Obabika Lake Loop
Total Distance: 82 km
Duration: 4 days
Number of Portages: 7
Total Portage Distance: 4.13 km (based on Hap Wilson's distances and including the portage from the parking area to the put-in)
Level of Difficulty: Experienced Novice (Wind on big lakes can make this trip challenging)
Map is courtesy of Jeff's Maps -- our route is marked in blue.
During the provincial stay-at-home orders from the third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic of 2021, my father and I made the plan to paddle parts of Wabakimi Provincial Park in northwestern Ontario for our yearly August outing. Unfortunately, climate change had something to say about that.
First, it started with an unprecedented heatwave in British Columbia resulting in horribly destructive forest fires that destroyed communities and forced many to be evacuated. As the heat lingered and moved east, similar situations occurred throughout the country. Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario were particularly affected. Forest fires were so widespread that both Quetico and Woodland Caribou Provincial Parks were completely closed to backcountry travel by mid-August. Even in Temagami, an 1100km drive away from Quetico, there was a health warning issued by Environment Canada for smoke and haze inhalation in the first week of August.
Dad and I decided to postpone our Wabikimi adventures for another time. Although there were no major fires directly affecting that particular park at the time, they were in the relative vicinity and we thought we'd hold off for a time when visibility and air quality would be better.
As a Plan B, since we had such an amazing trip the previous year on the Lady Evelyn River, we decided to explore more of Temagami. I had long wanted to see the old-growth red pines of the Wakimika Triangle on the north end of Obabika Lake, the Spirit Rock of Chee-skon Lake and more of Temagami's amazing waterways. Dad agreed, and so it was settled. It would be a much shorter trip than our original plan, but still a great outing.
Day 1 - Lake Temagami (Sandy Inlet) to Diamond Lake (19 km)
Despite the smoke warning, we were on the highway heading north by 6:30 am. Indeed, by the time we reached North Bay, the sky was hazy. The sun was just a yellow disc in the sky that was barely discernible through the thick grey.
We were heading down Red Squirrel Road before it was noon. The road condition was fine but had several spots that were in the early stages of washout, exposing some sharp stones. We passed a truck that got a flat tire, but another vehicle had stopped and was lending assistance. We made it through without mishap, albeit slowly.
Arriving at the turnoff to Camp Wanapitei, the road narrowed and was quite rough. Without AWD on my vehicle, we couldn't drive the last 500m to the parking area closest to the put-in. We managed to park between some trees further up the road, alongside at least ten other vehicles that had already done so, and began unloading. This extended our portage into the lake to about 900m, unfortunately.
By about 12:30 pm, we had launched from the beach and were paddling southwest on Sandy Inlet of Lake Temagami, fighting a moderate headwind. I turned to snap a quick picture of the beach at the put-in.
Wind conditions were not terribly bad, so we decided to forgo taking the steep Napoleon's Portage, even though it was a more direct route, and stay on the water.
We made our way through the shallow Pickerel Bay and over the flat 445m portage into the North Arm. I smiled to myself as I was reminded of the rocky conditions of portages in the Temagami Area.
It was an interesting paddle through the Lower Narrows. There, we spotted some vacant, but unremarkable, campsites. As we rounded the bend and veered northwest again into Sharp Rock Inlet, we passed the Langskib Camp sitting high on a cliff on the large island in the centre of the bay.
We let the wind push us northwest to the far shore, where we attempted to locate the pictographs there. We weren't sure, but we think we might have spotted some of the ancient reddish markings, but it was hard to tell. If what we saw were pictographs, they have become faded and blurred over time.
Nearing the Sharp Rock portage into Diamond Lake, we came upon an armada of canoes from a girl's camp. They were hanging out on the southern shore and many of the young ladies were splashing about in the water to cool off. It was good to see camps of kids out again exploring the wilderness after a year of lockdowns. Despite the grey and smoke-filled skies, the air was close and heavy. We, too, were looking forward to a swim at that point but were more concerned with getting to Diamond Lake and finding a decent and available campsite. Diamond Lake is one of the busiest lakes in all of Temagami as it is on a number of the more popular routes through the area.
On the portage, we passed a couple doing the same route as us, but in a clockwise direction and they were on their paddle out. So far, the wind was coming from the south and had played in our favour with the exception of paddling Sandy Inlet, so I asked them how it had been for them. They said they had little wind against them, which made us wonder if we, too, should have gone clockwise. We would just have to get up each morning and out early to get ahead of it, if possible.
On Diamond Lake, we were very pleased to find the first island site vacant. It was a fantastic site that was large enough to accommodate a large group of people. The tent pads were back in the centre of the island in a pretty grove of red pines. As we set up camp, we noticed several wood cockroaches in the area and we had to be extra careful to keep all of our zippers and bags closed.
The fire pit was located on a lovely rock face on the west side of the island where it had views over Diamond Lake and the setting sun. On this particular evening, the sun was working hard to fight through the smoky haze.
After some swimming, eating some fantastic marinated steak that we cooked on the grill, and a few libations by the campfire, we made our way back to our tented grove and settled in for the night, feeling happy and satisfied.
Day 2 - Diamond Lake to Wakimika Lake (12 km)
We woke up to more grey. Unfortunately, as we would soon learn, this would be the colour of the heavens for the majority of the trip.
Eggs and bacon in a wrap, accompanied by a coffee, got us in the mood to move. We were on the water and paddling west just before 9 AM. As is customary, I turned to snap a quick pic of the site as we left.
There was only a light breeze as we made our way across the expansive bay in the centre of Diamond Lake. As we got closer to the narrows and Chay Island, the wind began to come up a little more. It wasn't a warm day for the first week of August and it felt like rain was on the horizon.
Dad and I found Diamond Lake to be incredibly beautiful -- the tall, windswept trees on the islands in the western bay, particularly so.
We made our way to the end of the lake and passed a long, narrow strip of rocks that resembled a sea wall.
Just past this, I spotted a large bald eagle perched on a treetop. We quietly tried to get as close to it as we could, but he took off before we could get a better look.
There were two portages to get from Diamond Lake to Wakimika Lake and both were interesting. The take-out for the first was a little tricky as it was in a shallow inlet that was laden with rocks and mud.
It was a scenic 400m walk though. We ascended a large rock dome after rock-hopping through some rugged terrain. Then, the trail descended some ledges before reaching Lain Lake. There was a funky-looking little tree stump en route.
Lain Lake was a small, but pretty, lake that sported a solitary campsite on a sloping rockface at the end of the portage to Pencil Lake.
The portage from Lain Lake into Pencil Lake met up with a logging road just a few meters behind the campsite. There, we headed west along the road for about 100 meters or so before veering left down through a dense forest to the put-in on Pencil Lake.
This logging road was of particular interest to me. It was there, in 1989, that a massive protest took place to stop this extension of the Red Squirrel Road logging road from reaching the old-growth red and white pine forests in the area. Protesters locked themselves to forestry equipment and several arrests were made. This included the arrest of the Ontario NDP leader, Bob Rae, who would become the premier of Ontario only a year later. Click on the two links below for further information and images of this historical event.
At the put-in on Pencil Lake, the wind started to come up. As we paddled southwest into the headwind, we were concerned how bad the wind would be on the much larger and open Wakimika Lake -- a lake known for its winds.
As we lifted over the muddy shallows of reeds that separated Pencil Lake from the north end of Wakimika Lake, our concerns were validated. Wakimika Lake was a sea of whitecaps, particularly our location, the shallow area that faced the beaches on its northern shore. We paddled out into it but were blown back toward the beach. We decided we would check out the eastern beach site and wait to see if the wind would subside. It was barely past noon and we were looking at being windbound for the day.
After making a fire and enjoying a hot lunch for once, the wind only seemed to get stronger. There were intermittent periods of rain that seemed to come in from the lake horizontally, as well. Even though the temperature was just under 20 degrees, it felt much colder in the incessant wind and rain. We decided to make camp and call it a day.
The site was in a grove of trees just behind the beach, but it offered only a little protection from the wind. On the plus side, there was ample firewood in the area to keep a nice fire going for the majority of the day and evening. At one point, a gust of wind came up and actually flipped the canoe entirely as it lay upside down on the beach! We were glad we had decided to stay put.
A young couple came out of Pencil Lake a couple of hours behind us. We had shared the portage with them from the parking area to Lake Temagami the previous day. They mentioned that this trip was their first extended backcountry canoe trip. We saw them pull up on the campsite at the narrows and assumed they would also make camp. Shortly after, we saw them venture out into the lake! We watched with concern as they made their way across the bay to the eastern shore and move south. They were heading for the island campsite there. They eventually made it, but it took a long time and looked to be a struggle for them. We were relieved that they avoided capsizing as we saw them approach the island. Strong winds on a large lake such as Wakimika should not be taken lightly.
By late afternoon, the rain stopped and the wind seemed to slow down a bit. I snapped a few pictures of the beach in the calmer conditions.
A year after that, as we arrived at the beach site on Wakimika Lake to escape the winds, we had a moment of deja vu while seeing a white plastic chair that looked oddly familiar.
Upon closer inspection, we learned that it was the very same chair. Apparently, it had gone on a significant journey that someone had detailed on the chair itself.
Day 3 - Wakimika Lake to Obabika Inlet (25 km)
The wind picked up again through the night. I was aware of this because it violently rattled the tarp over my hammock, waking me up at around 3 am. Thankfully, all was calm in the world when I awoke again a few hours later just after dawn; however, the sky seemed to retain its gloom from the previous day.
We broke camp, made breakfast and coffee, and were on the water shortly after 8 AM. I turned to snap a picture of the beach as we paddled the now-calm waters of Wakimika Lake.
I tried to imagine what this beach was like with 200 tents erected on it during the 1989 blockade of Red Squirrel Road. The beach was the base camp for the protesters.
It was an easy and calm paddle across the expanse of Wakimika Lake. Arriving at the outflow into the Wakimika River, we caught up to the couple that had done the daring crossing the day before. Indeed, they expressed that it had been a bumpy and difficult paddle at that time.
The Wakimika River had more flow than we had expected and at that moment we were glad that we had decided to be doing the loop in a counterclockwise direction; we were riding the downstream current.
There were several fun swifts that we enjoyed at the top of the river as we worked our way around the many bends. Moving through it, we noticed that the route was well-travelled. Beaver dams and downfalls had been cleared; for the entirety of the river, we didn't need to exit our boat at all.
As we approached Obabika Lake, we paddled past the remnants of an old bridge on the logging road. It had seen better days.
We made our way into the top end of Obabika Lake and crossed over to the northeast corner. There, we saw that the campsite immediately to the right of the portage to Chee-skon (Chee-skon-abikong) Lake was vacant. We took out there and brought our canoe and gear ashore.
It was a big and beautiful site in a grove of red pines, but it was still early in the day. We were planning to hike the Wakimika Triangle Trails for the remainder of the morning. We knew it wouldn't take us the whole day, but we wanted to have access to the site if the winds would rear their ugly heads again later in the day. Besides, the views from the site were spectacular; the whole expanse of Obabika Lake lay before us to the south.
After a quick snack, we packed a day bag and walked from the site over to the portage. As we ascended toward Chee-Skon Lake we noticed how large some of the red pines were.
Just before reaching the lake, we followed the trail to the west of the lake and soon came across some old growth. They were massive trees that were about 400 years old. We came to the Three Sisters -- two white pines and a red pine that grew in a cluster. These trees are sacred to the local Anishnabe people and at the base of the trees was a container where people had left offerings or words of gratitude and thanks.
The further we moved up the trail, the bigger the trees seemed to get. We eventually came to one that either came down on its own or had to be cut down for some reason. The trunk was so wide that it had to be sawed from three sides. We did an approximate count of the rings and guessed that the tree was somewhere around 400 years old.
We continued on the trail and went over a ridge where we could see the top of Spirit Rock on Chee-skon Lake, but not the full view. We continued north on the trail hoping to get a better view of this sacred and spiritual place.
Eventually, the trail snaked down into a valley, back up another ridge and then veered southeast again toward the lake. We heard people talking and then we stumbled upon a thunderbox. We obviously had arrived behind an occupied campsite.
Not wanting to bother the occupants, we ventured off the trail and made our way to the shore just north of the campsite and were able to get a much better view of Spirit Rock.
The standing column of rock in the photo above is Spirit Rock.
Alex Mathias, who lives on his ancestral land on Obabika Lake, has been instrumental in preserving this sacred place of healing and acts as caretaker for Spirit Rock. Alex is an Ojibwa elder from Temagami First Nation. Indeed, he has played an invaluable role in protecting the area from mining, logging and other destructive practices. Click on the link below to learn more about Alex.
We made our way back and again marvelled at the massive pines in that magnificent forest. The day began to brighten up and we could spy the cliffs above Spirit Rock as we climbed up on a ridge.
It was afternoon by the time we got back to our site on Obabika where I whipped up some ramen noodles and had a quick swim to wash off the sweat of the hike.
We had only a slight breeze to deal with when we got out on the water and began heading south along the eastern shore. I cast out a line and immediately hooked into a good-sized bass. With almost no wind and good fishing, we were having a good day on this big, beautiful lake.
We investigated some pictographs on the way toward Ko-ko-mis and Sho-miss, grandmother and grandfather rock, another spiritual site worthy of respect and reverence.
Further south we passed Ranger Point and looked on in jealousy at the amazing beach site that these lucky campers were able to snag.
45 minutes later, we were arriving at the 900m Obabika portage that allowed entrance into Obabika Inlet. Though it was still somewhat hazy, at that point the sun actually emerged for a short time and for the last instance of the trip. I took one last gander behind us and snapped a quick photo in celebration and to display the wonderful expanse of Obabika Lake.
At the start of the portage, we ran into the young couple yet again. They had just made camp at the site that was at the take-out. We chatted a bit and then made our way across the portage. Though it was the longest en route, it was the easiest -- a wide and well-worn path that is straight and relatively flat.
On the other side, we paddled into Obabika Inlet. At first, it was a small body of water with a jagged and rocky shoreline. After passing through a narrows that had a campsite on either side, it opened up gradually as we moved east.
We were hoping any of the sites in the Inlet would be appealing and vacant. By 5 pm, we had travelled through the inlet only to find that all of the sites had been taken. As we approached the bend leading into Birch Narrows, our map displayed two sites in that area, one on the North Shore at a location that was supposed to have logging camp remnants and another on a point on the south shore. We discovered that the northern shore site contained a structure that appeared to be an indigenous sweat lodge, so we paddled to the south shore site and found it vacant and on a nice little island next to the shore.
We set up camp, went for a swim, did a little fishing and enjoyed a nice night with no rain or wind.
Day 4 - Obabika Inlet to Sandy Inlet (26 km)
We awoke to more overcast skies. The forecast was calling for rain later in the day, so we got up and began paddling south early. I snapped a quick photo of our island site as we departed.
Our aim for the day was to paddle southeast across Lake Temagami and hike the Temagami Island Trails. We were just hoping that the weather would cooperate.
We moved through Birch Narrows quickly and into the wide expanse of the Northwest Arm. We investigated some pictographs on a large rock on a site on the western shore there.
Then we crossed the bay to the eastern shore and paddled south into Gibson's Bay. There were several cottages in this area. One, in particular, was interesting because the owners had built a walkway from their island cottage to the mainland, complete with a little bridge under which small watercraft could pass.
For fun, we paddled under it and when we arrived at the far side of the island, we met the owners. They were three generations of ladies from a family that had been in the area for many years. We chatted a bit and they seemed quite interested in the details of our trip. They also let us know that a substantial rainstorm was heading our way that evening.
We checked the weather on our Zoleo device and indeed we were looking at a 90% chance of thunderstorms and solid rain for the next two days. Sigh...
We were planning one or two more nights on the trip. We wanted to head up to Kokoko Lake and hike the Devil's Mountain Trail, but after some discussion, we both agreed that two solid days of thunderstorms and rain wouldn't be a lot of fun, so we decided to paddle back up to Ferguson Bay and head home. Normally, we wouldn't let rain end our trip, but the forecast was looking grim as a major weather system was moving into the area.
We paddled into the large main section of the lake across from Witch's Bay and began heading north.
We paddled up to the east of Snake Island.
By the time we reached the north end of Long Island, we were getting a bit hungry, so we decided to stop at the campsite there for a granola bar and some trail mix
For a big lake like Lake Temagami, we were happy to be paddling in calm conditions despite the imminent threat of rain, so we didn't stay too long at the site and kept heading north.
By the time we reached the narrows at Squirrel Point, we were paddling in a steady drizzle. When we reached Angus Point and passed the entrance to Upper Kokoko Bay, we were paddling in a teeming downpour. We decided not to hike up Devil's Mountain for this reason. It was raining so hard, we wouldn't have had a view of anything anyway.
We reached Sandy Inlet just before 2 pm. The rain tapered off a bit as we approached the beach.
After taking the muddy portage back to the car, we loaded our gear, strapped the canoe to the roof and changed into some dry clothes. We were thoroughly soaked, and it felt great to be dry again.
As we made our way south on Highway 11, we talked about the trip. Even though the weather didn't cooperate for us, we discussed how special and beautiful the Temagami area is. We were thankful to have seen the trees of the Wakimika Triangle and to paddle more of Temagami's incredible Nastawgan routes.