Unwinding in Obatanga: a paddling adventure

A family paddling and fishing trip for the memories

A fiery sunset casts a reddish glow on the smooth, brown granite that slopes down into Obatanga Lake. It’s been a bit of a scramble getting this trip together, but as I sit on the warm, smooth rocks and draw a lung full of pine-scented air, I realize that it’s been well worth the effort.

First evening sunset over Obatanga Lake after arrival.

Francine and I don’t see our daughter, Islay, nearly enough. We also don’t paddle as much as we used to. So when our 22-year-old clears a few days to spend with her parents, we decide to have our visit in the wilderness. Like a well-oiled machine, we spring into action: Islay packs the food, Francine gathers the camping gear, and I take care of loading canoes, and fishing gear, and choosing where to go.

In Algoma Country, selecting a paddling route can be daunting. In an area that includes the coast of Lake Superior and an undulating landscape cradling interconnected lakes and rivers, we are presented with a wealth of options when choosing where to dip a paddle. For this short trip, we are looking for accessible wilderness and established campsites amidst boreal surroundings where there’s a good chance of catching a walleye dinner. In the end, I choose Obatanga Provincial Park west of Wawa, and as the sun disappears behind the spindly spruce of the far shoreline, all the ingredients are coming together—except for the fishing, and I plan on taking care of that in the morning.

Islay and James pulling canoes upriver on their way to Obatanga Lake.

Taking up the Slack

Obatanga Lake is central to the 9,400-hectare non-operating Provincial Park, and it takes half a day of paddling across lakes, wading up rivers, and portaging around rapids to reach the 5-km-long lake. Like other lakes in the park, Obatanga has good fishing, but after sliding my canoe onto the calm waters of early morning, I’m having trouble getting enough fish for a feed.

I’d meant to bring some worms or leeches to sweeten my presentation, but in my haste, I must’ve forgotten. Undeterred, I cast a jig and a soft plastic grub amongst gaps in the weeds just off our campsite at the south end of the lake. It’s very shallow here, but I quickly catch a small pike and a couple of walleye. In the interest of good karma, and figuring that the good fishing would hold, I release all three fish. As the sun rises and starts to penetrate the shallow water, the bite dies and I paddle off in search of active walleye.

By the time Francine and Islay crawl out of the tent and into their canoe, I’m starting to regret releasing my earlier catch. It’s hot, sunny, and flat calm, and although I’ve kept a few small walleye, they will yield barely enough meat for lunch. When I meet the ladies at a cluster of islands at the north end of the lake, I’m surprised and pleased to see them hoist their own stringer of fish. “We caught a couple on our way here,” says Francine with a wry grin.

Islay Smedley with a nice Obatanga walleye.

Team Effort

I wield my fillet knife and hand off a pile of filets to Islay, who unites them with onions, lemon, and a touch of curry powder over an open fire. Francine has a makeshift table set on a flat rock, with bread, butter, and glasses of filtered lake water. We sit cross-legged and experience the wilderness dining phenomenon that transforms even the plainest of fare into an exquisite feast. But for Francine and I, it’s especially rewarding to see our daughter—who we had canoe tripping before she could walk—now contributing so ably as a young woman.

cooking walleye
Islay cooking walleye over an open fire.

As Islay approaches the lunch dishes, Francine and I lie down on a flat warm rock to digest in the sun. With our daughter stepping up to the plate, we’ve entered a new chapter of wilderness canoeing, and we still have one more day in the woods of Algoma Country to enjoy it.

About James Smedley

Professional photographer and writer James Smedley’s contributions—more than 400 pieces and close to 1,000 images—to U.S. and Canadian books, magazines, and newspapers have earned him over 40 national and international awards. In addition to teaching photography workshops, James is the travel editor at Ontario OUT of DOORS magazine. James has fly-fished for brook trout and arctic grayling in far northern rivers and continues to cast for trout, bass, and steelhead near his home in the northern Ontario town of Wawa where he lives with his wife Francine and daughters Islay and Lillian.


Visit James at www.jamessmedleyoutdoors.com

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