on the water by mid-morning. I snapped a quick pic of our site as we paddled away.
Heading west once again, we made our way past the campsite at Preacher's Point, where a family with two young children had made the site their temporary home. The kids were investigating the shoreline, accompanied by their mother. They looked like they were thoroughly enjoying themselves. We chatted with mom a bit as we paddled past, who warned us that the area was expecting a bit of a storm that night. I guess she had satellite service and was able to get a weather report. They had just returned from the Maple Mountain hike the previous day. The gloomy weather forecast gave us a renewed determination to get to Hobart Lake to set up camp, and then on to Tupper Lake to do the hike and return to our site before the weather turned south.
We made our way around the bend where Lady Evelyn leads into Sucker Gut. We couldn't find the ranger station that was supposed to be on an island on this bend, though it was marked on the map. Perhaps we were on the wrong side of the island. Heading south now, the waters narrowed and there were nice rock formations on the shoreline on either side.
As we entered the expanse of Sucker Gut Lake, the wind began to pick up somewhat and we paddled close to the western shore. We kept an eye out for a campsite on a point on an island marking the entrance to the channel leading into Betty's Hole. I did a double-take after seeing this unfortunately-named body of water.
Spying the site, we turned west again and paddled around to the north of a small island. There, there were several logs protruding from the surface, leftover from the flooding that occurred after the Montreal River was dammed.
The north shore of Betty's Hole has several inlets and it was a little difficult to see which one was the entrance to Willow Island Creek, the way into Hobart Lake. We just kept heading west. We eventually paddled past the point of land that juts out from the north shore and got into the shallow western bay.
There, the wind was quite strong, which easily whipped up whitecaps on this shallow expanse of water. We hugged the northern shore, and as we entered Willow Island Creek, a couple of canoeists paddled past us in the opposite direction. They informed us that Hobart Lake was empty of other campers and that we would have our choice of sites. This pleased us since there was a prime site on the eastern shore with spectacular views of Maple Mountain.
We cast a few lines in the creek, which looked like an excellent bass and pike spot. Dad hooked into a small bass, but we dared not dawdle, wanting to have first dibs on the site on Hobart; so we moved on after a couple of casts. Willow Island Creek was shallow and rocky in spots and we were grateful for the high water levels, unusual for mid-August. Perhaps, the dam flow had been decreased to maintain these levels.
Within 30 minutes we were paddling up to our site on the eastern shore, which was perched high on a rock facing west with fantastic views of Maple Mountain. Someone even left a plastic chair next to the firepit to welcome us. The take-out on the site was challenging as the wind was strong by this time and rocks were steep at the only spot we could land our canoe. The picture of the site below was taken the following day after the wind had disappeared and I could manage a better shot from the water.
We set up camp, made a quick lunch, got back in the canoe and started paddling to the north end of Hobart Lake and back into Willow Island Creek. Maple Mountain was our destination. We made quick work of it because, by this time, the wind at our backs was a steady force. We didn't celebrate too much though, because we knew we'd be against it on Tupper, and again on the return trip on Hobart. The paddle through the creek was clear and we had no obstacles, even when we branched left into the smaller tributary that leads into Tupper -- that is until we got to Tupper and had to lift over a rather formidable beaver dam.
Now struggling against the wind, it took a bit longer than expected to get across weedy Tupper Lake. We were glad that we didn't decide to camp there. It's quite a marshy lake and the one site on the east side of the lake didn't look that appealing. We had a little trouble finding the take-out to the trail to Maple Mountain as it wasn't signposted. We eventually spotted it behind some reeds as we got closer to the southern shore. We knew we weren't the only ones on the trail as we pulled our canoe ashore next to a small Sportspal canoe -- an odd choice of boat to find at this remote location. They are known for their lightweight stability but are horrible beasts to paddle long distances.
The trail up to the summit took about 90 minutes. According to Hap Wilson's guidebook, there are cabin remains at the take-out, but we couldn't see them. We passed two young men descending after about 30 minutes into the ascent. They warned us of the onslaught to come.
The trail was well-worn and footing was not really an issue, however. There were a couple of fairly steep bits leading up to Halfway Lake. We were wearing our swimsuits, hoping to have a refreshing dip in this lake, but it looked weedy and muddy upon arrival. We couldn't see a trail leading to a spot where we could swim comfortably, so we pressed on. From the lake to the summit, the trail got quite steep. It is not for the faint-hearted, especially when one arrives at the "Hillary Step", an old steel ladder from the fire tower that is precariously placed against a rock face. It moved slightly as we climbed it! Looking down over the cliff while doing so is not recommended.
Arriving at the summit was exhilarating. After 90 minutes of walking through dense forest and suddenly emerging at the open and bare summit (ironically so, due to a forest fire started by the children of a forest ranger) at the highest point of land as far as the eye can see was spectacular.
We hung around at the top for a half-hour or so, munching on wild blueberries, taking photos and investigating the fire tower.
Maple Mountain, or "Chee-bay-jing" to the Anishnabe people, was a sacred burial ground. From the top, the views are astounding. I don't know if it is because of this view, the work it takes to get there, or its sacred history, but there is a special feeling upon arriving at the summit.
The mountain has had a history of incidents and issues though. During the 70s, through protests and activism, it narrowly escaped the horrible commercial fate of becoming a ski resort. In 1981, there were two fatal aircraft crashes on the mountain -- one involving an MNR helicopter that went down in bad weather. According to Hap Wilson, the corpses of the deceased were dragged out of the wreckage by bears -- a gruesome reminder that one is, indeed, in the wilderness.
Descending was much quicker than the ascent. By the time we reached our canoe and put in, we had a pretty amazing thirst going. Our water bottles had long been emptied and we had sweated a lot on the three-hour excursion. Heading northeast and back toward Willow Island Creek, the wind was strong at our backs. We didn't need to paddle at all on Tupper Lake. Once out in the centre, I dipped my gravity water filter into the lake and held the dirty bag up with my paddle. By the time I had filled up both of our bottles, we were at the beaver dam lift-over. The wind had blown us straight across the lake without paddling!
Upon arriving at our campsite on Hobart, it was just shy of 7 pm. We had to hug the eastern shoreline along Hobart as we were heading straight into the strong headwind. We passed some newly-arrived neighbours at the campsite adjacent to ours. We had watched them paddle across Hobart from the summit of Maple Mountain.
We got a nice fire going, cooked up the remainder of our fresh steak, and sat back to watch the sunset over the mountain as clouds rolled in behind it.
By 8:30 these clouds had turned dark and we could see flashes of white, and then eventually orange and purply light illuminating the sky. It was quite a show. A flash would occur every few seconds coming in from the southwest and eventually move over the mountain. We couldn't hear any thunder at first, so we just sat back and watched this wonderful display of natural fireworks.
I was so enthralled with the view that I completely forgot to pull out my camera and get some footage of it. I think it was because it was getting dark and I was more concerned with trying to determine if the storm was heading our way or not. Then, we started hearing the thunder and we knew it was getting closer.
We quickly got our dinner gear cleaned and packed up in the barrel. I made sure the tarp over my hammock was secure. It was quite an amazing sight to see the storm hit the northwestern part of the lake first. We could see the sheets of rain and wind gusts coming near us across the lake, but we were relatively untouched at our site. We debated whether it would hit us or not. Unfortunately, I won the debate because it eventually caught up to us in a hurry. Dad and I grabbed our chairs and we ducked under my hammock tarp just as the gale-force winds and sheets of rain pushed it strongly against us. The tarp held out though and we continued to watch this wonderful display of nature until it became too dark to do so. At that point, Dad crawled into his tent and me into my hammock. It took a while to fall asleep as the wind slammed the tarp up against me, but we both rode out the storm, staying dry and sleeping like babies for the rest of the night.
Day 3 - Hobart Lake to Helen Falls
We awoke to the calm after the storm. The sun was out and the lake was like glass.
Again, we enjoyed the morning and had the last of our fresh breakfast food of sausages and eggs. All meals for the remainder of the trip would be of the instant or dehydrated variety.
We were on the water by mid-morning and were enjoying the fantastic paddling conditions. We needed to head back through Willow Island Creek, Betty's Hole and paddle to the south end of Sucker Gut. Our goal was to be firmly into the Lady Evelyn River system and be as close to Katherine Lake as our energy would take us by the end of the day.
We stopped for a bit near the south end of Willow Island Creek to do a bit of fishing. I hooked into a small pike on my first cast. I must have got lucky on that one because we tried for another 10 minutes or so but weren't able to reel in anything else. Just as we were exiting the creek and back into Betty's Hole, we passed a couple paddling toward Hobart Lake. They stopped to ask us how difficult the hike up to Maple Mountain was. When I told them that it was quite a steep walk that got the heart going, the man, who had a striking resemblance to Jeffrey Lebowski, exclaimed with exuberance, "Lactic Acid!", and gave the air a fist pump for good measure. Now, I'm not sure if the man was a biology professor or just a dude that's really into anaerobic respiration, but we certainly enjoyed his reaction. Needless to say, for the remainder of the trip, Dad and I gave a cry of "Lactic Acid!" on every difficult portage.
To reach the North Channel of the Lady Evelyn River, the most direct route would have been to go through Chris Willis Lake, but this included travelling through a narrow creek that gets notoriously shallow and would have by-passed the picturesque Frank Falls. So, we opted for the longer paddle through Sucker Gut. It was a pleasant paddle, though Sucker Gut Lake seemed longer than the map would indicate. The islands and cliffs on the south end of the lake leading to the falls were beautiful.
We arrived at Frank Falls to discover a motorboat at the take-out. A couple and their dog were having a picnic lunch and a swim at the base of the falls. We watched them jump into a spot at the base of the falls and let the current take them out. It looked fun, so we did the same after they had finished. After a few runs of this, we made some wraps for lunch and then tried a few casts, but weren't able to hook into anything. It was a nice spot to break up the day.
The portage around Frank Falls was short and would be the easiest one for the next three days. Above the falls, the river opened up somewhat.
As we moved upriver, there was a distinct feeling of heading deeper into the wilderness. From there on in, we would not encounter any motorized watercraft, resort guests or cottagers until we worked our way back from the river system.
It did not take long to reach the base of Centre Falls. The portage there is a challenging one and, thus, has been given the title of "The Golden Staircase". Upon reaching the point of the impasse at the base of the falls, the drop didn't seem that formidable as seen in the photo below.
However, after the first 200 meters or so, it registered that there were a series of chutes that needed to be traversed. The trail came to a large rise where there was an amazing campsite overlooking the main drop of the falls. A family was camped there with three small children. It looked like they had been there for at least a few days.
It was a beautiful spot though the roar of the falls would have been a challenge after a while. At the campsite, one had to yell to be heard. On the return trip of our double-carry, Dad and I took a selfie together in front of the falls.
To portage over the rise of the falls, there was a five-foot ledge that we had to hurl our canoe and gear over. Lactic Acid! From there, the trail cut back into the forest and followed a narrow, damp path that was slippery in spots. From that point forward, the portages along the Lady Evelyn can be quite treacherous in wet conditions. We were very lucky to have only sunshine during our three days on the river.
The put-in was about 300m past the falls. All told, this portage seemed to be closer to 700m in length rather than the listed 420m on Jeff's map.
We had only paddled for about five minutes before we were getting out of the canoe again. We came upon a series of rapids that had no real portage other than a scramble over rocks and boulders on the north bank of the river.
There, we tried to line our canoe upstream, but this proved difficult since we had trouble getting the canoe out into the centre of the river. The current kept pushing the canoe toward us on the bank where it got caught up on rocks. Finally, I ended up simply getting into the river and waded (swam!) the canoe to a point where we could re-enter and paddle. In retrospect, it would have been easier to portage over the boulders.
After that, the river widened into a large, swampy pool, and then veered north to the base of Helen Falls, which could be heard from quite a distance downstream. The portage was on the west bank and appeared to be quite a steep incline to the top of the falls. We paddled to the base of the falls to get a gander and photo of this beautiful chute.
Across the narrows from the portage was a vacant campsite that looked nice. It was getting late in the afternoon and knowing the portage over this falls was a steep one, we decided to make the site our home for the evening. We also wanted some time to play around at the falls. It had a large fire pit built into a boulder, a nice flat slab of granite to lay out our gear on, and a lovely little pool in which to swim.
After setting up camp, we paddled across the river and hiked up to the top of the falls to investigate the series of chutes and pools. All told, it seemed like there were at least 4 or 5 drops in the river. What a beautiful and spectacular place!
Back at camp, we went for a swim to clean off and fished for a bit. Having no luck, we got into a dehydrated pasta meal that was quite yummy. We spent a fantastic evening next to a roaring fire, sipping whiskey and letting the sound of Helen Falls provide a soothing lullaby to fill the silence of the north woods on this cool August night.
Day 4 - Helen Falls to Fat Man's Falls
After waking up and trying some uneventful fishing, we made breakfast and coffee, packed up, had a quick dip and were on the portage up and over Helen Falls by 10 am. From the take-out, the path pretty much went straight up to the high point at the top of the falls. Lactic Acid!
There was a small campsite there. On the way up, it was a bit difficult to follow the path as there seemed to be a few to choose from. Thankfully, the main portage was well-marked with small rock cairns.
From the top of the falls, the trail was a wet, 300m rocky scramble over rocks until the put-in, which was precarious at best. There was a bit of a current at the put-in and there were a number of large rocks that required us to perform a balancing act to get the gear into the boat. The river above the falls was very pretty.
Paddling upstream got a little easier the further we moved away from Helen Falls. After about five minutes, the river opened up to another large swampy pond. There, we passed a couple paddling in the opposite direction, the first people we'd seen since the family back at Centre Falls the previous afternoon. As we passed them, the man tossed a water bottle into our canoe and asked us if we could pass it to a group of young campers who were staying on the site at the end of the portage leading into Katherine Lake. Apparently, they had left it on the portage that we were about to take.
The portage was on river-right and was as rocky as the rapids that it was traversing around. Again, the portage seemed considerably longer than the 265m measurement on Jeff's Map.
Putting in after the portage, we continued travelling upriver. Once again, we were only on the river for a very short time before we were out and carrying again. There was a campsite on river-left tucked away in some dense trees just before the next portage. The put-in was a bit of a challenge and required us to get out and wade the canoe a bit before we could get to the point of taking out. The Lady Evelyn River is strewn with boulders, and though it creates an amazingly picturesque landscape, it makes getting in and out of the boat challenging.
This portage was shorter and easier than the previous one. At the put-in at the end of the trail was a nice campsite overlooking the south end of Katherine Lake. Indeed, it was occupied by a large group of young paddlers in their twenties. One of the young ladies was grateful when I returned her water bottle to her and offered me some snacks as a thank you, which I politely declined.
We put in and knew now that we had to immediately head down the south branch of the river. We decided to stop for a quick lunch and a swim before doing that, so we paddled west and saw that the next campsite on the south shore was vacant. We pulled ashore with the food barrel and made our daily fix of peanut butter and honey wraps.
We weren't there long before two canoes of MNR wardens paddled around the bend and in front of the site. We greeted one another and they stopped to chat with us. We learned that they were also heading down the south branch of the river to meet up with a cache of thunder boxes that they were planning to install on campsites along the south branch. They looked inside our canoe to see that we complied with having the proper gear and extra paddle. We got into a discussion about why the permit pricing for fees had recently changed. Previously, each person paid a nightly fee for access to camp in the park, but this summer the pricing had changed to $32.50 plus taxes and fees per night per group. This is advantageous for groups of 4 or more but ends up being considerably more expensive for pairs or solo paddlers. To me, this smacked of yet another cash grab at the expense of backcountry paddlers since the majority of paddlers in this area would not be in larger groups. It is discouraging. For example, a solo paddler, doing the trip that we were on, would have to pay nearly $250 after all fees were in. That is ludicrous...but I digress.
After saying goodbye to the wardens, we had a quick dip to cool off and then headed back to the south end of Katherine Lake. We came upon the set of rapids that starts the south branch of the Lady Evelyn just a few minutes to the right of the take-out of the north branch. We were now heading downstream and I toyed with the idea of trying to run some of the easier rapids, however, since we were in a lightweight kevlar canoe that I had just purchased, I was nervous for the health of the bottom of my boat. This first set of rapids was one that I thought we could try.
We got out on river-right and scouted the run. It looked ok and I could see a tongue that looked doable. So, we tried it. I should have consulted Hap's guidebook beforehand though. In it, I would have seen that he had classified this run as a technical one, probably due to the sharp left I needed to make at the very end of the run to avoid getting hung up on some rocks, which was, of course, what happened to us. For my inattentiveness, my boat received a nice little gash -- thankfully no punctures, though. Also, I would have seen that Hap had named this little run as "The Labyrinth". Sheesh -- slow down and read the guidebook!
We were only in the canoe for a couple of minutes before we were at our next obstacle. This one looked a lot more intense than the last, so we got out to portage. Besides, I wanted to get out and check out the bottom of the boat for any serious damage. The river there got incredibly bony. The put-in at the end of the portage involves scrambling over a bunch of boulders to gain access to the river. My dad did not approve. I would definitely not want to be doing that on a wet day -- an ankle injury waiting to happen.
As we were putting in, a man and a woman came up behind us. They were in a plastic beast of a river canoe that looked like it weighed a lot but was appropriate for the conditions of the river. Little did we know at the time, but they would be our river and camping companions for the rest of the day and evening.
We had a bit of a longer stretch of river to paddle before arriving at the Cabin Falls portage, though when I say longer, it was only about 15 minutes. At that point, there are a couple of choices for the river traveller. At the top, there is a Class 2 technical run that takes canoeists to Hap Wilson's Ecolodge on the west bank of the river. There is a portage on the west bank past these rapids but it is marked as private property. The other option is to take the longer full 500m portage on the east bank that bypasses all rapids, falls and the Eco-lodge. Despite the strong urge to go to the eco-lodge and sign Hap's guest book, we opted for the latter. We didn't want to run the risk of damaging our canoe, nor trespass on the private portage.
The portage we took was not an easy one. It climbed up a large rise to a bluff where there was a dark campsite in the trees. We knew this site existed from the map and might have considered staying there, but it was only mid-afternoon and the site was not appealing at all. There, we ran into the MNR wardens again on their thunderbox replacement run. On the other side of the bluff, the trail descended dramatically down a rocky, boulder-strewn slope to a pool just below the falls. It was definitely a portage that produced Lactic Acid (sorry, last time, I promise!)
At the put-in, the couple from the previous portage caught up to us. They had taken their river-basher through the rapids, investigated the cabin and only needed to do a short, but steep 55m portage past the falls. We greeted each other again, then paddled out to take shots of this gorgeous scene. Hap's cabin can be seen at the top left of the falls.
Hap Wilson -- author, artist and adventurer -- is THE source for backcountry canoeing in the Temagami region. His guidebook, Temagami - A Wilderness Paradise contains 25 paddling routes detailing trips throughout the region. He and his wife, Andrea, stay at the Ecolodge during the paddling season and host guests. Clicking on the button below leads to Hap's website and contains more information about the man himself. Had it not been during a global pandemic, Dad and I would have contemplated spending a night at this incredible cabin.
The next hurdle on this extraordinary river run was the fabled Bridal Veil Falls, about a 10-15 minute paddle past Hap's cabin. Again, we took out on river-left and began carrying up over a rise. From there the sound of the falls was loud and clear. We were hoping to be able to stay at the campsite that overlooked the falls, but it was just after 4 pm and we knew the chances of it being vacant were probably slim -- and upon seeing the orange tarp perched on the ledge overlooking the falls, we knew we were right. We did manage to get a couple of nice bird's-eye shots of the falls from that point though.
The descent down to the base of the falls on this portage was crazy. It was a sheer vertical drop down a rock face. A log had been nailed in at the top of the ridge so that portagers can have some footing to move along the edge and over to a better spot to descend. I managed to get the canoe down without mishap -- easy to say with a 42 lb canoe though. A heavy plastic beast of a canoe would probably take a couple of people to accomplish this.
The view of the falls from below was sublime.
Paddling downstream from Bridal Veil, the eroded banks of the river were striking. With every new bend in the river, the scenery on this trip only seemed to get more beautiful.
At the put-in below Bridal Veil Falls, while we were taking photos, the couple that had been behind us caught up to us yet again. We learned their names, David and Gwyneth. With the site on the Bridal Veil portage taken, the next one available was the one at Fat Man's Falls and that was a 900m portage away still. It was already 5 pm at this point and the four of us were getting a little worried that we would have trouble finding a site. We agreed that if the one on Fat Man's was vacant, we'd share it.
Moving downstream, we paddled for another 15 minutes or so until we heard the sound of moving water and saw a portage on river-left. We'd come to Temptation Alley, described by Hap Wilson as a "canoe-munching Class III". I did not want to take the lightweight Kevlar down that, so we opted for the 900m portage. Thankfully, this walk was more like an Algonquin carry. It was a well-worn path that descended somewhat gently through the woods rather than the mountain climbing we'd been doing earlier on the portages upriver. It was a good thing too because by the time we'd finished the double carry and back on the water, it was after 6 pm and we were getting tired and hungry.
Dave and Gwyneth were now ahead of us and paddling toward Fat Man's Falls. They chose the water route through Temptation Alley in their hefty river boat. I think it must have been a challenging run though because we saw them wading the last rapids as we were dropping off our first load on the 900m portage. It took us about the same time to cover the distance even though we had walked it. We, however, had to go back for our second load. They must have had to stop a lot to scout, or perhaps the river was simply too bony at this time of year and they needed to wade or line the majority of the run. I snapped a quick shot of the tail end of the rapids.
Within five minutes we arrived at Fat Man's Falls. Luckily, the site was vacant and we could see Dave and Gwyneth setting up camp at the top of the bluff just to the left of the falls. As we were unloading our canoe, Dave came down to say that it was a double site which worked out perfectly. There was a fire pit only about ten feet from the top of the falls, right where the portage through Fat Man's Squeeze was, and ten feet east of that was a clearing for Dad's tent on a bed of pine needles. I found a great spot right next to the main portage to hang my hammock.
We got a fire going after we had set up and had some rehydrated pad thai that was quite delicious.
Afterward, as night fell, Dave and Gwyneth joined us at our campfire for some cheer. We learned that they were from Montreal and were out on a 10-day excursion that had taken them through the Yorston and Upper Lady Evelyn Rivers. They were both experienced river runners.
We had a nice evening sharing camping and canoeing stories with Fat Man's Falls just steps from our campfire.
Day 5 - Fat Man's Falls to Lady Evelyn Lake
I was awoken the next morning by a long-haired dude in a baseball cap staring at me. It was a little disconcerting, but I guess this is what one gets when one hangs his hammock a few feet away from a portage. It was only shortly after 6 am, yet this pair of young men were on the water and moving. They were not the campers staying at the Bridal Veil site, so that meant that they had camped further upriver. They must have got up and broken camp in the pre-dawn darkness. Sheesh! I prefer a slightly later start to my days.
By 8 am, two other parties had followed suit. I guess Dad and I were the lazy, late risers. We were fine with that label though and were happy to tackle Temagami at our own pace. Dave and Gwyneth were on the same page as us. It might have had something to do with the late-night campfire session.
We broke camp and then scouted the infamous Fat Man's Squeeze with its crazy vertical descent to the base of the falls. It certainly was something. To bypass this waterfall, there are two options. The first is the short portage through Fat Man's Squeeze, which is less than 100m but requires one to take one's boat through a narrow crevice and then basically scramble down a cliff to the pool at the bottom of the falls. The second option is a little longer, but goes up the rise, over the site that Dave and Gwyneth were on, and down a slightly less dramatic descent to the river to roughly the same spot on the river as the former. Dave and Gywneth were ready to depart slightly ahead of us, so we watched them tackle the Squeeze. They did a good job, but it required both of them to negotiate their heavy canoe down the steep slope at the bottom.
On our way back for our gear, we spent a bit of time admiring the falls and taking a few shots of this beautiful gorge through which the river passed.
When we eventually made our way to the bottom with all of our gear and finally got out on the river, we paused again for more photo opportunities.
That was the last of the large waterfalls that we would see on the trip, so we lingered a little longer than normal to take it all in. When we did proceed downstream, we were only in the boat a few minutes before we got out to portage for 300 meters past a rocky Class II called The Gap. On the portage, I told myself that I would return someday to do this river run again but in a proper whitewater boat.
There were two more portages to finish our trip down the Lady Evelyn. In higher water, we would have run both of them, even in my dainty Kevlar canoe, but when we looked at each, they looked a little bony. We did get through each of them with a combination of lining and wading. It was lovely to not have to carry. It was a nice, quiet paddle to start the day. The sun was shining and the scenery on the river was fantastic. No lactic acid was required.
The river eventually veered east and we moved from river to lake topography. We spotted the take-out to the two-miler and I secretly muttered a prayer of thanks to the Temagami god of the wind for the conditions on the first day of the trip, allowing us to put in at Mowat's Landing. Had the wind been up that day, we would have had to take this infamous portage, which is about 4km long and consists of 1000 meters of bog bashing, another 1000 meters of steep ascent and descent, and a final 1000 meters of a marshy wade to get out into open water. Talk about dodging a bullet!
We moved into the south end of Willow Island Lake and enjoyed paddling next to the large cliffs marking the shoreline.
Again, we were fortunate to have only light winds on this day and found the open water easy to negotiate as we paddled north on Willow Island Lake. We stopped at an island site about halfway up the lake at 1 pm to take a quick swim to cool off and make a couple of peanut butter and honey wraps. A couple of motorized fishing boats were on the lake which told us we were heading back into cottage and fishing lodge country once again.
We continued north and turned west into a back bay to access the two portages from Willow Island into the south end of Lady Evelyn. Again, Jeff's Map listed these two portages as 410m and 285m respectively, but they felt longer. Hap has them each listed as 500m and 450m. They were bony, but easy compared to the ones on the river. Between them was an unnamed lake containing a campsite, which looked fine. I remarked at the time that if the fishing were good on this lake, it would be a great spot to camp, having the entire lake to oneself. We didn't pause to investigate the fishing opportunities though. We wanted to get as close as possible to the portage to the Sugar Lakes area, knowing we had yet to paddle the wide expanses of the south end of Lady Evelyn Lake.
We emerged from these portages into a pretty, narrow channel called Peanut Butter and Banana Bay. We laughed at this and renamed it for ourselves as Peanut Butter and Honey Bay since that had been our lunch staple for the majority of the trip thus far. We turned north again, paddling through a narrow channel between a large island and the mainland. Once through this, we came out into the vast open space of this lake. The wind was at our backs, so we were grateful. We passed a vacant site that looked nice at the north end of Brother Island, but we wanted to press on with our current conditions and get a large chunk of this open, windy space behind us.
We came upon an interesting sandbar that connected two small islands situated between the larger Midway and Wipper Islands in the centre of the lake. A small fishing boat was beached there and three guys were cooking up their catch and some corn on the cob. We recognized two of them as the pair that we had met while climbing Maple Mountain a few days earlier. They said that they would be departing once they had eaten. The sandbar beach was pretty enticing, and we had fantastic views of this amazing lake all around us, but the site was filthy. Garbage was everywhere. We hung around for 20 minutes or so, debating whether we should camp there for the night or not when a floatplane landed and also beached on the sandbar.
Dad chatted with the pilot for a bit and learned that a bunch of pilots were planning to land and camp there for the evening. I guess with the sandbar access, it was one of the few places a plane can land and a pilot can access the shore without swimming. Not wanting to get into an argument with a bunch of pilots about who was on the site first, we decided to move on. We were a little concerned, though. It was already 5 pm and we knew from the map that we only had one other possibility for a site in the vicinity before the portage into the Sugar Lakes. We just hoped that the site would be vacant and nice.
As we paddled away, another floatplane came in for a landing. We were happy we had decided to leave and at that moment we understood why the site was in such an awful state-- pilot party site.
The wind picked up slightly as we crossed the main bay of this large lake, but was manageable. We paddled northeast and then around the north shore of South Island. Our map showed a campsite straight ahead on the eastern shore of this bay, but we couldn't see a sign to mark it. We spotted a nice rock face and open area directly in front of us and thought that might be the site. We were correct and eventually saw the sign hiding behind some leaves when we arrived at the shore.
The site was fantastic, and better yet, vacant. It was large, open and had plenty of tent pads. It was already 6 pm when we arrived, so we quickly set up camp, swam to wash off the grime of the day, got a fire going and got our dehydrated spaghetti sauce and noodles boiled. It was a nice dinner over a large firepit facing the lake. For a moment after dinner, the weather was looking grim. The clouds spit some raindrops at us for a while and we even heard a rumble of thunder in the distance, however, the area to the north of us got the brunt of it. The wind soon blew it behind us and then we were blessed with a lovely evening next to a roaring fire and enjoyed the sublime views over this large, northern Ontario lake as the sun went down.
Day 6 - Lady Evelyn Lake to Angler Lake
Our plan for the day was to paddle through the creek that was around the bend behind our campsite and portage into the Sugar Lakes Conservation Area. The lakes there were fabled to have amazing bass fishing and are known to be very pretty. Despite the portages in and out of them, they allow the paddler the option to get off the massive Lady Evelyn Lake and out of the winds. Just to highlight how large Lady Evelyn is, we would be portaging into the Sugar Lakes from the west, and then portaging out of them the following day from the northeast BACK into Lady Evelyn. Have I mentioned that it's a big lake?
The weather was cloudy to start, but the sun soon emerged, making the paddle through the creek to the portage very pleasant.
The creek got shallow in spots right before the portage. From there, it was a fairly easy carry for about 300 metres or so through some dense, but pretty, forest before the trail split into two directions. We had the choice of taking the longer trail for another 800 metres into Goodfish Lake to the left or only another 200 metres toward Carpmor and Sugar Lakes to the right. We were torn because both Goodfish and Angler Lakes were renowned for their excellent bass fishing, but Sugar Lake was supposed to have some fantastic campsites.
Despite our plan to do some serious fishing that evening, we chose the route into Sugar. It was also supposed to have some decent fishing and we could always portage into Angler without all of our gear if we weren't having any luck on Sugar.
The take-out was a bit rocky, and once on the water, we weren't paddling long. We continued moving east through a narrow, weedy pond and then were carrying again over a short, rocky portage and into Carpmor Lake.
The put-in on Carpmor Lake required carrying our gear across a collection of large boulders and precariously placing it into the canoe whilst trying not to dump in the deep water. The lake itself was nice and had a campsite tucked in the woods a few hundred metres from the portage into Sugar. We could see schools of decent-sized fish darting about near the take-out. We would have spent some time fishing there, but wanted to get into Sugar and claim a good campsite.
The take-out on the north shore of Carpmor was a little tricky. It was a deep-water lift onto the shore and through a narrow path in a cluster of trees. It ascended slightly through a densely wooded area for the entire walk and emerged at a slab of granite on which we put in at a shallow pond. We had a quick lunch wrap before moving north through Sugar. The map showed a lift-over as the pond connected with the lake, but the water was deep enough where we could pole our way through.
Sugar Lake was divided into two sections by a narrow channel. We passed a nice campsite on an island before moving through the channel, but we were hoping to stay on the larger main part of the lake to the west. As we crossed this bay, the wind came up slightly behind us and helped us along. It was a beautiful lake with high bluffs on both shores. Unfortunately, the prime site on the ridge on the southern shore was occupied, as was the other nice site around the point on the most western bay. It was a Friday, after all. We paddled about this western bay for a bit, looking for a ridge or spot that would make a good site, but the rugged terrain did not lend itself to this purpose. I even hiked a cliff at a spot that I thought might be a good one, but it was too rough to pitch a tent.
The only other site was the one at the northern tip of the lake next to the portage back into Lady Evelyn Lake. It was not a very pleasant site though and we didn't fancy staying there. It was starting to get a bit late and we wanted to get some fishing in on these lakes. The portage to Angler Lake was right there, so we took our chances and took this 500-metre portage in the hope that one of the two sites on Angler would be available.
Our gamble paid off, despite the extra portage and nasty, muddy lift-over to get into Angler, we found a very nice site and enjoyed some excellent bass fishing. We paddled around the headland and into the main bay of the lake, where we found a lovely little, west-facing campsite tucked under some pines. It had a huge slab of bedrock, which made a wonderful front porch that sloped gently into the water. There, we set up camp, had a swim and went fishing.
In some back bays at the south end of Angler Lake, we caught bass after bass. We were disappointed when we didn't get a strike on every cast.
We fished the better part of two hours and eventually got out on a rocky outcrop to fillet our catch. After bleeding and filleting four eating-sized smallmouths, we returned to the site, put the fillets in my pre-made batter of Japanese panko, tempura and sriracha spice mix, and fried them over the fire. We had dehydrated chilli rice as a side dish. It was one of the better bass meals I've had.
At dusk, the view from our firepit reminded me of Tom Thomson's Northern River through the stand of growing conifers.
Day 7 - Angler Lake to Mowat Landing
We broke camp earlier than usual on our last day. We had to get back into Sugar Lake, across the 1500m portage into Lady Evelyn, through the windy west end of Lady Evelyn, up the Montreal River to our car, and drive the 5.5 hours home. Though it was calm and the lake was like glass, we wanted to get through it before any wind picked up by the afternoon. We'd been so lucky with wind on this trip that we didn't want to tempt fate.
We made our way back across the 500m portage into Sugar Lake. By then, we were beginning to feel the wind come on a bit. In our quest for a campsite the previous day, I had forgotten to get any pictures of Sugar Lake, so I snapped a quick one at the put-in.
The portage into Lady Evelyn was one of the easier ones on the trip despite its length of approximately 1500 metres. It started with an open, scenic traverse over large slabs of rock and then descended dramatically into swampy wetlands. The trail was relatively dry, however. It rose over a bluff just before the end and then declined down to the lake.
At the put-in, we came across an elderly man and his son, who have a cabin on Sugar Lake. We chatted for a bit and learned that they have been coming to the area for over 30 years. They were interested in our opinions of the area.
Paddling out and to the south of the massive island that dominated the southern bay of the eastern section of the lake, we passed a few fishing boats. The prevailing wind was coming from the southeast and it was a bumpy crossing indeed to get across the large bay. It was much better as we moved north and then east around the headland. Thankfully, as we moved east, the wind seemed to change direction and was at our backs.
We stopped to have lunch and refill our water bottles at a site on an island in the mouth of the Montreal River. From there, it took only a little more than an hour for the wind to push us back down to the Mattawapika dam.
Taking out at Mowat Landing, we ran into David and Gwyneth again! They were there waiting for friends and family members to arrive. After their 10-day trip, they were heading out once again in a larger group for another 7-day trip! Wow!
We stopped for snacks in Latchford, and again in North Bay to pay our respects at my grandparents' gravesite. We hit the Boston Pizza for a pie and a very welcome pint of beer on the way out of town. While downing our well-deserved treats, we reflected on the unforgettable week we just had in the heart of the Temagami wilderness -- truly one of the best weeks of canoe tripping that I had experienced.