I had my doubts when I loaded a canoe on my vehicle and drove south into Ontario’s cottage country for a fall-colour paddling trip. After all, I live surrounded by thousands of deserted lakes, wild rivers and untouched forests in Northern Ontario. But my friend, Brad, was in Toronto, so it made sense to meet for a trip somewhere in between. I braced for people, powerboats and vacation homes.
We decided on an 80-km circuit on the Magnetawan River, just off Highway 69, north of Parry Sound. This part of the Georgian Bay area was once a favourite haunt for the iconic canoeist and filmmaker Bill Mason; the pink granite canyons and scenic campsites of the Magnetawan appear in Mason’s popular film Song of the Paddle. So I knew it couldn’t be all bad.
The beauty of a circular “loop” trip is that it avoids the hassle of jockeying vehicles from put-in to take-out and requires minimal doubling back on the water. Our route began on Harris Lake, and to my relief, the cottages thinned out as we paddled to the north end. From here, a classic Canadian Shield shoreline of pine-topped rock knobs and cedar lowlands took shape as we continued on the Magnetawan’s South Branch. Brad’s eye was glued to his camera as we pitched camp in the golden light of magic hour.
Over the next few days, we paddled and portaged through a handful of small, undeveloped lakes, camping on polished rock and listening to coyotes howling during the evenings. We marvelled at how few people we saw. On the Magnetewan, we navigated easy white water and cruised across Trout Lake, its many islands flaming with the reds and oranges of maples and oaks.
At our last campsite, Brad and I sat by the campfire and I finally accepted the revelation that there are countless wild oases in Ontario’s Near North that are well-worth paddling—especially on the fringe of fall. That night, after our glorious long weekend on the Magnetawan, we promised to make an autumn canoe trip in Cottage Country an annual retreat.
Two More Paddling Routes in Ontario’s Cottage Country
Muskoka Near Gravenhurst, a two-day loop on the upper Gibson River in Severn River Conservation Reserve explores some of the last remaining undeveloped lakes in Muskoka. Muskoka Paddleshack is your best bet for rentals.