Showtime. I have heard them from far away and therefore go ashore carefully to have a look at the situation from the bank. But these rapids are not to be bragged about later. An unspectacular, maybe 50-metre-long ripply board of water lies in front of me, with waves of approximately one metre in height. Only when I look closer, do I notice dark rocks underneath the surface and driftwood caught up on them. Pretty treacherous. And carrying the boat around them is impossible: I am pretty much trapped by thick coniferous forest. On both banks, the underwood goes down into the water. But I am lucky. In the middle of the river, a clean smooth tongue of water cuts through waves. Moments later and I boat down the smooth tongue between the raging spectacle, without one drop of water splashing over the side of the boat. I am enjoying the action, scream “Jiiehaa” and congratulate myself on my cautious strategy.
In this roadless wilderness, the smallest mistake can lead to unforeseeable consequences. Half an hour downstream, I find a calm eddy and pull the canoe onto a small gravel bank. When the sun sets, I sit comfortably next to my fire. The flames are licking on the coffee pot blackened with soot, a plume of smoke rises vertically into the star-lit sky. There is no wind, the mosquitoes – it is the beginning of September – leave me a lone. My penultimate paddle day draws to an end. I try to draw a conclusion, but I am too tired for bonfire philosophy. This night, I also have a good deep sleep.
The Wabakimi Provincial Park lies in the north of Ontario in the middle of the wide coniferous forest zone which stretches across Canada. With its 9,000 square kilometres, it is the second largest wilderness area managed by the province – and a section of the Canadian Shield (Laurentian Plateau) as taken from a picture book. One quarter is naked, moss-spotted granite; the rest is European black pine, spruce and aspen. Black bears dwell here, as well as elks, packs of wolves and a small herd of reindeer. The keyword is “remote”. From Thunder Bay in the south – the only town of note between Toronto (a distance of 1,400 km away) and Winnipeg (700 km) – the drive to the area takes three hours through uninhabited forests. The approach road ends just before the park’s boundary in Armstrong, a functional settlement which benefits from a small railway station and is home to 250 people who earn a living from a bit of timber trade.
The water planes depart from Armstrong to take paddlers into the Wabakimi Provincial Park. It’s a vast system of lakes and rivers which offers 2,000 kilometres of canoe routes with around 500 historical portage sections. Wabakimi is still regarded as untrodden territory, but the indigenous people of Anishinabe have always used the water ways. And it’s nice to contemplate on that when carrying the canoe from one lake to another re-tracing the moccasin footsteps of generations of paddlers who have trod the forest floor. At a time when the rivers in Canada where the only streets and the canoes made of birch bark were basically the only cars and trucks.
Real men can paddle 4,000 kilometres!
Indeed, the canoe is an important – if not even the most important – cultural possession of northern Ontario. And as we can see on our flight from Toronto to Thunder Bay, that is not just verbiage. Below us, a seemingly endless landscape of rivers and lakes stretches endlessly northwards, sometimes appearing to be mostly water than land. I can only now and again glimpse roads. Until I realise that what I continue to see is in fact always one and the same road, the Trans-Canada Highway. Whatever was transport like in the earlier days?
During the fur trade era, the Franco-Canadian voyageurs of the late 18th century took half the summer to cover the 2,000 kilometre journey from Montréal to Thunder Bay. With big transport canoes heavily loaded with goods, they made their way along the rivers Ottawa and Mattawa, Lake Nipissing, French River, Georgian Bay and Lake Huron. When in Sault Ste. Marie, they carried their canoes and goods around the rapids to then paddle along the rugged shores of Lake Superior to Fort William. That was the previous name of Thunder Bay, and because of its canoe connection, it is today a modern loading port for cereals. Upon my arrival, I waste no time in visiting the Fort William Historical Park. The most important fur trade station of the Montréal Northwest Company – whose trading area stretched to Oregon in the year 1800 – has been rebuilt in every detail: fencing and more than a dozen buildings – including actors dressed for that era.
The museum is home to more than 15,000 relevant artefacts including quite a lot of reconstructed birch-bark canoes. I learn that the voyageurs were half-wild journeymen, and vain lady-killers, and freedom-loving conquerors. But really, above all, they were canoeists of unparalleled ability. They accomplished feats at that time which nobody else could. They performed 70,000 paddle strokes per day and burnt off 7,000 calories in the process. In less than six weeks they paddled from Montréal to Fort William – according to one of the pretty museum plates. Their songs tell tales of hernias at difficult portage sections, and of drowned comrades. And also of the charm of the squaws, death and devil as well as the pride of being “homme du nord”, a man of the north.
I immediately take to these men and start talking with one of them, a sinewy fellow with long hair. When he hears about my plans to paddle in the Wabakimi Provincial Park, his reaction is – apparently – typical to the local paddler scene and is a mix of awe and quiet envy. He just says “Wow”. And he recommends two places I should see beforehand: the Sleeping Giant Provincial Park and the Kakabeka Falls. Both are nearby. “There you get a feeling for the achievements of our voyageurs.”
An inland lake as big as Austria
No sooner said than done. And so I am first driving to Sleeping Giant. Thunder Bay disappears in the rear mirror as if the city had never existed. The last house gives way to rugged rock and forests. I move my seat back a bit and activate the cruise control: I am sure that even god would like to sit behind the wheel here. By the way, the Trans-Canada Highway is underneath my wheels, the 8,000 kilometre long mother of all roads which connects Newfoundland with the Pacific Coast. It is an exhilarating feeling which I am still drawing on when I arrive, one hour later, at Sleeping Giant Provincial Park which is at the end of the Sibley Peninsula and stretches far into Lake Superior.
I gaze at the eponymous walls of rock which look like sleeping giants from the west, and take photos of three or four black bears which cross the track as if they had all the time in the world. When I stand at the very edge of the Thunder Bay Lookout which protrudes far over the rocky edge, Lake Superior lies to my feet: an inland lake as big as Austria, a shapeless area of water which melts together with the sky on the horizon. When the voyageurs arrived here, they had already mastered many dangerous rapids and exhausting portages.
In Fort William, they probably talked about the latter with their fur trade comrades who had come from the north on the River Kaministiquia. The most difficult portage led around the 40 metre high Kakabeka Falls west of Thunder Bay. I stare into the gorge, listening to the ear-shattering rush of masses of water and try to imagine how the men unloaded their canoes and carried them – along with many tonnes of heavy goods – around the falls in several stages. Swearing, sweating, sneering and singing the charms of the squaws no doubt.
On the last morning in Wabakimi, a fine mist hovers above the river. During my morning stretching exercises, I think about my heroes, the voyageurs, who, without doubt did not need such morning rituals, tough guys as they were. Then I discover fresh bear traces down river. Maybe the bear watched my performance of contorted movements. I pack up camp, stow everything into the canoe and push myself off. Just a few paddle strokes, and the current carries me away.
Ontarios Norden entdecken
Accommodation: In Thunder Bay in modern Valhalla Inn, valhallainn.com.
Parks: The Sleeping Giant Provincial Park is a one hour’s car drive north-east of Thunder Bay and offers great hikes and viewpoints out onto the giant Lake Superior, ontarioparks.com/park/sleepinggiant.
Paddling in Wabakimi: Park information is available on ontarioparks.com/park/wabakimi. Several agencies organise guided and multiple-day canoe tours in the park, also Wilderness North, check wildernessnorth.com.
Video: Nice footage about Ontario on 4-Seasons.tv/ontario.
05. März 2015, Text: Ole Helmhausen