Following A Fur Trade Canoe Route

-- by John W. Lentz

Sycamore Islander, September 2003

Map of Ontario showing the Missinaibi.
Our take-out at Mattice is indicated.
Taking a brief respite from far northern canoeing, my paddling partner, Bob Schaefer from Mt. Airy, and two Canadians, Fred Gaskin and George Dobbie, tackled Ontario’s upper Missinaibi River this past July. Missinaibi is generally rendered from Ojibway as “pictured waters”, a reference to ancient rock paintings concentrated beside Missinaibi Lake near its headwaters. We did not visit the paintings due to adverse winds on the lake. However, the river still held powerful attractions as a historic fur trade route connecting interior trapping grounds with Hudson Bay, besides being a waterway that still existed much as the early European explorers and traders had found it. Our objective was the town of Mattice, 130 miles downstream.

After driving to a campground on Missinaibi Lake about eight miles from its outlet, a stiff south-west wind quelled any desires to slog against it for a visit to the rock paintings. We went with the flow and some flow it was. Scudding along toward the end of the lake, a difference in our two canoes became apparent. My svelte, new 16’4” Mad River Kevlar boat had all it could handle, but persistent bailing kept us dry. Fred was paddling his well-massaged, 20 year-old yellow Old Town Voyageur. It was 18’ and weighed in at around 90 lbs. This greater capacity meant “old yellow” was carrying an extra pack, yet it also had a slightly shallower hull.

As the curlers built up near the lakehead, Fred fell a bit behind, then shouted, “We’re swamping!” I’ve always been apprehensive about mid-lake rescues since any potential life-saving boat is also loaded. It was our good fortune that shallows appeared to let the Canadians jump out and frantically scoop water from their boat.

Bob Schaefer and I pass a large beaver lodge
in the Peterbell Marsh.
“Pictured waters” River greeted us with a runnable Class II rapid, then a fine sandy beach campsite. Early next morning, we drifted by a feeding cow moose that was in no mood to hasten off at our appearance. When she finally trotted into the bush, it was a marvel how that massive body almost floated over dense underbrush on her elongated, spindly legs. But the bush itself left something to be desired. Although the immediate shoreline was an Ontario park, just inland telltale spacing between trees, along with an interior network of trails on our maps, were indications of intense logging.

The third day it poured all afternoon. Warm air and water, as well as active paddling, held off hypothermia, but by evening I was getting pretty tired of the whole thing. Around Washington few of us are subjected getting soaked in such an intense deluge. There is always shelter somewhere. When it happened on the Missinaibi, I felt an increasing frustration at being unable to turn off the spigots. The feeling eased when Fred and George produced a great steak dinner (we had a large, ice-filled cooler).

With the front passed, we paddled through Peterbell Marsh, a seven-mile lowland stretch where beaver lodges seemed to compete for bankside frontage. We saw a few of their residents along with the playful, inquisitive otter.

Greenhill Rapids was one of the more challenging stretches of whitewater on our route since it was not an obvious portage, but required some judgment to negotiate. The action started with a frothing Class III cascade for half a mile where we chose to line/walk boats down the bank rather than commit to the center. At a mid-rapid “dog’s hind leg” bend a broad, smooth rock beckoned for lunch. High on lunch rock, we scouted the lower rapid and pronounced it runnable - successfully as things turned out.

Not a northern yard sale, but our campsite near the end
of Devil Shoepack Rapids during the drying out period
after the yellow canoe swamped.
This was not always the case. A few days later, Bob and I had just negotiated the mile-long Devil Shoepack Rapids, and were chatting at the end about its lack of punch. After a while we became anxious about “old yellow” so, with some unease, began working our way upstream. Bob pressed ahead and found the others reloading after having broached near the top of the rapid. It had been a long struggle to lever the big Old Town from the offending rock and most of their gear was soaked. There was a unanimous vote to camp nearby at the end of the portage trail. This proved worthwhile as next morning we located George’s map case high and dry on a rock about 100 yards downstream of the dunk site.

Of the few parties encountered, the most interesting was Roger Staats and his son, Josh. As Mohawk native people from the Six Nations Reserve in southern Ontario, they seemed completely at home on the Missinaibi. Both were expert canoeists, and Roger seemed able to catch walleye or northern pike at every campsite. Over his evening campfire we traded stories about past and projected travels.

The river was now in a “pool-drop” phase where sections of flat water alternated with stunning falls where the only safe passage was a portage trail. Fortunately, all were clearly marked and none over 500 yards long. The work on those trails was compensated for by wondering how many natives with moccasin-clad feet and European traders had preceded us over this precise ground as the country was being opened up.

The legendary explorers Radison and Groseillers, often considered the founders of the fur trade, traveled down the Missinaibi as far back as 1662, launching an industry that continued for almost 300 years. By contrast, recreational canoeing only took off within the last 50 years or so. Hardly time for we newcomers to make a real impression on the path. When we pulled ashore at Mattice after nine days on the river, there was a pleasant surprise. At the top of Devil Shoepack Rapid, Fred had tossed his paddle into the yellow canoe. It skittered off the gunwale, into the rapid, and we watched helplessly as it disappeared downstream. We searched eddies for miles ahead, but no luck. As we were setting up in the town campground, two brothers from Toronto took out and asked if we were missing something. To Fred’s surprise, they produced his paddle!

With survivability like that, I think he’ll take it on the next trip.

John Lentz has been a Club member for 30 years and is a past Canoeing Supervisor. Since 1962 he has taken 18 wilderness canoe trips in Canada and 2 in Siberia. In April 1985, he gave the presentation at the Club’s Centennial Meeting.