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

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Aching for the Portage: A Week in Algonquin Park

The first of twenty-four portages feels like chaos, like a summer storm wreaking havoc on a beach; the last, like an old friend comfortably leaning on your tired shoulders.

Everything in between is no more and no less an addictive progression of ache.

Portager’s view of the trail near Amable du Fond. All photographs (c) Richard A. Johnson.

Before we began our Algonquin paddling adventure, I’d wondered whether the portage ache–the unique stiffening soreness of schlepping first a 55lb backpack and then a 42lb canoe over crooked forest trails as long as 2km in between each lake–would, like its counterpart the alpine ache, come to be felt as both agony and ecstasy.

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Discovery with a Paddle: Canoeing the Restoule and French Rivers

When Samuel Champlain paddled down the Restoule River with a party of Ottawa nation aboriginals in the early seventeenth century, he believed he was beating a trail of discovery to a great, westward river that would lead to the mer de l’ouest, the ocean on the far side of what was, to Europeans, a new found land.

Photograph (c) Richard A Johnson
All photographs (c) Richard A Johnson

In the Canada of Champlain’s peers, the frontier emerged from obscurity beneath each footstep and paddle stroke of he and his men. What became known as the French River was the first of many underestimations of Champlain, who was by all evidence one of the more gifted of the early European explorers of North America.

Champlain stood at the confluence of the Restoule and French Rivers and believed the latter flowed over the western horizon to the salted sea. (No doubt his indigenous guides, who may never have come across anything but fresh water during their inland lives, struggled in translation with this alien concept of saltwater.)

Champlain was wrong. But in his wrongness, he made if not a discovery then at least a revelation.

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