Canoeing Cottage Country

Fall-colour paddling routes in Ontario’s Near North

I had my doubts when I loaded a canoe on my vehicle and drove south into Ontario’s cottage country for a fall-colour paddling trip. After all, I live surrounded by thousands of deserted lakes, wild rivers and untouched forests in Northern Ontario. But my friend, Brad, was in Toronto, so it made sense to meet for a trip somewhere in between. I braced for people, powerboats and vacation homes. 

We decided on an 80-km circuit on the Magnetawan River, just off Highway 69, north of Parry Sound. This part of the Georgian Bay area was once a favourite haunt for the iconic canoeist and filmmaker Bill Mason; the pink granite canyons and scenic campsites of the Magnetawan appear in Mason’s popular film Song of the Paddle. So I knew it couldn’t be all bad.

The hardwood hills of Ontario’s Cottage Country blaze in the reds and oranges of maples and oaks. Evergreen cedars ring the lakeshores, adding to the colourful scene.

The beauty of a circular “loop” trip is that it avoids the hassle of jockeying vehicles from put-in to take-out and requires minimal doubling back on the water. Our route began on Harris Lake, and to my relief, the cottages thinned out as we paddled to the north end. From here, a classic Canadian Shield shoreline of pine-topped rock knobs and cedar lowlands took shape as we continued on the Magnetawan’s South Branch. Brad’s eye was glued to his camera as we pitched camp in the golden light of magic hour.

Accept the challenge and hit the trail: Portaging is the best way to reach peaceful Northern Ontario wilderness.

Over the next few days, we paddled and portaged through a handful of small, undeveloped lakes, camping on polished rock and listening to coyotes howling during the evenings. We marvelled at how few people we saw. On the Magnetewan, we navigated easy white water and cruised across Trout Lake, its many islands flaming with the reds and oranges of maples and oaks.

At our last campsite, Brad and I sat by the campfire and I finally accepted the revelation that there are countless wild oases in Ontario’s Near North that are well-worth paddling—especially on the fringe of fall. That night, after our glorious long weekend on the Magnetawan, we promised to make an autumn canoe trip in Cottage Country an annual retreat.

An evening paddle on Trout Lake, in Ontario’s Magnetawan Provincial Park.

Two More Paddling Routes in Ontario’s Cottage Country

Muskoka Near Gravenhurst, a two-day loop on the upper Gibson River in Severn River Conservation Reserve explores some of the last remaining undeveloped lakes in Muskoka. Muskoka Paddleshack is your best bet for rentals.

Georgian Bay Franklin Island bustles with boaters in the summer months, but come September it’s a paradise for sea kayakers, close to Killbear Provincial Park. Local outfitter White Squall can set you up with gear.

About Conor Mihell

Conor Mihell is an award-winning environmental and adventure travel writer based in Sault Ste. Marie. Read his work in the Globe and Mail, Explore, Cottage Life, Canoe & Kayak, ON Nature, and other magazines and newspapers. He's been a sea kayak guide on Lake Superior for close to 20 years, and has paddled from Sault Ste. Marie to Thunder Bay. 

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