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Canoeing unknown rivers

On unknown rivers such as Ontario's Wakwayokastic River, you'll encounter beautiful waterfalls that don't have names.
On unknown rivers such as Ontario's Wakwayokastic River, you'll encounter beautiful waterfalls that don't have names.
L. Shuttleworth

What could be more adventurous, more romantic, more Canadian than canoeing a river that hardly anyone has ever even heard of?

In Canada we're lucky enough to have hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of land that very few people visit anymore, that is only partially mapped, and that only a handful of people know anything about. If you look at a map of Ontario, for example, you'll see Highway 11, the northernmost highway that runs through Cochrane and goes west toward Lake Nipigon. North of that highway, you won't see any towns or roads. You'll see only rivers, lakes, forest, wetlands, and tundra….an amazing opportunity for the adventurous.

Having canoed two unknown rivers—the Esnagami River and the Wakwayokastic River—two summers in a row, I can pass along my observations to those daring enough to try something unusual but amazing.

Great reasons to canoe unknown rivers

• No crowds. Unlike provincial parks, unknown areas are empty of other people. Jets flying far overhead might be the only sign of civilization you'll see for weeks.

• See incredible sights hardly anyone ever sees—massive waterfalls, rare woodland caribou, rare flowers and plants. Imagine what Niagara Falls looked like prior to the arrival of Europeans. You heard the roar from far away, you walked through the forest towards the sound, and suddenly you were beholding the most wondrous sight. This is exactly what it's like to discover a spectacular waterfall in the northern bush that you didn't know about.

• Stake out and create your own campsites, anywhere, any time, any how—you name it – muddy riverbanks, gravel bars, sandbars, islands in the middle of the river, even in the buggy forest.

• Enjoy the mind-expanding feeling of being isolated in a remote place.

• Bragging rights: Your friends will think you're a bit crazy but they'll envy your adventurous spirit.

• Fishing: In some spots there are so many pike, pickerel, and brook trout, you can catch enough for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

• Total detachment from modern life and its stresses

• Untouched forest, just the way it looked before 1492, with old growth trees, moss-covered ground, everything intact and unlogged.

• A profusion of wildlife. You're bound to see bears, moose, caribou, otters, beavers, squirrels, osprey, bald eagles, herons, and even white pelicans. And guess what? Since they're not used to seeing people, they're simultaneously curious and afraid of us.

The downside of canoeing unknown rivers

• No info: Since the map shows only a slash across the river ahead, you have no idea whether you're approaching a 70-metre waterfall, or a small swift. You also don't know what the water levels are like beyond your put-in, because no one has gone ahead of you and can warn you there's only a centimetre left in the river and you'll be walking and dragging your boats most of the way

• Overgrown or non-existent portages: Since no one else travels these routes, no one maintains the portages. You won't be able to spot where they start, and you'll be at the lip of a waterfall or a huge set of unrunnable rapids before you can take out.

• Incomplete maps: Although the Canadian government provides topographical maps for all of Canada, many of these rarely travelled areas are missing key details. Many rapids and waterfalls are not marked on the map. And not all contour lines are shown.

• No campsites: At one time, rivers were like highways, with people constantly travelling along them. So there were many campsites. Now these are overgrown and/or unusable. You can sometimes find old campsites at the confluences of rivers, beside rapids, and at old portages, but they'll still be mostly grown over and unmaintained. You'll have to do a bit of work to make them livable again.

• Isolation: If something bad happens, how are you going to get out? Best to use a SPOT device. This has a button you push to tell emergency services to send in a chopper to rescue you.