The Mississagi River from Spanish Lake to Aubrey Falls
Story and photos by Erik Thomsen
In early Spring 2019, while hiking through Frontenac Provincial Park, I sat alone by my campfire under the leafless silhouette of a stand of tall oak trees as a cool cloudy evening crept in. After dinner, I lay by the crackling fire and opened up “Book Two: Mississauga,” the second part of Grey Owl’s seminal 1936 work, Tales of an Empty Cabin. I ventured back in time to a place east of Lake Superior and north of Lake Huron, to the fabled Mississagi River – the river of a hundred ghosts.
River of a hundred ghosts….sublime in your arrogance, strong with the might of the Wilderness, even yet must you be haunted by wraiths that bend and sway to the rhythm of the paddles, and strain under phantom loads, who still tread their soundless ways through the shadowy naves of the pine forests, and in swift ghost-canoes sweep down the swirling white water in a mad chasse galerie with whoops and yells that are heard by no human ear. Almost can I glimpse these flitting shades, and on the portages can almost hear, faintly, the lisping rustle of forgotten footsteps, coming back to me like whispers from a dream that is no longer remembered, but cannot die.Grey owl, 1936
I had read reports of voyages down the river and heard tales of its allure. I knew of its storied history – the exploits of Grey Owl, the timber runs, the canoe brigades. But from that evening, the Mississagi gained, in my imagination, a tangible, living character – a wild and mysterious brilliance – that beckoned me northward.
In the summer of 1912, Tom Thomson – one of our country’s most beloved artists – ran the Mississagi from Biscotasing to Lake Huron over two months. In a subsequent letter to a friend, Thomson remarked that the Mississagi was “the finest canoe trip in the world.” While we can only guess what compelled Thomson to scribe those words, having now run the river, it is clear to me that the Mississagi still retains the magic that he must have felt as he sat on its rocky shores and sketched the wild panoramas that surrounded him.
As you embark, perhaps, on your own journey down the Mississagi, remember that in exploring this immense and formidable place, you will draw yourself closer to the earth and rekindle the glory of the Mississagi’s formative years, before the ceaseless march of the modern world. Paddle the Mississagi and you will reawaken the ghosts of a still wild kingdom, so that they may sing, chant and paddle once more.
History of the Mississagi Basin
The Mississagi is characterized by precipitous formations of volcanic rock, molded by ice sheets, winds and extreme weather over aeons. Massive cliffs and crags are common throughout the region, while mixed forests of pine, spruce, maple, birch, aspen and others envelop a collection of thousands of rivers, wetlands and island-speckled lakes.
The extent of historic Indigenous presence along the Mississagi is not well known. There is evidence to suggest, however, that the waterways of the Mississagi were used by Aboriginal populations for hunting and habitation, with encampments found at Upper Green Lake, Rouelle Lake and Rocky Island Lake.
The expansion of the fur trade brought voyageurs and European explorers to the region and outposts were established as early as the late 1700s. The river offered an excellent opportunity for trappers and traders to access the bountiful pelt-yielding lands of the interior. North West Company forts soon sprung up at the mouth of the river and on the north shore of Upper Green Lake – these were subsumed by the Hudson Bay Company in the 1820s.
By the late 1800s, logging operations began to expand to the Mississagi basin with the exhaustion of more southerly forests. An immense network of logging trails, camps, dams and chutes (including a 350-metre flume at Aubrey Falls) were established to support operations that fed enormous quantities of timber downstream and en route to mills on the northern shores of Lake Huron. Timber extraction continues to varying degrees in the Mississagi region, though well beyond sight of the canoe route.
One of the most destructive forest fires in Canadian history tore through the Mississagi River Valley. In May 1948, separate fires in the Chapleau-Mississagi region merged together and scorched almost 750,000 acres of forest before being extinguished three months later. Large old growth forests were devastated, logging and industrial operations were shuttered and the sky was shrouded in a haze that blocked the sun as far south as Washington D.C. While the valley has rebounded, there is still evidence of this monstrous fire along many portions of the river as seen in the formation of second-growth forests of birch and poplar.
Adding to the vibrant history of Mississagi River was the former presence of Archie Belaney (Grey Owl). In the early 1900s, Belaney, who was born in England, took up work as a trapper and forest ranger, living in both Temagami and Biscotasing for some time. While in Bisco, Belaney comprehensively travelled and trapped throughout the Mississagi wilderness. Over time, his fascination with the Anishinaabe people and culture grew and he adopted and embraced an Ojibwe persona. Under the moniker, “Grey Owl,” Belaney produced a number of writings on matters of conservation and the Canadian wilderness, gained international recognition and conducted speaking tours in several countries, dressed in Ojibwe regalia – even taking audience with the British royal family. Belaney’s true identity was not revealed to the public until his death in 1938.
Trip Journal – 11 Days on the Mississagi
Having resolved to canoe the Mississagi back at that campsite in Frontenac, I endeavoured to make the trip happen in August 2020. Our crew of six friends, including Devin, John, Jono, Kevin, Lachlan and myself, aimed to tackle the 143-kilometre expanse of the upper river between Spanish Lake and Aubrey Falls over 11 days. This section of the river is far more remote and pristine than the portion that flanks Highway 129 south of Aubrey Falls to Lake Huron, which is interrupted by a series of hydroelectric dams.
As part of the planning process, I made arrangements with Mike Allen, the owner of a cottage rental business called Kegos Camp, north of Thessalon, Ontario, to handle shuttle logistics.
On the morning of July 31st, our party departed Toronto and made it to Kegos Camp by evening, where we camped in a grassy meadow.
In the morning, we travelled north on a scenic and moose-laden stretch of Highway 129 to Aubrey Falls where we dropped off Mike’s escort vehicle before continuing on. During our drive, Kevin and I had engaged in an interesting dialogue with Mike on Canadian battles of World War II. In light of this, as we approached the small community of Sultan, Mike suggested that we stop the car at the side of the road. The other two vehicles in our convoy followed suit and Mike led us off into the bush where we came upon a small cemetery.
On the right side of the old cemetery was a flat, grey, traditional military headstone adorned with Canada’s maple leaf emblem and cross. The stone read:
B. 163291 PRIVATE
MANSELL L. SLIEVERT
NO. A. 10 C.A. (INF.) T.C.
9th MAY 1945,
IN LOVING MEMORY
KNOWN TO MANY, LOVED BY ALL
FATHER, MOTHER AND FAMILY
It was somewhat peculiar to see this gravestone here, in this isolated locale, as the vast majority of on-duty World War II soldiers were buried overseas. Mike explained that this young man, who died at the age of 19 and evidently had roots in Sultan, had actually perished in a motor vehicle collision while on duty in British Columbia.
Before continuing on to Spanish Lake to begin our trip, we wandered the rest of the graveyard. A number of the headstones were terribly weathered and illegible. We then found one that marked the final resting place of a man named John Ceredigion Jones, deceased in 1947. A poet and vagabond, it is the words of Ceredigion Jones, that were immortalized in stone above the entrance to the Memorial Chamber of the Peace Tower in Ottawa to commemorate our fallen war heroes. His words read, “All’s well for over there amongst his peers A Happy Warrior sleeps.”
This moment brought me back to my own visit to the Memorial Chamber, a number of years before, and reminded me of a moving verse inscribed on the wall of that sacred room, written by Richard Miles. I thought of the verse and perhaps never felt so grateful to be venturing off into our great wildlands once more:
I go that we may breast
Again the Dorest Downs in zest,
And walk the Kentish lanes where I
Began a larger life knowing
You. Yet if from seething sky
I win reprieve but by the slowing
Crutch or whitened cane, my doom
Will yet have helped to hold in bloom
Old English orchards, and Canadian
Woods unscarred by steel, Acadian
And Columbian roofs unswept
By flame. My mother will be kept
From stumbling down a prairie road
Illumed by burning barns and snowed
By patterned death.
From Sultan we drove south, through the small logging and rail community of Ramsay, crossed over Spanish Chutes and found the entrance to the eastern shore of Spanish Lake. We bid our drivers farewell and portaged our gear down to the lake with the sun beaming overhead.
Part I – Spanish Lake to Bubble Bay
We travelled south to the Bardney Lake where a seven-kilometre paddle on open water confronted us. Though we had a slight headwind, we held no quarrels – it was simply liberating to be in the open air and on the water once again.
At the end of Bardney, we climbed the 430-metre Height of Land portage separating the Spanish River and Mississagi watersheds. The portage rose steadily before dipping and abruptly ending at Sulphur Lake. Here we found a Ministry of Natural Resources logbook which confirmed that we were only the fourth party to travel the route that year.
We camped on Sulphur Lake. Late in the day, I was pleased to catch a good-sized pike on a solo canoe outing, as the sky unveiled a broad spectrum of pinks, oranges and yellows with the on-setting dusk.
Morning brought grey, monotone skies and high-winds from the northwest which rattled the spruce trees over our campsite. Four quick portages, including a lung-busting 930-metre carry, would bring us to Mississagi Lake and eventually the Mississagi Lodge fly-in fishing outpost. The lodge was on a sandy peninsula that separated the Mississagi Lake narrows from Upper Green Lake. This was the former site of a Northwest Company outpost, though no evidence of the old trading station remained.
Upper Green Lake is a large body of water that can become troubling in high winds. Perhaps the most famous example came during Tom Thomson’s trip in 1912, when a storm swamped his canoe. Thomson and his paddling partner were forced to swim to shore as a result of the catastrophe, and narrowly survived.
A fascinating relic of the past, in the form of an old decommissioned fire tower, can also be found on the eastern ridge of Upper Green Lake. With plenty of time left in the day, we decided to paddle to the shore beneath the tower to see whether a trail up the ridge had endured. As we searched for the trail, we found an array of rusted debris, including gasoline canisters and tools that were clearly several decades old, as well as the ruins of an old ranger’s cabin.
We found the heavily overgrown remains of the old tower trail that led us up the ridge to the base of the tower. The tower, made in 1957, was an impressive steel structure that forced its way out of the tangled woods and out above the tree line.
Back on the water, the wind had intensified dramatically and white caps washed alongside our canoes until we crashed against the southern shore of Upper Green. A brief 90-metre hike took us to Kashbogama Lake where a gorgeous sheltered campsite awaited us across the lake.
The following day, we paddled through Shanguish Lake and Kettle Lake before arriving at the first two rapids of the trip. Their shallow, rocky character forced us to methodically wade our boats through, negotiating tricky footholds on the riverbed.
Past the rapids, on the north end of Upper Bark Lake, we found a long, flat island amongst a stand of dying pines that served nicely as our campsite. Upper Bark is a beautiful and serene body of water with a plethora of lonely bays and islands. At the centre of the lake, three small islands, almost identical in appearance, form a distinctive triangle. A cloudy sunset soon rolled in, and we built a large fire. The call of the loons skipped over the waters as a light rain began – together these peaceful sounds lulled us to sleep.
The next day we decided to make a very leisurely four-kilometre paddle to camp on an island at Bubble Bay. On approach, we found the island to be a scenic outcrop of tiered rock ledges, capped with a few large, windswept pines. There was just enough room for our tents, though limited firewood would force Devin and I to make a trip to the shore later in the afternoon.
We spent the rest of the day swimming and fishing. I also found time to read from a book that I had brought along, Of Time and Place, by Sigurd F. Olson, the opening passage of which fit our adventure well:
Over the years the voyageurs, as we called ourselves, made many trips together retracing routes of the old voyageurs in their far-flung travels along the rivers and lakes during the days of the fur trade… We ran the same rapids, knew the waves on the same big lakes, and suffered the same privations. Though ours was a modern age, we knew the winds still blew as they had then; the dim horizons looming out of the distance were no different from the mirages they had known. In the mornings we saw the same mists, resembling white horses galloping out of the bays. We knew all this, but most important was the deep companionship we found together. We had been most everywhere, and for us the North was much more than just terrain. We were part of its history.
Like men who had been in combat, we looked at the world through different eyes, for we had been tested in the crucible of the wilderness and had not failed. The values we shared from our common experience are hard to explain, but without them life has no purpose.(Olson, 1982)
Toward the end of the day, I found myself in my canoe casting a line for walleye and bass. Devin and Kevin both had success fishing off the rocks, John paddled out to explore the lake on his own, while Lachlan and Jono cooked bannock over the fire.
It was the golden hour now. The sun crept out from behind the curtain of dark clouds on the western horizon and bathed our jagged island campsite in a brilliant orange light. The island, with its iconic windswept pines, about 20 metres before me, was thus transformed into a monolithic silhouette etched against a radiant backdrop. Turning and gazing out over the expanse of dark waters to my east, gentle waves lapping against my canoe, I could see that the treeline on the far shore was now set ablaze with a glow so pure that it seemed to fall from heaven itself. The scene was one that travellers of this remote landscape, through the ages of old, would have known well. This was a scene that would have doubtlessly stirred – as it had for us – their profound admiration for all the natural world.
As the evening set in, we gathered around the campfire and savoured the expertly prepared bannock baked by our companions. The clouds had begun to dissipate, stars emerged and a spectacular full moon rose between them to the east. From somewhere off in that same direction, the loons called out again.
Part II – Bubble Bay to Rocky Island Lake
We awoke to harsh winds from the west and we could tell from the swirling clouds that rain threatened. Heading onward we paddled south through Presage Bay and came to a cabin that served as the headquarters of the Mississagi Provincial Forest Reserve in the early-1900s. It was in these days that Grey Owl stayed here while on duty as a forest ranger, and even carved his initials “AB” on the cabin’s interior in 1914.
The building had clearly seen finer days. Its walls, except at their rotting base, were constructed of large, hefty log beams, perhaps of cedar; the gable roof was weatherproofed with faded red shingles and though the solitary window was boarded up, the door was jammed open. Peeking our heads in, we could clearly see that wild animals had been dwelling inside from an arrangement of torn and chewed articles on the floor. The cabin contained a variety of thoroughly aged items – pots, pans, tools, bedding – all strewn about in disarray.
It was fascinating to think of all the people who had passed through here over the years and the stories they must have held of their own adventures in this land. The walls on the cabin’s interior were covered in hundreds of carvings denoting the passage of former travellers. While the location of Grey Owl’s name was not readily apparent, we spotted carvings as old as the early 1930s and thought about how the world would have been back then.
We departed the cabin and were now entering the Mississagi River proper. From this point, for the next 30 kilometres, the Mississagi cuts a path through the land in the shape of a large “W” and is characterized by innumerable rapids and falls, interspersed by flat water. At the end of this colossal zig-zag the river flushes into a vast wetland known as “Majestic Marsh” or “The Maze,” en route to the big waters of Rocky Island Lake.
As we thrashed our way down the river into a strong headwind, to the northwest, the dark churning clouds above finally gave way to a thick, cold rain. Patches of blue sky ahead, however, gave us hope and the rain subsided as the river narrowed and swung to the southwest.
Past a series of swifts and rapids, we pulled out at a 150-metre trail that opened into a large, flat-rock clearing with plenty of room for tents. Alongside the clearing, a set of rapids came to a turbulent culmination of white spray and froth as the river cascaded over large rocks before easing into a large black pool. We decided that this would make an excellent campsite.
In the evening, with wispy indigo skies above and dozens of swallows fluttering through the warm, fresh summer air, we fished in the dark eddies at the bottom of the cascade. Devin was the first to land a good-sized fish – a walleye – that we filleted and took up to our campfire. Jono had brought lard and fish batter along and rapidly set to the ritual of preparing a fine meal, as a broad blanket of stars became clearer overhead.
With daybreak we forged over a number of rapids under the summer sun, and arrived at Hellgate Falls by midday. Here, the river funneled over a number of violent drops before settling 10-metres below. We quickly tackled the mandatory 680-metre portage and bushwhacked along the rugged shoreline to catch spectacular views of the maelstrom.
The day wore on as we conquered several more rapids and portages before arriving at a well-used campsite near the entrance to Majestic Marsh. Following a nice meal by the fire past dusk, we withdrew to the shore where we spotted seven or eight meteors flashing brilliantly and silently over the silhouettes of the pines across the rippling river.
The river moved swiftly beyond our campsite and we made great progress in the morning. Within a few kilometres, the rocky, elevated topography that had previously surrounded us, began to open up.
The entrance to the Majestic Marsh is quite clear. What was less certain for us was the navigability of the wetlands, which are said to change dramatically depending on water level. In fact, we had read a story, from 2013, of a couple that had become disoriented and lost in marshes here for two days, and were lucky to have been saved by a passing canoe group. While we weren’t worried about getting lost in the marsh, we were somewhat concerned about a tedious slog through a frustrating web of channels and dead ends.
It turns out those trepidations were entirely unfounded. Majestic Marsh was an incredibly beautiful landscape and a joy to paddle. Within the marsh, the river snaked peacefully through a clear path of reeds, teeming with wildlife. Mergansers and golden eyes, grey jays and other birds cruised the waters and skies alike; a large beaver swam directly under our canoe. Our time in the marsh passed too soon.
A few more kilometres on, we bypassed the Abinette River confluence and Bulger’s Folly as the river started to show signs that it was gradually opening into a massive lake. A riverside cliff we encountered, for instance, showed a high waterline that was eight feet above our current levels. We knew, of course, that this could be explained by the fact that Rocky Island Lake, which now lay only five or six kilometres to the west, was a dam-controlled reservoir for the hydroelectric generating station at Aubrey Falls and held a large surplus of water every spring.
At this point we began searching for sites, but having found few that suited our needs we pulled out at dry mudflat, about two kilometres east of Third Island near the end of the river. There were now only 35 kilometres remaining on our voyage.
Part III – Rocky Island Lake and Aubrey Lake
We knew Rocky Island Lake presented a special challenge. The prevailing winds had cut consistently from the west for the entire trip. Our path would take us over two massive open water crossings, likely into strong winds and waves.
As we made our way through the final portions of the river and around the corner of Sprat Bay, our fears were confirmed. The winds were strong and had whipped up tumultuous white caps as far as the eye could see. It would be extremely reckless to attempt a crossing in these conditions and so we knew we’d have to pick our way south along the east shore, completing a series of smaller crossings instead.
Despite the fact that it is a reservoir, Rocky Island Lake is an incredibly unique, beautiful and wild place. As its name suggests, the lake is speckled with a seemingly endless array of rocky islands, rocky shorelines, bays and cliffs that could easily accommodate a week or more of exploration by canoe.
Having completed the first major crossing, the sun faded in favour of dark clouds and rain seemed certain. We set our sights on an island campsite located about 10 kilometres to the west at the opening of Seismic Narrows and began paddling through the tall cliffs of Stimpy Channel.
Headwinds continued from the west, but as we entered the main body of Rocky Island Lake, where the longest crossing awaited, we were fortunate to find the severity of the wind had waned. This being the case, we set out on the large crossing to the south end of Dayton Island.
Near the tail end of this island, Jono remarked that he saw something swimming in the water ahead of us. On approach, he shouted that it was a bear. Each of the three canoes took care to give the animal a wide berth so as not to frighten it while it swam to shore. Upon landing on the island, the medium-sized black bear charged up the shore, taking one glance back at us, and was gone into the dense bush in a flash.
We continued, a harsh rain pelting down us, and finally landed at the island site near Seismic Narrows. The island was a teardrop shaped outcrop of rock, crowned with dozens of jack pine. Its most peculiar feature, however, was an old, dilapidated driftwood fort, approximately four metres long, four wide and two high, that was constructed near the fire pit. The fort listed heavily to one side as some of its support beams had rotted out over the years. While the interior included various tables and benches, also constructed of driftwood, most of them were heavily decayed and unusable. Upon further examination of the innumerable carvings attached to the structure, we found that the fort named, “Driftwood Lodge,” was constructed in 1981.
We calculated that we were now only 18 kilometres from Aubrey Falls and the end of our trip. In view of savouring the journey a little bit longer, we decided to take a rest day here, which we spent in leisure on the island and exploring the sheer cliffs surrounding the lake. With night closing in and a strange, eerie blood moon emerging over the horizon, we gathered around the fire and I carved a few words into a plank of wood to be added to the fort:
ERIK – LACHLAN – KEVIN – DEVIN – JONO – JOHN
MISSISSAGI OR BUST 2020
The last full day of the trip was now upon us and we targeted one final campsite approximately 15 kilometres away on Aubrey Lake at a place called Carter Island. The weather was fair and sunny with a slight coolness hanging in the air. A west wind greeted us as we paddled through Seismic Narrows and amongst its sheer stately cliffs.
We soon found ourselves turning the last corner of this massive lake and faced a 720-metre portage around Rocky Island Lake Dam – a large storage dam, built in 1949, that preserves water above the Aubrey Falls hydroelectric generating station.
Much like Rocky Island Lake, Aubrey Lake is rugged and picturesque with massive hills and towering land formations rising regally from its shorelines. We landed at our planned site on the east side of Carter Island, which afforded an endless northeast vantage of sprawling island studded waters bounded by a large range.
Within two hours of landing at Carter Island, however, the weather took a turn for the worse. Dark, brooding clouds formed to the west and high winds picked up – we could see rain rapidly approaching over the lake. Kevin and Jono’s tents, which were held to the ground with stones, flipped suddenly in the howling wind and we scrambled to re-anchor them as large heavy drops of rain pummelled the campsite.
As I ran back into the bush toward my tent to find relief from the storm, John met me on the trail and, struggling to make his voice heard over the chaos surrounding us, pointed out a medium-sized spruce tree that was breaking at its base in the wind. Before our eyes and to our astonishment, the tree fell through the forest before meeting its resting place on the forest floor – right in between our tents.
Within an hour, the electrical storm and rain had ceased entirely and I emerged from my tent to find tame skies and calm waters surrounding our island. Lachlan pointed to the east at the dwindling remnants of a rainbow.
We saw the existing conditions as a perfect excuse to fish and bagged several bass and walleye as the light grey skies developed a strong pink and purple hue. Jono and John set to work preparing our haul over the stove and campfire, and we capped our final night in the woods with a delicious feast.
Having resolved to wake up early and paddle the remaining four kilometres to our cars at the Aubrey Falls spillway, we found ourselves on the water shortly after 7 a.m. The cloudless skies were a wonderful colour of deep blue and the horizons of this ancient land, with its mammoth cliffs and ridges, were fully shrouded by thick tufts of morning mist. It seemed as if we were gliding through the sky itself.
On we paddled into Brookfield Bay, passing a flock of ducks cruising along the shoreline. We could now see the bright red warning booms of the Aubrey Falls hydroelectric generating station before us and hugged the right hand side of the river to our takeout point at the spillway. Finally at our journey’s end, we pulled our boats on shore, shook hands and celebrated.
To conclude our adventure, we drove around to the main entrance of Aubrey Falls Provincial Park and hiked the short trail to view the falls itself.
Aubrey Falls is a spectacular cataract that drops 53 metres over ten distinct segments containing upwards of 25 chutes that cut through orange granite. Despite the fact that the falls are dam controlled, all paddlers of the Mississagi should stop here to enjoy its incredible majesty. The best view of the falls comes at the end of the trail, past the Tom Thomson memorial, past the footbridge that spans a chasm over the river and up to the top of the adjacent ridge.
Our full journey on the Upper Mississagi spanned 11 days, 10 nights, 172.4 kilometres of travel, including 19 portages and a drop of 64 metres in elevation from beginning to end.
Although the river has been indelibly impacted by the hand of industry – logging and energy projects are clear examples – the upper stretch of the river to Aubrey Falls shows little evidence of this. For many, it may be disheartening to think of the influence that humans have had in altering this waterway, especially south of the falls, but this river is still one of the finest I’ve had the joy of paddling.
The Mississagi is a river that deserves to be travelled over 10 days or more. Its incredible and varied scenery, biodiversity, and unique history command sufficient time to explore and savour this wild place. This is, after all, the river of a hundred ghosts – a place of grand adventure, through which many have passed and where few tread. And yet signs still endure: the fire tower; the old cabin; the lodge made of driftwood; the centuries-old portage trails themselves. This river has seen generations of Indigenous hunters and trappers; the great canoe brigades; the lumberjacks; a great artist; and a conservationist and a writer, who once scribed the following words:
There comes the song of a white-throat, high in the trees, above me. I hear the roaring of the River, the endless noisy march-past of the River; and the distant rumour of the rapids sounds like the conversation of the Dead.
The plaintive, unfinished melody of the little bird trailing off into utter silence, burdened with all the sadness, all the heart-throb, all the glory of the North, and infinitely beautiful, sounds the Requiem of the Lost Brigade–singing, singing in a far-away cadence, farther and farther–fainter –fainter–