We've spent the last two summers here in Katrine, Ontario where the two branches of the Magnetawan River meet. During those two summers we only paddled two little stretches of the river between Katrine and Burks Falls. This year we hope to explore more of it.
The route of our first day paddle of the season was occasioned by a small exploratory day hike which began at our campground. We're fortunate that Almaguin Campground is situated on a small lake (Owl Lake) which has a network of paths that ring and radiate outwards from the lake. One such path led us through some dense, hilly and buggy woods and terminated on someone's secluded summer cottage right on the banks of the Magnetawan. It was clear from the poor and seldom traveled ATV trail we'd followed to get here that the owners of this lovely piece of real estate traveled to and from it by boat along the Magnetawan. We weren't sure where this choice cottage location was along the Magnetawan but we had a pretty good idea since we could hear highway 11 construction noises in the distance and we could see a short stretch of train tracks running closely parallel to the part of the Magnetawan we were looking at. We decided then to plan a short afternoon trip to this location via canoe just for the satisfaction of pinpointing where this trail ended on a map.
When we returned to our trailer (affectionately known to us as 'the keep') in Almaguin Campground we pulled out our map of the area to see if we could infer where the trail had taken us and to figure out where to put-in with our canoe and how long it would take to paddle to where we thought that secluded cottage was.
Some days later (the first week in June) we noticed the bugs were not as numerous as usual, so that clinched it. I loaded the canoe atop the truck and we packed a dry bag with the usual day-tripping gear: water bottles, some snack foods, map, camera, sun screen, bug repellant and GPS. Although it was a sunny, breezy day the Magnetawan is a narrow, winding river that's heavily wooded so we brought along our bug jackets just in case we found ourselves paddling through swarms of black flies on those narrow wind-sheltered stretches of the river.
With gear and canoe ready we drove the 4 kilometres from our campground to the boat launch at Lawton's Cove on Little Doe Lake in Katrine. The two branches of the Magnetawan flow westwards from Algonquin Park and converge just before Little Doe Lake where we were putting in that day. From there the river flows further westwards out of Little Doe into other lakes and westwards on towards Georgian Bay.
As usual, I unstrapped the canoe and portaged it to the water's edge while Ilana carried the dry bag, paddles and PFDs. Shortly before lunch our paddles were in the water and we paddled along the beach of towards the mouth of the river. You really have to love that feeling of lightness and freedom that washes over you during those first few minutes of paddling after a long hiatus. It never fails to impress me how effortlessly we glide along in a canoe, even when I anticipate that very feeling as I step into the boat and push off from the water's edge. That satisfying feeling gave way to awkwardness minutes later though when we rounded a bend and came into a strong breeze. Effortlessness immediately turned into self-conscious effort to paddle in unison and make course correcting strokes, but within a few more minutes muscle-memory took over and the head-on breeze gave us the false feeling of fast travel.
Within minutes we came to the confluence of the two branches and headed down the more southernly branch in search of the secluded cottage. The black flies were out in force, but the breeze kept them off us for the most part. Provided we didn't stop too often they trailed harmlessly behind our heads as we paddled along.
For no good reason I thought this branch of the Magnetawan would be flowing out of Little Doe Lake and we'd have the slow current with us, but a glance down at the reeds bending with the current under the surface of the water set me straight. Had I considered more carefully what was obviously implied by the map of the area I would have seen that it would have been a hydrodynamic miracle of the very first order if this branch of the Magnetawan flowed the way I had assumed. Duh.
The first 30 minutes of this trip was unremarkable. The river banks are a mixture of woods, grassy fields and manicured waterfront cottage properties and small wooden docks with parked outboard pleasure boats. But after one passes under the highway 11 overpasses these signs of civilization give way to dense bird-filled woods on both sides. Except for the distant rumble of highway trucks one can trick oneself into thinking one is paddling a remote river.
We were lilly-dipping our way along against the gentle current, taking in the bird sounds and peering into the shallow water at the bends in the river, checking to see at what stage of growth the pond lillies were, when Ilana noticed a red squirrel swimming across the narrow ribbon of water right in front of us. That's a rare enough sight that we decided to take a photo. Ilana fumbled hurriedly with the camera while I did a few gentle stern pries to move the canoe parallel to our wet and nervous photographic subject for a closer shot. It was then that I noticed a sudden movement on the river bank wed been approaching. Our approach had startled something very big and brown - possibly a moose or a deer - into crashing away from the river bank into the tangle of tree. There was no characteristic flash of white tail fur so I was hoping to get a glimpse of a moose...but it was gone. My urgent cry of "Look! Look!" startled Ilana and the red squirrel...and it doubled back away from us to the other bank of the river before Ilana was able to take a well-focused photo. Sigh.
Right near here I made an amusing navigational blunder. Both sides of this part of the Magnetawan are heavily wooded, making it impossible to see much beyond a few yards inland. We thought we were paddling along a narrow series of bends when in fact we had completely circled a fair-sized island which didn't appear on the small scale map we had with us. I was quite disoriented until I recognized a very distinct dead cedar which I remembered passing a few minutes before because it was the only red spot in dense field of green.
We paddled on and knew we were closing in on our destination when we sighted a small golf course which is bounded on one side by the Magnetawan. We paddled past the barren course and passed underneath a small train bridge. Vestiges of an older train bridge were still visible directly beneath the one we paddeled under. Paddling parallel to the raised train tracks we expected the cottage we were looking for to come into view at the next bend. It did and we passed by it, admiring it's seeming remoteness despite being only about 45 minutes paddle away from a heavily used lake and boat launch and 5 minutes past a golf course.
We passed the property, turned the boat around, put down our paddles and let the canoe drift back downstream as we nibbled on some snack bars and peppery meat sticks. With our tiny mission accomplished we paddled back the way we came, this time avoiding the needless circling of the island, and paddling a little faster to escape the blackflies that seemed to have an easier time keeping up with us on the way back.
Ilana snapped a few more photos of her view from the bow and we waved at the construction workers hard at work on the highway 11 overpass as we slipped quietly underneath it and back to the cottage-lined part of the river. Our timing was pretty perfect. The skies had been mostly clear on the way out but clouds were gathering as we made our way back and there were small whitecaps on Little Doe Lake as we paddled perpendicular the wind back to the Lawton's Cove boat launch. We beached the boat and began the ritual of removing our emergency throwbag, plastic bailer, paddles, PFDs and dry bag, all of which Ilana brought to the truck while I carried the canoe back and loaded it atop the truck. We were happy to have accomplished our little mission and the first 90 minute lilly-dip of the season left us both with the beginnings of paddling calluses on our hands.