The Happy Camper: Think’n Outside the Box on Canada’s Mississippi

Here’s part four of The Happy Camper’s paddling journey along Canada’s Mississippi River. Missed a part? Read parts one, two and three

Andy and I made the right choice to camp at the start of the Miller Rapid portage. When we ran the rapids in the early morning, we flushed out into Miller Lake to see a “No Trespassing” sign on the other side of the portage. In fact, the entire shoreline had signs. The online Crown Land Atlas still indicated it to be Crown land, though. Interesting.

We paddled the length of Millers Lake, going under the road 509 bridge where Dave and Mary had parked their pickup vehicle the day before. It’s a good place to leave a vehicle if you’re thinking of doing the King’s Rapids to Miller Lake as a day trip.

The river splits at the east end of Miller. To the right is a southern section of big whitewater, which is avoidable by an 880-metre portage to the left along a road section at MacLaren’s Depot. The northern channel is a squeezed-in section of the river, more creek-like, called MacLaren’s Depot Syne. The route description notes four short portages (30 metres to the left, two 50 metres to the right and one 50 metres to the left). The second option made more sense and seemed more scenic. After a couple of hours of hauling the canoe and gear up steep take-outs and lowering them down steep put-ins, I think the road might have been a better option—but the area we went through was definitely more scenic.

Izatt Lake’s shoreline is busy with cottages, but Stump Lake is an amazing place to paddle through, full of islands and inlets with just a couple of rustic camps poking out of the bush. We got slightly confused of our whereabouts a couple of times on the way through but managed to stay in the deeper sections by keeping to the left shoreline. Soon, yellow booms blocked our way and marked the entrance to the immense High Falls Dam. We pushed our way through a patch of cattails on the far-left shore, then continued to hug left to avoid the giant spill gates. A portage sign marked the take-out up on a gravel bank.

The three-unit, three-megawatt station celebrated its 100th birthday in 2020. Not much has changed since it first went into service except for some updated electrical parts and a stainless-steel penstock that replaced the original wooden one in the early 1950s. A penstock is the pipe that transports the pressurized water from the dam to the turbines.

This is where the infamous “Lumbermen’s Feud” of 1882 happened. Peter McLaren built his first dam and timber slide at High Falls and refused to let Caldwell use the slide. Caldwell took it to court—and won! In 1884, the Rivers and Streams Act was passed, recognizing that use of Canadian waterways could not be blocked by private interests.

The portage around the dam measures 1,200 metres and follows a gravel road mostly downhill to a public beach on Dalhousie Lake. I’ve heard stories of some paddlers putting in just below the sluiceway and taking on the rapids all the way to Dalhousie. Andy and I figured riding whitewater blind below a hydro dam wasn’t the safest option, so we took the portage.

Crossing Dalhousie Lake was uneventful. It rained on us the entire five kilometres—five long kilometres—but the winds stayed calm.

Sylvania Lodge at the #8 road bridge marked the end of our Dalhousie Lake crossing and Andy and I continued on through a meandering section of low land swamp made up of silver and red maple. Halfway to Sheridan Rapids, we passed tributary creeks leading into McColloch’s Mud Lake and the smaller Purdon’s Mud Lake. This place was absolutely alive with birdlife.

It was dusk, and still raining, when we approached Sheridan Rapids. I had booked us a night at an Airbnb—The Eco-friendly Treehouse, hosted by Erik And Liseanne Kafrissen. The problem was that we couldn’t find it. I just assumed it was before the first rapids. It wasn’t. Andy and I were losing light and patience. Luckily, I met a kind fellow named Kevin who was out feeding his chickens. He told me the Treehouse was just down the rapids, around the first bend. I thanked him, then walked back to the river. No profanity was thrown at me, and no shotgun went off over my head. I rejoiced that the kindness of strangers still existed.

A Mark Twain quote from his book, Life on the Mississippi. “The Mississippi Valley is as reposeful as a dreamland, nothing worldly about it . . . nothing to hang a fret or a worry upon.”

A 430 portage is found on the right of the first rapids. Andy and I, however, had to wade down the river on the left in search of the Airbnb. A few minutes later, we were pulling the canoe and gear out of the rapids and hauling everything up to the 20-foot-high treehouse nestled amongst tall oaks and thick cedar.

Walking through the front door of the treehouse was such a delight. The rain was still coming down hard and both Andy and I were slightly hypothermic. We lit the pellet stove and strung a drying line between some taxidermic fish and a wall decorated by eclectic posters, including The Dukes of Hazzard, The Godfather’s Marlon Brando and some classic album covers—Stompin’ Tom Meets Big Joe Mufferaw, Johnny Cash Live at Folsom Prison, The Best of Dolly Parton and Led Zeppelin’s Zoso.

A couple of beds were on the main floor and a couple more were up a steep ladder leading to a loft encircled by old books, DVDs and board games. I went to use the outdoor shower that overlooked the river while Andy chose a couple of cassette tapes to play while eating our supper. A mix of The Cranberries and INXS filled the place while we dined on our pre-soaked dehydrated lasagna meals.

This cozy, handmade slice of unsophisticated Shangri-La felt like hanging out in a man’s cave gone haywire. It was perfect in every way, and Andy and I slept like babies in the woods with the sound of the river gurgling down below our beds.

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