This post is long overdue, but life got busy. We’ve both tried to write this several times, but something has always got in the way. Usually it’s been good things – catching up with friends we haven’t seen in months, or making another finishing touch to our house. But it’s still prevented us summarising our thoughts on completing our great Canadian adventure. And that is the essence of what was so incredible about our summer. There was very little to get in the way.
Being home is great. There’s nothing quite like sleeping in your own bed, in your own home, surrounded by your own familiar possessions. We’ve loved seeing family and friends, hearing about summer activities and adventures and meeting the many new additions. We’ve enjoyed paddling our kayaks on the sea, running in the hills, surfing and mountain biking. We’ve taught on courses, and found our feet again at work; enjoyed Christmas and are looking forward to the new year. Before all of this we even managed to squeeze in a few days visit to Newfoundland – perfectly timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Mike’s gran’s birth in St John’s. We might just move there one day…
But we miss our own adventure. We miss our boat Bertha, who has a new home in BC and will await the coming of spring. We miss the sound of the birds, carried on the morning mists across the water and the sound of the river or the gentle lap of waves on the lake shore. We miss the grumpy beavers slapping their tails in disgust as we glide past and the satisfaction of long days on the water before cooking dinner on an open fire and collapsing into the tent. Ultimately, we miss the beautiful simplicity of a life spent outdoors in pursuit of a single goal. 2 mugs, 2 plates, 2 bowls; dip, dip and swing. And now, life feels very busy.
“How was it? Was it amazing? What was the worst day? What was the best day?” These are the most common questions we have faced since returning home. But how do you summarise a trip like this? It’s something we’ve been trying to do since arriving in Montreal, and we’re not yet sure we’ve managed it. Many people have said that the trip, and the blog, seemed to end very suddenly. We feel the same, despite the five month build up. The weather forced us to put in some long days towards the end, so we raced towards Montreal rather than enjoy and absorb the last few days.
Mike will tell you that when we finished I was reluctant to have a shower because I knew that was the first step away from the trip and towards ‘normalcy’ – and I didn’t want normalcy! I wasn’t ready for it! We joked we could get back in the boat and paddle straight back to Alberta, only we weren’t completely joking. Nothing in Montreal felt quite right – not the nice hotel or the loud restaurants. Having no aim and nothing to do was agony.
The wonder of human adaptability is that within a couple of weeks of starting we had normalised paddling every day, cooking over a fire and sleeping in a tent. And the tragedy is that it is just as easy to go back to living in a house and using every pan in the cupboard.
But another wonder of humans is their ability to show such kindness, compassion, empathy and enthusiasm for the exploits and adventures of complete strangers. So we’d like to once again thank everyone who followed our blog, housed us, fed us, sent us a message or simply waved at us from the shore. We hope you have all had a wonderful Christmas and we wish you a very happy and healthy 2018.
After nearly 5 months of paddling and over 5000km we have made it to Montreal! This is the end of our trip! We are delighted, relieved, exhausted and emotional, and it is hasn’t yet really sunk in.
The weather forecast for this week was terrible, we knew that we had one good day leaving the dam at Carillon, then a storm was expected on Sunday with strong winds lasting through until Tuesday. We didn’t know what to do. The closure of the locks in the Lachine Canal left us with a few options: paddle around, portaging the Lachine Rapids somehow, hoping for a weather break; portage the last 15km of our trip along the bike path next to the canal, which would be amusing but not how we wanted to finish; or finish on the west side of Montreal, rather than the Old Port. Whichever way, we needed to get as far as possible from the dam.
The final dam
We set off from the camp site at 7am and made the short walk to the boat launch through the delightful little town of Carillon, with its period French wooden buildings painted in cheerful colours. We had a small amount of current with us for the first few kilometres but this soon disappeared as the river widened. But the forecast westerly breeze was giving us a gentle shove in the right direction and we found that by coffee time we were only 6km short of Hudson Yacht Club, where we had thought we might spend the night if progress had been slow. We passed there before lunch and continued on, managing to narrowly avoid the start of a sailing race and thinking that even hoisting our sail probably wouldn’t make our presence on the course welcome. By lunch though we were staring at Montreal Island and the series of bridges under which we had to pass on our way to join the mighty St Lawrence River. Twenty-five kilometres still to Lachine, “can we do that before dark?” we asked ourselves. We thought it was worth a go, but identified a series of other city parks at which we could stop if we didn’t make it, once again blurring the line between camping and homelessness.
We were expecting the Ottawa to quicken as it approached the St Lawrence, but were surprised at how shallow it became as we each removed another millimetre from our carbon paddles. It was amazing to actually be paddling around Montreal, even if our finish was still over 40km away. But the uncertainty surrounding the weather was playing on our minds. We really had to get to Lachine tonight. The skies darkened behind us threatening an early start to the storm, but it held off and we quickened our pace. Cas’s shoulders were pretty painful by now but she didn’t say anything, took more drugs and soldiered on. When we joined the St Lawrence we floated for a few minutes and simply stared. The scale of the river here is mind-boggling, particularly when you’re sat in a 17 foot canoe. It stretches for around 5km across as the Ottawa joins, with large shipping passing along the distant shore. Despite its width it also has a noticeable current, at last! And so with failing light, tired, hungry and over 60km from where we started that morning we arrived at Lachine. We had a quick look at the park we intended to camp on but it was too public and difficult to get the boat up to, so we headed to the flat grass lawn of the Lachine Canoe Club, which was all closed up, hoping that if somebody did find us there they might be sympathetic. Our only disturbance seemed to be the party on the dock a few hundred meters away though.
So what to do? We checked the forecast again – windy for sure, and in our faces too, but maybe not so bad first thing….? And only 20km to do. We had to go for it, despite the apocalyptic rain that was also meant to arrive. At 5am the alarm went off, though we had both been awake most of the night due to nerves, loud music, and a sleeping mat that seems to be literally falling apart at the seams. I had been listening to the rain arrive and the wind build and had worked myself up for several hours, unsure if we were mad to be trying to paddle. But things always sound worse in a tent, Cas talked me down, and we left before dawn. Turning on to the main river once again we soon realised we were flying along in the gloom. The river narrows here until after the rapids and the current was strong. We even slowed ourselves down a bit to ensure it was light before passing under a series of bridges with their waves and eddies from the supports. We covered the 8km or so to the rapids in little time and started to see white foaming water being thrown around all across the river. We had identified a sheltered bay to catch us for our portage, but it was fairly near to the start of the rapids proper and getting there would be interesting. We hugged the left shore and got some raised eyebrows from the fishermen as we flew past. These rapids are massive. To have a spill upstream, or miss our get out, would be a disaster. We came around a point and could see people in the water! What on earth…? I’m not sure who was more surprised as we slipped along the bank past a surfer on a pretty decent wave! The GoPro footage should be quite entertaining. Chuckling at the bizarreness of this final day we slipped into the calm waters of the lagoon with the rapids roaring away to our right. Phew. Just a portage and some nice flat water paddling to the end.
The portage was easy, along a flat cycle path with the boat on the trolley. We stopped to chat to a few interested folk and put back in after the rapids had finished. We rode the current along the side of the 6km wide river and through a smaller channel around the île des Soeurs, rejoining the main river with only a few kilometres to go and the strong winds holding off. “It’s pretty boily” said Cas as we got spun around whilst avoiding a large eddy. “And that looks a little rough down there” I added, looking towards a bridge. And so we paddled the heaviest, roughest and most sustained moving water of the whole trip. We headed river left under the bridge, hoping to keep to that side and nip round into the marina. But more white foam near the bank, and the presence of more of our wetsuit-clad friends sent us way out into the middle of the boiling, swirling current. It’s around 2km wide here, but moving at 6.5 knots and in many directions. As we avoided these rapids in mid-stream my paddle spent a fair amount of time flat on the surface as boils came up underneath us threatening to turn us over. We worked our way left again through the wavetrains under another bridge only a few hundred metres upstream of the marina and, slightly sweaty and mightily relieved swung out of the flow into its welcoming arms. So that is why all the pleasure boats take the canal!
We paddled in between the launches and speed boats and found ourselves an empty spot in the marina, and were met by Debbie who was closing up for the season and who had helpfully told us about the canal being closed. And so this was it, where the fur traders would have stopped to unload their furs, and where we now end our trip. We sat on the dock, staring at the river and at Bertha, lost for words. We had done it. What an adventure.
The finish! Montreal Old Port
We have a few more additions for the blog over the next wee while, but for now we are going to try and let it all sink in. We would very much like to thank everyone who has read our blog, helped us along the way and joined us on this incredible journey either in person or in spirit. The support has been tremendous and we wouldn’t have got here without it.
For once, we were looking forward to paddling though a city. Well we should, really, Ottawa being the nation’s capital and all that. But cities have often been more of a hindrance than a help, posing some of the biggest logistical challenges of the trip. Not this time. As we didn’t need to re-supply we could simply enjoy seeing the famous Ottawa architecture from the water, after first dispensing with a few sets of rapids.
Not the recommended craft for negotiating Deschênes…
The first of these was reached after a two hour paddle, starting in thick fog then developing into gorgeous sunny day, with a tail wind! Remarkable, maybe a good omen. The main stretch of fast water to be negotiated before reaching the city is the Deschênes Rapids. Apart from being serious white water they also contain an old, partially destroyed mill, complete with rebar and other such hidden obstacles waiting for the unwary paddler. They are a playground for local kayakers in the right conditions, but probably no place for a canoe. Eric had warned us of the dangers, and being a fire fighter had a vested interest in us staying well clear. So we knew exactly where to get out and in case we missed it Eric and Nadine (and Nougat) surprised us and came down to wave us in. They also helped with the portage, showed us the put-in, provided hot chocolate and muffins and showed us what poison ivy actually looks like (we’ve definitely waded through a few patches of this in the last few months…).
Waving a sad goodbye, we headed for downtown and the parliament buildings (which look remarkably familiar). After two more small sets of fun rapids we reached the dam at the site of the Chaudière Falls. The take-out is straight on to a cycle path, which is followed all the way to the Canadian Navy Monument and back to the water. We received a few strange looks as we wheeled along the path, and have got used to people’s reactions when we tell them what we’re doing. But we felt a bit bad as some poor guy nearly fell off his bike. We think he survived, and we continued to a rendezvous with Barb (of the cottage and the jam) and Daniel, a friend of hers. Apparently we had provided over an hour of conversation at their Thanksgiving dinner and Daniel had got in touch with us, offering turkey sandwiches and tea! We couldn’t say no and passed a cheerful lunchtime in their company. But we had to leave eventually and floated down under Parliament Hill and resisted the urge to camp in the Prime Ministers garden a little further down. Indeed, with a warm wind behind us we passed all our planned camp spots and found a nice little park and sandy beach almost 20km out of town, where we demolished Nadine’s casserole and started on the cake she somehow snuck in!
Ottawa from the water
At 7.30am the headwind was back. Spirits sank slightly and we headed for the far shore to try and get some shelter. Cas thought she heard a shout, but couldn’t locate it. Then as we approached the bank a man in full camouflage gear stood up from a well concealed hide where he was duck hunting. We turned about rapidly to avoid him as he flung a few expletives in our direction, and he seemed somewhat surprised that we hadn’t seen him….. Hmmm…. Having probably done the local duck population a favour we continued on our way, and after a short time the wind dropped off slightly. We also heard again from Eric: when would we reach Montebello? We’d heard from both him and Daniel that the Chateau there was worth a look, but said we’d be there tomorrow. But after a day spent sneaking along the edges of the river to escape any wind, we arrived at the very impressive hotel and found our way to the bistro for hot chocolate with rum. We knew we could camp at the town marina one km away so after having a good look at this 1930’s wooden building we got back in the boat and continued on our way, with me promising to bring Cas back for our anniversary. Once at the dock we had a phone call, from Eric: “Are you still there? Can you go back? I’ve got something organised…!” Now whether it is because he is a fire fighter, and the Chateau is made almost entirely from wood, we don’t know, but Eric had managed to pull some strings. We couldn’t say no, and paddled rapidly back to the hotel in the almost pitch black. We were met at reception by the duty manager, who delighted in hearing about our trip and extended a very warm welcome. Our room and breakfast…on the house.
The Fairmont Chateau Montebello
It’s called a Tomahawk, apparently
Would have been good to swim in here!
After the worlds largest steak the previous night we got back on the water the next morning a little later than usual. We also had a look at the impressive swimming pool, accessed via a tunnel from the hotel. The forecast wind was easterly, in our faces once again, and so it proved. After less than 10km it became too much, with white tops frothing towards us up the widening river. We spotted two figures on a pontoon and made for them, hoping to tie up and put the stove on. Cas’s French was put to the test, and Lise and Roland invited us up to the house whilst we waited for the wind to drop. After coffee we were rejuvenated, and managed a good, solid, 1km before pulling in to shore again on an uninviting stony beach. Two hours later there was enough of a lull to make it another kilometre to a sandy beach, where we stayed. A total of 11km for the day, and two pretty demoralised paddlers. Were we ever going to get down this river? Maybe if we’re still here when it freezes we could bobsleigh to Montreal… The evening was mightily improved by a meal of pasta, meatballs and homemade tomato sauce, provided by Eric’s mother Françoise and sister-in-law Olivia.
Progress was slow the following morning too, but improved by the appearance of André in his boat. We had briefly chatted to him on our way past and declined coffee due to a slight lull in the wind, but he reappeared in his boat half an hour later with two bottles of Perrier! After slogging into the wind for another 20km Cas’s shoulders, and my resolve, were exhausted and a stop was needed. Finding a cleared plot of land (for sale, according to the sign by the road) we pitched the tent around lunchtime and prepared to camp, giving up any hope of reaching our final dam today. However, at 3pm the skies clouded over and the wind dropped. We jumped at the chance and raced to the Carillon Dam, finally crossing out of Ontario and into Quebec. The widest province we have had to cross has presented us with our biggest challenges of this trip, but also with some fantastic memories.
From the dam we have less than 100km to go to reach our intended finish point at the Old Port of Montreal. We wanted to paddle through the Lachine Canal, but have recently discovered that all locks in Canada closed on October 9th and we’re not sure if we can portage them. So we might have to take the river. Either way, with Sunday’s weather looking completely wild and more strong winds early next week we still don’t know when we’ll get there!
Eric and Nadine, for keeping us entertained and on our toes, and better fed than we’ve been for five months!
Daniel and Barb for thanksgiving lunch! And more jam!
‘Apart from a few short sections of rapids this part of the Ottawa river can be considered a series of 3 long lakes’
Ah. Our optimism in the last post may have been a little premature…
North Saskatchewan-Saskatchewan-Cedar Lake-Winnipegosis-Manitoba-Assiniboine Diversion-Assiniboine River-Red River-Lake Winnipeg-Winnipeg River-Lake of the Woods-Kakagi-through to-Rainy Lake-Fort Francis-Namakan-Lac du Croix-Boundary Waters/Quetico-Border route-Pigeon River-Grand Portage-Thunder Bay-Superior-Georgian Bay-North channel-French River-Nipissing-Mattawa-OTTAWA-St Lawrence seaway!
This has been our mantra and chant all trip. See how near the end we are?!?! And now we were stopping in Montreal really the Ottawa was it. The last hurdle. We were really nearly there! And our first few km on the Ottawa in late afternoon light with a tail wind were quite lovely (though we may have been a bit taken aback by just how big the river already is).
The fall colours here have been somewhat subdued and late in arriving due to all the rain (and ‘complete lack of summer’) this year. But in this channel flanked by steep hills on the Quebec side and gently rising forests on the Ontario side (the river forms a huge part of the boundary between these two provinces) we were still delighted by shades of yellow and orange and the occasional dazzling red.
This bit was nice!
We weren’t so delighted by the apparent absence of anywhere to camp… however we were (once again) saved by someone else’s account of paddling the river and were guided to the mouth of Edwards river where there is a well established and lovely wild camp spot (discernible from a tell tale ‘hole’ in the trees). We made risotto and fell into the tent to check the forecast and plan the next day.
Considering this river and area has fairly reliable westerly prevailing winds the forecast was a little disappointing. Almost continuous easterlies and southeasterlies. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before but I HATE paddling into a headwind. Having been so excited about reaching the last watershed and the last hurdle and the last bit of downstream, to find out it was a) essentially a lake and b) any current was going to be negated by headwinds was a little disheartening.
Ok, a lot disheartening.
We studied the maps and previous routes and marked every potential campsite, telling ourselves to be patient and do what we could. One day at a time – just like the beginning.
The next day we managed nearly 40km and, after a lengthy search, stopped for the night on a fairly inhospitable rock in the middle of the river. The following day the winds only picked up more and we were soon at the boat launch in Stonecliffe having an early coffee and considering what to do. We met a few locals who asked if we’d stayed on the island? Well, we stayed on AN island… The one with the big lovely beach?? No, I guess we didn’t find that one… But we did find out that, illogical as it may seem, the Quebec shore was sometimes somehow more sheltered from South/easterlies than the Ontario side. We considered for a bit longer during which time one of the locals had been across to the other side in his boat to double check: Yep, strip about 30 feet wide, flat calm. So off we set. It was still hard work but we were happy.
We pulled up onto ‘Ryan’s beach’ where we knew there was a campground and looked for somewhere to check in. We got an encouraging wave from someone on the deck of the house nextdoor and, grabbing the wallet, headed up.
‘Hello hello! I’m Dan, this is Pam, join us will you have a beer? wine? Sorry about the lawn it’s just been seeded, sit down sit down’
So we did, thinking what friendly campsite owners! Eventually it came up in conversation:
‘No no we’re not the owners but, the thing is, you can camp right here on the beach in front of the house! Now go get set up, come back for a drink and we’ll look at some maps and the weather and you can have a shower if you want do you need to do any washing…?’
And so on. We spent the rest of the evening talking about the trip and what lay ahead and about summers in Ontario and winters in Pinawa (we paddled past there!) which seemed to be the wrong way round but …
Setting off the next day with a fresh supply of tea bags, knowledge about logging and dead heads (‘the ones that got stuck, that didn’t make it’… ‘Maybe we’re deadheads!?’ I gasped) and advice that the Ontario shore was off limits for about 20km due to first a nuclear research facility and then a military base, we headed to the Quebec side. However the winds had changed and we were soon forced to cross back over. Just at the moment an epic thunderstorm arrived… no choice but to land then! Government property or no – the lightening was all around us so we dived under some trees and set up the tarp to wait out the storm. Mike says that that storm was the first time I’ve ever looked remotely worried about lightening, but to be fair the ground was shaking…
Standard lunch: crackers, butter, cheese and marmite
Hiding under the tarp
We were soon on our way again but the winds were still building and my shoulders were struggling. We stopped for more tea. We’d camp as soon as possible but the ‘unexploded ordinance’ signs littered the whole shore. Luckily we found ‘Gibraltar’! An island set aside and maintained by local cottagers for river users. Beach, fire pit and even a long drop!
And we were within striking distance of Jeff and Joyce’s: incredibly, Ken and Diane (whose lawn we’d pitched up on on the Assiniboine back in Manitoba) had friends who lived right on the banks of the Ottawa river below Pembroke who they’d told of our adventure. They had emailed to offer food, shower, bed, logistics – whatever we needed. So we set off optimistic though Mike’s spirits (and everything else) were dampened at coffee time when he slipped under the boat… just as well we had somewhere to dry out…?
He saw the funny side… eventually
And so with a tail wind and some really fun rapids we made it to theirs for lunchtime, accepted a lift into town for a few supplies and a bed for the night. Back home anyone preparing for family coming for the holidays might be sent into paroxysms by the arrival of two smelly canoers but not these guys! They even made time for us to Skype Ken and Diane back in Manitoba. Total stars!
Jeff and Joyce!
It was hard to leave the next day and we had a choice to make – take the main Ottawa river middle channel with flow and rapids and 6 portages or take the left branching Calumet channel with little flow but just one dam to portage. Our house (tent?) was divided over this one and we debated all morning – my shoulders hoping for a little rest in some decent flow and mike’s shoulders resenting the thought of 6 portages… Ultimately we called on the advice of true_north who very diplomatically suggested we toss a coin. We chose the easier but less dramatic channel and found a clear area at the bottom of a farmers field for the night, cooked and set up the tent in the dark and collapsed into bed with mixed feelings about the next day’s paddle into a headwind.
The fact is we’re tired! Our shoulders are sore, our paddling cadence has dropped, and our ability to cope with set backs (and headwinds) is… diminished. We had hoped to return to the heady days of paddling 60+km, and now it looked likely that 30 would feel like a slog.
Ok, it doesn’t look windy but we stop in sheltered places!
The next day sort of dawned… it was hard to tell through the mist and rain, but we had a target in mind: we had been contacted by Stephen and Barb who have been following the blog and who have a cabin on this part of the river. They weren’t going to be there but were offering an outdoor shower, a refuge if we needed it, and, most importantly to Mike, a jar of Barbs homemade jam. SOLD!!
We had a short, wet paddle to Bryson where we had a long wet portage around the dam after which we stopped for coffee in a Wendy house near the put-in (apologies to the owners, no one was home and we were drenched!). We carried on to Portage du Fort where Mike astounded me by resisting a chance to get Poutine and we got a bit more info about the river below from a friendly local. With the weather getting worse we skipped lunch and headed straight to Stephen and Barbs.
Perfect size for me…!
Delighted at the thought of not having to put up a wet tent and with jam but no bread we decided to celebrate with pancakes for tea. Just pancakes. And the WHOLE jar of jam. And maple syrup. Unsurprisingly we were then comatose. We just had time for a chat with Stephen and Barb who called to see how we were doing and talk about the trip. Other people’s enthusiasm is really buoying us up at the moment and we went to bed happy.
Warm, for the first time all day!
A stunning spot. Thanks Stephen, Barb and Barbs unwitting brother!!!
The next day we were woken by thundering rain and gusty wind and once again, didn’t feel much like leaving… we discussed taking their pedalo to save my shoulders but decided it would be trickier on the portages… reluctantly we packed up and headed out.
The wind was finally behind us and really blowing so we made good progress down towards Braeside and Arnprior. The slightly sheltered Ontario side of the lake was mostly cottages and cabins and whilst looking for somewhere to make coffee we met the owners of Cotters cabin and were invited in for coffee and panettone and general merriment – it was thanksgiving weekend after all!
Carrying on we sped across the lake towards the portage at Le Barrage des Chats (True_north variant) and looked for the take out. Struggling to see any kind of trail we were getting frustrated but were lucky to come across a family walking along the barrier. Not only did they know exactly where we needed to go but they offered to help carry our gear! And so it was that this fairly rough rocky portage of about 1km was dispatched in under an hour due to many willing mules. They even smoothed the way with the lovely landowner (who was at that moment serving thanksgiving dinner…) at the other end! Henceforth we will remember it as the Lothian-Bryant portage.
Family Lothian Bryant
They also gave us a top tip: there was ample camping at the public pontoon at Quyon, a poutine bus up the road and a garage selling beers just opposite. Happy thanksgiving to us!! Our evening was further improved by the arrival of 3 lads who came careering down the road with a huge floppy Pike and spent 20 minutes trying various methods of resuscitation, sadly to no avail.
On the pontoon at Quyon: beer, stunning sunset and finishing off my poutine = happy Mike
We woke the next morning doubly deflated: the weather was appalling – headwinds and driving rain – a new low, and the mattress had sprung a new leak requiring urgent mid night reinflation. We set off feeling pretty despondent. We stopped once for snack bars, but being cold and wet (through even our paddling gear) we couldn’t face staying still long enough to make coffee. A few km further on we pulled onto a shaly beach and hid under some trees to have an early lunch and feel sorry for ourselves. Mike suggested ending the trip in Ottawa. We were genuinely that glum.
It was here that Eric found us: walking his dog Nougat he chanced first upon the canoe and then it’s miserable owners. Nougat took to Mike instantly (something about a family resemblance…) and Eric offered and then came back and insisted we at least come up to his house and get warm and dry. We didn’t think too long about it.
Within minutes of walking through the door we’d met Eric’s wife, Nadine, daughter Thalia and son Ulrich. We were dispatched for showers with a laundry bag and instructions to fill it. By the time we came back down our tent was up in the garage being fan dried and re-sealed, some of our gear was washing, some was drying in their tumble drier and some was next door in Eric’s parents drier. Nadine made hot chocolate and cookies, Mike and Eric found the mattress leak and fixed it and I got my dreadlocks combed through by Olivia (sister in law) and then plaited by Thalia. We felt like we’d stumbled on Eden. A dry tent!!!
The whole extended family urged us to join them for what was their thanksgiving dinner (even though Nadine had already packed us some as we insisted we should carry on) and stay the night. I accepted half a glass of wine and shortly after Mike relented too. We had the most lovely evening getting to know them all, talking adventures and the meaning of luxury and then slept like dead heads in a king size bed.
The next morning we woke refreshed, refuelled, and infected by Eric and Nadine’s enthusiasm and excitement. We were finally raring to get back on the river, and just a bit hopeful about paddling to Montreal.
Thanks go to: everyone!!! Thank you thank you!!! Your kindness and generosity has made a really tough week a happy memory.
We left the Sunset Inn and paddled the remaining 5km or so towards North Bay, coming off the water at a beach shortly before the main dock to get out of a bitterly cold northerly wind. Putting the boat on the trolley we headed through town, with a route planned to take us past a supermarket to pick up some things we couldn’t get the day before. This route also took us past a Saturday morning farmers market, though we resisted the urge to wheel the boat right down the middle of it. Eventually, after stocking up on Clif Bars, we found our way to the North Bay Canoe Club, our launching point onto Trout Lake. There were several canoes already out on the water, with a lesson clearly underway. We were hoping we might be able to sneak into the class and learn a thing or two, but were spotted unloading our gear by Jen and Otto who were instructing. They were teaching Jen’s Eco-Tourism students, and invited us to come and speak to them all about our trip. It was great fun chatting to this interested bunch and describing the highs and lows of our adventure. We reckon as eco trips go it’s probably not bad, once you discount the air travel to get us here.
Sadly we had to keep going though (but not before eating their delicious banana bread) and we left the beach and headed out across the lake. A small lake, not some monster with attitude! What a joy! And we had a tail wind, so we covered the 11km to the Mattawa River, and on to Turtle Lake, with ease. The Portage de la Mauvaise Musique through to Pine Lake was less easy to find, but after lifting over a beaver dam, with the water seemingly flowing the wrong way, we found it. A short paddle, another short portage and paddle on into the twilight and we camped for the night on a low spit of land, listening to coyotes howling across the lake.
No swimming, no camping, and absolutely no martinis…
We woke the next morning and looked out into….nothing. The fog was so thick we couldn’t even see the lake, and we were camped only 5m from it. We got on the water and took a bearing, heading for the far shore. This was easy. Following the edge of the lake towards a portage you know to be above a significant waterfall was a little more nerve wracking, but the waterfall turned out to have a dam above it and the portage was again obvious and well marked. It was a rocky path though, with a particularly high step our friend Paul described as a “hernia maker”! Not this time, but I’d be nervous if I was 10 years older. This second half of the Mattawa turned out to be great fun, with numerous short and runnable rapids and some larger falls and a dam, which need to be portaged. We made great time down this pretty, playful little river, which is lined with cliffs after the rapids giving a wild-west canyon feel. It also passes the Port de l’Enfer, one of only small number of aboriginal mines that go underground, though we didn’t stop to investigate – next time Paul!
Waiting for the fog to lift after portaging around the Talon Chutes
At 4.30pm, in the evening sunlight and falling wind, we paddled out onto the Ottawa River, which will take us all the way to Montreal. Quebec City, or Montreal to finish the trip? That question has been on our minds for longer than we’ve been on the water here, and we’ve discussed it many times in the last few months. Quebec City is where the St Lawrence becomes tidal, but there’s at least one more time zone before you actually reach the Atlantic. Montreal is where the Voyageurs stopped, unloading their 3.5 tonne cargo from their “Montreal Canoes” and sending them onwards to Europe by ship. This sense of history combined with the lateness of the season, our tired and variously broken bodies, and little appetite to dodge tankers on the St Lawrence, means we will be finishing in Montreal. We also might get to make a short trip to Newfoundland, where my (Mike) late grandmother was born, 100 years ago this month.
So, just 500km of downstream paddling to go then. And the Ottawa is a river, right…?
We left our final Lake Huron camp shortly after dawn in a gorgeous flat calm, painfully aware of our limited supply of wine gums. As we dodged the rocks and islands and turned into the bay marking the start of our journey up the French River we both felt quite emotional. We will miss paddling on these great expanses of water, that feeling of insignificance as you look out into the deep blue yonder, and the satisfaction of reflecting on hard fought miles, sat by the camp fire on a lump of smooth, flat granite. But we were soooo ready for some flat water and a change of scene, and as we headed for the old voyageur channel and a porcupine swam across the river in front of us, we knew we were going to enjoy this.
The French River, so named due to its association with the French explorers in the 17th century, flows 110km from Lake Nipissing to Georgian Bay. The mouth is a maze of narrow channels, some more paddleable than others, and our research had shown several routes up it. We opted for the old voyageur channel due to the sense of history, but soon found it was probably easier getting down it than up. An atmospheric narrow rock channel spat water at us quicker than expected and several attempts to get up it all resulted in pinballing off the walls and returning to the same safe eddy. After 20 minutes of this we decided it wouldn’t work, and Cas was despatched up the rock wall on the right with the painter to find a safe place to line from whilst I paddled hard from the back. Meanwhile I put my buoyancy aid on…of course I trust her implicitly, but you can never be too careful… Uneventfully we finally got the boat up and headed upstream, with a lively discussion of how we manage stressful situations…
Checking the route
After a short haul over some rocks to avoid a small shelf, this discussion was (fortunately, and unknowingly) interrupted by the arrival of another canoe heading downstream. Suntanned, sinewy, bearded, and wearing tilley hats I was immediately envious of, these guys clearly knew what they were doing (their first impression of us was of “rank amateurs” – yes guys, we read your CCR post, and we probably agree!). We exchanged pleasantries in passing, and they spun around as we said we’d been out for four months! We are quite enjoying telling people this now, although it seems a bit rediculous every time we say it. Peter and Martin are brothers from the Toronto area who still paddle together regularly, but had never paddled the French before. We loved chatting to this jovial pair, who clearly have so much experience to share. We were extremely grateful to learn of some shorter portages on the Ottawa than the ones provided by the Ontario hydro guys, and shared stories of paddles past. With their canoe weighing 15lb more now than when they bought it, it’s fair to say their stories were gnarlier than ours!
French River sunset
The flows moderated for the rest of the day as we happily headed upstream, rewarding ourselves with a slightly early finish (5.30pm) in the blistering heat. We even enjoyed a tail wind all the way. The next day saw more easy, beautiful upstream miles, other than for a bit of lining up Little Flat Rapids and an exciting entrance to the portage at the Recollet Falls. The day finished watching a beautifully, and reassuringly, healthy looking bear picking its way between the berry bushes under the autumnal trees along the shoreline. It managed to stay pretty cool and calm for the GoPro, but scarpered as soon as it was off camera! Day three was portage day, with 3 boat-on-head walks and a few drags and lines which were all despatched by noon and saw us with just the dam to get around before the home stretch to the lake. Deciding to use the trolley, we ignored the marked portage route and merrily wheeled past a “No Trespassing” sign on our way to the hydro station, where we reckoned we could get back in. The one car that passed us perfectly demonstrated the art of turning a blind eye and we re-loaded and searched for a campsite. Unfortunately our map for this section appears less reliable and the first one was definitely an ex-site. The second one was also imaginary, but a small island nearby provided a great little spot, complete with bench and fire pit. We were both exhausted. We’d noticeably lost weight again in the last few days paddling upstream and hadn’t had a break since The Soo, so the next day was to be short. But forecast building winds necessitated an early start. At first light we were on the water. Two minutes later the monsoon arrived, and stayed with us for most of the 15km we did to get us up on to Lake Nipissing.
Making bannock on our little island
The island didn’t have any fire wood, so someone had to get some
Lake Nipissing. Our last big (ish) lake. We’d been warned that this lake was shallow, meaning short steep waves in the style of the Lakes of Manitoba. I was keen to get across, by any means, and as soon as possible. Cas was more rational (!), and knew we needed some time out, so we found a nice little island and settled down to watch the winds build. We also had good cell service, and found out about the arrival of our latest nephew, Turbo Teddy, who arrived into this world on September 24th over in BC. We also managed to reply to a chap called Paul who had contacted us from North Bay. Paul Chivers had found out about us through the myccr pages and got in touch with offers of help regarding our portage through from Lake Nipissing to Trout Lake. Paul was instrumental in re-instating the La Vase Portages, the original voyageur route through the high ground between the two lakes. Rather ashamedly, we had to say we weren’t intending on following this historic route as we needed to re-supply in North Bay itself, and have a portage trolley which makes our lives so much easier. However, we were still keen to meet, so made plans to see him in North Bay.
Another French River sunset…
After our partial day of rest we headed out into what was meant to be a lightish northwesterly and slightly choppy seas. But Nipissing was in cahoots with her larger brethren and delivered a thoroughly rough morning and shouts of “you guys are mad” from one of the cottages we bounced past. Paddling deep into a large bay (the Garmin track is wrong, we did not cut this one at the mouth!) gave us some shelter, and the wind dropped early afternoon allowing us some respite. We figured this was the evening lull come early, and my frustration at the wind and paddling large lakes in general meant we decided to cut across the bottom corner and make for Sunset Park, around 6km away. With some hard paddling all went well, but the wind got up again with one kilometre to go making the last bit a little more uncomfortable. But our boat remained trusty and we limped in to the shore. Realising how much we both hurt we headed for the Sunset Inn, and a nice soft bed. We managed to meet Paul for a beer later at the nearby Churchill’s pub and thoroughly enjoyed a couple of hours chatting with him. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of paddling in the local area and helped enormously with our route planning down the Mattawa.
Looking out the next morning onto a cold, wet and windy scene, we decided a day off was warranted, and re-supplied, did some laundry and prepared ourselves for the last leg of the trip.
Paul, for being such great company at the end of a hard day, and for your advice on the Mattawa.
The lovely owners of the Sunset Inn for their warm welcome and enthusiasm!
The Great Lakes, Superior and Huron, have dominated our lives for the last five weeks. And they’ve dominated our thoughts for much longer, as we always knew they would be a key factor in the success of the trip. They have been beautiful and brutal in equal measure, have offered much more to the paddler than we had expected, but taken their toll. At 9am this morning, both physically and mentally exhausted but ultimately relieved and delighted, we paddled off Georgian Bay on Lake Huron and into the French River.
Dawn from the tent
The last few days on Lake Huron have been characterised by wind, and a constant feeling we were always trying to paddle to the source of it. It has been pretty much continually in our faces. We left our little island (of the panoramic pictures on the last post) at 2pm, when the wind looked like it was going to drop. After paddling 3.5km it was clear it wasn’t, so we found refuge on a cabin pontoon whilst the owners were out fishing. By 5pm we were bored, and decided to try again, sneaking a few more kilometres along the coast before dark, and being treated to a faint aurora away to the north. Up at 5.30am again, as has become the norm, we headed off before the mandatory afternoon break hiding from the wind. An evening limp east, with two or three further stops, finally found us on the edge of the Bay of Islands, our target for the day. We are still managing 30-40km a day despite the wind, it’s just tougher and far more frustrating, whilst still being utterly stunning. But dawn rewarded us with a beautiful sunrise paddle through the islands as we headed for Georgian Bay. A family of otters were out enjoying the early morning calm too, porpoising and playing in front of us, until they noticed we were there.
Daily hygiene in the Bay of Islands
Our target for the day was Killarney, a fishing village in the north channel, around 40km away. Fine, we thought, if we don’t get stuck. This day the wind came even earlier, and just after noon we were hunkered in a bay cursing the lake and Cas swearing she’d never come here again. We sat, and we read, and we drank tea, and we waited….and waited…until at 4.30pm, with falling wind and little hope of reaching the village, we set off. We paddled hard for the portage, which skips across a long peninsula saving over 15km of paddling, and got there after 6pm having surprised a second family of otters out fishing. A portage, and then 5km paddle to Killarney. Phew. Maybe we can do this… At 7.45pm, having raced the rapidly encroaching dark, the flashes and rumbles of an impending storm (which turned out to be truly epic!), and the closing time of the fish’n’chip shop, we pulled up outside Herbert’s Fisheries and ran inside, just as the heavens opened. And they served beer. We could not have been happier. Having shared tales of travels with the staff, and probably slightly alarmed some fellow diners with our table manners, we found a bed for the night at the Killarney Mountain Lodge. They also had a bar, with whisky, and a bloke from Derbyshire playing covers.
We don’t know how far these two paddled…
Showered, slightly hungover, and resupplied with ibuprofen from the local store (for our tiring bodies, not our heads), we paddled off into the fog the next morning. We knew it was 30km in a straight line to the French River, but more like 40 via a sheltered channel that would keep us out of the wind and allow is to make more steady progress. We briefly rued taking the longer route, but it was an absolute dream paddling on flat water all day and escaping the wind. It also turned out a howling south westerly had been blowing most of the day, so by staying on the main coast we would have gone nowhere. We met some fellow paddlers from Toronto and paddled with them for a while, discussing paddling and politics, and defending our paddling style! And finally, having battled the wind back towards the main lake for the final 10km and realising our hopes of reaching the French that day were being dashed by the wind and swell, we arrived at an incredible archipelago and possibly our best campsite of the trip.
Sunset on our Great Lakes paddling
Thanks goes to:
Herbert’s Fisheries, for the best meal we could have wished for!
Killarney Mountain Lodge for accepting two very smelly paddlers.
Our drive down to ‘The Soo’ was beautiful but sad as we both quietly observed all the majesty of this part of Superior’s shoreline, knowing that we were missing out. Neither of us said ‘I wish we were paddling’, but we thought it.
The drive down…
We spent the next day racing around completing various bits of admin, including several hours at a local library and a visit to a lawyers office, and shopped for the resupply. Dropping the car off at the airport and walking to the campground was almost like being back at the beginning again: so, just us and the boat then? That’s good. Pre-departure celebratory meal: Moose sausages from Evelyn and lots of salad!
We started from the Point de Chenes campground so that we could wave a proper farewell to Superior and then paddled towards the city. Paddling through towns is always a strange experience – you get a unique viewpoint, usually taking in the very best and very worst of what a city is. In this case the St Mary’s river took us from the tropical blues of the edge of Superior into the murk of the industrial area (though, being a fan of big machinery, I was quite happy passing so close to the cranes and barges and diggers).
We also had to share our passage with some other vessels, this being part of the main shipping route from Superior to the sea. This gave us the chance to wonder a) how long it takes an enormous freighter on the horizon to catch up to you (not long) and b) how much wake will it produce when it passes (not much). One of the ships was called ‘Presque isle’ which I thought was a funny pun (it was a monster) but it turns out is the name of a place not far from here.
Taking the old channel on the Canadian side brought us to the Sault St Marie canal lock. We phoned the number on the sign to ask if we could come through: ‘Yes of course you can, and if you look over your shoulder you’ll see one of the big tour boats, let them in first and then pull along the left side’. And so we did! The drop of about 30′ gave the tourists on the boat plenty of time to ignore their guide and ask us lots of questions instead. We got a friendly honk from the captain as we pulled away and many many good wishes.
From here we were technically on Lake Huron, although the bays and side lakes have their own names too. It was lovely paddling with a gentle tail wind and some sailboats for company as we left the city. We made for another formal campsite on a sandy beach and checked in. It’s getting late in the season now and the campsites are, for the most part, quietening down and emptying out. Not this one! This was a Friday night and the seasonaires were up for one final fling. With music vibrating through the ground our earplugs were useless: I’m afraid to say at 3am we complained to security. At 5am we packed up and left. This was going to be a tough day!
Dawn paddling: one (of the few) good reason(s) to get up early
We had planned to be up early anyway to make the most of the dawn lull in the wind and we were rewarded with a lightly misted, silky smooth lake. We paddled out onto Joseph lake and crossed to St Josephs Island, making for Richards Landing. One of our luxuries is a cup of proper coffee every day, made using an Aeropress. Usually this requires disposable filters but we had brought 3 stainless steel reusable ones with us. The trouble is, they eventually get a bit clogged and now we were onto our last one. Some of our research in the Soo was to source a replacement filter and evidently the Island Roasters were our nearest supplier. It was going to be a bit of a detour but it was worth it for coffee! We arrived at the marina and bolted up onto the Main Street. Arriving at the post code we looked around: no sign of a coffee roasters… we popped into a local cafe: ‘ooh, lemme think, they’re away over on A road – not far, 20 minute drive’. Disaster!! Mike looked so disappointed I had to buy him a burger to cheer him up. And a cinnamon bun. And whilst we were here we might as well grab a couple of beers…
When you have burger for lunch you get bread and jam for tea (which, funnily enough, is actually a treat!)
We feel like summer has found us again and the water temperature is considerably warmer than Superior, so we’re out of our dry gear and back to paddling in t shirts which is a treat. This also means we’re back to sunscreen every 2 hours and bug spray in the evenings… hey ho!
After Richards Landing was a busy pleasure-boat-filled section of bridges and narrows all made more complicated by the head winds which had built through the day. Frustrated, we stopped for tea on a tiny island before carrying on to find a campsite.
Waiting for the wind… tough times…
After both our delays in Thunder Bay and Marathon we have set out with renewed vigour and determination and paddled hard in some challenging conditions. Our measure of the weather is either ‘paddle-able’ or ‘not’, and if we’re paddling we have distances we expect to cover whether there’s a following breeze or a gale in our faces: we just paddle harder. We’ve both also been changing and tweaking our paddling technique throughout the trip, mostly with good results. But it seems the more aggressive stroke I had adopted for rough conditions was taking its toll: now MY shoulders we sore!
We had another early start as we headed towards Thessalon, and made good progress until we rounded the point and got fully exposed to the winds. Again. We stopped for a break on an island to wait for the evening lull which allowed us to carry on a few more km and get closer to our target for the day. Pitching a tent on a lump of solid granite is one of Mike’s favourite challenges and he has an eye for a thermarest-sized level patch and a knack for creative guying. Something else I have learnt on this trip!
The lake has become quieter and increasingly pretty as we head east and wangle our way through islands, quite often protected from the swell by a sort of reef just off shore, and with lovely coves and sandy beaches to dive onto when the wind is too much. We may also have taken a brief trip into Blind River in search of ice cream… Mike and I are at an impasse here: whilst several fairly everyday things constitute a treat on the trip (fresh milk, salad, bread) Mike maintains that Ice Cream is (or at least should be) a staple.
Actually our main staple on the trip is rice – with Dahl, tuna or in a Risotto. Drinking the broth of rice cooked in bouillon with garlic and ginger – waste not want not!
Yesterday, after a night disturbed by sore shoulders and building wind and swell we were slow to set off. We were determined to paddle anyway, wanting to maintain the momentum we feel we’ve regained. As it turned out we had one of the loveliest days paddling of the whole trip: starting with a Moose grunting at us from the misty shore. The lake as we approach Bay of Islands and Little Current is stunning and is going some way to making up for what we missed out on on Superior.
Afternoon tea stop
We also saw that our comrades-in-canoes Mike Ranta, Spitzii and David Jackson were windswept again on Lake Superior. At one stage on their trip they had been weather bound for 40/108 days and we can’t believe the weather this year, their bad luck nor their incredible patience and humour dealing with it. Whenever we get signal we check where they are and it’s been great to know they’re out there too, but we have to admit a sense of relief that we bypassed the second half of the big Lake.
But right now it is us who are windswept, stuck on a tiny island that barely registers on the map: there are worse places to be…
Thank you to whoever mentioned us on myccr this week – it was an invaluable resource for us in planning this trip and we feel honoured to be on the forum!!
Return of the favourite piece of kit: We managed to find another Luminaid in Sault Ste Marie. Hooray for the Luminaid!!
Happy Birthday to our nephew Rufus who was TWO this week! TWO!!!