Rails, Rivers, Inland Sea
Three canoe trips off of Ontario’s Algoma Central Railway
By Conor Mihell
There’s no feeling like being dropped off on a wilderness railway siding, watching the train disappear in the distance and realizing that the only way back to civilization is to paddle out, downriver. There are still a handful of railways in Canada that will accept canoes as baggage and shuttle paddlers to remote whistlestops in the northern bush. Call me a homer, but my favorite wilderness train is the Algoma Central Railway, a 296-mile line that bisects northern Ontario from Sault Ste. Marie to Hearst. Here’s the beta on three spring-run rivers that feed into the northeastern shore of Lake Superior and are accessible via the ACR’s passenger train.
On a chilly, late-April morning, my wife and I loaded our canoe aboard an ACR boxcar in Sault Ste. Marie and rode the rails 80 miles north to Batchawana Station. From there, the Batchawana River carves a 30-mile course through a steep, hardwood-cloaked valley to Lake Superior’s easternmost shore. We spent our first day negotiating bouldery Class I and II rapids before reaching The Gate, a cleft of granite where the river narrows and its flow becomes more purposeful. Here, we gingerly eddy-hopped to the brink of three moderate drops, each boiling with hydraulics, before pulling ashore and portaging 200 yards to a pool below. A driftwood-covered gravel bar campsite awaited us just downstream.
Day Two on the Batch involved more easy whitewater, three powerful waterfalls and several sets of Class II and III rapids. Our favorite rapid is the 500-yard stretch of pool-drop Class III leading up to Batchawana Falls. Below the final falls, we ran three stretches of whitewater in quick succession before the river loses steam. The final five miles flow sedately to Lake Superior; if you’re lucky, you may spot the same family of bald eagles that we watched soaring, fishing and perching on riverside trees as we drifted lazily downstream.
Find real-time water levels for the Batchawana River here. The best flows for canoeists are between 2.5 and 3 meters. This gauge is generally a good reference for the Agawa and Sand rivers, which lack water-level stations.
When he visited the area in the 1920s, legendary Canadian landscape painter J.E.H. Macdonald called Ontario’s Agawa Canyon “a little Yosemite.” The description is apt when you approach the canyon from the south aboard the ACR passenger train and gaze up at 500-foot granite walls towering above the tannin-stained pools of the Agawa River. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve paddled the Agawa. As Ontario rivers go, it’s about as good as they come—a 20-mile run of near-continuous whitewater through a pine-clad canyon.
An imposing Class III drop kicks things off just below the put-in at Canyon Station (Mile 114). The river runs fast to the Chutes, the site of a 1920s logging dam, where the Agawa flushes over a billowing ledge and pinches through a narrow sluice—a must-portage for open canoeists. Just downstream, it plunges 80 feet over Agawa Falls, where a scenic campsite is located on the river right portage trail. The second half of the river is a steady Class I-II run, with a few technical drops to negotiate along the way and no portages. Before too long, the steep canyon walls recede as the river approaches Lake Superior, and you’ll be left wishing for more.
Sign up for a guided trip on the Agawa River with Naturally Superior Adventures, a local outfitter.
The Sand is a quintessential Canadian Shield river—a pleasant mix of easy whitewater, scenic waterfalls and wildlife-rich meanders. The 40-mile route from put-in on Sand Lake (Mile 136) to Lake Superior is a pleasant four- to five-day trip through the undeveloped wilderness of Lake Superior Provincial Park. I’ve spotted everything from moose to beaver to countless species of songbirds on mid-May trips down the Sand, and fished its pools for wily brook trout.
While the majority of the Sand’s runnable rapids are elementary, its portages are intensely rugged—particularly the 400-yard and 1,200-yard carries around Calwin and Lady Evelyn falls. The river saves the best for last, with a long stretch of Class II leading into a 200-foot cliff and several powerful waterfalls highlighting the final stretch above Lake Superior.
Download a trip planner from the Friends of Lake Superior Provincial Park.