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Wilderness Tripping: 19th Annual Spring Canadian Backpacking Expedition
   Algoma District
   Montreal River Gorge
   Agawa River Canyon
   Wawa, Ontario, Canada
   May 26 thru June 5, 2005


19th Annual Spring
Canadian Backpacking Expedition:

Rivers, waterfalls,
gorges, canyons, and mountain peaks
in the Montreal River Gorge
and the Agawa River Canyon

May 26 thru June 5, 2005

By Mary Powell
   Flint, Michigan
   Copyright 2005

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Thursday, May 26

Getting There

I was starting this trip already tired from having worked quite a few hours in the preceding week (for a retired person) as well as putting in as much of my vegetable garden as I could manage. The fatigue may also have resulted from the thought of carrying 11 days worth of food... At any rate, I was glad to be carpooling with another participant, Dave Mansfield, who had agreed to share the driving.

The drive proved to be pleasant. We passed through a couple of light storm fronts as we traversed the two peninsulas of Michigan and crossed the International Bridge at the Soo. Canadian customs must have felt we looked suspicious or needed to stretch our legs as they required us to go into the building and produce paperwork to prove we were who we said we were. That completed we stopped at the Trading Post for a few essential supplies and a fishing license.

We arrived at our rendezvous point, the Voyageur Lodge in Batchawana, around 7:30PM and decided that a beach walk to get rid of the driving stupor would be a good prelude to dinner. Cathy Susan of Ann Arbor arrived shortly after we returned to the lodge and we all sat down to one of their excellent meals. Our trip leader, Michael Neiger, arrived shortly thereafter and we retired to our room for conversation and a final paring of equipment.



Friday, May 27

Getting to Hubert Mountain

We arose pretty early and Dave, who really likes his coffee, made us some in the room. When we had our act together we went down to the restaurant for a hearty breakfast. Michael got our paperwork in order and sorted out the maps we would definitely be using. In chatting we realized that some of us had failed to procure any Pic to keep the bugs at bay. We stopped for some on the way to Frater Road. Driving up this road to the tracks we found it to be in slightly better shape than usual having been improved a bit by a logging company working in the area.

We parked at Frater Station and hoisted our packs for the six mile walk down the tracks to our goal for the night, Hubert Mountain. It was warm and track walking is somewhat tedious as the footing is very uneven.

After a while we came upon three local guys hiking to their camp. They were well supplied for the weekend as they were toting several cases of beer. After they turned off we had to find other entertainment. Michael and Dave found the assorted railroad repair equipment parked along the tracks to be of interest. They examined each piece, sometimes determining, sometimes guessing at its function or use.

Cathy and I were more interested in the wildflowers. There were some spring ones like Solomon's seal, wild lily of the valley and rue anemone as well as some early summer ones like hawkweed and golden ragwort. All of us enjoyed the many views of small lakes nestled in the hills along the tracks. As we approached Hubert, there was a small cluster of camps and we could see our objective for the night, the microwave tower atop Hubert mountain.

The top of the hill looked pretty forested from that perspective and we stopped to ask one of the camp residents if the view was worth the climb to the top of the hill. He said that the trees had grown up a bit but the view was still pretty nice so we located the road that spiraled up to the top. It had been recently worked on and was rutted and muddy but provided relatively easy access to the top of the hill where we found a tiny metal building, a tall red and white tower and an almost 360 degree view of the surrounding countryside: definitely worth the climb.

We set up our shelters in the mossy crevices between the rocks--except for Dave who hung his hammock between the tower and the building. After enjoying the view a while and taking some pictures we sat down to cook dinner. Afterward we were musing on when the remaining participant, Chris Ozminski would arrive and shortly after Dave said, "He could be here anytime now," he came hiking briskly up the steep hill.

We made an interesting discovery in getting our bear ropes up: guy wires don't make a good place to hang them--there is a LOT of friction involved in pulling a rope over a wire. Soon after sunset we settled in for the night. A moon about three fourths full lit the sky in between small banks of clouds and somewhere below a barred owl called.

In the morning I got up to find Chris already a way up the tower gazing out over the valleys which were filled to their brims with fog. Little tendrils of cloud drifted over our hill too. The sun was warm though, and by the time we finished breakfast the fog was shrinking and the sky was mostly clear.



Saturday, May 28

The Montreal River and a Camp in a Swamp

We walked back down the spiral road to the tracks and up a newly bulldozed road to the power line which we followed toward the Montreal River. Several small escarpments had to be circumvented and at one we found a small but attractive waterfall. The final distance to the river overlook was a short bushwhack.

The overlook was an area we'd identified on the topo maps as open and along the edge of the cliffs. We were hoping to have a good view of the ACR trestle crossing the river. It took a bit of searching but we found a rocky outcrop with an excellent view. The water was an interesting color: dark brown with intensely blue highlights reflecting from the sky. It was outlined by exposed shoreline with the trestle and some railroad buildings clearly visible to the west. Spectacular!

We settled in to have lunch and enjoy the view. Two trains passed over the curving black bridge as we watched and a falcon soared over the broad expanse of water. We talked of the possibility of canoeing up the river sometime in the future or walking the shoreline while the water was low as it is now. Beyond the tracks we could hear the faint sound of trucks on Highway 17.

Cathy explored a bit and found some bolts and rings for rappelling. Ice climbers must use this area in the winter. After lunch we bushwhacked to a series of falls on a small river that flows into the Montreal. Then we cut a couple of azimuths to small lakes that were in the general direction we wanted to go.

When it was time to camp for the night we found ourselves by a lake that was attractive enough, but had little in the way of suitable campsites though we finally came upon a rather swampy clearing that would do. After dinner I walked to the end of the lake hoping to catch sight of some sandhill cranes we could hear there but they were way back in a marsh. I returned to camp where we chatted and read.



Sunday, May 29

Exploring the Edge of Civilization

The day dawned somewhat overcast but became warm and partly sunny. We bushwhacked around the end of our lake and north across a plateau to another small lake .We then followed its outlet for awhile before turning to bushwhack toward the power line again. After a short time on this azimuth we came across a really neat find: a deep, narrow crevasse with a stream running through it.

We walked along it looking for a way across and at the end we found a huge beaver dam holding back a sizeable lake. This dam was easily ten feet high and thirty feet across. The lake was deep and clear and looked good for fishing. Michael got out his fishing gear. Chris and Cathy decided to explore this cleft in the earth and I followed them awhile to get some pictures.

They finally came to a place where rock hopping was no longer an option and Chris decided to swim rather than give up on exploring. The crevasse was about thirty feet deep along most of its length and was much cooler than its surroundings. There were patches of ice in some of the side channels. There was a huge chunk of rock wedged in it about halfway down its length.

Chris was successful in swimming the pool and continued his exploration to the other end of the cleft. I went back to the lake to try fishing too. We didn't catch anything, but enjoyed the break. When Chris and Cathy returned we continued toward the power line and shortly after we reached it, it began to rain.

As it was lunch time, we set up a tarp in the woods near the edge of the power line clearing to eat. By the time we finished the meal it was sunny again and we followed the power line to old Frater road. As the powerline had been replaced over the past year there were many signs of construction: huge blasted rocks and a deeply rutted and muddy service road.

We turned down old Frater road and after passing a couple of camps came to a bridge in a very precarious state of repair. Crossing it we came to the outlet of the lake that the road had been circling. There was an old beaver dam there and below it a falls that we named Hubert Creek falls. It was a fast flowing cascade over dark rocks and was quite picturesque.

Chris felt it was time for another swim and maybe a shower beneath the falls. The rest of us decided that it was about time to camp. Cathy soon found an open area where a smaller stream joined Hubert Creek not far from the falls. It was a pleasant evening: we napped, read, and Chris and I explored an escarpment several hundred meters behind the camp.

The sound of the falls made a nice background for our meal and later for sleeping. We had added considerably to our list of wildflowers through the day: starry, regular and false Solomon's seal, trout and bluebead lilies, arbutus, wild ginger, sarsaparilla and a couple of flowering bushes to be identified.



Monday, May 30

Exploring the Little Agawa Gorge

In the morning we hiked the road to the power line again and the power line to the Little Agawa River. We poked around the construction sites finding insulators, wire and many signs of blasting and major earth moving. We had lunch in an open area near the intersection of the river and the power line.

After lunch we started down the river, embarking on an afternoon of major fun. It was an ordinary bushwhack at first but we kept getting squeezed upward onto ledges that ended as cliffs above the water.

Michael and Chris decided to try exploring without their packs to see if we could get down the gorge by walking in the river itself. After a considerable wait, they returned to report that they thought they had found a way.

We went down to the river and entered a sheer-walled gorge of red and black rock. We waded with our packs, clinging to the rocks and to crevices in the sides of the gorge. We climbed over rocks and down beside a falls. Everyone got in up to chest deep and Cathy went for a short inadvertent swim. We saw a huge chunk of ice sheltered by the walls of the canyon.

Below the gorge where the contours spaced out we found a relatively clear area in the woods near a large flat rock in the river. This became our home for the night. We hung out together on the rock for dinner and afterwards Chris built a small fire. We enjoyed the warmth and dried an assortment of wet articles. We slept very well to the sound of rushing water.



Tuesday, May 31

A Reluctant Goodbye and Further Exploration

Chris and Dave rose early in the morning and by the time the rest of us were up for breakfast they were ready to leave. They had to return to work the next day and would be making their way back to the tracks and to Frater station where the cars were parked.

The day was clear and warm and it looked like they would have good traveling. They bushwhacked the mile or so to old Frater road while the rest of us, Cathy, Michael and I, continued down the Little Agawa after breakfast.

We turned up several more falls, one of which had a large pool below it where we decided to try our luck at fishing again. Our luck was not good there either and after a while we continued down the river to the ACR tracks.

We had a pleasant lunch and a nap at the small campsite near the bridge there. Small warblers with bright orange throats perched in the trees and a tiger swallowtail butterfly posed for pictures. After lunch I decided to try out the "wilderness jacuzzi", an eroded round hole below the bridge filled with swirling water. It proved to be very refreshing.

Our goal for the night was atop an escarpment which would give us an overview of the tracks and the surrounding hills. After lunch we hiked up the tracks, taking time to get a plot on an open area of rock that we could see at the rim of the escarpment.

Where a small stream crossed the tracks we turned up it, following its valley around the back of the escarpment where the contours were a little more spread out and we hoped to find a way to the top. It proved to be a long afternoon of climbing and searching for the open area that would give us a view, but at last we succeeded.

We rested and then ate our dinner as the sun dropped lower in the sky. A yellow rumped warbler posed in the last rays on a nearby pine. After dinner we set up our shelters and watched the last of the sunset. From that high vantage point the colors lasted until most of the stars were out.

A southbound freight came, its whistle breaking the silence of the night and its headlight making a huge swaying triangle of light in the narrow cleft in the forest that contained the tracks. We watched as it made its way south across the river and turned west toward Lake Superior and finally disappeared from sight. Then we retired to our shelters to sleep.



Wednesday, June 1

A Walk on the Tracks and an Awesome Campsite

We awoke to a clear blue sky just as the sun was touching the hills on the west side of the valley. We had a panoramic view of the unending forested hills with the tiny lines drawn by the power line and the tracks. The opening containing the river was bigger and large expanses of it were visible with its curves, rapids and sandbars.

We brewed our coffee and watched the shadow of our escarpment descend the opposite side of the valley. When we had had breakfast and thoroughly soaked up the view we began our descent. We did not retrace our steps of the previous afternoon but explored another route down checking for other open areas and finding several waterfalls in the process.

Going down was not nearly as hard as going up but it did consume most of the morning. Arriving at the tracks we found the river we had been following down passed under the tracks in a large cement culvert which we, of course, had to explore. We then climbed to the tracks and walked up the river to some rapids, an area where Michael remembered there being an old canoeing campsite.

From the tracks we could see a somewhat clear spot in the woods on the far side of the river and decided to give it a try. We waterproofed our packs and swam the river pushing them ahead of us. The current was not strong and the crossing went very well.

We found a beautiful campsite awaiting us, a sandy cove in the woods with the portage trail leading to it to walk on and an awesome view of the escarpment we'd been on the night before across the river. We put on dry clothes and fixed dinner.

Cathy's binoculars proved useful there for bird watching as there were quite a few around the river. We saw a blue heron, vultures, seagulls, crows and assorted ducks.



Thursday, June 2

Railway Lake

We awoke in our idyllic campsite on the river and watched the birds starting their day. We remarked that we would likely stop at this place again whenever it could be fit into future itineraries. The day was sunny and the prospect of fording the river again was not a problem. We built a small fire again and ate a leisurely breakfast.

The plan for the morning was to hike up the old power line on this side of the river and do our ford up by the trestle. This proved somewhat more difficult than anticipated as the power line clearing and service road were very badly overgrown. The short trek took most of the morning.

The river fording went well however. We found a shallow area and practiced doing a three person crossing which gave us considerable stability in the swift current. We took a short break at a camping spot by the trestle to dry a map that got damp in the crossing.

We then bushwhacked a little way back into the woods to a slot canyon containing a small falls that we had discovered on a past trip. The water falls maybe 70 feet over dark rock and forms a series of pools below--a very pleasant spot. We took our lunch break there.

After eating we climbed the canyon wall near the falls and bushwhacked to a small lake in the hills above. Michael had lost a hat there several years back and we joked about going back to find it. It eluded us however, having blown away, been covered up or perhaps appropriated by some small animal.

We followed the outlet of this lake a sort way then cut an azimuth to the lake below Railway Falls which was our goal for the evening. I missed the lake on the first try but Michael' s land nav expertise soon brought us to the shore of the lake below the falls.

We took off our packs, explored a bit and climbed on some ledges to get close to the falls and view the lake below. It was an unusually pretty falls even for this area of many waterfalls. It was a single narrow plume falling straight over a ledge perhaps 75 or more feet and splashing onto the rocks below. We could see exposed rock at the top and the plan was to climb up there to camp and search for a small boat rumored to be left there from the times when the lake was more easily accessed.

We hiked around the back of the escarpment that held the falls and climbed through the woods. We found Railway Lake fitted it's image on the map, being long and narrow with a beaver dam at its outlet a short distance above the falls. We didn't find the boat, however, and in looking for a campsite with a view, didn't find anything other than the rock ledge we'd seen above the falls.

The view was beautiful, the lake below was a dark blue-brown and the water was very clear. We could see the logs that had fallen into it and beaver swimming on it. Beyond the lake was the expanse of forest leading to the Canyon and the prospect of an awesome sunset. The late afternoon sun bore down relentlessly though, and the bugs were more pesty here than usual.

We washed off the sweat and dust in a pool above the falls and relaxed on the rocks waiting for the heat to ease up. When it did, we fixed our dinner and enjoyed more of the view with the aid of Cathy's binoculars. Space to camp was at a premium and we ended up sleeping in some tiny spaces in the woods near the ledge.



Friday, June 3

Bridal Veil Falls Revisited

In the morning we moved back out to the ledge to have breakfast enjoying the view. While watching ducks and listening to the steady swish of the water over the falls we revised our plan for the day. We would descend this escarpment where the contours were well spread out, bushwhack to a nearby lake and follow its outlet to Bridal Veil Falls.

Michael led at a leisurely pace and we had time for viewing lady slippers, bunchberries and old growth trees, of which there were quite a few. The water level of the lake we came to was low. Michael and Cathy explored a part of the shoreline for future campsites while I went for a short swim.

We then gathered our packs and headed down the stream toward the falls. We were traveling mostly along the rocks of the streambed and I decided to leave my sandals on. Unfortunately I wasn't careful enough in securing my boots to my pack and somewhere along the way I lost one along the long cascade above the falls. Cathy helped me to search for it while Michael went on down the river to find our camping spot by Bridal Veil.

When we unsuccessful searchers reached the falls we had lunch there. After eating Michael went in search of a trail down the cliff that had been mentioned by one of the Canyon Station staff on a previous visit there. He found it and in a remarkably short time was shouting and signaling to us from the bank of the Agawa far below.

In the afternoon Michael and Cathy did a recon up the two peaks just to the north of us while I went for another swim and returned to the cascade area to make one more attempt to find my boot. The Canadian bush is not a good place to be without your boots.

Over dinner and through the evening we took in the view of the river and the canyon wall across from us. From our lofty perch we could see a long way and a lot of detail. The tracks below looked like they might belong to a model train. The sun set over the opposite wall of the canyon and the stars came out.

We set up closely spaced shelters in a small clearing in the woods and while Cathy and I settled down to sleep, Michael returned to the edge of the falls to read. It was a good thing he did as he soon came back to get us so we could see that one of the PIC burners had started a smoldering fire in the ground below it.

It took an amazing amount of digging and pouring of water to get all of the organic material in the soil and a nearby root extinguished and cold. It was a good lesson in being very careful with even the smallest bit of burning material in the woods.



Saturday, June 4

The Camp by Canyon Station

In the morning we descended the canyon wall via the trail that Michael had found the afternoon before. It was fairly precipitous and we lowered our packs with ropes at one point. We arrived on the canyon floor very near the bottom of the falls and decided to get a closer look as we needed to go in that direction anyway.

We wrapped our packs for floating and ventured out along the rocky shore below the falls, trying to make it to the pile of rocks into which the falls dropped. We made it various distances before losing our grip and going swimming. We paddled over to the pile of rocks below the falls, climbing up on a large flat one to enjoy the view of the falls from below.

We sprawled in the sun there for a while and then swam to the far side of the lagoon. Since it was such a pretty area we decided to check its potential for future camping. We found that we could climb up on a series of ledges below the falls and that there were a number of good places there to camp.

One interesting feature was a dry, possibly seasonal, plunge pool--a large circular pit sculpted from the rock and enclosed on the outside by large fallen pieces of stone. We climbed down into it and found a small cave like opening on one side that could be used as an exit. We lunched on a high ledge below the falls.

After lunch we found a trail leading north along the floodplain. We followed it north and found an interesting campsite beneath a bluff across from Canyon Station. The site had obviously been the location of a camp or cabin at some time as there were numerous artifacts scattered around. Some of them had been gathered and left for viewing by the park workers who appeared to have done some early work to make the place into an official campsite.

There were bottles and kitchen utensils, window frames and bedsprings, tools and empty cans. The forest was more open here and there was a choice of places to camp. We set up to one side of the little trail in an area that provided a nice view of Black Beaver falls across the river.

We found that the prolonged float on the river had resulted in our packs being wet inside to varying degrees. We pulled the damp articles out and hung them to dry in the breeze. We then explored farther up the river to see if there was additional camping potential on this side, but the forest proved to be very thick and the shoreline was a muddy walk. We returned to camp and to dinner.

We discussed our options for the next day and decided if the weather was stellar we might go up river to see the gorge area and maybe camp near there. Clouds had been coming and going all day and we decided that if the next day wasn't sunny we might call it a trip and take the train down to Frater.

During the night there were a couple of brief but intense thunderstorms which were fun to watch. The first coincided roughly with the passing of a south bound freight. It was the thunder that woke me but it took me a long time to figure out that the eerie flashing lights and sounds were a combination of the train and the storm.


Sunday, June 5

Catching the Southbound Train

In the morning we awoke to overcast skies and light rain. This was clearing by the time we finished breakfast and we decided to wait a bit before fording the river. As we packed we found that the moisture had brought out the slugs and we were finding them everywhere, in our shoes, beneath our pads, in our stuff sacks, even clinging to some damp socks hung from a rope beneath my tarp. Watching my reaction to their presence I mused that slugs could be used as a rough gauge of how long one has been out in the woods.

If the reaction to touching one is something like "Eew--yuk!" it is probably the first day or two of a trip. If the reaction is a nonchalant flick of the offending body into the woods, you have been out there a while. When you start seeing them as a potential source of protein, it is probably time to go home...

We had decided it was time to go home and leave further exploration of the canyon to the next visit. When the sun peeked through the clouds we again wrapped our packs for floating and forded the river. Landing near the observation area for Bridal Veil Falls we unwrapped our gear and disposed of our garbage in one of the waiting cans. We then walked up to the station to visit with the workers and wait for the train.

After going a short distance we saw the workers headed toward us in an ATV. It turned out that they had spotted a bear from the observation tower and were heading down the tracks to discourage it from hanging around the station.

For the rest of the day we heard reports of this bear from assorted railroad workers: it appeared to be making rounds of the human establishments along the tracks. When we'd waited a while, chatting with the station workers, they got a report that the northbound train had hit a rock a couple miles south of the station and there would be a delay of all traffic on the tracks until the situation was further evaluated.

Our train would be late at best. The workers went off to take a look at the situation themselves and we awaited the results. It turned out that the train was able to push the Volkswagen-sized rock from the tracks and after some time that train passed through the station.

As there would be a considerable wait yet for the southbound, we decided to walk down the tracks to see the fallen rock and perchance the bear too. It was a pleasant amble along the tracks and seeing the rock first hand was interesting. No sign of the bear though.

On a long straight stretch of track south of the fallen rock we settled in a shady spot and waited to flag down the train. It finally came--only about three hours late--and we enjoyed the short ride back to Frater. On the train, we learned from the conductor that the bear--a massive 600 pounder--was just around the bend from where we had given up looking for it and had been waiting for the train.

We found our cars in good shape and the ride down Frater road was without incident. We stopped together at the Voyageur for our customary post trip meal. It is amazing how good real food tastes after ten days of cooking freeze dried stuff over Esbit! After dinner we were reluctant to leave and sat awhile outside enjoying the warm weather, the view of Lake Superior and each other's company. Another good trip was behind us.



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