Story and photos by Erik Thomsen
Grey vapours loomed above us as we stood on the edge of Mattice Lake in Armstrong, Ontario. The cool, early morning air held a faint scent of smoke; a manifestation of record-breaking wildfires raging just to our west that would claim some 800,000 hectares of boreal forest by the end of summer, 2021. Under the hazy, overcast sky, a slight breeze tickled the surface of the lake. The water was cold and dark and the forest was dark too. The scene held a magnetic gloominess that stoked my sense of anticipation. We were about to begin an adventure through the heart of Wabakimi Provincial Park – a land of some 10,000 lakes and 2,000 kilometres of canoe routes.
Our group – Jono Kuketz, Kevin Groombridge, Lachlan McVie and myself – had just finished pulling the last of our gear onto the dock along side our two 16-foot prospector canoes. We were equipped to spend two weeks in the backcountry and now eagerly awaited the arrival of the floatplane that would be our vessel to the interior.
In 2017, we had paddled Wabakimi’s Kopka River system – a trip that I remember with great fondness for its solitude, its broad expanses of rugged and unblemished taiga, its impeccable weather, its thrilling rapids and mighty waterfalls. We now sought to rediscover a measure of the challenge, exhilaration and wonder of that unforgettable journey in this new Wabakimi experience.
In consultation with Bruce Hyer, operator of Wabakimi Outfitters and wilderness advocate whose efforts were pivotal to the park’s creation in 1983, we settled on a 250 kilometre, three-stage route through the park. First, we would take a floatplane to the northeast end of McEwen Lake (just south of Allanwater Bridge1) and travel north on the Allanwater River to Wabakimi Lake via Brennan Lake and Granite Lake. Next, we would continue to follow the Allanwater north to Whitewater Lake via Kenoji Lake and the western end of the Ogoki River. Finally, after paddling the entire breadth of Whitewater Lake from west to east, we would travel south and exit at Little Caribou Lake via Lonebreast Bay, the Caribou River and Caribou Lake.
1Note: a more conventional means of initiating a trip beginning at Allanwater Bridge is by train from Armstrong or beyond. In our case, we opted to access the area by floatplane to save ourselves time as the COVID-19 pandemic had severely limited passenger service along the rail line in the summer of 2021.
In this land, fire-driven swaths of scraggly black spruce and jack pine tower over thick carpets of sphagnum moss and provide shelter for a diverse range of creatures. Glacial activity and the retreat of Lake Agassiz some 10,000 years ago have provided for a sprawling array of vast lakes, tumbling rivers and waterfalls. Indeed, the word “Wabakimi” itself derives from the Ojibway term for “white water” – a probable reference to the scores of rapids and falls and windswept lakes that characterize the region. Scenic rockscapes, also formed by glacial activity, account for a quarter of the park’s total surface area. These barren stretches of lichen-covered rock not only provide excellent opportunities for canoe camping but are also prime habitat for the provincially threatened woodland caribou. With only 300 inhabiting the park and 5,000 remaining in the province, we could only hope to spot one of these magnificent creatures.
The route is also distinguished by a fascinating human heritage. Archaeological records, particularly north of the park along the Albany River, suggest that Indigenous peoples have populated the area for some 7,000 years. The original inhabitants lived semi-nomadic lifestyle, shifting habitation according to availability of seasonal food sources. Innumerable, well-preserved Indigenous pictograph sites remain to this day, as do portage trails and campsites, which themselves are relics of a bygone age.
The abandoned hermitage of Wendell Beckwith is another major point of interest along the route. A legendary figure in the area, Beckwith escaped from civilization in 1961 to the seclusion of an encampment on Best Island on Whitewater Lake. Here he lived until his death in 1980, conducting what he described as “pure research” of the natural world, unencumbered by the distractions of modern society. Beckwith’s story and the site of the cabins still hold a strong allure to travelers of the region to this day.
Part I – Allanwater Bridge to Wabakimi Lake (Days 1-4)
As we waited on the dock, from somewhere beyond a bend in the shoreline, we heard the steady rumble of the engine of the 1958 de Havilland Otter that would provide us access to the park. The sound became louder as the craft slowly taxied toward us and finally came into view, revealing a slick navy blue and white fuselage.
With the plane moored, gear loaded and boats strapped to the craft’s massive pontoons, we climbed into the plane ourselves. The engine roared to life. The dock drifted off behind us as we proceeded toward the centre of the lake for take off. Once in place, the pilot slowly pushed the thrust lever forward and the engine responded in kind, sending us forward with rapidly escalating speed. By the time we passed the dock again we were 100 metres in the sky and well on our way to the interior.
From the air, a lush green carpet of lake-spangled forest stretched into infinity. In an instant, we had been plucked from a world of certainty, comfort and security and hurled into one where chance, mystery and peril are the elements that hold sway. A wide wilderness lay before us in immense scale and awesome grandeur. We would be traversing it – to the horizon and beyond. We would endure its toil, confront its hardships and learn through dogged endeavour of its steep ways. We knew in the end, as always, that we would find a way to reconcile with this place, however stark and uncompromising.
The sprawling greenery below us was, for a few brief moments, interrupted by large brown patches of disturbed earth – evidence of logging activity before the eastern edge of the park’s boundary. We also soon spotted a straight dark line cutting through the trees to the north as well. This, of course, was the Canadian National rail line that passes through the southern extremity of the park. Following the path of the line over bogland, lakes and through vast stretches of forest, we were ultimately able to locate the spot along the tracks just north of Beagle Lake that we had used to access the Kopka system by train in 2017.
Eventually, the plane entered low hanging clouds and the pilot began to descend. Through the mist, from the shape of the lake, I could tell that we had arrived at our destination. Suddenly, our pilot executed a thrilling, sharp bank, encircling the lake before decelerating and crisply landing on the near still waters below. The pilot anchored the plane just off a golden beach on the north side of McEwen. Before letting us away he wished us luck and provided the ominous advice that any rescue required us to be on water that was at least two kilometres in width, noting too that he had extracted no fewer than six ill-fated parties in the prior season.
The plane was soon back in the air and grew ever smaller in the sky until it disappeared over the trees to the south. We were alone now, surrounded by the dark forests of northern Ontario. A cool, shadowy atmosphere hung around us as we stood on the sand. Everything but our red and green canoes and the vibrant tan beach below our feet seemed to be coloured in a tone of grey. What a strange, isolating feeling it is to be dropped off into the remote bush by plane.
We silently pushed off from our beach and made the first paddle strokes of our journey back. Within three or four kilometres, we had paddled under Allanwater Bridge and almost instantly entered a charred landscape ravaged by fires only six years prior. Here, large dead trunks towered over dense green shrubs on either side of the narrowing river as we approached our first rapids of the trip. A large bald eagle, the first of at least 20 we would see on the trip, soared above us as the sun burned off the morning mist. Over the following 10 or 15 kilometres we tackled several class I and II rapids, with the river flowing well despite relatively low water levels.
In the afternoon we came upon a dilapidated trapper’s log cabin that we briefly explored. The front side of the building was the only part that remained intact. Its facade leaned aggressively backwards and away from the river, propped up by its decaying side walls. A collection of old rusted artifacts – cooking pots, pans, a bed spring – remained inside. Soon this site would be fully reclaimed by nature – akin to the seemingly inevitable fate of the Beckwith cabins we would encounter later in our journey.
Further along, we portaged across a sizeable island in the middle of the river. Both channels around the island were entirely un-runnable with the south end characterized by a large, voluminous and likely deadly waterfall. We had now traveled 27 kilometres on the day and thought our progress sufficient to pitch camp, which we did on a spit of flat granite on the river’s west shore, in earshot of the fall’s murmur.
The following day, a long paddle north on the Allanwater under sunny, but hazy skies, brought us to the base of a high-volume rapids. Here we jumped out of the boats for a quick swim while Lachlan cast a line, bagging five pike and walleye in what seemed to be less than ten casts. The fishing here was incredible.
En route to Brennan Lake, we stopped at two pictograph sites. The first, a rock face near Stump Lake, included a series of caribou footprints, signifying the importance of the once bountiful caribou to the Indigenous populations of the area. We found the second site along the eastern edge of a rocky, dome-shaped island at the southwest end of Brennan Lake, amongst a landscape devastated by fires in 2015. This site, adorned with bright purple fireweed that clung to the face of the island’s granite wall, held pictographs of a caribou being hunted and various human figures of good quality.
As we departed the second pictograph site, dark clouds swept up above, and we decided it would be prudent to establish camp. We had just finished staking our tents on an outcrop amongst a stand of scorched spruce, when a violent weather system swirled in and pelted our encampment with heavy rain. Calm conditions prevailed soon thereafter, and we were treated to a surreal sunset of pastel blues and oranges.
Our seven-kilometre journey across the east end of Brennan Lake the following morning was hampered by strong, cold headwinds that forced us into a routine of feverish paddling in high waves, interspersed by periods of momentary reprieve as we found shelter behind Brennan’s plentiful islands and peninsulas.
By lunch time, we had made it to the base of Brennan Falls – a spectacular and treacherous chute that connects Brennan with Granite Lake. Bruce had warned us that he had once thrown a log into the maw of this violent torrent and found it circulating two days later.
At the north end of Granite Lake we began searching for a place to stop for the night as thunder had begun to rattle ever more intensely in the distance. Ultimately we found a beautiful, flat campsite that held a massive carpet of feather moss and a supreme northerly vantage. For a second consecutive day, we had pitched our tents just in time to gain shelter from a late afternoon storm.
As the crashing thunder subsided, I emerged from my tent to find the most glorious blue skies above – a significant and welcome departure from the smoky haze that had floated above us to this point. This, in turn, would yield an exceptionally vivid, tapestry of stars that evening, which were complemented by the nearby calling of loons.
The remainder of our time at the site was not without incident. We had each turned in to our respective tents around midnight, when Kevin, whose tent was pitched on the edge of dense forest about 30 metres from the rest of the group, began violently gargling and heaving. Believing he was in medical distress or being confronted by some wild animal, I emerged from my tent on high alert to render aid. As it turns out, the four-day old corned beef he had consumed for dinner that evening did not agree with him.
The following day, we woke to heavy rain and bided our time, both to let the weather pass and to allow Kevin time to recuperate. After 11am, we set off and completed the final expanse of Granite Lake before following the Allanwater further north. Our goal for the day was to complete the notorious 1,600-metre crossing of Wabakimi Lake, which we knew would be perilous due to wind.
At the base of Osprey Falls, we stopped to fish and had good luck again, catching both walleye and pike. Further down river we portaged around Black Beaver Rapids, paddled most of Little Sturgeon Rapids, and took the mandatory portage around Sturgeon Falls, where we found a well-preserved, sun-bleached beaver maxilla.
On approach to Wabakimi Lake the river broadened dramatically. Massive swells, which gave way to cresting three-foot waves welcomed us to the lake. Serious white caps hammered our canoes in a chaotic flurry, and we struggled to make any progress in the maelstrom. We recognized that we stood absolutely no chance of completing the crossing and opted to hug the southeastern shore of the lake to find a location to camp.
In the end, we found respite at the far southeastern shoreline of the lake at a jack pine-shrouded campsite that appeared to have been derelict for decades. Amongst strong, whirring winds and a late evening drizzle, we nervously wondered what the next day would bring.
Part II – Wabakimi Lake to Whitewater Lake (Days 5-7)
I awoke in the predawn to the unceasing and uneasy hush of wind in the pines. I had not looked at the lake but thought then that our prospects of crossing might be compromised.
The rest of the group soon roused and we developed a game plan to traverse the lake which involved sheltering in the lee of the sporadic islands that separated our location and the northern coast. Jono had rightfully expressed concerns about the magnitude of the waves and our ability to cross, but the rest of us thought it would be manageable. As a compromise, we decided to attempt a crossing to the first island (perhaps three hundred metres to our northeast). There we would determine whether the larger portions of the crossing could be completed. This island, according to our map, held a campsite that we could use if the larger crossing were unattainable. Ultimately, we would have been best served to stay put, as it became clear early on in our attempt, that the waves would be too powerful.
Once in the lee of the island we anchored our canoes and began to cut through the island’s thick brush in search of a site. Alas, the best we could find was a shrubby, root-laden, partially exposed clearing, not fit for tents. Here, we set to work, with trees flailing above, to build a wind and rain break with our tarps, recognizing we would likely be marooned for many hours. We would later learn that the winds had reached almost 90 km/h that day.
The general dreariness of our situation was compounded by the fact that we knew we were losing an opportunity to make headway in our journey. Worse was the fear of being stranded here for multiple days in the event that the winds failed to let up. We buoyed our spirits with whiskey and tales of old times on the river.
In spite of our situation, I felt a great sense of gratitude to be here. On this day, this wild, windswept lake, with its scores of islands and endless coastline, was our home. Wind, crashing waves and shrubby, uneven ground notwithstanding, we had everything we needed.
Amongst the sheer wind and spray off the water, I decided to scramble up the exposed western shore of the island to an elevated area we had not yet explored to gain a better vantage of the awesome tumult occurring over the big water. As I crested a rocky ledge, an old fire pit appeared before me and, above it, a large clearing. Unwittingly, I had stumbled across the campsite marked on our map. We would be in good stead for the evening – a small measure of redemption that meant a great deal.
We awoke at 5:30 am the next morning in an effort to beat the wind, though we could already hear the waves crashing against the shore. Through the dim, predawn light, I could see that the water was turbulent, but not insurmountable, but we had to act quickly. We gathered our gear and cast off shortly after 6 am with no breakfast.
The crossing was about 1,500 metres in distance and was buffered by an occasional island. The high wind and large cresting waves, however, presented a treacherous situation. I had written in my journal at the time that this was “likely amongst the most challenging crossings I had ever completed” given the size, strength and unpredictability of the waves. Elation and humility awaited us upon completion, in the mouth of River Bay, north of Wabakimi Lake, where the strong headwinds eased into pushy tailwinds.
Invigorated by our success, we conquered each of the several rapids between Wabakimi Lake and Kenoji Lake, and we were even greeted by a large black bear along the way, which ambled down the shoreline before bolting into the woods.
Past Kenoji, we paddled an additional series of rapids without issue, until a minor mishap occurred when Kevin and Lachlan’s canoe tipped on the exit of a tricky set. Wet, but not demoralized (though the skies were gloomy and the air cold), we continued on, completed a 400-metre portage through a burn, and soon officially entered the Ogoki River system.
It was late in the day when we arrived at Whitewater Lake. We found a long, sheltered cove on the south shore of the lake’s western segment and pitched our tents on the sand. The sky was clear with a splendid sunset in the west, which I watched solo from my canoe. We had traveled 45 kilometres from our island site on Wabakimi Lake and were now positioned to make it to the Beckwith site within a day.
The following morning was sunny and calm – a major relief considering the vastness of Whitewater Lake – the largest body of water in Wabakimi. Eventually, we ducked into a channel and found our way past the old Ogoki Lodge, another fascinating relic of Wabakimi’s earlier days.
The Ogoki Lodge site, initially developed in the mid-1970s, was funded by the provincial government and operated by local Anishinabe as a remote tourism outpost. At the time of our visit, the complex contained 15 or more rustic buildings, including a large, architecturally-unique main lodge designed in the shape of a teepee. Unfortunately, the cost of upkeep, coupled with the site’s remoteness, meant that the Ogoki Lodge operation would have been difficult to financially sustain. Several years of disuse and neglect had exacted a serious, and perhaps irreversible impact on many of the buildings.
Beckwith’s cabins, situated on Best Island, were now less than two kilometres away, but as it happened, this was not the primary reward we received for our toil. On approaching the island, Jono spotted something swimming off the shore ahead of us. As we drew closer, we saw that it was a woodland caribou.
The woodland caribou is known as the grey ghost of the boreal forest for its scarcity and elusiveness – a moniker that may provide an unfortunate presage to the fate of this magnificent creature. Once bountiful, the remaining caribou are threatened by habitat degradation and fragmentation due to development.
Grey-brown, with matted fur and stunted antlers – this young caribou was the most incredible creature I have ever seen in the wild. We watched it silently and in awe as it emerged from the water, shook itself dry, and slowly, regally, trotted along the shoreline, surprisingly indifferent to our presence. It loomed for a while and then, as quickly as it had entered into our view, it vanished into the woods without a trace. With its departure, this mysterious creature of the north left behind enduring feelings of wonder, enchantment, sadness and hope that stir within me to this day. There before us was the embodiment of all the magic and mystique of the wilderness – long may it live.
Part III – Whitewater Lake to Little Caribou Lake (Days 8-11)
Approximately, 200 metres from where we had seen the caribou was a small, sheltered beach that marked the landing to the Wendell Beckwith site.
As noted, Beckwith, a design engineer and inventor by trade (though he held limited formal education), came to Best Island in 1961 to conduct research on the natural world including issues related to gravitation and radiation. Bankrolled by a wealthy businessman named Harry Wirth, and with periodic assistance from a nearby Indigenous community, Beckwith lived as a hermit on the site conducting research, experiments and devising inventions until his death in 1980.
Beckwith’s hermitage contains five log structures (three cabins, a shed and an outhouse), all of which we found to be in varying stages of decay. The main cabin, the first built in the early 1960s and Beckwith’s initial refuge, had in recent years collapsed entirely in on itself. The guest cabin, and second one to be built (in the late 1960s), remained in the best condition with little structural damage. The cabin was mostly used by Rose Chaltry, who lived on the site and assisted Beckwith periodically over several years in the 1970s. Though the contents of the building, which included a mattress, old mugs, cookware, lanterns, books and faded National Geographic magazines, were scattered in disarray, they helped to provide a real conception of how life would have been here 50 years ago.
The most interesting and unique structure on the island is the cabin that was Beckwith’s principal dwelling, which he termed the “Snail” for its circular, shell-like appearance. The cabin, designed by Beckwith himself, included sleeping area, a workbench, storage cabinets, a centrally located stove and rotating heat shield that would allow Beckwith to optimize heat distribution during Wabakimi’s brutally cold winters. Unfortunately, the Snail is quickly being reclaimed by nature and, at the time of our visit, had a large hole in the ceiling which will undoubtedly contribute to its rapid deterioration.
That afternoon we set up our tents at a campsite directly abutting the cabins and often found ourselves drawn back into the forest to marvel at the structures and contemplate this fascinating part of Wabakimi’s story.
In the morning we were on the water before 8 am to avoid facing high winds across the remaining portion of Whitewater Lake. We had traveled 164 kilometres and were now less than 90 kilometres from the end of our route. We were anxious to make progress since we expected strong headwinds in the long section that lay ahead through McKinley Lake and Lonebreast Bay.
Our concerns were justified as this day would be among the toughest of the trip. Though the weather was warm and sunny, we would tackle at least six portages of varying length and complete three major lake crossings into relentless whitecaps. By the late afternoon we had traveled over 28 kilometres and, completely exhausted, decided to pull into an island site on Lonebreast Bay. As we pulled up to the site we noticed it was occupied by a lone black bear, which dashed off and swam away as we approached.
That evening the thick haze in the air present at the onset of our trip had once again returned. As the sun dropped lower in the sky it became increasingly enveloped by the haze from the western fires and projected an unnatural, eerie orange-red hue.
In the morning we paddled out of Lonebreast and along the shore of Smoothrock Lake in dicey conditions and risked being thrashed against a minefield of hidden boulders that lay just below the surface of the water. In Caribou Bay, we were fortunate to catch a tailwind that brought us to an excellent campsite near Funger Lake. Here we spent the remainder of the day catching fish and celebrated the imminent completion of our trip with a fish fry as the sun set again.
We made quick progress heading upstream on the Caribou River and emerged onto Caribou Lake, a vast and stunningly beautiful lake containing hundreds of small islands, surrounded by large rugged hills and ridges. The north shore of Caribou Lake also marks the edge of the park’s official boundary. The final 15 or 20 kilometres of our trip south would now be through general use Crown land.
We had been concerned about the difficulty of crossing this large body of water due to its potential for high waves, but on approaching the mouth of the Caribou River we appeared to be in luck as we met an easy southwest wind. After weaving our way through islands over approximately six kilometres, we came to the Little Caribou Lake portage – the last of the trip. We were now on the home stretch of our adventure.
We paddled Caribou Lake slowly, enjoying the final leg and found an old overgrown campsite, perched atop a rocky slope that we would revitalize for our final evening of our Wabakmi adventure. The site was carpeted with thousands of blueberries which we picked away at as we set up our tents. We were less than five kilometres from our takeout point, a distance we would cover in less than an hour under glass-like conditions the following morning. There we would find our shuttle back to Armstrong.
Our journey through Wabakimi Provincial Park covered 252 kilometres over 11 days. Over our time here we experienced the fickle nature and full spectrum of the boreal’s mid-summer temperaments – blistering heat, bone-chilling rain, gale force winds, furious thunderstorms, serene glassy waters, bluebird skies, smoky sundowns.
Wabakimi, with its sweeping fairy tale forests of spruce and feather moss, represents all that is extraordinary about the Canadian wilderness: the thrill of a dash down the challenging torrents of the Allanwater; the surreal fire-ravaged rockscapes of Brennan Lake and earth shaking power of Brennan Falls; the ancient rock art; the chill in the western gales on Wabakimi Lake; the blast of the summer headwinds on Lonebreast Bay; the fading cabins of Best Island; the grey ghosts of the boreal forest.
Back at Mattice Lake, we bid farewell to our gracious hosts at Wabakimi Outfitters, packed up our cars and turned south on Highway 527. The long road home now lay ahead. Suddenly, as a final reminder of the still wild and magical world we were leaving behind, a lone grey wolf dashed across road and vanished in the scrub. I glanced back in my rearview mirror and was affected by a feeling of wistful fulfilment, as though I was leaving a part of myself behind in this storied land.
Acknowledgment: Planning and execution of this adventure relied heavily on the advice and expertise of Bruce Hyer of Wabakimi Outfitters. We also relied on information provided through the community, including incredibly detailed trip information available at <https://albinger.me>.