Ancient Forest Journey Southam News-01

An Incredible Journey

Joanie McGuffin smiles and breaks into a laugh recalling her reluctant introduction to new-age communications technology. “Gary had to work on me for three years before I agreed to get a fax machine here at the house,” she said, recalling how she submitted to the selling job by her husband, Gary McGuffin.

Early next week, the adventurer-couple based in Harmony Beach, 40km north of Sault Ste. Marie, launch a three-month, 1,600-kilometre canoe journey tracing the last remnants of the once-vast Great Lakes-St. Lawrence ancient forest.

They’re paddling into the past, visiting the remains of a landscape that evolved over more than 10,000 years – since the last glacial retreat.

They’ll glide back in time equipped with state-of-the-art technology, including a satellite telephone, a high-tech 35mm digital camera and a portable laptop computer.

The forest, crowned with ridges of majestic white pine, used to stretch from the Mississippi to the Maritimes, from Connecticut to Lake Superior – but less than one percent of this forest remains, confined between the Ottawa Valley and Lake Superior.

“It’s a journey into our own past – the ancient forest has shaped our lives,” said Gary, whose self-propelled expedition, the Ancient Forest Water Trail, begins in Algonquin Park and will conclude at historic Fort St. Joseph on St. Joseph Island in late August.

“Joanie and I both spent childhood summers within the boundaries of the trip, Joanie in Muskoka and me in Temagami, and our home is on the shore of Lake Superior.”

Their business card reads “adventurers, photographers, writers, artists,” and this journey, as well as a 1,600-km dogsled trip through the same region next winter, will be combined into a book with a tentative release in the spring of 1999.

“Adventure and eco-tourism are the trends of the future for Northern Ontario and we’re hoping this could be our contribution to promoting the region, “said Joanie.

“You can paddle for days along the lakes and rivers in the region and not see a road – there’s no experience like it in the continental United States”.

The couple, which met in the late 1970s at the King City Campus of Seneca College, learned how to make a living working in the outdoors. They are not strangers to this sort of adventure.

A two-year, 9,000km canoe trip across Canada from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the Arctic’s Beaufort Sea spawned their first major book in 1988, Where Rivers Run.

As well, they’ve completed a 12,000-km mountain bike tour of Canada’s great sea coast, from the Beaufort to the Pacific to the Atlantic, and a 3,400 km hike along the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine.

An 80-day canoe trip around Lake Superior covered 5,000 km including exploration of some of the 200 rivers flowing into the world’s largest freshwater lake, resulted in Superior, Journeys on an Inland Sea. It won the 1996 Great Lakes Booksellers Award for history and culture.

The couple has also had freelance stories and photographs published worldwide for the past 15 years, boasting articles and cover photographs in many magazines.

For this journey, they’ll pack themselves, their 35-kg Alaskan malamute Kalija, as well as 115 kg of cargo into a 25kg custom-built canoe – 6-metres long, 80cm wide and just under 40 cm deep.

“There’s going to be some portaging (carrying canoe and cargo as far as three km to link up with water) and we needed a canoe that wouldn’t overwhelm us,” said Gary, a self-educated photographer.

“What we’ve got is about as lightweight as they come.”

The cargo will include 39 kg waterproof crate full of communications equipment, as well as 18 kg of camera gear.  Food supplies will be left at drop-off sites along the route.

“We’ve travelled the world, been away for months at a stretch, and never taken a radio,” said Gary, who had most of the couple’s equipment and goods donated or lent by corporate sponsors.

“The first time we use a radio – and it’s state-of-the-art satellite communications.”

The McGuffins expect to file a weekly account and photographs en route for publication every Saturday in the The Sault Star and possibly several other newspapers.

They also plan to try detailing their old fashioned type of travel on a newfangled Internet website,

Wilderness transmissions have resulted in consultations with California specialists.

“We’re going to need a power source for everything from the laptop, for transmitting stories and photos, to the telephone,” said Gary.

“What they’ve come up with are solar panels that can completely recharge a 12 volt battery in seven hours of direct sunlight.”

Joanie, who says the communications package will link up with a satellite orbiting 36,000 km above the Earth, isn’t intimidated by what they have at their disposal.

“It’s all user-friendly and if we do run into problems we can get in touch with specialists who can walk us through it.”

The Website, which has received more than 300 hits since coming online three weeks ago, is an attempt to share the trip, why and what they’re doing, with the people back home.

“We’re hoping it’ll give people an understanding of the forest, the waterways flowing through it, as well as the animals and plant life inhabiting it”, said Joanie, who believes the highlight will be exchanging stories with the people who inhabit the backwaters of the region.

The seeds of the trip were planted a year ago and they began tackling logistics and equipment acquisition six months later.

The fruits of the labor from consecutive summer visits to Greenland, beginning in 1994, have been put on hold. “Our publisher was hoping we’d get around to a book on Greenland, we’ve made a start, but this is taking precedence right now – it’s close to home and it’s slowly disappearing,” said Gary.

The couple also turned down a recent assignment from the prestigious PBS of the United States, because it meant they’d be working under someone else’s timetable.

We’re still doing what we started out doing 15 years ago. We re our own bosses, and making a living at something and for something we truly love.”

Ancient Forest Journey Southam News-02

Packing It All In

As I crossed our first portage between Canoe Lake and Little Joe Lake in Algonquin Provincial Park I was thinking, “It is one thing to plan for a three-month canoe trip for two people, but quite another challenge to take the world along1”

Gary hoisted up the huge Pelican box, which contains our communications equipment (a satellite phone and laptop computer), and agreed with me.

“This is the heaviest wannigan that I’ve ever carried. It feels like hoisting a slab of concrete.”

Before leaving on the journey, we had Bill Ostrom in Thunder Bay design us a special carrying harness for the box, as well as backpacks with harness systems that transferred the weight of heavy loads to our legs rather than our backs.

If a load this heavy sways, it’ll pull you right over.

Many such portages, long and short, lie between us and our destination 1,600 kilometres away.

The route was mapped out to link together all the remaining islands of original Great Lakes-St. Lawrence mixed forest that remain on the North American landscape. They lie in a corridor between the Ottawa Valley and Lake Superior. This week we began in the south end of Ontario’s oldest Provincial Park, Algonquin.

We are paddling north to Temagami, which contains the largest interconnected system of canoe routes in North America. Then we head west to Lake Superior, the largest expanse of freshwater on Earth.

A journey of superlatives! The best of everything wild and beautiful in north-central Ontario. We’re calling this route the Ancient Forest Water Trail.

Earlier this week, months of planning and preparation seemed to culminate in the one moment of departure when we pushed the canoe from shore.

It glided out across the bay despite the heavy load. We turned to wave at my parents and their friends who had    come to see us off. They stood on the sweep of sand beach that lies at the south end of Canoe Lake, where dozens and dozens of canoes were piled on racks near the Portage Store awaiting “ the canoeing season” and visitors from all over the world.

We had to file a plan with park staff to tell them of the lakes we would be camping on each night, and then purchase the permit accordingly. The attendant assured us that we would have our pick of campsites as we were heading into the less-travelled area, and it was not yet July.

Compared to other long-distance journey departures we have experience, this was the most relaxed. The blackflies had succumbed to the heat. It was a dry, blue-sky afternoon. We paddled past a dozen or more canoes, some day-trippers, one group of young people on a week-long adventure. And then we were alone on Joe Lake surrounded by the sound of wind in white pines. Cones are clustered thickly in their crowns this summer.

The canoe slicing water at the bow suddenly became a pair of loons as they burst to the surface, surprising us as much as we surprised them. At our first campsite, a moose came crashing out from the far shore, followed by a young calf. They swam across the bay.

All evening, the beaver were active along the shore nearby.

Several loons called to one another. And from the looks of it, with masses of white flowers on the blueberry bushes, it is going to be a great berry season.

Until next week. Happy Paddling to you all.

Picture Captions:

Recharging their batteries in the sun using special solar panels keeps the McGuffins in touch with the rest of the world. Of course, humans and canines need to take a break and recharge too.

Portages are a fact of life on canoe trips. Gary McGuffins shoulders the canoe.

Joanie finds room for everything in the canoe while faithful pal Kalija, an Alaskan Malamute, watches.
A custom-designed pack holds the couple’s communications equipment.

Ancient Forest Journey Southam News-03

Along the Voyageurs’ Trail

By Joanie McGuffin Special to the Star

Photography by Gary McGuffin


Relishing the sometimes-haunting sounds of a forest brimming with life.


Gary answered the barred owl’s hoots with a practiced reply. A black silhouette on silent wings swooped across the channel toward the island where we were camped. Moments later, the owl was hooting from the branch of a red pine right over our heads. Another of its kind answered in the distance. Soon it too arrived, and from our campfire-side seats, we watched the antics of two barred owls chasing each other through the trees, sounding exactly like a couple of chimpanzees. Then, all of a sudden, the entire night orchestra started up: loons calling, the soprano of spring peepers, the deep bass of bullfrogs, a saw-whet owl’s two-note see-saw, and the pure notes of a white-throated sparrow.

A haunting music rose beneath all of this to fill the moonlit night  – the yipping and howling of Eastern timber wolves on the hills to the south of Burnt Island Lake.

We howled.

They answered.

We howled.

They replied.

A primitive conversation between species that took us back 500 years in time. The surrounding forest had that same effect on us. Great thick cedar trunks spiraled out form shore like unicorn horns. The bases of their trunks were a two-person hug in diameter.

Individual ancient white pines that the logger’s axe missed stretched their feathered limbs to twice the height of the surrounding forest canopy. Huge old stumps and root systems remaining from the early logging days fooled us into thinking they were moose from a distance.

And then there were the old trees submerged in an underwater world where we could see perch darting between limbs where birds once nested. Just south of Canoe Lake, where we began our journey, there’s a forest research station where scientists like Bill Cole have been studying this underwater “woody debris.” Their dendrochronology work (the study of annual growth rings in timber) has uncovered an astonishing new perspective on these white pines. May were seedlings 1,500 years ago. They grew to maturity, 500 years perhaps, and then died. They probably stood dead for many years providing nesting habitat, hibernation cavities, woodpecker food and perches for eagles. Then they fell into the lake where they have continued to provide habitat for fish and many smaller creatures from that time on. Knowing this gave us a deeper respect as we canoed over the submerged limbs. It

It has been a week of southwest winds, a violent rainstorm that turned suddenly to hail, northern lights and finally freshening winds from the northwest. Also a week of wildlife sightings. One afternoon, we came into a lovely lake. Moose were everywhere; five bulls with velvet racks, a cow with her calf. A young moose and an older, greyer one feeding together. Blue herons were crisscrossing the sky and stalking the shallows where minnows schooled in swirling balls.

A pair of osprey swooped intermittently at the surface until one finally came up clutching a fish in its talons. Its high-pitched cry drew the other fish eagle in, and a bit of a battle ensued until the predator finally made off with its dinner leaving the other to continue hunting. We ate lunch on a small island that day seated amongst a patch of plump red cranberries left from last year’s crop. Later we discovered a moose lunching on the backside of the very same island we had been on. These kinds of places feel so full of life, from water to land to air. Algonquin Provincial Park’s history makes for an ideal place to begin the Ancient Forest Water Trail, as its history is the history of logging the original forest. From the time it was designated as a park more than a century ago to present day, logging has continued. Back then, there weren’t roads, only waterways. Now there are enough miles of roads within the park that the distance is equal to driving from here to Florida.

At the south end of Burntroot Lake we discovered the remains of the Barnet Farm Depot, which was established in 1886 to provide supplies to the nearby logging camps. Foundations of huge square timbers and rocks were set amongst large grassy areas where willows, stinging nettle, elderberries and other sun-loving plants grew.

Hidden in the shoreline shrubbery we found a dilapidated alligator, an amphibious self-propelled craft that was used to winch rafts of logs from lake to lake. We also found more human debris, like a narrow leather sole fringed with tiny nails that had once attached the upper part of what looked like a woman’s shoe.

We are travelling north and east now along the historical fur trade express route of the Mattawa River that linked the Ottawa Valley with the great North West.

TOP: The first whitewater run of the journey– from Longer Lake into Red Pine Lake in Algonquin Park.
RIGHT: A garter snake warming itself on a hollow log, Purley Lake.
BOTTOM LEFT: Up close to a young moose feeding on rushes in Longer Lake, Algonquin Park.

Ancient Forest Journey Southam News-04

Rivers of History

By Joanie McGuffin Special to the Star

Photography by Gary McGuffin


From the Amable du Fond to the Mattawa to the Ottawa, these canoeists paddle 6,000-year-old link between the Ottawa Valley and the upper Great Lakes.


Evening was upon us yet we could find no place to make camp. Either side the alders and black ash formed a tangled jungle of vegetation impenetrable to us with our big packs and canoe. Ahead the slow meandering Amable du Fond River was about to drop off into the unseen roar of another mighty gorge.

Gary caught sight of a welcoming portage sign at the brink of the falls. A freshly mowed area opened into a portage path leading to a beautiful log cabin, which overlooked the second spectacular gorge on our downriver run between Algonquin Park and the Mattawa River. Dozens of white canoes piled neatly on rocks attracted us toward the place to enquire about a place to set up our tent for the night. A man was hailing us from the porch. “Hi McGuffins!” I was just looking you up on the Internet and here you are portaging through the garden.”

“That’s virtual reality for you.” Gary replied with a laugh.

We learned that Lynda and Ian Kovacs along with their two daughters Becky and Sarah operated Halfway Chute Outfitters equipping canoeists for trips into Algonquin and along the Mattawa, But not the Amable du Fond. They told us we were the annual quotas of paddlers that descend this river. That is why they had brushed out the portage when they heard we were coming. They invited us in for tea and shared with us some of the history of their lives from building their home to the experiences with visitors from all over the world.  Visitors from Europe, America and Asia are always reminding us about how incredible it must be to live here.  They tell us they have nothing left like it where they come from.  Roads and people everywhere, no room for old forests, wildlife and the silence of nature1”

We departed by late morning the following day, and what a day it was! Our canoe was too long to negotiate the rocks, and the hull scraped over the shallows. The battle scars are etched forever into the red gel coat of our canoe.  In a combination of lining and making bushwhack portages, we soon looked as war-torn as our canoe. Nine hours and nine miles later, we finally arrived at the brink of Eau Claire Gorge where we camped amidst tall ferns. The gorge proved spectacular and the trail, through long, was easy walking.   Below the river flattened and calmed into a series of small lakes and the roar of whitewater disappeared and was replaced with birdsong instead.

Muskrats den along riverbanks and kingbirds nest in overhanging limbs.

The smells of the river were apparent and we felt our heart rates slow with the river pace.

We had followed a traditional, though today seldom used, river link between Algonquin and the Mattawa.  Steel grey, thundery clouds rolled down the Mattawa’s historic valley as we left the Amable du Fond.

Fourteen years ago we canoed this Canadian heritage river on our way to the Beaufort Sea becoming part of the river’s 6,000-year-old role of providing a link between the Ottawa Valley and the upper Great Lakes

First native peoples came, then, they in turn, guided the explorers, coureurs de bois, voyageurs and fur traders.  On the fur trade express route between Montreal and Lake Superior, the Mattawa River proved to be one of the most challenging sections with its many portages: portages we found in the same condition today. As we hoisted up loads half the weight of the voyageurs and negotiated the rocks and mud along the trails, we understood the symbol of white crosses placed high above the river.

A broken ankle, a strangulated hernia was death in those days.

Downstream on the Mattawa at the confluence with the Ottawa lies the picturesque town of Mattawa where we picked up our first food and supply package from the Mattawa Information Centre.

Kalija was happy, and so were we.  We arrived with only a few teabags, a spoonful of honey and a package of soup.  It was Sunday.  For me the bells peeling from church steeples poured old Europe through the town where huge colorful murals have been painted on the sides of buildings, and friendly folk greet us at every turn.

After the small creeks, rivers and portages of the past two weeks, there was a grand feeling of arriving in open space as we canoed out onto the Ottawa.  It, too, is a very historic corridor, though one which has long been altered.

Virtually all of the Ottawa Valley’s vast pine forests have been logged. And almost all of the river’s original wild character sleeps beneath the head ponds of huge dams.

Magnificent 750-foot cliffs on the Quebec side, and cliffs half that height on the Ontario side, formed an incredible hall of echoes which the loons delighted in answering.  Above the big dam near Mattawa, we travelled 40 miles long into the evening before making camp. So far, it has been mirror calm.  West winds, not portages, are now our greatest challenge as we head north to Temagami.


TOP:   Portaging around one of the several spectacular gorges on the Amable du Fond, a traditional river route lining the northern part of Algonquin Park with the Mattawa River.  The river is named after Francis and Ignace Dufond, whose farm supplied logging camps in the early 1900s.
MIDDLE: The railway bridge spanning the Ottawa River at the historic town of Mattawa, where the Mattawa River flows into the Ottawa River.  Hundreds of the fur trade canoe brigades passed this way between Montreal and the fur trading forts at the head of Lake Superior.
BOTTOM: The exotic shape and colour of pink lady slippers are a treat to see along the portage trails.

Ancient Forest Journey Southam News-05

Enjoying the Antics of Wildlife

By Joanie McGuffin Special to the Star

Photography by Gary McGuffin


Rekindling special memories at a lake Temagami cabin


The Matabitchuan River squeezed out from between the huge blocks of dark granite and the angular sheet of bedrock, which flanked it, either side. Here we discovered a small red ochre figure, which immediately struck me as being a bear. Painted by Ojibwa long ago, possibly following a vision quest on top of the cliff opposite, prompted us to leave an offering of tobacco. A touchstone with the past landscape when the lake levels were lower and the beavers were the only ones that made dams.

Moments later Gary spied a large black bear foraging on the sweet wild strawberries below the portage trail. It was as though the pictograph had come to life.

Earlier in the day, unbeknownst to us, we paddled over a fur trading post long drowned in the lower Matabitchuan. Then came the steep portage up from the Ottawa River into Fourbass Lake where an archeological dig happened last summer.

It had already been a week of strange impressions and changed landscapes. During an afternoon hike when the Ottawa winds were too strong for paddling, we retraced a familiar route leading up from the Ottawa River into the heart of the Owain forest. Winding up through yellow birch and ash, some hardwood sugar maple and the dominate stands of old red and white pine, the portage trail dissolved into the site of last year’s controversial logging operation. Where once we hiked in the natural park-like atmosphere of pine, we now walked on a system of all-weather roads. The visual destruction spoke volumes of disrespect for the foundation of Canada’s economy; the forest industry – an industry in peril because we humans perceived the forest would always go on forever. Small trees flattened, healthy trunks scarred, pools of black oil, and great wide swaths cut into a once roadless landscape.

Ducks everywhere are with families now.  Some have eggs not yet hatched as we discovered one evening when Kalija poked her nose under a pine, flushing out a teal. A fine clutch of a dozen persuaded us to quickly pack up again, and leave.

Near dark, we chose a patch of sand between a pond and the Ottawa River to serve as our campsite. It was a noisy night shared with frogs of all kinds and a beaver that slapped its tail continuously behind the tent. But we were rewarded in the morning when the mother duck flew across the bay and landed near shore. She waddled over the sand into the pond and puddled around for a few minutes then flew back to her nest.

Beneath one of Lake Temiskaming’s awesome fjord-like sections where no safe havens exist for canoes, a wood duck burst out leaving newly hatched chicks clustered nervously on a patch of moss. Many mergansers swim with young in tow now. I mistook a flurry of 30 flightless chicks for a small rapid until, confused by our approach, the group split in a dozen directions. For the most part, winds and weather have been with us on the journey. We left the Ottawa via the Matabitchuan, or Wawa-bos Nah-mat-ah-bee as it is written on Craig MacDonald’s wonderful historical map of the Temagami region. Between here and Rabbit Lake, Gary knows this country by its smell, the faintest outline on a pitch-black night. A land of dreams and good childhood memories of paddling canoe exploring old forest, catching pickerel and picking blueberries.

Following the sunshiny evening of our arrival at the cabin Gary built when he was 16 (and the place we lived when first married) was a day of preparations to open things up for Gary’s parents. Now in their 80s, they still drive up from London, Ontario, each summer and boat in across Rabbit Lake loaded with provisions just as they have done for the past 50 years. For Gary and I, another dream is realized as we paddle westwards through Temagami leaving the cabin we had always wanted to make part of a long journey.

TOP: Along the Matabitchuan River, we discovered this pictograph of a moose.
TOP LEFT: The Ottawa River forms a huge historic corridor and the boundary between the provinces of Ontario and Quebec.
BOTTOM LEFT: A blue flag iris sways exotically as a single flower among the clusters of them growing along broken rocky shorelines and in the wetlands.
BOTTOM RIGHT: The Matabitchuan River has long been a traditional link between the Ottawa Valley and the Temagami region.

Ancient Forest Journey Southam News-06

A Temagami welcome

By Joanie McGuffin Special to the Star

Photography by Gary McGuffin


Gary and Joanie meet like-minded environmentalists while traversing historic, scenic Lake Temagami


I am writing from island 989 near Bear Island otherwise known as The Pines. This island is one of the 1,200 that freckle Lake Temagami’s clear green waters.  Cabins and cottages are rich with the history of generations of families that arrived first by train and freighter and now by vehicle and motorboat.

My favourite are those weathered grey log cabins tucked back in the forest, silent and as observant as wolves.  They are small and simple with the bare essentials. The trails to their doorsteps are overgrown.

For days now the weather has been cooler. No blackflies, only mosquitoes that swarm thickly after dark.  Mayfly hatches draw trout to the surface and gulls from the air.  The lives of mayflies are like some fairy tale…beginning underwater then emerging to metamorphose from nymph casings into winged beautifies.  All in a day of our lives, they take flight, find a mate, drop invisible eggs upon the water then become dinner for a trout.

On Rabbit, Cassels and Snake lakes east of Temagami, the loons have not been so reproductively fortunate this year.  I feel sad when I see the pairs gliding about without purpose – without young ones because the dam’s fluctuating water levels have twice drowned their nests since late May.

In a few weeks they will congregate in larger groups preparing for fall migration, picking up the age-old pattern of their lives, not conscious of human ignorance insidiously diminishing the populations of even the most favourite of northern birds.

One of the most interesting aspects of the week was meeting up with old-growth forest scientists Peter Quimby and Tom Lee at their base camp of operations for Ancient Forest Explorations and Research on the north end of Cassels Lake.  It was here last summer that we talked of their work and considered the idea of paddling from Algonquin Park to Lake Superior via a route that would highlight the remaining islands of mixed old growth forest landscapes.

Their work, and that of the other organizations like the Wildlands League, World Wildlife Fund and the Ministry of Natural Resources’ commissioned study by Geomatics, have drawn attention to the fact that old-growth red and white pine are an endangered species.

But the huge pine are part of a far more complex story from the soil to the forest canopy; an interdependent community of insect, animal, bird, plant and microscopic life, and processes that are rare, little understood and disappearing fast.  South of Polar Bear Provincial ark, a scant four per cent of Ontario is protected in parks, little of which includes the remaining ancient forests. Despite this, roads for industrial logging and mining continue to carve up the little that remains.

After finding the portage trail up to Blueberry lake, we discovered plots ringed by flagging tape delineating their old growth forest study areas.

Moments later we found the dozen international EarthWatch volunteers who, over the course of seven years, have represented 10 countries from Asia to Europe and South America.  We spent part of the afternoon with them before paddling off into an approaching storm.

Temagami, known the world over for its lakes, old growth red and white pine forests, wildlife, freshwater fish and the history of its aboriginal people, welcomed us with open arms this week.  We hiked on the traditional White Bear trails that wind through old growth pine forest near town.  The portage out of Smoke Lake and into Lake Temagami began near Dorothy Zimmerman’s dock.

A longtime resident, Aunt Dorothy (as she is known to us) has a sharp memory for the details of her adventurous life, which began in 1931 when she paddled in with her late husband Ellie.  They built cabins, supplied ice to summer residents, guided fishing trips and raised a family that passes on this love of the land.

Dorothy’s stories, told and untold, fill a book. “I remember the train so well. Everyone went to meet it at 8 p.m., no matter what. It was a place to visit, see who’s coming and going, and to talk to friends.”

The portage through town takes you past the train station and the Busy Bee where we sat outside enjoying Muffy’s famous butter tarts and ice-cream cones.

TOP: Portaging past the Temagami Canoe Company, which has been continuously manufacturing fine cedar canoes since 1929.
MIDDLE RIGHT: On portage through Temagami, Muffy Migwans of the Busy Bee (est.1947) treats all three of us to ice-cream cones.
BOTTOM RIGHT: Each summer, four crews of 12 international EarthWatch volunteers assist Peter Quimby and Tom Lee (on left, back row) with the Ancient Forest Exploration and Research project.
BOTTOM LEFT: Twinflowers are one of the many plants we see flowering in the ancient forest where pine trees grow to maturity (some 500 years).

Ancient Forest Journey Southam News-07

Standing on Top of Ontario

By Joanie McGuffin Special to the Star

Photography by Gary McGuffin


A crack of thunder and the smell of smoke send our adventurers heading for the hills


An earsplitting crack of thunder made me jump.  The eyes of Kalija, our dog, were wide with fear.  Gary had one arm around each of us as we crouched in the shelter of our overturned canoe.  Then the smell of smoke and charred wood wafted down.  The bolt of lightning shred a jack pine on the ridge above us.

Only minutes before we had been travelling upstream as fast as our shoulders and arms could rotate the paddles. We knew Gamble Lake was a gamble, but maybe we’d make it before the storm.

Then a bend in the river revealed the full fury of angry cloud fronts battling it out and marching straight down the Lady Evelyn River toward us.  We angled the canoe toward sore, landed, burled everything into the long grass, flipped the canoe and burrowed down just as the first big droplets hit.  It was the second time in as many days we had to hade from such a storm. The lightning strike could’ve started a forest fire like the one we recently paddled through on the upper reaches of the Lady Evelyn River. Although that particular burn began at the hand of a careless human, fire is nevertheless a natural disturbance that provides many benefits to the forest ecosystem.

From a distance, our first view of the forest was nothing but naked, grey timbers that bristled out from the hillsides like porcupine quills. But as we drew closer, our first impression of devastation changed to wonder. As we made our portages around rapids, we noticed now the forest floor was lush with blueberries, fireweed, mosses, shrubs and pine seedlings.

The heat of fire had revealed the mineral soils favoured by conifers (some like jack pine actually require the heat to open their hard cones). Not all the big trees had succumbed and those that survived were scattering their cones. Without the cover of trees, it felt like early spring or late fall.

Tracking upstream and portaging past lovely waterfalls on the Lady Evelyn eventually brought us to one of the headwater lakes for this river. Five kilometers of portaging from Gamble to Sunnywater and another half day from there to Smoothwater and Apex , each lake well named. This is an important area where streams, bogs, wetlands and lakes flowing through surrounding forest feed three river systems: the Lady Evelyn, the Montreal and the Sturgeon.

A chain of lakes lies south to Mihell and Scarecrow, two lakes still blessed with forests of ancient white and red pine.  From here, we could see the fire tower on Ishpatina Ridge, Ontario’s highest point of land.  Months ago as we were planning our route, we had dreamed of the climb up Ishpatina for the 360 degree view of where we had come from and where we were going. The narrow trail winds up past little lakes and bogs, past a huge pine half cut through with a broad axe years ago. It was a choice day for a view so clear we could see 50 kilometres from the top.

With map and compass in hand, we located Maple Mountain to the east and the route we had followed for the past week.  To the south and west, we could see the waterways that lie ahead.

Camping on islands as often as we can gives us the full view of our surroundings as well as the sunrise and sunset. Another full moon has passed and when the evenings are crisp and clear, there is some stargazing time before sleep.

It begins with the arrival of the mosquitoes at 9:30. But lucky for us, those who feast on the mosquitoes also appear; the little brown bats that swoop over the waters nearby and the dragonflies, tiny helicopters 35 million years in the making, dart in and around our heads.

The two bright stars of Libra are twinkling in the south, Scorpio to the southeast, bright white Venus in the west with Cassiopeia, the “W” overhead, and the Big Dipper to the north.  We watch the stars and look for satellites circling far above the earth until the waning moon rises. Then it is time to settle in our sleeping bags and listen to the reverberations of loon calls dancing off the hills, calling one another between the lakes.

RIGHT  From Ishpatina Ridge, Ontario’s highest peak, we could see Maple Mountain, the second highest peak, and the week’s worth of paddling that lay between the two.
LOWER RIGHT: Fireweed is one of the first plants to spring up from the ashes following a forest fire, transforming the charred and blackened landscape into a sea of purple.
BELOW RIGHT: Discovering ripened blueberries in the burn area along the Lady Evelyn reminded us that aboriginal people used to burn areas of the forest to encourage such berry growth.
BOTTOM LEFT: Early morning at Centre Falls on the Lady Evelyn River, one of the prettiest waterfalls we have seen to date on our journey.

Ancient Forest Journey Southam News-09

Ancient Trails

By Joanie McGuffin Special to the Star

Photography by Gary McGuffin


Joanie and Gary find life isn’t always easy on the ancient Forest trail as they slog through the Wanapitei and Sturgeon Rivers


At the brink of a wild whitewater chute where I steadied the canoe, Gary stepped out on a giant pine log preparing to load the heavy communications box.  Suddenly it rolled forward, causing him to fall back, barely missing a rusty spike.  The split-second trauma resulted in a bruised and swollen foot, but it was sobering to think it could’ve ended our journey right there.

For a week we had been portaging and paddling between the Sturgeon and Wanapitei River headwaters, negotiating some of the most challenging country on the journey so far.

It began with a portage out of Paul Lake on the Sturgeon.  Unable to locate the original trail, we set off following the double track of an all-terrain vehicle trail through the shaded cool of jack pine forest moist with sphagnum mosses and rustling with birch and ferns. Within minutes we emerged in the blazing sun and hiked more than a mile across the sunbaked desert of logging roads threading their way through a recent clear cuts now sprouting with poplar saplings. Crossing creek beds, we finally spotted a piece of red flagging tape designating a woodland route down to Stewart Lake and the beginning of a series of portages westwards to the Wanapitei.

We later met up with some of the canoeists from Algonquin Park’s famed Taylor Statton Camp, and expressed our gratitude for their trail blazing efforts that benefitted us as we slogged our way through overgrown, boggy trails. The black spruce limbs were cat’s claws scraping our forearms until they bled. We sweated and swore as the mosquitoes swarmed. But the trails were there. Even when we couldn’t see them, our feet found the way along an indentation impressed in the earth by the human travellers in times gone by.

An evening on an island in Haenschel Lake was well earned; loon calls echoing, swimming rocks beckoning and majestic pines sweeping around the bay.  The satisfaction earned by hard physical work flowed through us like warm honey.

Twisting its way down from Scotia Lake, the Wanapitei flowed steadily toward us.  At times we lined upstream, sometimes we portaged and one afternoon we snaked through fields of grasses swaying tall above our heads.  It is a wetland with creeks flowing in, huge skies of blue scattered with cumulus clouds and a ridge of giant white pine spared by their isolation.

We could see for a distance…. marsh hawks, a couple of eagles, and, near the pine, several young black bears.  Surprised, they scurried for the nearest big pine taking refuge scrambling up the rough, scaly bark.

Ancient cedar overhung the river on another section where the white water lilies bloomed in profusion, truly the beauties of swampland. And finally an old dam, a portage and we were into Scotia Lake.

Sailing south over deep blue waters with wind to our backs, no current to hinder us, no turns to make, we gazed in awe of the great monoliths of grey and pink granite, black basaltic dikes and sheer cliffs that made us imagine we were on a miniature Lake Superior.

A welcome awaited us at an outpost cabin owned by Margaret Watson of Sudbury Aviation. She had flown in with fresh food and an invitation for a sauna.  We talked about past adventurers, dreams to come and the importance of the ancient forest on the map of the world.

On a landscape surprisingly riddled with a web of logging roads and ATV trails, a mere one per cent of designated tourism lakes remain remote proving an incredible oasis. Rare and highly valued, lakes accessible only bush plane or paddle and portage, assures the integrity of the fishery, the wildlife, the forests and the waterways for all the generations of human travellers who follow in our footsteps.

TOP: Our hard slogging on muddy, overgrown portage trails was rewarded by a fine campsite and an equally fine sunrise over Haenschel Lake.
TOP LEFT: Life isn’t always easy along the Ancient Forest Water Trail when you’re sweating, fly-bitten and mired knee-deep in mud.
BOTTOM RIGHT: Route-finding through marshes, bogs and little-used portages in recent times was aided by the trail marking efforts of canoe trippers from Algonquin Park’s Taylor Statton Camp.
BOTTOM LEFT: Wanapitei waterfalls are a welcome spot for a swim and lunch on our three-day upstream paddle on the Wanapitei River, which twists and turns four times further than a route followed straight as the crow flies.

Ancient Forest Journey Southam News-08

Ontario’s Logging Past

By Joanie McGuffin Special to the Star

Photography by Gary McGuffin


Where have all the ancient forests gone?


With the T-grip on the whitewater paddle, Gary reached down into the clear waters of Pogamasing Lake to retrieve a dark orange object from among the rocks.  Carefully he cracked away the outer layer of crusted rusty material like eggshell, revealing a log boom chain hook of hand-forged steel, another one of many pieces in the early logging history story that we have discovered all across our route.

Along the Pogamasing River and Moncrieff (Bannerman) Creek, we portaged around old log slides and wooden dams that once controlled the water levels for the spring river drives.  It was down these apparently small waterways that the original white pine forests flowed in the 1800s by the millions of board feet of timber.  What followed was the early to mid-20th century clearing of the forest for jack pine and spruce to supply the pulp trade. It is the remnants of this era we see now from logging camps to sawmills, from boom logs to dams.

We pulled ashore at Sheahan (once called Wye), the railway stop along the Spanish River where a grassy area with a handful of buildings marks a once-thriving community of 250 families.

Cradling logging artifacts in our hands, we imagine their stories. But sometimes a day of hard travel crossing watersheds, finding old trails, walking miles of rapids upstream, paddling against current and portaging a dozen times is richly rewarded by the welcome we receive from people we meet along the way.

One morning we paddled into a bay on a lake that shall remain unnamed. We first noticed the tombstones overlooking the blue water, nestled beneath red and jack pine. Through binoculars I could read the family names of Plaunt and Mahaffy. One stone read: Here lies William Bell Plaunt In the woods & the waters he loved so well. Born Renfrew Country 7th April 1879. Died Sudbury 23rd Oct 1960.”

A row of older cottages painted white with green trim was strung out along the bay, also beneath pines. The families who spend their summers here are four generations of William Bell Plaint’s offspring. We were treated to breakfast and real logging camp beans. Then a tour followed.

Black and white photos described a family history reaching back to logging days in the Ottawa Valley. Bill Plaunt himself cut big pine and later the spruce and jack pine. He told his family many times “It was wrong to cut it all. It didn’t make sense for the timber industry, let alone the forest.”

Small pine staked and cared for have been planted everywhere and perhaps in ten more generations, they will be splendid reminders of the forest of giant trees which once graced the land from the Maritimes to the Mississippi, the Appalachians to Superior.

On one lake long since cleared of its original forests, I spotted an osprey circling above a river mouth and Gary saw a bald eagle above a cliff with a fringe of windswept pine giants.  Surfing the whitecaps stirred up by strong north winds, we were carried into a small beach and the beginning of another portage.  White nosing the canoe into soft sand, we noticed fresh tracks that told of a timber wolf’s passing. Later at our campsite two bull moose swam from the mainland to our island.

In a week of travel, we had come another 150 kilometres, zigzagging our way from Scotia Lake through Lake Onaping, downstream on Moncrieff (Bannerman) Creek, upstream on the Spanish and portaging between lakes to Mozhabong and Biscotasing.

One month of travel remains until we reach the St. Mary’s River.

People ask “What does she lift?” and Gary answers “Our spirits!” Kalija is a 70-pound Alaskan malamute who has been our travelling companion for five years. We tell her it’s her mission while canoeing the Ancient Forest Water Trail to remember the route well because next winter she along with 17 Canadian Inuit sled dogs are mushing two friends and ourselves 1000-miles from Lake Superior to Ottawa, We will be revisiting many of the wilderness areas in the winter.

Sometimes I refer to Kalija as Francis Hopkins, the 19th century painter who recorded the voyageur life form her sea in the canoe, because she just gets to sit behind me in the canoe watching the scenery go by.  Kalija takes up a space as big as a canoe pack. She eats four dog biscuits at breakfast and two cups of kibble for supper… and she eats blueberries when she finds them along the portage trail.

In the rapids, especially when we have to line or track the canoe up or downstream, Kalija jumps out on shore and makes her own way.  This isn’t always easy and we can’t help but laugh as she scrambles through the cedars and negotiates the slippery boulders.

And Kalija loves people and cottages. She’s up on her feet, wagging her tail as we paddle by. One of the most interesting aspects of having her along is her sense for finding the best trail, and her sense of smell, which picks up beaver, moose and bear.  Her response tells us what’s around the next river bend.

She found the hot July days exhausting but now in the cooler, bug-free nights, she curls up on the pine needles dreaming of the day’s adventures.

TOP CENTRE:  Travelling west along the Ancient Forest Water Trail requires us to cross numerous watersheds as the rivers here flow north to south into the North Channel.
TOP LEFT: Kalija, the 70-pound Alaska malamute from Batchewana Bay, is our travelling companion winter, summer, spring and fall.
MIDDLE LEFT: An old logging dam along the Pogamasing River is one of many such dams
BOTTOM LEFT: A smooth table of rock provides a comfortable platform for lunch half way down Moncrieff Creek as we paddle southwest toward the Spanish River

Ancient Forest Journey Southam News-11

Avenue of the Pines

By Joanie McGuffin Special to the Star

Photography by Gary McGuffin


Paddling the Headwaters of the Mississagi River


As the bald eagle passed overhead, sun highlighted its white head and tail feathers. Great dark wings formed an unmistakable silhouette that we have come to recognize two or three kilometers way. The nearby nest was securely embraced in the limbs of an ancient white pine, a necessary platform for a structure that weights several hundred pounds.

A young eagle surveyed us from its perch above the nest. There’s a long family history of eagles nesting here, a man who has been coming to Biscotasing for the past 60 years confirmed.

Up through Sinaminda, Mozhabong, Biscotasi and Ramsey lakes, and down the Mississagi River. As we paddle in the canoe strokes of the famous writer and conservationist Grey Owl, we imagined that he would have seen the ancestors of these eagles along with the ancient forest of pine linked by beaver ponds, rivers, bogs and marshes.

We nosed the canoe into a swaying field of wild rice in the Spanish River headwaters, part of the Mississagi River Provincial park.

The wheat of the marshlands was casting next year’s crop of seed across the water. The native people’s traditional harvesting method, which is still used today, consisted of paddling through the stalks and beating them with a stick to fill the canoe with rice. The rice, berries, fish, waterfowl, moose and bear made this an area abounding in wild foods and food for wildlife. Loons with chicks were feeding on schools of small perch. The moose and black bear we spotted along the water found both food and shelter here.

We watched an osprey drop out of the sky with great speed and plunge into the water. It struggled with its prey beneath the surface then rose victorious with a pickerel clutched in its sharp talons. Streamers of white foam marked the winds direction as southwest across the surface of Barney Lake. Inching our way toward a small island, we knew this wind marked changing weather.

Every time we told Kalija to lie down, she’d get slapped in the face with another wave and jump to her feet unbalancing the canoe.  It took us an hour to reach our destination.

Smooth slippery rocks and waves made unloading tricky but at least the supper was on and the tent was pitched on a point where the rock dropped six metres straight down.

The winds finally brought rain and a respite from a long dry spell which had sparked a recent fire ban. The rain came in the middle of a long portage soaking us and the grateful tInder dry forest.

As we neared the final quarter of our travels along the Ancient Forest Water Trail this summer, we hope that some day a designated corridor will exist to link these regions together, a corridor internationally celebrated for its preservation of ancient forest ecosystems, wetlands, waterways and wildlife.

For most of the week, we paddled through Mississagi River Prov. Park, a waterway park which encompasses the Spanish River headwaters and the upper Mississagi River.

A sand gravel esker connecting Missisagi Lake with Upper Green and White Owl lakes is an important corridor that supports a diverse forest of black spruce, white spruce, balsam, trembling aspen, birch and old growth white pine. There are headwater lakes, ponds wetlands and several bald eagle and osprey nests. And some places we paddled through in Upper Bark and Bark Lakes are so rich with thick forests of red and white pine that we called them the ‘Avenue of Pines’.

In a bay near where White Owl Lake meets Mississagi Lake, Gary spotted a mother bear and her cub. We floated nearby as the mother ambled past while the tiny black cub tried hard to keep up, scrambling over rocks and logs.

Although Gary and I have each other to share our adventures with, meeting others can be fun.  We received a warm welcome from the Jackson family, providing a fine conclusion to the day.

As we founded the river bend, a cabin came into view and the door flung open hailed us from amidst it all “Won’t you come in for cookies fresh from the oven?”

When we finished eating cookies and telling stories, we were invited to stay the night. Richard, the man who had invited us in, told us he wondered how his expectant daughter was doing in Dayton, Ohio.  Gary summoned him and the rest of the Jackson clan over to our ‘Big Back Box’.  Gary pulled out the satellite phone and asked Richard for the number.

Fifteen more appreciate and happy faces could not be found when Richard called out: “They’ve called her ‘Tracy Lynn!”

TOP: Crimson sunset over Ramsey Lake from our tiny rock island campsite, which reminded us of being on Georgian Bay. We were almost a kilometer from mainland on all sides, with big skies and white pines wind-bent like a Group of Seven painting.
TOP RIGHT: An osprey brings a fish to its nest along the Mississauga River.
BOTTOM LEFT:  Over 75% of bald eagles nest in ancient white pines for a good reason. The nests, which they return to year after year, are huge stick structures weighing several hundred pounds. The strong limbs of the white pine provide the perfect platform.
BOTTOM RIGHT: In the Spanish River headwaters, part of Mississagi River Provincial Park, we paddled through marshes containing swaying fields of wild rice, a staple food of native people, which is still enjoyed today. Traditionally it was harvested by paddling through in the fall when the rice has ripened to dark brown, and kernels can be shaken from the stalks into the bottom of the canoe. As we paddled through the wind scattered the seed for next year’s crops.

Ancient Forest Journey Southam News-12

Heading for Algoma

By Joanie McGuffin Special to the Star

Photography by Gary McGuffin


Near-record dry conditions could put a damper on our adventuresome pair’s journey home


“Poles, paddle or walk it?” Gary yells out to me from the stern of the canoe. From my perspective in the bow, I can assess the immediate route more clearly. I avoid the rocks and judge the depth as to whether the canoe will pass over or grind to a halt.

Gary follows my lead. This time the speed of the current coming at us over a shallow stony bottom just deep enough for the canoe to float, allows us the use of our poles. Standing in the canoe and taking on a foot forward stance, we use these seven-foot-long poplar poles, cut by beaver and smoothed by the river, to enable us to travel much faster upstream than walking in the river.
The Aubinadong River and its west branch to Megisan, Gord and Lance lakes mark the last upstream leg of our journey to Lake Superior. The crystal clear waters reveal rocks of red, white and black.

Watching for obstacles and moving slowly gives us a chance to look for river bottom artifacts from early loggers or their native predecessors.

In small pools, huge sunken timbers attest to the size of the trees in the forests that once surrounded this river and others like the Mississagi. These logs were part of the immense trade in timber that began with the insatiable demand for white pine. These trees were all but flattened by the 1920s.

As we come across old logging chutes and the most gigantic boom logs we have ever seen, we remember that this was an industry run by ambitious people who were nation-building. The more trees that were cut and processed meant more profits to be made. With forests, which appeared inexhaustible, there was little concern about their future. Clouds gathering in a huge fan of colourful hues caught the last of the sun. Judging by the east wind, we knew rain was on its way again. By morning we are packed just in time. We launch into whitecaps and headwinds putting all our muscle behind every stroke mile after mile. The long dry spell broke earlier in the week on the Mississagi when a steady rain caused us to stop and camp early.  A sunny day followed, ending in near freezing temperatures on the edge of a Mississagi marsh where a few enormous red pine were growing.

A day of paddling the Mississagi, putting up flocks of ducks, watching mink along shore and the occasional sightings of an eagle or blue heron, came next.

On Rocky Island Lake we had westerly headwinds crossing waters so low they revealed the graveyard of stumps left from the logging before Aubrey Falls was dammed.

Part of this reservoir lake (created in the ‘70s) including the Kindiogami watershed and the surrounding forest to the south, is an important area with pockets of old growth red and white pine, and a variety of beaver-controlled wetlands, headwater lakes, osprey and eagle nesting sites.

At the west end of Rocky Island Lake, we made two portages around the dams which harness the power of the magnificent Aubrey Falls. It is an interesting contrast of power collection as we think of our use of solar panels this summer to capture energy straight from the sun to power the telecommunications equipment we carry. A great gray owl on silent wings swoops out across the Aubinadong River and disappears into a stand of older jack pine.  In many places the only remaining big trees of spruce, cedar and pine grow on precipitous cliffs or hang precariously close to the river’s edge. Later, at the confluence of the main Aubinadong and the west branch (which we take), two red-tailed hawks circle and call above us.

As we walk upstream with the cool waters swirling around our ankles, our conversation turns often to the route ahead into the Algoma Highlands which appears to be fraught with difficulties.  Many people have told us it is the driest summer they have had in years.

We are hearing that there is virtually no water in the Montreal River headwaters. Our months of planning and over 70 days of padding and portaging keeps us going, but we now wonder if it will physically be possible to reach Lake Superior after all.

TOP: This graveyard of stumps was exposed by the dry days of summer. Before the Mississagi River was dammed at Aubrey Falls in the early ‘70s, the timber was cut on the area that would later be flooded by the reservoir lake.
MIDDLE: Bunchberries adorn the forest floor.
MIDDLE RIGHT: We could have sat for hours painting and photographing Aubrey Falls on the Mississagi River, an accessible and easy place for anyone to enjoy Northern Ontario.
BOTTOM LEFT: Older cedar, white pine and spruce left along the Aubinadong River barely conceal the roads on either side, the clear-cut hillsides and the plantations of jack pine.

Ancient Forest Journey Southam News-13

The Jewel in the crown

By Joanie McGuffin Special to the Star

Photography by Gary McGuffin


Long portages over rocks and beaver dams pay off for Gary and Joanie as they find their way to the Algoma Highlands — the crown jewel of the ancient forest landscape


Low water levels had left the West Aubinadong looking more like a black cobble laneway than a river. Staring dejectedly upstream, we conceded to one another that it was time to portage despite the fact that a steady rain had soaked the lichen-covered rocks creating footing as sure as greased ball bearings.

At day’s end, when a barred owl swopped across our path near a spit of sand and mud pockmarked with moose and timber wolf tracks, we decided it was time to camp.

Between showers, we put up the tent and threw our belongings inside.  Without thinking, I slung my sleeping bag to Gary. It went straight over his head bouncing off the tent roof and into the river.  Launching myself off the bank, I grabbed it realizing too late that I was now firmly planted in ankle-deep mud.  Gary joined in my laughter and hollered “Today’s progress… four kilometres in 10 hours!”

Luckily that turned out to be the most difficult day of the five we spent coming up this river.  At least we started finding old portage paths around the rapids; some overgrown and some recently flagged, perhaps by the local trapper.

Intermittently we discovered cascading waterfalls that weren’t marked on our topographic maps.  One ancient cedar bore a blaze carved with the names A.Moore, N.Linklater, Chapleau ’48.

Speckled trout fishing would have been the draw both then and now, though the forest-embracing river is dramatically altered from 50 years ago.

In many places, the thin fringe of black spruce and jack pine left after clear-cutting to the riverbanks has been uprooted by strong winds.  The barrier lies prone, revealing a view to the horizon of scrubby poplar, thin soils and bared rock.

The Aubinadong had a way of luring us on. Just when the rocks had us convinced to turn back, the twisting channel of copper-coloured waters deepened. Just when deadfalls made portaging the canoe impossible, the trail would improve.

Finally, one evening under a rainbow and billowing purple storm clouds, we portaged into Torrence Lake. A mink, a loon with its chick and a pair of ospreys greeted us.  One more portage and we were into Megisan Lake where we were thrilled to find three friends from Goulais River camped and ready to accompany us northwards for a few days.

With Robin MacIntyre, Enn Poldmaa and Enn’s brother Tarmo, we explored as much on foot as in the canoes. Everywhere we hiked, white pine seedlings were bursting forth beneath the grand giants whose feathered limbs appeared to hold up the sky far, far above the forest floor. We reveled in highpoint vistas that gave us the rare perspective of ridge upon ridge of continuous white pine forest stretching to the horizon.

Who knows how long it will remain this way, but for the moment it was a view that filled us with optimism. Robin and Enn had introduced us to the area four years ago, rekindling childhood memories of landscapes that we thought had long since disappeared.

This network of lakes–Megisan, Gord, Nokomis, Lance, Poetry and Prairie Grass, and rivers — the Aubinadong, Fire Trail Creek and the Nushatogani, form the headwaters to five watersheds that flow to Lake Huron and Superior via the Mississagi, Goulais, Batchewana, Chippewa and Montreal Rivers.

As we paddled west to Lake Superior via the Montreal River system leaving the Algoma Highland headwaters region behind, we felt this was surely the finest jewel in the tiara of rare ancient forests on the northern Ontario mixed forest landscape.

TOP: In places, beaver dams helped our progress up the West Aubinadong River.  The waters held above the dam increased the level sometimes being the difference of walking or paddling for the next mile.
RIGHT: While poking along Megisan Lake’s shoreline, we discovered a variety of beautiful snails.
BOTTOM LEFT: From a ridge in the headwaters forest region of the Algoma Highlands overlooking Gord Lake, we were heartened by the rare sight of ridge upon ridge of continuous white pine.

Ancient Forest Journey Southam News-14

A Superior Welcome

By Joanie McGuffin Special to the Star

Photography by Gary McGuffin


With a final push through the Montreal River, Gary and Joanie emerge into the clear waters of lake Superior – the home stretch of their epic journey.


Pushing back the tangle of overhanging moose maples and stepping across a narrow channel in the forest floor, Gary declared: “Well this is Farewell Creek.”

A creek? I had to get on my hands and knees to examine the tiny trickle of water to find out which way it was flowing.  “I can’t even float a balsam stick down this, let alone a canoe with over 300 pounds of gear.”

One kilometer separated Lance Lake at the north end of the Aubinadong watershed with Flange Lake at the east end of the Montreal River watershed.

We had spent the better part of the morning trying to establish a feasible trail between the two that avoided the black spruce bogs and the horrendous tangle of moose maples and balsam blow-downs.

Then a red tail hawk circled low, calling. We took it as a sign and struggled on, arriving on the shores of tiny Flange Lake encircled with mud flats dimpled with moose tracks. At the outlet we found a beaver dam and a span of river too wide to step across. Dark tannin water several inches deep flowed west over a sand bottom. Farewell Creek was navigable after all.  For us it represented our final link in the waterway route we had paddled this summer.

Farewell Creek and the Cow River wriggle through an open marshy landscape quite unlike the West Aubinadong with its rocks and overhanging alders, cedars and surrounding ridges of white pine.  Black spruce reminded us of our latitude.  Boreal forest is the last forest type before reaching the Arctic’s treeless tundra.

A final portage around a magnificent waterfall on the Cow River is the last we see of the waterway before the Montreal River’s reservoir lakes swallow it up.  Channels of water are divided by blonde sand flats and the topknots of trees on rock islands remind me of Dr. Seuss characters.

At one point, we land on shore to search for the sandhill cranes we can hear croaking behind a dune of silver driftwood.  In one day we cover our longest distance of 60km (nearly 40 miles) on mirror-calm waters that reflect the fjord-like scenery reminiscent of our travels up the Ottawa River two months ago.

Sometimes we paddle way out in the middle, where 500-foot cliffs and their reflections divided by lake and sky merge in a common perspective.

On the small reservoir lake above the Hogg dam, we were surprised by the presence of another boat.  The kindly white-haired gentleman turned out to be Don Steer, a local author whose historic accounts of the area are well known.  We’ve never met before but it was is if we were old friends. We floated there in the rain, talking and then we carried on.

Our first view of Lake Superior was from the last head pond lake beside a wonderful knob hill familiar to us from hikes up the old portage from Highway 17.  It is a serene day on the earth’s largest expense of freshwater.

Montreal Island floated as a cloud in grey skies with only the horizon line anchoring it to the water. At the Montreal river mouth, Paul and Jane Pellerin from Manitouwadge greeted us warmly. They had taken a week’s holidays just to meet us en route. They handed us binder containing a printed version of our website with pictures and journal entries and a copy of all the newspaper articles we had written during the trip.

Ecstatic with 40 feet of clear water instead of four inches of black water beneath us. We eagerly paddled out onto Lake Superior leaving the hollow chatter of round cobbles and a group of well-wishers behind. The day’s travels ended at Ruth Fletcher and Ward Conway’s cabin. There was no more fitting a place than to spend the evening celebrating with these friends whose lives are deeply rooted in Superior’s east shore. As the first huge flock of southbound Canada geese passed high, we felt the freshwater sea drawing us home like the end of a long migration.

TOP: Paddling out onto Superior, the world’s largest expanse of freshwater was an incredible contrast to our travels along Northern Ontario’s inland waterways. Superior’s wind and weather now dictates our progress, rather than the challenge of hidden portages and shallow rivers.
MIDDLE LEFT: This was just one of the many mirror images we photographed while gliding down the final stretches of the Montreal River.
MIDDLE RIGHT:  The four dams holding back the Montreal River have created three head pond lakes that vary in character, from the huge fjord-like one above Montreal Falls to this one where we find a narrow rock cut, just big enough to allow passage by canoe.
BOTTOM LEFT:  An unexpected greeting awaited us at the Montreal River mouth when we met Jane and Paul Pellerin of Manitouwadge. This couple had been following our adventures via The Sault Star and the Internet, and for the first time, we are able to see the results of our writing and photography over the summer.

Ancient Forest Journey Southam News-15

The End of a Journey

By Joanie McGuffin Special to the Star

Photography by Gary McGuffin


Riding a wave of good wishes and vivid memories, the McGuffins find their way home


Under cloak of darkness, we stole out of Harmony Beach at 5:30 a.m. leaving behind the string of homes with friends who had so warmly welcomed us the previous afternoon.  Greetings in the quarter-mile between Harmony Island and Harmony Beach kept us up until midnight.  Now we were off to complete the last leg of our voyage on a schedule of human design rather than Mother Nature’s, to arrive at Fort St. Joseph. Four days this past week we were wind bound on Superior’s shores, and when she finally let us paddle on, it was reluctantly.

Calm waters on Batchewana Bay reflected starlight as if we were paddling through the universe.  Soon an orchestra of light and sound choreographed by the rising sun began with a gentle swell. Pink mackerel skies followed as the North and South Sandy Islands were suddenly highlighted by the golden rays of morning.

Wind rose and waves crested unnerving us once again, but we made it across Goulais Bay and around the orange lichen-encrusted headlands of Gros Cap.  Welcoming paddlers greeted us in every bay.  People waved congratulations from porches all the way to Sault Ste. Marie.

By the time we had reached the historic Sault Canal, night was upon Sault Ste. Marie. City lights glimmered on the historic St. Mary’s River, a waterway that has seen the passing of canoes for thousands of years: the travellers and traders, the Anishnabe fishing for the bounty of whitefish, and the voyageurs and explorers plying these waters for the fur trade.

Our main concern in the darkness was not colliding with logs or rocks but rather a steel rod or concrete pier. Five miles below the locks, our 50-mile day came to a close at Joan Foster’s home. In our flashlight beam, we read a freshly painted sign at the water’s edge “Welcome Home Joanie, Gary and Kalija1”

The shallow waters of Lake George on the St. Mary’s were milk with sediment. We camped in the islands watching ospreys, cormorants, a beaver and three otters. East winds persisted all night, stirring huge swells on Lake Huron.

Our decision the following day to take the east side of St. Joseph’s Island resulted in a 20-mile detour when we paddled to Canoe Point and discovered high winds forcing us back to the shipping channel on the west side of the island instead.

A big island welcome was at every turn and the invitations to come ashore for coffee would’ve taken a week to fulfill. The wind persisted, turning southeast and forcing us into the long grass where we felt like ducklings.

In Haye Marsh, Gary stood up in the canoe and caught sight of a paddle waving to us from shore. All our hard-earned miles that day ended with a surprise– a journey’s end feast prepared by our friend Tarmo Poldmaa.  At 4 a.m. I awoke and walked down to the shore. A misty rain was falling and the wind had died.  As I looked out on a landscape so entirely different from the ancient forests we set out to discover across Northern Ontario this summer, I began recalling campsites along the water. Each one was a vivid memory. Each person we had met was like a longtime friend connected in his own way to the landscape we had paddled through.

Morning came early with the arrival of 22 other paddlers. Sixteen of them were dressed in voyageur costumes and ready to paddle two voyageur canoes. As Gary left a braid of tobacco on the point, he asked for a safe passage for our little entourage en route to the Fort.

A windless morning was welcome as we made “voyageur crossings” and spirits were certainly not dampened by the rain.  At the national historic site of Fort St. Joseph, one of the staff had been up late the night before preparing pea soup and bannocks over an open fire in the traditional way.

Louise Robillard, Chief of Visitor Activities had organized a wonderful encampment replete with “official greeter,” top-hatted Mayor, Elgin Eddy.  Home now at Harmony we are reminded that the end of one journey is just the beginning of another. Plans are already well under way to begin a 1,000-mile dogsled journey back to Ottawa from Sault Ste. Marie this winter with Craig Lawrence. Ally Myers and of course, Kalija, along with 17 other sled dog companions.

TOP: An entourage of costumed voyageurs and canoeists organized by Bob Collins and Louise Robillard accompanied us on our final paddle from Haye Marsh, on the west side of St. Joseph Island, to Fort St. Joseph.
TOP RIGHT: The Evening we paddled under the International Bridge via Sault Ste Marie’s Canal Park and made our final portage around the historic locks, could not have been more picturesque and welcoming.
BOTTOM RIGHT: These welcoming folks at Point Louise on Lake Superior were among the many well-wishers that greeted us home.  Young David Gratten escorted us from here all the way to Sault Ste. Marie in his kayak. It was his longest paddle ever on Whitefish Bay.
BOTTOM LEFT: Clothed in pockets of old-growth forest along Lake Superior’s east shore is a basin of pre-Cambrian rock that shapes a truly ancient landscape.

Ancient Forest Journey Southam News-16

Making History

Sault Star Staff


McGuffins arrive at Fort St. Joseph


Algoma’s Adventurers, Joanie and Gary McGuffin, received an enthusiastic welcome Wednesday at the end of their summer-long journey through Ontario’s ancient forests.

Close to 100 people, many in traditional voyageur garb, gathered at the Fort St Joseph National Historic Site to cheer the pairs’ final paddle strokes.

But for Joanie and Gary, the end of this journey marks the beginning of another one. The duo leaves in January on a dogsled trip through the forest of Ontario, arriving in Ottawa in late winter. But Wednesday wasn’t the time for planning. Many well-wishers brought cameras, a flotilla of canoes joined the McGuffins for the final kilometres and the whole crowd celebrated with traditional pea soup and bannock, cooked over an open fire.

“We could have spent five days paddling around the Island with all the offers for coffee we got,” Joanie said to the appreciative crowd.

Jocelyn Township Reeve Bonnie Boston said it was a real bonus the McGuffins decided to finish their trip — which started June 90 on Canoe Lake at the southern border of Algonquin Park – at Fort St. Joseph.

“I think it was really great, considering what incredible people they are, and how impressive their journey has been, “ she said. Dressed in period clothing, Boston had hoped to ride in one of Parks Canada’s replica voyageur canoes for the final stretch from Hay Bay. “Then they handed me a paddle.” Boston wasn’t sure if she’d be stiff the next day, but she called the experience, which included her first canoe ride of consequence, “just wonderful.”

Also on the Island to meet the McGuffins was David Pearson, host of the MCTV show Down To Earth. This was the third time he had interviewed Joanie and Gary on the trip, and producers plan to incorporate Joanie’s journal entries into other shows this season. Joanie McGuffin said the pair was just glad to be voices for “an amazing part of the world.”

“What marks our landscape more than this thin ribbon of our waterways, linking our history, our geography, our heritage? she said. “The complexity of the forest can only really be understood when you experience it.”

TOP: Adventurers Gary and Joanie McGuffin raise a paddle to the crowd that gathered on St. Joseph Island to welcome them home Wednesday. The stop at Fort St. Joseph marked the end of the couple’s 1,600-km long trek through the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence forest in Ontario.
BOTTOM: The McGuffins enjoyed some hot soup and bannock prepared and served by women in period costume.

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