Between Quetico, Woodland Caribou and Wabakimi is Crown Land, a paddler’s playground replete with so many lakes and rivers that many are still unnamed. Paddling on these bodies might leave you wondering if you’re the first to to disturb their seemingly untouched waters, but that doesn’t mean they’re inaccessible. Some of the rivers and lakes have roads that lead right to them. Yeah that’s right, you can park your car right beside your very own pristine lake.
Here’s the catch: The roads are rocky, occasionally steep, and often muddy since these lakes can only be accessed by abandoned or active logging roads. The abandoned logging roads become a little more wild every year as they are reclaimed by the surrounding woods. Meanwhile, the active logging roads are sometimes a little too active with the constant flow of logging trucks. These big-tired behemoths can be a nightmare and you therefore use high-traffic roads at your own risk.
Abandoned or active, these roads add an additional element of adventure to a paddling trip. If you're tired of camping in parks where the campsites are trampled and portage trails congested, then consider Crown Land paddling.
The number one reason to paddle Crown Land is you don't have to paddle multiple lakes and endure constant portages to reach solitude. Here, solitude can be found two miles down a bumpy road.
The fishing can be ridiculously good. One-hundred fish per person days are entirely within the realm of possibility. Two-hundred fish per person days can even happen if the cosmic tumblers align and the wind, barometric pressure, moon, and water temperature are just so. I once caught five muskies out of a canoe in one hour on one lake and lost a sixth. The supposed "fish of ten-thousand casts" had been reduced to one cast by their blessed ignorance of all lures.
Bears between the parks tend to be wilder and more likely to bolt when they see you. Over the decades, I've seen plenty of bears, but not for long, as every single one ran away once they caught sight me.
Mystery: You'll begin your Crown Land trips knowing far less than if you were headed to a well-documented park. It's like being a kid on Christmas morning, not knowing what's inside the wrapping paper.
Campsite freedom: You're allowed to camp anywhere.
Some Crown Land lakes and rivers have designated campsites, but the majority do not. Therefore, you will need a Crown Land camping permit, which costs ten dollars per person per night and can be acquired here: https://www.ontario.ca/
Unfortunately, no one maintains portage trails. While there might not always be a portage trail between lakes, if you look carefully, you might find a path, an ancient one used by someone long ago or an animal trail.
On some of the more accessible lakes, you could possibly encounter fisherfolk in motorboats, but you can lessen the chance by choosing lakes with no fly-in cabins on the shorelines, which can be seen using Google Earth. In general, the smaller the lake, the lesser the chance of a cabin.
Remember the excitement that comes from mysterious rivers and lakes? Well, some mysteries suck. A road might be impassable. A seeming stream connecting two lakes might be a trickle beneath a scree in a canyon or a thicket of stiff pencil reeds. A lake might be too shallow for fish.
Google Earth and topographic maps, of course, will tell you the number and shapes of the islands. You might even make out features like a beach or a reef, but you'll rarely find accounts online of Crown Land waters and woods. Still, there is no reason not to try a search. I once found an account of a Crown Land lake that was down twenty miles of logging roads and a quarter mile portage through the woods.
Having an isolated lake all to yourself means that you're on your own if trouble develops, so use caution. You can take countermeasures to mitigate risk, such as a bringing Personal Locator Beacon. Also, since floatplanes are allowed to fly over Crown Land and regularly do, flares are prudent. Lastly, it’s alway a good idea to leave an itinerary at home of where you're going and when so family and friends can send help if needed.
You will need a trucks or SUV to make it down the roads and you should drive slowly. Most of the time, I drive in two-wheel drive, but I switch to four-wheel power for hills, water, and mud. Always stop your vehicle before water and walk through the length of it, making sure you put your soles wherever your wheels will go. If it's hard, drive slowly so you don't splash water into your engine. If it's deep, cloying mud, turn around. There are lakes beyond counting in Crown Land, so plan for backup lakes if you can't reach your first choice. It's also smart to pack a shovel, a Hi-Lift jack, a strap to remove a fallen tree, and a come-along. If possible, travel with two vehicles. Having someone rescue you down a logging road is a specialized profession (by specialized, I means expensive). It also means a long walk back to the highway to fetch help, since your cell phone is unlikely to work out yonder.
Lastly, whatever you've done in the past to strap your canoe to your vehicle, double that. Bouncing like a bunny will test your straps and they're likely to fail.
Your Research and its Limitations
Google Earth is great, but it doesn’t show you everything. I've spent winters studying various roads by satellite imagery and thinking, "Easy-peasy!" Then I get there and that seemingly level white strip is pocked with holes and studded with boulders. With abandoned roads, don't be afraid to try another.
And if you're on an active logging road, stay to the far right. Active logging roads are not like the highway where everyone shares and pretty much stays on their side. Logging trucks own those roads and come roaring down the middle. If you see a dust cloud in the distance, get as far right as possible.
Ontario operates a website called Fish ON-Line that lists the species for a surprising number of lakes and rivers, with the data culled from creel surveys. I've found the website to be generally accurate and enormously helpful if you prefer brook trout to muskies or smallmouth bass to largemouth bass.
Also, if you're new to off-roading, read some articles about basic driving techniques, such as angling your wheels a little downstream when crossing a creek.
The Royal Spots Right off the Roads
Last June, I revisited a Crown Land lake I hadn't paddled for eight years. It abutted an asphalt spur of the Trans-Canada highway, a road that might see one car every twenty minutes. I parked my car thirty yards off the road and paddled to an island where I'd camped eight years ago. Based upon the pine cones and tree limbs littering the tent pad, I wondered if anybody had been there since me. That night the wolves howled, a pack on each side of the lake, so it was the call of wild in stereo. The next morning was golden and bass rose to my surface lures.
I stayed a couple days and then rumbled four miles down a logging road a narrow lake with steep shores. It was cozy canyon paddling, too lovely to fritter with fish. At the end of the lake where the water tumbled to the next lake, I watched an otter come closer and closer to me, climbing up the stream, my scent and sounds muffled by falling water. Finally, I announced myself and he reversed direction at a quickened pace, but being otter curious, he kept stopping to turn and study me, cocking his head like a cocker spaniel.
That's Crown Land paddling.
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