Tips for Exploring Temagami by Paddle and Portage

Start planning your backcountry adventure now.



Temagami is a big place. It’s a place of huge, old-growth pines, deep, clear lakes, rugged portages, and ancient history. The network of summer and winter trails, known as Nastawgan, have been in use by the Teme-Augama Anishnaabe for thousands of years. 

Temagami is less busy than Algonquin or Killarney parks, yet still an easy travel distance from major urban centres, located about 4.5 hours’ drive from either Ottawa or Toronto.

The 16,000-square-km area contains over 4,700 km of canoe routes—three times as many as Algonquin Park—spread out between 16 parks and 26 conservation reserves. These protected areas cover only 15% of the entire Temagami canoeing region, so on any given canoe trip you’re likely to travel between parks, conservation reserves, and crown land in the span of a few days.

This means that planning a canoe trip in Temagami can be quite confusing. What areas require permits? Where are the backcountry access points? How long does it take to get from one lake or river to another? Is the effort to plan a Temagami canoe trip worth it?

Of course it is! It only took one trip to Temagami for me to fall madly in love. Since that first two-week backcountry adventure, I’ve been on 11 trips there over the span of a few short years. Sure, there are other places in Ontario I’d love to paddle, but something about Temagami keeps pulling me back.

Start Planning Your Trip NOW

For route inspiration and the most accurate river maps available, you’ll need a copy of Hap Wilson’s book Temagami: A Wilderness Paradise. First published in 1978 and updated in 2011, Wilson’s guidebook is still the best resource out there for trip planning in the Temagami region. His book contains detailed maps of 27 canoe routes, each classified by difficulty, distance, number of portages, and ecology. There’s a handy write-up for nearly every lake along a given route, which makes it easy to figure out if you’ll be heading up or downhill across a 4-km portage—best not to travel west from Gamble Lake to Sunnywater!—and the nicest campsites are noted in the text. My signed copy is so dog-eared, water-stained, torn, and well-loved that I’ll need a new one soon. I lost a few pages to the waves on Wasaksina Lake only a couple months ago. This book is the Temagami bible. Read Hap's recent blog about the Spiritual Sites of Temagami. 

The Friends of Temagami, a non-profit organization that aims to protect, preserve, and promote the Temagami wilderness has the most comprehensive—and only—map of the entire area. The Temagami Adventure Planning Map shows portages, campsites, access points, and hiking trails, with clear boundaries drawn between parks and conservation reserves so you’ll know exactly which spots you’ll need permits for. I might be accused of bias here, as I was just recently nominated to the position of Vice President of the organization, but there really is no better way to view the entire region at once. Friends of Temagami also provides a free Ask-an-Expert service online, which is extremely useful for questions about particular portages and campsites and for help with route planning. Drop us a line and our experts will get back to you ASAP.

Another invaluable resource is ottertooth.com, run by Camp Keewaydin historian Brian Back. Maps, general information, Nastawgan trails, and a forum are all here to assist with route planning, as well as to get updated conditions and Temagami-area news. The forum is a wealth of knowledge, with many users having spent decades exploring and documenting canoe routes.

Local Outfitters Can Help

Once you’ve got a good idea of a route you’d like to try, the outfitting services nearby will help you plan and get ready for your perfect trip.

In the town of Temagami, there’s the Temagami Outfitting Co. which offers planning services, shuttles, rentals, guides and maps.

If you have a limited time frame to explore Temagami and want to go deep into the backcountry, Lakeland Airways will get you there. Prices are reasonable—a one-way flight for two people and a canoe to Florence Lake in the heart of Lady Evelyn-Smoothwater Provincial Park will cost about $660—and they know exactly which lakes are accessible by float plane and how to escape the busier canoeing areas.

My favourite outfitter is Smoothwater Outfitters and Lodge, located about 20 minutes’ drive north of town on Highway 11. The lodge is owned and operated by Johanna Kilbridge and Francis Boyes, who take care of every detail of a canoe trip, depending on your needs.

I like to stay at Smoothwater for a night at the beginning and end of every major canoe trip in one of their adorable cabins. It’s a wonderful place to relax and go over last-minute details before heading out on a two-week trip, and an excellent way to transition from the bush back to the real world. When I’m at Smoothwater, I feel like I’m with family.

Johanna is an amazing cook, and Francis can shuttle you to almost any access point nearby (or teach you how to tie a canoe to the roof of your vehicle!). They are extremely knowledgeable about the entire Temagami canoeing area, and can completely outfit a trip for you with canoes, safety equipment, gear, and meals, or any combination of services you need. Being a permit office, they can help you acquire multiple permits for different parks if your trip itinerary requires it.

If you’re lucky, Johanna’s father John Kilbridge might stop by. John is a master cedar-canvas canoe builder at Temagami Canoe Co., located in town in a historic building constructed in 1931, it is the second-oldest canoe manufacturer (founded in 1928) still in operation in Canada today.

John hand-builds his beautiful cedar-canvas canoes and is full of stories and advice about traditional camping techniques in Temagami. Want to know exactly how many brass tacks go into the construction of a single cedar-canvas canoe? John will tell you, along with how to portage a wannigan (traditional wooden box kitchen kit), use a tumpline (ancient method of carrying heavy loads with a leather strap on your head), and why it’s offensive to refer to a canoe as a boat.

 “Temagami Cluster” Park Permits

Starting in 2017, it’s possible to obtain camping permits for Temagami online through the Ontario Parks website. Instead of having to pay for permits through individual parks, the operating parks that require fees are listed under “Temagami Cluster.” This means that if you’re travelling through Obabika River and Lady Evelyn-Smoothwater Provincial Parks on your way to the Sturgeon River, you’ll be able to get your permits all in one place instead of ordering separately.

Temagami’s backcountry parks do not have reservable campsites. Permit availability is on a first come, first serve basis. Permits can be ordered up to two weeks prior to a backcountry trip. You might still be paddling through conservation reserves and crown land between provincial parks, so it’s best to have a really thorough idea of your route before attempting to book online.

Front-country parks have reservable sites, and you may choose to start a trip here and purchase backcountry permits from a park office such as Finlayson Point Provincial Park.

My 18-day, 300-Km Canoe Trip 

In 2017, I paddled over 300 km through the Temagami region. I shared my journey in a series of daily Instagram photos which you can see here.   

It’s A Truly Special Place To Paddle

Armed with all of these resources, you can plan a backcountry trip lasting a weekend to several months. The landscape is vast and wild. Trips range from flat-water loops with easy portages to wild whitewater river runs, remote wilderness trips with unmarked portages, and ancient trail networks to relaxing family adventures and every combination in between.

The old-growth red and white pines in Temagami represent the last remaining 1% of this type of forest in the world, with some trees over 400 years old. Ontario’s highest peak is also located here at Ishpatina Ridge: The Tower Summit soars 2,275 feet (693 metres) above sea level.

Eight youth canoe-tripping camps operate out of Lake Temagami, the largest concentration in the province. Traditional travel and wilderness skills are still actively practiced, as several canoe camps continue to use cedar-canvas canoes, wannigans, and canvas packs carried by tumpline.

No matter where you choose to go in Temagami, you’ll be immersed in the Canadian Canoe Culture. You'll encounter wildlife, history, wilderness, excellent fishing, solitude, primeval forests, clear lakes and friendly locals. Many portages are rough and difficult and the winds and weather can be gnarly, but as long as you plan ahead and know what you’re getting into, you’ll be in for a truly memorable backcountry experience.

The locals say that once you taste the waters of Temagami, you’ll be back. I’d have to agree. Temagami is my most favourite place in the entire world. There’s nowhere else like it.

 

 

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