The Kattawagami River – A Best Kept Secret Shared

By Iori Miller

End of a portage at the Maze Rapids

Why I went there no longer matters; what I found there is the subject of this…

Edward Abbey

I’m not the most terrific storyteller. Yet, I feel compelled to share what happened on my paddle of the Kattawagami River that July before Covid. I had heard of this great whitewater river that spills off the Canadian Shield into James Bay, and so when the trip was posted on the WCA website I asked to join it. I will attempt to describe the details of the journey and maybe some of what I lost there. Was it some innocence? Was it my naivité? I will try to wrestle a bit of a tale for you, the reader, the earnest wilderness paddler, but I forewarn there’s another voice at play than mine.

“I will try to wrestle a bit of a tale for you, the reader, the earnest wilderness paddler, but I forewarn there’s another voice at play than mine.”

It was a helter skelter spring; a long relationship had recently gone aground for me. I needed a backcountry trip to clear my mind of all the noise so I could better hear myself again. As Thoreau said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” But honestly, I just needed to paddle some awesome rapids and sleep under the stars, or rain, or whatever.

The story begins at the Northern Adventure Inn near Cochrane, Ontario where I found myself negotiating with six people over what gear to bring. Why does organizing a trip feel stupidly last minute sometimes? It was late in June. Hopefully the bugs won’t be bad!? The black flies in the black spruce forests can sometimes carry you away, drop by drop, at this time of year. Everyone sounds pretty confident and fairly experienced with white water, but I have my doubts about that sea kayak. I’ve heard this river has some serious drops! One of our paddlers says she paddled pretty much everything on this river many years ago. Hmmmm? Doubt it. That doesn’t sound like the river I’ve read about. Canoes and serious drops? While my thoughts consider that, I begin to hear a voice in my head saying, Wait until you see how many boats I’ve taken from the tourists. Normally I just say to myself, ‘go with the flow, dodge the rocks’, but I’ve heard this river takes no prisoners.

Day 1: The author, and the Kiwi Canoe

Day 1
After a 2-hour shuttle north on the Detour Mine Road we put in on Kattawagami Lake, the river’s headwaters, at about noon. Once on the river, the current appears non-existent and the water is warm, as most of it begins in shallow lakes and ponds from the upper reaches of this river. As we paddle, we are expecting mostly C1s and a few C2s today. Yet already some of those C2’s look seriously challenging! I am watching the kayak as it makes big turns to avoid rocks, and I anticipate some adventures with it in the more difficult rapids to come. Again, in my head, first a chuckle, and then, I’ve humbled many before you. Don’t get too comfortable. At the end of the day, I am sad to see our first campsite is just a push in the bush. No soil to build a fire upon. And yes, the black flies here are heavy already. Fun!

Day 2
After a quick breakfast we are on the river just after 9 a.m. Today we paddle a long 38 km stretch of mostly C1s, nothing too challenging, and we feel the current slowly building. Where is all the wildlife? I’ve heard it said before, that when the diversity of flora drops, as it does in a black spruce forest, the diversity of fauna follows similarly. But that doesn’t account for the low numbers, and we are seeing nothing!? A few birds, but little else. I came to escape the noise in my life, but the silence here is thick and unexpected.

In the late afternoon we get to the north beaches of Bayly Lake and there are a few surprises waiting for us. While paddling up to the beach we saw a small hunt cabin signed with, ‘No Trespassing – Property of Moose Cree First Nation.’ The First Peoples use this land (by flying in), everyone else is a tourist here. There also are a plethora of footprints everywhere on the beach. Bear footprints. Big ones and little ones. Mama has been taking her toddlers out in the breeze to escape the bugs. The voice again chuckles in my ear, What I don’t take, maybe the walking spirits will. You wanted wilderness, and the wilderness wants you. I decide to get a fire going to cook dinner. Maybe I’ll make a dessert with the reflector oven? Maybe the fire will discourage the makers of the footprints?

A beautiful day to begin a paddle on the Canadian Shield

Day 3
We are on the water by half past 9 a.m. As we paddle out of Bayly Lake the river feels bigger now, and there is a steady recognizable current. Here I see our first wildlife sightings: a moose and an occupied osprey nest right outside of the lake. When planning for this river I learned there are three basic geographic regions we will traverse. The first is a fairly flat region with shallow lakes and ponds atop the Canadian Shield. The middle section, about 45 km, is where the river ‘rapidly’ drops off the shield. This is what lured me here: set after set of serious CII and CIII+ rapids. The third section is also fairly flat, where the river spreads wide and braids as it crosses the muddy Hudson Bay Lowlands to the sea (James Bay).
Some might ask, why paddle days on end in isolated northern places far from help? I have always appreciated the simplicity of the day on a wilderness river: you wake up, eat and pack up, you spend the day gazing at scenery only a few canoes pass a year, you make camp again, then eat and sleep again. Repeat. For each of us there is also something personal about such a trip; something just between you and the river and the land it empties.

Once you’ve paddled a northern river you want to return again and again, like an addict to a needle, to reconnect with something personal and wild inside. It’s a connection, a voice, easily forgotten, drowned out by the noise of the civilized world. It’s only in the wilderness that the noise inside your head stops and you can actually hear your thoughts.

In the early afternoon I am staring down the first rapid that gives me pause on this river: Pineapple Rapid. Yiu Yin and I decide to avoid it and cautiously line the smaller channel to the left and so does the Kiwi canoe. Yet to my surprise, the Ottawa valley canoe lines up and takes it straight on! The next drop is bigger still, Eddy Hop Rapids, and again my partner and I avoid running the main flow by lining our boat. It’s obvious we have now begun our descent from the Canadian Shield. A few kilometers farther on, at day’s end, we camp on a rocky peninsula sticking out into the river. Today we paddled 10 km less than yesterday and all are still dry. No spills yet. That little voice chides, Hey tourist, you came to conquer the river … your plastic boat is made for this … show me your moves! As you said, ‘go with the flow and dodge the rocks!’ I realize it is right. My partner and I have begun the river overly cautious.

Camp One – a ‘Push in the Bush’

Day 4
I know we are in the thick of the Kattawagami’s charm now. With the plateau behind us, the river has begun to tumble off the Canadian Shield. At 8:30 a.m. we begin to take a succession of rapids, all with interesting names: Little Spruce, Big Spruce, The Snout, and Adrienne Falls. With more bravado we run most of the early stuff, but when coming up on The Snout I can see the river takes a hard left in front of a pile of boulders. Spring floods have knocked away all the soil, leaving these boulders piled high like a purposefully constructed wall. No one suggests running the irregular convulsion of waves squeezing through the tight narrowing of the river right after the bend. The ‘Snout’ is plain to see. Knowing we are portaging this, I grab my canoe first and start to move boulder to boulder, carefully picking my way over to the calmer waters below as I leave the group behind me.

“Suddenly a whistle! Dropping the boat and running back, I see someone alone in the water and floating towards the bend of the Snout.”

Suddenly a whistle! Dropping the boat and running back, I see someone alone in the water and floating towards the bend of the Snout. Unprepared, I don’t have a throw rope! Fortunately, just at the last minute, she recovers and pulls herself out onto one of the boulders. My heart is pounding in my chest. Again, that voice, Are you sure you’re prepared for this? Slow down. Why always the rush? I acknowledge to myself, a wilderness white water river is not forgiving. Generally I think of rivers as benign elements, nurturing, as something I should protect like family. Yet they will take a life in a second. Another smirking chuckle. Now you’re thinking. I am not your friend. Note to myself: I need to stop rushing and stick with the group on a portage.

After finishing 22 km we carefully pulled out on river-left, at the top of Adrienne Falls. I see it’s a succession of irregular drops into small pools, each drop unforgiving for a canoe. What beauty though! It’s a kayaker’s wet dream. No place has been more scenic up to this point! While there is enough flat space to camp right by the falls, there’s a few more bugs than expected. Checking the sky we hustle to get our tents up … it’s day 4 and now our first rain shower.

The Ottawa boat in a CII – Day 3

“As we exit the Maze we notice a smoke plume close and to the southwest. “

Day 5
A reasonably early start; 8:30 a.m. on the water. The Kattawagami began with some long stretches of Cls and Clls while we were atop the Shield, and that was a lot of fun, and now we’re running some of the bigger stuff. Yet I have this feeling that other than the spill at The Snout, everything has been too easy. You know that feeling? Like something is imminent. Yet when you snap a quick look behind, it’s just a monotonous wall of black spruce. I stop to listen intently, still feeling we aren’t alone, but all I hear is a slight wind and the rush of the water.

Without much warning in the early morning light, the Ottawa boat suddenly slips sideways hard against a rock in a simple CII and its paddlers forget to lean down river. All its contents are immediately spilled into the flow, including someone’s PFD. My boat races ahead of the flotsam and finds a convenient place, about a half km down river, where the flow funnels and we can retrieve most everything. When done, we wait patiently for over an hour before the other boats come around the bend above us. The Ottawa boat looks no worse for wear but now holds two humbled passengers and only one PFD. The not-so-friendly voice muttered, I thought I had ‘em. Look at that one without her life jacket! Easy pickings! Too confident! Aw there’s still time yet… As they pulled up beside our boat, we handed back all their stuff: personal packs, a food barrel, water bottles, their extra paddle, a map set, and a few articles of clothing that had been loose in the boat. So much for having everything tied in eh? It’s easy to lose stuff when you spill. All that small stuff just gets lost and adds to the plastic crap you tourists always think is somebody else’s fault.

I can’t deny some of the truth in this, but I answer, ‘Do only a few canoeists really do much harm? What about the miners, fishermen, loggers, and even the indigenous peoples that leave the landscape strewn with wastes?!’ Yes, first it was only you white folk, but now the ones before you have adopted your ways too. All the balance is gone. It’s time for someone to pay.

By lunchtime, we are at Maze Rapids. Wow, confusing! Islands abound and the river’s main channel is lost amongst them. Everywhere are signs of a fire that burned through here not so long ago. It feels a bit surreal, and desolate. Here is the dangerous reality of the boreal forest cycles. The creator giveth with one hand and taketh with the other. Stay outta the way and you’ll be fine. We finish our lunch and depart after a longish portage down the open slope of a big island.

As we exit the Maze we notice a smoke plume close and to the southwest. Fortunately, the wind favours the safety of our northerly direction; we see the smoke but never smell it. An hour later it was behind and gone as if it never was.

In the afternoon, first Terrace Falls, then Chad breaks a kayak paddle at Driftwood Rapids, and after, we reach Quimby Rapids. In order to get through the mess that is Quimby, we are often in and out of the boat, half lining, half walking. Gaining in confidence we take a clear fast run around a big boulder at what I thought was the end of the rapid. We screamed into a small pool that flows over a rocky drop with no room to slip through! There’s no time to reconsider our speed, and for the first time Yiu Yin and I dunk; our egos are injured but soothed with laughter. This time the Ottawa Valley boat gathers us back together. With all our little stuff clipped in, only our few packs scattered and so in no time we were all back in our boat no worse for wear. The rest of the afternoon went well but for a small capsize of the Ottawa Valley folk at the end of the day. Today was undeniably our most interesting, and humbling, so far. We camped at Raindrop Falls at 6:30 p.m. – only 13.5 km downriver from this morning!

The top of The Maze Rapids – Notice the Burn!

Day 6
A later start today. Swift Finger, The Box, The Slide, Jackpine Falls, Peace Falls … we are moving faster now. We move efficiently and steadily forward, sometimes lining, sometimes running the more difficult rapids. The Kattawagami is a steady succession of drops at this point. While scouting the rapid you’re on you can see the last one just a km behind, and also the next one a km ahead. This river is a classic, and great fun! We see no other paddlers but find a few battered hulls abandoned along the way. At one point today, we find two Camp Wanapitei canoes pulled up on the west bank beside a long CII. They are damaged beyond use and abandoned long ago. What happened to this group?

The river shows off its bounty

Generally, there are very few portages cut as you can line or carry over the rocks beside each rapid. It’s slow going at this point, but gloriously beautiful with blue skies and white puffy clouds almost every day. Tonight we find our campsite high on a rocky promontory just below The Needle, a point where the river tightly narrows for a stretch. Later, while settling in to make dinner, I notice a beautiful red sky to the west and one could look directly into the sun. Somewhere there’s a forest afire, and it’s creating a filter for our view of the sun’s intense rays. With no radio to inform, we interpret what we see as best we can.

Camping high above ‘The Needle’

Day 7 and 8
Leaving before 9 a.m., we approached the island maze on river-left that is Arrow Rapids. About 15 years ago, Doug Weekes, an American, paddled the river solo and narrowly escaped death here. He flipped in these rapids and floated down river, and a half km later was flushed mightily through Arrow Chutes. Climbing intact and somewhat alive onto the west shore, he espied his canoe floating right side up with all his gear in an eddy above the chutes. On the east side! Alone and with no canoe, Weekes had to signal for a helicopter rescue (expensive!), as that was as far as the Kattawagami let him go. Again, I heard that raspy chuckle in my head as I looked carefully for a safe route around the west side of Arrow Rapids. I found myself marveling at the almost scarlet hues in the syenitic rocks here. Hard, sharp clefts in the broken rock allow the water’s passage yet threaten to eat even a royalex canoe.

Then best you portage like all the gentler folk who lived here first. Tourist, pay attention to past wisdoms learned and maybe YOU won’t need to be rescued!

In the days when only native peoples passed these waters no one paddled white-water. Today’s technology allows paddlers to attempt some rapids (Royalex beats Birch Bark any day), but often the river still triumphs and takes a boat. I found myself listening more respectfully to that voice in my ear. After this, Lover’s Leap, Lost Wannigan Falls, The Autobahn (a long straight, but safe, fun run!), and then we made camp at Frog Song Falls. A whole 5.6 km today!? Frog Song is to be our home for two nights; it’s a beautiful set of rapids wrapping around an island, and a welcome respite from the river’s now continuous white-water.

On the second night at Frog Song, while making dinner, a solitary Canada goose gosling appeared and ran circles around us while plaintively bleating about its loneliness. Strange. So little wildlife, and now this poor hungry bird with no adult to feed it! We put a few small piles of cornmeal out for it away from the campfire. Finally, some wildlife, but this left me with a real twinge of sadness. Its parents gone; would wolves get it?

The top of Arrow Chute

“Chad, realizing the imminent peril ahead, smartly throws himself sideways into a wet exit. “

Day 9
Today we are going to finish the last of the drop off the shield rocks before entering the Hudson Bay Lowlands. First The Devil (not as bad as its reputation), and then we ran Bill and Jane easily (although I had to shove hard off a rock using my paddle like a spear to avoid having our bow smashed flat like a nail head). Here the Kiwis showed that they too could invert, and they with the group’s only spray deck. There was a short but scary moment when one of the Kiwis almost floated into the next rapid!

I had begun to be quite impressed with Chad’s ability to keep his kayak afloat through serious drops. Our last serious rapids on the Kattawagami came just before lunch. We all scouted, from our boats, the beginning of a fun 200 m CII, aware that our trip notes indicated it terminates with The Finale, a CIII technical wave that will be the last challenging element on our descent of the river. The first part went well. But where was that Finale? I’ll have you now, just one slip! Show me why you came here Shaganash! At this point on the river, full of confidence, the voice was faint in the background.

At the final corner of the CII we saw it, and Yiu Yin and I jumped ashore to scout it. In this midsummer water level, we saw it’s a sharp hook left with a strong pushy wave against the far rocky riverbank. Definitely not for an open boat. Again, that shrill whistle from upriver! Turning around I see Chad in the kayak still in the CII, but he is caught in the main current coming up fast upon the CIII, with no room to manoeuvre. People immediately pull out throw bags, and I jumped into the water up to my knees at the river’s edge. Chad, realizing the imminent peril ahead, smartly throws himself sideways into a wet exit. His first on the Kattawagami. Fortunately, he was able to get to the shore with the help of a throw rope in one hand, and his kayak’s bow handle in the other. For a sea kayak, a hard turn in a fast current is near impossible. This was worthy of a wet exit!. The chuckle in my head was a soundtrack for a movie clip: I saw the arm of a slot machine being pulled … and it was all lemons coming up. No harm or lost boats this time round Shaganash. Skill? Luck? Overconfidence will bite you in the ass if you take me for granted, tourist. Maybe we should have scouted this from the shore?

After our escape at The Finale I noticed the whole look of the river changed. Gone were the rocky riverbanks. They became sandier and more cut by spring floods. At only 11.5 km from Frog Song rapids we decided as a group to camp on the pebbly beach of an island midriver. The damn mosquitoes rose to meet us from its grasses, but at least the ground was firm and flat. I already felt nostalgic expecting ahead two days of flat paddling to the sea.

Where did all the water go? Paddling becomes Hiking

Day 10
Shallow swifts, river braids; we are now on the Hudson Bay Lowlands. Just before noon a lonely woodland caribou trotted towards us on the west bank of the river and didn’t even give us a second look. I lamented it was the only one of his kind we saw on the whole trip. You think as soon as you leave your highways that the wildlife will be thick about you? Stupid tourist! Stay a winter or two here and really know the north. Those before you often starved as the wildlife is smart and wary! Still, there was more before you came with your gold mining and chainsaws. After our near miss at the Finale, the voice was loud and ever present again – a narrative to the movie my mind was making of the Kattawagami.

To finish the trip, all we now need to do is paddle to the confluence of the Kattawagami with the Kesagami, and then follow the remainder of that river to where it meets the Harricana River — just before the latter empties into James Bay. Then we’ll paddle an hour or so up that river to the native owned Washow Eco-Lodge to meet our shuttle connection. However, for the second time today we were lucky; we hit the tide’s cycle at the absolute right time, and after a 54 km day we caught it as it turned and rode it up to the lodge by 7 p.m. A day early! Tomorrow, then, is easy, we will be ferried by large freighter boats to Moose Factory, where we will catch the Polar Bear Express train … our connection back to our cars in Cochrane. In the end I felt sad that the Kattawagami paddle is over.

Our paddling is over. Last day on the river; getting a shuttle to Moose Factory in freighter canoes.

More than a year has passed and as I finally transcribe my reverie ….

Yes, I paddle wild rivers to live a few days deliberately, as Thoreau would say. I prefer those in the north because I want to experience nature and wilderness in its raw and unadulterated form. Yet, I had to talk myself into sharing my story here. What’s up Shaganash? You having second thoughts? You want to tell everyone about my Kattawagami, one of the best white-water rivers and best kept secrets in the north? You will just bring more to spoil further a river hardly heard of!

That voice which again invades my thoughts tells me I’m no better than any of you reading this, because you too will now want to go where, truthfully, we are not welcome, or pampered, by the wild nature that struggles to survive despite us. I was greeted by a solo osprey, a single moose, a single woodland caribou and a lonely gosling with no mother. Mostly a lot of empty space with very little to fill it. Some people in the resource industries go there and see nothing but bugs and spruce trees, and don’t see any value in keeping things as they’ve always been. From the ancient accounts of fur traders, it barely resembles what it was before Europeans arrived. For comparison, a summer canoe trip in Algonquin requires the patience of rush hour driving as you queue up for the portages. For a canoeist, the far north is like a black hole, its silence pulling us ever into it. It’s still the best remaining wilderness, and I don’t want to tarnish it further.

I find myself arguing with myself here; “We record the stories of our canoe trips to celebrate and share the experience with others. We respect these waters, and only a few will come because of what I write here.” Tell that to the disappearing caribou, and all that used to live in balance here. Maybe, Shaganash, you should just shut up and leave my river out of your stories? The less who know the better. Once again, I don’t get the last word.

“There is something of the sublime in feeling trivial in the realm of great landscapes. It is truly the only place you can actually sense your consignment in the greater portrait of life.”

Hap Wilson
The Paddle Crew at the put-in at Kattawagami Lake

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