Trip Dates: Monday, July 10, 2006 to Saturday, July 15, 2006
Total Trip Distance (km): 100
Difficulty Notes: The Eagle / Snowshoe Conservation Reserve is not as well traveled and certainly not as well documented as other, more popular parks nearby (Nopoming, Woodland Caribou, Whiteshell). Expect lots of blow down on trails and any beta will be outdated. Note: The GPS track is very approximate and was put together after the trip using maps – not an actual recorded track.
Lakes Traveled: Davidson, Petch, Raynar, Bain, Wilson, Snowshoe, Chase, Midway, Eagle, Talon River
Preamble & Planning
The cold winter month of February 2006 found Harold and I planning another canoe trip. After much deliberation we decided on the Eagle-Snowshoe Conservation Reserve as our 2006 canoe trip destination. For this trip report I am not going to lay our in detail how each day went. Instead I will try to remember some key events and let the pictures do more of the talking.
The original plan was to start out at Davidson Lake early on Monday morning. From Davidson we would make our way through Coleman, into Bain and then through Bagley and into Wilson Lake. After spending Monday night in Wilson we would head up through Snowshoe Lake and up the Bird River towards Chase and Midway Lakes. Tuesday night would be in Chase Lake. On Wednesday we would head up through Midway Lake and take a very rarely traveled series of portages into Kangaroo and Eden Lakes. Wednesday night would be either in Eden or Wingiskus Lake. On Thursday we would head out of Wingiskus back down to the Bird River. Thursday night would be in Snowshoe and Friday / Saturday we would head back down the route we took to get in or do a different route back to Tulibi Falls on Bird Lake.
For reasons that will become clear, we did not end up taking the Kangaroo / Eden / Wingiskus route but instead we spent some time in the Eagle River before heading back home. This ended up being a rare, out-and-back canoe trip rather than a more traditional loop. This was not too surprising as the only reference we could find for the Kangaroo portages was in some backdated kayakers journal from some years ago.
The overall route and Eagle / Snowshoe (E/S) terrain was challenging and fun. The portages were not very well maintained and in places there was a lot of blow down. Since this area isn’t part of a provincial park it is not maintained with tax dollars and this is obvious. We didn’t encounter any other canoeists except for one other guy the whole time. It was a very remote trip with no room for emergencies. The fishing was good overall, but the bugs were some of the nastiest I’ve ever seen.
The Bad Bugs
THE BUGS!! Whew! They were actually very, very nasty on this trip. We were originally quite hopeful that they would be limited because during the day they didn’t bug (pun intended) us much at all – it was too hot! At around 21:00 on the first night we got an idea of what the rest of the evenings would be like. It starts with a droning sound. You can literally hear them coming out of the bush! First you get one bite that you dismiss with a casual flick. Then another. Then another. Then you make the mistake of going into the bush to relieve yourself away from camp and when you come out you bring along a mighty host of blood-sucking, high-whining, fast-flying friends and the peaceful night is ruined for you and everyone else!
The bugs were so bad that we couldn’t even handle them with spray. We had mosquito nets and jackets on, but that was excruciatingly hot in the warm weather, and didn’t even help! Eventually we would just go to bed after smoking a few cigars and trying to drown it out with a few drinks didn’t work any better.
Mosquitoes weren’t our only enemies from the bug world. Once we got into the Eagle River portion of the trip, we didn’t even get relief during the day time heat, as the black flies started feasting on us – especially our ankles. They took chunks of flesh out of us and although spray worked temporarily, you would either sweat it off, swim if off, or scratch it off while portaging. Not to mention that with open sores from the bites, spraying yourself with bug spray hurt like h-e-double-hockey-sticks. The flies were almost worse than the mosquitoes because they really hurt and you are never fast enough to actually kill the little buggers so there’s no satisfaction there.
The Good Bugs
I never thought I’d write a section on ‘good’ bugs but here it is. One night we were all standing around trying to avoid the hordes of mosquitoes when Jon started shouting out. Jon is always making noise about something or another (!) so at first we simply ignored him but he sounded so excited we went to check it out. It turns out that when Jon went over to his canoe, near the water, a bunch of huge dragon flies found him. They also found the armies of mosquitoes around him and immediately started a feeding frenzy!
I’ve never experienced or even hear of anything like that before or since. Hundreds of huge dragonflies surrounded us, swooping in like world war II planes on a strafing run to decimate the biting mosquitoes. There were so many of them that there were regular mid-air collisions and you could hear them crashing into each other clumsily. They would delicately pick mosquitoes right off our faces! It was an amazing display of nature helping nature. We were the attractant for the dragonflies supper and they were our saviors for one night. I’ll never forget it.
Portages and Turning Back
As I eluded to earlier already, the portaging was a mix of pleasant strolls on solid Canadian Shield granite and torturous bushwhacks through, over and even under dead fall. There were quite a few portages (40-50) in total. Because the Eagle-Snowshoe Conservation Reserve is not maintained by Ontario parks staff, the portage trails are only kept open by volunteers or through usage. Obviously this area does not see a lot of visitors because we hardly saw anyone else (less than 10 people all week) and some of the trails were just nasty. The portaging was hot and our packs were very heavy with all our supplies. Thank goodness the long ones were marked and we never had navigation issues – we always knew where we were.
So why did we have to turn around from the Eden / Wingiskus loop? We arrived at the first portage into Kangaroo Lake under a hot mid day sun on Wednesday, July 12. We were very surprised to spot a green, solo-sized canoe tied to a tree at the trailhead. There was fresh orange flagging on the trees and it looked like someone had been busy clearing the trail. We started unloading the canoes and proceeded up the very rough trail, following the orange flagging and appreciating how recently cleared it looked.
It didn’t take long before we encountered a bushman. He was a bushman in every sense of the word. We were all in shorts and t-shirts but he was wearing heavy pants and a long sleeved flannel shirt to keep from getting bitten and scratched in the thick bush. He had a canvas sack thrown over his right shoulder and in it were all manner of trail clearing tools. He held a large ax in his left hand. He glanced at us cautiously as we barged past him on his freshly marked trail. Something about his look made me stop to engage him in conversation. It turns out that we were on a trail to nowhere! This guy has been coming to this wilderness for a month every summer for years. He temporarily traded the burdens of a civilized world for the hardships of maintaining trails and camping alone in this vast wilderness. Contrary to appearances, we had much in common.
As soon as he warmed up to us the bushman explained that our route would not go. We might make it into Kangaroo Lake – with great hardship – but anything beyond that was not maintained and had not been traveled in years. Since a major storm 3 or 4 years ago the trails were all impassible, if not gone entirely. What great fortune to have run into Mr. Bushman! As we reluctantly trudged our gear back to the trailhead we marveled at the incredible odds of running into possibly the only human being who knew for sure that our intended route would have us stranded in the bush, either wasting a whole day of bushwhacking or worse, not finding out till a day or two later when we would have to come all the way back! As we paddled away from the little bay we were already looking forward to exploring the Eagle River and possibly even the Talon River. Little did we know that we’d be turned around a second time this day…
OK so we couldn’t do the Eden Lake route. We would head up to the Talon River instead, to explore that area. (Incidentally, we’ve since paddled through Talon Lake multiple times in 2009 and 2011). We stopped for lunch somewhere along Eagle Lake, past Midway Lake and on the way to the Talon River. It was very very hot and in the 35 degree heat we all sought shade for relief. After lunch we decided to paddle back a ways and look for a campsite for the night before heading out to explore the area a bit further. I glanced back one last time at our lunch spot as we bent into the paddles and my breath stopped for a second. Where there was clear blue sky not an hour before, there was now a very distinct and obvious column of smoke billowing up from the thick forest just behind where we took our lunch break! We found a good vantage point where we beached the boats and watched in amazement as a wildfire grew right before our eyes.
We were all growing a bit concerned as our situation seemed to be getting a bit out of hand. First there was the blocked route that we very nearly got suckered into trying. Now there was wildfire and even though we could probably run away from this one, who knew where the next one would pop up in this ridiculous heat wave? Since this conservation area wasn’t patrolled or managed by the parks system we didn’t even register for our trip – so no one really knew we were even there – or where we were! (We found out later that a complete backcountry travel ban went into effect the day before our fire but since we weren’t registered we didn’t get evicted. This explained why earlier in the day a small float plane kept passing over our campsite – they were probably wondering who the heck we were and making sure our campfire didn’t spread.)
With concern on our faces we piled into the canoes and headed away from the growing inferno towards Chase Lake to set up camp for the night. That afternoon and night the fire continued to grow on the horizon and the sunset was spectacular against the rising columns of thick smoke. The setting was surreal as we hammered Walleye like never before and gave little nervous glances to the northeast every once in a while. Little did we know that our adventures were far from over and within 24 hours the fire would be long out and we would be shivering, wet and freezing cold!
We woke up early on Thursday, July 13 to a hazy, smoky morning and a couple of loons freaking out at each other (lovers quarrel, I guess). We couldn’t see the column of smoke anymore, but that wasn’t a big comfort because now we were enveloped in a thickening blanket of smoke. Even if another fire started up we would probably not notice because we didn’t have any views of the horizon anymore.
As we paddled up the Bird River in the early afternoon, after a morning of portaging and fishing at waterfalls along the route, the faint rumble of thunder alerted us to an impending storm. We kind of got excited because we needed the rain and the land obviously needed it too.
The sky got darker and darker as we completed the last of a series of portages and made our way into the larger lakes system around Snowshoe Lake. As we paddled down the last section of small stream we realized that the lightening was too close for comfort and bailed out of the boats to a hastily constructed tarp-shelter to wait out the storm. The storm moved through quickly, smashing us with rain, lightening and peals of thunder. As it moved off to the northeast we continued paddling.
Suddenly Bill shouted. I didn’t even hear what he said but I didn’t need to. As we turned the corner into a large bay off the lake I looked straight up at a sight I’ll never forget. The only thing I can compare it to is a cloud-shaped bullet train. A dark, and very distinctly green cloud was racing southeast straight at us! It was towering hundreds of feet high and was racing against the storm that had just passed by! It was the most obvious example I have ever seen of two pressure systems colliding. It was also one of the scariest things I’ve seen.
You have to remember that we are sitting on the water in see-through boats in the middle of nowhere. You feel like a sitting duck, only you’re not waterproof and you can’t fly away. You can only paddle and pray that the next bolt of lightening doesn’t strike you. We all started paddling like crazy for the nearest chuck of land – a tiny island in the middle of the bay. We were all moving at a frantic pace because it was obvious that we were in for a heck of a storm and it was racing at us like some doomsday mushroom cloud. Harold stared barking out commands as we made shore and we all dug in. There was a small cliff that had its back towards the impending storm and we cleared a small area at its base and strung the tarp tightly so that it wouldn’t blow away. The canoes were pulled up as high as we could and then as the storm exploded around us we dove under the tarp. Eric didn’t even have time to grab his jacket out of the canoe!
The storm absolutely pounded us with more rain in an hour than I’ve ever seen. Sheets of water came down and even in the small bay there were whitecaps and swirling waves. Trees were bent from the wrath of wind as we sat nervously under our tarp and tried to laugh off what was happening. During the storm, Jon went out to the boats a few times to empty them of water because they were filling so quickly! Finally the storm passed, and we all got out of the shelter and hesitantly started out in the canoes again – looking for a campsite for the night. It didn’t take long and we were again running for shore as yet another powerful storm bore down on us! This time we all got soaked and after the deluge we knew it was time to quit paddling and warm up. Storms were all around us as we paddled furiously down the shoreline looking for a campsite. It took quite a while to find one and even then it wasn’t very much but we made it work. Just as we were finishing supper another storm chased us to our tents for the evening.
Needless to say the forest fire threat went down considerably!
A Bear Encounter of the First Kind
After spending a day drifting down various bodies of water we came to back to Wilson Lake for the last night. We found an excellent campsite on a point of land just across from a large island and set up camp. We were just finishing supper when someone noticed a mother black bear and her cub across the water on the island, walking along the shore. We all ran out to take pictures and look and they soon disappeared back into the bush. We went back to eating supper. All of a sudden Eric made an alarming noise. The bears were swimming across the water straight for our camp! As the others took pictures and yelled, I quickly retrieved my bear-bangers. We had never used these on a bear before – only as fireworks on the last night! 😉 As the bears retreated again, I let loose a banger. It sailed across the water and blew up with a huge BANG right over the cub. The poor thing jumped out of its wits and that’s the last we saw of those bears! (We did spend a rather nervous night there though, especially Rod and I because our tent was right where the bears were trying to get to…)
The Good Stuff
Not that the bugs, nasty portages, storms and bear encounters weren’t “good stuff” but there were a lot of memorable, pleasant, non-panicking moments on our trip too.
The fishing was fantastic – some of the very best I’ve seen. Rod caught the biggest pike and Harold the biggest walleye. We had some days of too many fish to possibly count and others that were a bit slower. One evening stands out in particular. As a forest fire raged about 15km away we were catching copious amounts of walleye in a shallow, weedy bay with a towering column of smoke rising into the sky above. Sometimes we’d have two fish on the lines in each boat – it was a lot of fun!
The scenery was spectacular as always. Bald eagles and Turkey vultures kept us company every single day. Loons serenaded us to sleep at night and woke us back up in the morning. We saw less than 10 other people all week and only 1 canoeist. Our cell phones didn’t ring because we didn’t have them along and we didn’t care. We all shed pounds and worries for a week and that is why we’ll keep coming back. Even with the bugs. The storms. The portages. The bears.
We were yet again reminded that in losing a bit of comfort we gain much more of ourselves.