Next Stop: Wabakimi

Train Hopping to Canada’s Best Canoeing

By T. Edward Nickens

     The train was streaking through a sea of green. From the vaulted glass aerie of the dome car, I glimpsed granite outcrops and fog-shrouded ponds whisking by, but mostly, the view was a blur of thick boreal forest extending to the horizon. The Canadian runs from Vancouver to Toronto and, for as little as $11, makes custom stops en route for outdoor enthusiasts-at any little lake, at any remote river. Just tell the engineer when to put on the brakes. In my case, that was going to be at a former Hudson Bay Company outpost at the edge of the best unheralded canoeing destination in North America: central Ontario’s Wabakimi Provincial Park.

     Established as a small preserve in 1983, Wabakimi was expanded nearly sixfold, to millions of acres, in the late 1990’s. No roads penetrate the wilderness, which lies about 150 miles northwest of Thunder Bay, Ontario. The park has hundreds of lakes and rivers, and vast chunks of it are rarely visited. In 2002 a mere 705 paddlers requested permits; they had their pick of more than 3,000 miles of possible canoe routes.

     Riding the train with me were my friend Scott Wood; photographer Scott Spiker and his wife, Jennie; and our guides, Bruce Hyer and Shannon Behmann of Wabakimi Nature Tours & Expeditions. Hyer, 56 used to teach science at a prep school in the 1970s and moved into a tepee overlooking an Ontario lake. He’s been paddling boreal and Arctic Canada ever since, and his years-long crusade on behalf of Wabakimi was instrumental in getting the area protected. Hyer had given me a stack of eight photocopied maps, and as we sped along, I traced our nine-day tour of the Wabakimi wilds, which would take us from Allanwater Bridge to Burntrock Lake, where we would be picked up by floatplane.

     And now the train was squealing to a stop. Within minutes, we had unloaded our gear from a boxcar and were left standing by the tracks in silence. “Other than a few native communities” Hyer said, “there’s nothing but wilderness between us and Russia.”


      Perception: North Woods canoe trips are for only the hardiest of outdoor pros, the types who take month long journeys in vessels crafted from birch bark canoe and sealed with bear fat. Reality: Paddling treks can take as few as three days and are a great chance for novices (with help of guides) to sample not just one type of paddling but three. Witness our first day: we drifted down gentle streams, crossed marsh-fringed lakes, and roller-coastered down long rapids. It was a fine rhythm.

      Southern Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park and northern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness are the continent’s best-known canoe destinations, but Wabakimi is as big as both combined and is far wilder. Skilled boaters are free to explore Wabakimi unguided, but having help from someone like Bruce Hyer makes life easier: He can take care of transportation, permits, route-planning, and gear. All travelers have to do is fly to Thunder Bay. Hyer has negotiated a low-price deal with some airlines-and the company will handle the rest. You can use Wabakimi Wilderness Adventures solely for equipment rentals, take a fully guided trip (no previous experience required), or base yourself at the company’s backcountry lodge. We were strong paddlers, so we chosen one of Hyer’s “cameo appearance” trips: He would accompany us for the first few days, making sure we were ready for the navigational challenges and big rapids of our route-then he would leave us to finish the trip on our own.

     We were glad to have him along. On one afternoon, we found ourselves battling a stiff headwind and sheets of rain as we crossed Termite Lake. The weather made you wish you were sitting by a woodstove reading about the French-Canadian fur trappers of yore rather than trying to emulate them. But then the storm broke, and shafts of sunlight cut through the clouds. I smelled smoke and spotted a red canoe on the far bank: Hyer had already set up camp. He met us at the water’s edge with plates of fish right off the fire. “So what do you think of my big backyard?” he asked.


       At Brennan Lake, Hyer met his ride home. I sat on a small rock island and watched the floatplane disappear into the cloudless sky, then turned my attention to the maps. Hyer had marked them up with elaborate hieroglyphs showing campsites, fishing spots, and scenic vistas, as well as tricky rapids, hard-to-find portage trails, and dead ends. (Later, I would estimate that the tips had saved us many hours of wasted time.)

      Over the next several days, the charts come to life. We paddled through blackened forest burns that were bright with new green growth, camped on rocks mottled with moss and lichen, accidentally startled a moose in the willows. We navigated an intricate network of tiny creeks and Lilly pad-dotted pools, in an area so still that the noise made by our paddle strokes seemed intrusive. Often we had to portage between lakes and around thunderous waterfalls; sometimes we used ropes to guide the canoes down rapids that would have swamped us in seconds. On one windy morning, I even lashed a space blanket to a pair of paddles and sailed across the lake. Bald eagles and sandhill cranes soared overhead, sharing the wind.

       What I really wanted to see in Wabakimi were the pictographs painted centuries ago by the Cree and Ojibway Indians. The maps indicated that we’d find some on the 150-foot cliffs lining the Palisade River, eight days into our trip. But after 45 minutes of searching high on the walls, we hadn’t seen the faintest scratching. Then Scott Wood squinted at a tiny figure three feet above the waterline. “Is that one?”

        I steered the boat closer, and there it was: the stick figure of a man, maybe nine inches tall. Beside it was a caribou, all straight lines and hard angles. We focused our search now on the lower walls. There, another caribou. A lizard. The last pictograph we found was a fist-sized orb encircled with rays, like a child’s drawing of the sun. I later learned that it was a megis, or cowrie shell, whose mystical appearance, according to tribal tradition, helped guide the Ojibway on a long migration to the Great Lakes. In the absence of maps, the sacred shells marked the way.


       After a memorable last night – at a rock-bluff campsite, with a crackling fire to keep us warm and the northern lights arching overhead – we paddled the final miles to Burntrock Lake. Only 20 minutes late for our scheduled rendezvous with the floatplane, we stowed the gear and boats, then climbed into the cabin. When the engine started up, it sounded like a jackhammer. Our removal from a land of endless water and woods was too abrupt. But there was a consolation in the bird’s-eye views after we took off. With my face plastered to the plane window I could see the Palisade River cliffs, islets where we’d spotted caribou, and the white froth of rapids. Then the plane banked toward the sun, and all the rivers and lakes and bogs and creeks turned to a shimmering sheet of white.

*This article appeared in the August 2003 issue of the National Geographic Adventure Magazine.