I’ve been a very tardy blogger lately. But I have a good reason! Chris and I just got back from an epic journey with our friend Mike via canoe through Wabakimi Provincial Park, located about 4 hours north of Thunder Bay, Ontario near the town of Armstrong (and north of the 50th parallel).
Now I know what you’re thinking. Waba-who-in-the-what-now? Most people have never heard of the park. And frankly, I prefer it that way. It’s nearly pristine northern wilderness might stay that way a little longer the fewer who know about it. But hey, even if you do know about it, it takes some serious experience and commitment to go there in the first place, so that makes a big difference in how heavily the park is used, unlike the packed and heavily traveled parks of Algonquin or your Killarny. Let’s just say Wab is not for sissies.
We’ve been planning this trip for months, although the details of our route were only decided about a week in advance. You pretty much have to use an outfitter to enter Wabakimi; the park is not as accessible, both physically and informationally, as most other Ontario parks. The 892,000 hectare park is bigger than Prince Edward Island and rivals Yellowstone National Park in the US, has been around for decades, and yet it still lacks a management plan, largely due to the fact that there are many remote First Nations communities that call it home, mostly Cree and Ojibwa, making negotiations quite challenging. Route planning, trip notes and detailed maps are obtained through your outfitter. Chris and Mike have been to the park a couple times before, and so again this year we used Wild Waters, owned by Bruce and Margaret Hyer (Bruce just also happens to be the MP for Thunder Bay).
While ideally, in planning a trip to a park like this you would have a least 4 people, balancing out two canoes and helping to carry packs, we couldn’t rustle up a fourth friend to join us. This meant that the guys were going to have to trade off paddling solo in one of the canoes. Our outfitter suggested trying a kayak paddle, to make maintaining a straight track easier, and while it wasn’t perfect, the guys seemed to manage it well, and were able to keep up despite having only ‘one engine’ in the boat.
I took care of the food for the trip, having packed for several hiking and canoe adventures in the past. Apparently I did well because normally the guys go a bit nuts and come out of the park with half the food they carted in, but we had just enough for this trip, with my planning. Wab is also popular as a fly-in fishing destination, although late July is a bit off season, I had hoped to catch at least a couple meals over the course of the 8 days.
Our first day was a kick-in-the-butt paddle, estimated over 25 kms, through Crown Land. It was the hardest day I think we put in, but probably more because all of us were pretty out of paddling shape. We had to fight our fair share of wind too, crossing some pretty big lakes with little respite. My left wrist and right elbow were screaming in pain by the end from all the repetitive motion, and I was pretty concerned that I’d overdone it and was going to have problems for the rest of the trip (and boy did we have a loooong way to go still). But I started popping Tylenol and after a nap in my hammock I was feeling a lot better.
This first site was where off in the distance I spotted a large object making its way across the river, too big to be a loon and moving very purposely from shore to shore. It was close to sunset so I lost sight of it once it got into the shadows of the shoreline, but it had to be a moose, or a caribou (the park is a sanctuary for the threatened Woodland Caribou). The caribou like to calve on islands, away from predators, and begin to move back into the deep woods around August. Unfortunately this, and another big dark shape moving along a shore off in the distance the next day, was all I got to see as far as big game wildlife. There were lots of beaver, loon, eagle and duck sightings, and even a couple snakes, though.
We covered another 15 or so kms the next day, but this included portaging around several large sets of rapids. These were a bit challenging at times, one of them nearly pulling Chris and I into the fast water while we tried to figure out exactly where the portage was located. Did I mention portages and campsites are not marked?
Day 3 started out quite wet, and remained that way. We decided to stay put, despite Mike’s anxiety that we needed to cover a lot of ground each day to ensure we made it to our train stop by the date we needed to be there. The winds were pretty strong and not in our favour, and let’s be honest, paddling all day in the rain is no one’s idea of a good time. I tried to take advantage of the time to do some fishing for the first time on the trip, but no dice. I quickly discovered I hadn’t packed a very good tackle box, and I only had a few cheap, crappy and too large hooks, most of which broke as I tried to tighten up the loops to ensure they wouldn’t fall off. And they also fell off. After one day of fishing I was down to a single hook and a spoon with a triple hook. That’s it.
While I was off napping in my super awesome Canadian-made Hennessy Hammock (a fully enclosed sleeping hammock, different from my hanging-out hammock) the boys were playing cards only to discover they’d been joined by a slithery friend. This snake was at least a metre long according to the guys, and I can only assume it’s a garter snake of some ilk — the milky blue eyes were consistent on not one but two of these fellas (different sizes) we came across on our little point. I think perhaps they had recently molted? Anyway, he was harmless, just wanting to get the heck out of dodge once he realized he was inside an enclosure.
Day 4 started out gorgeous — the water was as smooth as glass which was good because we were making our way through Smoothrock Lake, a very large lake with lots of fingers stretching into a very large section of the park. The wind was mostly in our favour and we had lots of chances to stop and take breaks. The only downside is that the main section of the lake is a popular fly-in fishing area, and there are several campsites where we came across large propane tanks and cook tops, obviously used often for shore lunches. And these guys are not tidy when they do their business. Fish bits and refuse all over the place. You wouldn’t catch me camping there (ahem, bear bait!) but the blueberry pickin’ was fantastic!
We took a bit of a detour to check out Wabakimi Falls, which separates Lower Wabakimi Lake from Smoothrock. The falls were not as impressive as we’d hoped, and once again no bites in the fishing department. While we were at the falls we started getting some angry clouds coming through and we got rained on for a bit as we got back on route towards Spaghetti Island, approximately 32 kms from where we started that morning.
On the last leg of this paddle we came across a pair of park rangers who we paused to chat with briefly. They were both Aboriginal guys and were on a 14-day trek, and had themselves put in 30 kms already with easily another 20 some to go (they were headed to Caribou Bay, where we started out from).
A few kms from Spaghetti Island and only an hour or so from sunset we got another big dumping of rain. This time it didn’t really stop aside from lightening up here and there, and all of us got a bit chilled as we finally made it to our site and hastily began setting up camp in the rain. We cooked up a pot of spaghetti, of course!
By this point we’d pretty much determined that Mother Nature runs a pretty tight ship in Wabakimi, and the weather worked like clockwork. Mornings would be beautiful, sunny, not a cloud in the sky, but by mid-afternoon the clouds would start rolling in and by dinner time the rain would start. It didn’t often last overly long, certainly not through the night, but it would come just when we wanted to set up shop at a new site. It got pretty tiresome. All in all we had one full day without rain, out of eight.
The last few days were much shorter distances. We’d covered so much distance on Day 4 that we could afford to take our time a bit more on the last few days, which was good because from this point on we had a number of portages. None were very long, the longest was about a km, but they really slow you down and we needed to do each one at least twice because of the four packs and two canoes.
By our last major day of paddling/portaging, I was totally beat. We got to Sunrise Falls and I just totally pooped out. Chris made me take some re-hydration salts which made a big difference. We still had to paddle a bit the next day but just a couple of hours towards the cabin where we would catch our train. We had lots of time to hang out at Sunrise Falls, in an area known as the Walleye Kitchen, and here is where I finally caught my one and only fish, a 12″ walleye. Chris filleted him up and we had him for dinner.
We got a bit of a light show that night camped out at the falls. Not the Northern Lights kind that we were hoping for, either, but a pretty major lightening storm. It kept me up for a few hours but we didn’t get any real rain so that was alright.
For our final day we headed out of the park towards the cabin near the train tracks where we’d be flagging down a VIA passenger train. We started seeing people again in that last leg, including this elderly couple of ladies who were heading into the park with a collie sitting pretty under a parasol, to keep out of the sun! We later learned from the outfitters that these friends have been doing these trips almost every year for decades! Good on them.
Our last campsite was on a trail behind a pretty run-down cabin where a Native woman named Joanne occasionally stays. She wasn’t home when we landed at the property but we had expected that. Our instructions were to follow the trail behind the cabin up to the tracks where there was a sign for the 24.7 mile-marker (Joanne’s mile-marker). And indeed. There it is.
We had a number of freight trains go by while we were camped out. And we had another good dumping, probably the hardest one yet, of rain. We found out later that there had been big wind warnings, even tornado warnings, for that night, but we only had minor winds were we were, that I noticed anyway.
Our train was for 8:30 a.m. so we got up early, as we’d been told to be at the tracks for 7:30 and we needed to pack up our gear. Around 8 a.m. a maintenance worker came by on the tracks in one of those rail trucks, and told us the train had just left Sioux Lookout. Then another freight train, and another maintenance worker. Finally our train came at about 10:30.
Anyway, after this we drove back to Thunder Bay to reunite Mike with his wife and son, and then we took the long way home via Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, on the hunt for some New Glarus Belgian Red beer to bring back home, only available in Wisconsin. It was totally worth the trek, and I’m not saying that because I was deprived of beer for 8 days.
The full slide show of our photos from Wab is available on Flickr. We also took quite a bit of video and I hope to have that edited and posted soon.