Ishpatina Ridge Trip

70 Kilometres. 18 Portages. Four nights in the wilderness, and Ontario's highest point. A good introduction to canoe tripping.

Organized by Chris Lawson. Chronicled by Markus Wandel.

Overview map for the whole trip (also available without annotation). Detailed topo map segments are available for each day.

Here is a Google Maps Satellite view centered on the put-in location on the Montreal River. Scroll down to match the lakes visually to those on the overview map, or switch to the regular map view to determine how to get there (the turnoff from highway 560 is called Beauty Lake Road).

Chris has his own writeup about this trip.

Friday, September 16

I was seemingly the last person in all of Ontario who had never been on a serious canoe tour. Canoes were tricky things that tipped over, subjecting their occupants to drowning and/or hypothermia, if you so much as directed a breath the wrong way. Canoe-expericed siblings spoke haughtily of the art of the J-stroke.

I had heard of Ishpatina Ridge. It is the highest point in Ontario, a lonely place in the Northern Ontario wilderness with no road access near it. Then Chris mentioned that he was organizing a canoe trip to it on behalf of the YMCA Canoe Camping Club. Guests were welcome. I signed up. Since Lisa loves this sort of thing and had canoe experience already, I recruited her as well.

Preparations began as the trip drew nearer. Lisa borrowed the necessary gear from friends (thanks Tara, Caroline and Ewart), took care of the food and found a canoe rental place. I was at my parent's camp, where there is an old canoe to play with, and put in as much mileage as I could to get my arms into shape.

On the departure day, Lisa and I showed up in Temagami to pick up our canoe from Temagami Outfitters. We rented a high-end Kevlar canoe, being assured that this particular one was not prone to tipping over. We were cautioned that such a canoe is as fragile as eggshell and as light as a feather, which means do not bump it into rocks and do not ever leave it lying around the beach without tying it up lest the wind carry it off. These cautions turned out to be somewhat exaggerated.

Chris, Ken and Michael were waiting for us at the outfitters. After loading the canoe onto my car, we proceeded to the put-in point.

Since we were late, the loading of the canoes was rushed. I once sat down on the gunwale of my canoe, to be met with a loud creak and admonishments from my tripmates that this was a sure way to wreck it.

Once finally in the water, we immediately passed through a shallow, rocky area in the Montreal River. The experienced canoeists, with Chris and Ken in a dual and Michael in a solo canoe, threaded their way through without trouble, but Lisa and I were met with many loud scraping noises as we bumped the rocks, all of which already had a silvery sheen from aluminum canoes doing the same thing. By now, panicked visions of a thousand dollars' rental surcharge for scratch repair were dancing in my head, and I thought, my God, what have I gotten myself into?

Fortunately the river soon turned deeper, and whatever shallows came were sandy. Thus, after a few hours' uneventful and soon enjoyable paddling, we arrived on Smoothwater Lake, which counter to its reputation really was smooth that day, and found our campsite next to the portage to Marina Lake.

The campsite was beautiful, with a beach, a babbling brook, and improvised log furniture. Lisa prepared the first night's dinner, which was vegetables in rice with cold meat on the side.

Map of today's route (also available without annotation).

Saturday, September 17

The day dawned foggy and calm. Smoothwater Lake was like liquid mercury as we set off through the murk on a GPS heading. It was the most beautiful experience I have ever had on the water.

Half an hour's paddling brought us to southern end, and the start of our first 840m portage. The beautiful hazy calm of the lake was replaced by a nightmare of mud, knee deep or worse, through which our trip mates confidently strode, disappearing into the woods, while Lisa and I were mired. Half an eternity later, and muddy to the upper thighs, we flopped onto terra firma with our canoe and our way-too-heavy packs. Visions of lacing up the hiking boots for the portage trail vanished and we charged off down the trail in our $7 water shoes from Wal-mart. Seemingly 10 kilometres later, with the canoe yoke biting into my shoulders and a total weight around 90lb on my back, I figured I was about halfway along the trail and once again wondered what was so great about all this. The others were waiting at the far end of the trail, on a seemingly trivially small lake (Apex Lake), smaller than the distance we had just walked.

The bottom of this lake was liquid silt. In a shallow spot, it was best to dip one's paddle into the muck and push the boat forward. Getting out was not an option as (in Ken's words) you'd "sink straight through to China".

We now donned our hiking boots for the long 1.2km portage to a chain of tiny ponds culminating (after four additional short portages) in Mihell Lake, which I thought was appropriately named given the struggle so far. As a hiker, I wondered why all this trouble, why not just put a hiking trail in? Ishpatina Ridge could easily be reached in a dayhike from Smoothwater Lake this way.

Doesn't sound like much fun, does it? We were rushing to keep up with the experienced canoeists. Another short portage and then a final 1.3km one, and we emerged on the shore of Scarecrow Lake. And just like that, we were there, on a large, beautiful body of water, the trailhead to Ishpatina Ridge less than a kilometer away on the shore. Perhaps there was something to this canoe tripping after all. And after the eternity of paddling and portaging, it was not even 1pm yet.

We had lunch on the beach, then set off across the lake to a campsite on a tiny island only 50m across. The campsite is beautiful, and has a view of Ishpatina Ridge and its fire tower. So after dumping our camping stuff, we headed back along the lake to climb it, before the weather had a chance to get worse (so far it was good).

Chris distrusted his GPS waypoint, and instead led us up a very clearly marked trail near our portage. But this only went to a disused ranger cabin. A search along the shore revealed the true trailhead, which agreed perfectly with his GPS.

Michael had been joking about the final portage of the day, and now he shouldered the yellow solo canoe as we began the hike, obviously meaning to carry it up the 3km trail to the top. We all wondered how far the joke would go. Having wasted time searching for the trailhead, we now marched up at full speed, but he valiantly kept up with his cargo.

It took us just over an hour to gain the top.

A sign warned us not to climb the tower, but it was in good condition and it was clear that other people had climbed it, as the lower removed ladder section was replaced by one salvaged from the remains of an earlier tower on the site, and the hatch into the cab was seen to be open. Even so, none of us climbed it, law-abiding citizens that we are. I now regret not doing so. I did, however, climb up the first 10 feet, to get an unobstructed view. The late-afternoon light and the early fall colours were glorious. From the ridge, we could see our island campsite, but it was too far away to make out the tents.

Note that these two panoramas together make almost a 360 degree view. Click on them to see them much larger.

After a long stay on the summit, we headed back down, taking an hour to get back to the lake. Michael actually canoed part of the way, where the trail skirted a small lake. Lisa was very tired by this point, so we set off immediately for the island, while the others loaded up their canoes with firewood. Dinner was again prepared by Lisa.

On every significant lake, we had been greeted by the resident loon with his "intruders, get out!" call (can the loon help it that this stern warning sounds so melodious to us?) But that was nothing to what awaited us in the night. Scarecrow Lake had a family of at least five birds, and their nighttime calling, echoing off the surrounding hillsides, was the most beautiful night music I have ever heard. Suddenly, I understood the romantic mystique of Northern Ontario canoe touring.

Map of today's route (also available without annotation).

Sunday, September 18

We had done Ishpatina Ridge ahead of our planned schedule to take advantage of the good weather. Now we had a whole spare day, and the weather was still good, at least so far.

After the usual breakfast of instant oatmeal and hot chocolate (everyone had brought instant oatmeal) we put the boats into the water to explore further south. First, we looked at a private cottage on the south shore where we had seen a float plane docked on the previous day, then we went through the passage into Woods Lake. This was full of rocks, and gave about three inches of clearance on all sides of the canoe if navigated perfectly, which the experienced canoeists did with aplomb. Lisa and I bumped our way through badly, with much trepidation on my part about rental surcharges for canoe damage.

The passage into Little Scarecrow Lake was worse, a creek section several hundred metres long where there was not enough water to float a canoe at all. In the end, the only thing that would do was to unload the canoe and float/drag it over the creek bottom.

At the far end of the lake, we saw an ATV crossing the creek. This was our first sign of motorized civilization in two days. In this particular type of provincial park, motorized traffic is permitted. Where the ATV had crossed was the wreck of a wooden bridge, submerged in the water, another fairly unreliable looking wooden bridge going over that, and 10 metres beyond, a gravel bottom where (with this water level) even a Honda Civic could have forded. We had to get out of the canoes to thread them through all this. The road where the ATV had gone looked very good. It occurred to me that with a suitable vehicle, one could bring a canoe to this point and do Ishpatina Ridge as a daytrip.

We now found ourselves in Hamlow Lake, which has a complex shape and islands as well, and matched my previous mental stereotype of canoe touring, where you navigate through twisting, turning, connected waterways. Since it was lunchtime we looked for a nice place to land and sit, and when we found it, it was right on an overgrown logging road that turned out to be a portage into Stull Creek. It did not appear to be much used.

After lunch, with the weather turning worse but providing, for once, a tailwind, we headed back. By the time we got into Woods Lake, it started to rain. I thought with dismay of Lisas's and my hiking boots, sitting out in the open at the campsite, but that was nothing to Michael and Chris's distress, as they had left their tent uncovered! So they paddled extra fast and left us behind.

By the time Lisa and I arrived at the island, the rain had stopped, and the hiking boots, which had only gotten a little damp, rescued. I was wet and cold by this time from wind and rain, and decided it would probably not be much worse if I just went into the lake to wash off. This I did, with my biodegradable soap. I was later admonished that biodegradable soap is not for use in open water, only for dumping your soap suds well back in the woods.

The weather turned nice again, and we had a great dinner (cooked by Ken: Fettucine Alfredo with tuna, and a carrot salad) and campfire. However, after dark, a thunderstorm drew up, and I discovered to my dismay that my tent floor was no longer watertight, and the tent, set up on one of the island's few suitable flat spots, had water running underneath. Thus it got wet inside, and we had to sleep on plastic garbage bags spread out on the floor. In the night, even after the rain had stopped, it was windy and I was not able to record the loon calls with my little audio recorder, as I had hoped.

Map of today's route (also available without annotation).

Monday, September 19

All that remained now was the return trip, and the weather was grimly grey, damp and windy. So we threw ourselves into the task of the eight portages back to Smoothwater Lake. By this time, Lisa and I were getting pretty good at this, and as a group, we "hauled ass" and reached the deeply muddy south end of that lake by noon. This time, Michael, having already taken his canoe across, relieved me of mine, and we all got through the mess quickly. Things bogged down when Ken and Chris arrived with the other canoe. Michael carried that one too, but this time sank in to his thighs.

We stopped for lunch at a nearby rocky point. Ken showed off his camping lunch solution: Peanut butter and jelly, ready mixed in a squeeze tube, dispensed onto crispbread. Yum.

The trip along Smoothwater Lake, whose waters were no longer smooth due to the crosswind, was done cautiously, hopping along between points of land on the western shore. I had taken extra precautions to bag and secure everything in the canoe in case we got tipped over. But there were no close calls. We headed to the camping area at the northern end. There were two sites to choose from, and we took the nicer one, on gravel bar jutting right out into water. The scenery was spectacular here, but we were exposed to the wind off the lake, so we set up two of our three tents in a small sheltered area that faced north. The campfire, fed with large pieces of damp driftwood, burned furiously because of the wind.

Dinner was prepared by Michael, and was spaghetti with a delicious vegetable sauce which he had prepared ahead of time and dehydrated, claiming a total material cost of $7 for dinner for five people. He had the same carrot salad that Ken had, this being an easily dehydrated recipe popular in the canoe club.

There were two suitable food bag hanging trees, and each had a tent directly under it. I tried to psyche Chris and Michael into moving theirs by pointing out the wash pattern in their spot which hinted that it would have standing water if it rained. But they didn't budge, and we had to hang the food bag on another tree about 300m away down the beach.

After threatening to rain all day, it now did with abandonment. The thunderstorm lasted over two hours. Huddled in the tent with Lisa, I found to my dismay that the tent roof was now leaking, a gentle rain of droplets falling onto our sleeping bags. Apparently I was the only person who did not know that an aging tent needs to be re-waterproofed occasionally.

Map of today's route (also available without annotation).

Tuesday, September 20

I finally fell into an uneasy sleep once the cataclysm ended - our sleeping bags were only a little bit damp - and was awakened again at 4am by wind tugging at the tent. Had we not set up in a north-facing totally sheltered area? Oh yes, but the first law of canoeing (as with cycling) - that the wind always turns so you have a headwind - had ensured that there was now a stiff north wind.

Wet and wind and sand does not for a tidy pack-up make. Everything was stuffed messily into packs - the next unpack would be in a dry basement at home. Chris and Michael's tent site had, in fact, been flooded and their sleeping bags were wet.

Chris decided that since we had about 11km to go into a direct headwind, including open water on Lady Dufferin Lake, that Lisa and I would be split up and put into the front of canoes piloted by Ken and himself, respectively. This gave me the welcome opportunity to paddle a canoe with all my strength without having to worry about steering, and we made good headway. The open lake was a chore though. Occasionally an extra fierce gust of wind, the kind that causes tiny 1cm ripples on top of the existing whitecapped waves, would blow us to a near standstill. Fortunately, most of the narrower river sections were more sheltered.

The water in the Montreal River was higher than it had been four days earlier, and we only bottomed out once, though badly, on a rock near the end, putting a new scratch into Chris's canoe, because I had failed to spot the rock quickly enough. Apart from this, and me slipping and falling headlong into the water while out of the canoe, we got back to our put-in location by 10:25AM. We rushed to load the canoes onto the cars, and change out of our wet clothing before we got too cold in the wind, then headed off over 20km of gravel road back to the land of paved highways and flush toilets, and an hour later, to an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet at a Pizza Hut in New Liskeard, where we stuffed ourselves senseless.

The rest of the day was spent driving back to Ottawa, with Chris at the wheel of my car because several nights of bad sleep had caught up to me. We made the obligatory ice cream stop at Laurentian View Dairy in Deep River.

And so it was done: My first big canoe adventure. In one trip, I had doubled my lifetime total canoe mileage, and increased my lifetime total portage count by a factor of 10. I think I will do more of this. And I've finally bagged Ontario's high point. Thank you Chris, Michael and Ken for letting us join you.

* * * The End * * *

Map of today's route (also available without annotation).

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