Wolf Lake… a seemingly mystical land of old growth red pine, quartzite white cliffs, and waters so clear and blue you can see right down to the bottom. For years, I have wanted to visit this lake and witness firsthand the beauty and history that exists in this area. The opportunity finally presented itself when I got to plan a short flat water trip for Thanksgiving weekend. After a bit of research, I found that the Chiniguchi/Laura Lake loop would be a good option to be able to see Wolf Lake and the surrounding area that is the Wolf Lake Old Growth Forest Reserve and Chiniguchi Waterway Provincial Park.
What a day! Beautiful weather, warm sun shining down, barely a whisper of a breeze, and 4 enthusiastic clients all ready to launch into their Temagami adventure. The paddle across Matagamasi Lake flew by as our clients proved to be very quick paddlers. My co-guide Pat was in the bow of the canoe alternating between paddling and taking photos while navigating us northward to the first 2 portages of the trip. Our first portage was a nice warm up to prepare us for a more uphill portage to get into Silvester Lake. We were rewarded at the end of our second portage with a quick visit to Paradise Lagoon, a series of waterfalls and pools that flow from Silvester into Matagamasi. Some brave group members even took a refreshing swim in the cool water. Once everyone dried off, it was onwards and upwards as we paddle our final stretch from Silvester into Wolf Lake.
Our campsite was a bit of a walk up from the water, but we were immediately awestruck by the beauty of our lookout over Wolf Lake. This site along with a few others were recommended by a friend (thanks Lecko!). With the sun low on the horizon the entire lake was bathed in golden light, setting the perfect mood for Pat and I to set out some well deserved refreshments for our tired clients and cook a delicious meal. As we stuff our hungry faces with steaming hot lasagna, we watch the sun set and the stars emerge on a crisp autumn night.
One of my favourite sights on a canoe trip is unzipping my tent in the early morning to see a foggy lake. It sets a mystical tone, wrapping everything in a cool mist that makes me glad I brought my down vest and toque. With coffee, hot chocolate, and a filling breakfast warming our stomachs, we set out on the water. By this time most of the fog had lifted and we were able to fully take in the quartzite cliffs and the shoreline that were perfectly reflected in the still water. We paddled in silence, not wanting to disturb the peaceful tranquility of our paddles dipping into the water and dripping onto the surface of the lake as we fell into the rhythm of paddling. I took the time to observe the fall colours and noticed the clouds perfectly reflected in the water. Beautiful wisps of cirrus cloud high up in the atmosphere. Beautiful, but also a warning that the weather won’t remain idyllic for long.
Feeling invigorated by the sunshine, fresh air, and a lunch of chicken caesar wraps, we chatted as we paddle further up Chiniguchi Lake. Along one of the rocky cliffs, we spotted ancient pictographs and stopped to admire them. Not long after, we paddled up to our campsite. Well perhaps not all the way up to the site. The water was so shallow that we all beached our canoes about 10 feet from the shoreline. After dragging our canoes the last few feet to shore and we all set about our tasks to set up camp. For some it’s collecting firewood, and others it’s going for a cool dip in the shallow. That evening as we sipped wine around the campfire, Pat and I brought up the subject of our next portage. When planning this route, I noticed on the Jeff’s Map that he had labelled one particular portage as “very muddy.” Wanting a bit more context as to what Jeff considered to be “very muddy,” I reached out to a few people who had previously travelled this route. They all agreed, the portage was indeed “very muddy.” So that night, Pat and I wanted to mentally prepare everyone for what I envisioned to be knee deep mud for almost a kilometer. We talked about the portage some more and made jokes, and by the end of the night knee deep mud had turned into waist deep mud that we’d be wading through. If only we knew…
Cirrus clouds rarely lie. We woke up to our first overcast day, fortunately it seemed the rain would hold off. Only a short paddle before we arrive at the infamous muddy portage. Everything starts off smoothly, almost too smoothly. I was halfway down the trail wondering where this so-called mud is, when I saw our group gathered, barrels and packs sitting on the side of the trail. They found it. Mud bog heaven!
Everyone is looking out at Pat, who was on an exploratory mission through the bog, trying to see how far the mud goes before turning back into solid ground. As he made his way through the quagmire he was able to stay only knee deep in the mud until he took a misstep and sank up to his waist! It was hard not to laugh at the absurdity of our situation, and impossible not to laugh at Pat who was trying to come back to solid ground as quickly as he could. Poor Pat ended up falling forward only to catch himself elbows deep in the mud, quite the sight! We check in with our clients to make sure they are up for this mission and everyone is eager to press on.
The clients headed back to the beginning of the portage to get the rest of our gear while Pat and I loaded up the first canoe and proceeded to drag it through the mud. Having something solid and stable to hold onto proved to be the saving grace of this portage and dragging the canoe was much easier than simply trying to wade through the mud. Previous trippers had also laid out branches and logs, and as long as we stayed balanced on these submerged narrow pathways, the mud only came up to our knees. One poorly placed foot however, and you were swallowed up to your hip by the brown stinky muck. With one canoe successfully through the bog section, we loaded up the other 2 canoes and with the client’s help, dragged them through to the other side.
But we weren’t done yet. We still had about 300 meters of portaging left. Thankfully it was all solid ground. The end of the portage at Laura Lake was unfortunately also boggy, so we paddled to our lunch spot before cleaning off our muddy legs in the lake.
By this time our luck with the weather had run out and a gentle rain started, trying to help wash the mud from our limbs. Only 2 more portages to go until we arrived at Evelyn Lake, our destination for the night. We wove our way down Laura Creek and as we completed what we thought was our last portage, Pat double checked the map. Turned out that with the water level so low our path was blocked by a rather large rock, which forced us to portage around it. 2 more portages turned into 3 more portages. I must give enormous credit to our clients, this was not an easy day but everyone stayed in good spirits the whole way through. We joked about how these portages were a breeze compared to the muck we waded through earlier that day. It’s not easy to stay positive after a long slog of a day through increasing cold and rain.
Once we finally reached our campsite the tarps went up first, quickly followed by tents, and a huge firewood collection. As fast as the wet wood would allow, we got warm beverages into everyone’s bellies and a snack before dinner. There comes a point when you’ve been out in the rain for a period of time when you accept that you are one with your soggy clothes. Everyone had reached this point, and even after we set up camp no one was willing to change into dry clothes for fear of getting those clothes wet as well. Pat and I practically had to force everyone into their tents to change into something dry, promising that once changed they wouldn’t have to move from the protection of the tarp and wouldn’t get soaked. Perfect timing, as folks emerged from their tents dry and warm, dinner was ready. Nothing feels better than a big bowl of steaming shepherd’s pie after a long wet day. The rain started to let up a bit and we were able to stand around the fire for a short period of time before the call of our warm sleeping bags was too loud to ignore.
More rain and more portages greeted us this morning. At this point we had completed eight portages, and were getting more and more efficient. Besides, every portage seemed easy now that we had completed our longest and most challenging one. The previous night Pat and I had a look at the maps and discussed that perhaps we should cut this day short. Instead of doing 5 portages today and lots more paddling, we would stay on Wessel Lake and save 2 portages and about 5km of paddling for our last day. After all… why would we have a day where we don’t do any portages?
The rain turned into a mist, and by mid-afternoon it was all but gone as we arrived at our campsite. An early arrival allowed clients to paddle around and explore, go fishing, and even take a nap. While everyone enjoyed being out, Pat and I covertly made a cake for a client who was celebrating their birthday that day. After finishing the wine and wrapping up dinner, we lit the birthday candles and sang happy birthday. Enjoying the lack of rain, we sat by the fire until we could hardly keep our eyes open (which wasn’t much past 9pm). Praying for the clouds to clear up, I climbed into my tent as Pat exclaimed that he saw a star! My hopes were up that tomorrow we would get sunshine again.
Pat may have seen a star that night, but the clouds certainly did not clear up. In fact, at some point during the night we had heavy rainfall once again. Luckily, we didn’t see the rain again that day. Our last day. Our last 2 portages.
We started the day with warm fresh cinnamon rolls and finished off the last of our hot chocolate, fueled and ready for the day. Our first portage was an easy 70m (maybe a bit further due to water levels), and went by quickly. A short paddle later we had our last portage! Much celebrating was had at the end of this portage not only because it was our last one, but also because the most novice member of our group portaged one of our heavy whitewater canoes almost the entire 520m. Not an easy feat. Now that we were back on Matagamasi Lake, all we had to do was paddle down to the landing. Sounds easy right? Well now that the rain had stopped, we needed a different challenge. So nature obliged and sent us a headwind. This slowed our pace but did not dampen the mood. We looked for more pictographs on the shoreline and I was even persuaded to sing a camp song about a moose drinking juice to help pass the time.
We stopped for a quick bite to eat (taco salad… yum!) and a celebration chocolate bar (also yum), before the final push to the end. Now on the main part of Matagamasi Lake, the wind and the waves were even bigger. As we crossed the bay Pat and I had our heads on a swivel, looking over and back at the 2 other canoes. We need not have been too concerned as we heard laughter coming from one canoe as they crashed over the waves, landing with a splash. Everyone was having a blast despite the wind. Before we knew it we were beaching our canoes at the landing, saying our goodbyes, loading vehicles and hitting the road.
Chiniguchi / Laura Lake loop is a beautiful area. A perfect loop for novice trippers looking for a challenge. The first few portages are a bit easier compared to the portages later in the trip, providing a good progression in difficulty. I also think that experiencing challenges like the muddy portage is a fun part of canoe tripping. When I look back on that portage I remember the laughter and collectively overcoming the challenge as a group. The waist deep mud turned out to be a catalyst for group bonding and fun! I hope to be back someday and introduce this area to new friends, maybe adding a day or two to the trip allowing more time at Paradise Lagoon and Wolf Lake. I will also make sure to go back in the fall, when the bugs won’t add an extra challenge to the “very muddy” portage.
A big thank you to Mark and Jen, and Alex and Jess (@tents.and.timber) for coming on this trip with us! And for always being positive, especially when faced with trudging through a bog, extra portages, and non-stop rain. It was a blast having you on trip, and we hope to see you again soon!