Hap Wilson and Kevin Callan recount their trips along six of Ontario’s best river runs for wildlife, unspoiled habitat and breathtaking vistas

Ames Creek

Ames Creek Valley is in the south-central section of Lady Evelyn-Smoothwater Wilderness Park in Temagami.

Among Temagami’s 1,300 ancient land and water trails, still referred to by the local Teme Augama Anishinabek as the nastawgan, are some of the world’s oldest, intact Aboriginal route systems. Little-known Ames Creek is one of the canoe routes that served as a critical link, shortening the distance between family territories, tribal gatherings and hunting and fishing grounds.

Between sections of Ames Creek, the portage running south from the Lady Evelyn-Smoothwater Wilderness Park at Florence Lake marks the height of land where all other waters flow east and north to the Montreal and Ottawa rivers, while Ames Creek flows south to the Sturgeon River and Lake Nipissing watershed. The Ames is unique for many reasons, in particular its geophysical alignment along a magnificent escarpment. Abrupt 100- to 150- metre cliffs give the creek a dramatic visage, like something one might find in the mountains of British Columbia.

The creek canoe route is a modest 10 kilometres long, connecting the popular fly-in destination of Florence Lake, at the south-central end of the park, with the Pinetorch Conservation Reserve and routes that will either take you south to the Yorston and Sturgeon rivers or east to Lake Temagami.

The Ames is considered a “moderately difficult” Temagami route because of the 20 percent portage ratio; shallow ponds, gravel riffles and beaver dams define the creek’s unruly character. Late fall is the best time to enjoy its charms: the abundant wildlife, seclusion and diverse aquatic ecology. But don’t loiter during freeze-up in late October as I did once, having stayed a couple of days too late in the Pinetorch Lake system, only to find that my route back along the Ames had completely frozen over.

Summer forays along the Ames reveal its verdant richness: deep sphagnum wetlands, and shores lined with bright yellow marsh marigold, bog laurel and the carnivorous purple pitcher plant. Moose, otter, beaver, mink, osprey and heron inhabit the area. Guiding a trip in 1986, I even caught sight of the endangered and highly elusive eastern cougar.

In the fall, the landscape turns to saffron-coloured brilliance. Tamaracks erupt in blazing, golden plumage, and the surrounding wetlands are bedecked in cottongrass, a stark, white contrast to the green pineland backdrop. Ames Creek is a must-see for the obsessed birder – grebes, mergansers, kingfishers and the unk-a-chunk booming voices of bitterns are all here – or the naturalist with a penchant for adventure.

Shadow River

Shadow River is located at the very north end of Lake Rosseau in Muskoka.

The Shadow River is one of the most wonderful natural curiosities of the Muskoka district; it empties its water into the bay on the shores of which Port Rosseau stands. Its course can be explored inland by boats for about five miles, the stream varying throughout from twenty to sixty feet in width. Tall elms and ranks of tapering pines line the banks, and below them the sedgy shores, heavy with foliated ferns and wreaths of moss, overhang the edge. The surface is as motionless as glass and everything is duplicated in marvelous detail, each leaf and branch having its reflected counterpart even more distinct than it appears itself.”
Muskoka and the Northern Lakes of Canada, 1886

Tekahionwake, better known as Pauline Johnson, the celebrated Six Nations poet, spent much of her time paddling the Shadow River in the late 1800s. The river possesses a calm, passive quality, and it is easy to understand Johnson’s particular fondness for it.

Shadow River is predominantly a wetland ecosystem, broken up by bands of open bedrock. April is the best time to paddle the upper Shadow, as it usually runs high at this time. At peak flow, the river is barely a canoe length in width but deep enough to float a boat. The reflections on the river of the overhanging oaks evoke a kind of lightness that has been the subject of much prose, poetry, photography and testimonials for well over a century.

For the more adventurous, the upper three kilometers of the river provide a mix of meandering creek wetland and Precambrian rock outcrops, with some of Muskoka’s most picturesque chutes and cascades. The lower section can be paddled up- or downstream without difficulty at any time of the season. Look for beaver activity here, great blue herons along weedy shorelines, osprey circling overhead, several species of ducks, Canada geese, muskrats and deer. Mostly second-growth hemlock and pine fringe the shoreline; a generous ground cover of wintergreen, serviceberry and ferns blankets the upper river landscape, and maple and oak form a canopy over the lower course. For a casual, family outing (which I undertake as soon as the ice is off Lake Rosseau), the Shadow is easily accessed from the beach in the village of Rosseau. As Pauline Johnson wrote, you will find yourself floating as “a bubble in the pearly air … midway ’twixt earth and heaven.”

Gammon River

The Gammon River is located in Woodland Caribou Provincial Park, west of Red Lake.

The vast area that lies north and west of Lake Superior and extends to Lake Winnipeg is known as Le Petit Nord. In 1948, the Ontario government set aside the Caribou Game Preserve, the border region adjoining Manitoba. Woodland Caribou Park, as it is now called, became part of the provincial park system in 1983. Encompassing nearly half a million hectares, it is Ontario’s fifth largest provincial park.

Within the park are numerous pictographs of national renown, one of the largest woodland caribou herds south of the Hudson Bay Lowlands, excellent fisheries and pristine wilderness. This “prairie boreal” landscape (the transitional phase from prairie grassland in the west to the spruce-covered Canadian Shield in the northeast) is similar to that of Manitoba’s Atikaki Provincial Park, and the two parks share extensive river ecosystems.

Woodland Caribou Park contains two main watersheds, the Bloodvein and the Gammon, the Gammon having a larger drop in elevation, mostly around scenic chutes and falls, and the Bloodvein having more rapids. In 1974 and 1987, wildfires raged through much of the Gammon highlands, razing more than 600 square kilometres of forest. Because of the region’s thin soil, regeneration is extremely slow. The boreal forest of Woodland Caribou Park is a fire-dependent ecosystem in which all living things evolve in response to the frequency and intensity of wildfires. Among the scabrous dwarf spruce and juniper along the first stretch of the Gammon River landscape, you can easily see wildlife such as moose, as well as eagle nests and a hodgepodge of glacial debris, with boulders, or “erratics,” strewn across the earth like pieces in some terrestrial board game.

The most notable features of the Gammon are the rock barrens and exposed granite cliffs. Ribbons of moss and lichen form a patchwork in the crevices where scant nutrients have collected from rain wash, along with ground pine, hooked spur violet, serviceberry and juniper.

Endangered bald eagles that feed on the walleye, pike and channel catfish are common here. By the Manitoba border, white pelicans circle overhead like children’s kites, and you might glimpse a Forster’s tern, a species whose range now goes as far east as Red Lake. More than 91 species of birds have been recorded within the upper Gammon watershed, and up to 39 species of mammals. In this wild region, lynx, martens, fishers, otters, muskrats, beavers, moose, timber wolves and black bears roam. Fellow inhabitants include uncommon species such as Franklin’s ground squirrel, heather vole, woodland caribou and, some say, the endangered eastern cougar. For four years, I paddled and explored the wild rivers in that area, rarely setting eyes on another traveller. Camped out on Caroll Lake, I listened to the wolves howl and felt the vastness of my surroundings.

The Gammon can be part of a larger circle loop, as indicated on the Woodland Caribou Park canoe route map. This would include the Haggart River, with its time-worn and glacially scarred landscape signifying a story only Mother Earth could tell.

Mississagua River

The Mississagua River runs through the bottom half of the Kawartha Highlands, beginning at Mississagua Lake and ending at Lower Buckhorn Lake.

I spend a lot of time paddling. I make my living writing about and leading canoe trips. But in my “off time,” I frequently find myself floating down the 15-kilometre Mississagua River. It is a perfect weekend getaway, and happens to be close to my home in Peterborough. But that’s not why I paddle it. Peterborough is just south of the Kawartha Highlands, an area with many other places to canoe.

Despite being surrounded by cottage development, the landscape that embraces the Mississagua River is unexpectedly wild. The river harbours an abundance of wildlife, especially songbirds. On every trip, my bird list increases by several more species, including one or two that are vulnerable to human disturbance.

The last time I drifted down the Mississagua, a prairie warbler fluttered across the bow of my canoe, so close I could see the distinct black line that cuts through the yellow around its eye. I spotted a cerulean warbler as it sang high up in the forest canopy behind my tent site. Both birds are rare. It is not unusual, while sitting around camp, to see and hear bird species typical of parts farther north – dark-eyed juncos, black-backed woodpeckers, gray jays, Swainson’s thrushes and Lincoln’s sparrows – as well as southern species like the eastern towhee and the yellow-throated vireo. At nightfall, I sat by the fire and watched and listened to a multitude of whippoorwills, a species in decline in cottage areas – except on the magical Mississagua.

That the river winds through the “rock barrens” of the Kawarthas may be why so many birds favour this place. The landscape is made up of open ridge tops capped with hundred-year-old red oak and sugar maple trees and provides habitat for the five-lined skink, Ontario’s only lizard, which is why the Kawartha Highlands are protected.

Through the towering scenery, the river tumbles over granite and cuts deep into rocky gorges. As it happens, the Mississagua is the one portion of the 35,000-hectare Kawartha Highlands Signature Site that seems to get the least attention from paddlers. Perhaps this is because of the dozen or so portages marked on the route map for the river. Few of them are necessary, however, most of the fast water being of either the pool and drop variety, with short carries, or shallow swifts that can easily be run.

Years ago, the Mississagua cast its spell, turning me into a lifelong river runner. After a weekend spent paddling it, I began planning more and more river trips, often in the far north. But still, I am drawn back to the Mississagua at least half a dozen times a year, to where my devotion to river paddling began and where river tripping holds its greatest charms.

Bonnechere River

The Bonnechere River winds through the northern portion of the Madawaska Highlands, between the Ottawa River and the southeast corner of Algonquin Provincial Park.

Belted kingfishers swoop across the Bonnechere. The pileated woodpecker’s hysterical call echoes throughout the backwoods. American bitterns sing out from patches of sedge where the river widens, and an assortment of warblers – yellow-rumped, common yellowthroat, black-throated blue, black-throated green, magnolia, Blackburnian, Cape May – flutter across the bow.

But paddlers beware: the Bonnechere River is managed as part of two separate parks. The upper portion of the river is in the southeast corner of Algonquin Provincial Park, and the lower stretch is under the protection of Bonnechere Waterway Park. I’ve paddled the length of the river and can attest that the Algonquin portion is a nightmare, a place where I did more walking, portaging and lifting over logjams than paddling. The voyage was a trial, not an adventure, and I vowed never to repeat it. But the section of the river that exits Algonquin and flows into Round Lake is a much more manageable route that I’ve returned to many times.

It is also the more scenic of the two routes, part of the Ottawa Valley watershed, with rich, forested uplands towering above the basin floor and an abundance of bird life. A fascinating transition zone has formed where the two parks meet, a blend of Algonquin’s northern landscape of pine and sand and a more typically southern landscape of red and silver maple rooted along muddy, meandering banks. This zone is almost savannah-like, a place where spruce trees and columbine give way to birch trees and white trillium. In a five-minute paddle downriver from the put-in, the calls of boreal chickadees and gray jays – species associated with the north – are replaced by those of great-crested flycatchers, northern flickers and gray catbirds.

During my most memorable canoe trip on the Bonnechere, I spotted a moose cow and calf, a white-tailed deer and a family of otters all sharing the same bay of the river one early morning. After a few strokes around the next bend, I heard the faint whimpering of baby beavers inside a gigantic lodge. As I drifted closer to the stick-and-mud structure, the mother emerged and swam directly under my canoe. She surfaced not far from the stern and loudly slapped her tail against the water. I was awestruck.

The Bonnechere is also rich in human history. Basin Depot, a historical site located a few kilometres inside the boundary of Algonquin Provincial Park where this canoe trip begins, contains the ruins of an old shantytown loggers inhabited between 1850 and 1913. A well-constructed log home built by the McLachlin Lumber Company in 1892 is still intact, making it the oldest standing building in the Algonquin region. The house served as a hospital during a diphtheria epidemic in 1911, and at least seven gravesites hidden in a nearby poplar grove remain as signs of the outbreak.

Oxtongue River

The Oxtongue River flows across the southwest boundary of Algonquin Provincial Park and runs along the north side of highway 60.

More than a hundred years ago, the Oxtongue River was a busy place. In 1826, Lieutenant Henry Briscoe became the first recorded white person to travel it. He was in search of a military route between Lake Huron and the Ottawa River when the Government of Canada grew concerned over Americans attacking the shipping areas along the southern border. Government surveyors Alexander Sheriff and David Thompson also travelled the Oxtongue in 1829 and 1853 to map a possible navigational canal. Alexander Murray, the first chief ranger of Algonquin, followed in their footsteps. Tom Thomson, a friend of the founders of the Group of Seven, who died three years before its formation in 1920, camped along the Oxtongue during his first visit to the park in 1912.

Today, you would be hard-pressed to spot another paddler travelling the river, especially the lower half that exits the park’s southwest corner and forms a separate waterway park. Why? Perhaps because of the river’s close proximity to Highway 60 (traffic can be heard faintly along some sections) or the assumption that Algonquin Provincial Park has more than this to offer. In fact, the Oxtongue River is a perfect weekend retreat.

I spend three or four weekends per season running the Oxtongue. Sometimes I go there to photograph moose – the river is one of the best places in the park to see them – but mostly I travel the river in early summer when it is almost dreamlike. I’ve spent an entire day floating on a gentle current, listening to the brook trout slurp bugs from the water’s surface or counting the number of wood turtles sunbathing on half-submerged logs. Often, I simply gawk at all the damselflies and dragonflies flitting along the river’s edge. Algonquin contains just under 100 recorded dragonfly species, the majority of which can be seen along the Oxtongue River. Chalk-fronted corporal dragonflies and Hagen’s bluet damselfies inhabit the calm bays of the river. The translucent, sapphire blue insects hover around my head as I paddle, snacking on bothersome mosquitoes and deerflies. I can usually spot the provincially rare zebra clubtail soaring over clear, sandy-bottom sections of the river. But along the Oxtongue, the most notable of all the flying insects are the ebony jewel-wing, with its striking iridescent green body, and the river jewel-wing, the tips of its wings appearing to have been dipped in ink. Both species have the agreeable habit of perching on the bow of the canoe or the blade of my paddle, or even on me.

The Oxtongue has a number of shallow swifts and a few major rapids and cascades: Whiskey Rapids, Split Rock Rapids, Twin Falls, Gravel Falls and Ragged Falls. But for the most part, the water meanders along. Calm stretches of river wind around pine-clad bluffs on one side and spill quietly past islands covered in alder and dogwood on the other. Much of the river remains similar to what Sheriff described in his 1829 journal as “a level, sandy valley, timbered chiefly with balsam, tamarac, and poplar, beyond which, however, the hardwood rising grounds are seldom a mile distant on either side.”

Hap Wilson has written and illustrated several books about the Canadian wilderness and his articles have appeared in Canadian Geographic, explore and Canoe & Kayak. He lives in Muskoka and Temagami.

Kevin Callan is the author of 11 books, including the runaway hit The Happy Camper and a bestselling series of paddling guides for Ontario, including A Paddler’s Guide to Quetico and Beyond.