Confessions of a First-Time Canoeist by Jonathan Kotcheff
Every summer around mid-July, like clockwork, the packing would begin for yet another of my father’s canoe expeditions to the Canadian North. Our basement would start to gradually fill up with all manner of gear, from tents, paddles and lifejackets, to ropes, backpacks and provisions, topped off by the precious “wanigan” containing all of the cookware and breakables.
My father had been plying Arctic rivers for well over a decade, beginning with the Nahanni in 1974, and would go on to explore some 25 Arctic and sub-Arctic waterways. This was in addition to his day job running the TV news operation for CTV. And upon his return, he would regale us with stories and the invariable slideshows recounting the daring exploits of his latest northern adventure.
It was 1989. I had recently turned 21 and, to help celebrate my coming of age, my father suggested that perhaps it was high time he and I did a river together. He proposed the Upper Missinaibi in Northern Ontario, because he had already canoed the Lower Missinaibi in 1976 with Craig Oliver and wanted to complete both sections of the river.
The Missinaibi is the longest Canadian heritage river in Ontario. It runs from Missinaibi Lake to Moose River in the James Bay Lowlands – over 600 km. It was a major fur trading route where voyageurs a century ago would paddle their fur pelts to the historic trading post of James Bay.
The river is completely unspoiled and no power dams mar its scenic beauty. Some people call it the “Nahanni” of Ontario. The Missinaibi is managed as provincial waterway park and was designated as a Canadian Heritage River in 2004 for its unspoiled beauty and its importance to the history of Canada.
The prospect of paddling this iconic Ontario river filled me with a sense of joy . . . and trepidation. Until that day, I barely knew a paddle from a pogo stick. Could I handle the rigours of the great outdoors? I had visions of being eaten alive by bears and mosquitoes, or being swept up by rapids and washed downriver, never to be heard from again. I didn’t know what to expect or what my father expected of me. I would soon find out if I was up to the task.
We flew from Toronto to Timmins, then took a terrifyingly turbulent flight on Bearskin Airlines from there to Hearst, a predominantly French-speaking town in Northern Ontario. Hearst Air Service picked us up and drove us to Carey Lake for an early evening fly-in to Brunswick Lake, our first campsite and the start of the adventure.
Getting to the Missinaibi from Brunswick Lake required a half-day paddle down the slow-moving Brunswick River (highlighted by a moose swimming across our bow no more than 50 metres off). It was a fairly easy stretch of water and a good way to get my bearings as a canoeist before tackling the main event.
We set out after breakfast and made good progress under clear, sunny skies. The biggest challenge was getting used to the swarms of biting insects that would descend on us the minute we set foot on land. Once, when we pulled over for a quick break on shore, I looked down in horror to see my hand covered almost immediately by a carpet of mosquitoes! We quickly retreated to the relative safety of the wind and open water.
By midday, we reached the confluence of the Brunswick and Missinaibi Rivers, where we stopped for a well-earned lunch and discussed how we would handle the first set of rapids that lay ahead, about 15 km downriver. True to its name, Two Portage Rapids, involved two short back-to-back portages. Then, about 4 km further down, came Pond Falls. According to our background research, these falls were once called Moze Falls, after a Hudson Bay trader who drowned there in 1804 while attempting to run them in a canoe. We weren’t going to make the same mistake. So, we unpacked the canoes once again and took the easy way out – a 100 m portage along the west side. We also decided to make this our second campsite.
Sometimes, we could avoid the tedious unloading, hauling and reloading by lining the canoe from the shore or, if you weren’t afraid to get wet, by wading through the shallows. Such was the case after the Devil Rapids portage, where I was more than happy to jump into the cool water and guide the canoe by hand through the rounded boulders that studded the riverbed.
Given my inexperience as a first-timer, we probably ended up doing a lot more portages than necessary. But better safe than sorry. As the trip went on and I got a better feel for steering in the bow, we started to run some of the intermediate rapids, with my dad shouting out “draw left!” “draw right!” and other commands from the stern. Luckily, we never actually dumped, but had at least one serious close call. After a poorly executed manoeuvre on my part, the canoe ended up broadside to the current – a no-no my father had warned me about, since we risked being swamped or, worse, wrapped around a rock! After some frantic back-paddling, we were able to straighten out the canoe and finish the run.
Making our way down the river was hard work, but when we arrived at Big Beaver Rapids, I knew at that moment what this trip was all about – a unique opportunity to see nature up close in all its beauty. It was a stretch of water as scenic as they come. The area was created by a fault and the river rushes between narrow banks over large rocks and between small islands. It was the perfect place to pitch our last campsite.
The next morning, we paddled off to Mattice, where the trip would end. It was a great experience and one I would repeat two years later, when we headed up to Arctic to take on the Coppermine.