Snow Falling on Black Spruce

 A Northern Ontario Canoe Sojourn Down the Missinaibi


 Parham Momtahan 

As I peeked out of the tent screen, I had to rub my waking eyes. This was not a dream: this was snow; we were here for a canoe trip; and it was July 1st, 2001.

We would be traveling the Missinaibi River flowing into the Moose River. These are rivers steeped in Canadian history. The Cree used them as lifelines for hunting and trading. With the arrival of the Europeans in the 1600s, the river system turned into the first major fur trading and access route into Canada from one of the first European habitations, the Hudson Bay Company’s settlement at Moose Factory on James Bay. This was also part of the river route for a successful military expedition launched from New France against the British.

Malcolm Edwards, who initiated and led us in putting the trip together, had wisely suggested a leisurely two-week trip on the Lower Missinaibi. Our put-in was to be Mattice with a few rest days along the way and a day of touring around Moose Factory and Moosonee. It turned out to be almost the perfect plan for an enjoyable trip.

Lower Missinaibi 2001 Trippers  (left-to-right): Parham Momtahan, Darryll Luesby, Duncan Noble, Melinda Tan, Malcolm Edwards, Frank de Jong, Kelly Peskett, and Jay Morrison. 

We set off at noon from Mattice in full flag-flying fervour: it was Canada Day, and we were in a state of mild hypothermic euphoria. Paddling into a headwind, sleet slapped our faces. We kept our knowing smiles - things could only get better.

Glorious sunshine had come through for us when we arrived at Rock Island. This first set of rapids, class II-III, was about as challenging as it got on our trip. Darryll and I were the first to go. We chose our line with little consideration of how low in the water a fully loaded tripping boat sits - especially with Darryll in the bow. Our run provided entertainment and edification for our friends, and wet feet for us. Thereafter, we took rather more care with our lines, even back paddling on occasion to avoid crashing into haystacks.

The Missinaibi with its rugged, spruce covered, and mostly clay-banked shoreline is not abundant with campsites. So the daily schedule of a trip needs to be planned accordingly. A memorable conclusion to our first day was the delicious supper, prepared by Malcolm and Melinda, enjoyed in cheerful company. This made up for our less than ideal campsite on the side of a muddy road used by the fishing locals. Of these however, there appeared only a couple, both large and friendly, and their little dog. Staying for only a short while, they spoke little and caught no fish.

A couple of days of pleasant class I-II paddling, with fishing and catching no fish, brought us to Kettle Falls. Hap Wilson’s highly recommended Missinaibi guidebook mentions that, while sometimes run at high water, these rapids should be portaged. I had started carrying our gear, still pondering our choice to portage, when I noticed a canoe wrapped around a big rock down river. Someone on the rock was trying to pry it off with a pole. The canoe was too far away from shore and there were no trees for Z-dragging to be practical. When we got there, no canoes or people were to be found. We were to learn later that one of the rescued paddlers ended up suffering from shock and cold, and had to be warmed up in a sleeping bag. This was a reminder that favouring reasonable caution makes the difference between enjoyment and having a bad time, or worse, on a remote canoe trip.

A few hours of further paddling brought us to the vicinity of Thunder House Falls so called because of the thundering sound. We were rather keen to pass up the opportunity of 16 meters of vertical travel in three rapid installments. So we took the earliest possible portage on the left shore.


While places of beauty on the Missinaibi are many and varied, Thunder House provides the most obviously stunning vistas, resonating with symphonies of primal energy. So most canoe parties stay a while. So, you meet people.  We met Gaetan and friends from the Kabec Canoe-Camping Club of the Outaouais. Gaetan was the prier of the wrapped canoe, which fortunately was still serviceable. We met a group of youth from Kingston who thought leaky tents and cold sleeping bags were, well, “cool”. The CBC was tracking their adventure. We met a group of three adults, two cute and hungry kids, and a black dog. They became known as the Dog People. But there was no sense of crowding, the campsites were well spaced, and everyone was pleasant. Even the black dog was pleasant, if unpredictable.  We stayed two nights and had a great day of rest, reflection, photography, scrabble, and Darryll’s delicious instant cheesecake- the cute and hungry kids liked that too. There was also some serious fishing below Conjuring House Rock, a place of reputed supernatural powers. Hap says you catch one with every cast here. Darryll spent the whole morning fishing, but caught no fish. The supernatural powers must have been with the fish.

We left Thunder House after bidding our final photographic adieus to Conjuring House Rock. Next we chose to portage the class III-IV Stone Rapids and later discovered that the Kabec Club had decided to run it. They did not recommend running it- they had swamped boats. Hell’s Gate was next and it’s a definite ‘do not run’ in Hap's book. The portage was also rather Hellish: over two kilometres of slippery steep clay hills with mud pool plateaus. Huge, recent deadfall provided a continuous obstacle course requiring intricate limbo moves while carrying boats and gear. The constant rain was helpfully trying to cleanse us from our muddy sins. My abiding memory of that portage is passing a woman from the Kabec Club. She was walking in a dazed trance, chanting “quelle vacance, quelle vacance”. 

Our labours were richly rewarded the next day - gorgeous sunshine, Kelly’s superb pancake breakfast, and a magnificent view of Hell’s Gate Canyon from the cliffs above. We had lunch at Bells Bay. The tabouleh and hummus tasted better every day. We talked with two Americans who’d flown into the fishing camp on the Bay. They said the fishing was good, but they caught no fish; at least not while Darryll was there. After Bells Bay the character of the Missinaibi changes from a typical Canadian Shield pool-drop, to a wider, more continuous flow, with only class I-II rapids for the most part.

The joys of the next few days were many, including watching a double rainbow. But what I recall most vividly is our canoe sailing. It started off modestly enough - four canoes loosely rafted alongside, with a tarp being held up as a sail wrapped around paddles. This worked rather well.  We enjoyed tabouleh and hummus on the move; Melinda, our chief story teller, read us books on the river history; Duncan lead us in our daily afternoon chorus of “Old Hiram’s Goat”; Darryll, our chief angler, fished and caught no fish; and we gratefully did a lot of mileage with hardly any work.

Resistance to progress proved to be futile, however, once it became obvious that the Kabec Club were attempting to out-sail us. Our chief naval architect, Jay, had worked out the winning design: a multi-hulled craft consisting of two fore canoes semi-rigidly rafted together, holding up a ten-rigged square sail mid-ship and in tandem with two rafted multipurpose aft canoes providing dual rudder control and the auxiliary power plant. Under the exacting guidance of our chief engineer, Duncan, we spent most of the morning in various construction tasks- and the result was impressive. Alas our sailing rivals, the Kabec Pirates, had sneaked off from their campsite in a dastardly early morning surprise. Our sophisticated rig was nevertheless a blessing: with the wind becoming hardly a breeze shortly after we set off, we needed all the help we could get. Even without the wind, steering such a rig required equally sophisticated teamwork. With four helmsmen, four midshipmen, at least four manning the sails, and eight captains, we had all the help we could get! Going down the rapids, this ensemble was truly a sight and sound to behold. We did not see much wildlife that day, and caught no fish. 


As for wildlife, Frank, our chief naturalist, helped us appreciate the many animals, not to mention the plethora of flowers and plants, which he identified with his ever-present field guide. Most of our observations were of the birds of prey. Bald eagles held a particular fascination for us. We also saw fox. No bears. While I find it pointless to dwell on bugs on a Northern canoe trip, let me just say this: the bug tent that Darryll brought, despite loud objections at the beginning, was voted the most valuable piece of equipment by the end of the trip.


Portage Island is at the point where the Missinaibi and the Mattagami join together to form the Moose. It is a milestone on the trip. 

Here we spent another day of rest, reflection, hummus and tabouleh. We were treated to gorgeous sunsets. We met again our friends from the Kabec Club who were camping close by. Darryll found the fishing as good as anywhere. 

After Portage Island we dismantled our sailing rig, as there was no denying that the wind was now directly in our faces. At Moose River Crossing, where the train from Moosonee stops to pick up canoeists, we bid au revoir to our Kabec friends. They had done the Upper Missinaibi, had their adventures on the Lower, and were now ready to go home. The next few days were spent in restful paddling and enjoyment of the wide vistas, the big Northern sky, and the bald eagles of Moose River. We celebrated Darryll’s birthday by drinking the last of our kickapoo joy juice, and went fishing for one last time. Evidently they had forgotten about his birthday; none turned up.

On the final day of our river trip, the skills of our chief navigator, Kelly, were put to the test. I am happy to report that the confusing set of islands was successfully circumnavigated, at least once. We stopped for lunch at a cottage on a point close to the confluence of the Abitibi River. We had a celebratory mood - there was no more hummus or tabouleh. Frank mentioned nostalgically that twenty years earlier he had taken refuge here on a dark and stormy night. We then battled our way through headwind and white caps, bravely singing “Old Hiram’s Goat”. It was dusk when we finally, and gratefully, arrived at Tidewater Provincial Park. Located on Charles Island, situated between the twin towns of Moosonee and Moose Factory, this was our home for the next couple of nights. The campground was clean and picturesque, but the shower house had burnt down.

The next day, we canoed over to Moose Factory Island Indian Reserve. There is a vibrant community here and, much to Darryll’s delight, Indian bannock. There is a lot to see - from the gorgeous wooden interior architecture of the Cree Eco Lodge, to the ‘floating’ St. Thomas Anglican Church (1860), to the Hudson’s Bay Factory House (1820), so called since the Factor lived there. That evening, we took a water taxi to Moosonee. We found a place for dinner and some of us finally had fish. Darryll, however, had become skeptical about the existence of fish; he ate steak. We walked around Moosonee after dinner. It had the feel of a frontier town with a laid-back attitude.

        On July 14th, homeward bound, we headed back to Moosonee to catch the Polar Bear Express. We left our island camp at dawn to time the tide and avoid the wind. As we paddled in the morning stillness, we saw the sun rise over the distant silhouettes of paddlers ahead of us. And we heard them singing, tunefully and in unison, something unfamiliar but wonderful. 

 The train was, in Hap’s words, replete with “malodorous canoeists” returning from the many rivers flowing into James Bay. Malodorous maybe, but I definitely felt fortunate to have paddled with great companions through the soul of this country.  



This article is not intended as a river guide. If you contemplate this trip, I highly recommend Hap Wilson’s book ‘Missinaibi, Journey to The Northern Sky’  You should study Hap’s notes on each rapid, do careful scouting, and use judgment based on the situation and skill levels.

There are a few more annotated photos on  Humour Page

I gratefully acknowledge comments and editorial contributions by friends, including my trip mates (sorry folks, your special pleading made no difference to the accuracy of the tales told herein.)

If you have any comments please email me.


 (© copyright  Parham Momtahan 2002. All rights reserved.)

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