Map is courtesy of Jeff's Map -- my route is marked in blue
October 2019 was ideal for paddling. It was unseasonably warmer than normal; however, this year it was our turn to host Thanksgiving for our extended family. As awesome as that was, I was unable to take advantage of the warm fall weather and get out for a paddle on that long weekend. When the Thursday of the following week arrived, the weather forecast was looking good and I immediately planned a cheeky little overnighter. The Oxtongue river seemed like a great choice as it would only take 2 days if I put in just below the Tea Lake Dam. I quickly got on the horn with Algonquin Outfitters to see if they could shuttle me from their Oxtongue Lake store up to the dam on the Saturday morning and they graciously said they could. Worried about low water levels, I asked them if it was runable at this time of year and they told me that the Tea Lake Dam had been opened just a few days earlier, raising the water levels. Better yet, I was able to talk my oldest daughter, Tanya, into joining me for the trip. The stars were all aligning to make this a lovely little late-season trip.
By 9 a.m. on the Saturday morning, we were pulling into the Outfitters with my father's Swift Mattawa strapped to the roof. The young lad who shuttled us up to our put-in was a canoe tripper himself and shared with us his experience of recently running the Nahanni River in the Northwest Territories. I tried not to turn green with envy. Having just finished high school, he explained that he was studying to become a backcountry guide - something I would have considered myself had I known about it at the time. What a lucky fellow to have a lifetime of wonderful trips ahead of him. After a quick pit stop at the Algonquin West Gate to pick up our permits, we were soon putting in on a nice little sand bar just below the Tea Lake Dam.
There were a number of little swifts between the dam and Whiskey Rapids. The sun was shining and the temperature was warming up. It was quiet except for the odd car that could be heard as the river snaked closer to Highway 60. After about 30 minutes we could hear people talking along the river bank and we knew that we had reached the Whiskey Rapids trail. Suddenly we were upon a large group of foreign tourists who began to immediately take our photos in large quantities. Feeling a little unnerved, we quickly paddled passed them around a bend only to run into a rather large log jam. The banks of the river on either side were not condusive to portaging around it, so we were forced to lift over it in the middle of the river, and a deep part of the river it was.
This made it challenging to find a spot on the log where we could both stand on it and then get the leverage to pull the fully loaded canoe over a smooth part of the log surface. By the time we situated ourselves to do this, the camera-toting horde had caught up to us and were fully photo-documenting our efforts. Doing this while trying to not end up in the icy drink with a crowd of people photographing you is a little disconcerting to say the least! I really did have to stop myself from flipping them off, but then I remembered that I'm a polite Canadian! We eventually made it over and were on our way. I knew we were approaching Whiskey Rapids and kept an eye out for the portage sign. My daughter, Tanya, didn't have any whitewater experience and I, myself, had never really tackled anything beyond an easy Class 2. I wasn't sure how fierce the rapids were.
The river began to pick up a bit and I saw some white water ahead of us but no portage sign to either side. Knowing that there was supposed to be a portage and the rapids not looking too bad, I ran them, spotting a nice litte tongue between some protruding rocks. Only after getting down the river a little further had I realized that those indeed were Whiskey Rapids. The loggers after whom the rapids are named after must have been very intoxicated to have dumped on those! And either I am blind, or the portage sign had fallen off.
We spent the next hour or so meandering down the river, being as quiet as possible in the hopes of spotting a moose. After rounding a bend, we did run into a very curious otter who kept poking his head up to see what we were up to. By midday we saw the bridge that carries people across the river and up the Western Uplands Backpacking Trail. Here we pulled the canoe ashore and carried our food barrel up to one of the picnic tables near the parking lot and boiled some cheese ramen for lunch. 30 minutes later we were back on the river and by 2:30 pm we had reached the portage to take us around Twin Falls. The two campsites on the portage were the only ones enroute to Gravel Falls, so we decided to call it a day and set up camp. We chose the first of the two right next to Upper Twin Falls (pictured above).
We cooked our steak for dinner and had a lovely evening catching up on some daddy-daughter time. We could feel the temperature dropping as the sun went down and crawled into our sleeping bags between 9 and 10 pm. I was grateful for the flannel sleeping bag liners that I had just purchased to combat the -2 degree chill.
Waking up and enjoying bacon and eggs for breakfast, we broke camp and were on the water shortly after 10 am. To do this we needed to finish the portage we were camped on and get around Lower Twin Falls. After putting in it was just a short paddle to out next portage around Split Rock Rapids which actually look like they could be run by a more experienced whitewater paddler.
Back in the boat after the picturesque Split Rock portage, we paddled the meandering river that began a series of switchbacks, hearing the cars go by on Highway 60 every now and again. We enjoyed the scenery and kept an eye out for any late season moose but unfortunately couldn't spot any. By the time we passed the road that leads to Algonquin Bound from the river, a group of 6 men in three canoes came paddling up behind us, loudly chatting. They seemed in a hurry to race down the river so we let them pass. We caught up to them at Cedar Rapids. Two were on the portage scouting the rapids and another was expending a lot of energy throwing large logs into the river -- for what reason, I do not know. In fact, I was a little miffed that he was doing this because we were planning to run the rapids and I didn't fancy smashing into any logs thrown by this clown that might jam up in the rapids. Sheesh. Eventually they all got through the rapids and we followed, immediately pulling up to the empty campsite on the right bank to whip up a lunch of dehydrated chilli and rice - yum.
After lunch we continued through the swifts on the way to Gravel Falls. The last set of rapids just before the falls were a little too shallow and we grounded on the rocks. I was able to wade over them and get to the portage that was just to the right of the falls edge. Not excited about a steep 1000 metre portage, I climbed over the rise and made my way back down to the river edge just below the falls. Upon examining the rest of the rapids below the falls, I spotted a nice tongue through the moving current and decided to run them. They appeared to be a fairly standard Class 1. We made our way through them and with only one minor scrape along the bottom. Cutting about 700 metres off that portage certainly cheered me up.
The river moved quickly on the way to Ragged Falls and we were looking for the portage before long. We knew the falls were near because we could hear them from nearly a kilometer away upriver. We also saw a couple hiking on the trail on the left bank. Taking out and portaging toward the falls, we ran into more people milling about above the falls. The trail also split into a number of different paths which was confusing, but we continued in the most direct route toward the base of the falls. It was a steep descent which made the trail seem longer than the posted 450 meter distance. We found a place to put in that was away from the crowds of people peeping at the falls. On the return trip for the canoe, we climbed to the top of the falls for a photo op. The photo doesn't give the steepness of the falls justice.
Below Ragged Falls and with the sun getting lower in the sky, we crossed Highway 60, but not before having a family of otters swim alongside our canoe for a bit. South of 60 and obviously out of provincial park boundaries since there were now cottages dotting the shoreline, we moved into Oxtongue Lake and marvelled at some of the massive new cottages on the Eastern shore. We soon crossed under the highway again and spied our vehicle waiting for us next to the Algonquin Outfitter docks.
Stopping off for pizza in Dwight on the way home, we reflected on what a wonderful 2-day trip we had just experienced. I am looking forward to tackling the Oxtongue again, perhaps in the spring when the chance of spotting a moose is more likely and when trout season is open. This trip was a good taste of some baby whitewater and inspired me to take a whitewater course to tackle bigger and more challenging rivers.