by Donna Kurt
From the town of White River to White Lake the river is indeed WHITE with about 34 rapids and falls all with well-defined portages around each set of rapids. The whitewater paddling courses and practice over the past few years showed their worth after we negotiated numerous Class 2 and Class 3 rapids which had become wider, deeper and faster due to increased flow from many feeder streams which were still trying to feed a flood. The rapids varied in length but we scouted the longer ones which ran around a corner or ran for several hundred meters, often by climbing up to get a better view from the railway tracks, always on the look out for quiet, fast moving trains. The last rapids dropping us to White Lake was a long, fun run down River Right and through a chute on the far right around a corner. A fisher and his son enjoyed watching our descent from their large power boat bouncing in the standing waves where the river met the deep water of the lake.
After having tea with a friendly native fellow, whom we met at White River, and his family in the town of Mobert, we paddled a few kilometers south of White Lake, passing the last railway bridge and road, to find a very large campsite, complete with mosquitoes, blackflies and rain.
Our timing was perfect for seeing dozens of Moccasin Flowers or Pink Lady's Slipper flowers (Cypripedium acaule, Orchis family) on the portage paths, often in groups of 3 to 8 plants gracefully nodding their heads in the sun and by their exemplary grace managing to evade being crumpled by overloaded boots. There was also a profusion of many other plants, some of them also in bloom, including Canada Anemone, Wild Lily of the Valley, Wild Sarsaparilla, Blue Bead or Yellow Clintonias, Bunch Berry, Goldthread , Woodland Strawberry, Prickly Wild Rose, Wild Blue Iris or Blue Flag, Bear Berry or Kinnikinnik, Labrador Tea, and Marsh Marigold. Most of these plants were used as folk medicinal cures by the Ojibway who travelled the White River long ago and whose descendants we had met several times on this trip. The portages and conditions were beautiful with minimal wear and tear and no garbage or debris because we were only the second group to descend the river this season.
The White River Dam is the only dam on the river and the pile of logs on it showed the flood's force. The portage around the dam is on River Right and is quite easy. After the dam, the river widens and is set lower on the land. The banks are draped with overhanging white cedar trees, arching up and out from the shore over the water and towards the sky.
The overhanging cedars posed a threat because the flood waters often made the centre of the river a more dangerous place; it required precise manoeuvring to stay between the rocks and the trees. A few rapids were obviously a bit too big for us as they dropped out of view when we approached them. Gradually, the river banks that were sand and cedar give way to granite outcrops skirted by white pine, jack pine and black spruce. The rapids turned into water falls and gorges and we were forced to carry the canoes and gear more and more.
Chicagonce Portage is about 630 meters on River Left, through stands of cedar and over a couple of rock falls to a challenging put-in at a large undulating pool at the bottom of the very impressive falls. On our return trip for the packs we took time to explore the falls and wonder at what a ride it would be through the 6 foot high tongue and cascading water. In flood this would be an astounding and dangerous spectacle.
The Chicagonce Portage is on River Left around this huge, long waterfall 1/4 of which is shown here.
Photo by Donna Kurt
One particular set of rapids necessitated a portage, then lining through cedar roots along the swollen banks followed by running three large rapids, the first of which Brian and Penny did a very fast and tight eddy turn in. Following on, Gerry and I learned why as our canoe was unexpectedly spun like a toothpick by a huge whirlpool quickly moving up the left eddy line which we had intended to back ferry across; the manoeuver looked very good as we reflexed with good braces and an upstream lean to keep from flipping due to the centrifugal force of our unintentional, minimal effort "eddy-spin".
We had our first bug-free night at Angler Falls because the temperature had dropped considerably following two rainy, cool days. The unusual cumulus cloud formations and cooler climate hint that you're getting close to Lake Superior.
Umbata Falls - 100 meters!
Photo by Donna Kurt
The levels of the receding flood water could be seen on the sand banks between the stands of cedar. Flood water debris was suspended in the trees 10 feet above us. On an outside bank of a turn in the river a large log jam on top of a rock looked as if it were a beaver lodge built by a godzilla-size beaver. It dwarfed Brian and Penny in their canoe, making us glad we weren't here during the flood, and yet we were paddling on the river when it was still much higher than its normal level!
We worked together to unload our canoes up the muddy bank on River Right above the gorge leading to Umbata Falls, a spectacular 100 meter drop. The portage around the falls is 2400 meters long on a 4WD road that ends 100 meters downstream of a bridge which is used for maintaining the hydro power lines that cross the White River 1km below Umbata Falls.
We talked to a group of six Outward Bound staff and leaders we had caught up with then set up camp near the bridge and hiked back to look at Umbata before preparing dinner. Umbata got louder and LOUDER as we approached, giving a hint to the origin of the name. The white mist floating in the air currents above meter-thick foam undulating in the water through the gorge below was further testimony to the name WHITE River.
The last log drive on the river occurred in 1964; imagine the logs heading over Umbata Falls!! Standing at the brink of the falls offers a spectacular view, but if you fell into the white milieu below, you would not survive, PFD or no PFD!
We scrambled back to camp through the monkey trails and bush, which at one time must have been the portage with dangerous access at the top of the falls, and prepared supper with some brandy. We shared desserts with the Outward Bound group around their campfire (the first campfire of our trip); they were also carrying food prepacked food for ten paddlers.
The tongue of Umbata Falls.
Photo by Donna Kurt
The White River seemed to be offering "extra" for everyone; flood waters, fantastic scenery, food and fun!!
The next morning we enjoyed breakfast watching Umbata's mist wafting from the gorge then shoved off for the final day of portaging; the remaining 6 rapids were too dangerous to be paddled. These portages were each much shorter than the 2400 meter Umbata portage but added up to about the same difficulty by the end of the day; Gerry offered to carry my 85 pound canoe this last day since I had carried it over the Umbata portage - I didn't complain.
Some of the portages had to be cleared of deadfall as we were now apparently the first group to descend the river below Umbata Falls in 1996.
The portage was River Right around the third last waterfall and a very steep put-in; there was a nice campsite at the top of this portage.
The second last portage of the trip was on River Left around a very nice, large unnamed falls; this portage was not marked on the topographical map but there is a hiking trail to this waterfall leading up from the Coastal Hiking Trail on River Right.
LEFT: Donna Kurt hanging onto the suspension footbridge above Chigamiwinigum Falls.
Photo by Brian Johnston
BELOW: Looking south from the suspension bridge over Chigamiwinigum Falls.
Photo by Donna Kurt
The last portage is 690 meters long on River Left and is called Chigamiwinigum, named after the Falls. The Pukaskwa Coastal Hiking Trail crosses over this gorge on a shaky suspension foot bridge that offers spectacular photographic opportunities looking up and down the Chigamiwinigum gorge, if you can stop shaking. I noticed a huge difference in the high water features of the Falls compared to the much lower water level I saw here on a 1993 Lake Superior coastal paddling trip.
I recalled stepping up a nice stairway made from large railway ties at the south end of the Chigamiwinigum Portage in 1993 but these were washed out by the flood and replaced by a jumble of huge logs and debris we had to carry our gear and canoes over. The campsites at the end of the portage were unusable because of a rotting, bear-gouged moose carcass so we paddled the remaining 4km to Lake Superior through mist caused by the cold lake air moving upstream over the warm water of the river.
There are no campsites or places to take refuge from the typically rough water of Lake Superior between the mouth of the White River and Hattie Cove. So we checked the conditions of the Lake from the vantage point of the campsite 3.2 km downstream of Chigamiwinigum Falls on River Right and found it was surpisingly calm. Taking advantage of the clear and calm conditions we paddled past Hattie Cove to see the muddy water of the Pic River mixing in with the clear emerald-blue lake water, then went back to Hattie Cove, taking-out at 6 PM. It took us less than 7 days to paddle 176 kilometers of the White River, including one day of non-paddling caused by trip delays.
While unloading our canoes at Hattie Cove we met Dick, an American, who was watching paddlers come and go, dismayed that his strained back cancelled a canoe trip on the White River with his friend Woody. After a refreshing hot shower and supper in the campground, we joined Dick and Woody's family around their campfire on a cool Superior night for beer and munchies to relate our White River adventures to an enticed audience of fellow paddlers.
The next morning, on June 25, Gerry and I packed up and drove back to Winnipeg. Brian and Penny relaxed for a day then ran a one day canoe trip on the White River with Woody before heading further east to paddle the Dog River with other MRCA paddlers.
The White River's rapids, falls, foam and black flies were an exhilirating education into how the river got its name. This trip won't easily be forgotten!
Species identified on this trip:
Red Wing Blackbirds
Hawk sp small
Red Tail Hawk
Great Blue Heron
Ducks sp & baby ducks
White Tailed Deer
Moccasin Flowers or Pink Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium acaule)
Canada Anemone (Anemone canadensis)
Wild Lily of the Valley (Maianthemum canadense)
Wild Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis)
Blue Bead or Yellow Clintonias (Clintonia borealis)
Bunch Berry (Cornus canadensis)
Goldthread (Coptis trifolia)
Woodland Strawberry (Fragaria vesca)
Prickly Wild Rose (Rosa acicularis)
Wild Blue Iris or Blue Flag (Iris versicolor)
Bear Berry or Kinnikinnik (Arcostaphylos uva-ursi)
Labrador Tea (Ledum groenlandicum)
Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris)
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