There is a lot to love about paddling in Northeastern Ontario. Rightly so – the region is a mecca for canoers and kayakers, with endless lakes and waterways to choose from. Many of these are located along routes of historical importance, are traditional trading routes, or pass through Provincial Parks.
The region boasts vast tracts of untouched wilderness – not always because it is protected, but because parts of it are remote and can be hard to access. This makes for world-class backcountry paddling and camping. The landscape is scarred and pocked with lakes, rivers, and streams (a testament to the impacts of the last Ice Age), which captivate and draw paddlers from around the world.
Take the Mighty Mattagami for example, carving through boreal forest and the Canadian Shield – home to the Great Canadian Kayak Challenge. The Lady Evelyn Smoothwater & Temagami region is another iconic region for paddlers, with extensive waterways and towering old growth pine forest. Looking for an epic backcountry adventure? Hop on board the Polar Bear Express and be swept down the mighty Moose River to James Bay and the communities of Moosonee and Moose Factory. And of course, there are the historic trading routes travelled first by indigenous peoples, and later by the voyageurs along the French River.
As Canadians, paddling is a part of our culture and history – especially canoeing. The sport has deep origins and ties to this region and its people, and is an element of our founding story. Maybe that’s why it is such a popular activity that draws newcomers every year, and has also given rise to new forms of paddling, such as SUP (stand-up paddle boarding).
Don’t just take my word for it – meet Jessie and John Hall, a young couple who have made the move to the Northeast to paddle, get outside, and generally experience the lifestyle that Northeastern Ontario is all about.
It's a tale almost too romantic to believe – Jessie and John met on the first day of their first year at the McGill University and became close friends. The rest is history as they say. They’ve been together for 10 years, getting married in the summer of 2016. Among other things, they bonded over a shared love of the Great Outdoors – in particular, paddling.
“We were both independently drawn to the outdoors, in pre-high school years. We each had unique opportunities to develop our outdoor skills – so when we met, we both had paddling skills. A lot of Canadian kids do,” says John.
“We had both been on pretty serious multiple-day outdoor trips by the time we met. John’s family paddled on Lake Superior, and my first time in Algonquin Park was life changing.” adds Jessie.
“When we first started paddling, it was one of the many cool things we would try to do in the summer season. And over time, it’s gotten to the point where we’ve chosen where to live based on how easy it is to do this specific activity,” says John.
They have relocated from Southern Ontario to the City of Greater Sudbury. Telling the story of why they chose the area, Jessie says, “I came to Sudbury for work to visit Ontario's Geoscience Laboratory on Ramsey Lake Road – and I looked out the window, and saw Ramsey Lake and said, "Where are we?" I looked at Ramsey Lake and people were sailing, standup paddle boarding, windsurfing, and doing crazy stuff. It looked like Georgian Bay – but I was in an office in the lab! The view just calmed my soul immediately.
“I called John from the airport and said, “I think we should move to Sudbury—I’ve got a plan." And so we decided to move. That was a year and six months ago. We have decided that we really like it and have enjoyed our time here, and plan to stay for another year."
At this point, John picks up the story, adding: “[Sudbury] is as accessible to Toronto as we had hoped; it’s in a beautiful region, and there is incredibly easy access to the outdoors. The culture in the city is also better than we thought. There are so many restaurants, some film festivals, and we’ve been able to see some of our favourite bands here in cool locations. Sudbury definitely has its charm.”
Love in the Wilderness
In 2015, the couple got engaged in Killarney Provincial Park, where they also took their honeymoon. Laughing, John says, “I had no specific spot picked, but I knew we would be in the woods for three days, so I knew I would be able to time it properly.
“When you’re out there, there’s no distractions, no phones, so you’re very in the moment. The days last longer, and you’re very into the day. So to propose in that environment… it allowed us to soak in the moment and enjoy the day.”
They identified the isolation of wilderness regions as one of their favourite things about backcountry paddling. “That’s one of the things we really love about camping—our vacation is to literally see no one. Maybe that makes us antisocial. We just want to get out there and do our thing!”
When I asked Jessie and John why Killarney was such a special place for them, they told me that it didn’t start out that way, but that it has become very dear to them over time because of their shared experiences there. Killarney is one of the closest Provincial Parks to Sudbury, so the couple were eager to check it out when they first relocated. It has turned into a very special place for them indeed.
“It definitely became a lot more special after we became engaged there,” says Jessie. “Part of the reason we were so drawn to it though was because of the Group of Seven and their influence. Especially the La Cloche Mountains. One special trip for us was accessed through Widgawa Lodge, where we did the Grace Lake-Nelly Lake loop. It’s a spot where some of their paintings were painted.”
Lessons Learned in the Wild
The takeaway from my conversation with Jessie and John is that the rewards of this type of activity are many, whether doing it as a couple or with friends.
“If you and your partner work well together then paddling can be a very rewarding experience. When you get through something tough, like heavy rains or a long portage, you feel like a badass," Jessie laughs.
"Backcountry camping can be a serious challenge," John adds. "But the rewards are immediate. You gain experience, and it's all very hands on."
For individuals or couples looking to get into backcountry paddling, they recommended renting a canoe for the first couple of times so you can get used to it, and decide what type of paddling you like (and where). They also recommended picking a time in late summer or early fall when the number of mosquitos is down. (Looking for outfitters? Visit our operators throughout the region here!)
We LOve to paddle
Whether you are an "old hat" paddler, or someone looking to just get started, paddling is something that people truly love, not only in the Northeast, but also around the world.
Paddling provides us with an opportunity to be at one with nature, disconnect from technology and the urgency of social media, and feel like we are truly a part of the ecosystems that sustain us. And sometimes, it can be a way to make connections with the people and places we hold most dear.