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Agawa Falls will leave you breathless

Agawa Falls

Discover the secret spot the Group of Seven missed.

Hit the trail to get up close with this natural wonder of Lake Superior Provincial Park.



Article aussi offert en français

Despite the Group of Seven's documented explorations of the Agawa Canyon, I can’t help but think Canada’s greatest landscape painters overlooked one of Northern Ontario’s singular highlights: The 25-metre-tall plume of Agawa Falls. This secretive treasure is my objective on an overnight hike on Lake Superior Provincial Park’s Towab Trail

I set off early. It’s a 12-km hike to the falls on a footpath that’s often steep and rocky—rated as one of the park’s toughest trails. The first hour on the trail, however, belies what’s to come, as it wanders through gently rolling terrain and a forest of massive yellow birch and white pine to the Agawa River’s swirling Burnt Rock Pool. Arriving at the river, I get my first glimpse of the Agawa Canyon, a 150-metre-deep cleft carved out of the surrounding terrain. On this autumn morning, the hardwoods on the walls of the gorge are flaming red and orange, interspersed with the drab grey of stalwart granite. It’s no wonder the canyon is one of Northern Ontario’s most popular tourist destinations.

Stunning beauty of Agawa Canyon

Decades before the popular tour train began whisking thousands of people per year into the depths of one Ontario’s greatest natural wonders, some of Canada’s most famous landscape painters rode the rails deep into the Ontario wilderness and defined a new style of art. Between 1918 and 1922, Lawren Harris, J.E.H. MacDonald, A.Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer and Frank Johnston—members of the legendary Group of Seven—travelled on the Algoma Central Railway and drew the rugged hillsides, waterfalls, and autumn colours of Algoma. They spent their days sketching from canoes and hiking to elevated viewpoints. MacDonald’s Solemn Land, Lismer’s Somber Hill, Algoma, Harris’ Algoma Waterfall, and Jackson’s First Snow, Algoma are the notable results of this definitive era of painting.

The artists’ journals documented their travels and sense of awe for a landscape that remains unchanged and can still be seen today. MacDonald called the Agawa Canyon “the original site of the Garden of Eden.” The painters repurposed a red boxcar as a mobile studio and bunkhouse and used a hand-pump railcar for sketching missions. Many of the paintings displayed in the Group of Seven’s breakout exhibition at the Art Gallery of Toronto in 1920 were inspired by their “boxcar trips.” 

Heading upriver from Burnt Rock Pool, the trail turns rugged and I wonder if the artists could have lugged their pallets, easels, and sketching equipment had they tried. There’s a distinct feeling of yo-yoing up and down as I tiptoe across slippery rocks and step over swift-flowing tributaries, trying to focus on my footing and not the spectacular scenery just visible through the trees. I’m travelling as light as possible with minimal gear—a tarp for sleeping and a small pot to cook over the fire—and I’m thrilled to come across an open gravel bar with copious driftwood to set up camp. The river flows swiftly beneath tall pines clinging to the steep west bank.

After a snack I drop my backpack and walk the final kilometre of trail. I hear the booming thunder of Agawa Falls long before I see it, and my pace quickens involuntarily. For all the noise and falling mist, the cascade takes a long time to appear. Finally, I’m overwhelmed by a sense of discovery when I round a bend in the trail and take in a clear view of Agawa Falls. I’m mesmerized as I watch the water fall over the edge and plummet deep into a rockbound and perpetually misty gorge.

That evening, lounging by my campfire, I wonder how the Group of Seven overlooked the sublime sight of Agawa Falls. Their canvases capture the calm waters of the upper river, the same area that’s visited by the tour train. It’s a worthy destination, to be sure, but nothing like what I witnessed travelling under my own power today.

As if cheery flames, a chattering river, sore muscles and the prospect of a night under the stars isn’t enough, I’m overjoyed by the sensation of uncovering the Agawa Canyon’s deepest secret.

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