By Stew Taylor
The North Shore of Lake Superior between Wawa and Marathon is one the most beautiful regions in all of Ontario. This stretch of coastline is almost completely unspoilt and for a few weeks every spring, the rivers that flow into Lake Superior are a whitewater paddler’s paradise. These rivers include the Pukaskwa and its tributary the East Pukaskwa which end in the National Park, the Dog River as well as the rarely travelled Cascade River. Denison Falls 2 km from the mouth of Lake Superior on the Dog River is familiar to many sea kayakers as there is a trail from the coast to its base. The vertical drop of these rivers is about 240 meters and the length from the start to Lake Superior ranges from 35 km on the Dog River to 70 km on the Pukaskwa.
Canoeists who have paddled the Dog River may be familiar with the Jimmy Kash River. According to Ruth Fletcher, the author of The Puckasaw (sic) Diaries, it is named after a trapper that lived in the area. It is the largest tributary of the Dog and enters from the east about 5 km above Denison Falls. I suspect most paddlers when reaching the confluence have looked upriver and wondered if it could be run. We certainly did on our first trip in 1990, but it was only in 2022 that we investigated further.
“Finding any information proved to be challenging.”
Finding any information proved to be challenging. There was a 10-year-old post on the CCR’s website looking for information with no responses. I thought if anyone knew about it, it would be David Wells from Naturally Superior Adventures, however he had no recollection of it being paddled. In many ways this made the river more compelling. Most of our previous trips had been on well documented rivers, so this uncertainty provided an additional level of excitement tempered by the concerns that we could be dragging our boats for a few days.
After scouring all the available online maps and satellite imagery with my paddling partner Mike Janiec, we concluded that it probably could be run with the right water level. The main issue was access. The Dog, Pukaskwa and East Pukaskwa river put-ins are all within about 10 km of each other and easily accessible by road. This was not possible on the Jimmy Kash River. When our friend and former paddling partner John Robart from Marathon, Ontario heard of our plans, he went to work with his local connections to see what he could find out. After a couple of months of conflicting reports regarding access roads we decided on a plan. Ironically, a week before our departure my partner Mike was speaking to a tent supplier in Minnesota who knew paddlers who had run the Jimmy Kash in kayaks years earlier. We didn’t get much information, except that it was “hard with several runnable class II-IV rapids.” At least this confirmed it was possible.
The length of our trip was 52 km, 32 km on the river and 20 km on Lake Superior. We hoped to complete it in 4 nights, 2 on the river and 2 on the lake. In most years, when completing the Dog River to eliminate the chance of being windbound on Lake Superior, we utilized a boat shuttle from Anderson Fisheries to get us back to Michipicoten Harbour and our vehicles. However, this year we decided to paddle back as we couldn’t commit to being at the lake by a certain date.
The next major consideration was water levels. Because of the topography these rivers can rise very quickly, and 15 years earlier we experienced a 24-hour rain storm which resulted in the Dog River rising 3 feet overnight. This led to a series of events including a canoe breaking in half and a 12 km bushwhack to Lake Superior. On subsequent trips down the Dog we have found pieces of Mike’s broken canoe randomly scattered on the river as if to remind us who is actually in control. We settled on a level of 4.2 on the Pukaskwa River gauge which we use as a standard for this area. This provides for reasonable flow so that most rapids can be run and long swifts have enough water to float solo canoes.
On a bright sunny day in late May we made our move. Naturally Superior provided a driver using our vehicle. He was surprised at the drop off point, a logging slash with no sign of water anywhere. We thought the 2-3 km hike through the bush would be challenging but really didn’t know what to expect. It looked simple on the satellite images. Not having a GPS or exact coordinates we set off using Mike’s phone. Our portaging technique was to pick a point 30-40 m away using a compass and then drag our boats to the spot, return for the second load and repeat. Knowing that we had this hike as well as the portage at Denison Falls, we had reduced our gear to the bare minimum. Items previously considered essential such as the Mantis bug shelter, extra clothes, boat unpinning rope, etc. were left at home. A far cry from earlier years where we could have been accused of having 1,000 lb. of the lightest gear. Often the bush and alders were so thick it was impossible to see back to where the remaining equipment was. I can confirm that dragging an Esquif Pocket Canyon is a nightmare compared to a Dagger Rival, the difference in width and length continued to plague me throughout the trip. Mike’s Rival slid effortlessly while my boat seemed to delight in getting hung up at every turn. Fortunately, the bugs weren’t out and after 3 1/2 hours of pulling, dragging, and cursing we finally got into about 3 inches of water in a small bog. Three hours of paddling into a strong headwind through a chain of lakes led us to the start of the Jimmy Kash River. It was a very good feeling to finally be at this spot after studying it for so many hours on the computer. We changed into our dry suits and then headed downstream. In retrospect, we should have camped on one of these lakes as they were beautiful.
The start to the river was as pleasant as one could hope. Enough water to float our boats and a gentle current. It was approaching 5 p.m. and we agreed to paddle for a couple of hours or until we saw a nice spot. We had hoped to reach a set of power lines about 7 km downstream but that seemed unlikely. Two hours later – after paddling through slow sections, swifts, class 1 rapids and a couple of pull overs – we found a great site on river left. A large open rock above a small narrowing of the river bounded on either side by the high rocky hills that make this area so special.
The following morning was warm and sunny and more importantly bug-free. We were on the river by 9 a.m. The next two hours were a great start to the day. Runnable rapids, long swifts and unspoilt scenery. We were behind our self-imposed schedule and needed to make up time so we paddled past two sets of power lines without stopping to investigate. At the power lines we looked in amazement at a new bridge crossing the river. It was not on any maps or satellite photos and we realized it had been installed to complete the recent construction of the new power line. It presented a conundrum as it provided alternate access to the river which would eliminate all the dragging and portaging. However we both agreed our route was the preferred option as it gave us a sense of accomplishment and allowed us to experience the river from its headwaters. Our understanding is that the bridge will be removed in the future.
This river was flowing at an ideal volume. Mistakes could be made by picking the wrong line and missing an eddy or getting hung up on rocks without a critical outcome. Mike and I paddle in solo boats and never set up someone in a rescue position. It’s each man for himself, deciding what he is comfortable running. Usually one of us will go on shore in larger rapids, not with a throw rope but with a camera. Our throw ropes are now exclusively used for lining and on this river for lowering the boats on long drops. Not long after the bridge we came to our first significant drop. Over 50 feet with no easy re-entry place at the base of the falls.
Over the years of paddling these rivers we have adapted our strategies as we have gotten older, smarter (this would be disputed by many) and weaker. Portaging in this area is very tough, so we find ourselves lining in some very dicey situations to avoid getting off the river. We often joke that the reason for wearing helmets is not for paddling, but for portaging. Canoes are rarely carried, they are almost always dragged. Purple and blue shavings of ABS are the only traces of our passage through the wilderness. To this point we had been able to line some larger rapids on the exposed shoreline. However this drop was much too significant for anything but a portage. It took a couple of hours to go the 250 m and ended with Mike at the river and I above him lowering the boats using a small tree as an anchor. Tough work but very rewarding. The river continued dropping steadily as the day became more overcast. By 4 pm we reached another large drop which also required a couple of hours to get around. The put-in was reached by a steep drop with Mike in his usual spot at the bottom and I at the top lowering the boats. Leather gloves proved to be indispensable for both dragging and lowering. Even with the gloves my hands took a couple of weeks to heal. It was now starting to rain and for once we made the right decision to call it a day, instead of pushing on to greener pastures. We hacked out a small site beside a large pool. I still have nightmares about this spot. I was using an axe to clear the bush but wearing gloves which were wet because of the rain. The axe slipped in mid swing and went full speed between my legs. An inch either way would have created a major problem. I thought of the Baird Brothers and their ill-fated trip down the East Pukaskwa a couple of years ago which ended after two days because of an axe injury. This would have been a much worse place to get out from. The rain increased steadily, and we called it an early night after Mike cooked in his vestibule for us. I had been looking forward to a drink and cigar but it was not to be.
We awoke to rain and overcast skies. I had put a marker in the river the night before and it showed the water level up considerably. Later we confirmed that the Pukaskwa gauge had risen from 4.1 to 4.6. The change in the river was obvious. It was much pushier and more menacing. Long swifts were now big class 1-2 stretches with large standing waves. Not knowing the river and what was ahead caused us to cautiously eddy hop close to corners where we could get a clear view downstream. The morning went quickly as we had two large obstacles that each took a couple of hours to get around. Both required the lowering of boats the full length of our throw ropes. It was on one of these portages that we saw the only trace of previous paddlers, a small stump of a spruce cut by saw. After completing the second we had a quick lunch on shore then headed off hoping we would see the Dog River soon. We were not disappointed and the last km on the Jimmy Kash was a thrilling downstream ride.
Not having been on the Dog River since 2016 we had forgotten how big it could be in high water. It was pounding along and in less than an hour we had reached the take-out to Denison Falls. This stretch of the Dog brings back unpleasant memories of our 20-hour walk many years ago, and we identified the spot where I was ferried across the river with my paddling partner by Mike to continue walking to Superior as he floated down the river with his partner in my canoe. This walk was highlighted by waist-high snow and a long swim in a swamp pushing our Pelican cases with our chins.
We approached Denison Falls with some trepidation as these conditions would change the last portion of the portage considerably. At the best of times it is hard and we have usually split it into two sections by sleeping at the top. This year we thought we would try and push on to Superior. The portage starts with an uphill climb followed by a long, relatively flat section to the campsite. From the campsite it is a 40 m drop down a very steep path which is not so bad as you can lower the boats by rope most of the way. The final section is a slippery walk over exposed rock beside the base of the enormous eddy pool at the bottom of the falls, then another climb to the spot where you lower your boats into the river. It was this final section that was the problem. As we had experienced in the past this was not possible because of the depth and current created by the normally small stream that dumps in beside the put-in. This forced us to continue through the bush for another two hours to find a suitable spot to cross the stream. Six hours from the start we finished and were finally able to paddle the 2 km down to the coast. It was 9:00 p.m. when we arrived at Lake Superior and after 13 hours we were too tired to do more than put up the tents and have a quick dinner before calling it a night.
Camping on Lake Superior is always a highlight of these rivers as the trip isn’t quite over but the hard technical challenges are. Under the right conditions it is a spectacular location to relax and take in the surroundings. Clear cold water as far as the eye can see. We woke to bright sun and no wind which allowed us to spend the morning drying out our gear and fishing. The mouth of the Dog River is a hard place to leave. It is a remarkable location with a large sandy beach and excellent camping. It holds special significance for me as reaching it has marked the milestones in my paddling life. My first trip was completed with no skill and the brute strength of youth. Now I have the technical skills but the strength is fading fast. We headed out at noon in perfect paddling conditions. I am not a big fan of lake paddling and I was not looking forward to this part of the trip. Between carpal tunnel and boredom it was going to be a slog. While I bitched and moaned, Mike revelled in it. He has paddled most of the Superior shoreline in a canoe on many trips and would happily do it every year whereas I can’t wait for the paddling to end. The torture only lasted a few hours until we reached another beautiful spot at the Makwa River. Our final night was spent in front of a fire with a clear sky, Lake Superior in front and the river running swiftly beside us. The favourable weather continued the next day and after a few hours we were met at Michipicoten beach with our vehicle by Naturally Superior Adventures.
Finishing any canoe trip always brings mixed feelings which can range from “thank God that’s over” to “I can’t wait to do that again.” For me this was a bittersweet ending as I thought it might be the last time I would paddle a river like this. I had enjoyed the paddling and the challenge of completing the trip but dragging and portaging the canoe was so tough I wasn’t sure if I could or wanted to do it again. At the base of Denison Falls I had taken an extra long look and made the comment that I would probably never be back. Funny how time changes things, now months later safe and warm in the confines of home, the challenges of the trip seem less daunting. I am not sure what the spring will bring as I have a new knee in my future but maybe I will see Dennison Falls again.
- 3 km portage/drag to the headwaters
- 22 km to confluence of Dog River
- 5 km to Denison Falls
- 2 km to Lake Superior
- 10 km to Makwa River
- 10 km to Michipicoten Reserve
The trip was 4 nights. An extra day would have been better as one of our days was 13 hours long.
- 1 x Dagger Rival
- 1 x Esquif Pocket Canyon with one seat and full flotation
We have paddled these north shore rivers in a combination of tandem and solo canoes. I would strongly recommend solo boats due to the number and difficulty of the rapids. Tandem boaters will be portaging and lining much more frequently. Drysuits are highly recommended in May as are helmets, lining ropes, and the ability to unpin a boat. Water levels can rise extremely rapidly which can change your trip from fun to challenging. Boat shuttles can be arranged in Marathon for the Pukaskwa from Lake Superior Adventures. Anderson Fisheries may provide shuttles from the Dog or Pukaskwa Rivers back to Michipicoten Harbour.