By Conor Mihell
Near-mutiny comes on Day Three of an early-season canoe trip in the wilds of northeastern Ontario. We came to Temagami, a 6,000 square-mile canoe-tripping paradise, to visit a lake that was named after my great-grandfather over a century ago. Marooned on icebound Smoothwater Lake, it’s painfully clear we’re not going to make it to Mihell Lake. Photographer Aaron Peterson snaps photos while trip mate James Leaf and I launch melon-sized boulders onto the lake’s frozen surface. My wife, Kim, only chuckles when the rocks land with resounding thuds, failing to penetrate the thick ice. Her laughter fades when she reminds me that she took unpaid vacation for this. Pushing through the ice, we limp back to the put-in, having paddled barely 15 miles in five days.
Spring has erupted in hillsides of neon tree buds, chorusing songbirds and raucous frogs when Kim and I return for a second attempt at Mihell Lake two weeks later. Paddling my recently restored cedar-canvas canoe, we’ve planned an ambitious trip that will have us paddling and portaging into the heart of Temagami’s ancient network of canoe routes.
Countless travelers have walked the rugged portages of the “nastawgan,” as the canoe routes were known to the Teme-augama Anishnabe—the “deep-water people” who blazed these trails 5,000 years ago. It feels like we’re stepping back into time as we break off a more popular route down the Sturgeon River and set off cross-country, linking a series of ponds with obscure, hard-to-follow portages to aptly named Solace Lake. After 12 hours on the trail, we arrive on the scenic, island-pocked lake at sunset, just in time for a refreshing swim and hasty dinner.
Heading north, we tackle more challenging portages and endure two days of relentless rain. My wooden canoe sops up moisture like a sponge, gaining 15 pounds and adding another degree of difficulty to the rain-slicked trails. There’s no fanfare when we finally reach Mihell Lake. Towering old-growth white pine trees poke through the mist and a throng of insects greets us as we arrive via a swampy bay. Somewhere to the west, hidden by the drizzle, is 2,300-foot Ishpatina Ridge, the high point of Ontario.
After the icy trip in early May and the rigors of this one, the moment is bittersweet: I’m likely the first in my family to visit Mihell Lake. But in the same breath it’s anti-climactic. All along Kim and I have been scheming future trips to Temagami—running the Sturgeon River or the technical whitewater of Solace Creek, linking up with remote and alluring Florence Lake, or tracing the thousands of miles of shoreline of sprawling Lake Temagami in sea kayaks. Mihell Lake, it seems, has morphed from a destination to a gateway to one of the richest, most diverse canoe areas in the world.
Read the full story in an upcoming issue of Canoe & Kayak magazine.
For more information about Temagami visit www.ottertooth.com/temagami.htm.