The Happy Camper: The Kindness of Strangers Along Canada’s Mississippi

The final part of The Happy Camper’s journey along Canada’s Mississippi River is here! Need a refresher? Read parts one, two, three, four and five

Evan brought gifts for us when he arrived to do our shuttle around Mississippi Lake: a roll of toilet paper, bacon, packs of crystal electro lights and a Nalgene bottle full of good Scotch. He was now deemed a friend for life. To thank him, we treated him to lunch in Almonte before we continued down the river. We also visited the statue of James Naismith, who invented basketball in 1891 and is often credited with introducing the first football helmet.

Evan drove us along the 560-metre portage through Almonte, passing in front of the town hall to Little Bridge Street (right), then under a railway bridge to take Mill Street, which was blocked for construction at the time. The put-in was at a public park and launch, located to the left after crossing Highway 44 (Almonte Street).

The river changed its character once again after Andy and I paddled beyond Almonte. Scenic cascades dropped down into the Mississippi and stout red and white pine dominated the low-lying banks. We ran a zig-zag Class I rapid and then pulled out to portage at the town of Blakeney. The 300-metre portage around the unrunnable rapids is on the left. This is where paddler Pascal Bredin of Gatineau drowned in 2022 while assisting with a river rescue exercise. It was a very sad event and is one that is talked about and recalled in the Ottawa paddling community as a pure tragedy.

The portage trail goes through a park established by the Ministry of Natural Resources and is now maintained by a local hunt club. It’s a picturesque walk across a handful of foot bridges that span the length of the cold water springs rushing into the river. It also has a distinctive art exhibit called “Reciprocal Door.” The artist, Jared Macadam, wanted to symbolize that relationships are built when doors are opened and people are allowed in.

“The door is a metaphor for the relationship between Indigenous people and Canadians; past, present and future. Walking through it will act as a subtle reminder of our commitment to the other in this reciprocal relationship.”

Andy and I jumped at the chance to portage our gear and canoe through the door—both ways. I think the artist would have appreciated that.

We didn’t have to paddle far from Blakeney to reach the private land we were given permission to pitch our tent for the night. Owner Peter Trussler was there to meet us on his dock. His neighbours, who border his property to the south, also came down to greet us. Both houses were perched high up on an abandoned ski hill and in between was a dense pine plantation split by a row of freshly mowed grass. Andy and I chose a flat spot down by the river to camp and accepted the offer to come up to Peter’s estate for a cold beer after we had settled in.

It was an incredible evening sitting down with Peter, his wife and his neighbours. Andy and I entertained them with our stories of past canoe misadventures. We were like the jester and the clown. In turn, they told us beautiful accounts of living alongside the river. At dusk, we finished our drinks and walked back down the old ski hill to have some of Evan’s Scotch in our bug shelter. We sipped on the aged whisky and watched fireflies dance amongst the cut grass. Andy and I had, yet again, found another Shangri-La along the Mississippi River.

We were up at sunrise, only having coffee and cold PB&J sandwiches for breakfast. We had some distance to cover, and Andy and I wanted to get an early start. This would be our last day on the river; a day less than we had planned. I had organized a night at Riverbend Campground outside of Pakenham. I had also organized a shuttle with Russ Senior through Ottawa Valley Canoe and Kayak. However, the park wasn’t too far downriver, and a storm was on its way. So, Andy and I decided to change up things once again.

Russ, our shuttle driver, wasn’t able to arrange an early pick-up, so I called our good friend Evan to see if he could pick us up. Once again, he came to our rescue. Ya gotta love that Evan.

Upstream of Pakenham, Andy and I paddled under an aged but impressive railway bridge, then ran a Class I rapid just prior to the town. There was supposed to be a 185-metre portage along the left shore, but we couldn’t find it. It was a straightforward run except for the lap full of water I received at the base of the rapid. It sucks being the bow paddler at times.

The take-out for the 260 portage that avoids the rapids at Pakenham Bridge was obvious. It was before the bridge, to the left, up a slight gravel bank. From there, we walked across the roadway and down to a municipal park and boat launch. On the way across, however, we made sure to check out the bridge. It was built back in 1903 and is the only five arched stone bridge left standing in North America.

The storm was quickly approaching, so Andy and I made haste to our last take-out—Ottawa Valley Canoe and Kayak, situated river right on the old Highway 17. I phoned Evan to update him with our progress. It would just take us over an hour to reach the finish line. The problem was, I wasn’t exactly sure where he would meet us. I had assumed the outfitter had a dock to take out on. Duly noted, never assume on a canoe trip. Their place was a bit further up from the river, with no dock. Just swamp. I was told by the owner, Beth Peterson, there was a rustic launch on the other side of the highway bridge. Not knowing about that place myself, I had a hard time explaining where it was to Evan. My phone battery was dying, so I broke protocol once again and changed our plans. Andy and I simply paddled back to the municipal park in Pakenham. It was an easier pick-up place to explain to Evan over the phone.

Adversity is a good skill set to have for canoe trippers. In the north, I’ve altered plans to deal with our remote existence—being wind bound on a massive lake, a nuisance bear eating our food or winter arriving earlier than expected. On an urban river such as the Mississippi, issues may include finding a legal place to sleep at night, a way to portage without pissing off some landowner or finding proper take-outs and put-ins.

Andy and I waited for our shuttle under the park pavilion, avoiding the storm as best we could. While waiting, we talked to some locals about life on the river. An aged hippie dude wearing a crochet hat and tie-dyed Crocs showed off his square stern Sportspal canoe and the walleye he just caught below the rapids for breakfast. A couple of mid-twenty-year-olds, who were carbon copies of Wayne and Garth from the movie Wayne’s World, taught us some local history while they sat in the base of the rapids downing cans of Molson’s Export. A wedding photographer and clients gave us a complete chronicled rundown of why the arched bridge was such a drawing card for tourists from around the world. We also had a visit from Donald Haines, a master canoe builder and very talented canoe sailor from the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association. Don recognized our pile of gear, saw the canoe while driving by and pulled into the parking lot for a good chat.

Evan showed up with his girlfriend, Phoebe Jade. They had planned a trip together to Bon Echo Provincial Park, so our request for a shuttle worked perfectly for all of us. Andy and I really enjoyed our time with both of them. Phoebe was a local of the area, and on our way to get my vehicle she shared some amazing memories of growing up along the Mississippi.

Evan and Phoebe were a great young couple to be around—so enthusiastic about canoe tripping, so excited about learning more whitewater skills, so thankful to be connected to other paddlers and so inspirational towards the future.

It was a lovely drive back to Bon Echo, and Phoebe made it even more special when she carried Andy’s heavy pack to my car. This is the same item I remember Andy had to pay extra freight when we took a plane for a canoe trip in northern Ontario. It’s a heavy pack! She successfully hauled it between vehicles without doing the turtle maneuver. You’re solid, Phoebe! Andy and I would canoe trip with you and Evan in a heartbeat. Just say’n.

The drive home was a downer. Andy and I weren’t on river time anymore. We drove a busy highway, stopped for unhealthy snacks and listened to news reports on more violence, climate change and other mayhem in the world.

When I dropped Andy off at his house, his wife was there to greet him. She said he looked a little bedraggled, had the smell of bug repellent and body odour and damned him for tearing a hole in his new camp pants. “Would you do it again?” she asked. Andy and I looked at each other, smiled, and then replied “Absolutely, but maybe we should try that other Mississippi River; the one that flows to the Gulf of Mexico.” She smirked and said “Well, ya better buy a new pair of pants then.”

I drove to my little house on the hill, sadly showered the river dirt off my body, sat on the porch, poured a Scotch and opened up Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi—the book I had been reading on trip. I went to a page I had marked with a pine needle and read one of my favourite pieces out loud before taking a sip of whiskey.

“I became a new being, and the subject of my own admiration. I was a traveller! A word never had tasted so good in my mouth before. I had an exultant sense of being bound for mysterious lands and distant climes which I never have felt in so uplifting a degree since. I was in such a glorified condition that all ignoble feelings departed out of me, and I was able to look down and pity the untraveled with a compassion that had hardly a trace of contempt in it.”

I then gave a cheers to Canada’s Mississippi River, and then started dreaming of other river journeys to come.

Take note that I returned the week after our trip to paddle the section we had missed. I wanted the info so I could write up the route description for other paddlers. My assumptions were correct about Mississippi Lake. It’s big and a tad boring—but historic and worth the paddle. Carleton Place isn’t boring, however. It’s a quaint town, and the 635-metre portage has been altered a bit from what the Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority canoe route pamphlet describes.

First, the take-out on the right, behind the Town Hall, is way too steep. It’s a big cube of cement. I took out at a public parking area before the bridge and followed Mill Street through town. The put-in area was also blocked by a large fence due to some construction, so I put in three-quarters of the way along at a small public park where a stand of ancient Hackberry trees are marked. Not far downstream, I lined down Arkland Rapids. There’s supposedly a 250-metre portage on the south channel of the island, on the left shore, but I didn’t find it. I also ran and lined Monroe’s Rapids. The 295-metre portage around Appleton Dam was quick and easy. The take-out, on the right, was at a public park and so was the put-in down the road.


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