Abitibi Paddling Adventure 2020 Part 1 (Sept. 5-6)

2020.09.21

After a couple of months of planning, provisioning, etc., D and I set out for a canoe trip from Otter Rapids to Moosonee, with an optional side-trip to James Bay. We left Hamilton at about 8 in the morning on Saturday (the 5th), planning to drive all day, pitch a tent in Otter Rapids, and then start paddling on Sunday. We figured on having about 155km to paddle from Otter Rapids to Moosonee, and 12.5 paddling days in which to do it before our return train. That said, we were aiming for 8-9 days to get to Moosonee, and the balance to be free to rest up and maybe get that paddle in to James Bay.

Saturday went pretty much as planned. On the way up, we picked up some shotgun shells in Orillia (because duck and grouse would come into season while we were up there, and a little fresh meat might be nice), UHT milk and berries in Huntsville, and our rental canoe in Temagami. We also stopped for gas and to eat a couple of times on the way up.

We got up to Abitibi Canyon just around sunset, and although the road signage pointed us across the dam to get to Otter Rapids on the east side of the river, I’d marked some waypoints on what appeared to be a logging access road that connected us on the west side (before verifying that the dams could be driven across). We stuck to the planned route, and discovered that the aerial photos upon which I’d figured the road to be a logging access road were either old or misinterpreted, and we were on more of an off-roading trail than a road. D’s car has 4wd, so we made it through to Otter Rapids, but there were a few muddy patches where I worried a bit about losing traction and getting stuck if I took my foot off the gas.

Once there, it was dark, so we decided to just find a flat place to park and camp, and to figure out our way properly down to the river in the morning. We ended up on a staging lot of sorts, where work was being done on an upriver warning boom (the lot itself was downriver, and closer to the water level below the dam than the level above it, which seemed promising for proximity to a put-in point).

Although we got an early-ish night (by home-in-the-city standards, not camping standards), we slept in a bit, and while we were cooking up our breakfast/brunch, the guy who lives on the other side of the dam came over to check us out. He advised us that there were some ugly rapids to be had if we put in at Otter Rapids, and suggested that we could catch the train one stop downriver and put in there to avoid them. However he also said “if you still want to put in here, it’s a free country” rather than “I’m not going to let you kill yourself with your stupidity”, and the next train was certainly no sooner than Monday, and possibly as late as Wednesday, so we thanked him for his advice, and looked for a place to put in while he went home.

Putting in itself was a bit worrying because the best trail to the river was the maintenance trail for the giant dam warning signs, so it raised the question of “how far downriver of these signs do we have to be to be safe, given that the lettering on them is 2-3 feet?” (I’d tried to look this up on the power company’s website before heading out on this trip, but couldn’t find good information). We decided to bring our canoe and all our gear to a point downriver of the signs, above what appeared to be the high-flow shoreline, then lifejacket up, bring the canoe down to the current shoreline, and start loading our gear from the staging area directly into it, being prepared to hop into the canoe or run to shore (whichever was closer, and we were staggered, which helped make sure we wouldn’t end up abandoning the canoe) if the warning siren and flashing lights described on the sign were to go off. We also noted that it was autumn, and conditions had been relatively dry in the river’s watershed for a while, so the risk of a large flow increase was pretty low.

Once loaded, we set off, and began to appreciate both what the local had said about the river bring rocky, and just how heavily we’d loaded the canoe. We couldn’t’ve gotten more than 1-2km before the river broadened and shallowed to a few inches, and we had to drag the canoe across this shoal for about 500m. We may have made some remarks about how much we’d appreciate a sudden increase in dam outflow, before we got to the other end of the shoal. I also took a page from biking up the mountains of BC on my cross-Canada ride and used photographs as an opportunity to take a break from all the dragging.

Eventually we got through the shoal, and found ourselves in some relatively challenging rapids. We got turned around a couple of times while we were getting the hang of them, but managed to avoid going over any falls backwards and also avoid getting swept into any holes. We got snagged on rocks a few times, but the water was relatively warm and shallow, and we’d already been walking the canoe over the shoal, so it was no big deal. I’d also checked the topo maps beforehand and shared with D (while dragging) that the shoal and 2 rapids were the main struggles in the first 15-20km, and then there’d be another difficult rapids, but by 30km, we’d be through the worst of it (this was consistent with what the local had told us).

We continued on through the relatively calm water, and the second set of rapids, before finding a spot on the riverbank where we could set up camp. We pulled the canoe way up onto shore (even though it was still pretty heavy) because we were only about 7.5km from our put-in according to our GPS, and the banks were broad and flat (up to a point), and there was a pretty clear high-water line that we dragged to.

We’d planned tacos for dinner, but it started to rain soon after we got a campfire going, and we were too tired from all the dragging and rapids to wait and cook, so we dined on some of the charcuterie that had been provisioned for the lunch we didn’t take, and some of the left-over berries from the pancakes in the morning, and got to sleep at a more camping-normal time of 9-10-ish.

Sept. 6 distance paddled: 8.5km
Sept. 6 shortest-path distance: 7.3km
Distance from Otter Rapids at end of Sept. 6: 7.3km
Distance from Moosonee at end of Sept. 6: 135km

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