Casting out northwest of Atikokan

by James Smedley | September 21, 2015

Turtle RiverWe were able to get the tents up before the downpour and now our group of four adults and five children is packed together under the protection of a small tarp. Rivulets of water pour over the edge of the orange nylon and spill onto the smooth granite foundation of our hastily prepared campsite.

My ancient green Coleman stove warms a pot of Neal Simpson’s chicken curry, while children and adults circle around, wolf-pack-like, with spoons and bowls. As miserable as the conditions are, our situation is familiar and comforting.

We’ve been paddling with the Simpson family since our girls were tiny, and over the years we’ve all learned to accept the weather-related diversity that comes with the wilderness.

Even as we slid our canoes into the stained waters of the Turtle River where it crosses under Highway 622 northwest of Atikokan, black clouds were already gathering. As we paddled upstream where the Turtle brushes the north end of Pekagoning Lake under a brooding and forbidding sky, I watched with pride as our teenage daughters, Islay and Lillian, and the Simpson’s girls, Jenna, Kiri, and Grace, took command of their vessels.

A timely campsite
We paddled upstream between smooth rock shorelines capped with thick moss, Labrador tea, and large erratic boulders. After portaging around several picturesque chutes we discovered a timely campsite where the river splits around a large, rocky island.

The onset of light rain foreshadowed our present situation and we hastily pitched tents, rigged a tarp, and fell upon a warm meal with piqued appetites.

The onset of light rain foreshadowed our present situation and we hastily pitched tents, rigged a tarp, and fell upon a warm meal with piqued appetites. It’s now about 8 p.m. and although we expect the rain to abate, it doesn’t. One by one our group slips away. Eventually it’s just Neal and I watching a once-blazing fire hiss and smolder under the onslaught of rain.

The next morning it’s overcast and cool, and with canoes loaded with wet gear, we continue upstream. The beauty of paddling the Turtle River – White Otter Lake Provincial Park is the vast expanse of interconnected waterways. When a glance at the map shows a narrow channel through a series of ponds leading to a profusion of lakes that eventually reunite with the Turtle River, we can’t resist detouring east.
Travel feature
Our guess is that we’ll end up paddling with the current for a convenient loop back to where we started. It’s always easier on paper, and after an afternoon of wetland wading and navigating shallow passages lined with tall grass, we emerge onto Kenoshay Lake.

This river-like lake meanders south then east to a steep bluff where we discover the portage into Dibble Lake. Easily the most difficult of the trip, the steep pitch demands goat-like dexterity and it’s a relief to get our packs and boats to the top of the bluff without incident.

Dibble is the largest lake we’ve been on so far and her light-coloured flat rock shorelines present endless options for pitching tents and relaxing. Instead, we press along the northwest shoreline, which funnels us back into the Turtle River.

As we approach a portage around a falls we are relieved to see that we are now paddling with the current, with the bonus of a multi-level flat rock campsite at the falls.

Running logs and canoes through history
From the established campsites it’s apparent that we are not the first to travel these waterways. Under the warm rays of the next morning’s sun a close inspection of the falls — engineered with rocks and timbers as a dual sluiceway — gives us a glimpse of the days when the river was used for running logs.

But we discover an even deeper conduit into the past as we paddle by a vertical rock face along an island in Smirch Lake, which holds the faded orange shape of a deer or moose. On closer inspection the ancient aboriginal pictographs continue with a canoe and paddlers and other indistinguishable symbols. It’s sunny and calm, but nonetheless, I leave an offering on the rock face to ensure our smooth passage.

Smirch Lake eventually drops into a series of narrows and rapids. The first is particularly daunting, with large standing waves squeezed between a narrow passage. I’m starting to suspect that the mid-river obstructions were removed back in the log drive days, which means some fairly exciting rapids but without the hazards of mid-river rocks.

Even so, Francine flatly refuses to run the rapid, so Lillian joins me in the 18-foot Wenonah. After an exciting run that results in a few gallons of water pouring into the loaded canoe, Neil and his daughter Grace follow with similar results, while Lillian sprints up the portage trail to join her sister Islay.

The girls are paddling a 15-foot cedar-strip canoe with very low freeboard. While they portage their packs, I mount a GoPro video camera on the gunwale because, even running empty, the girls are in for an interesting ride.

Although they make it through the rapids unscathed, the amount of water they ship causes them to roll and capsize in the pool below.

Although they make it through the rapids unscathed, the amount of water they ship causes them to roll and capsize in the pool below. Under warm sunshine we repack and continue downstream through a series of exciting rapids. We even break out the rods to harvest half a dozen good-sized bass for tonight’s supper.

Reluctant homestretch
The Turtle River flows northward into the arcing expanse of Bending Lake, then makes a 170-degree turn around a long peninsula, and flows south. The sun and warmth continue as well as great fishing, fun rapids, and a surprising number of pictographs clinging to the vertical rock faces that erupt between sections of smooth granite shoreline. There’s even a tail wind and Lillian rigs a sail, hastening our return to our first campsite.

Where we once cowered under a tarp, we now sunbathe on warm, flat rocks and cast topwater poppers from shore for large, aggressive smallmouth. Over the years we’ve learned that there is balance between the fair and the foul. And today it isn’t difficult at all to be accepting of what the great outdoors has to offer.

This article originally appeared in the Ontario OUT of DOORS June 2015 edition. To see more stories like this, subscribe to OOD today.