A 4-day Solo Canoe Trip in Temagami, Ontario

Why one paddler was determined to experience the pristine wilderness of Northeastern Ontario—alone.

The pine trees stretch out from the shoreline, swaying in the wind as if dancing to the sound of the loons. For thousands of years since the ice gave way to smooth rock outcroppings, lake, and forest, this landscape has remained relatively unchanged. The contours of rolling hills play host to cliffs of exposed rock, home to nesting birds like the white-headed Bald Eagle. Below the cliffs lie a network of lakes, big and small, that connect to one another through paths hidden in the trees that have been used by Indigenous people for thousands of years. These paths also welcome the dwellers of the Northern forest: wolves, moose, and bear. This is Temagami, an ancient and beautiful place.

There’s no greater way to experience Temagami between ice-out and freeze-up than by canoe; the Indigenous vessel perfected thousands of years ago to carry one across the many lakes and rivers for months on end as silently as can be. That’s how I chose to experience Temagami on this trip. Just me, and my canoe, generously lent to me by Temagami Outfitting Co.

Cutting through the clear water the drip of my paddle compliments the songs echoing from the shore; a chorus of birds all sharing their unique pitches and rhythms. The dull thud of a woodpecker stands out amongst the high frequencies, but not as much as the drumming of the male Ruffed Grouse. It starts slowly. Thump-thump-thump, then suddenly speeds up. Unfamiliar with the drumming of a grouse, one might think there to be a small stampede somewhere in the woods.

The still morning gives way to a windy afternoon where white foam rolls over the top of the waves, never stepping out of rhythm. Paddling against these winds makes the beginning of a portage a welcomed sight. Worn down from centuries of use, the ancient trail system is marked by a well-trodden path; the plants on either side in constant attempt to reclaim it on behalf of the forest.

Among the signs of human activity is evidence of the locals. Two large ovals the approximate size of my hand stand out from the mud. Moose. The fresh, round balls of scat collected in piles on the trail confirm that the largest of Temagami’s inhabitants recently used this trail. If the moose was close-by, it was now hidden deep within the forest where its expertise travelling through the woods allows it to navigate the thickest of brush. Likely alarmed by the foreign noises I was making, it remained out of sight.

Temagami Outfitting Co. is the perfect place to start any canoe trip in the Temagami region. The TOC staff will fully outfit you with everything you need to experience the wilds of Temagami. If you’re not ready to head out on your own, join one of their guided trips. If you need help planning a trip and don’t know where to start, give them a call. With an unparalleled knowledge of the area, they’ll be able to point you in the right direction.

Canoe overhead, long trails of varied elevation and precarious footing make one wish they were back on the lake paddle in hand. When you have a moment’s rest to breathe you can take in the abundance of plant, fungi, and undergrowth: a sign of the forest’s ever-regenerating cycle.

Further and further away from civilization I dip my hands into the cold lake water and bring it up towards my face, a break from the heat of the day and the exhaustion of the portage. Next is my canoe, followed by my packs. With no more of a trace than a few bent twigs and boot prints in the mud, I’m back on the water.

The consistent dip and drip of the paddle is broken by the sound of slow-moving water as the lake narrows and rises. The seemingly infinite black bottom transforms into silhouettes of rocks that lay silently beneath the surface, coming closer to the bottom of my canoe as I approach the narrow. Eventually it’s too shallow for passage. I free the canoe of my weight, allowing it to float on the surface and pull it by rope to deeper water, progressing on foot.

As the water deepens I make my way back into the canoe and begin the familiar paddle stroke of constant cadence that will take me deeper into the heart of the wilderness.

Alone in the wilderness, you hear and see more, passing the monotony of the day by noticing the intricacies of the geography. An interesting bend in the shoreline or the sudden emergence of an island breaking through the near-black waters catches your eyes. You begin to differentiate between the different sounds coming from the forest, and if you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of movement that follows.

Up in the tree, wings folded down, perch two enormous Bald Eagles, almost completely hidden from view in the entanglement of branches. With a shake of pine needles, large wings unfurl and a forceful takeoff sends both Eagles into flight. Cutting through the air with the grace of acrobats, the two birds cross the lake to the opposite shore, their white heads and black bodies reflecting in the clear waters below them.

The sun sits lower in the sky now. With a solid day’s travel behind me, the rocky point emanating from the shoreline beckons to be called home for the night. It takes just a few short minutes to turn the vacant point into a temporary refuge comforted by the sounds of swaying pines.

But the work isn’t done for the day. Sawing, splitting, and collecting wood sets one up for a calming night under the Northern stars. As the wood is processed, the sun sinks lower in the sky. The scrape of metal on metal engulfs crumpled birchbark into a tender flame. Layers of kindling and wood feed the fire until it’s of a wealthy size and heat.

With the fire well tended to, it’s now time for an end-of-day reward. With just a pan, kettle, and pot, a plethora of delicacies can be made over the fire or on the coals thereafter. Once ready, it’s time to sit, settle in, and enjoy a hot meal and tea. The first bite sends a wave of relaxation coursing through my body allowing me to soak in the ambient scene unravelling before my eyes.

The loons call to one another marking the beginning of the setting sun. A showing of brilliant yellows, oranges, and reds disappear over the varied terrain to the west marking the beginning of night. With the last of the colours gone, a blue darkness settles in.

As the last lights disappear from the sky, the lonely, longing loon calls become more frequent. Mesmerised by the fire, the hauntingly beautiful cries of northern birds and the symphony of frogs, I hardly notice the encroaching darkness.

But it isn’t completely dark. All you need to do is look up to witness a never-ending scene of stars blanketing the black ceiling, reflecting their light onto the lake below. The only source of light around, they cast everything in an illuminating glow.

Eventually the night transforms to day as black turns to blue. A still Temagami morning is the perfect time to spark another fire, make a coffee, and watch the sun rise over the tall pines, casting them in a shroud of golden light.

The songbirds of yesterday begin their symphony as if conducted by the sun towards another stellar performance. One of Temagami’s most important inhabitants, the beaver, can be seen making a slow trail through the still waters collecting materials for its dam. I sit and watch, coffee in hand, as the birds chirp, the beavers swim, and the glow of the sun stretches across the water. The sun’s heat cuts the colder night air bringing a light fog to the surface of the water. This marks the beginning of another day of travel in the wilderness that is Temagami.

A few days spent like this brings my mind to ease, replacing occupied thoughts with those of the present. When the time comes, it makes it hard to leave. I reminisce about my trip over some delicious barbeque and a cold beer at The Outfitter Bar. The comforts of modern living are enticing. I enjoy them, relishing in a meal I didn’t have to prepare myself. With time now to sit back and reflect on the journey of the last few days I know it won’t be long until I once again go paddle in hand into the wilds of Temagami.

The Outfitter Bar is one of the many reasons I love Temagami Outfitting Co. There’s nothing better than coming back from a few days in the backcountry, dropping off your gear, cracking open a cold beer and enjoying some delicious BBQ. Their new summer 2022 menu features incredible meals that pair perfectly with a seat on their patio overlooking the waters of Lake Temagami.

About Mitch Bowmile

Mitch Bowmile is a freelance filmmaker, photographer, and writer telling stories of exploration and impact. He works primarily to support adventurous brands in getting people outside and environmental non-profits in protecting our wild spaces. Find Mitch exploring Northeastern Ontario by canoe, snowshoe, bike, and skis. 

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