Canoeing A WHITE River

by Donna Kurt

The winter of 95/96 was a long one; in January/96 I joined five whitewater paddling friends to whet our paddling appetites by planning a canoe trip on a river that we were sure would offer some whitewater. With a name like the WHITE River we were confident that there would be runnable rapids; the river starts at Negwazu Lake and drains a large tract of Canadian shield with a drop of 765 feet over 192 kilometers before draining into Lake Superior. There was also the excitement of paddling 6 km northeast on the notorious Lake Superior from the mouth of the White River to our take-out at the Pukaskwa National Park parking lot at Hattie Cove.

We knew we could count on each other after reflecting on our trip down the Pigeon River in June/95 (refer to the Manitoba Recreational Canoeing Association Autumn/95 Newsletter Volume 8, Number 4). The trippers included MRCA members Brian Johnston, Penny Blatz, Ian Robertson, Colleen Robertson, Gerry Recksiedler and yours truly.

White River Map The White River is located north of Lake Superior, between Marathon and Wawa, east of Thunder Bay in Ontario.

Our plan was to drive to Pukaskwa National Park (pronounced puck-ah-saw) to register at Hattie Cove and leave one of the vehicles there for the car shuttle at the end of our trip. We would then drive the other two vehicles to our put-in at Negwazu Lake, east of the town of White River on the TransCanada Highway.

It was a leisurely drive on June 17/96 from Winnipeg to Marathon via Thunderbay, taking the less expensive and faster route through the U.S., passing by the curious eyes of border guards with our vehicles loaded down with canoes and gear.

We had supper at the A&W in Marathon, a few miles from Pukaskwa National Park, and met a burger-chomping Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) officer clad in a Kevlar vest. The bullet-proof vest made me wonder whether we would be floating targets, but I took this encounter as a good omen because it made up for the lack of Kevlar in our three ABS (plastic) canoes which included two Trailhead 17' Expedition Prospectors and a Mad River 16' Explorer. Just as important was the news the officer gave us about the White River. He had gone up the lower part of the river in a power boat a week prior because over the past two weeks the White was in serious flood requiring evacuation of the Indian Reserve town of Mobert. It was not until a few days later that we connected FLOOD with MOBERT and WHITE in rather profound ways.

The White River starts as a small stream from Negwazu Lake draining west and south towards Lake Superior while passing through reserve land, along railways, roads, and parks half its distance before tumbling over magnificent wild waterfalls and surging through large gorges characteristic of Pukaskwa National Park's Canadian Precambrian Shield. The water of the White River holds true to its name until it mixes with the clear, blue, cold waters of Lake Superior.

On day 2 our journey was thwarted by high water on a rough backcountry road going north from the TransCanada Highway to the Negwazu Lake put-in; this road is 33 km southeast of the town of White River. The lower sections of the road were too deep in water to drive our city slicker vehicles through so we drove back towards the town of White River to put-in at a bridge. We were only mildly disappointed about this setback because the first 16 km of the trip is lake and bog paddling with few runnable rapids.

We found a good put-in at a small unnamed lake 19 kilometers southeast of the town of White River and 1 kilometer upstream of Sagina Lake. There is a small campground and restaurant here offering a more secure place to leave vehicles for a small parking fee. This reduced our canoe trip by 16 km and 8 sets of rapids, leaving 176 km and about 60 rapids and falls to Lake Superior. The restaurant also offered a freshly baked, delicious smelling, gargantuan apple pie that had "take me on the White River" irresistably written all over it. The warm weather and heat of the sun enticed us to bare some skin and coaxed a marvelous display of swallow tail butterflies enjoying a mud party. The resident german shepherd puppy chased the butterflies playfully while we tied gear to our boats and posed for inaugural "before" photos taken by a fisherman and his wife on a beautiful dog and butterfly afternoon. Apparently there was one group ahead of us on the river.

The river is more of a narrow, meandering creek in its upper reaches, lined by willows and white cedar trees. It was evident that the water was still high as the banks could not be seen and the willows were half submerged so we were careful to stay clear of the banks as we cut back and forth in front of each other taking advantage of position, current and the rocker in our canoes.

Canoeing in Rapids Colleen and Gerry "dancing" through the rocks.
Photo by Brian Johnston

The heat was excessive but it kept the bugs to a minimum except at the rapids where the back end of our canoes turned black from hitch-hiking black flies. I was beginning to wonder if the White was sarcastically named because of the Black flies the area is known for!

After paddling 24 km and 5 rapids we explored a permanent camp at Bottle Lake and munched down on the delicious apple pie as we contemplated how much further it was to camp. Immediately after eating the pie, we found a campsite on the lake. While we were unloading the canoes my paddling partner, Ian, suffered a bad knee sprain. Ian and Colleen decided they would drop out of the trip the next day when we got to the town of White River.

On our way from Bottle Lake to White River we ran and portaged 10 sets of rapids which required scouting and some interesting manoeuvres through the rocks in the water and on shore. In one set of rapids, Ian and I grazed a few rocks and made a magnificent head-on collision with a large boulder which we gracefully recovered from without going for a swim. The rocky conditions of some of the rapids in high water made it evident that at normal water levels more portaging would be required.

Canoe Confronting RockIan and Donna dead-heading a rock.
Photo by Penny Blatz

We arrived at the town of White River to the great relief of Ian after a harrowing day of kneeling through numerous rapids and hobbling through rocky portages on a bum knee in the 30 degree Celsius heat, mosquitoes and black flies.

Brian and Penny hitchhiked east on the TransCanada to get our vehicles while the rest of us ate lunch and repacked food and gear at White River. White River was established as a divisional point for the CPR railway when rail construction reached it in 1884; it was then known as "Snowbank". After some farewells, Brian, Penny, Gerry and I paddled away in the two red Prospectors as Ian and Colleen ground the gears back west to Hattie Cove then to Winnipeg. Later we realized that we should have sent more food back with Ian and Colleen as we tried to eat for six; the first night was celebrated with Colleen's dessert. We also learned that those bug shirts really do keep the bugs out as long as you don't try to eat while you're wearing them.

Canoeing A WHITE River, Part 2

Part 2 is graphics and text INTENSIVE
and probably worth viewing if you liked Part 1, above.

White River Trip Planning Logistics

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