Ishpatina Ridge, situated in the heart of Northern Ontario's Temagami wilderness, is the highest point in the province. It can be a round-trip destination (as we did) or the mid-point of a north-south trip through the Lady Evelyn-Smoothwater Wilderness Park. This, however, requires a vehicle shuttle (about three hours) or a fly-in.
I'll let you know at the outset that we failed to achieve our goal, but the trip was a great one anyway.
One of the beauties of the north end of the Temagami is its remoteness, our put-in point being about an eight-hour drive from Toronto. However it's only two hours from our back door, and the park's eastern access point is only about 15 minutes away.
Access: From North Bay, Ontario, drive north about 100 miles on Highway 11 to New Liskeard, and turn west on Highway 65 about 40 miles to Elk Lake. Elk Lake is a lumber town, and has everything needed for stocking up, with all required services. It is the last major stock-up point before the put-in. Proceed west on Highway 560 towards Gowganda about 12 miles to the Beauty Lake Road turn-off at Long Point Lake. Note that Long Point Airways, just before the turn-off, can offer fly-in services.
Proceed south on Beauty Lake Road about seven miles to a fork in the road, and take the westerly (right-hand) fork. After about five miles there is a bridge over the Montreal River. There are good areas to park, and your vehicle is relatively secure. The Beauty Lake Road is in relatively good shape, but watch out for logging trucks.
We were packed for a five-or six day trip, relatively heavily because Darlene and I like to travel in comfort. My canoe, built in the days when fibreglass builders simply added more material just in case, stayed at home, and we rented a 17-foot Kevlar that weighed only 48 pounds.
There is always that strange time just after you get on the water, and you go around a bend and can't see the bridge anymore and your body gets into the rhythm of the river and muscles that haven't be used for weeks let you know they're still there. The paddle on the Montreal is upstream, but the river is slow-moving through swamps and moose-meadows. We passed through Lady Dufferin Lake, stopping at the abandoned lodge on the east shore. This was once a high-class brothel, with customers and staff flown in from the mining boom towns of the north. We continued on upstream, between the piney banks and occasional swamp, emerging onto Smoothwater Lake. There's a gravel bar where the river flows out of the lake, which makes a great spot for a swim.
It is a given that when we are on a lake, the wind will be against us; Smoothwater continued the jinx and we paddled southward into a one-foot chop, keeping to the east shore for shelter, and finally camping on a small island about half-way down the lake. We like to rest after the first day's paddle, so stayed two nights, taking a day-paddle around Smoothwater looking for rock paintings and swimming, and discovering that the rental canoe had serious bottom flex; fine if there's a wanigan sitting on, not good with no load.
Day three took us to the south end of Smoothwater, and the roughest portage of the trip. We recognized that our packing was less than efficient; the wanigan stayed at the take-out point. It was the first time Darlene and I had undertaken serious portaging, but we managed the 800 yards in two trips, not over-loading ourselves since we're a little old and decrepit. This took us to Apex Lake, which has to be one of the most excruciatingly beautiful bodies of water in the world. It is surrounded by steep pine-clad hills, and seems perpetually in shade.
It was only about a half-hour paddle to the south bay, and the longest fully-loaded portage of the trip. This one, though, was pretty flat, and since it also acts as a snowmobile trail in winter, it was wide and clear. This led to a series of three or four small lakes with increasingly short portages. We figured on one that if we could get the canoe up to planing speed and hit the landing just right we'd skid right over. And then we got to McCullough Lake.
We had a nice paddle, with this underlying glow knowing there was only one more short flat portage before we could set up camp. McCullough Lake is ... well ... any small lake in the Temagami forest is beautiful and remote and absolutely peaceful.
We camped that night on Mihell Lake, straying from Hap Wilson's guide and instead going to a beach which seemed to have been frequented by hunters and fishermen, a nice open beach with lots of dead wood for a fire. Sunset was magnificent, especially since we could see our target just about three miles to the west.
This, however, is where we made our mistake. We should have rested for a day, but instead started out for the flat but long double portage to Scarecrow Lake, carrying just a day-pack and the canoe. The trail up the hill is easily identified because there used to be a ranger camp at the base. However, we were walking for less than an hour when we realized we were exhausted (I think I mentioned before that we are old and decrepit?) so we stopped by a little lake and had lunch and went back to the canoe. I was even having trouble with the concept of the long-flat portage back to Mihell and camp, so we took Scarecrow Creek instead, a twisting but gentle paddle through wonderful swamps, with a few liftovers.
That afternoon and evening we caught up on our rest, but a funny thing happened in the middle of the night: the lake jumped into our tent. I suppose the sound of our snoring kept us from hearing the thunderstorm, but suddenly 3 a.m.-ish it swept across Mihell with unbelievable winds and gallons of rain poured through the open windows of our tent. No time to batten the hatches; within a minute just about everything we possessed was soaked. Like most thunderstorms it passed quickly and we tried to dry ourselves out but sleep was difficult, so at first light we packed to head home.
The trip back was uneventful, and Apex Lake was as excruciatingly beautiful as it had been a few days before. The portage from Apex to Smoothwater was just as rough as it was before, but we had the knowledge that it was the last portage, and it made life easier. Somewhere, heading north on Smoothwater Lake, I had a strange visual experience. I've had about 20 years of canoeing with Darlene's back being at the centre of field of vision. She decided she needed a nap, re-arranged the packs, slid off the seat and opened my vision of the lake. The canoe had the same heavy feel I like on open water, lots of mass, lots of momentum, but my perspective had changed. I could see the entire lake in front of me, and I felt comfort in the knowledge that everything that was important to me was inside of the 17 feet of canoe I was moving through the water. I get that same feeling in my sailboat.
After Smoothwater it was all downstream on the Montreal River, with the only surprise being the couple skinny-dipping at one little swift. Not only had I not lost my keys, but the spare ones were still sitting on the front tire, AND I didn't forget to retrieve them this time. We made it back to Elk Lake in time to catch the beer store, and supper at the Home Cafe.
It's a great trip. If you need any more information, send me an email. And if I can find some pictures I'll add them to this posting.
Supplies - New Liskeard has all the necessary shopping facilities, with outlets for maps as well. Elk Lake has all services as well, but with a more limited selection because of the size.
Outfitters - In Temagami, there are Smoothwater Outfitters, Lady Evelyn Outfitters and Temagami Outfitters. As well, Lakeland Airways provides fly-in services. In New Liskeard, Wilderness Dreams offers complete outfitting, and can also arrange shuttles. Long Point Airways west of Elk Lake has fly-in services.
Topo Maps - you should have 41 P/7 - Smoothwater Lake in 1:50,000. Maps are available at the Highway Book Shop outside Cobalt (worth a visit if you like old books) and at Wilderness Dreams in New Liskeard.
Guide Books - Bring the Bible: Temagami Canoe Routes, by Hap Wilson. A new edition is expected this spring, but we used the 1988 edition, and it was just fine.