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Everything You Need to Know to Plan a Spanish River Canoe Trip

The perfect introductory river. • Credit: Jeff Jackson
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Everything You Need to Know to Plan a Spanish River Canoe Trip

Find out why it's a great family vacation

Discover the best guided canoe trips, canoe rentals, canoe routes and canoe trip maps.

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
It's a great introduction to white water canoe tripping. Photo: Jeff Jackson

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.
It's a great family trip. Photo: Jeff Jackson 

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
It's a unique trip. Photo: Jeff Jackson 

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). 

Map of Spanish River Area
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
It's fun for the whole family. Photo: Jeff Jackson 

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.


Guided Canoe Trips on the Spanish River 

Trip:  MHO Adventures – Spanish River Family Adventure
July 24 to 29, 2021
Skill Level: Moderate
Bring the whole family and enjoy dark blue water, classic Canadian Shield wilderness as you paddle on this 6-day adventure. This guided canoe trip on the Spanish River is perfect for families looking to shake things up a bit and experience the thrills of whitewater canoeing. The guides will teach you all you need to know to navigate through Class I and II rapids in a safe and fun manner. Your days will be spent honing your new whitewater paddling skills, swimming, fishing, enjoying gourmet food, and relaxing by the campfire.

Trip: Agnew Lake Lodge Guided Canoe Trip
Upon request
Skill Level: All
Contact Agnew Lake Lodge to arrange for a guided trip for any level of paddler. Outfitting is also available.

Canoe Rentals for the Spanish River 

Spanish River Outfitters will provide the ultimate Northern Ontario wilderness experience. They provide planning services, canoe outfitting services (canoe rentals, camping equipment) and shuttle service. Stay at Fox Lake Lodge before and after your trip.

Agnew Lake Lodge provides canoe outfitting services (canoe rentals and camping equipment rentals) as well as shuttle service. Plus you can purchase your Spanish River Provincial Park permit at the lodge. Stay at the lodge before and after your trip.

Sudbury Aviation (Fly-in Canoe Trip Adventures) offer a fly-in service with your own canoe or you can rent one from them. Avoid the hassels of shuttling vehicles. Board a bush plane called the Beaver and get dropped off at their outpost camp on Biscotasi Lake, a great starting point for a 3, 5 or 7-day Spanish River canoe trip.

Spanish River Canoe Trip Routes

Kevin Callan outlines the East Branch route in the Top 50 Canoe Routes of Ontario book. It takes 5 to 6 days, has 11 portages and is 142 km long. It starts at Duke Lake and follows the east branch of the river.  It finishes at Agnew Lake Lodge. A shuttle can be arranged with Agnew Lake Lodge. The East Branch of the Spanish is a great introduction to white water paddling (except in high water).

The West Branch is a little more remote with more rapids to paddle. It is suitable for more experienced paddlers. There are portages around every rapid so it can be used as a “practice” white water route. The easiest access is by train to one of the access points in Biscotasi, or Sinker Creek, The Forks, etc.

The local outfitters can provide you with excellent canoe trip route planning services.

Spanish River Canoe Trip Maps 

The best Spanish River canoe trip map is The Adventure Map by Chrismar Mapping. It is an exceptionally detailed 1:60,000 scale topographic map that shows the rapids, falls, swifts, campsites, portages, access points and more. You can purchase it for $15.95 plus shipping.

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