Lower Missinaibi – 1976 by Tim Kotcheff
In the Cree language, Missinaibi means ‘pictured waters’. It is thought the name derived from the red ochre images painted on rock faces along the river.
It is described as one of the longest-free-flowing unimpeded stretches of wilderness river in Ontario – 755 kilometres in total running northeast from Missinaibi Lake north of Chapleau and emptying into the Moose River which drains into James Bay. In fur trade days the Missinaibi was the main route between James Bay and Lake Superior.
Craig and I decided to paddle the lower section of the river starting in Mattice and ending in Moosonee – a 316 kilometre route that would takes us to the edge of James Bay near the Arctic circle.
We reached Cochrane by train on June 17, 1976. Upon arrival, we purchased some fresh food supplies at the local market. Later, we were picked up by the canoe outfitter and trucked about 160 kilometres to Mattice and our launch point on the Missinaibi.
The beginning of our run was uneventful in warm and sunny weather. But we soon encountered our first challenge – the Rocky Island rapids. The water was extremely turbulent and treacherous but manageable. We decided to run it fully loaded. We hit 3 sizeable standing waves and took on about 6 inches of water.
Further downstream, we narrowly missed a large midstream boulder lying inches below the surface but scraped the bottom of the canoe. We went to shore bailed out the canoe and then continued down the river. We were feeling a little rusty since canoeing the Pelly last year but that would soon pass.
We found an excellent campsite for the first night and feasted on steak, peppers, freeze dried carrots, peas and closed with pudding and coffee. Before heading to bed, we played a little backgammon but that night it was tough getting to sleep.
About 1:00 am we heard fish jumping in the river outside our tent which was completely surrounded by fireflies. It was a weird almost mystical experience but we finally nodded off a couple of hours later.
It rained overnight and it was late morning before we hit the water after a hardy breakfast of bacon and eggs, hot chocolate, toast, jam and coffee. This would be our normal start-up meal.
The next set of rapids was a little more intimidating – fast water marked by a veritable rock garden. We decided to portage our equipment first and then practice negotiating the rapids.
In one section we sideswiped a large rock which capsized the canoe trapping it against another rock. It took all our strength to pry it loose before it splintered. The bugs – mosquitoes, flies etc were plentiful. We finally reached a rock ledge and set up camp. It was a beautiful site and completely bug free. The fishing was excellent. We caught pickerel, northern pike and trout and prepared the latter for dinner. While enjoying our meal, we were hit by a major rainfall and were soaked to the skin.
We slept in the next morning and decided to spend another day at the campsite fishing and exploring the surrounding area. In the late afternoon, two canoes pulled up. The paddlers were from Peterborough and New Brunswick. We chatted briefly and then they moved on. We would be meeting them again downstream.
Our destination the next day was Thunder House Falls but for now, it was a long interesting paddle with lots of rapids. A two and a half hour portage was required to reach our campsite overlooking the falls. But it was well worth the effort – the view from this location was spectacular. The four paddlers we met earlier were already there. We were exhausted by the portage and went to bed early.
Thunder House Falls
We spent the next day exploring the rapids and falls. There were numerous roman bath like crevices where we bathed, washed clothes and enjoyed the beautiful scenery. We also socialized with our new found canoe friends including a clinical psychologist and a social worker. It was a good day – cooling and relaxing.
It was an early start the next day and downstream we faced yet another tough portage – about 3 kilometres over tough terrain in 90 degree temperatures and pestered by swarms of bothersome flies and mosquitoes. The portage took up to 6 hours of gruelling labour to move the canoe and equipment and exhaustion almost got the better of us. At one point, both of us collapsed in the heat and spent a half hour or so pulling ourselves together to complete the task. How sweet it was to reach the end of this death march. Now we were faced with a lengthy span of turbulent water aptly named “long rapids” but all went smoothly.
The next couple of days were pretty uneventful. On Friday June the 25th we were up at daybreak and for a change were on the river by 9:00 am – a first for us – and were immediately hit by strong head winds which made paddling extremely difficult. We spent the rest of the day negotiating riffles and minor rapids. The sun was hot but the wind was cooling. After a lunch stop, it was a strenuous paddle to reach the Matagami River which joined with the Missinaibi to form the Moose River. We camped on the northeast extremity of Portage Island – flanked on three sides by the Matagami, Missinaibi and the beginning of the Moose. We hit the sack after witnessing a spectacular sunset. Our destination tomorrow – Moosonee and the historic community of Moose Factory.
The Moose is a wide meandering river studded with small and large islands. We did not encounter any difficult rapids and the trip to Moosonee was peaceful. The water was extremely shallow as we neared Moosonee so Craig and I jumped out of the canoe and literally walked our way to the town.
We parked the canoe and booked in to the Moosonee Lodge. The town has probably changed considerably since 1976 – but back then it was a less than impressive. Most of the stores were boarded up. Other buildings lay in disrepair and vacant. The town is not connected to any road system and only way in and out is either by train or plane
The population is approximately 3,500 with about 85% being Cree There is a small French population but the main language is English.
We took a quick trip over to the island community of Moose Factory to catch a little bit of local colour. The island itself is three miles long by two miles wide, with a population of about 3 or 4 thousand on and off reserve. It is one of the oldest English speaking settlements in Canada founded by the Hudson Bay company in 1637.
There were plenty of tourists on hand checking out the local exhibits of Cree arts and crafts. We hung around for a couple of hours and then headed back to the lodge for a good night’s rest. The next day we caught a plane back to Toronto.
The Missinaibi doesn’t compare with either the Nahanni or the Pelly – the two rivers that preceded this trip. But the canoeing was challenging amid spectacular unspoiled scenic beauty. It remains, for the most part, in its natural state untouched by logging and mining concerns and has changed very little since it served as a major route for the fur trade. The fishing is as good as it gets.
As one canoeist put it – it’s a river of ‘constant delight’. Sadly, it was the last time the two of us would ever again canoe a river, just the two of us.