Paddling Lake Temagami In Northern Ontario

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Frequented by native tribes some 5,000 years back as they became less migratory.

This weekend after a couple prior attempts at coordinating a paddling canoeing trip (the quintessential Canadian summer experience) it finally came together on one of the best weather weekends of the summer. Yes, it’s mid-September and I found myself paddling around the spectacular Temagami lakes region of Northern Ontario with an old friend that I knew from Brisbane, Australia.

About 5 hours drive north of Toronto, Lake Temagami (formerly Lake Timagami) was frequented by native tribes some 5,000 years back as they became less migratory and sought out regular fishing, camping and boating areas for the warmer months of the year. The name of the lake means “deep water by the shore” in the Ojibwa language that was spoken by the Algonquin tribes who were widespread in this part of North America.

These tribal groups really paved the way for this type of canoeing trip, that we were taking this weekend and I’m told you can even see indigenous portage route markings alongside the current portage signs around the lake. Native people used to select the red birch tree for making these markings as these would remain on the tree, simply being reinforced around the edge of the marking, whereas white birch trees would heal over causing the route marking to disappear.

One thing I can see for these tribal people, they knew how to find prime paddling spots. On a weekend like this, I can’t think of anywhere I would rather be.

The Temagami Outfitting Company provided the canoe that we were paddling in. And they were great, not only renting us the boat (and allowing for my plan changes over a month) but they suggested a camping spot and discussed the options with me on the phone and in person. These guys love what they do and are obviously doing well with it, as they’ve just expanded to a larger building next door where they’ll be working with an indigenous elder to pass on some of the ancient skills of canoe building, water and woodcraft that are the heritage of Canadian people.

Camping along the lake is accessible primarily by canoe and as this is crown land (as opposed to Provincial or National Park land) camping is permitted at designated sites and free of charge. Though we did put some dollars in Ontario Parks coffees after driving up late Friday and camping at Finlaysons point (maintained by Ontario Parks). Money well spent as far as I’m concerned. This by the way is a good option if you can’t get away early enough on a Friday to make it to the Outfitting Company by late evening (when they close) and you don’t have your own boat.

Saturday morning, we rose just after sun-up, peeked at the lake and made coffee with breakfast before packing up and getting to the Outfitters in time to grab a boat and get on the water before the wind came up in the afternoon. The typical south westerly wind can make progress daunting if it’s a headwind, so paddling earlier in the day is a good plan if you have the choice.

After a good chat with Max and Eric, we attached the gear to the boat, fastening the dry bags so that we wouldn’t have to swim after them in the event of getting upturned. This was my friend Sam’s first canoeing trip, I didn’t know what to expect and have certainly been for a few unexpected swims with novice paddlers, though more typically while trying to maneouver in whitewater.

This paddle turned out to be pretty calm. The sun was out, wind was light and we enjoyed cruising slowly down the northeast arm of Temagami towards the head of the South Tetapaga river where we planned to setup up camp early afternoon. Along the way, we found a small island to pull the boat up to while we snacked on some peanut butter sandwiches I’d made the day before.

After lunch we paddled for another hour further south and found that as we skirted the head of the peninsula just north of our planned campsite, the wind picked up considerably and in fact there was a house boat that had pulled up on the spot we’d intended to camp. Fortunately we’d noticed a vacant spot on a rocky point a few hundred meters back and given that this would be a more sheltered option, we headed back to it to setup camp.

After skirting along the shore of a protected bay, we reached the point on the map that designated the campsite. A couple of recently used camp fires confirmed that we’d found the right spot and a perfect natural boat dock presented itself that we steered the canoe into. Getting out we surveyed our options and set up the tent right next to a tree and just back from a campfire facing the lake.

After setting up the tent and snacking on chips and nuts, we ended up lounging around for a while, Sam listening to an audio book and me reading a paddling mag that the guys at TOC had lent me. The first edition of a new print of a magazine called Paddling which made for some wonderful reading for an hour or two.

A swim in the lake, which was cold if you asked Sam, or about right for me and we ended up back on land in the sun, drying off and reading some more before collecting firewood for the evening. After a late afternoon paddle and another swim off a tiny rock outcrop in the middle of the lake, we got back to camp and started the fire while sipping wine and cooking up some pasta for dinner. Go home Francis Mallman, I cooked on my jetboil and the Merlot we quafffed was from a Tetra pack but in this setting it tasted pretty good to me. We passed a few hours in conversation, while looking up at the stars and snacking on the dark chocolate I’d brought for dessert before turning in relatively early by city standards.

Waking up to the sun rising on my side of the tent, I took a little walk around the peninsula marveling at the beautiful morning light across the lake. Such a tranquil scene! After a relaxed breakfast and coffee (I still swear by my Aeropress and hand grinder) we found time to do a bit of yoga in the sun before packing up and starting our paddle back to the northern end of the lake. We were grateful for the lovely tailwind on the way back which reduced our return time to almost half (though I did tease Sam that it was mainly to do with the fact that she’d figured out how to apply what I had taught her about paddling the day before).

Our little weekend adventure by most standards was a very modest one. We paddled about 20kms over the course of Saturday/Sunday and spent one night under the stars, but for us Aussie imports it was the perfect little weekend getaway.

Michael McMahon


Michael is a tech nomad, raised in Asia, seasoned in Australia and now based in North America. He is Inspired by outdoor adventures and meeting new people.

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