The Happy Camper: Paddling Historic Canoe Routes

Paddle with purpose; connect with the past on one of these Canadian historic canoe routes:

Credit: Kevin Callan

There’s something special about retracing a historic canoe route. It’s one thing to think about the times when hardened paddlers first travelled there, forging their way with rustic gear and simplistic methods.

But there’s something else as well.

By paddling the same waterways as early Aboriginals, explorers, fur traders and conservationists, you come to realize how little has changed in these areas since they were first passed through. And that’s a good thing.

Churchill River, Saskatchewan/Manitoba

In the 1950s, a group of Canadian and American writers and bureaucrats joined forces—dubbing themselves the “Voyageurs”—to paddle a number of historic canoe routes. The group consisted of Tony Lovink, Elliot Rodger, Omond Solent and Denis Coolican. The two main players, however, were Sigurd Olson, a legendary writer and canoeist from the U.S., and Canada’s counterpart, Eric Morse.

In 1955, they paddled the Churchill River. Olson wrote the account in his best-selling The Lonely Land and Morse did the same in his book Freshwater Saga. They covered the entire route, from the source of the Churchill, south of the historic Methye Portage which links to the Mackenzie River. Three weeks later they took out at The Pas, Manitoba.

Several shorter and far less jarring adventures can also be had on this river. One of the best is had by taking a bush-plane flight into Trout Lake from Missinipe, Saskatchewan, and paddling back to town. The trip takes about three- to four nights and offers a series of scenic lakes linked by rapids and portages. White pelicans are everywhere, dramatic skylines are the norm and pine-clad rock outcrops are common places to pitch a tent; the same places used by First Nations, explorers and fur traders. 

Tent Dwellers Route, Nova Scotia

In 1906, author Albert Bigelow Paine and friend Dr. Edward “Eddie” Breck set out to paddle the wilds of Nova Scotia with guides Charles “The Strong” (Charlie Charlton of Milford, NS) and Del “The Stout” (Del Thomas of Milford, NS). The book The Tent Dwellers was released two years later and became an instant classic.

I recently canoed this historic route. We began by paddling and portaging across the expanse of Kejimkujik National Park and National Historic Site. Keji is an amazing park. Each portage has canoe rests every 300 metres, complete with wooden benches to sit on, and the campsites all have a storage of wood and an outhouse stocked with TP and Harry Potter novels.

The journey becomes more intense and more rustic when it leaves Keji and heads down the unmaintained Tobeatic Wilderness Area and Shelburne Heritage River, bordering the west side of the national park. It’s a far more isolated stretch. It also marks where, back in 1906, the guides didn’t know the route ahead. (Neither did ours.)

The Shelburne River flushes into Nova Scotia’s largest fresh-waterbody, Lake Rossignol—a reservoir that was actually a series of lakes when the Tent Dwellers travelled through 111 years ago. Another day or two up the Mersey River, then back to Kejimkujik Lake, completes this epic journey. 

French River, Ontario

In 1615, Etienne Brule, Samuel de Champlain’s prime scout, became the first European to follow the French River into the expanse of Georgian Bay. Champlain followed Brule five years later and after his exploratory journey, the river quickly became an aquatic highway. Other adventurers who paddled the French included the Jesuit martyrs Brebeuf and Lalemant; Voyageurs Radisson and des Groseilliers; La Verendrye, explorer of the western prairies; Mackenzie, on his way to the Pacific; and Thompson, known for his explorations and mapping of the Columbia River.

Given such a rich past, it is fitting that this waterway was designated a provincial park in 1985 and commemorated as a Canadian Heritage River one year later. Today, it offers more than 100 kilometres of exceptional canoeing for both the novice paddler and the modern-day explorer—and the Old Voyageur Channel is one of the best. The trip begins on the docks of Hartley Bay Marina. The route heads southwest, past a labyrinth of bays, swifts and channels: Petite Faucille, Palmer Rapids, La Dalle, West Cross Channel and Devil’s Door. It eventually twists its way through mounds of pink granite capped with juniper and blueberry bushes and into the expanse of Georgian Bay. Once you’ve soaked in a sunset or two, the route returns to the access point by way of French River’s Eastern Outlet, leading to the intersection with the Main Outlet and then directly up to familiar Hartley Bay.

Every Canadian canoeist should take a trip here just to feel the kinship with those early explorers. Not that our modern-day lightweight canoes match up with their 36-foot birch-bark canots de maitre, but the prospect of adventure is identical.

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