Taking the Next Step on Ontario’s Missinaibi River

It is hard to believe that my wife, Kim, and I recently celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary. As avid canoe trippers, it’s even more difficult to realize that nearly a decade has passed since we made our first long journey together — for our honeymoon in the summer of 2009 — on Ontario’s Missinaibi River.

Peeling out on the Missinaibi. Photo: Conor Mihell

Turns out we made an excellent choice: The Missinaibi is an ideal river to hone wilderness tripping skills and prepare for adventures to come. As an added bonus, it’s one of Canada’s greatest rivers from a historical standpoint and features outstanding wildlife-viewing opportunities. A few memories from our 12-day trip in the summer of 2009 stand out.

Central Ontario’s Missinaibi River. Source: Canadian Heritage Rivers System

>> Related: Editor-at-large Alan Kesselheim’s Expedition Planning 101: Inspiration, Gear Decisions, Food 

Missinaibi Lake — Thick clouds parted as we entered this sprawling Y-shaped lake, having crossed the Arctic watershed to the 300-mile-long Missinaibi River. We approached Fairy Point with trepidation. This headland is known for producing rough waters, but the lake was glassy on this day. Countless Native pictographs made in blood-red pigment adorn a bedrock canvas, including animal forms and a bizarre smiley face that we found particularly beguiling. In conjunction with the Michipicoten River to the south and the Moose River to the north, the Missinaibi has formed a traditional corridor across Ontario’s hourglass waist, linking Great Lake Superior to James Bay. No doubt these waters were plied by Ojibwa and Cree long before they became a highway for the voyageurs of Canada’s fur trade, 200 years ago. This sense of history was palpable; immediately, Kim and I had a sense of journeying back in time.

The pictographs (rock paintings) at Fairy Point. Photo: Conor Mihell

Peterbell Moose — The Missinaibi’s first whitewater marks the outlet of Missinaibi Lake, and steady current interspersed with easy Class I and II whitewater continues for nearly 20 miles. But then, the river takes a pause. Moose sightings were on our wish list as we entered the vast Peterbell Marsh, where the Missinaibi fans through emergent vegetation and rocky knobs provide gorgeous campsites. We weren’t disappointed. The first few encounters were exciting: A lone bull and shortly after, a close shave (or so it seemed) with a mother and twin calves. By noon we’d spotted nine moose, and the sightings were becoming predictable. Never before have we observed so many moose in a morning’s paddle.

Rush hour in the Peterbell Marsh. Photo: Conor Mihell

Brunswick Layover — We elected to endure the tough mile-long carry to Brunswick Lake, about midway through our trip. Brunswick is home to the remains of a historic fur-trade post and its waters are pocked with islands—one of which provided a two-night layover. In the endless black spruce muskeg of the boreal forest, Brunswick is remarkable for its outlier stands of red pine, thriving well north of their usual range. Under a towering canopy we baked pizza, read and lazed in the tent, recuperating for the second half of our trip.

Big Water Rapids — The Missinaibi is a textbook pool-and-drop river, with countless rapids interspersed with stretches of flatwater. At first, we were intimidated by the river’s volume. The whitewater wasn’t so much technical as it was pushy: Waves, ledges and holes come up fast, and the eddy lines were delineated by boils and whirlpools. Still, all the rapids include portages and options to scout. Working together, we soon discovered that the Missinaibi would boss us around less we were confident and decisive in our paddle strokes—a valuable lesson that’s served us well on future journeys on big rivers throughout northern Canada. 

Rock Island Rapids. Photo: Conor Mihell

>> Related: How to Leave No Trace on a wilderness paddling journey 

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Missinaibi Logistics:

Do It Yourself — Because of intermediate access via Highway 11, paddlers have two options of similar level of difficulty, each comprising 10- to 14 days of wilderness canoe tripping: The Upper Missinaibi (as described, from Dog Lake to Mattice, on Highway 11) features more whitewater and the cultural highlights of Missinaibi and Brunswick lakes; the Lower Missinaibi (from Highway 11 to the rail-access town of Moosonee) includes stunning Thunderhouse Falls, where the Missinaibi plunges off the Canadian Shield, and the tidal waters of James Bay. Of course, you could also combine the two—as described in Hap Wilson’s excellent guidebook, Missinaibi: Journey to the Northern Sky ($19.95). Portions of the route are an Ontario provincial park where backcountry camping fees apply.

The power of Thunder House Falls. Photo: Conor Mihell

Outfitters and Shuttles — Like many wilderness rivers, the Missinaibi requires lengthy shuttles. Contact MHO Adventures (Chapleau, Ontario) or Missinaibi Outfitters (Mattice, Ontario). Choose the Lower Missinaibi if you want to combine river and rail—a ride on Ontario Northland’s Polar Bear Express (which is equipped to handle canoes) is the only way to return to civilization at journey’s end. Missinaibi Headwaters Outfitters also offers guided trips.

>> Looking for a long trip somewhere else? Check out these CanoeKayak.com destination features: 

Alabama’s Bartram Canoe Trail

Ontario’s Sunset Country

New England’s Northern Forest Canoe Trail

Minnesota’s Boundary Waters

More Expedition Canoeing at CanoeKayak.com

— Kesselheim: The case for going off the map

— Conor Mihell and Frank Wolf: Different Strokes (Part 1, Part 2)

— Expedition tested gear: On the water, in camp

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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