Spanish River, 1994
Day 1, Aug 3
We leave at 6:30 am, to get a jump on the long day ahead. We will first drive to Webbwood, a village on the trans-Canada Highway, near our planned end of the river trip, to pick up someone who will shuttle the car from the top of the river to the bottom. By 12:30, after a 6 hours drive, we are at Stewart's Store in Webbwood, and meet the driver. He's Jack Stewart one of the clan of Stewarts that seem to be associated with the village's General Store. He was a truck driver until he retired and he used to haul logs to the saw mills. Thus, he is quite familiar with the run up Hwy. 144 towards Duke Lake. He's not unfriendly, he just doesn't say much. I feel he is partisan to his old profession and sees the canoeists as just another bunch of air-headed environmentalists. Yes, he's concerned about over-cutting, he understands that this spells the end of jobs, but he sees nothing wrong in the dreadful efficiency of clear cutting. Nevertheless, he will later take the car back to Agnew Lake and make his way home to Webbwood for the, not unreasonable, sum of $110.-. The drive to the top of the river takes 2.5 hours from Webbwood, just like anticipated, and it's boring. I've got the eerie feeling that the area is heavily logged, as large trucks are thundering south. At many places there are access roads going into the bush: not little trails for 4-wheel drive vehicles, but large open dirt roads that allow an 18-wheeler to cruise at 80 km per hour .
We arrive at Duke Lake at 3:15. The access point has changed little since 9 years ago; now there are large provincial signs, and camping is no longer permitted; not a bad idea since it will help to keep the place clean. We unload, hand over the keys and wave goodbye. The weather is clear, but a haze is creeping across the sky from the south. We paddle against the wind, and, knowing that we will have plenty of spare time for this trip, take the first camp site on the west shore of Duke, about an hour's paddle from the start. It's nearly perfect, with a table arranged underneath a dense cedar for cooking. Gentian and small orchids grow in the tall grass at the small sand spit that has made this camp site possible. We eat our sandwiches, as it's the first day of the trip, and thus I don't have to cook. In the night, we hear the rain starting, and the wind picks up. But, why should we care? We have 10 days to do a 6-day-trip.
Day 2, Aug 4
We do not move today. The wind blows strong from the north, and the driving rains keep us in the tent. We even rather skip breakfast as we lie in the sleeping bags, reading our books. Around 11:00 am, the rain stops and I fix brunch. Then, back to bed.... In mid-afternoon, two canoes drift by, ahead of the wind with a tarp for a sail. We'll meet them later again, as we pass them each morning and they pass us in the afternoon as we make camp early and they push a late day. They have rented from Fox Lake Outfitters, large Tripper canoes, painted in a baby-sort-of-blue. Now, I just look through the gap in the tent door and pretend we are not home and they stare across the water towards our camp wondering who might stay here. In the evening, it's fresh pork chops and taters and it's delicious. When night falls, the rain has stopped and we look forward to a sunny day tomorrow.
Day 3, Aug 5
We leave Duke Lake and enter a succession of numbered lakes: Tenth Lake, Ninth Lake (which has some pictographs on a rockface) and so on. The first four lakes have gentle shore lines, with spruce and poplar forming the woods that grow behind the sandy beaches. The wind is from behind us, and thus we make good speed easily. Aside from beaver lodges and the cry of loons, there is no sign of animals around us. This will change as we progress further south.
At First Lake, the Snake River enters in a spectacular set of cascades from the right. We look, try to camp nearby and give up: there is no camp site, contrary to John Yip's complete almanac of camp spots along the Spanish. We find a site about at the midpoint of the west shore of this lake; not romantic but practical. There are even a few berries behind the tent and I do not mention to Peggy that this might be a "beary" spot. Whatever might happen, we'll just sleep through it. Before going to bed, we try fishing from the canoe. I sit in front with the rod, Pegg is at the stern paddling. No luck with the fish, but I've finally got Peggy to try paddling by herself. That was a Big One! She doesn't even notice....
Day 4, Aug 6
I have not been using a watch all these days; so I get up in the morning when I think it's light enough and we go to sleep after it's got dark. Peggy likes to sleep long in the morning, but since this is a naval enterprise, I am the captain and I give orders to Peggy: "Up, up, it's breakfast time!". So, each day we are on the river before nine. Paddling becomes more challenging today, as the river rushes over rocky shallows, and I holler "draw left" and "draw right" and "back-paddle" and "enough". Pegg gets frustrated with me and I can tell she'd quit if she could. Thank God, she can't, and none of the future rapids will give us as much stress as these little shallow ones. We have now reached Expanse Lake, about 10 km long and maybe 1 km wide. It seems bigger yet, as the wind now blows in our face and we have to fight to make headway. But it's sunny again today, and we enjoy it. Also, animals are more frequent here, and we watch as Cedar Waxwings flutter in and out from the tree-lined shore over the water to catch some insect that wasn't smart enough to stay in the shelter of the trees.
The Spanish is now the size of the Credit River near Toronto, but it's wilderness around us and thus feels much different. There are gravel banks, dense forests, shallows, blue sky, toppled trees and many little eddies and back waters where the mind finds peace. This river changes character as it grows and never repeats itself, which makes it such a wonderful place for a trip.
We pass the Forks of the Spanish, where the West Branch enters from the right, and the railway joins along the shore. Trains pass every few hours and we marvel at the long freight trains, attesting to a national economy that definitely is alive.
We portage at the next rapids and decide to stay for the night at the generous camp site at its end. As we hang about the site, the party with the baby-blue canoes goes by, having run and shipped water on the section that we portaged. The lower rapids that we will paddle tomorrow they go through without scouting and they bungle they way through without mishap. For me this is a relief: if they can make it through, going right over the rocks, we will have no trouble.
Day 5, Aug 7
And we do have no trouble going through the rapids, just as I thought. We just work our way towards the left shore where the water is deep and thus there is no chance of hitting a rock or swamping in the backwash of a souse hole. The next portage we carry again, this time to be rewarded with a pair of gloves that some party has left in the rush to move on. The gloves are made of dear skin, without finger tips, and should be great in fall, when the air is cool and fingers get numb without some protection. From here, it's a short paddle to the mouth of the Pogomasing river. It enters from the right, passing underneath the railway tracks. The Pogomasing is pretty: it's about 20 ft across, fast flowing and shallow, and remnants of an old logging chute give it variety. The river starts at a low concrete dam at Pogomasing Lake and immediately tumbles over a spectacular fall. Peggy takes many pictures because it really is a special spot. We decide to leave the Spanish temporarily and to carry the gear and canoe along the blazed path to Pogomasing Lake. It's a distance of about 800 m, with a few uphill sections to make it hard work; but it's not a dull portage.
After we have slogged across, we put into the lake and are surprised by its sparkling clean waters that allow us to see clearly the lake bottom in maybe 30 feet of water. We paddle out of the crooked bay and enter the large lake. The wind is blowing over its wide open waters, and we bounce over waves, working to get to a set of islands that may shelter a suitable camp site. We stop for a swim in a sandy bay and eat lunch. Checking the fine sand, we see footprints from wolves. I hope to hear them at night and will be disappointed as the night will remain quiet. I am not afraid of wolves. They are no danger, they are shy and I have never seen one. I heard a wolf pack howl once in Killarney. It was beautiful, each wolf having a different voice, one starting out and then one after the other joining in. Just like a barber shop quartet, all well measured and in perfect harmony. I believe that they enjoy singing just like people and I hope I shall hear them many more times.
As we look for a campsite, we get frustrated as there is none. It's a very large lake, the islands and shores are made of boulders maybe 6 inches across and you just cannot camp on such rough ground. After 1 hour or so, we turn around and head back north towards the other end of the lake where we had seen sandy cliffs. After a short paddle the miracle occurs: we round a point, and there is the perfect site: a crescent-shaped beach, wide enough to keep the tent away from the water, there are bushes for shelter, trees towards one side and lots of driftwood on the shore for the camp fire. We stop, and as we set up camp, the place proves what it promised at first impression. We feel at home, and will stay for two days.
Day 6, Aug 8
It's raining today, it's windy and it's generally miserable. But the camp site has proven its worth and we are as snug as a bug in a rug: we are never worried about being blown away by the strong wind and we get no water in the tent. When it stops raining for a while, I can cook behind a log on the beach, out of the wind and the stove can do its job. Behind the tent, Peggy finds Moose pellets, or should I call them Maxi-pels? So, this place has character and it's good to us. The books are finished soon, and we start doing crossword puzzles from a magazine that I had brought along, just in case. The weather is warm and we really suffer no hardship on this one-day layover.
Day 7, Aug 9
Overnight, Peggy has to listen to another form of life around here: a little mouse is rustling about and Pegg can't sleep. It is funny, I don't even know about it until I start to pack in the morning; that's when that little thing peeks from under a folded pack and looks at me with big eyes. It is not hurried at all and looks cute, with its big pearly eyes, its soft gray colour and a body that reminds of a small ball rather than a rodent.
There is a strong wind from the north now, and we have to fight our way back against rolling waves as we paddle back towards the dam. The portage is easy now as we go mostly downhill, and we know what to expect. Then, we are back on the Spanish which by now has the character of a steady through-road: even though it offers little variety but it's good for making progress. There are the frequent trains again, mostly long freight trains but also there's a small passenger train where people wave as they travel past us.
Then, due west of the Nitro rail stop, I see an animal on the left shore: first, I think it's a medium to large dog, sitting with straightened front legs and watching us. It then dawns on me that it's not a dog but a cat, except that it hasn't got that rounded look that I expect from a house cat: It's face is rather angular. I point it out to Pegg and we stare back at it. It then gets up with leisure, turns sideways to reveal a long tail, and walks into the bush. We are excited and baffled as we are not sure what it was but we agree on the colour as being fawn (Pegg) or grayish brown (me). The whole episode has taken only about 15 seconds: not enough time for a picture.
PS: Later, back in Toronto, I read up on North American cats, and find that there have been over 70 sightings of cougars in Ontario over the last 50 years. Too bad that we didn't have binoculars or even the camera ready. We shall never have that same chance again, as the cougar is such a secretive animal. After the trip, on August 23, I call up the Ministry of Natural Resources in Espanola to relate the sighting of the cougar and talk to a Mr. Wayne Salinger. He makes note of when and where we had seen the animal and my name and phone number, and says anyone wanting to get more details could contact me. Yes, his first question was whether we had gotten a photo...
We are now at about the half-way point of the trip and enter the Spanish Lake. I find that same campsite where I stayed 9 years ago. It looks better than I remember and we have a beautiful view over the lake, right from the tent. There is a cottage on the west shore of the lake and I recall meeting the owners on my last trip. They had told me how they built the cottage and how they had floated the material down the river, in one large raft. They must be 60 to 70 years by now, and I wonder whether they are still healthy and alive. I check at their cottage: the flag is out but no one is at home. So, we settle for the night and we are still excited about that strange animal that we had seen earlier.
Day 8, Aug 10
Today, we set off towards the Graveyard Rapids. First, the river has a few class II rapids and I am a bit apprehensive as I remember them as difficult from my last trip. No sweat, we are good at shooting rapids by now! Then we approach the Elbow, a sharp turn in the river towards North-West. There are no campers at this place today, and only the signs put up by the Fox Lake Outfitters remind that this can be busy at times. On the gravel bar on the right shore they have placed a big sign warning their customers that this is the take-out point.
We continue paddling and soon are at the first set of Graveyards. We carry the packs across the portage and I decide to paddle through the rapids by myself and thus save myself carrying the canoe across the portage. There are more rapids and two falls to come and these we do portage. Camp sites are beside some of the rapids. Some are swampy and others have spectacular views over rushing water. We stop at one for lunch, and Peggy admires the many butterflies that abound here. At this same place she picks up the sheath for a Swiss army knife that someone had left behind.
After a stretch of calm water we come to the final rapids of the Graveyards, a 400m portage on the left that ends where the bottom of the river is choked with drowned logs. Re-entering the river is complicated by these unusual obstacles and we have to push the canoe over old logs. The next and last of the rapids can be paddled, but the water is fanning out over maybe 200m width and we are scraping over rocks. Next are long stretches of calm water, until suddenly the river narrows and springs into action. For many miles there is fast water with thrilling but harmless rapids. We pull out at a flat rock above a fast bend in the river and have the most spectacular campsite, "front row", so to speak. I love the place and Pegg would enjoy it more if the water wouldn't rush by all night long and keep her sleepless.
Day 9, Aug 11
This day brings constant fast water and it's pure joy and splash and no hazards. It is strange to realize that the rapids drawn on the map do not exist while there are many where the map promises quiet water. So, we just "paddle by the seat of our pants".
By 2 pm, the river slows down, we are at the top of Agnew Lake and are looking for a camp site. The first site is taken by a group of 6 females, 10-12 year olds with an adult leader. They have paddled the same stretch as we, took their time over 10 days and they are in great mood, singing and chatting happily. I have a lot of respect for their leader. We pitch tent at the next site as I am cautious that the two remaining sites might be bad or taken already. I need to clean up some garbage and the bugs here are the worst of the trip. I try fishing and hook one fish but am unable to land it. Later, we watch in amazement as a canoe flies by: two people using the Minnesota Switch, a paddling style where you paddle for 5 strokes on one side, then paddle five on the other, and so on. They paddle fast, about twice the normal speed and remind us of a mechanical wind-up toy. But they seem to know what they are doing: the canoe is a fast lake type (Wenona?), is made of expensive kevlar and the paddles are made of expensive bent wood. Nevertheless, there is something funny about them. We can't help looking at each other and break out laughing.
Day 10, Aug 12
We start early, well before 8 am, in spite of Peggy's protests. As it turns out, we could have camped at the next site, on the right shore, as it is unoccupied and looks really good. Even the following site, at the top of the open lake, looks attractive.
We are now on Agnew Lake where it opens up wide and we have to cross open water several times. I am glad we have started early and the wind hasn't picked up yet. After the first crossing, we pause in the lee of a point and pick a few berries right from the canoe. We are tired. We cross the next stretch of open water without problems and then follow the eastern shore line. At a long sand beach we stop and pick over the piles of driftwood. We take home two large and many small pieces, cramming them around and on top of the packs. Who cares that the canoe looks bizarre with its awkward load: there is no further portage and we have got the room!
Finally, we approach the destination, Agnew Lodge, on the southern shore. We beach the canoe and I walk up to the lodge and pick up the car keys. Everything is in order: the car is there and the lady charges us only for 9 days parking without adding the launching fee that she would be entitled to. They run a tight shop there, and I appreciate the success they have. The lodge is clean and things are in good working order. Thus, we can count on it being there for many more trips on this river.
We then hit the road and are heading home. Lunch we have at Jeannine's in Webbwood; unfortunately, Jeannine has forgotten how to cook French Canadian home style and the food is mediocre. Then we are back on the road, eager to get home and drive straight through to Toronto. We are home by 5 pm.
Erhard Kraus, October 7, 1994
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The advice provided in Spanish River 1994, by Erhard has been compiled based upon 30 years experience canoeing in Ontario. Every effort has been made to ensure that the advice in this web site is correct. Even so, I do not accept any responsibility for errors or misrepresentations contained herein.
WARNING! This advice is intended for use by those with some prior experience in camping, canoe-tripping and backpacking. I do not assume responsibility for the safety of individuals, nor do I accept liability for any loss or damages that might arise in the course of following the advice presented in this web site.