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First whitewater canoe trip?

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First whitewater canoe trip?

The perfect introductory river. • Credit: Jeff Jackson

Pick the Spanish River.

Its combination of easy accessibility, beautiful scenery, and lively but forgiving rapids make it the perfect place to start.

If I were to design the ultimate introductory river for a whitewater canoe trip, it would look an awful lot like the Spanish River. It has all the required ingredients: it feels remote but is easy to get to; it has beautiful wilderness scenery, ranging from boreal forest to cliffs to open valley; it is a provincial park waterway so has marked campsites and portages; there are different options for how to run it; best of all, it has lots of easy rapids and kilometres worth of fast-moving swifts, affectionately known as “boogie water.”

Two men in red canoe paddling on a whitewater river

I think of the Spanish nostalgically, since it was my first whitewater canoe trip way back when I was a teenager. After spending the intervening years working as a whitewater guide all across the continent, where do you think I took my kids last summer for their first whitewater canoe trip? The Spanish is the perfect place to start.

Young boy paddling in bow of canoe with mother in stern.

Anybody can do this trip. But which one? There are options. Here’s a quick geography primer: the Spanish is less than an hour northwest of Sudbury, and runs from the north to south. The river is shaped like the letter Y, with two branches that meet at The Forks, then continue on as one. If you are new to whitewater canoeing, then take the East Branch: it starts with calm lakes, then adds some easy swifts, and sprinkles in some rocks along the way toward novice-worthy class II rapids.

But if you have some skills and are looking for a challenge, then the West Branch is for you. This options starts as class III with a half-dozen rocky rapids, a portage or three, and then merges at The Forks for lots of easy boogie water.

Maybe the ultimate thing about this river? You can take the train! Via Rail runs its Baggage Car service (affectionately known as the “Budd Car”) parallel to the West Branch. You can put your canoe and all your gear on. Just tell the engineer where to drop you.

Loading red canoe onto a train

We boarded at the village of Cartier and got off at Sinker Creek, our gear was hustled out to us, and just like that, the train left us on the side of the track. From here, we had five easy days to paddle 70 km back to our car. (The train only runs on certain days of the week, and weekends often sell out, so book in advance).

For a first-ever trip, I suggest you take the train up to The Forks, where you can take two or three days to get down to The Elbow, a notable bend in the river with road access. The East Branch—the next easy option, with the upper lakes and easy swifts—is long, at 100 km over six or seven days. Likewise, the West Branch has a longer option, from Biscotasi Lake, but it doesn’t get you much more whitewater. Below The Elbow, experienced paddlers might appreciate a series of big rapids and portages, but the real draw is an additional 20 km of swifts. This option adds 50 km and ends at Agnew Lake.

No matter the route, for help with vehicle and train logistics, contact Spanish River Outfitters. Since this is a park, a permit is required at $9 per person per day. Do yourself a favour and pick up the indispensible Spanish River canoe camping map from The Adventure Map (Chrismar Mapping). 

Get The Adventure Map for the Spanish River & Biscotasi Lake Provincial Parks. 

Last summer, my wife and I sterned the canoes, while the boys paddled from the bow. We went in late July, the water was low, and bugs were minimal until dusk. We fished, swam several times a day, and let the current pull us along.

Young boy paddling in bow of canoe

My boys loved the modest rapids, which gave them a sense of confidence without any real stress, and we only portaged twice.

The perfect river? It sure seemed like it.

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