“To the Bay!”
A Canadian Canoe Odyssey on the Missinaibi River, 2003
by Hoz Joven
While discussing options for our next trip, Worth uttered those fateful lines, “We have to finish what we started.” He made it sound like a challenge of sorts. In July of 2002 Worth Donaldson, Jim Kendall, Jeff Kuhn and myself paddled 220 kilometers of the upper Missinaibi River from Dog Lake to Mattice. The Missinaibi is a Canadian Heritage River flowing north through the wilderness from near Lake Superior all the way to James Bay. It was used as a primary route during the fur trade era between Lake Superior, the Interior and James Bay. It also has deep religious significance for the Ojibwa and Cree First Nations who still inhabit the area and take sustenance from its shores.
We had ended our trip at the midpoint of the river. There were 321 kilometers to go for us before the route ended at the Native villages of Moosonee and Moose Factory out on the shores of James Bay. The lower Missinaibi is graced with 32 sets of runnable rapids and the last 220 kilometers line up perfectly with the prevailing winds. I could practice my new hobby, canoe sailing. The temptation of being able to sail a long distance was too great. I agreed to organize the trip.
The only time Worth could get off work was June 14th through the 29th. Jim Kendall again signed on as our head fishing guide and Big Kahuna whitewater man. Jeff Kuhn couldn’t get the time off work and wished us well on the journey. Since Jim, Worth and I travel well together we decided not to recruit any new canoeists and as last year, we would paddle our Royalex solo canoes. Now before all you wooden boat purists get in an uproar let me explain. This river falls off the Canadian Shield and is choked with rapids and big sharp granite rocks. I built a beautiful woodstrip canoe (The Millennium Stripper) in 2001, but sure wouldn’t want to take it down this river. No folks, a Tupperware boat is the way to go here.
Jim volunteered his van and trailer, so we were all set in the transportation department. He and Worth picked me up at my house at 8:00 am on Saturday the 14th. We drove straight through to Mattice, Ontario in 17 hours, taking 3-4 hour shifts. On the road from Wawa to Hearst we saw two moose and two bear on the roadside. Arriving at Missinaibi Outfitters base camp at 1:00am we found everyone asleep. Owen Korpela and his wife Denyse own Missinaibi Outfitters in Mattice. They rent canoes, gear, arrange guides, provide shuttles and will watch over your vehicle while you are on the river. They are great people. A note was pinned to the office door pointing us to our reserved cabin. We quickly found it and turned in for the night.
A Day In Canada With Those From Wisconsin
We woke at 6:30 we all took showers, our last for the next 11 days. Outside there was another group of four tandem canoes in camp. We met and found they were from Wisconsin and also planned to start running the river this morning. Not wanting to have a traffic jam we told our host, Owen, we would head down to the put-in with our gear and canoes and then come back to pay our shuttle expenses, permits and cabin fee. The little municipal park in Mattice looked the same as last year and not wanting to miss an inch of the river we unloaded our equipment at the same take out we used last July.
Worth stayed with our gear while Jim and I went back to the base camp to settle up and catch a ride back with Owen. At the office/restaurant the Wisconsin crew seemed a little peeved that we had jumped ahead of them to place our gear on the river. I only said we didn’t care who was “first” on the river, but that we wanted to have steady forward motion and not have to wait or waste time in the office. They took their time settling the bill and heading out so by the time Worth, Jim and I got on the river it was almost 11:00. We saw nothing of the Wisconsin crew. As we paddled down the river I felt a great sense of anticipation and excitement. We were back, and this time we were going to James Bay! It was mid-afternoon when we came upon Wisconsin gang again. They had jumped ahead by using a put-in about two miles downstream from ours. They wanted to be first on the river and left the rapid set they were playing as soon as we came around the bend. I would have wanted a “Hail fellow, well met” but oh well, different strokes…
Rapids are rated according to their difficulty. A swift or class I is easy moving water with some simple maneuvering required. Class II has a steeper gradient with a few rocks and eddies. Class III is very fast water with many rocks to dodge and large standing waves. Class IV requires experts and decks or spray skirts covering the canoes, and class V is a waterfall.
The first day we ran two class III’s, two class II’s, and several class I’s and many swifts with no difficulty. At five that evening, we again crossed paths with Wisconsin, who were setting camp for the night at Class IV Kettle Falls. We surprised them by cheating the beginning of the 300 meter portage and running the river an extra 100 meters to the edge of the drop, unloading our gear and carrying 200 meters across the flat rock shelves. Our destination was another six kilometers downstream at Isabel Island, so we didn’t waste time. We bade Wisconsin a good evening and shoved off.
Just before Isabel is Skunk Island. Jim decided to go left, Worth and I went right. Halfway down the channel I spied a moose feeding in the shallows. Signaling Worth to paddle quietly we slowly sneaked up to her. By being careful, and paddling only when she had her head underwater, I was able to get close enough to actually “smell” the moose, deep and earthy, like a horse. We never scared her off, eventually paddling past to leave her to her feeding. Worth said he could see a calf on the shore but my eyesight is so bad I missed it.
Landing at Isabel, we found a buggy bush camp hacked out of the alders. Worth
and I set up his new Eureka VCS bug shelter, and I determined that it would
be good to sleep in as
A Cree, Class III, and the path to Thunderhouse Falls
The next morning we intended to go 28 kilometers to Thunderhouse Falls. We wanted to keep ahead of Wisconsin to make sure we would have our pick of the four campsites located there. Two are choice camps and the others less desirable.
After a riverside lunch, we continued downriver and found a bush camp on river left. Fred Neegan is a 75-year-old Cree native who lives on the Missinaibi River year round. He hunts geese, ducks, moose and fish. He also guides clients on the Missinaibi, instructing them in the ways of the river and Cree folklore. Fred wasn’t home when we came through, but we paid our respects to him anyway, leaving a bit of jerky at his camp. Fred still lives the “old ways” and is well admired.
There were several Class I’s and swifts to negotiate in this section -- we had no problem running them. By 3:00, we were unloading our gear for the 900-meter carry around the Class III Coal Rapids to the Falls campsite. The total carry to the put in is 1645 meters. We placed our gear at the camp and returned for the canoes, scouting the run as we went. We decided to attempt Coal Rapids with empty canoes by hugging the far left shore and boofing two ledges along the way instead going of straight down the middle, which was more dangerous. This saved us from carrying the canoes an extra 750 meters, and there was a safe eddy and sand beach to land. We didn’t want to make any mistakes here as Thunderhouse Falls waits at the end of the run, and the falls have killed five canoeists in the past decade.
Jim led the way, and we had a high time finding the chutes and tongues of water to get us down. The crux was the ledges, which were class III and had a high volume of water pouring over them. Once committed, there was no turning back. The ledges were impossible to line the canoes down, as high rock walls protected the shore. To try and rejoin the portage trail would have been equally impossible through the impenetrable brush. A quick peel out from an eddy, stroke and brace, and we were through. Boiling souse holes waited at the bottom but a cross bow draw got everyone past. In no time we arrived at our exit beach and carried our canoes to the other end of the trail.
We set camp at a site that overlooks the falls and spent the rest of the day exploring the area. Thunderhouse is actually a series of three waterfalls and when standing at the edge, the power of the crashing water can be felt deep within you. White foam is tossed high up in the air and the patterns of disturbed, roiling water is spellbinding. An eddy at the top ebbs and flows with a life of its own, the foam rolling round and round like a galactic microcosm. Water holding scour holes in the rock vibrate with the power of the crashing river. Sitting at the edge of the falls, you feel as if the rocks themselves are moving. It is awesome to see the entire Missinaibi funneled through a mere ten-foot gap in the granite.
Further downstream the river flows swiftly through a gorge with soaring 100-foot granite walls. Whole tree trunks have been carried down and lie like jackstraws on ledges high up the cliffs. It is awe-inspiring to think of the floodwaters that flow through this canyon when the ice melts during spring breakup. Standing off to one side is Conjuring House Rock, a lone pinnacle of granite that seems to contain the stone profile of a Native in full feather regalia. It’s a sacred place to the First Nations people, who have come here for centuries on spirit quests, to receive visions and for cleansing ceremonies.
That afternoon we each explored the area alone, contemplating this mysterious place. I swam at the exit beach upstream from the falls, and also took the opportunity to rinse out my sweaty clothes. The water in the shallow bay was warm and I thought of the people, in centuries past, Natives, Voyageurs and Orkney Bay men who perhaps bathed at this same spot. Lying on the warm sun heated rocks, I felt refreshed and rejuvenated.
That evening Wisconsin came through. They carried the entire 1500-meter trail and set camp at the Gorge site. Their plan was to leave the next day; ours was to enjoy two days at Thunderhouse, so our parties would be spread out on the river from now on.
Our second day at Thunderhouse was spent fishing the gorge and playing the swift water above and below Conjuring House. The river is still angry from the pummeling it has taken over the falls. Boils, eddies and swift current made it difficult paddling upstream. We all tried, but Jim was the only one to make it past Conjurors House to the foot of the bottom waterfall. He made an offering of tobacco to the spirits, a Native ceremony and promptly caught 2 walleye from the deep pool below. Jim and I caught a mess of walleye and bass in the gorge, and we later made “fish jerky” by slowly smoking the filets. Wisconsin leisurely moved out about three in the afternoon. That evening we had a rain shower. The next day we packed and continued downriver toward our first big test “The Long Portage”.
Three Big Packs and one Plastic Canoe
The loads were grinding me down into the trail. My feet throbbed with every step. I leapfrogged my canoe and food pack across the Long Portage, a 2350-meter trail that bypassed Hell’s Gate Canyon. Hell’s Gate is over 300 feet deep and has class III-IV whitewater and at least three waterfalls. It is impassable to canoes and all but the most expert kayaks, and even they must rappel down the waterfalls. Several years ago a group of canoeists (ironically, also from Indiana) entered the canyon. Four canoes went in and only one came back out. They had to do a 10 day forced march back upriver over fifty miles of rough terrain to Mattice.
The day had started with a short paddle from Thunderhouse Falls through swifts down to Stone Rapids, rated Class III-IV. We carried our gear through the forest over the 900-meter portage and began scouting the river for sneaks or a way through. What we saw looked doable until we came to the first waterfall. We considered a landing and rough portage over an island and continued upstream. Another 15 minutes brought us to a second waterfall, a raging, impossible cataract. We then decided we would have to carry the canoes over the trail instead of tempting fate. From Stone Rapids it was only a few hundred meters of Class I rapids to the beginning of Hell’s Gate and the Long Portage.
We had started Long Portage at one in the afternoon. At least the weather was cool and partly cloudy. My 50-pound gear pack was carried across first in one trip, and then I carried my food pack 300-500 meters, dropped it and went back for the canoe. At this rate it would be six in the evening before I would find the campsite at the other end. Black flies, mosquitoes, horse flies and no see ums went up my nose, in my ears, crawled behind my glasses and took their pleasure by sipping my blood. The phrase “finish what we started” kept going through my mind. Either I didn’t anticipate this difficulty when I agreed to that proposition several months ago, or I choose to ignore it. Either way we were paying today!
Worth had the same trouble as me; only he had three packs and a canoe. Jim seemed to be dancing back and forth across the trail like the Energizer Bunny. Taking the time to explore the occasional side trails and always having a positive word as we passed each other. He came back with a “must see” waterfall at the bottom of the canyon. I groaned that I wasn’t sure I could make it down but took the plunge anyway.
It wasn’t much of a trail. Just a series of green and red surveyors tape flagged to the occasional tree and bush. It led almost vertically over the hill and through the deep forest, slip-sliding through wet springs and a creek bottom for approximately 500 meters. The trail led over downed trees and through thick brush. It wasn’t a walk in the park. At times I lost the flagging tapes but could always hear roaring water in the distance.
Reaching the bottom and crashing through the bush I came to an astounding sight. Before me was Hell’s Gate Canyon, 300 feet deep, 100 feet wide and enclosed by reddish gray granite walls. The entire Missinaibi River was crashing down a 60-foot waterfall in a split cascade. It was wall-to-wall white frothing water; beautiful, amazing, and knowing very few people have stood there made the effort worth it.
After admiring the view I was reminded I still had about 600 meters to hump before camp, and my canoe and food pack were waiting at the top of the hill. I turned to find Jim behind me admiring the view. We both agreed it was a remarkable sight, and I followed the tapes back up and continued the portage somewhat rejuvenated by my viewing of the falls. That evening after dinner we all turned in early. We were bushed. I took two Tylenol for my aching feet and sleep came quickly. It would be better in the morning.
The Morning After We Hoisted the Mainsail
The next morning we completed the steep, slippery 300-meter carry down to the river and took time to fish the rapids below Hell’s Gate. It was fantastic. We caught fish on almost every cast. Walleye, pike and smallmouth bass all came to the lure. We released all but a few for a shore lunch and finally gave up on the “catching.” A 3-kilometer reach of continuous swifts and Class I’s known as Long Rapids brought us to Bell’s Bay, a wide spot in the river. Here we enjoyed a shore lunch of fresh grilled fish.
That afternoon we started looking around for masts and spars for sailing. There was plenty of driftwood on the shores. We were coming to the reach of river that lines up with the prevailing winds, all our portages were over, and we could rig our canoes for the run to Moosonee. Worth and Jim were going to jury rig square tarps for sails. I brought along my homemade Tyvek balanced lugsail and only needed to find a suitable mast and spars. By evening we located our materials and that night at camp we got busy setting up our canoes.
The next day we started sailing. Jim’s square rig looked like an old seagoing vessel, and we christened it “La Pinta.” Worth had rigged a “V” mast that looked like a shrimp trawler, so, naturally, his was “Jenny” after Forest Gump's boat. My canoe was called “Chipotle Verde” or “Green Pepper” because of its color.
It was evident Jims rig was the fastest on the downwind run, but had some limitations with cross winds. Worth’s’ was too small to do much good but did help some when on a reach. My balanced lugsail handled pretty well on all points, and I could make tacks from one side of the river to the other easily. However my leeboard system (using a spare paddle, so it would have dual use) was of limited value, as the river was too shallow in most spots to get a good “bite”. I couldn’t get the canoe to tack up or turn through the eye of the wind, as I can on lakes at home.
The five-day sailing portion of our journey was most pleasant. The weather turned hot, temperatures were often in the mid 80’s, and we took afternoon dips to cool off. The winds were steady and occasionally reached force four. On some reaches, I would simply lie back on my pack, hold the mainsheet and paddle to steer and sail on. We traveled an average of 40 kilometers a day and one day covered an incredible 50 kilometers!
It became a game to pick our way under sail through the many swifts, Class I rapids and boulder fields we encountered. Jim was the best at sniffing out a route through shallow water. Since I couldn’t see under my sail I was usually running the rapids blind or by sound. I found I could hear rocks by the water swirling around them and tried to guide the canoe away. I had many scrapes, bumps and collisions, but none serious.
There was one situation that gave me problems. I would have jibes that almost turned the canoe over and would cause me fits. On our last day of sailing one such jibe caused me to capsize in shallow water, completely filling the canoe. Worth was nearby and helped set everything right. I then noticed my paddle was missing. We started off downriver searching for it. It had been at least 15 minutes since the upset so I knew it would be somewhere in front of us but the river was over a kilometer wide it would be easy to miss. We eventually found it floating about 2 kilometers downriver. The Werner Canoe Point paddle, it’s big, plastic, ugly, and yellow. But it is nearly indestructible and is the pullingest paddle I have ever owned. It also is unmistakable and floats high in the water.
We sailed over 200 kilometers in five days, passing the confluence when the Missinaibi and Mattagami combine to form the mile-wide Moose River. We sailed under Moose River Crossing, the first sign of man we had seen since Mattice. The Crossing is a railroad trestle that brings the train to Moosonee and would be our ride out of the wilderness. We passed the five mouths of the Abitibi River, where the current was so strong try as we may we couldn’t get close enough to see their roaring rapids. Three more days on the Moose and we would be finished. We took our masts down at last only after Kwetabohigan Rapids when the wind changed direction, and the wonderful weather we been experiencing turned sour, and man, did it turn…
“We feel its Presence…”
Kwetabohigan (aka Quite-a-big-one) Rapids are over a kilometer long, 500 meters wide and are rated Class III-IV depending on the tide. We were still 50 kilometers from the Bay, but the tide can be felt twice a day even up here. When we came through it was ebbing so the middle waves were only 3-4 feet high. We stuck to the safer left hand run and experienced 1-2 ft waves, but they came at all angles! It was a mad roller coaster ride.
The Moose River is over a mile wide and you can see for several miles down its’ length. It is daunting to think you will paddle all that distance. The Moose looks like a big lake, but with a 7 mph current! Islands rise in the distance like giant fairy castles. We experienced a strange phenomenon, “The Missinaibi Mirage,” where we all saw and heard a waterfall headed upstream towards us only to get there and find nothing. There are many hidden, submerged shoals and sand bars, so a canoeist must be careful to find the right channel. Campsites can be hard to find, and we looked for sand bars in this area, as the other “beaches” are made of rocks and boulders. We made camp on a small sand spit, hoping we were high enough to escape a rising tide.
Not long after setting our tents the skies turned dark. We heard thunder in the distance and quickly turned to setting up the tarp to use as a rain shelter; the winds rose and made the problem worse. We brought huge rocks down to anchor the edges. After dinner the rains started in earnest and we all turned in. It rained throughout the night with impressive lightning displays.
The next morning the winds shifted 180 degrees from south to north. It was dreary, with cold overcast skies and fog. One thought came to mind, “polypro”. I put on my long johns, neoprene sox and fleece jacket and got ready for some heavy weather. We broke camp and started paddling down the Moose. Since we made excellent mileage under sail we were running a day ahead of schedule. With luck we would be in Moosonee by afternoon.
The map showed heavy shoals from the middle to the right of the river. We hugged river left, running 3 close spaced Class I rapids. A light rain started and as we approached Minahik Point where the river turns towards the north, we felt the wind increase. I called for a short break to “boil the pot” and share a cup of tea. Worth took this opportunity to don more clothing. He began to look like a big, yellow walrus. After tea the wind blew so strong we could barely make headway. We pulled over again and took cover in tag alder bushes high up the riverbank.
I gazed out over the scene. The waves were being driven upstream, either by tide, wind or a combination of both. White froth streamed up river in long tendrils. The river was warmer than the air; a primeval fog drifted up from the water. The sky appeared heavily overcast, gray and somber with low-lying clouds scudding southward. It was cold and raining, but I felt warm in my full rain suit, fleece jacket, and polypro long johns. I laid back in the lee of some bushes and tried to rest. In no time I fell asleep.
We are three native hunters lying in wait. We know animals will come along the river trail to drink. We hold here in the lee of the bushes hoping our prey will come soon. It has been a hard winter, our families will be happy for the meat…
“It’s letting up, let’s get going!” I woke from my dream and set up. I felt chilled and shivered violently. My wet feet were cold even with the neoprene. I hoped going out to paddle would at least get the circulation going, but to me conditions didn’t look much better.
A Little Chick Here and a Little Chick There
The river had risen a foot. The rock the canoes were tied to was now partly submerged. We used it as a dock and pushed into the river. As we again tried to round the point we faced the full brunt of the wind and waves. It hadn’t eased…it was worse! Every stroke counted as we tried hard to pull ahead. “J” stroke, “C” strokes, the “Fort William” stroke; nothing mattered. Play the wind? No, it didn’t work and technique went out the window. It became pure, brute strength and resolve. One, two, sometimes three strokes on one side. The wind catches the canoe and you start to turn. Quickly you switch sides and begin the cadence again. You watch as the canoe ever so slowly creeps past a midstream rock. Stop paddling for a second and you lose ground. The waves rose a foot high and sometimes broke across my bow. After 20 minutes we all agreed it’s too much. Progress was so slow it seemed futile; we found ourselves wind bound. We saw what looked like a clearing in the trees ahead and pull in. Jim found a rough bush road in the forest and an old fire pit. We rushed to secure the canoes and carried our lunch packs up to the clearing. Hurriedly we built a warming fire, and I put some water on to boil. I made a pot of potato soup, and Jim donated some summer sausage. It didn’t look as if we’d make Moosonee today. We covered only 8 kilometers since morning.
While gathering wood, Worth flushed a wood hen. She had a brood of chicks and tidily gathered them off into the bush. We cooked lunch when a single chick came peeping into the clearing and tried to jump into the fire! He was lost, confused and didn’t know where his mother was. I caught and softly cradled him in my hands. Worth said, “I think I know which way the mother went.” So he took the chick back into the bush. We all hoped he reunited with his family. I felt guilty. We came into his world and turned it upside down.
After a warm lunch of soup and stick grilled summer sausage we discussed our options. We could stay for the night; firewood was abundant. However, the area was buggy and we would have to brush out platforms for our tents. It wasn’t the best campsite we had seen. The call of hearth and home were great, but it was still early. We decided to keep trying to move ahead. It was only 12 kilometers to the campsite at Tidewater Provincial Park, which lay across the river from Moosonee. If the wind eased we could still make it…
We packed up, doused the fire and pushed out into the river again. It was about the same as before. The conditions sapped our hearts, minds and endurance, but not our determination. With resolve we slowly moved ahead. The map showed shoals blocking our way across the river and we had no choice but to paddle exposed to the chill north wind. Ahead we saw the middle of Bushy Island. If we could somehow cross the river we would be in the lee of the island and maybe paddling would be easier.
The air was full of driving, horizontal rain. My glasses became covered with water and our vision was limited 20 meters in any direction. Jim sat, grounded on a reef ahead. As I reached him he shouted, ”I am going to try and cross here, it looks passable.” I felt apprehensive about crossing. It was at least a kilometer and besides wind and waves, there were the hidden shoals but what options did we have? I asked myself. Worth was so far behind he was hard to see. I blew the whistle twice, (on this trip one whistle means “stay put”, two means “follow me” and three means “trouble or I need help.”) We started to ferry across.
We carefully crossed the shoals. The tide covered most gravel bars, but there were still shallows and occasional rocks. The last thing we wanted to do is to get stuck or capsize and have to wade in these conditions. We crossed the shoals and found the water deeper, the waves larger and stronger. They came in sets of two, and you had to be ready for them. I paddled in the troughs until two big ones would come along. I’d then turn my canoe to quarter the waves. I’d rise up and over and sometimes the second wave broke over my bow. I reached behind each wave to its shoulder with my paddle and pulled. It was dicey, but we could see the east shoreline through the mist. As we slowly pulled into the lee of Bushy Island I knew we wouldn’t make Tidewater today. It was 6:30 pm, and we only paddled 3km per hour with 10k to go. I started looking for a camp, though the shoreline seemed unpromising.
One side was low laying mud flats; the other had a tidal bank that looked like it would flood to 20 feet at times. Above that was a big mud bank going almost straight up to the forest. The forest however looked level up there. We pulled out at the mud banks and began exploring. I climbed and scratched up to peer over the edge. It was flat and I saw some trees have been cut down. Worth and Jim began looking left and I went right. In no time we found a faint muddy trail up to a rough bush hunting camp and an unbelievably fortunate find; it had a complete cord of firewood cut, split and stacked dry under a giant red pine tree!
I quickly split kindling and started a big warming fire. It still rained, but we found a sheet of particleboard in the bushes and used it to shelter the flames. We set our tents and started cooking dinner. That evening I baked some bannock, which we all shared with hot tea. We dried our soaked clothes and had a great evening by the fire. We discussed the day’s paddle. Jim mentioned how I kept grinning when we were in the thick of it. He thought I was having fun! I was trying to convey what I thought was the futility of the situation. All agreed it was the worst conditions we have ever faced.
After our tribulations with high winds and rain I awoke at 5am the next morning. Our routine had been for me to rise early for my morning ablutions and then return to bed for an hour or two until Jim and Worth woke up. After breakfast we packed and were usually on the water by 9 or 10. This morning I didn’t want a repeat of yesterday. I got up and started the fire again. I banged the pots and split wood. I let everyone know we should be on the water within the next hour. They slowly woke and joined me. Everything seemed calm, but we were in the lee of the island and couldn’t really tell from there.
When we shoved off we found a Tolkien world. Low lying fog had settled on the water, and it was quiet and calm. We paddled in silence as the shore drifted away and we lost sight of each other in the mist. Within the hour the wind started murmuring and a soft rain began to fall. We pulled over to don our rain suits. We had only eight kilometers to go but the Moose River wouldn’t die easily. We passed a power line that spanned the river and could see the village of Moosonee in the distance. We could hear the drone of outboard motors. We knew our trip on the river would soon be over. The rain continued.
Moosonee and Moose Factory are two separate villages separated by the Moose River and several islands. Moose Factory was so named not because they made moose, but when the Hudson Bay Company built Moose Fort there in 1676 the manager was called a Factor. Hence “Factory” is the same as a “Rectory”, where the Priest lives. As we approached the channel that went to Moose Factory there was some confusion. Our map didn’t specify on which side of the island the campsites were located. We attempted to go right toward Moose Factory, but there was a heavy tidal current against us. I stared down the shore and couldn’t see any indication of a landing or campsite. I decided to go left simply because there was no opposing current that way. If we had to we could always circle the island. I lucked out, and within minutes we pulled up to the Tidewater boat dock and canoeist camps, which face Moosonee.
Our last two days in Moosonee/Moose Factory were a whirlwind of sightseeing and getting re-acclimated to civilization. We learned how to stand on the dock and flag down a water taxi, (Twenty foot freighter canoes with 40 Hp Yamaha motors, sometimes outfitted with a small cabin made of wood and plastic so passengers can sit out of the weather). We toured Moose Factory Island and saw many buildings and artifacts from the Hudson Bay era. We chatted with the Cree who helped us learn more of the history and culture of their people. We ate bannock (Indian bread) cooked by Cree women over coals in a tepee. We saw the “floating” Anglican Church built in 1832, so named because it once was carried downstream by the spring thaw. After it was pulled back to its site by horses, carpenters drilled holes in the floor so that future floods would fill the church, and it could be drained when the waters subsided. This church, which still holds services today, has several stained glass windows depicting priests and bishops paddling canoes! The alter covers are made of white caribou hide and are adorned with beautiful native beadwork. We had lunch at the ultra modern Cree Eco-Lodge. A contemporary Lodge built entirely of “green” or “eco friendly” materials.
In Moosonee we ate caribou sandwiches, shopped the Northern Store (sort of like the Far North’s Wal Mart), and spent our last night at the Polar Bear Lodge (where I turned on the TV to find Jerry Springer!) We negotiated with Derek Beck, a Cree water taxi driver to take us the final 10 miles out to James Bay. Derek, a good guide, was knowledgeable in the ways of the Bay. He landed at a Cree fall hunting camp, where we were all swiftly covered by what he called “the flies.” We call them mosquitoes. At Ship Sands Island, where the Moose River, now 5 kilometers wide, empties into the Bay we all peered uneasily into the immense ocean and wondered how close the big roller waves would come to our small boat. Derek said, “Some white people I have brought out take off their clothes and jump into the water”. I replied, “What’s wrong with them, are they crazy?” Anyway, since the temperature was in the mid forties, and the wind whipped at 20 mph we all passed on a swim, even Worth, who admitted he wanted to dive in.
The next morning we loaded our canoes on the specially built flatbed “canoe car” and boarded the Little Bear train back to Cochrane and our waiting vehicle, which had been brought there from Mattice by the Korpelas. The weekend was special as many Cree families were headed into civilization to celebrate Canada Day on July 1st. The ratio on the train was about 10 Cree to 2 Whites. It was an enjoyable ride back through the countryside we had just paddled through. Our canoe trip lasted 11 days; the train took 4 ½ hours…
In Cochrane we transferred our gear to the van and drove straight back home, arriving at 8:30 am Sunday morning. It was hard to imagine only 24 hours earlier we had been standing in the wilderness at the end of the line, Moosonee on James Bay.
Since returning home I have gone out canoe sailing many times on our local
lake. But it just isn’t the same as running mile after mile for days on
end down the Missinaibi River.
[Photos courtesy of Jim Kendall and Worth Donaldson.]
© 2004, Wesley Kisting