Paddling the Green River through Canyonlands National Park

In the summer of 1869 a one-armed Civil War veteran named John Wesley Powell put together a ten-man expedition to explore and chart the Green River and Colorado River from Wyoming to the Grand Canyon. Over 99 days and close to 1000 miles, he and his men navigated unmapped canyons and plunging rapids, enduring searing heat, the destruction of one of their four boats, the dangers of rattlesnakes and rock slides and scorpions as big as a hand, and the loss of most of their hats to violent winds and waves.

Maj. John W. Powell

The trip was not without its controversies—several of Powell’s biographers have made light of evidence that the major was a bit loose with the facts of the journey, and that he suppressed any publication of rival trip reports by his men. More controversial is the fate of the three members of the party who, just 80 miles or so from the end, decided to abandon the expedition, leave the river, hike out of the canyon, and set out across the desert for a Mormon settlement. That they died a horrible death is certain, though whether by thirst or by Indian attack (in a case of mistaken identity) is still debated. More questionable still is the fact that Major Powell, upon reaching the end of his expedition and returning to Washington D.C., never sent a search party to look for the lost men, nor even inquire after their fate.

Notwithstanding the critiques of Powell himself, his expedition remains one of the great achievements in American exploration. The historian Wallace Stegner called it “the second opening of the West,” after Lewis and Clark’s adventure. The last major blank space of terra incognita on the American map was filled in, not to mention the contributions to geology, biology, geography, and meteorology that the expedition yielded.

Drawn in by Powell’s harrowing adventures and vivid descriptions of the desert, and intrigued by the prospect of canoeing through Utah’s famous Canyonlands, our party embarked on a 56-mile (90km) slice of river adventure, meager by some standards, but just fine by ours. After all, it was June. In the desert. And we had no intention of having to quit and walk out.

Sunrise over the Colorado River near Spanish Bottom, Canyonlands National Park


When thinking of these rocks one must not conceive of piles of boulders or heaps of fragments, but of a whole land of naked rock, with giant forms carved on it: cathedral-shaped buttes, towering hundreds or thousands of feet, cliffs that cannot be scaled, and canyon walls that shrink the river into insignificance.
John Wesley Powell, 17 July 1869, along the Green River north of the confluence with the Colorado River

In a Nutshell
Nights: 4
Paddling distance: 56 miles (90km)
Portages: 0 (That’s right, I said zero!)
Outfitter: Tex’s Riverways, Moab: canoes, paddles, water jugs (6 x 6.5 gallons), portable toilet, fire pan (never used), drop-off at Mineral Bottom, and jet-boat exfiltration back to Moab.
Paddlers: The author, curly-bearded rock-hopper from Toronto, and three Texans: Mike, master photographer and logistics champion; Dave, marathon runner and optimistic father of teenagers; and Michael, canoeing rookie and laundry enthusiast.

Mud flats at Bonita Bend, Green River, Canyonlands National Park


DAY 1: A determined engineer with a wicked sense of adventure is no doubt responsible for the section of Canyonlands’ White Rim Road that plunges over the edge of a mesa and drops 1000 feet to the river below, with a dozen or so switchbacks desperately cleaving to the side of the cliff.

At the bottom of that cliff, at a place called Mineral Bottom, we pushed off in a pair of 17-foot aluminum canoes in the mid-morning white glare. We launched just ahead of a party of 25 or so teenaged rafters and their guides, who planned to float the Green River lazily for four days before shooting the famed Cataract Canyon and its 75 sets of whitewater rapids. Our itinerary would stop us just short of that goal, though this wouldn’t be the last time we saw the kids.

Paddling moderately along the Green River’s swift current, with the torch-red sandstone of Labyrinth Canyon towering high above us, we made the 11 miles (17.5km) to Fort Bottom in a little under three hours. Along the way we stopped at a sandbar island to gape at the natural amphitheatre forming in the cliffs opposite Point Bottom.

Fort Bottom is a broad plateau of desert scrub forming a bowl beneath the sweeping rim of the canyon. There are ample spots for tents, though little shade. We spent much of the afternoon in the shadow of a tiny four-man alcove, and the temperature held at 90°F where in the sun it was 104.

After waiting out the afternoon’s heat, we marched up to the Fort Bottom ruins before sunset, a twenty-minute hike to a promontory overlooking a 360-degree panorama of the bending river. We scrambled about the 800-year-old ruins of a Puebloan watchtower, and watched Dave jog up the Fort Bottom trail almost to the White Rim Road just before the sun fell below the rim to the west. We lost sight of him for awhile, and feared he’d slipped off the scree, so Michael and I took the med kit and trotted after him, unnecessarily worried, until he appeared, exhilarated and unhurt, from around a hidden bend.

Following a dinner of steak fajitas and single malt, we watched the stars emerge in a moonless sky and welcomed the local bats on their evening bug-eating sortie. I commenced reading Edward Abbey‘s Desert Solitaire, which he wrote in the early 1960s after serving a brief tenure as a ranger in nearby Arches National Park. Mike prepared his tripod to shoot the Milky Way, enlisting the others’ help to light the tents during the long exposure. The first night in the backcountry is always a late night–we’re too excited to sleep.

Paddling distance: 11 miles (17.5km)



“The desert is made first and foremost out of light, at least to the eye and the heart, and you quickly learn that the mountain range twenty miles away is pink at dawn, a scrubby green at midday, blue in the evening and under clouds.”
Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

DAY 2: Sunrise struck the Fort Bottom bluffs with diagonal streaks of orange light, and before long the heat of June compelled us to return quickly to the relative coolness of the river. We paddled our way around the bend and hauled down the 3-mile straightaway of Potato Bottom. On our left flank the sandstone gave way to bulbous limestone formations overhanging the water, providing some shade from the fast-rising sun.

With the mercury soaring the term of the day became “evaporative cooling”—frequently we soaked our hats, bandanas and shirts into the water to chill our skin. Around the bend at Beaver Bottom we spotted a small notch in the cliffs with a triangular beach in full shade, and we pulled over for a snack break and some low-level rock climbing.

Later, while paddling around the flank of Millard Canyon the ballyhooed Buttes of the Cross came into view, so named by Major Powell for their cruciform appearance high above the river.

We had planned to stop for a midday hike in the horseshoe canyon at Anderson Bottom, near Bonita Bend. But the teenage rafters had overrun the prime landing spot, and with the sun bearing down on us from its noon peak, we decided to push on.

Around the bend at Valentine Bottom an enormous cleft appeared in the 600-foot wall to our left—a peek into Holeman Canyon, another reputed hiking spot. Beyond this bend, Labyrinth Canyon officially gives way to Stillwater Canyon, and the change is apparent in the rock formations. Above the ochre sandstone walls a hundred-foot-tall “bench” of limestone lies like a thick layer of white icing on a red-velvet cake.

The heat bore down on us, and Michael took the opportunity to dry out the laundry he’d done in a large Ziploc bag with an agitation of Dr. Bronner’s peppermint soap and river water. This earned him the nickname “Spin Cycle” for the remainder of the trip.

We took a short, buggy break among the desert willows on a beach opposite the famed Millard Canyon Benches, and then powered on to Turk’s Head. This unmistakable natural tower is formed by a three-mile erosion of the limestone band, separating Turk’s Head from the rest of the canyon wall.

Turk’s Head (left) and the plateau above the Green River

Three-quarters of the way around the bend lay an exquisite campsite on a bluff above a bench of hard white sand, partially shaded by the cliffs. A twenty-mile morning of paddling came to a close with a cool swim in the swift current, after which we waited out the afternoon heat in the shade.

By 5pm the sun had waned enough for us to begin the scramble up the 100-foot cliff to the Martian landscape of the Turk’s Head plateau. Above the plateau, Turk’s Head itself towers another 300 feet, and we scrambled most of this elevation over red-and-white talus until we reached the nose, beyond which we could not hope to climb without ropes and protection. As the pinks and yellows of sunset began to appear in the sky, we could see a full-circle panorama of the river bend, the canyon walls, the expansive mesas, and the distant, isolated buttes beyond Deadhorse Canyon.

Later, from our campsite on the ledge over the river we gaped at the afterglow of the sunset lighting the easterly clouds, and again the bats whirled among us hunting insects. Despite the lingering heat we crawled into the tents around twilight, pleasantly aching from the toil and the sun, and passed out.

Paddling distance: 20 miles (32km); cumulative 31 miles (50km)



“The river itself sets the tone: utterly relaxed, completely at ease, it fulfills its mighty purpose without aim or effort. Only the slow swing of the canyon walls overhead and the illusory upstream flow of willows, tamarisk and boulders on the shore reveal and indicate the sureness of our progress to the sea.”
Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

DAY 3: Another sunrise exposure compelled us to pack up camp swiftly and peel off onto the river by 8am. Today the thermometer would reach 109°F, the highest of our five-day expedition.

Our goal of the day was 16 miles to Water Canyon, but the absence of a good landing and the presence of another canoeing party obliged us to paddle on to Powell Canyon; thus another 20-mile day.

Along the way, the walls of Stillwater Canyon became narrower along the river, providing us with some shade along the left bank for the first couple of hours. A blue heron, or possibly several different blue herons, journeyed just ahead of us, always launching itself into a low glide just before we could bring it squarely into the frames of our smart-phone lenses, as the DSLR zooms were stowed in dry bags.

We made fast progress over the 12 miles down to Jasper Canyon, where we stopped for a snack break, a short hike and a brief swim. The awesome waterfalls of Jasper had already dried up for the summer, but we still marveled at the colossal cliffs and what remained of the green hanging gardens.

Bend in the Green River seen from the mouth of Jasper Canyon

After another 5 miles we arrived at the mouth of Water Canyon, where a narrow side stream emerges to meet the Green River. Paddling up this creek we found another canoe party eating lunch in the shade of the cliffs, and though there was a decent campsite just beyond them, we didn’t feel like stopping here, and so we paddled back out and continued down river.

At Powell Canyon just before 2pm, we beached our gear and dove into a cliffside alcove for lunch—grapefruit and blueberries, plus the last of our cheese and salami—and a nap in our camp chairs. Around 5pm, the teenage rafting party whirled around the bend in the swift current and literally bumped into the rocky ledge below our campsite. They’d hoped to camp here too, but the flat spots were too few for an expedition of their size, and they pushed on for the Confluence. One of the overarching lessons of paddling the Green River in high season, in addition to evaporative cooling, is to choose your prime campsites by early afternoon or risk settling for lesser spots. There are more than two dozen campsites along the route, but they (and the hiking opportunities they afford) are not created equal.

Eveningtime we scrambled up the side canyon above our tent site hoping to find a breach in the overhanging band of limestone. We dared not climb the attractive cracks exposed to a fall of twenty feet or more, so instead we traversed over to Powell Canyon and hiked about halfway up its shaded grooves, rife with cedars and prickly pears, before the approaching dusk begged us to turn back.

We made falafel burgers for dinner and leaned back in our chairs, craning at another starry sky and wishing the desert heat to dissipate before we had to crawl in the tents. After dark, I walked up by headlamp to the spot where we’d stashed our dry bags, and found a black widow spider had spun herself a web in the alcove. Startled and instinctively deferential to venomous creatures, I wheeled about and left her to her nocturnal hunting.

As we sat in our camp chairs slowly sinking into the soft sand we all agreed we should probably know more, by this stage in life, about the cosmos and constellations and the like. Perhaps once we did know, only now our intelligence has become so localized that we can no longer remember. Perhaps we never needed to know until now.

It was a new moon, the darkest night in one of the darkest places in North America, and the night was bountiful. Mike set his internal alarm to 2a.m., the darkest time, and captured the sky for thirty seconds at 1600 ISO.

Paddling distance: 20 miles (32km); cumulative 51 miles (82km)

Starry sky and Milky Way from Powell Canyon, Green River, Canyonlands National Park (Photo by Mike Roberts, astrophotographer)



“The boaters floated on a serene current meandering through a vast assortment of rock formations high above—buttes, pinnacles, turrets, spires, castles, gulches, and alcoves of all kinds. These perpendicular cliffs of Navajo sandstone—with their red, amber, and chocolate layers—were curiously stained with jet-black sheets and streamers of desert varnish.
Cecil Kuhne, River Master: John Wesley Powell’s Legendary Exploration of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon

DAY 4: After breakfast—our standard fare of peanut butter and peanut M&Ms on a bagel—we had just a short one-mile paddle to the Confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers, where we pulled over on the long beach on the right shore as the teenage rafters were just breaking their camp. We scrambled up the scree and talus to a promontory offering a panorama of the two rivers becoming one.

The Colorado River was thick with rafting and canoe parties, and everyone was compelled to stop at the campsite register about two miles below the Confluence. Most of the rafting parties were sallying onward into Cataract Canyon, and so despite the congestion we were able to sign up for our preferred campsite at Lower Spanish Bottom, at the base of the Dollhouse Trail.

The final two miles of canoeing were the windiest of the trip, as the upriver breeze gained speed across the flat, mile-long plain of Spanish Bottom. Access to our campsite was up a steep bank, more than 10 feet high, and after tying our bowlines to willow roots we hauled up our entire outfit in the style of a bucket brigade. I slipped while helping Michael out of the canoe and quickly found myself neck deep in the water just six inches from shore, such is the drop-off.

The teenage rafting party was already docked for their afternoon hike up to the Dollhouse, an ethereal formation of caves, pillars and ledges atop the cliffs rising 1200 feet over the river. We enjoyed the broad shade of a cottonwood tree, under which we erected our hammock and camp chairs, waiting out the hot afternoon in a surprisingly strong and constant wind, which blew about our site. I felt free to read another eighty pages of Desert Solitaire while the others discussed and tied all sorts of fascinating knots.

After the rafters returned and embarked at last for the rapids and we saw them no more, we packed up a few snacks and water bottles and began the ascent of the Dollhouse. Along the steep trail, the vistas of Spanish Bottom and the distant bends in the river were nothing short of spectacular, but they almost paled in comparison to what awaited us at the top.

There is no more fitting end to the expedition than to reach the Dollhouse, especially at sunset. The views northward and westward into the Maze of Canyonlands, and southward and eastward into the Needles, transfix the tired hiker and hold him in a state of awe. The Dollhouse itself is a repository of narrow cracks and enormous fins of rock, and here we bouldered, hollered and scampered like children, careful not to trample any of the delicate vegetation, until at last the onsetting dusk bade us descend back to Spanish Bottom and cook one last dinner in the desert wilderness.

Paddling distance: 5 miles (8km); cumulative 56 miles (90km)




“The exploration was not made for adventure, but purely for scientific purposes, geographic and geologic.”
John Wesley Powell


“Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread.”
Edward Abbey

DAY 5: In the morning we lazed over multiple cups of coffee as a pair of mule deer does grazed nearby on some cottonwood leaves. We packed up our gear and awaited Tex’s jet boat, which arrived just before 11am to zip us and a few other canoe parties 50 miles up the Colorado River to Potash Landing, just short of Moab. The journey took two hours and was a breezy blur of ever redder and more spectacular canyons and cliffs, and as we motored onward the rushing winds made whitecaps on the water.

Our skin was caked with a week’s worth of sand, which no amount of swimming could adequately remove, and cracked from the brunt of the desert heat. Those of us still maintaining hair found it tangled and semi-bleached, and the sandal-shaped tan lines on our feet bore evidence of the daily battle with the sun. Though we never ran out of water we were still possessed of a deep thirst, which we quenched in town on sodas and beer before a sufficiently gluttonous post-trip feast at a Moab restaurant.

At sunset we ambled along the town’s sidewalks eating ice cream and stretching our backs. We stopped in at a local bookstore, where behind glass they keep a first-edition copy of Major Powell’s original account of his 1869 expedition. The clerk was delighted to show it to us; its large, gold-rimmed pages contain the serifed descriptions and illustrations of that original Green River exploration, though not one of us was prepared to part with the $2750 it would take to purchase the book. Better to hold the priceless experience of our own adventure close to our hearts.

In a chapter of Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey and a companion paddle down a section of the Colorado River upstream of the construction site of what would become the Glen Canyon dam. His goal is to explore the canyons one last time before they are lost to the reservoir, and his voyage is a silent protest to the engineers and bureaucrats. He writes:  “A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.” Much like John Muir, Abbey believed wild spaces should exist and thrive for their own sake, but Abbey also worried that the tides of industrial greed, overpopulation, and easy access would inevitably swamp the wilderness. As such this chapter of his book, so nearest our own experience, reads like an elegy, which tempers the delight of finishing an awesome trip like the Green River paddle. That’s probably for the best; one ought not take the wild–even a simple 5-day slice of it–for granted.

A few things that might make a great trip better:

In addition to the regular outfit of canoe-trip gear, we found the following things useful to bring to the desert:

  • More sunscreen than you think is possible
  • Long-sleeve shirts with SPF protection
  • A back-up hat (heed the lesson of Powell’s mutiny)
  • Extra lip balm and moisturizing lotion
  • A cooler with ice, plus a wet towel draped over the cooler
  • Enough water to quench an elephant’s thirst—we drank/used almost two gallons per day per man, and were glad to have more than 6 gallons left over at the end of the trip


All photos copyright © 2018 Richard A. Johnson, except where noted.

Paddling the Powell Forest Canoe Route, British Columbia

The broadest perspective on the Powell Forest Canoe Route is the one from the top of the mountain in the middle. Here, on the summit of Tin Hat—nearly 4000 feet above the Salish Sea, on a typically cloudless late summer day—you can take in a 360-degree panorama of the canoe circuit below you: large Lois Lake to the south reflecting the humpbacked Mt. Troubridge; silver-blue Horseshoe and Dodd Lakes to the southeast; the gem of Windsor Lake hidden behind a forested ridgeline to the east; Goat Lake bending around the horizon under snow-topped peaks to the northeast; and breezy Powell Lake to the north, curving around the tip of the provincial park, disappearing beyond another mountain, and reappearing to the southwest as it empties into Powell River.

And pockmarked across your magnificent vista: clear-cuts—forest circles, machine-torn land—woven by dusty logging roads that give the impression of blood vessels coursing through a tumour. This land is a beautiful tranche of Pacific Northwest rainforest. It is also a breathing, pulsating, chainsaw-roaring timber farm. The aroma on the air is glacial dust and distant sea salt, but the flavour of the forest is lumber.

Tin Hat Mountain—which our party climbed after completing a 109km loop journey through the lakes of Powell Forest—is named for the headgear of the early (safety-conscious) loggers who harvested these trees. But this wilderness now wears many hats: recreational, industrial, historical, environmental, aesthetic. It’s complex—to call it the opposite of how wilderness is often portrayed. And the fact that we stand on the traditional territory of the Tla’amin (Sliammon) First People, ceded to the Crown in a recent treaty, certainly doesn’t make it any less complicated.

In this beautiful, complex place we found ourselves on another Canadian canoe adventure: The Powell Forest Canoe Route, Sunshine Coast, British Columbia, July, 2016.


The Nutshell
Nights: 8 (including the last one atop Tin Hat Mountain)
Paddling Distance: 109km (the traditional route is about 65km and takes 4-5 days)
Portages: 6
Portage Distance: 7.5km
Mountain Hiking: 14km (round trip)
Mountain Elevation Gain: 2500ft
Outfitter: Mitchell’s Canoe & Kayak in the town of Powell River; lightweight canoes, paddles, PFDs and a shuttle service up the logging roads to and from the lakes.


Before you go travelling,
Before you cast off,
You thank the one who looks after us all,
He will be watching over me when I cast off.
–Tla’amin invocation, as told by elder Elsie Paul in
Written as I Remember It

DAY 1: We opened with a short, 5km late-afternoon paddle after driving up the coast from Vancouver and picking up provisions in town. We were four: Mike and Dave, amphibious rednecks from Texas; and Dean and me, insufferably patriotic Torontonians.

Christie, the amiable and detail-oriented proprietor of Mitchell’s outfitter, drove us down a logging road to the southwestern corner of Lois Lake and tipped us toward a primitive but magnificent campsite on an island where the lake widens. There was no picnic table at the campsite, but there was a broad beach encircling the island studded with statuesque stumps and deadheads—sun-bleached tree trunks towering out of the water, marking the extent of the forest before the lake was dammed and flooded. A warm, night-long breeze and a pink-and-peach sunrise energized us for the expedition ahead.


DAY 2: We paddled slowly out onto the wide expanse of Lois Lake, trolling our fishing lines behind the canoes. Under our hulls: a theatre of fish. There’s a hatchery on the north shore of Lois, and fish farms buoyed in the centre of the lake. Sure enough, before we were halfway to the eastern shore we’d hooked a pair.

Our brief morning on the water—only 11km to our next campsite—was at its best when a bald eagle swooped from an unseen nest and harvested a trout from the water, while somewhere in the woods of the south shore a chainsaw or industrial feller could be heard.

We navigated our way from Lois into Khartoum Lake, through a narrow, winding canal guarded by deadheads, several of which were eerily topped with eagle eyries. Beyond, Khartoum Lake presents like an inland fjord, with steep escarpments of conifers towering above each shore. A small cove on the north shore holds the lake’s only campsite (which was occupied, so we made camp on the beach next to the campsite).

Khartoum is an extra appendage off the regular Powell Forest route, but we found it worthwhile to explore. After setting up camp and napping, Dave and I paddled to the eastern end of the lake—an easy 5k each way—and caught a dinner-sized cutthroat trout for our efforts.

Cumulative: 26km paddling; 0 portages


Sweet sleep, come to me,
Underneath this tree.
William Blake

DAY 3: Khartoum Lake was absolutely still and a silent curtain of clouds gently glided over the mountaintops. The morning was saturated green. But when our paddling returned us to Lois Lake, back through the deadhead channel, we felt the rush of an easterly wind in our faces. It started to drizzle and—to add superfluous drama—we discovered a strong current working against our progress. It was a gritty three-hour paddle to the portage on the far northwestern shore, and the eagles watched us as we went slowly by.

The portage from Lois to Horseshoe Lake is practically manicured—a 1.7km stroll in the woods alongside a roaring creek. The rain let up (it would never again return), and we enjoyed our third meal of the day (we averaged five) before pushing out onto Horseshoe (probably named before the advent of aerial photography).

Flanked by low hills covered in cedar and fir, Horseshoe was bright and warm and remarkable for being the only lake from whose waters we didn’t hear the sounds of logging. Thus the logjam blocking access to the portage trail on the lake’s northern shore was a bit ironic.

From Horseshoe the Powell Forest route diverges. Paddlers can choose between the northwest portage route via Nanton and Ireland Lakes, reputedly easier but noisier (nearby is the jugular of the logging-road network, and Nanton Lake’s campsite is popular on weekends with locals); or they can choose the northeast route, pond-hopping in solitude, as we did.

Our reward for the 1.6km uphill slog from Horseshoe to Little Horseshoe Lake was our first taste of old-growth, with giant ferns carpeting the forest floor beneath thick red cedars, hemlocks and alders.

“Looks like ya gotta lil’ hitch in yer gitalong.”
One Texan to the other; roughly translated from the redneck as “It appears that the portage beat the hell out of you.”

Loaded down with our camping outfit, tons (almost) of camera gear, two canoes, and a food barrel heavy enough to sink a barge, the Little Horseshoe portage nearly crushed us. But on the far side we found it was just a short paddle to a warm campsite. We swam in the lake and photographed frogs and giant slugs and glistening sundews—a relative of the Venus flytrap—in whose habitat we made our camp.

Cumulative: 44km paddling; 2 portages


“Their canoes were small, with projecting prows, and dug out of one piece of timber, each with four or five small thorts, and some had their outside ornamented with rude figures painted with red ochre. Their paddles were short with round handles and pointed blades.”
Dr. Archibald Menzies, physician of the HMS Discovery, upon making his first contact with the Coast Salish Peoples in 1792

DAY 4: By now we’d lost count of the eagles, and the days were only getting hotter. We paddled and portaged our way from Little Horseshoe via Beaver Lake (a pond, really) to Dodd Lake, a quiet 7km paddle in a long green bowl. Now and then we caught a glimpse of snow-topped mountains through gaps in the hills on the eastern and northern shores, conferring a sense of entering the mysterious middle of something. And to the west, briefly, we saw the summit of Tin Hat behind a ridge.

At the top of the lake: a lonely cabin, with a dock and a diving board; no such place should be empty on a beautiful day like this, but we were almost disappointed to discover that it was. Just then, though, our solitude was broken when we neared the portage trail and saw eight large, heavy, red canoes piled on the dock. A pack of droopy-shouldered teenaged summer-campers emerged from the forest carrying enormous backpacks and barrels, heading south in the opposite and unorthodox direction.

The portage to Windsor Lake sloped upwards and crossed a narrow logging road near a waterfall, and when after 500 metres we reached the new water we stood stunned, for we had reached the heart of the Powell Forest route—the highest lake—and it was as magnificent as other expedition accounts alleged it would be. Steep, forested escarpments on every shore; a firm but benevolent swirling wind; and the dome of Rainbow Mountain like a neo-gothic cathedral in the north.

Barely two and a half kilometres end to end, Windsor Lake compelled us to slow our paddling and admire its peerless natural engineering, though before long we heard the low groan of a loaded logging truck heading out to market.

We found Windsor’s acclaimed campsite nestled in a picturesque grove of old-growth forest, with a swing hung from a tree and a pit-toilet carved into a dually-sized tree stump. Here we pitched our tents on soft undergrowth beneath a towering canopy of red cedar, Douglas fir and hemlock, with sour blueberries and Devil’s Club and great ferns all around.

For nature-seeking paddlers like us who’d never before seen a cedar tree broader than a racecar steering wheel, the Western Red Cedar attracted our reverence. From its watertight, malleable trunk-wood the Tla’amin and other coastal First Peoples carve their dugout canoes (a number of which are displayed at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver).

Windsor Lake was cool and still in the evening, but no fish bit hard. We sat around the campfire after a supper of falafel burgers puffing on cigars, wishing for nothing.

Cumulative: 55km paddling; 5 portages


DAY 5: A portage-only day, as the route from Windsor down to Goat Lake is more than two kilometres of trail zigzagging down nearly 700 vertical feet. It took us three hours to make two trips carrying gear and canoes to Goat Lake campsite (at least the food barrel was lighter—can’t seem to stop eating).

Once we had set up camp and napped (and restarted the day with a fresh pot of coffee), Dean set out back up the mountain with his cameras while Dave and I loaded a canoe with fishing gear and set out on the lake. Mike occupied himself fixing broken tent zippers and keeping the hammock from feeling lonely.

A funny thing happened that drizzly day back on Lois Lake: a ziploc bag failed, and our lone (and patently un-waterproof) map became saturated and unusable. I had only the vaguest memory of how long Goat Lake was, but I failed to indicate that vagueness to Dave when I proposed the afternoon trip. “Just an easy 5K.” It is, in fact, ten each way.

When we reached the head of the lake we found the mouth of the Eldred River, and having heard that this was the likeliest place along the circuit to spot a grizzly, we paddled another two clicks up until the current proved too swift against us. The snowy range of mountains to the east delighted our eyes, but alas, no bears played a part in this story.

Cumulative: 79km paddling; 6 portages


“There’s a breeze that comes across Powell Lake every afternoon; you might have heard of it. The lake can get a bit uncomfortable.”
– local man fishing in the channel between Goat Lake and Powell Lake

DAY 6: We had been forewarned about the strong winds on Powell Lake—the standard advice is to paddle it in the morning, nap all afternoon, and paddle it again in the calm evening—and thus we got a very early start, hoping to make 23km to the next campsite before the “breeze” came in from the ocean.

By noon we had crossed the central corridor of the dipper-shaped lake—gazing as we paddled at the enticing cabins on the south shore and the scarred clear-cuts on Goat Island to the north. Around the bend, where the lake turns southward in a 9km funnel to its outlet, the weather abruptly changed, and within minutes of resting in a placid cove we found ourselves knifing into a burly headwind, battling whitecaps and two-foot swells underneath a bright, teal-blue sky.

“There’s an uncomfortable amount of water in this boat.”
Mike, in the wet seat in the bow on Powell Lake

Tired and rendered nearly inaudible to each other by the wind, we also somehow got lost. We were, you’ll recall, map-less. Our weary collective brain recalled that our next campsite was supposedly located at the crown of a small cove, near a beach and a trailhead leading into the provincial park. But there were several coves, and they all had beaches (and cabins, too).

And so I met Ernie Larsen—71, retired logger, proudly Swedish of stock, charming repository of heritage factoids—who spends each long, Sunshine Coast summer at a cabin on a beach in a cove on Powell Lake. I met Ernie when we decided we had to pull over to ask for directions, and though he warned me that he wasn’t completely certain, he thought it likely the campsite was located one more cove down the lake, just beyond a lonely cabin (of course he was right).

After a brief guided tour of Ernie’s cove, I returned to meet my sweltering comrades and we pushed out once more into the wind. The waves pounded the boats, and we steadied ourselves against each undulating swell. After twenty minutes we spotted the campsite on a high bank looking over a gravel beach (with a rope swing, rated to somewhere south of 200 pounds).

Then, as if by a child’s whisper, the lake became completely still at sunset. Dean cleverly made a “leftovers” stew and we cooked bannock over the campfire. Another party of boisterous, clockwise-journeying summer-campers joined us rather late in the day, but we slept hard and fast that warm night.

Cumulative: 102km paddling; 6 portages


DAY 7: It was a quick, 7km morning paddle to Mowat Bay and the terminus of the Powell Forest Canoe Route, and then it was Pale Ales, burgers and mussels at the Shinglemill Pub on the lakeshore. We resupplied in town with treats—cheese and bagels to feed a platoon; a thick slab of sockeye salmon—and drove back up the network of logging roads, deep into the forest to Lewis Lake, near the base of Tin Hat Mountain. We caught a few small trout off the campsite’s dock, but preferred our salmon grilled over cedar.

Owls screeched at us—they scared the musky crap out of us—as we sipped whisky and (with a fresh new map) studied our route up the mountain for the next day’s climb.

Cumulative: 109km paddling; 6 portages


“Even now, these forests have an infinite feel—until you see the clear-cuts and realize how extraordinarily efficient humans can be at altering the landscape. Out here, empty spaces still look like wounds, like violations of the natural order.”
John Vaillant, The Golden Spruce

DAY 8: From Lewis Lake, the elevation gain to Tin Hat’s balding summit is about 2500 feet (from the north, at Fiddlehead Landing, the gain is 1000 more). Here our journey came into alignment with the popular Sunshine Coast Trail, a 180km trekking route paralleling the coastline from Desolation Sound to Saltery Bay, which is studded with huts like the one atop Tin Hat.

Five hours after we broke camp in the morning—through thinning forests, across logging roads, around blistering clear-cuts, up and over shaded ridges—we reached the top and inhaled the view. We moved into the hut, a perfect creation with its pellet stove and loft that sleeps 10ish. We sat on the naked summit at dusk. In every direction, mountains. And beneath them, our canoe circuit. The sun graciously took half a lifetime to set, and the forest faded into shadows beneath our feet.

Text and photos copyright (c) Richard Alexander Johnson, 2016


High Park Trail Run

My wife and I often refer to High Park as our backyard. Among the amenities we lack, living in a typical west-end apartment—700 square feet of compartmentalized hobbit holes on the second floor of a detached brick house; dinner parties of 5, max, if one of you doesn’t mind sitting on the IKEA footstool with a plate on your knees—is a patch of wildness to call our own. Perhaps with a Japanese maple tree. Organic marjoram. Heirloom tomatoes that grow large and fecund beyond the emaciating constrictions of dollar-store clay pots; healthy and natural instead of skinny and leaning to the southeast from the balcony, pitiably seeking warmth from a Toronto morning sun.

We both grew up with backyards. Hers, in rural Nova Scotia, was an enormous grassy hill reaching down to the grey sea, perpetually washed by salty winds that blew children sideways and deposited on the laundry the yearning aroma of a distant sea-storm.

Mine, in suburban south Texas, was half an acre of twisted Mountain Cedar–achingly resilient against the white, brutish sunlight of August–and foot-tall fire-ant hills whose perforation at the whip of a doomed lawnmower blade or at the curious poke of a ten-year-old unleashed a throng of six million six-legged red demons, to the apparent delight of all parties involved.

One of the sacrifices I made to downtown city life is the backyard. I want to live in an electrifying hub of cultural, economic and artistic energy with millions of other people, but occasionally I’m anxious if I can’t escape into the (imagined) limitlessness of the childhood backyard, with all the mental freedom it engenders. I believe that was one reason we created parks: we needed some space in our cities to be calm, to be unformed.

I started trail-running in High Park about two years ago because pavement makes my feet cry and most gyms are dank, florescent-lit human zoos that smell of tears, peroxide and vanity, and the last thing I want while releasing my anxious energy into the urban cosmos is to look at myself in a twelve-sided mirror as I grunt at a dumbbell.

As a child my backyard was large enough to contain me and my need to run around in circles shrieking with senseless ecstasy as I splashed mud up my calves and trampled my mother’s rhubarb.

As an adult who still delights in mud and trampling as a way to push back against the constrictions of the city, I simply need a larger yard, preferably one that feels wild, where I can occasionally belt out a line of AC/DC lyrics, forgetting for a second that I’m not actually alone in the real wild, and startle the hell out of a hoodied dog walker as she scoops up terrier shit.


To provide forage to cattle was the founding objective of Boston Common, the oldest (colonial) park in North America, where for two hundred years residents shared the land to graze cows—and hang pirates and Quakers—before overfeeding and the Industrial Revolution began to transform the park from a cow pasture into a human sanctuary. Still, even as a suburban cattle range the Common was from its very beginning a place of compromise between the facility of town life and the tranquility of living wildly, by one’s own means and creativity.

“You can neither lie to a neighbourhood park, nor reason with it,” wrote Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” She was arguing that the chemistry of urban planning alone cannot make a good park; its uncommonness is what defines its utility: “[I]n real life only diverse surroundings have the practical power of inducing a natural, continuing flow of life and use.”

I infer she delivered even more from that statement; by its very nature a city park must be a bit different, a bit wild. Like fire ants or an ocean wind. Like the gallows’ justice. Like an unrestrained heirloom tomato (I dare to dream).

High Park Trail Run, Route 1: The 20K Criss-Cross

In which the writer asks, How far can he run on High Park’s trails and hills without covering the same ground twice, relying only on his mental map and his heavy-metal iPod mix, and without regurgitating any gummy bears?

20.3 kilometres and 1125 feet of elevation gain entirely within a city park of just under 400 acres. Some shrieking. One zoo. No mirrors. Recommended for grown-up Torontonians in need of a childlike backyard just wild enough for the city.

22 views on Lower Bay Station

This evening I had the enviable opportunity to accompany Spacing magazine and two dozen Toronto photographers, history buffs and assorted scavengers to Lower Bay Station–a.k.a. “Bay Lower” a.k.a. the “ghost station“–for a TTC-organized tour and photo shoot. #LowerBayTour.


All images copyright © Richard Alexander Johnson.

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Walking in Moose Factory, Ontario

We paddled into the Cree hamlet of Moose Factory against the salty headwind blowing up river from James Bay, manoeuvring our canoe between the undulating swells caused by the water taxis buzzing through the narrow channel that separates the island community from the main body of the Moose River. We looked how men look when they pull the last of 45,000 strokes with their wooden paddles following eight long, cold, glorious days on a river: stubbled, achy and desperate to stand erect and walk.

It would be disingenuous to suggest we explored Moose Factory; we skimmed it with tired eyes and fresh legs for a few hours along its dirt roads, visiting only the gas station’s convenience store and the Cree Cultural Interpretive Centre. The town’s signature travel-guide feature–the empty buildings of the 19th century Hudson’s Bay Company stores and lodgings–were found to be greying and dilapidated in congruity with the summer mud and wild grass overgrowing the roads. The vibrance of modern life in Moose Factory was implied in the satellite dishes hanging off the corners of every home and in the pockmarked pickup trucks rumbling past us on their circuitous island route, and in the signs promoting sewing classes and music festivals and employment opportunities.

Had we been lost–indeed, had we any ambition towards an itinerary–no shortage of kind strangers rolled down their windows and offered to help. But on the river we had spent our capacity to explore and discover, and there was not much left for us but to walk idly in a circle and then curl up around a hot meal at the lodge.

Thus, these photographs of Moose Factory, on the fifth of August, 2014.

See also: 
Paddling the Mattagami and Moose Rivers to Moosonee – a trip report

Paddling the Mattagami and Moose Rivers north to Moosonee

On a mucky gravel bar downriver from a towering hydro dam we took to the water like creaky old boy scouts, haphazardly greased in bug juice and squinting through the drizzle.

All around us the boreal forest went by as unmetered verse:

Spruce, spruce, birch, spruce,
Birch, spruce, spruce, spruce, birch,
Spruce, birch, spruce,
Spruce, spruce, birch, birch…

The water curdled to life as rapids and goose tails and the breaching of trout, while on either bank the dark, empty woods remained disarmingly silent.

The Mattagami River at sunset from Sandbar Island


This is a summary account of an expedition of the lower Mattagami and Moose Rivers from July 29 to August 6, 2014. Three men, two boats (one a 17-foot Nova Craft Prospector canoe; the other a 13.5-foot open-water kayak) and about two hundred and fifty pounds of outfit.

Part I: 86km on the Mattagami River from Kipling OPG Hydro Station to the junction with the Missinaibi River and the start of the Moose River.

Part II: 94km on the Moose River from the Missinaibi junction to the (former) Tidewater Provincial Park.

Part III: Moose Factory, Moosonee, and the Polar Bear Express.

Part IV: Tips for interested trippers

Continue reading “Paddling the Mattagami and Moose Rivers north to Moosonee”

Ocean meets Varadero: A Walk on the Beach in Cuba


It is an uncharacteristically bleak day in Varadero, Cuba’s most popular beach town. A period of sunny skies, calm seas and high temperatures has been interrupted by cool, drizzly bluster. Resort tourists flee the beaches. Here is a view of what they leave, from the perspective of the ocean.


Continue reading “Ocean meets Varadero: A Walk on the Beach in Cuba”

Kikkerland Paper Pinhole Camera #1

My friend the photographer Dean Bradley and I built a Kikkerland paper pinhole camera, a do-it-yourself adventure whose official instructions carried the phrase, “Quite frankly, it’s not so easy to put together.”

Without beer.

And some light cursing.

Nimbly constructed out of perforated heavy-stock paper, double-sided scotch tape and attractive royal-blue electrical tape–plus a single, millimetre-thick copper plate with the pinhole itself–this simple solargraphic device put the fun in fundamentalist obscura.

Let the photographic record bear witness to the fact that we are new to the craft, and that the 35mm negative film–Ilford XP5 ISO 400–was exposed on a breezy day of -2 degrees Celsius.

Continue reading “Kikkerland Paper Pinhole Camera #1”