Exploring the Turtle River

Discovering Pictographs, Easy Rapids and Easier Smallmouth

We were able to get the tents up before the downpour, and now our group of four adults and five children is packed together under the protection of a small tarp. Rivulets of water pour over the edge of orange nylon to spill onto the smooth granite rock foundation of our hastily prepared campsite. As miserable as the conditions are, our situation is familiar and comforting. We’ve been paddling with the Simpson family since our girls were tiny, and over the years we’ve all learned to accept the diverse weather that comes with wilderness paddling.

A Timely Campsite

As we slid four canoes into the stained waters of the Turtle River at the Highway 622 bridge, northwest of Atikokan, black clouds were already gathering. As we paddled upstream under a forbidding sky, I watched with pride as our teenage daughters, Islay and Lillian, and the Simpsons -- Jenna, Kiri, and Grace -- took command of their respective vessels. After portaging around several picturesque chutes, we discovered a timely campsite where the river splits around a large rocky island. We hastily pitched tents, rigged a tarp, and fell upon a warm meal with piqued appetites.

canoeing rapids
Islay Smedley and Jenna Simpson navigate one of the many exciting rapids along Northwestern Ontario’s Turtle River. (Photo credit: James Smedley)

By the next afternoon, the sun is warming our backs as we paddle and portage through a profusion of small lakes that will eventually reunite with the Turtle River. After crossing Dibble Lake, we approach a portage around falls and set up camp on the multi-level flat rock site.

Running Logs and Canoes Through History

It’s apparent we are not the first to travel these waterways. A dual sluiceway, engineered with rocks and timbers, gives us a glimpse at the days when the river was used for running logs. But an even deeper conduit into the past is discovered as we paddle past a vertical rock face on Smirch Lake which holds the faded orange shape of a deer or moose. The ancient Aboriginal pictographs continue with a canoe and paddlers, a turtle, and assorted indistinguishable symbols.

turtle pictograph
Lillian Smedley discovers a turtle pictograph along a sheer rock edge of Northwestern Ontario’s Turtle River. (Photo credit: James Smedley)

Smirch eventually tapers down and drops into a series of narrows and rapids. The first is particularly daunting, with large standing waves squeezed between a narrow passage. It’s an exciting run for Francine and me in our 18-foot Wenonah and even more exciting for our girls in their shallow 15-foot cedar strip. The moving water also delivers great fishing. Big smallmouth bass nail jigs and plastic and we harvest half a dozen for tonight’s supper.

Reluctant Homestretch

With the current of the Turtle River behind us and hastened by a tailwind, we return to our first campsite. Where we once shivered under a tarp, we now sunbathe on warm flat rocks and cast topwater poppers from shore for large, aggressive smallmouth. Over the years we’ve learned that there is a balance between the fair and the foul. And today it isn’t difficult to accept what the great outdoors has to offer.

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

Recommended Articles

Four Seasons of Bass in Ontario

Northern Ontario is home to year-round bass.

5 Places to Shore Fish

Fish’n Canada shows you where to go shore fishing in Ontario.

Top 5 Baits for Smallmouth and Largemouth Bass

What baits do you use to target bass? Find out why these 5 are the best!

Top 5 Flies for Smallmouth Bass

The inside scoop on bass flies from the hosts of The New Fly Fisher.

Don’t Be Afraid Of Muskies

Muskies are fish of 10,000 casts and are found in large bodies of water in Northwestern Ontario.

The Eyes Have it

How to Use a Natural Resource as Bait

Spring Perch Fishing

Use These Tips on Your Next Ontario Fishing Trip

Summer Brook Trout

Expert Advice for Fishing Ontario Lakes

Pine Sunset Lodge

Walleyes and slabs of Dinorwic Lake

Bear Creek Bruisers

Fishing Musky on Lake Nipissing

Striker's Point Lodge

Hungry Walleyes and Big Pike on Whitewater Lake

Bass Fishing at Lost Lake Wilderness Lodge

This drive to lodge offers some of the best smallmouth bass fishing in Northeastern Ontario.

Catching Ontario Walleye

Pro Tips for Bait and Walley Presentations

Hidden Musky Gems

The Musky Hunter shares 3 favourite musky hot spots across Ontario.

3 Great Walleye Lakes

Lakes Home to Both Eaters and Trophies

Slow Death Revisited

This technique is used to slow down the walleye bite transitioning from spring to summer.

Best of The Musky West

Have you fished these top 3 musky lakes in Northwestern Ontario?

Wild Brook Trout

A Guided Float Trip Down the River

Planning for Pike

Start Planning for Trophy Fishing

Fishing Northern Lights Country

Whitefish Lake is Great for Adventuring Angler