Eight of us stood in the cinders between the rails and the swampy bush, four canoes and a jumble of kit at one side of us, a pile of railway ties and an abandoned shack at the other, and watched the train pull away northbound and vanish into the distance. The suggestion of a trail eased downhill into the bush behind us, presumably leading to the Onakawana River. It was Sunday, 17 July, 2016, a little after 1:00pm. Already two days and nearly 1,000km from home, we were now within a hundred meters of the river and the start of our canoe trip.
This had all started when Michael, at the last Scout meeting of April – April 2015, mind you – had caught Scouter Eric before the opening horseshoe. “Do you remember, last week, when you asked us what we could do to top this summer’s trip? Well, I have an idea. Do you know where the Abitibi river is?” In very short order we did know, and that was about all it took to get the ball rolling. There was something about a northward-ﬂowing river that none of us had heard of that was just too tempting to pass up.
Fifteen months seems like a long time to spend planning a trip, and it did feel a bit strange to be preparing for “next summer’s trip” before “this summer’s trip” had even started, but a lot needed done. The last weekend of September found us, along with several other interested youth and Scouters, at Camp Shegardaynou on a Wilderness/Remote First Aid course. We took a weekend of moving water canoeing training up on the Elora Gorge. The volunteers took whitewater rescue certiﬁcation. Then there was the research. Routes, river conditions, wildlife, tides, hydroelectric dams, train timetables, outﬁtters, emergency resources … every time we thought we had it all ﬁgured out someone asked something to open up a whole new line of questions. Fifteen months is also a long time in which things can change, and change they did. What began as a trip for 1st Waterloo’s senior Scouts gradually transmogriﬁed into a composite group excursion. The ﬁnal roster was two Scouts and two Venturers from 1st Waterloo, one Scout from 13th Woodstock, one Venturer from 33rd Cambridge, two volunteers from 1st Waterloo Troop and one stuffed raccoon, a late addition to the group who joined in Marten River. This was the patchwork group who, on an overcast July afternoon heavy with the promise of rain, put canoes onto the Onakawana river to start a 100km paddle down three rivers to Moosonee.
That ﬁrst day of river travel was by far the most challenging. The Onakawana river, while beautiful, was low enough that it was really three kilometers of meandering rock garden so we tired ourselves from constantly being out of the boats pulling over gravel bars and lining through shallows. It was nice to reach the Abitibi river, where we felt like we were actually paddling the canoes rather than poling them along. The Abitibi brought a new challenge, though, as we had to ﬁnd a suitable campsite in the unfamiliar James Bay lowlands terrain. The rain also arrived, ﬁrst by drips and drops, then light drizzle and then, after a brief period of blue sky to give us hope, a steady downpour. We were blessed with strong winds which made cooking supper a challenge; we ended up re-orienting the canoes to form a windbreak behind which we set our stoves. We were ﬁnally eating at 9:30pm, in bed at near 11:00. It had been a long, tiring, wet day.
Monday morning the impact of hydroelectric dams on the river was easy to see. We had known that the Abitibi was under the inﬂuence of upriver generating stations at Abitibi Canyon and, closer to us, at Otter Rapids but our concerns had been for sudden rises in water level. Waking to an extra two hundred meters of muddy frontage on our site, we remembered that dams can also cause the downstream water level to drop. After breakfast, we portaged our canoes and kit back to the river.
The lower water level made the Monday version of the Abitibi river a bit more trying than the Sunday version. We became proﬁcient at hopping out, scooting the boat forward through shallows and over gravel bars and jumping back in on the move. The weather remained unstable, as it would for most of our traveling days – blue sky and rain seemed to alternate hourly. We found a good campsite with a wide mud ﬂat between the river and the high ground and a lot of driftwood for a campﬁre. There was no hope of adding fresh ﬁsh to our menu: we had luck at ﬁshing but none of that luck was good. We did enjoy tacos and a campﬁre, though. Resisting the temptation to leave our kit on the nice, open mud ﬂat, we hauled canoes, kegs and everything else up above the high water mark and tied the canoes to a fallen tree before bed.
Our discipline paid off as, when we woke Tuesday morning, our mud ﬂat was entirely submerged. A marker stick pushed into the ground at the water’s edge ﬁrst thing in the morning was half a meter out from shore by the end of breakfast. Still rising, then; time to get moving. The high water did mean easier paddling with fewer pull-overs and much quicker travel – we expected to make good distance.
Just before noon we came upon the Allan rapid, which was the most signiﬁcant water obstacle we expected to face. Even in the relatively low July water, it was daunting. We pulled ashore at the start of the rapid and got out to scout a route. The rapid was too long to scout entirely from where we stood so we opted to run it in stages, stopping every so often to scout further. In several places, there did not seem to be any safe route to paddle; we alternated between paddling and lining, partly unloading the canoes at one especially long drop for fear of breaking a hull. It took us two hours to transit the rapid, about ﬁve hundred meters on the map.
The Allan rapid ﬂows out into the Moose river which took twenty ﬁve minutes to cross. We’d been warned that it was big water. Eating a late lunch on a gravel bar, we amused ourselves by watching dozens of terns ﬁshing in the river. We had already paddled nearly twenty kilometers but, still energetic, we opted to press on to the conﬂuence of the Moose and Kwetabohigan rivers, a little more than ten kilometers away. This was beyond the other signiﬁcant rapid on our route, the Kwetabohigan, but after the challenge of the Allan it was an easy transit. Our reward was the nicest campsite of the trip – soft (dry!) sand, lots of open space, a nice east view and a good supply of driftwood for a campﬁre. We even had a break from the overcast so we could see the moon rise over the river.
We woke Wednesday morning to a gray fox in the campsite and noticeably lower water. The generating stations do not have a signiﬁcant impact on the Moose river; the changing water levels here were a tidal effect from James Bay and we expected to see the twice-daily ﬂuctuations become more pronounced as we moved downriver.
After a leisurely tear-down, we launched ourselves enthusiastically at the river. Our long day Tuesday got us a day ahead of schedule and we could be in Moose Factory by supper. It was an easy paddle until as far as lunch, eaten on the shore across from the mouth of the North French river. Early in the afternoon the wind picked up and paddling became more interesting as we fought our way through wind and waves until we were able to duck into a channel between Little Charles and Sawpit islands. Soon after, we reached Charles island, where we would camp the next two nights. We took advantage of a chance meeting and hired a resident of Moose Factory to take us out to Shipsands island in a freighter canoe on Thursday morning. Despite the abundance of giant hogweed we found the campsite on Charles Island, with its clear west view out over the river to Moosonee, to be a comfortable place; we were happy to be there for two nights. We would learn the cost of that view soon enough.
At 12:03am by Scouter Paul’s watch, we snapped fully awake as the side wall of our tent suddenly pressed down hard on our faces and rain blasted in through the roof vent. We lay on our backs, arms outstretched to support the tent poles, while one of the ﬁercest storms we had ever experienced roared across the open expanse of the river and ripped into our site. For the next hour, two Scouters hoped the trees would stand and six youth held tight to one another as wind and rain lashed the tents and lightning lit the sky bright as day. The tents, not to mention our nerves, held up better than we’d expected and, aside from pulled tent pegs and wet sleeping bags we came through the storm in good condition.
Sunny and hot, Thursday was a wonderful day for touring. We travelled by motorized freighter canoe out into James Bay. Shipsands island was inaccessible to us because the tide was out when we got there, but we did all dip our hands and feet into James Bay in order to have touched something of Nunavut. That crossing of the territorial boundary was, after all, one of the things we’d come for. Our self-guided walking tour of Moose Factory, where we stopped after James Bay, was enlightening in several ways. After an uneventful evening, we were assaulted by another thunderstorm at about 9:30pm. Two Scouters and two youth were caught out of our tents when it hit. With the howling winds blowing the tents nearly ﬂat getting to our beds was not possible, so we rode out the storm standing shoulder to shoulder, backs to the wind, alongside a trail in the forest between the trees and the hogweed. We ﬁnished soaked to the skin but in high spirits nonetheless.
Waking to rain Friday morning was nothing new and it stopped soon enough. After taking our time over breakfast and tear-down we paddled across to Moosonee. We did have several hours to wander about if we chose, but we were content to stick close to the train station. We already had that feeling of “going home” about us. The train ride back to Cochrane would be memorable, we knew, and we had two days on the road after that, but as much as we knew that adventures still awaited us, The Adventure was now successfully concluded.
We boarded the train southbound from Moosonee a tired, proud, happy group. We had travelled more than a thousand kilometers into a corner of the province not accessible by road. Stepped off of a train in a place with only a sign and a long-forgotten shack to mark it and from there proceeded over water, moving ever further from home. Nearly one hundred kilometers by canoe. Three rivers. Rain, bugs, teabrush and muskeg and some of the most powerful storms we’d ever tented in. River water, tidewater, saltwater and a territorial boundary. A very full week. Through it all the youth, always in good spirits, showed maturity, discipline, toughness and, above all, a willingness to look out for one another. They proved themselves to be more than up to the challenge. Most of them will be together in Venturers in the fall. It will be interesting to see what they do to top this trip.
Participants: Linden, Tyler, Michael, Aidan, Jack, Jack, Scouter Paul, Scouter Eric, Oatmeal (stuffed raccoon, ofﬁcial mascot)
Distance travelled (total): 2200km
By road: 1552km
By rail (Ontario Northland Railway): 511km By canoe: 92km
By freighter canoe: 45km
Rivers Paddled: Onakawana, Abitibi, Moose
Rapids: numerous swifts and short Class I runs on the Onakawana and Abitibi rivers Allan (Abitibi river, Class II)
Kwetabohigan (Moose river, Class II)
three Class I rapids on the Moose between the Kwetabohigan river and Tidewater